The Wild Side: Memories of hunting as a youth
My dad liked to hunt. He hunted ducks until lead shot was outlawed, and the point system went into effect. He mostly hunted grouse, rabbits and deer. He started bow hunting somewhere around 1980.
Our family hunting grounds were located in a single block of the Langlade County Forest. I remember Dad heading north with relatives, and wishing I could go along. When my older brother started going along, I wanted to go along all the more. My dad wouldn’t take me along to deer camp until I could hunt, but he did bring me grouse hunting before I turned 12.
My younger brother wasn’t far behind; in fact, I am not sure I really ever went along without him on a trip. Most of my childhood memories of grouse hunting involve Dad and us three older boys-the youngest came along much later.
At first, grouse hunting was a bit of a mystery. We walked through the forest, on a mowed trail, and every once and a while Dad would turn and shoot into the woods. We would also drive the woods’ gravel roads, watching for grouse as we listened to the Brewers, Badgers or Packers games on the radio.
There were really good grouse years, and really bad grouse years, but I never remembered a good or bad trip revolving around the grouse. It was about the trip itself. Trips were always an event. We didn’t usually make one-day trips; we lived just far enough away that an overnight trip was justified.
We Holtzs are a thrifty and utilitarian folk. We would bring food and sleeping bags along, and camp right in the county forest in whatever vehicle we had at the time. One trip I recall, we drove up in an old Dodge van. Dad had a couple of Army Surplus stretchers that he laid over the bench seats. Younger boys slept on the seats, the bigger guys on the cots.
I remember another trip where we rode up in a pickup truck, and we slept in the back. We heated our meals over the fire, or ate it cold. We drank soda, an otherwise forbidden treat, and ate sweets we bought at the gas station in Antigo. We got rare, undivided attention from a father who travelled for work, was the volunteer fire department chief, and ran his own car repair business while also serving in the Army Reserves. We spent time together as guys, away from Mom and the sisters. We would pre-scout our deer hunting spots, climb on beaver dams, and listen to the howling of the coyotes (or were they wolves?) on moonlight nights. We would only make one, maybe two trips a year, but they made us into hunters.
Last weekend the three older brothers got together for our annual Holtz Boys grouse trip, along with my brother-in-law and nephews. The trip has changed a bit over the decades; we rarely climb trees or cross beaver dams. Instead of candy and soda, our treats are beer and cigars. This year, they came up to hunt here in my work area. I did everything I could to put birds in front of them, but it was a tough hunt. Each brother on their own assured me that it isn’t about the grouse, it is about the trip.
Dad’s health is too poor to hunt anymore. Our dad wasn’t the best hunter, but I have to give him credit for taking us all out hunting. I think of him a lot now, as I take my three young boys out in the woods. We heat our food over a fire. I stop and let them climb trees and cross beaver dams. We even talk about trying camping out in the woods. As a father, you never know what moment or experience will make a lasting impression on your kids.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call 715-365-8999.