Skip to main content
Original Issue


Hunters and anglers who do not heed fish and game codes—who snag trout with gang hooks and deerslay with jacklights—destroy the spirit as well as the substance of outdoor sport. A poet living in rural Michigan indicts these violators of nature

Picture this man on a cool late summer morning, barely dawn: gaunt, bearded, walking through his barnyard carrying a Winchester 30-30, wearing a frayed denim coat and mauve velvet bell-bottoms. He is broke and though able-bodied he thinks of himself as an artist and immune to the ordinary requirements of a livelihood. Perhaps he is. He is one of the now numberless dropouts from urban society, part of a new agrarian movement, the "back to the land" bit that seems to be sweeping young writers. But he hankers for meat rather than the usual brown rice. I myself in a fatuous moment have told him of my own 200-gram-a-day protein diet—meat, meat, meat, lots of it with cheese and eggs, plus all the fruit you can lift from neighboring orchards and all the bourbon you can afford during evening pool games. Who needs macrobiotics.

Anyway, back to the barnyard. The killer lets the horses out of the paddock and they run off through the ground mist. The morning is windless and the grass soaked with dew, ideal conditions for poaching a deer. He walks up the hill behind his house, very steep. He is temporarily winded and sits down for a cigarette. Thirty miles out in Lake Michigan the morning sun has turned the steep cliffs of South Fox Island golden. There is a three-foot moderate roll, the lake trout and coho trailers will be out today in all of their overequipped glory. Later in the season he will snag lake trout from the Leland River, or perhaps even catch some fairly. He thinks of the coho as totally contemptible—anyone with a deft hand can pluck them from the feeder streams.

About 500 yards to the east, clearly visible from the hill, is a deserted orchard and a grove of brilliantly white birch trees. Beautiful. He will walk quietly through a long neck of woods until he is within 100 yards of the orchard. Except in the deepest forest, deer are largely nocturnal feeders in Michigan, but they can still be seen in some quantity at dawn or dusk if you know where to look. During the day they filter into the sweet coolness of cedar swamps or into the rows of the vast Christmas tree plantations. He sits and rests his rifle on a stump. He immediately spots a large doe between the second and third rows of the orchard, and farther back in the scrubby neglected trees a second-year buck, maybe 130 pounds, perfect eating size. He aims quickly just behind and a trifle below the shoulder and fires. The buck stumbles, then bursts into full speed. But this energy is deceptive and the animal soon drops. My friend hides his rifle, covering it with dead leaves. If you do happen to get caught—the odds are against it—your rifle is confiscated. He jogs down to the deer, stoops, hoists its dead weight to his shoulder and heads back to the house.

A few hours later his pickup pulls into my yard. I am in the barn wondering how I can fix one of the box stalls when my brother has bent the neck of my hammer pulling spikes. I hear the truck and when I come out into the yard he hands me a large bloody package. Everything is understood. We go into the kitchen and have a drink though it is only 10 in the morning. We slice the buck's liver very thin, then drive to the grocery store where I have some inexpensive white Bordeaux on order. When we get back my wife has sautéed the liver lightly in clarified butter. We eat this indescribably delicious liver, which far exceeds calf's liver in flavor and tenderness. A hint of apple, clover and fern. We drink a few bottles of wine and he goes home and I take a nap. That evening my wife slices a venison loin into medallions, which she again cooks simply. During the afternoon I had driven into Traverse City to splurge on a bottle of Ch√¢teauneuf-du-Pape. The meal—the loin and a simple salad of fresh garden lettuce, tomatoes and some green onions—was exquisite.

End of tale. I wouldn't have shot the deer myself. But I ate a lot of it, probably 10 pounds in all. I think it was wrong to shoot the deer. Part of the reason I would not have killed it is that I am no longer able to shoot at mammals. Grouse and woodcock, yes. But gutting and skinning a deer reminds me too much of the human carcass and a deer heart too closely resembles my own. My feelings are a trifle ambivalent on this particular incident but I have decided my friend is a violator only barely more tolerable than the cruder sort. If it had been one of the local Indians—it often is—I would have found it easy to bow to the ancestral privilege. But my friend is not a local Indian.

Game hoggery is not the point. The issue is much larger than human greed. We have marked these creatures to be hunted and slaughtered, and destroyed all but a remnant of their natural enemies. But fish and mammals must be considered part of a larger social contract, and just laws for their protection enforced with great vigor. The first closed deer season in our country due to depletion of the herds occurred in 1694 in Massachusetts. Someone once said, "The predator husbands his prey." The act of violation is ingrained, habitual; it represents a clearly pathological form of outdoor atavism. Not one violator out of a hundred acts out of real need or hunger. The belief that he does is another of many witless infatuations with local color.

I have an inordinate amount of time to think and wander around. Poets muse a lot. Or as Whitman, no mean fisherman, said, "I loaf and invite my soul." Mostly loaf. I have always found that I can think better and more lucidly with my Fox Sterlingworth, or any of a number of fly rods, in hand. I'm a poor shot, but I really do miss some grouse because I'm thinking. Recently I was walking along a stream that empties into Lake Michigan within half a dozen miles of my farm. It was late October, with a thin skein of snow that would melt off by afternoon. There were splotches of blood everywhere and many footprints and small piles of coho guts. The fish were nearly choking the stream, motionless except for an errant flip of tail to maintain position. And there were some dead ones piled up near a small logjam. They stank in the sharp fall air with the pervasive stench of a dead shorthorn I had once found near the Manistee River. Oh, well. Sport will be sport. No doubt someone had illegally clubbed a few for his smokehouse. Clubbed or pitched them out with a fork or shovel as one pitches manure. They are surprisingly good if properly smoked, though you must slice and scrape out the belly fat because of the concentrated DDT found there. But in the stream, in their fairly advanced stage of deliquescence, with backs and snouts scarred and sore and whitish, they looked considerably less interesting than floundering carp. How could a steelhead swim through this aquatic garbage to spawn? Tune in later, maybe another year or two, folks.

I walked back to my car and drove west two miles to the stream mouth. This confluence of waters has never produced any really big trout, but it is fine for close-to-home fishing. I rigged my steelhead rod, put on my waders and began casting into a mild headwind, which required a low-profile turnover. Around here one learns to appreciate anything less than 15 knots, though if the water is too still the fishing is bad. I am not a pretty caster and my ability to double-haul, thus increasing line speed, is imperfect; when you flunk a double haul the line whips and cracks, then collapses around your head and you are frustrated and sad as only a flycaster can be, glad only that no one was watching. I hooked two small fish on an at-tractor pattern and lost them after a few jumps. Then I hooked a larger fish on a lightly weighted Muddler and within an asthmatic half hour of coaxing I beached it. I was breathless, insanely excited. A steelhead, maybe six pounds with a vague pink stripe and short for his weight, chunky, muscular, a very healthy fish. Yum. Then this retired contractor from Ann Arbor I know came along and began casting with a small spoon and light spinning tackle. He is a pleasant sort, mildly arthritic, so his sport exacts no small amount of pain—the water is cold and the wind is cold and moist. He fished for an hour or so before he hooked an ungodly animal, a steelhead that porpoised like a berserk marlin, easily the largest I had ever seen. It made a long lateral run and he followed it down the beach for a few hundred yards before the fish turned and headed out for South Manitou Island and, beyond that, Wisconsin. It cleaned him. We sat and talked about the beast and I could see that his hands were shaking.

Three more fishermen came along and began casting in my spot with huge treble-hooked spoons. One of them quickly changed to a heavy bell sinker to which he had attached large hooks. They were using what is known in Michigan as the "Newaygo Twitch"; three easy turns of the reel and then a violent reef. It is a fine method for foul-hooking and snagging coho and chinook, even spawning steelhead and lake trout. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has submitted to political pressure and ruled that foul-hooked salmon can be kept rather than released and this ruling has encouraged bozos by the thousand to use the twitch method to the exclusion of all other styles of fishing. I have seen sportsmen snag upwards of 200 pounds of lake trout—incredibly far over the legal limit—in the Leland River where the fish are in layers devouring their own aborted spawn below the dam. And these people have been led to think they are fishing. Anyway, I left the beach immediately. I stopped into Dick's Tavern to calm my abraded nerves. I often fantasize about bullwhip-ping these creeps as Mother Nature's Dark Enforcer. When my imagination for vengeance is depleted I think about moving to Montana where such yuks, I suppose, are as plentiful, but seem at least less visible. It is strange to see a government agency sponsoring acts that are a degradation of the soul of sport. It is as if the National Football League were to encourage and promote face-mask tackling. Take a firm grasp and rip his damn head off.

It is a silly mistake, I've found, to assume that rules of fair play are shared. I have met and talked at length with men who harry and club to death both fox and coyote from snowmobiles. It should not seem necessary to pass laws against so base and resolutely mindless a practice, but it is necessary. I suppose that in simplistic terms our acquisitive and competitive urges have been transferred directly to sport—one can "win" over fish or beast but, unlike what happens in other forms of sport, the violator disregards all the rules. A certain desolate insensitivity persists: I know some seemingly pleasant enough young men who in the past have gathered up stray dogs to use as target practice to hone their skills. This is not the sort of thing one can argue about. Neither can one question the logic of the hunting club members who bait deer with apples, corn and a salt lick, and then on the crisp dawn of the first day of the season fire away at the feeding animals. Or marksmen who hang around rural dumps to get their garbage bear. Or those who wander around swamps adjacent to lakes in the spring collecting gunny sacks of spawning pike; usually they are the same people who tell you that fishing "isn't what it used to be." To be sure, the majority of sportsmen follow the laws with some care, but the majority is scarcely overwhelming. More like a plurality with a grand clot of the indifferent buffering the middle. And silent, at best. Not to mention the chuckle-wink aspect, the we're-all-cowpokes-ain't-we attitude, of so many judges who mete out wrist-slap fines to game-law violators.

I think I was about 14 when the problem first became apparent to me. It was late in November near the end of the deer season, very cold up in Michigan with a foot of fine powder snow, not bad to walk in as it burst around one's feet like weightless down or fluff. I was hunting along a ridge that completely encircled a large gully forming a bowl. At the bottom of the bowl there was a small marsh of tag alder, snake-grass, dried-up cattails and brake, and perhaps four or five slender tamarack. I sat down on a boulder to eat my lunch and watch the swale, thinking it might hold a large buck or even a young spike-horn. Across my lap I held an antique 38-40, the accuracy of which was less than profound but better anyhow than the shotgun and slug my friends used, which was an embarrassment to them. After an hour of sitting and staring, staring so hard that my eyes tried to trace the shapes I wanted to see, four deer calmly walked out of the far side of the swale. I looked at them quickly through my peepsight. All female. They picked their way cautiously single file toward a sumac thicket on the side of the hill, trying to minimize the time spent in the open. But then an explosion, a barrage, a fusillade. The first doe made the thicket and bounded up and over the ridge. The second dropped in her tracks but the third, shot probably in the hindquarters, tried to drag herself back to the swale by her forefeet. Then she was hit again and was still. The fourth doe ran in narrowing, convulsive circles until she dropped.

I don't remember thinking anything. I only watched. Three men walked down the hill and looked at the deer. They were talking but were too far away for me to hear distinctly. I sat very still until their red forms disappeared. I didn't go down the hill and look at the dead deer. I thought the game warden might come along and think I had shot them and the fine for shooting a doe would be enormous for someone who earned at best $2 a day for hoeing potatoes. I hunted without thought for a few more hours, getting a hopeless shot at a distant buck, and then walked to the car where I was to meet my father when it began to get dark. All the staccato noise of the rifle shots had served to remind me of the Korean war and what it must sound like. Pork Chop Hill was much in the news in those days.

I think it was Edward Abbey who coined the phrase "cowboy consciousness" to describe that peculiar set of attitudes many Americans still hold: the land is endless, unspoiled, mysterious, still remaining to be overcome and finally won. So shoot, kill, bang-bang-bang. WOW! And city dwellers, it seems, who come to the country during the hunting and fishing seasons, are now more guilty of these attitudes than their rural counterparts, who sense the diminishing wilderness around them, the truncated freedom of movement. Every dentist and machinist and welder and insurance adjuster in Michigan either owns or wants to own 20 posted acres "up north."

But we are hopeless romanticists about this imaginary Big Woods—it simply no longer exists in any faintly viable form. Even one of the far corners of creation, the North Slope of the Brooks Range, is littered with oil drums. It seems funny, too, to discover that every American in the deepest little synapse in his brain considers himself a natural at hunting and fishing, a genetic Pete Maravich of the outback, wherever that is. We always tell each other that the deer are on the ridges today or in the swamps or clustered in the grape arbors or frittering away the morning behind the woodpile despite the fact that few of us could identify five trees at gunpoint. And every little rural enclave has its number of wise old owls who have spent a lifetime sipping draft beer and schnapps and are rife with such witticisms as "you greenhorns couldn't hit a bull in the butt with a banjo. Now back in 1928, why...." The point is that in the old days the rivers were stiff with giant bull trout and deer wandered the countryside in grand herds like Idaho sheep. You didn't even have to aim. This cowboy consciousness is so ingrained and overwhelming in some violators that they will suffer any risks. A poacher near here was arrested for the 20th time, fined $1,000 and given 165 days in jail. An equal punishment was given to two men who dynamited a rainbow holding pond at a weir. I somehow doubt that this will discourage them.

I feel a very precise melancholy when I hear rifle shots in the middle of a September night; the jacklighters are at work after a tepid evening at the bowling alley. Picture this recent local case. A yellow cone of light is shining into a field. It is a powerful beam and nothing animate within a hundred yards escapes its illumination. Three teen-agers are sitting in an old Mercury playing the light against the backdrop of woods and field as they drive slowly along a gravel road. One of them has a loaded rifle. If a deer is spotted the light paralyzes it hypnotically. The deer will stare without motion into the light and even the shabbiest marksman can pick his shot. But this will prove an unfortunate night for shining deer. A car approaches from the rear at high speed and swerves in front of the hunters to block any escape. It is Reino Narva, the game warden, to the rescue. In this particular instance all of the culprits are juveniles and first offenders and the sentences are light.

There is nothing inscrutable about the matter of violation. I fancy myself an amateur naturalist and have hot flashes when I think of the sins of my past, harmless and usual though they may be. I think of the large brown trout I caught at age 12 by illegal set line in the Muskegon River. Turtles had eaten all but its head by the time I pulled the line in. I nailed the head to the barn alongside my pike and bass skulls as if I had caught the fish by fair means. Or the roosting grouse stalked and shot with a .22. Or diving into a lake for weeks on end with a knife, handle in mouth, to carve the heads off turtles we flushed from logs. We thought they were killing our fish. Or shooting crows. Or shooting at deer in midsummer with bow and arrow, though I don't remember ever coming close. All the mindless sins of youth committed in the haze of reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, Zane Grey, James Oliver Curwood, Jack London and Ernest Seton; wanting to be a steely half-breed Robert Mitchum type with hatchet, revolver, cartridge belt and a long mane of hair trained with bear grease.

Gentle reader, rules will never stop the jacklighter and snagger, the violator. It is not so much that enforcement of the law is inept, but that respect for the spirit of the law is insufficient. And in Michigan there are fabulous ironies; a portion of any fine for a game violation is earmarked as "restitution to the state." But you might well be shining your deer in an opening in a forest that has been ravaged by the oil interests—public land doled away for peanuts by conservationists in a state with boggling population and recreation problems. Or you might get caught snagging a trout in Manistee Lake where a paper company belches out thousands of gallons of fluid waste daily into public waters so rank that a motorboat scarcely can manage a wake. Who is violating what? Or as Rene Char said, "Who stands on the gangplank directing operations? The captain or—the rats?" Not a very subtle distinction, hereabouts. The problems seem, and perhaps are, insuperable. The political-business-conservation relationship in Michigan often reminds one of old-style Boston politics; everyone gets a piece of the action but the pie itself suffers from terminal rot. Of course, this is ho-hum stuff now. Pollution is "in committee" everywhere and government is firming up its stand, a la kumquat jelly, with a lid of yellow paraffin. I have a dreamy plot afoot for a court test to be decided on Saturn wherein the Constitution and Bill of Rights would be made to apply to fish and mammals.

Finally, it is a very strange arrogance in man that enables him to chase the last of the whales around the ocean for profit, shoot polar bear cubs for trophies, allow Count Blah-Blah to blast 885 pheasants in one day. It is much too designed to be called crazy or impetuous.

Those lines of Robert Duncan's about Robin Hood come back to me now: "How we loved him/in childhood and hoped to abide by his code/that took life as its law!" The key word here is "code." Sport must be sporting. We have a strong tendency to act the weasel in the hen house. At dawn not a single cluck was heard. It might be preposterous to think we will change, but there are signs. Judges are becoming sterner and people are aware of environmental problems to a degree not known in this country before. Game wardens get more cooperation from the ordinary citizen than they used to. Violating is losing its aura of rube cuteness.

The true violator, though, will persist in all of his pathological glory. Even if there were no game left on earth, something would be devised. Maybe a new sport on this order: ganghooking Farmer Brown's pigs. A high-speed power winch mounted on a vehicle hood is required, and a harpoon with large hooks. You shoot the harpoon over the pig's back and press the winch button. Zap! You've got yourself a squealer. Precautions: make sure Farmer Brown is away for the day, and take your finger off the winch button in time or the pork will really fly.