Category Archives: Out in the Open columns

“Out in the Open” is an award-winning weekly outdoor column by Brent T. Wheat that appeared in many central and northern Indiana newspapers starting in 1990. With around 800 columns in the archive, WildIndiana.com presents a few reader favorites below. Below are column excerpts; if you want to see a listing of all columns, Click here.

Water Mocassin: The Deadliest Almost-Catch

 

Travelogue from the early 1990’s:

Today we wrap up the adventures of Your Humble Servant on vacation.  Last week’s column described the joy and wonder of diving in a pristine spring with gentle marine mammals.  Now we will discuss the tail end of our week spent visiting relatives near Charleston,  South Carolina.

My father-in-law Bill now lives near Charleston,  having moved from Indiana after retirement.  As an avid sportsman, he is almost overwhelmed by all the exciting outdoor opportunities the Low County region offers.   During our visit, he offered and I accepted the invitation to one unique adventure: fossil hunting, specifically for pre-historic sharks teeth.

If remembered correctly from biology class, the southeastern United States has not always been covered with video rental stores and illegal immigrants.  Millions of years ago oceans covered the area, which made it much easier for fish to rent videotapes.  Many of these fish were giant sharks, a similar but much larger version of the creatures that terrorize swimmers today.  When the sharks died, the teeth were eventually covered in sediment and ultimately fossilized.

Now,  due to erosion, the teeth can frequently be found lying on the bottom of local waterways,  along with other fossils such as whale baleen.  Finding the teeth is simply a matter of poking around bottom sediment and gravel until one is found.  In our case, we used cheap plastic spaghetti colanders to sift away sand from the tooth-bearing gravel.

Our party consisted of my son, 17-year-old nephew Brad, Bill and Yours Truly.  The scene of our great discontent was a small freshwater tidal creek next to a shopping center right in the heart of Suburbia.  After winding through the tall weeds bordering the stream, we stepped into the cold, tea-colored water as Brad pointed out that a snake had just dropped from the overhanging brush and entered the water.

I greeted this news with little enthusiasm and it was then that Bill mentioned the large number of poisonous water moccasins that live along the creek, a fact he forgot during the pre-trip discussions.

The tide was dropping rapidly and the soon the water was only ankle-deep.   Our party began stretching along the creek as we each found pockets of gravel to work with our trowels and colanders.   Thus we stood along a hundred yards of water, working like a party of Alaskan sourdoughs panning for gold.

An hour later, Brad was working around a rock pile and suddenly shouted, “Snake!”   Walking downstream, I was prepared to good-naturedly chide him for such a reaction to a harmless member of the local reptilia. After a few seconds of looking where he was pointing, I suddenly saw not an ordinary water snake, but a viper as thick as my forearm with the triangular head of a poisonous snake.  It was the dreaded Cottonmouth.

I whistled for Bill and he rejoined our group.  As I tried to hustle the youngsters up the creek bank, he considered the options then selected a stout stick lying nearby.  As a veteran of other adventures with Bill, I knew where events were headed.

A thick chunk of granite about the size of a cabbage lay at my feet, so I hefted it as a last-ditch weapon to repel possible unauthorized borders.  Meanwhile, Bill slowly moved forward and stabbed at the snake with a stick, trying to pin its head to the creek bottom.  He announced himself successful until I pointed out that the snake’s head was now next to the stick and appeared to be coiling like a spring.

I have seen snakes strike on television.  However, the real event is unbelievably fast, like an uncoiling steel whip shooting forward and then returning within the blink of an eye.  It was impressive.

Probably more impressive was Bill’s response.  Moderately burdened by bad knees, he still managed to move backward with ballet-like skill as the snake lunged towards his legs.  Recovering, he went on the offensive, stabbing at the snake until it pressed the attack and began a series of feints.  For a few seconds, Bill and the snake thrust and parried like a deadly fencing match.

Other fossil hunters were in the creek at the same time and must have wondered why the large man in boots appeared to be doing some variation of the Flamenco dance with an extremely thin partner.  During a lull in the action, the reptile saw an opening and retreated upstream, swimming with incredible speed.

Deciding that enough fun tickets had been punched for one day, we gathered our teeth, washed out our undergarments and left the scene. During the ride home we talked and chattered,  giddy with the adrenaline-fueled good cheer that comes from escaping serious injury at the hands of self-induced misfortune.

Yes, once again we had escaped serious injury; that is, at least until the kids told my wife and her sister the story.

 

 

photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Bait Dealer

 

 

Last night I was bored and went to my library, searching for something that would satiate my idle mind.  Stuck between Hemingway and an old tome on saltwater fly tying, I came upon a slim paperback I had picked up in some unknown store years ago, entitled “How to make part-time cash in the outdoors.”

Of the various chapters devoted to things like outdoor writing (“Put a noun, a verb and an outrageous string of lies together, then stir in a word processor.  Serves one major or two minor outdoor magazines”), there was a chapter on raising bait for sale.  The book had several good ideas on how to become a bait dealer in your spare time, promising the reader wads and wads of spare cash as anxious fisherman beat a path to your door.

The book raised some good points but unfortunately, it didn’t mention the smell.  For those of you who have not attempted to become a minnow magnate, I will illustrate the problem in a moment.

In my case the effort to become a bait tycoon began in the summer of my eighth grade year, a time when a boy needs money to buy cabin cruisers and African safaris but the paycheck from lawn mowing barely covers the cost of fishing lures.

Messing around one day with some scrap window screen we had found at a construction site, I fashioned a crude crayfish trap.  That evening, we took it to the trap to the nearby golf course pond and waited.

Using all the patience a 13-year-old could muster, I waited an interminable five minutes and pulled up the trap.  Much to my chagrin and joy, it actually contained a few crayfish along with a side order of minnows.  I emptied the critters into a bucket and took home my booty.

Lying in bed that night, I had dreams of a massive building that housed a huge collection of holding tanks for various types of bait.  A steady stream of large stainless steel trucks pulled in and out of the complex day and night, hauling bait to every city across North America.  Meanwhile, I was on safari in Africa, taking time out from hunting only to sign large bank deposit slips.

The next morning, I set out to build my empire.  In our garage was an empty 30-gallon aquarium, unused after my marine biologist-in-training phase had ended.  I partially filled it with water, rigged up an elaborate makeshift filter system and was ready for business.

Even at that tender age, I realized that I should specialize in one thing before expanding the product line.  Therefore, it was decided that crayfish would be the first offering from the Wheat Wholesale Bait Company.

During the next few days, I began trapping crayfish like a man possessed and became quite successful.  Realizing that I would probably sell hundreds of the small crustaceans per day once things were rolling, I even purchased stock from the other neighborhood kids who raided every mud puddle within biking distance to earn the huge sum of one penny per crawdad.

I remember standing one evening in our garage, happy and satisfied as I looked over my stockpile that now filled two aquariums.  At least 300 hundred of the fighting, clattering brown crayfish stood shoulder-deep in the tanks.

In the frenzy of starting my fledgling corporation, I had forgotten our family vacation the following week.  However, I decided that a little cornmeal dumped into the tanks would keep the animals fed and happy until we returned, provided the pump didn’t fail.

So, with the joyful heart of a 13-year-old, I went on vacation unconcerned about the well-being of my herd.

The first sign of pending trouble started within moments of our arrival back home.  My father stepped out of our car in the driveway and immediately made a sour face.

“Whew!  Something is dead around here!” he said while hitting the electric garage door opener.

From my best recollection, the fumes slid out under the partially opened garage door with a sickly hiss and immediately killed a passing crow before removing the paint from the front fenders of our station wagon.

Eventually regaining consciousness, my father and I managed to investigate the source of the odor by holding a wet towel across our faces and running inside the garage for a few seconds.  Through the gagging waves of visible stench fumes, we learned that the filter pump on the tanks had died, along with my dreams of becoming independently wealthy.

The lesson of this cautionary tale to potential bait dealers, especially the younger readers, is that there are tremendous unseen costs associated with starting a bait business.

The biggest of these hidden costs starts when you see the chief financial officer out cutting a switch in the back yard.

Welcome to March Madness

Welcome to March!  The calendar has finally turned to what I consider the Cruelest Month in Indiana.

It seems the next 31 days actually lasts approximately eight years, give or take a decade.  All hunting is just a memory, the weather outside ranges from lousy to horrific and fishing is only yet a dream.  I’ve heard March called “The season of mud.”  How true.

How many times can you clean the tackle box, thumb through outdoor catalogs and stare wistfully outside?  The current answer is 10,472 times, but that is just today.

However, in an effort to help the outdoors enthusiasts from going completely bonkers, here are a few things I’ve come up with to take my own feeble mind off the fact that the walls of my office move in a few inches whenever I’m not paying attention.

Hiking- When you can grab onto stretch of good weather, I believe March is prime hiking time in Indiana.

First and foremost there is solitude.  I can guarantee that a hike in March, especially during mid-week, will offer as much aloneness as you will ever find in the Hoosier state.  Assuming you avoid state parks on nice weekend days, it would be unusual to run into more than one or two people on the trail.

Moreover, there are no bugs, the temperatures are very comfortable for making miles and the landscape vistas are much more open with no leaves on the forest.

The only downsides to hiking this time of year is the possibility of the weather suddenly turning nasty and lack of services in most areas.  Both these problems are easily overcome with a little preparation and commonsense, two things that hikers are supposed to embody.

Fishing- Yes, Virginia, there are fishing opportunities available.  In fact, according to my records, I took a nice string of crappie on March 15 several years ago in the Raccoon Lake spillway.  Tomorrow, I am planning on a carp fly-fishing expedition to a nearby creek where the big brown fish congregate below a municipal sewage outflow (write your own joke here).

Tailwater fishing for various species begin to heat-up with the weather, especially pre-spawn walleye fishing.  For those so inclined, the sucker run peaks in March if you are seeking a fish that is extremely sweet and tasty and will pierce your tongue with thousands of needle-sharp bones.

Geocaching- I feel like I’ve beaten this topic to death, but I do find geocaching absolutely wonderful, especially as a family activity.  In fact, I just heard a story from friends about how my son managed to get their boat back to the cabin on Dale Hollow last summer on a foggy night by using the GPS.  That was really a Proud Dad moment.

GPS units are so inexpensive that there is really no excuse not to take the family out for a day of geocaching.  It’s good, clean fun and a great adventure, even with young kids.  Since you are typically operating out of your vehicle between caches, it is easy to change plans and head home if the weather turns lousy or members of the expedition get tired.

Birdwatching- As I sit here at my desk, there is a woodpecker digging for lunch in the maple tree outside my window.  It is fascinating to watch him repeatedly pounding his bill into the bark in search of tasty grub.  One can only imagine the migraine headaches those birds endure.

Now is a good time to grab binoculars and head afield to look for interesting feathered friends.  Just an hour ago, I saw a giant flight of sandhill cranes winging northward and I have seen several species of birds is this area that had been absent for a considerable time.

Make a schedule- This is the best time of year to sit down and make a list of all those crazy things you want to do in the coming months.  I’ve found via hard experience that unless something is set in stone on your calendar, life will always get in the way of recreation.

This doesn’t only apply to those major trips involving airline reservations and hiring guides.  If you simply want to go canoeing on a new river, pick a date and put it on the calendar.  Then, you’re far more likely to keep that time cleared for outdoor adventure.  If something happens that you must cancel the trip, it’s not such a big deal but keeping things as a mental “to-do” invariably leads to future cold winter nights when you think, “Wow, I wish I had done that (hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, ect) trip.  Maybe next year.”

As the old slogan says, just do it!

Unfortunately, space constraints must put an end to this column.  If you’ll excuse me, there is still one wall in my office that I haven’t climbed yet.

Campfire: worth the trouble?


As I sit at my desk endeavoring to write a column, a dry cool breeze is blowing through opened windows and the feeling of fall is definitely in the air.  Outside the cloudless blue sky and low humidity promises a cool, crisp evening that would be perfect for sitting around a campfire.

Various topics swirl in my head and are rejected as I inadvertently keep shifting back to recent pleasant evening spend around a bonfire fire with friends.  I finally can’t resist the temptation and decide to build my own fire in the backyard after writing chores are finished.

Even though my daughter is almost in High School, I’m sure I can use the old excuse of building the fire “for the kids.”  Of course, building a fire to entertain the children is the actual truth if you will allow that one of the kids in question in his middle forties.

There is something undeniably hypnotic about a campfire.  It is hard to resist being enraptured by the glowing blue-orange caverns that form among the coals and the mystery of seeing wood transformed from inanimate object into a sinuous, fluid elemental substance.

It is an obvious paradox that I enjoy a nice fire though frequently shunning one while camping, especially on backpacking trips where I consider the rewards not worth the effort.  My viewpoint on this topic grows considerably harder and unyielding as I grow older.

It’s not that I hate fires so much as I hate the trouble of putting one together, the constant fiddly maintenance and the duty of making sure it safely dies after business is concluded.  There is also that eye-irritating pall of smoke that hangs over public campgrounds every evening, even in summer when the temperatures are still hovering somewhere between uncomfortable and unbelievable.

There are many benefits to running a “cold” camp.  First of all, cooking over a wood fire is romantic but tremendously inefficient and troublesome unless it is a particular brand of madness you personally enjoy.  This is why liquid-fuel stoves are a required piece of camping gear unless your goal is to spend hours instead of minutes trying to produce edible food.

More importantly, the fire cuts off the happenings of the natural world around you.  By sitting quietly in the dark, enjoying your favorite after-dinner camp beverage, you hear and see so much more of what is taking place around your camp.  Such things are supposedly one of the main reasons you are camping in the first place and contemplation of the clear, starry roof overhead is alone worth the price of having no fire.

In spite of what I believe are compelling reasons to leave the wood unburned, I must admit that a fire does create a certain atmosphere outdoors that is hard to replace.

A good fire serves as the centerpiece for the camp, the natural place to gather, discuss, cuss, evaluate, consider, ponder and lie.  There is a special ebb and flow to conversation that is facilitated by the quiet crackling of burning wood and curling blue smoke.  As one thread of discussion dies there is a pause, often filled with small tasks of poking the fire or adding wood, slowly refilling the reservoir of contemplation like rainfall into a parched creek.

As a person who tremendously enjoys the camaraderie of being with a group outdoors, I also find that one of the most relaxing moments of existence is that time spent alone by the fire.

There is no need to exchange thoughts or reason with anyone except that ceaseless voice inside your own mind.  Being the sole guardian of the flames seems to be especially effective in soothing the psyche, calming the internal dialog and getting in touch with the deeper philosophies within your own consciousness.  Those few moments allow clarity of thought seldom achieved in the noisy world of man.

As you sit alone next to the whitening coals, there is also the immeasurable but undeniable linkage to generations of native people, mountain men, explorers, pioneers, previous hikers and our own ancestors who used fire as a vital tool instead of a modern-world amusement.

In the silence next to the fire ring you are connected with a nearly endless line of people stretching back into the hazy mists of human history.  Though the time, place, motivation and circumstances are different, there is a dim genetic memory of likewise staring into the flames and thinking about the world around us.

It is a wonderful, deep, restful feeling.  A campfire is one of the few things in the 21st century that instantly connects us with our roots, our ancestors and the land.

I admit that is a pretty good bit of magic for something that can be conjured up with merely a handful of dry twigs and a kitchen match.

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

It seems somewhat ironic that outdoorsman will drive hundreds of miles to park, then walk, paddle, float, ride or climb for enjoyment.   While we always focus on the sport itself, few participants give more than a passing thought to the most statistically dangerous part of most outdoor activities: the drive.

Driving can be a risky venture.  Outdoor enthusiasts are especially prone to mishaps due to several common factors involved with most outdoor field trips:  driving at dawn and dusk, tight schedules that lead to speeding and trailer towing.

When I refer to driving, we are not just discussing massive vacation expeditions to Florida or Canada.   Each year hunters, fishermen and other outdoor devotees will spend many long hours behind the wheel making day or weekend trips to favorite locations within a days drive.  These jaunts are when familiarity breeds carelessness.

Before leaving home, make sure your vehicle is ready.  Packing rods, guns, camping gear or other equipment is best done the day or night before a trip to prevent forgotten items which will require a quick trip back home, followed by a NASCAR-worthy attempt to make up lost time.    Having your gear and vehicle ready makes the start of the trip much smoother, allowing for more leisurely, thus safer, driving.

Trailers are undoubtedly one of the most vital yet treacherous pieces of outdoor equipment.  Twice I have had trailers attempt to pass me on a curve while they were supposed to be trailing merrily along behind my vehicle.  I don’t recommend the experience.

When towing, make it a habit to “pre-flight” your rig just like a pilot inspects his airplane before takeoff.  Walk around the trailer and tow vehicle while physically touching each critical component and mentioning it out loud.   When you see that the hitch is securely fastened, say, “Hitch is fastened”.  This may seem odd, but it serves as another mental check that the hitch is indeed locked.  This point was driven home to Yours Truly last year when I reached the boat ramp and found, to my horror, I had driven 60 miles with a brand new boat that was merely resting on the hitch.  Of course I had looked at the hitch, but somehow in my haste, didn’t realize that it was unsecured.

Trailer lights are a frequent source of problems.  Before leaving, activate your emergency flashers and walk to the rear of the trailer to make sure the lights are working properly.   A semi truck parked in your backseat is no way to find out your brake lights don’t function because of water in the connector.

Driving during early morning and late evening hours can be chancy.  During these times, you are not typically very alert or prepared for emergency maneuvers.  During early morning trips, eat or drink something to help wake up and fend off the urge to return to the arms of Morpheus.  In the evening, after a long day of physical activity, try to take frequent breaks and don’t overestimate your reserve of inner strength.  If necessary, open the windows and swap drivers at half-hour intervals.

Trip companions can be a big help.  After spending a tiring day afield, most partners end up slumped against the passenger side window, drooling on the glass and snoring.  Unfortunately, most male drivers will claim not to be sleepy, even as they drift off the road into a cornfield.   Partners should take it upon themselves to keep up chatter, rehashing the day and other topics to make sure the driver remains alert.  If things get bad, resort to controversial topics such as religion, politics and redheaded women.  The resulting argument might be heated, but it should help the driver remain wide-awake.

Driving during the wee hours can be dangerous because of animals, especially deer.  It is not uncommon to round a dark highway curve and suddenly see a small group of does mincing around on the centerline in suicidal fashion.  Perhaps this a game the deer play to prove their bravery now that wolves are effectively absent from the forest

The biggest problem in most traffic accidents is the loose nut behind the wheel: the driver.  The majority of males believe themselves expert race drivers even though their racing experience might only involve merging a 1986 Ford Grenada onto the Interstate system.  Don’t overestimate your skills when it comes to winding roads and poor visibility.

Most of all, take it easy while in route to the outdoors; embrace the old proverb, “life is a journey, not the destination”.  While traveling, enjoy the passing scenery, swap fishing lies with your friends, feel the tingle of anticipation in your stomach and enjoy the tired satisfaction at the end of the day.  Save your risk tickets for the true adventure sports, such as eating camp cooking.

Solitude

As an outdoor writer, I’ve covered many topics ranging from the serious to the seriously light-hearted.  One thing I have never really tackled is the idea of solitude.

I haven’t approached this particular topic because of Classical Literature.  At some time the reader, along with this writer, was likely forced to sit during High School English class and digest such classics of solitude as Walden Pond.  Even as an outdoor scribe, I hate Thoreau.

While the book by Thoreau are often considered a masterpiece of the genre, I think the author was at least a misanthrope or at worst, a paranoid delusional maniac.  His writing is disjointed and, while insightful at times, it only makes profound sense to college literature professors who actively participate in recreational pharmacology.

A better example of solitude essays are the books of Edward Abbey.  He was also crabby and mistrustful but seems to have a good handle on reality as his observations on the life and death struggles of the other species on this planet.  He’s also dead now.

I plan to live a little while longer but I have refrained from writing on this topic because such opinions often sound exceptionally self-important when expressed on paper, as if the author had finally discovered The Hidden Truth of Life.  Unfortunately, I haven’t discovered any such heavy philosophical answers to the big questions while swatting at black flies or falling into rancid swamp mud.  I have learned a few things, one of which is: solitude is a major reason for going to the outdoors.

While I generally enjoy the company of friends and even the occasional stranger, there are times when being alone in the outdoors is the only remedy for the occasional 90-mile-per-hour fastball that life throws at your head.

There was a time when I was younger when being alone outdoors felt like an admission that I had no friends, at least none that could drop everything on a moments notice to go fishing.  As I got older, I began to realize that going out while alone was different from group outings but the rewards were often were deeper and more intense.  Like a learning to appreciate a good bourbon or cigar, I began to savor those times when there was no one standing between me and the experience of the outdoors.

Being with companions while outdoors is wonderful but the focus of the trip is on the social interaction of the trip rather than the experiences with nature itself.  When a friend is present, the rules of conversation require that you agree, disagree, argue, cajole, praise and offer insight on every action and situation.  When alone, there is no such distraction to the experience and the only comment comes silently from inside your head.

When by yourself, there is a greater sense of seriousness that makes one more sensitive to the small things.  The simple act of wading a creek is approached in a more critical and somber mood when alone because you know that even a sprained ankle becomes a far bigger problem when there is no partner to help you walk out or call for assistance.

Once you are being more attentive to moss-slicked rocks and deep water that could cause a nasty fall, you begin to notice other things.  You see the textures of the bottom, the unknown dappled shadows that scurry from your approach.  You move slower and more deliberate.  Your thoughts start to match the pace, slowing from the constant stream of thought that resembles a 24-hour news channel to a more rational pace that allows you to resolve the issues that have been waiting in the mental In-basket.

With no distraction from a companion, you are free to confront the deeper problems that make daily life such a tedious and backbreaking proposition.  With every outdoor sport, there are long periods of waiting that allow for concordance and appositions to rant and rave inside, hopefully resulting in resolution or at least accommodation.

Returning home from a solitary trip, you find yourself not necessarily unhappy but not really overjoyed; not somber but not really jovial either.  The trip, however, will have been worthwhile because you find yourself calm and more deliberate with a better perspective of all those little things that seemed so insurmountable as you were pulling out of the driveway.

Upon returning, you can face the days or weeks until the next trip.  You understand that whatever is happening seems trivial when compared to the endless tumbling of a river rock or the wobbly first steps of a newborn fawn.  Regardless of worldly problems, you know the rock will keep moving toward the ocean and the fawn will someday have a fawn of its own.  With this new, clear perspective comes inner peace.

I can’t think of a better reason to go outdoors.