Woodstoves and Decembers

wood stove 2018

Woodstoves and Decembers go hand-in-hand like peaches and cream, cigars and whiskey, walnut and boiled linseed oil, love and marriage – natural combinations of things that can be good on their own but are all the better for being paired together. Snowy December days can be beautiful in the North Country but many of them, especially the stormy ones, are most beautiful when viewed through a frosty window while seated near a woodstove’s roaring fire, watching the steam rise from wool mittens and leather boots that are ice-covered from a morning walk with the dogs.

Sound asleep beside you, the dogs are also steaming as the clumps of ice in their coats melt away. They may not have your level of appreciation for the aesthetic wonder of a winter storm, but they enjoy the heat of the wood stove every bit as much as you – maybe more. You all make the same spontaneous moans and groans and sighs of contentment as the frozen firewood snaps and pops in the flames, and you are all bathed in the same golden glow shimmering from the glass window of the firebox door. Drowsy happiness.

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Drop point knifeBLOODED. Not sure when or where I first heard that word applied to an item of hunting or fishing gear, but its meaning was clear. Blooded meant that the piece of gear in question — a rifle, shotgun, bow, knife, rod, hook, lure… — had been successfully used to take game.

You won’t find “blooded” defined that way in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. But the language of Old Coots has its own peculiar entomology. Hundreds, if not thousands, of words and phrases that are at odds with formal dictionary definitions are woven into the history and traditions of the blood sports. For example: “iron sights” on rifles are not made of iron; “improved” shotgun barrel chokes are tighter, not better; “mending line” does not mean splicing your fly line; “wet flies” are not flies; “still hunting” means walking through the woods.

The Coot dialect, a subset of American English spoken by tribe members who gather in hunting and fishing camps, has its own vocabulary understood only by initiates in the Fraternal Order of the Bullet and Hook and is seldom used in communication with “outsiders.” It’s not “secret” exactly; it’s just comfortingly obscure. We distrust people who do not know that .35 Whelen is bigger than a .35 Remington or that a 16 gauge is smaller than a 12 gauge.

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Posted in Deer Hunting, Drop-point knife, Hunting, Hunting Keepsakes, Hunting Knives, Hunting Rifles, Lever-action Rifles, Rifle Hunting | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A brace of woodcock

brace of woodcockA BRACE of game birds: plural, two wild birds of the same type that have been killed for sport or food; from the Middle English or Old French word brace (brah-say), meaning “arms” hence a pair; a sporting term that dates back to about the year 1400.

A Brace of Woodcock

Walk out of the Nemadji State Forest with a brace of woodcock in your hunting vest and you have reason to feel a bit, well, “cocky.” Based on more than fifty years’ experience hunting nine different species of upland game birds, I proclaim the most difficult bird for the shotgunner to hit on the wing is the woodcock.

The American woodcock (scolopax minor) confusticates bird hunters like no other avian species can. The little brown-and-tan devil makes us rage at our ineptitude with a scattergun, curse at our dogs, throw empty shotshell hulls at the tops of laughing aspen trees. The woodcock erodes our confidence in our ability to hit anything smaller than a moose – a standing moose, not a running one. Our futility in hitting that nasty little bird in flight drives us to despair, makes us drink too much beer at the end of the hunt, and compels us to tell lies about the number of shells we expend to put a brace of birds in the bag.

If you knock down one woodcock for each three shots taken, you are doing better than The Over the Hill Gang on a typical day. If you count five or six empty hulls in your vest pocket for each bird in the bag, don’t feel bad: you’re doing as well as most woodcock hunters and better than many.

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Posted in Bird Dogs, Bird Guns, Bird hunting, Woodcock, woodcock hunting | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

A nice old rifle

Nice Old Rifle enhanced

Remington Model 700 Mountain Rifle in .30-06 caliber, walnut stock, 3-9x Redfield scope, two-piece leather sling: an ‘old’ rifle from back in the day when coots and their rifles were newly off-the-rack.

Gunsmiths retire. Some of the best ones – master craftsmen who are a blend of artist, metallurgist, woodworker, scientist, ballistician, firearms historian, and avid shooter — labor on and on into their seventies and eighties, probably because we clients plead with them to keep the shop open and continue their excellent quality of workmanship on our guns.

Alas, the march of time is inexorable. The day comes when our gunsmith at last retires and we must bid good-bye to a trusted friend and begin the search for a new smith, enter a strange gun shop with stained felt hat in hand and battered leather case under arm, and make the leap of faith. For an old coot whose favorite rifle has taken more than twenty deer, this is a life transition of no small moment. Not easy to put into a stranger’s hands the steel-and-walnut key that opens the lock to decades of memories.

That is why, on this November’s deer hunt on the high plains of Nebraska, we all listened with empathy and sympathy as one of the Over the Hill Gang shared his “new gunsmith” experience. He needed his scope remounted in different rings (probably lower rings, since we stiff-necked coots develop ever-stiffer and less flexible necks in our sixties), and when he placed his rifle on the counter the new, young gunsmith said:

“My, that’s a nice old rifle!”

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Mole misery


Photo from The National Wildlfie Federation – http://www.nwf.org/Educational-Resources

Pitching forward and falling prostrate while carrying two full buckets of water to the dogs’ kennel runs is a miserable way to start a snowy day. Even before the soaking nosedive I was in a grumpy mood, brought on by a two-inch overnight snowfall in the middle of October, the earliest measurable snow in more than 125 years of weather records in our part of the North Country.

No one was ready for this early onset of winter. The trees, with the exception of the walnuts, have not yet shed their leaves or even taken on the red and gold colors of fall. Snow-draped greenery is a weird landscape lighted by an October sunrise after an unseasonal snow storm. And layered on top of soil supersaturated by endless summer rains, the heavy and slippery snow was a problem for creatures large and small – except the moles.

Eastern moles (Scalopus aquaticus) apparently love this type of weather, slushy snow atop muddy ground, because these malicious little mammals, nasty beasts that burrow up from the dark halls of Hades to destroy our yards, were busy, busy, busy all through the two days of faux winter. They gleefully expanded their network of tunnels across hundreds of feet of our lawn, through the gardens and raspberry patch, and capped their sappers’ feats of excavation by digging the pit trap that sent me sprawling.

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Squirrel hunt


photo from the website Island Ecology 2012

Squirrel hunt

The text message from my surrogate niece Heather was a flash of light from the heavens, the swell of the Hallelujah Chorus, the burst of a pheasant taking wing. Her son wants to come to the farm for a day of squirrel hunting. His first hunt.

I’m looking forward to serving as stand-in grandfather for the day. There are few pleasures in life that rival the days when a grandfather can share some learning experiences with a grandson, and first hunts are among the best of those experiences.

First hunts promise magical moments for grandchildren and grandparents, the generations that straddle parents. Kids and old coots, we both know about parents – those people who can take the magical flavor out of any feast by doling out too large a serving of practicality. Telling us what to wear, insisting that we apply sunblock and bug repellent before going out in the woods, that sort of thing. Fortunately, this excessive parental oversight works in the favor of the “grands” because it establishes for both of us the truth that we have a common enemy that we must work cooperatively to thwart.

By going on a squirrel hunt together.

A squirrel hunt is an escape from all that parental utilitarian folderol. Sitting in the woods at first light of an autumn morning, far from clocks and calendars and vitamin pills and toothbrushes and cell phones, shivering a bit as frost on bare branches turns to dewdrops that shower down on us, the natural world waking up while we watch it. The simple glory of being in the wild. An escape from the invisible but steel-rigid strictures of civilization for a few hours. Heck, sometimes a squirrel or two gets involved in the adventure.

Admittedly, there is a 180-degree twist between the grandfather’s and the grandson’s objectives for the day. For the elder, the taking of game is way down the priority list of goals. For the younger, it is number one. And two, and three, and four. No predator is more bloodthirsty than a 13-year-old in his first year of hunting.

Coots know this because we went through that phase ourselves. It takes a while to come to the realization that the joy of sport hunting is in the “being there,” savoring the experience. It is not a competitive game that requires scorekeeping and numbers. Sadly, some hunters never learn this truth. I suppose their hunting education was neglected early on, probably because they lacked a teacher, a grandparent, to guide them toward the best rewards of the blood sports.

Mentoring a grandkid’s search for the hunter’s ethic is the most valuable thing we grandparents can provide in the course of a day afield. What we get back, in equal measure, is the satisfaction of opening this outdoor world to a succeeding generation of hunters.

Evermore cantankerous and grumpy, we coots of the Over the Hill Gang lament the decline of the blood sports over the course of our lifetimes. Much of this decrease in participation in hunting is simply demographic: urbanization continues apace, and fewer and fewer children have opportunity to experience outdoor recreation in the rural countryside, the wild. Technology also plays a part, not only because of all the “screens” that provide children with constant color, sound, movement, flash, interaction, and instant gratification, but also because outdoor recreation itself has been invaded by technology (The Hunting Marketplace).

If only we could slow this rush to replace real experiences with virtual experiences, or at least divert the blood sports from the insidious influence of technology. And for a few hours, a morning’s squirrel hunt, we can do that.

“Let me show you something, boy. Make a tight fist, like this. Press your thumb against your lower lip. Now kiss the side of your knuckle. Hear how that sounds like a squirrel’s ‘challenge’ bark? When a squirrel sees you and ducks behind a branch, you make that bark. He can’t resist. He’s got to look over the top to see what that other squirrel is barking at. Then you’re going to shoot him.

“A couple of important lessons there: how to call a squirrel, and how it’s wise, whether you’re a squirrel or a boy, to mind your own damned business when someone starts squalling their lungs out about some fool thing.

“Now let’s talk about how to get a squirrel centered in your rifle scope…”


More stories about life in the North Country are published in collections of essays and novels, all available through Amazon.com at  Jerry Johnson Author Page

Posted in Grandchildren, Grandfathers, Grandfathers and Grandsons, Hunting, Hunting Memories, Squirrel hunting, Squirrel woods | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Author readings for ‘The Executioner’s Face’


41NM+3EYnfL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_THREE INDEPENDENT book stores will host author reading events for my latest novel, The Executioner’s Face. I invite my readers to attend one of these events. Copies of the book will be on sale at each venue, but there is no obligation to buy, just come and enjoy hearing me read selected chapters of the novel.

Sunday, Sept. 16, 1-4 p.m., Pearl Street Books, 323 Pearl Street, La Crosse, Wisconsin

Monday, Sept. 24, 7 p.m., Dragonfly Books, 112 West Water Street, Decorah, Iowa

Saturday, Oct. 27, Luther College Book Shop, Decorah, Iowa

The Executioner’s Face is a crime noir story, set in a dystopian Chicago in 2045, and its premise is especially dark: the government has outsourced the justice system to a for-profit corporation: The Bureau of Justice and Corrections Services. Trials, public defenders, incarcerations, appeals, sentencing reviews – all of these functions of a public, government-operated justice system are expensive. To maximize profit, the BJCS corporate justice system must quickly and efficiently handle investigations, adjudications, judgement, sentencing, and punishment – all in secrecy with no oversight.

A perpetrator judged guilty of a felony offense receives a death sentence. Executions, known as ‘Arrangements’ in official Bureau communications, are performed ad hoc, guided by BJCS protocols but conducted by any means necessary by the Bureau’s Termination Operatives.

Sean Callahan is a 12-year veteran TO, the Bureau’s best and its most troublesome. A lone wolf, he is unwillingly paired with a young but street-hardened rookie TO, Abril Desanya, to teach her the skills of the executioner’s trade. They grow to respect one another in the course of their antagonistic professional partnership, and their relationship develops into a guarded love affair.

Callahan violates BJCS protocol to investigate a troubling termination and discovers evidence of pervasive corruption within the Bureau. He plans to expose the Bureau’s degenerate operations, but he knows that will put his life, and Desanya’s, in peril.

If you are unable to attend one of the author reading events, you can order a copy of The Executioner’s Face at any independent book store or through amazon.com

The Executioner’s Face



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