Tips for keeping a hunting and/or fishing journal

Keeping a hunting and fishing journal is something that has been on my list for a long time.

I’ve been trying to keep a journal, with varying degrees of success, for the better part of the last four hunting seasons.

This year was the first time I committed to making a proper outdoor journal a reality. As of this writing, I’ve been on 126 fishing trips, 17 hunting trips and enjoyed seven dip netting sessions so far this year.

Throughout the years of trial and error, I’ve discovered a few tips that have helped me stick with it. I’m hoping these will help you as well.

Recognize the importance

Keeping an outdoors log is a great way to preserve memories. But it also provides you the chance to step back and look at the big picture and make decisions accordingly.

Maybe you are fishing or hunting the same spot a little too often. Perhaps a certain bait works well in the morning, but doesn’t seem to produce in the afternoon. Spot A is more of a sunrise spot, while Spot B is better just before dusk. The last time a front came through, the action was best before the rain, not after it.

You’ll be surprised at the trends that come flying off the page when you revisit your journal. These can help set you up for future success.

Make it easy

The simpler it is to access your log, the more likely you are to continue using it.

Pick a medium that works for you. It could be hand-written entries in a notebook or full-blown spreadsheet.

I keep my journal in a Google Sheet. This allows me to access it wherever I go by phone or laptop.

Start early 

I’ll admit, this year’s journal did not start with the first fishing excursion of the season. However, it began to come together after my second trip. 

Beginning to record as early in the season not only helps ensure accuracy and the ideal level of detail for your entries, it also begins to form the habits necessary to keep up with your log throughout the season. 

If you get too far down the road without forming these habits, catching up can be tough, if not impossible. 

Be consistent

While any data or observations can be useful (we’ll get to that in a moment), consistency is key.

Before you begin logging, identify the types of information that are most important to you. Then do your best to record that information on each and every trip.

For instance, my fishing log entries consist of: the date, time I was fishing, body of water, target species, number of fish caught, baits I was using, weather conditions, and a section for relevant notes and observations that may be helpful in the future.

This will make comparisons easier and will help the trends become more apparent.

Get detailed

The more detailed you can get with your entries, the better.

Don’t assume that future you will remember a key piece of information. If you’re anything like me, that tidbit will probably get lost in the shuffle after a few more trips and disappear forever. Jot it down while it’s fresh and save yourself the trouble.

Details bring the story to life and can help spark additional memories that may be useful or simply enjoyable.

On the first day of the open water season, I saw a handful of deer across the bank. This was an unusual sight, so I noted it in my log. This little note, while not relevant to fishing directly, helps bring forth a more vivid recollection of the location, weather, time of day, etc.

But not too detailed

While details are crucial, don’t let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of you completing a journal entry.

Any info you can give your future self could prove to be valuable, even if it’s not complete.

Don’t get discouraged and work with what you have. You’ll thank yourself later.

Thanks dad, for everything

Nathan’s note: This article originally appeared in Badger Sportsman Magazine my senior year of college. This was my Father’s Day gift to him in 2013. It was the first outdoors article of mine that was ever formally published.

Though there are some things I would change about it structurally in hindsight, I didn’t make those tweaks. I feel this is an accurate representation of where I was in my life and career at the time.

Everyone who hunts seems to have a father and son story, if only just one. I have been blessed with many.

I feel like there is a time in every man’s life where he becomes grown up enough to realize exactly how much he means to his father. With this realization comes the natural pondering of what a struggle it must have been to raise a son. This is typically followed by an appreciation for undertaking such a thankless task.

My first realization came when I was 16-years-old. My dad wrote a letter to me while I was on confirmation retreat. Truthfully, I don’t remember a lot of it, but a certain passage is still burned in my mind to this day.

My dad wrote that, when he found out that he and my mom were having a son, he was hopeful that he would have a hunting and fishing partner for life.

Naturally, I didn’t realize it at the time, but my dad did everything in his power to make sure that I fell in love with the outdoors. Whether it was letting me tag along hunting long before I could legally handle a gun or taking me fishing at the park for bluegill on summer evenings, he made experiencing the outdoors with his son a priority.

Though it was incredibly important to him, he never shoved it down my throat. To this day he opens my bedroom door and utters the following question: “Hey, wanna go hunting(/fishing)? ”

You see, it was always my choice. It still is.

Many would think that his strain would pay off by the time I could hunt, but the growing pains didn’t stop when I turned 12. In fact, they had just begun. I took hunter’s safety online and my dad scheduled a field day for me at a location that was good hour and a half drive from our house.

Even once I was certified, I was dreadfully inaccurate with a shotgun (still am). My dad took me to shoot trap at the local sportsman’s club in hopes that I would gain a little marksmanship with my new weapon.

Clay pigeons were missed, my shoulder was bruised, and tears were shed. Still, he remained patient with me. We downgraded to a youth-model 20-gauge for the upcoming bird seasons.

So, mourning dove hunting became the initial objective. Hunting doves had recently become legal in Wisconsin and besides, what better way for a youngster to learn how to use a firearm?

Well, doves are quick. Frankly, initially, they seemed more like F-16’s with their innate ability to stop on a dime and continue flying in a new direction at a high speed.

After a few hunts, I finally managed to knock one down (to this day, I am still convinced my dad shot it first, but whatever) and we celebrated.

However, waterfowl hunting was a different story altogether.

Countless Saturdays my dad got up at ungodly hours of the morning to go duck hunting and always allowed me to come along. All so I could hopelessly miss a few streaking teal on the Milwaukee River that I never stood a chance at.

Things eventually began to look up.

My dad, one of his friends, and I did a special youth duck hunt on some public land not too far from my hometown.

I don’t really recall many specifics about that day, but I do remember the first flock of ducks coming over about an hour after sunrise. I took aim and dropped a bird out of the flock. It folded in mid-air and my dad was hugging me before it even hit the ground. To this day, I am fairly certain that the safety on my gun wasn’t even on.

Much of the early afternoon was spent riding our old Ford Ranger around Sheboygan Falls showcasing the bird to my entire family.

A few weeks later, regular season goose hunting opened. My dad and grandpa traditionally hunted the Collins Marsh Zone, so I did too.

It seemed to good to be true. Many a morning, I tagged along with dad and grandpa to Collins on an early October morning and watched them down their limits of geese. Finally, it was my turn to join them.

As it turned out, it took a few humbling trips to realize what, exactly, I was in for.

I quickly learned that, geese are flying tanks, hitting one does not ensure a successful harvest.

Eventually, I put a load of pellets right where they needed to be and dropped my first goose. My dad took off running after the downed bird as if someone was going to take it from us. It landed in some pretty thick brush, but he was able to locate it and bring it back to me. Many hive-fives and hugs were exchanged between my dad, my grandpa and I. It is a moment I will never forget.

While waterfowling success such as that eventually came, there still remained one big issue: I had yet to kill a deer.

This was a problem because there is something special about deer hunting in the state of Wisconsin. Harvesting a deer is sort of an unofficial rite of passage into manhood.

I wasn’t expecting to be able to go gun deer hunting during the first season I could legally hunt, but I was pleasantly surprised to see the lengths my dad was willing to go to get me ready to hit the woods at the ripe old age of 12.

Big D scoured the newspapers looking for a place to go shoot rifles. He was willing to haul me as fair as Menomonee Falls (over an hour away) just for the chance to feel out the big gun.

Despite numerous family-wide efforts, I was unable to down a deer in my first few seasons of hunting.

On one faithful fall afternoon, my dad and I were sitting, huddled in a ground blind near a retention pond on some private land we had permission on. We hadn’t seen anything more than a tail all day until, lo and behold, I noticed a deer standing broadside at less than 30-yards.

I nudged my old man, who hadn’t taken notice because he was facing a different direction and said, ” Dad, there is a deer, what do I do?”

He looked up, saw the animal, and with a sudden spurt of excitement said,” F***ing shoot it!.”

I put it in the cross hairs and slowly squeezed the trigger. The deer ran off into some nearby cover. Minutes (though it felt like hours) later we left the blind in search of the animal. After a few anxious moments of searching, my dad found the deer lying yards from where the bullet had made contact. Finally, my first deer.

As I have grown older, I have been fortunate enough to continue to share special moments like this with my father.

Three years ago, I dropped a nub-buck at a considerable distance on opening morning of gun-deer season. I was a little disappointed due to the small stature of the animal, but my dad congratulated me on a nice, ethical shot and was happy for me none-the-less.

Left with only a buck tag, I climbed back into my tree stand, planning on taking a nice nap, knowing full well that deer donning antlers were in short supply where we hunted.

Wouldn’t you know it? After dozing off for awhile, I awoke to the sound of twigs snapping and brush rustling behind me. As I regained consciousness, I frantically looked around for the source of the commotion.

I eventually locked-in on a deer running at full-tilt toward me. It stopped directly to my right, a marginal distance from my stand. Sure enough, it had horns, only the third buck I had seen, in person, in my life.

I grunted, the deer stopped, I raised my sights and let ‘er rip. The deer dropped like a ton of bricks without taking another step.

The first thing I did was call my dad. To this day, I remember my exact words to him, “Your son just shot his first buck.”

I climbed down my tree and walked toward my trophy. My dad soon joined me over near where the deer was laying. I immediately jumped into his arms in excitement.

I was proud of myself and I knew he was proud of me too.

Hunting continues to provide some of the best memories in my young life and I try my best to appreciate how lucky I am to have created moments such as those.

I don’t have as much time to hunt as I used to, as any real adult will tell you, that is part of growing up. However, I still cherish the moments I get to share with my dad in the outdoors. So much so, that when I found out that a project would keep me from joining my old man on his annual duck hunting trip to the Mississippi River last fall, I cried.

I know, it’s immature for a 20-year-old man to be shedding tears over such a trivial matter, but it really bothered me. I was genuinely upset. Hunting opportunities with my dad were few and far between and I missed out on one of the most unique chances of the year.

During this past archery season, as my dad and I were working at getting my bow dialed in from various distances, I realized how much I missed this precious time. The chance to just be guys and talk about manly stuff like consistent release points and tight arrow groupings.

That is why this season mattered so much to me. It presented the first chance I have had to bow hunt with my dad in over two years. We have a load of deer on the property he rents and there was a decent chance that I would be able to draw back on a nice one.

As it turns out, I didn’t bag a trophy of a lifetime. But I am still thankful.

Thankful that my father took the time to teach me how to hunt the right way.

Thankful that the knowledge he has instilled in me has allowed me to share my passion for hunting with others.

Thankful for the chance to spend time in the woods with the man who has spent so much of his own time sharing one of his greatest loves with me.

After all, none of this will last forever.

An opening day duck hunt for the ages

Sharing the outdoors with others is truly one of my favorite things about hunting and fishing.

During this past opening day of duck hunting in Wisconsin, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do exactly that. This turned out to be a hunt that I will remember for the rest of my life.

I’ve been on my fair share of, shall we say, opening day “adventures” on public land. In recent years, I have opted for sitting out the first few hours of duck season unless I have a private land spot. Though that may sound a bit entitled, I’ve found it to be the ideal approach for keeping my blood pressure at healthy levels.

This year, a good friend of mine, a seasoned waterfowler, locked down a quality private land spot in the weeks leading up to the opener. It was a cut corn field with some standing water in the low spots. You really can’t dream up a much better scenario.

The appointed group consisted of myself, the friend who found the spot, a mutual friend of ours, and my brother-in-law. The latter two gentlemen had pretty much no experience duck hunting and I was excited for whatever opportunities awaited them.

As the sun set the night before go-time, we parked our trucks on an old county road adjacent to the property and watched through our binoculars in awe as hundreds of ducks and geese exited the feeding grounds en route to their roosts.

It was a sight to behold. We gawked as hundreds of birds filed out of the corn, cloud after cloud. The processional brought forth memories of watching flocks of migrators arrive on the Mississippi River for a much-needed respite.

Our blood was pumping and our sense of optimism high.

Darkness eventually fell and we began the preparations for the following day in the newly-abandoned ghost town.

Truck headlights lit the dusty field as we began to collect the stubble necessary for concealing our layout blinds. Morning couldn’t come soon enough.

On the drive home, I went through some of the shooting basics with our mutual friend.

“No matter how close they get, wait until shot is called.”

“Mind your barrel. Know your angles.”

“Start shooting at the bird farthest from you and work your way in.”

“Don’t group shoot, pick a duck and commit.”

“Remember the four Bs: butt, belly, bill, blast.”

“Follow through on passing shots. Swing with the birds. Don’t forget to lead them.”

I busted out all the cliches, but I wanted to do my due diligence to ensure the best possible experience.

In the pre-dawn hours of the following day, the full group assembled in the field and we began to set decoys. There was plenty of confident chatter, but no one wanted to jinx it.

The spread was set. Now we just had to wait. Always the hardest part.

Shooting light came. Things were quiet. A bit too quiet.

I began running through the doomsday scenarios in my head. Had the cold evening temperatures chased the birds south?

After roughly half an hour, a flock of local wood ducks forced my mind back onto the positive track.

We dropped a few birds out of that first group. We were on the board and the adrenaline rush was just starting.

After the initial volley, the next ducks appeared in short succession. We didn’t even have time to close our blinds before a nice flock of mallards was eyeing up the decoys.

More shots rang out, more birds plummeted to the earth. We were rolling now. Fist bumps and plenty of hooting and hollering ensued. Ear-to-ear smiles were fixed upon the entire group. Each member of our party had successfully contributed to the tally.

My brother-in-law and our mutual friend both harvested their first ducks among the initial flocks. An amazing moment to be part of.

A mix of mallards and woodies kept the steady action coming and we continued to capitalize. Before we knew it, we were in double digits, then in the teens, then at 20.

There were points when we couldn’t reload fast enough. Whoever had the fastest access to shells re-supplied the entire group.

“This is chaos,” our mutual friend said with a grin.

“I know. Isn’t it awesome?” I replied.

In the midst of all this, the goose flight began. We had some honkers in our spread and were equipped with sufficient goose loads but, amid all the craziness, the thought of stacking Canadas completely slipped my mind.

We worked the more serious flocks for, what felt like, forever. A group of five eventually locked up and threw down the landing gear.

Despite a mouth full of spit and a goose call still pursed to my lips, I was able to call the shot.

“Cut ’em.”

A pair of geese fell, including our mutual friend’s first goose. He folded it on his first shot.

As things began to quiet down, the green-winged teal started flying. Known for their small size and incredible aerial acrobatics, it’s altogether different than shooting at mallards and miles away from cracking a few rounds off at a committed goose.

We ran the duck total up to 23. One away from our limit.

“I don’t care how long it takes, no one is leaving until we get this last bird,” said our ringleader.

That statement was met with unanimous approval. After all, we were hardly two hours into the hunt.

Since three of us had our limits, it was all up to the organizer of the hunt.

A pair of teal came screaming across the makeshift pond from left-to-right. One shot, one bird. And that was that.

A flurry of cheers echoed off the nearby woods followed by more fist bumps. What an amazing morning. A four-man limit in under three hours.

Both the ringleader and I were sure to remind our greenhorns that they were unlikely to ever experience something like this again. But we also made sure they celebrated the morning.

Twenty-four ducks, a pair of geese, including three firsts. I’ve never been a part of anything like it. I may never get to be again. And you know what? That’s OK.

But that won’t stop any of us from trying.

The next day, our alarms went off and we went back out again.

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