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Changing landscapes: When a hunting or fishing territory slips away

Sam Cook

An angler I know was talking about a lake where he used to fish. Crappies, as I recall. Somewhere near Bemidji.

"But then the college kids found out about it, and they hit it pretty hard," he said.

It was a small lake, and they fished it down until the angler quit going there. So did the college kids. They couldn't catch enough fish to make it worthwhile.

If you fish and hunt for enough years, you know that things like this happen. For years, maybe even decades, you've got a good thing going. A good situation. Maybe it's a hunting camp. Maybe it's a relationship with a landowner. Maybe it's a lake. Or the land itself.

If we're lucky enough to be the beneficiary of such a situation, we almost take it for granted. We think, this is the way it will always be.

But that's rarely true. Over time, something happens over which you have no control.

Maybe the paper company that leased you the land for your hunting shack wants to sell the 40 acres instead of leasing it. Somebody hears about it, buys it out from under you. It happens.

Maybe the landowner in farm country where you've hunted pheasants for many years dies. His family splits up the land or sells some of it. The situation you enjoyed for so long has now changed.

Maybe you lose a lifetime hunting partner or a good hunting dog. Suddenly, one of the most cherished aspects of your hunting is no longer there. How do you replace the person with whom you have years of shared experience and stories? How do you replace the dog that was both hunter and friend?

Some of the changes we face might even be at the landscape level. For unclear reasons, the annual waterfowl migration shifts westward. Ducks no longer stop where they once stopped.

Or an extended period of dry years robs cattail marshes of moisture, and farmers, seeking more land for crops, burn and plow the lowlands. Wildlife habitat evaporates. Your best hunting territories no longer exist.

Perhaps commodity prices rise. As a result, rural landowners want to put in more cropland. They allow federal Conservation Reserve Program grassland acreage to expire. Grasslands are replaced by row crops. Ducks and pheasants lose valuable nesting habitat. The number of birds on the land declines.

Most of us who love the outdoors, who are passionate about hunting and fishing, look for ways to work around all of these changes. We change our habits. We seek new waters. We forge relationships in new territory. Maybe we even shift our interests to new species.

In a sense, we're starting over.

It's painful, in many cases, to give up long-standing traditions and long-established friendships.

But it's almost inevitable that these changes will occur in a hunter or angler's lifetime.

The angler who fished the crappie lake near Bemidji found new waters. He let the once-productive lake sit for a few years. Finally, he decided to revisit it.

The fish were back. And they hadn't been discovered yet.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Find his Facebook page at or his blog at