Few more weeks left to decide this season’s hunting memories

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Messed up, he said. Screwed the pooch.

“I had two, 150-class bucks pass by my stand in an hour and I didn’t shoot either of them,” the man said before asking me about my season of hunting North Idaho whitetails.

We sat on buckets staring into small holes bored into the ice watching our bobbers.

This was years ago when area lakes in December were covered in solid sheets of ice and speckled with anglers, many of them mulling the latest deer or elk season.

It comes with the territory.

Ice fishing, although at least a month away, is often used to recount the glory days of September, October and November when we were hunters, once, and younger.

We do this while sitting silently, sometimes stomping our feet to prompt heat into our extremities while watching a bobber float in the water of a small, chiseled hole.

Ice fishing is a time to deeply reminisce.

A friend of mine sent two voice messages that I saved from a September day when he muddled a shot on a herd bull, thereby permanently besmirching his image as The Guy Who Doesn’t Miss.

“That was the first elk I missed since high school,” he said under his breath in the messages sent on his cellphone from the real estate office where he quietly sits most days looking for North Idaho property for people from coast to coast. He quietly taps laptop keys, hushes and shushes and feels lonely as a billy goat in a suburban backyard for screwing up that shot.

The year my pal missed the bull, and the same year the other guy let the bucks pass thinking this is too easy, and more, bigger animals will surely come along, and then none came; that same year, Russell Eels of Oldtown had a perpetual grin that would dim the scowls of most ice fishermen.

I know this, because I met Russell that year at a gas station at 4 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving a while back. I was on my way to my deer stand and fueling up to make sure I had the juice for the trip when I noticed this guy standing beside a pickup with a grin I knew wasn’t a product of good coffee.

I had to ask.

Russell was keen to explain his cheerfulness.

He had killed a massive buck near Priest Lake, and was unabashed about sharing the story with pretty much anyone regardless of their disposition and propensity for envy.

He thrust a photograph of a 180-class whitetail buck into my field of view as my gasoline pump clicked, stopping on a grand total of $53 to fill the tank of a Subaru wagon.

Russell stood there grinning ridiculously.

The buck I saw in the photograph as it lay dead next to Russell in a snowy brush patch somewhere near Priest Lake looked record bookish.

The Old Town logger and some pals were driving when they saw a deer cross the road. Russell bailed from the vehicle and tracked the deer through the snow catching up to it as it stopped behind some trees, showing a shoulder and its butt, both of which looked like they would make a good stew.

He shot the deer for meat, he said, and was rewarded with a lot more.

“I saw the antlers sticking up through the snow,” he said.

He beamed like a pair of blue halogens.

The whitetail Russell shot was a 7x7 with forked brow tines. His previous biggest buck was a 9x7, 170-class that he harvested in the Priest Lake area a decade earlier.

Russell was among hunters of a different fraternity.

If he ice fishes — and I don’t know that he does — the memory of that buck will surely keep him warm.

He is among the fraternity of whitetail hunters who need a little more practice at missing, or not shooting, or otherwise muffing, before joining the ranks of hunters who will sit on cold buckets this coming winter, staring into the maw of black water through small, 8-inch holes.

“That deer is going to be in the upper 170s or 180s by looking at it,” I remember him saying. He couldn’t contain it.

“It could be in the running for the state record book.”

I don’t know if it was a record, but, I know it made stew.

And probably jerky. Which is also fine to have along on an ice fishing trip.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt writes about crime and the outdoors for The Press. He can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com

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