CLIO, Mich. – Max Donovan and I were buddies for years. We went back to the early 1950s when rooster pheasants flushed from mile-wide cornfields, ditch banks and dogwood-choked fence rows. We trout fished and hunted when black ducks had time to circle before dropping in for a greeting from our high-brass No. 4s.
Max taught me almost everything he knew about the outdoors, at least most of what he felt was worth knowing. He coaxed me through the woods with a big dog fox over my shoulder or while dragging out a farmland buck. He taught me why mallards take off and land into the wind, and how to set decoys in a pungent swamp-mud marsh so puddle ducks would pitch into our spread at spitting distances.
Learning life’s lessons
He taught me what personal courage and integrity meant. He showed me how to be a man through example, and did it in a way that wasn’t painful unless you were the kid who chose to help a very dear friend.
Max was my mentor. He taught me about the outdoors. He showed me how to hunt buck deer and shepherded my skinny bones through all phases of duck and goose hunting on nearby Saginaw Bay. He taught me how to read the water to wisely fish a lake or stream, and how to hunt crows before the Feds offered them some protection.
Mind you, Max did all this with a brand of guts few folks ever need to know about. Most people give up on life, but he was born a hemophiliac (a bleeding disorder) and at age 11 lost a leg in a tractor accident.
He enjoyed the outdoors on an artificial leg, what he called a wooden leg, and even after a car wreck mangled both hands, Max could still out-fish or out-shoot anyone I knew. Give up wasn’t in his vocabulary.
He was a shambling warehouse of outdoor lore. He shared that knowledge with me and wasn’t above about it. He also wasn’t above using one or more object lessons to pound sense into my thick skull.
A humbling experience hunting fox
I’m so mindful of when we were hunting red fox on four inches of fresh winter snow, and the red runner had outsmarted the hounds. I was mad because Max had sent me in twice to work out the fox tracks for the hounds but I’d lost the trail.
“I can’t find the tracks,” I complained, bitterly.
“Boy, you get your sorry butt back in there again and straighten out them hounds,” he said. “And be quick about it, hear? I’m cold, hungry and tired of holding his Browning autoloader all morning.”
“Max, I can’t find any fresh fox tracks. The dogs have it tracked up.”
“Listen, kid. Foxes don’t have wings, and they can’t fly, and with snow on the ground, they gotta leave tracks. Find where that fox checked those dogs, and get goin’ now. You hear? Now git!”
I heard, and my ears burned and my eyes smarted from the verbal rebuke as I trudged back across the Genesee County field, entered the woods and found the hounds boo-hooing at the lost track. I then found where Ol’ Red ran a log for a distance before jumping off, and I sicced the hounds on the hot track. Max had taught me not to quit.
Ten minutes later, his Browning 3-inch 12 gauge shotgun boomed once, and I knew the chase was over. He didn’t miss shots at fox very often, and he didn’t miss much in life. He lived each day to its fullest, and each new year was a personal triumph, whether in the hospital or home.
He was a fine judge of character, and often said: “A no-account hunter or slob fisherman is a disgrace to society, a waste of skin, and a hazard to the pastimes we love. Be yourself, be as good as you can, and remember that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Never forget it, kid, and never give up on life or what it deals you.”
Little lessons that produce results
He taught me how to fish a tight line with two minnow-baited hooks for perch, and how to twitch a Russian Spoon for big yellow bellies through the ice. His only concession to his wooden leg was he only fished Saginaw Bay when the ice was thick enough for a car to drive on. The chance of slipping was great, and a fall could lay him up for weeks.
Max wore a droopy mustache, and was as comfortable as old hunting clothes, you know the kind, all broken in with all the rough edges smoothed out. His homespun philosophies were appropriate for all occasions, and he was seldom wrong about people or outdoor things.
He savored the lakes, streams and the woods like a vintage wine, and he loved winter. We dogged foxes and caught Saginaw Bay perch, and he taught me a trick or three about catching pike from inland rivers. He was good at everything he did, but didn’t brag on it.
Max was long on manners and stubborn to a fault, and felt anyone with little respect for dogs, kids or women wasn’t worth much. He could nick his face while shaving, be laid up bleeding in bed for a week and still grin at the young boy who would come to soak up outdoor knowledge at his bedside. Max never gave up on life, and he wouldn’t let his health problem beat him.
Me and Max were a team
The young boy had found a friend, a person who passionately loved the outdoors, a man who respected the fish he caught and the game he killed. He loved animals, birds and fish, and apparently young boys, and gave them a long measure of respect.
He was a wizard with a duck call, and one foul and nasty day on Saginaw Bay with a hard nor’easter blowing in, flecking foam off the whitecaps, we were tucked back in the cattails in a canoe. The water was two feet deep and I towed the canoe while Max sat back and enjoyed the ride.
“Set up so the decoys are in front of us with some landing room in the middle so when the ducks come over the cattails with their legs reaching for the water they will offer an easy shot. I want the dekes 35-40 yards out. You and me got full-choke shotguns and we don’t want the birds too close.”
I’d just set out the last decoy and was about to climb into the canoe when he whispered: “Wait! Got us some black ducks circling. Don’t move, and they’ll drop right in. Be real still now!”
“Max,” I whispered, head down while Max ran a feeding chuckle through his Mallardtone duck call. “I don’t have my shotgun handy.”
“Shoulda’ had it with you while putting out decoys,” he said between feeding chuckles and a soft come-back call. “Serves you right! Hush now!”
He dropped the duck call from below his shaggy moustache, picked out one black duck that was stooling to the decoys and shot. It splashed down at the far edge of the bobbing decoys.
“As long as you’re in the water, bud, how ‘bout fetching that black duck,” he chuckled. “Give you something to do while standing around with no shotgun in your hands. Might be smart to take it with you this time.”
Knowing my role in this arrangement
My role in gaining knowledge was to help a crusty old friend, and he took delight in taking me over the hurdles. His bluster had the desired effect: I learned while fetching, toting and helping him.
“A man who can’t shed an inner tear for something he kills doesn’t deserve to be called a hunter,” Max once said. “There’s more to hunting than killing, and more to trout fishing than killing a limit. A man must know when he’s had enough, and it doesn’t take much to satisfy me these days. Give me good friends, good outdoor activities and a fine family, and a man can’t ask for much more than that.”
He rambled through 60 years with what many considered a physical disability, but it seldom slowed him down. He loved life with an obvious passion and was devoted to those who helped share his personal triumphs and tragedies. He knew what he wanted when death came callin.
Looking death in the eye with a certain style
“When I go, I want to be planted on a side hill looking down at life going by,” he told me during a break in our last duck hunt. “And when I go, it won’t be on opening day of deer, duck, goose, pheasant or trout season so I’ll mess up other people’s outdoor plans.”
“I’ve never died before, but when it comes time, I want to do it with dignity and a large measure of class.”
He kept his promise in mid-July, nearly 30 years ago, when he died. He was a tough old bird who I dearly loved, and his brand of guts, honesty and tenacity will always be his legacy. I think of him, and my twin brother daily, and hope they’ve found a great trout stream where we can fish during our first reunion.
That will be a good time although I suspect I’ll be gutting and gilling Max’s trout for him. That was one of my chores back in the day.