It was those darn one-way streets in the booming metropolis of Platteville. Made a left-hand turn out of the middle lane, if memory serves me; and that was all she wrote. When we returned to the Department of Transportation to go over my performance the instructor said she hated to do it, but she couldn’t give me my license that day … a devastating blow to a 16-year-old kid.
On the hour-long drive back to Verona that afternoon I had plenty of time to contemplate the life-altering mistake I had just made, as well as the changes in scenery between Platteville and Madison. (It’s easy to do when mom’s driving the car.)
Eventually my thoughts merged and I drew a parallel between driving down Platteville’s one-ways and the passion I’d be drowning my sorrows in later that afternoon.
Hunting and fishing were my escapes. When I needed to unwind from the pressures of school, Olympic-sized expectations in the sport of speedskating, or a failed driver’s test, I would head out with a bow, a gun, or a fishing rod in hand. I loved to fish and hunt. God, I lived to fish and hunt. Some things never change.
But most things do. And what dawned on me that afternoon of my 16th birthday was how, just like Platteville’s one-way streets, hunting and fishing in the strictest sense don’t lend themselves very well to renewal. They may seem like the way to go, but eventually we need to get off the one-way street and participate in renewing our natural resources.
We are blessed to be able to hunt and fish on some of the most fertile land in the world. It means we have the potential for unbelievable outdoor adventures here in Wisconsin. And it’s good. Don’t get me wrong. But it could be so much better.
Our lakes have never seen the pressure they do now. Neither have our deer. And given the fact that last time I checked, corn fields and woodlots weren’t exactly winning the battle with housing developments and office parks, somebody needs to look out for the creatures we’re affecting.
The Department of Natural Resources is a wonderful entity. Without them we’d be living in a state much worse for the wear than it is. They preserved game numbers when catch-and-release and selective harvest were unheard of. But we’re at a crossroads now in the world of hunting and fishing. The DNR often can’t stay ahead of the curve. They have too much water, too much land, and sometimes too much red tape to monitor, given their limited resources.
As a result, by the time they step in to bail us out, we’ve been crying wolf (or crying “no deer, no fish”) for way too long. As if somebody else ruined our secret spot.
We can’t afford to just open up the regulations and stay within their limits. There are too many of us, and we’re too efficient at targeting our prey. We need self-imposed conservation.
I’ll never forget the day in Manitoba my father and I caught hundreds of walleyes pitching jigs and twister tails into the weeds, only to return to camp without a fish due to the camp’s self-imposed regulation of catch-and-release.
Nor will I forget the morning in Alberta I sat with eyes wider than saucers as thousands of mallards and pintails returned from the grain fields to land in the tiny pothole I somehow had the good fortune to occupy. I never fired my gun, and I belly crawled all the way back to my truck because I didn’t want to “ruin” what I was so lucky to have witnessed.
And the best bow hunt of my life took place on a late October afternoon in southwestern Wisconsin after passing two young bucks that stood within 20 yards of my stand. Watching the two big eight-pointers fight over a hot doe, only to be kicked out by the massive 12 pointer that came trotting down the hill, was something I never would have witnessed had I released my arrow 15 minutes earlier.
I know it’s not black and white; and my freezer is not empty. But we need to be aware.
Some populations need heavy harvest. Fish will stunt if they become over abundant. Deer will eat themselves out of house and home. So, take advantage of those lakes that will benefit from a couple of meals of fish removed, and take advantage of that doe that gives you an easy broadside shot.
On the rest of your outings, take your camera – pictures last a lot longer than food.
Next time you’re on the water or in the field do yourself a favor. Savor your experience, not the heft of your game bag. Because at the end of the day, our freezers may not be as full and our gear may have some rust, but we can always take our memories with us.