What is it about entering the world of the outdoors in the pre-dawn darkness and experiencing the slow creep of daylight across the eastern sky?
It matters not whether it is deer hunting with either a bow from a treestand, or firearms from the ground, or fishing for bass on a July morning, or wading a secluded trout stream in the ebony darkness that precedes the first hint of sunrise, there seems to be some mystical aura that settles in on the sportsman as the night slowly, almost at a glacial pace, gives way to the light of a new day. Having entered my sixth decade this past May, I’ve been reflecting back over the years and the thought of just how delicious it has been to experience the opening act of a new day while in pursuit of fish and game. It doesn’t matter whether or not I was successful in the quest, but rather what’s risen to the forefront is the spiritual experience of seeing the subtle changes that take place when night gives way to morning’s light.
Bass Fishing on Stearn’s Bayou
My father was my first fishing teacher. While I don’t elevate him to the level of angling guru, he was instrumental in my growth as a fisherman. In the mid to late 1950s we would get up in the early hours of a July morning and drive from our home on the West Side of Grand Rapids to Stearn’s Bayou, located in Ottawa County east of Grand Haven. Renting a boat at Felix’s Marina, located on the northeastern edge of the bayou, we would start out in our bass fishing adventure in the darkness of pre-dawn.
Dad would row out of the marina and under the bridge, the only sounds we’d hear came from the stroke of the oars and the gurgle of the water sweeping around and under the wooden boat.
The eastern sky was still enshrouded in the dark of night when Dad would bring the boat offshore of the swimming area, also operated by Felix. We would toss night crawlers towards the shallows as Dad, straddling the boat’s center seat, slowly rowed us, operating one oar at a time, parallel to the shore.
The deep “thwonk-thwonk” of curious bullfrogs would serenade us as we moved along. Adding to this melodic rhapsody would be early rising mourning doves, welcoming the slowly seeping light with their seductive “cooing”. The music was soft and tender, rather than brass and brash, as if it was brought forth as an early morning opus dedicated to honoring the new day.
As the light creased across the eastern horizon with imperturbable stealth, it would be shed upon the landscape of the lake, opening an ever freshening vista of both sights and sounds. Those dark, square masses, resting in still immobility, would turn out to be swimming rafts, out in front of a cottage. They were always targeted as likely lairs for ol’ bucket mouth. Docks, some simple, others elaborate protruded from their shoreline origins, offering secure mooring for a myriad of water craft, ranging from wooden hulled ski boats to fishing craft similar to what we were in.
Cottages, nearly all of which showed only darkened windows, indicating either they were devoid of habitants or those within were enjoying a summer’s seductive sleep, ebbed from the blackness of the trees and shrubs that offered concealment in the dark, only with reluctance to come into view as the day began to lighten. Now and then smoke from the previous evening’s campfire would waft lake-ward filling our nostrils with the pungent perfume of wood smoke.
Bass being our main quarry, the sound of a fish leaping skyward and returning to the darkened waters with a resounding “splash” would serve to heighten our nerves. Being hidden by the pre-dawn darkness only added to the mystery and thrill. Dad would usually comment about how, “That sounded like a dandy”, referring to the size of the unseen largemouth.
Now and then we were warmed by some mysterious breeze blowing from off the shoreline. I can still feel its gentle caress on my face. The distinct warmth of this silken wind was unmistakable, brushing in subtle waves, against my cheeks. Most welcome it was to, but just as quickly as it appeared, it would soon dissipate and a bit of mild, mid-summer chill would set in.
Dad would continue his rowing, taking the usual rowing position when we had to go from one section of the bayou to another. Eventually the creeping sun would shed more light, and warmth and what, in the dark, appeared as a ghostly apparition, made way to their true form of docks, cottages, boats, trees, cattails, and lily pads. The true nature and form of Stearn’s Bayou would slowly take shape.
Trout Fishing a Favored Michigan River
Of all my outdoors pursuits, my favored activity is stream trout fishing for upland trout. Just as bass fishing offers a special experience when one does it and watches the unfolding of a new day, so does stream trout fishing bring the angler into oneness with the dawn. Perhaps this is no truer than on that magic, Last Saturday in April, the Opening Day of Michigan’s upland stream trout fishing.
The magic Last Saturday in April, borne by a time worn sled gliding in quiet majesty across the eons of time through the mystic cedars that adorn the stream, rapidly approaches. The vision of where I’ll be on my favorite trout stream, in my traditional hole where the river’s current, narrowed by confining banks, flows through the old dam piles and spews it’s water into the hole below with its double eddy that creates twin spiraled feeding lanes where lurk in floating stillness the wily brown trout as well as the jeweled brook trout.
I arrive at this honey hole at about 5AM after a ½ trek along the stream with only the beam of my mini-mag flashlight guiding my steps. This walk, accomplished in the dark, includes crossing the river twice in a careful dance in the black of night in order to avoid a pratfall over lurking, long drowned logs.
The hole is surrounded by typical northern Michigan trees and shrubs, with tall cedars predominating along with streamside tag alders. On the far bank from my chosen fishing spot also adorning the shadows, are the remains of a long dead elm, still holding its own from the ravages of the river and the weather. One day I’ll come to this hole and find it tumbled into the water.
In the quiet hours of the pre-dawn the trout will lay in the smooth current below the hole in a deeper run that flows along the tag alders on the opposite shore. Both browns and brookies ply this feeding lane, gobbling passing tidbits as they escape the twin eddies above. My early morning fishing is serenaded by the melody of a bird that I’ve come to call The Lonely Bird, its mournful double-whistle song pre-telling the coming day.
Now and then a pair of ducks, usually mallards or pintails, swoops by in their upstream flight to escape some intruding angler from far downstream.
I am beckoned by waters whose haunting flow etches the landscape and whose deepened, darkened lair, hold the secret of my soul. It is in the darkness of the pre-dawn that begins to emerge as the early morning is announced to me while I wade in secure serenity one of my favorite trout streams.
Waiting for the Morning Light and Deer Hunting
I’ve sat in a treestand in mid-October and a ground blind on November 15th, the Opening Day of Michigan’s deer season and watched with awe the pace of the progressive influence of the sun as it creeps from its resting place in the far eastern sky, shedding its aura onto the landscape.
In a tree, sitting in a snug, comfortable stand at least five yards above the surrounding landscape, the unfolding of the forest takes place. Images, no matter how familiar they are, remain mysterious in the blackened veil that shrouds their form in the pre-dawn. Sometimes their emergence is announced, even in the ebony period before sunrise, by a gentle, barely perceptible breeze, created by the micro-warming of some tiny air pocket by the sun, still unseen over the horizon. This first wind of the day seems to be the alarm clock for a few of the more adventurous birds as they begin their day with a wing flap, distinctly heard in the quietude of the woodland.
At times the howl of a distant coyote, separated a bit from his pack, lends its sonorous, piercing notes to the opening opus of the day. From other points on the compass the plea for recognition is answered by his kin, no doubt satisfying the pleading ‘yote’s need for comfort. Of course the singing of the early birds goes silent and the scurry of forest floor dwellers goes mute as they test the air for danger, renewing their search for breakfast after a short time when their instincts signal the “all clear”.
As the long line of crimson edges its way upward from the skyline in the east the soft crunch of leaves on the forest floor reaches my ears which have been set on” intense receiving mode” since I settled in my seat, usually in some pine tree for better concealment from wary eyes below. The sound from the unseen creature rises out of the duff and shrub of the ground below. I can chart the progress of whatever it is below me by the sound of its footfalls on the autumn’s accumulation of leaves whose crimsons, oranges, yellows, and golds lay as a multi-hued carpet that spreads underneath my feet. I listen in the deep, charcoal gray of the woods, only now does the materializing light begin to give some shape and form to the trees and shrubs that surround my stand. From the sound coming up to my ears I try to visualize the size of whatever it is that ambles my way. The tempo of an early rising squirrel is distinct in its quick, short duration pattern of “crunch-crunch-crunch” as it searches for some hidden nutty treasure on which to feast. A porcupine or opossum are more sedate in their movement, with forethought and leisure marking each step. All of this takes place away from my eyes as they peer with visual vigor into the graying woodland.
Not only is tempo and pace important in determining what lies below, but it is also vital to get a sense of the animal’s size by listening for the heft of each impression as the animal moves along. A smaller early morning adventurer won’t have much weight to impart in its footprints so the sound is softer, more delicate. This, along with the sound of the intervals between each step is a key to identifying the mystery guest.
If I hear a “pert-pert”, soft though it is, I know that what comes my way is probably a ruffed grouse, moving along looking for edible berries they cherish so much. Sometimes my ears can pick up a sense of there being some weight behind each step, then I begin to think deer. Minutes pass with nerve shattering delay. My eyes scan the area from which the sound originates, trying to penetrate the deep gloom of the pre-dawn in order to determine the source of the noise. All of my senses are now on high alert, radar-like in their gathering and analyzing of information.
It isn’t until the sun gets up a bit on the horizon, before it emerges over the lip of land that hides it from view, that I can, at long last distinguish the animal that has taken my attention for so many minutes. If it is a porcupine, or some other animal that I have no intention of hunting, then my senses begin to relax while I still mark the progress of the visitor, almost now becoming a welcome friend.
If indeed it’s a whitetail that is moving my way, then I go on heightened alert, determining whether it is a buck or doe. Whether or not I decide to shoot at the animal and/or take it, matters not. The anticipation and thrill of the lead-up prior to seeing the deer will haunt me, pleasuring my thoughts in the cold evenings of the upcoming winter.
Waiting for the Morning Light is a Spiritual Adventure
Whether the sportsman is fishing on a quiet bass lake, wading in a trout stream, sitting in a tree stand waiting for a passing whitetail or in a ground blind on November 15th, it matters not. The experience of welcoming the morning light and all that it brings in sights and sounds and spiritual awareness, is too be valued and appreciated, held dear and close as if some Holy Grail has been found.
-Milt Whitmore, Arcadia Michigan