Fishing with Don Meissner

Thursday, January 7, 2010

I am not going to make this sound like a story for a magazine. I have to admit that whenever I try to write something for this site, it is difficult for me to just ramble, to just let my thoughts flow and to hell with erudition. But today, I am going to write with my heart. So here it goes! 

When I was a kid, I would often say that I loved fishing more than anything. And then hunting season would come around, and I became a fickle lover. A gun replaced the fishing rod as my constant companion, and for several months, I spent every moment hunting cottontails, woodcock, partridge (grouse) ducks, and yes, DEER. 

About twenty five years ago, my life went through a dramatic change; I became the host of PBS series, Rod @ Reel Streamside. Fishing became a twelve month obsession, and my life a field was only a fond memory. While I lamented not being able to sample the latest gun and archery developments, I experienced a life few could imagine. However, love is love, and in some cases it NEVER dies. 

It’s funny how friendships can take your life in a new direction. I have rediscovered the wonder and enchantment of the area of my youth. The “Southern Tier” of western New York is a beautiful area of high rolling hills, breath-taking landscapes, and very few people. White tail deer abound, and for most of its residents, life revolves and takes its fullest meaning around “deer season”. 

A year ago, Travis Pastorius became a friend by association; he is the son-in-law of someone very dear to me. I liked Travis from our first meeting, and while he was one of the most ardent deer hunters I had ever known, he had never really discovered fishing. As the year progressed, Travis and I spent more and more time fishing together. He was a very quick study, and soon he was catching as many fish as me. What really amazed me was how easily he adapted to small stream trout fishing. We had some great times using ultra-lites and worms floated on tiny hooks as we relived those days that so shaped my childhood. 

Travis is a great guy. He loves his wife and daughter, and that alone makes him the type of guy I want to spend days with. However, as the days grew colder and the leaves started falling, I knew that Travis’s heart would lead him away from the stream and into the woods. “Why don’t you go hunting with me?” he would often say. And I would always beg off, using the excuse that I didn’t have a gun any more, or had to try one more, soon to be frozen stretch of water.  

Then one day he handed me an old 20 gage 870 pump gun that had been his father’s. “He killed lots of deer with this gun,” Travis told me. I sure had no excuses left, and since my trunk was always packed with warm weather clothing, all that remained was to upgrade my license and set a date. Season was almost over, but we still had the last weekend. Travis was determined to help me get a shot. He took me to his favorite watches and set me in the best stands. He and his wife Pam drove thick sections that they felt the deer were hiding in, hoping to provide me with a shot. Their friendship to me and sacrifice was heart warming, but alas, the last day arrived with me still without as much as a shot. 

A huge winter storm moved into the area with winds over fifty miles an hour and the thermometer stuck at 5 degrees Fahrenheit. No deer within a hundred miles would be moving and no hunter with an ounce of common sense would venture out under these conditions. However, deer hunting is not necessarily about sense as much as it is passion, and Travis was on a mission to get his friend a deer. “We are going to hunt the hill where I grew up” he told me. “It will take us a while to climb in this deep snow, but there are some good bucks up there.” 

I put on so many layers of clothes that I looked more like the little kid in the classic “A Christmas Story” than a serious deer hunter. I waddled more than stalked, but after a sweat drenching climb I finally came to that spot of all spots; the stand from HELL! Travis told me that while it was a hard stand to get into, it would afford me a 360 view of the area. “But Travis” I thought. “How am I going to get up there!” An old wooden ladder tipped backwards as it neared its twenty foot perch. What seemed to be a ten foot gap between the last wrung and the old handmade wooden box somewhere up in the clouds made me gulp in self doubt. Remember I had bundled myself as if I was auditioning for a Michelin tire add. I could barely raise my legs! 

I began my climb and as I neared the top, it became obvious that my legs were about a foot too short to accomplish the last stage of that never ending wrung-less section. “What do I do with my gun?” I whined. “Put it in the stand” he coached. “But the stand has three feet of snow in it” I pathetically groaned. I was now at one of those defining moments in life. 

Somehow I was able to grab a slab of wood that had been placed across the stand as a guard against falling out. I still had enough strength to somehow pull my entire weight up and over, and I was there — somewhat wobbly, but I had made it. Travis gave me last minute directions, stuff like “make sure you watch that area, and don’t forget to watch behind you…” you know, keep you head swiveling like a bobble doll and you will be fine… 

For the next two hours my mind could not escape one HUGE thought: “How am I going to get down!!!” Travis had assured me that as it got dark he was going to return to our stand and help me out of it. However, I couldn’t help wonder what would happen if he shot a deer. The snow was over two feet deep, and I couldn’t imagine him returning if that happened. He would need help, and I was the only one around. I hate to admit it but I started to have selfish thoughts, thoughts like “ I hope Travis doesn’t see a deer.” 

Well, as you have probably already imagined, I saw nothing. I scanned, I turned, I willed those deer, and I FROZE. My feet were the first to go, and then the chill crept up the rest of my body and I shivered. The light began to fade and my scan was no longer for horns, but for my best buddy in the world, for the guy that was going to rescue me from my cloud encased chill chamber. 

And then it happened….A booming shot rang out somewhere way above me, somewhere further up the mountain. “NO!!!” I inwardly screamed as another BOOM shattered the eerie stillness. MY nightmare had awakened me and the reality of my situation struck home. I HAD TO ESCAPE THIS TOWERING TRAP ON MY OWN! 

I unloaded the gun, slung it around my shoulder and gingerly placed one leg down in hopes of feeling that distant wrung. It wasn’t there, and I realized that I was going to have to grasp that slab of wood with one hand and dangle my body below, hoping to find purchase of that life giving wrung. Remember, the ladder tipped in-ward rather than out so it would be impossible to brace my body against it. There was a moment when I actually was hanging by one hand, and my feet found nothing but air. But as you have obviously concluded, I did not fall. I touched down eventually, and I headed out in the direction of where I had heard the last shot as darkness fell upon the area. 

After several hundred yards, I saw a figure far off in the middle of a meadow, thigh deep in snow and slowly dragging something behind. When I finally caught up, it was Travis. He seemed barely able to breathe as he continued to inch forward, a beautiful stag connected to his waist. I could hardly walk, and the only thing attached to my waist was an extra ten pounds of fat. “Let me help you”, I not too enthusiastically whispered. We only had a mile to drag the beast with snow almost up to the top of our thighs, and it was so dark that the only thing to guide us was the twinkling lights from a distant farm. 

And so we began our impossible quest, as our lungs cried out in protest. Fortunately we were high enough that Travis was able to get a signal on his cell phone. Soon we heard the beautiful sound of a snowmobile, as his sixteen year old nephew Cody climbed to our rescue. The rest is all melodramatic, but let’s just say that when we reached the farm we had a wonderful time of celebration with Travis’s family as the past few hours were embellished with much drink and laughter. 

I might add that this all occurred on my birthday, and what a wonderful birthday it turned out to be. It is amazing how deep friendships can form around our adventures in the outdoors. There is something so life giving and life affirming about fishing and hunting. Words can never convey what it all really means, but this day and this new friendship will always be part of me.


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