The Old-Timer sure knew how to hook turtles

January thaws bring back memories about the first time I went turtle hooking years ago when it was still legal to hook turtles in winter.
The Old-Timer, an anonymous outdoors sage in the Coulee Region, asked me to tag along with him.
"You know the rules," he barked. "No names, no saying where we go and no photos showing my face."
It was a relatively warm January day in the low 40's with clear skies and a bright sun above us.
For more than 60 years, the short, bald-headed, retired plumber hooked turtles in the winter. He even made his own turtle hook.
The Old-Timer, who died in 2005 at age 89, also introduced me to other interesting outdoors adventures, but on Jan. 13, 1984, it was a day to, hopefully, hook a few turtles.
"I've hunted snakes in more than 20 states, caught sharks and have been huntin' turtles since I was about 8 or 9. Let's see, I'll be 68 or 69 in July," he said as I pointed my vehicle south of La Crosse.
A turtle hook is 9 to 10 feet long, including a 3-foot iron rod with a sharp hook on the end.
The idea is to probe muddy banks of rivers and streams, locate a turtle, and then twist the hook around to catch the neck or underside of the critter and pull it from the bank.
 "Turtles go into banks after a few frosts, but it has to be pretty cold. They'll also move around from time to time depending upon the weather and when the ice shifts," The Old-timer said. "You can also hook them in the back pockets of rivers, especially where there's walking ice with no snow."
Trying to be a bit knowledgeable about the sport, I told The Old-Timer that my dad, God rest his soul, grew up in Plainfield, WI. He walked along the shore of nearby lakes when the ice was clear. Dad and his school buddies would actually see the shells of turtles along shore, and would cut holes and pull them out.
"Yeah, I've done that, too... plenty of times," The Old-Timer said.
As we walked along the creek, The Old-Timer said we would find turtles and explained that turtles prefer soft banks facing south shores. That's where the sun shines most of the day.
"Turtles also like to get close to trees where they can hunker down in the roots," he said, wading into the stream.
Find a stream with little current and you're in snapping turtle heaven.
"When the streams flood in spring and there's a run-off, the mud is washed away from the turtles and they become active for another season," he said.
The Old-Timer wore chest-high waders. I wore hip boots. Needless to say, that was a mistake. I struggled in snow that was knee deep. Did I mention I'm only 5-foot, 8 inches tall? The Old-Timer was shorter than me, but was like a rabbit on ice-crusted snow.
We broke ice in the creek, climbed over logs and poked our turtle hooks into the muddy banks.
"A rock is a sharp sound. A log is a dull thud. But a turtle sounds like the noise you made when you were a kid," The Old-Timer said, opening his mouth and pounding his knuckles on his head.
"You mean a hollow sound?" I asked.
"That's right, but I wasn't going to say it because you would say I had a hollow head," he muttered.
Suddenly, The Old-Timer hit a turtle with a big THUD.
"Did you hear that? There's one down there," he said, twisting his hook several times.
Seconds later, he pulled out a 10-pound snapper from the bank.
"See what I told you. The first thing it will do when it comes out of the water is open its mouth," The Old-Timer said. "It's ready to eat... or snap."
The Old-Timer went on to explain that once a turtle is brought out to water level you must look for the tail. And, once you've got the reptile out of the water and onto shore, be sure to hold it with the belly toward you.
"The reason is a snapping turtle can snap above its neck, but it can't bend its neck very far below its belly," The Old-Timer shouted. "And once you toss it on the bank, don't let it go because it will take off to the water. Once it gets there, you'll never see it again."
I quickly discovered turtle hooking was hard work, but not for The Old-Timer. He smiled all the time he was in the water as I snapped one photo after another.
"It's not work if you enjoy it," The Old-Timer said. "I do it for fun, exercise and for the meat for me and my friends."
We hooked 10 turtles that day and my gunny sack was almost too heavy to lug to the Jeep.
The Old-Timer laughed, as he watched me struggle dragging my heavy gunny sack.
"Now you have turtles to clean," he said, suggesting I try his turtle chop suey recipe.
"I just dice the meat off the bone. I don't really have the recipe written down. I use my own seasonings. It never tastes the same. But it's good enough for me and my friends," he said.

Old-Timer puts smile on young boy's face

FERRYVILLE, WI - Did I ever tell you about the time The Old-Timer gave my youngest son a shotgun?
It was the opening day of the 1999 duck season. The Old-Timer, 9-year-old son, Evan, and I were hunting "the tubes" as we used to call them, down in Vernon County. We parked at the wayside on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River between the Lansing Bridge and Ferryville, WI.
Years ago, before the highway was re-done, we used to park alongside the road, walk through tall culverts that we called "the tubes," down to the river.
In all honesty, we used to fill our opening day bag with wood ducks, sometimes within a half hour. But as years mounted, ducks became fewer and fewer.
On this day, Evan and I hunted together while The Old-Timer sneaked down the slough hoping to jump ducks.
When the noon siren at the Lansing Fire Department blared, volley after volley of shots echoed back and forth between the Wisconsin and Minnesota bluffs.
Unfortunately, our hunting spot was quiet, very quiet.
"Where are all the ducks?" asked Evan, who spent an hour building a blind before the noon opener.   
"Don't know son," I replied. "We just have to be patient."
A half hour or so passed before a woodie flew down the slough in front of me.
I shot. The colorful male dipped its wings, then dropped into the water 40 yards from shore on the opposite side of the slough. It began swimming for land, but I couldn't get a good killing shot.
It eventually disappeared into thick grass. Another hunter saw it, too, and retrieved it.
"Is he going to bring it to you?" Evan asked, holding his "pretend" shotgun, a stick he found earlier in the day.
"Maybe. Maybe not," I replied. "He's going to need a boat to get over here because the water is really deep halfway across. One thing for sure, the duck won't go to waste."
The guy never brought the duck over to me. Actually, he never said a word when he picked it up, wrung its neck and put it in his hunting coat.
An hour or so later, The Old-Timer appeared through the thick cattails and underbrush.
"Any luck?" Evan yelled.
"Nope. Never fired a shot," said The Old-Timer, 83 years old at the time.
We stood and talked a few minutes, discussing how poor the duck hunting opener was.
Then, out of the blue, The Old-Timer said, "Evan, you're too young for this now, but here, take this and put it in your dad's gun case until your old enough. My duck hunting days are over. I quit."
Evan smiled as he cradled the 12-gauge shotgun in his small hands and arms.
Thank you. Thank you," he said.
"That's pretty dang nice of you to do that," I told The Old-Timer. "Are you sure you are quitting duck hunting?"
"Yup. You know when I say I'm doing something, I do it," he replied. "I'll still deer hunt with you, but I don't know how much longer I'll do that either."
The Old-Timer carried his gun one last time as he and Evan walked along the railroad tracks, up the steep sidehill and onto the pavement at the wayside. The Old-Timer opened his gun case, placed the unloaded shotgun in the case, zipped it up and handed it to Evan.
"There. It's all yours. But you have to promise me you won't use it until you pass the DNR's gun safety course," he said.
"I promise," Evan said.
There were no ducks to clean that day, but there were plenty of memories.
Evan, now 27, has shot lots of ducks and pheasants with that old shotgun, thanks to the Old-Timer, who died in 2005.
To this day, Evan and I still talk about that sunny October day in 1999, when The Old-Timer put a big smile on a young boys' face. Come to think of it, on his dad's face, too.

The Old-Timer

For more than 40 years, Bob Lamb wrote about his adventures with "The Old-Timer," an outdoors sage in the Coulee Region, who remained anonymous until his death at which time Bob was permitted to reveal his true identity.
Bob won many state and national newspaper awards for his outdoors stories, columns and photos about the popular Old-Timer.
While The Old-Timer has gone to the "Happy Huntin' Grounds," Bob's writings about him will begin soon on this new website.

He's back... The Old-Timer stories live on

I can't quite remember the first time I met The Old-Timer. It was probably my pre-teen years.
I always liked him, and lucky for me, it went both ways. That wasn't the case with everyone The Old-Timer met.
My dad and mom, God rest their souls, always told me, "If he likes you, then you're one of his best friends. If he doesn't like you, or if you ever cross him, you can forget about being his friend.
Fortunately, for me, my family, and several other people, The Old-Timer took a liking to us. Once he did, we were lifelong friends.
During my newspaper career at the La Crosse Tribune, I wrote many stories about The Old-Timer and our travails. Whether it was duck hunting, turtle hooking, rattlesnake hunting, trout fishing, deer hunting, walleye fishing, grouse and woodcock hunting, looking for morels, pine mushrooms or sulfur shelf fungi, ginseng digging, wild berry picking, or simply hiking steep hills, deep valleys and stream banks, The Old-Timer and I forged a deep relationship.
For more than 40 years, I wrote about our adventures. Yes, The Old-Timer was an outdoors sage in the Coulee Region, an enigma to some, and a mystery to others as he remained anonymous until his death, when I was permitted to reveal his true identity.
Thanks to The Old-Timer, I received many state and national writing awards about him. I wish I would have kept all those stories. I did save lots of them, but there are many more that I have yet to share.
Upon my retirement in 2010, I contemplated writing a book titled, "The Old-Timer and Me." I thought the title would be appropriate because The Old-Timer always said, "Me and Bobby," whenever he told his family, my parents or other friends about our travels. Why not, "The Old-Timer and Me?"
Well, I've learned that retirees procrastinate... at least that is my case. I was also diagnosed with pancreatic cancer more than two years ago. That kind of delayed any thoughts about writing a book.
But, I'm back and feeling good. I'm very blessed and shouldn't even be around, but the Good Lord is good to me and I'm moving forward... not with a book, but more stories about, "The Old-Timer and Me," twice a month, maybe more if I have the energy.
These stories and photos will take on the same character as The Old-Timer always was. Gosh, he was a walking outdoors encyclopedia, a character, a clown, a close confidant, a second father, and so much more. He was pint-size in stature, but the outdoors lessons he taught me were immeasurable.
I distinctly remember his first words when I told him I planned to write a story about our first trout fishing trip, and that the story and a photo of him would appear in the newspaper.
"That's fine," he said. "But you can't say who I am or use a photo showing my face."
I told him I didn't think my editor or readers would go for that.
"Haven't they ever heard of a mystery? If not, it's a no-go," he said, with a wry smile.
"Well, I'll see if it gets by my executive editor, but I doubt it," I replied.
"If the guy knows anything about the outdoors and what the La Crosse area is all about, he'll use it," The Old-Timer countered.  
Thank God, my editor at the time agreed. And so a long trail of stories and photos began in the Tribune about a little old "river rat," who became a favorite of outdoors and non-outdoors readers alike.
Through the years I urged The Old-Timer to reveal who he was and asked to use a photo identifying him. He always replied, "You can do it when I take the big sleep."
Well, The Old-Timer died with my hand grasped around his in a dimly lit hospital room on Dec. 15, 2005. A tear slid down his cheek, which he often told me was an old Indian sign that meant, "I love you and I'm leaving now." I'll always remember that tear as I wiped it from his cheek.
I used The Old-Timer's true identity and full-face photos of him in the Tribune outdoors section within the next few days. You may have that newspaper clipping and maybe dozens of other articles if you were a regular subscriber. Please keep them.
The reason? I'm starting over again on my website here at boblamboutdoors. You may recall some stories, but there are many others that haven't been told. Tell your friends, too.
And, as was the first story, I won't reveal his name until I'm unable to write anymore, and it will be my time to take the big sleep.
As for now, I'm looking forward to more stories. I hope you are, too.