Adorned with beautiful flowers, the casket sat discreetly at the end of the hallway in Antigo, Wisconsin. The funeral was in an hour. Friends and neighbors arrived to greet Jim Kalkofen and the family. Clarence, Jim’s father, died at the ripe old age of 102.
“All of dad’s hunting and fishing buddies had passed already,” Jim reminisced thinking back on that day. “That’s the thing about living to 102.” But family friends, a number of them professional anglers, showed up that October morning to pay their respects.
Clarence was a salesman all his life. A good salesman, too, always in the top 10 of the company even though his Wisconsin territory was a one-man show compared to the big city sales groups.
During his free time, though, he loved to fish and hunt. He was an outdoorsman who came of age during the Great Depression. That meant venison, ducks, grouse, and fish fillets were provision for the family.
Jim Kalkofen reached into the right pocket of his best suit and pulled out a gold-chained pocket watch. Memories. Memories grew stronger over time, especially the good ones. The pocket watch was a Christmas gift from Jim’s son, Nate, now grown. The two men made eye contact as Nate stood a little ways off in the room and visited with other folks. He nodded back at his father.
In the background, two large displays held hundreds of photos of Clarence in the outdoors holding prized pike and big bass. Clarence was the hero on a Saskatchewan Northern Pike episode for In-Fisherman television. Clarence was 95 years old at the time they filmed that show.
Time. Keeps on ticking. Jim put the watch back in his pocket.
“Your dad sure loved the outdoors for a good long time,” a friend said as he shook Jim’s hand. “How long was he able to hunt?”
“The winter he was 96 years old he shot two deer that year,” Jim answered. “Yes, he loved the outdoors.”
Jim, in his 60s himself, had a long career in the outdoor world. I knew him as tournament director with the Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) and inductee in the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame. Both Jim and I ran walleye tournaments during some of the same years. I asked him about his outdoor experiences growing up.
“My life spent outdoors encountered the usual inconveniences,” shared Jim. “From winds so strong I could hardly walk in them to bone-numbing cold, torrential downpours, leaky tents, and leaky waders. I remember rafting down a swift river after dark, feeding hundreds of mosquitoes at once, fishing without catching, and hunting in all the wrong spots.”
While some of those memories might seem like negatives, the positives stand out the most. Unpleasant thoughts of those rough days fade away. “What is left, at least for me,” shared Jim, “are more idyllic thoughts.” Jim owns that he may not recall the thousands of casts that lead up to landing a big musky. Perfect clarity arrives, however, for the one cast that brought in the monster-size trophy. “Whenever needed, I can see the leaping, thrashing, 52-incher as if she was on my line right now.”
“I sure enjoyed fishing with your dad,” professional angler Daryl Christensen shook Jim’s hand. “Clarence loved a nice fish dinner, didn’t he?”
“Yes, he did,” Jim laughed. Soon the small group of friends sat down. Jim and the other members of the immediate family waited quietly for the final ceremony.
For Jim, thoughts shot back to a time when his frozen fingers didn’t work while fishing at age 10. It wasn’t so bad, though, because he proudly brought home a pile of crappies and his father thanked him. He thought about that smile and the pat on the back to a young and formable kid.
What a legacy, 102 years. What a lot of life to see.
The following month, Jim ventured out for November’s deer opener, reminiscing on the early homemade tree stands. “I remember many long and arduous hours in them, staying put after toes were in need of new blood,” shared Jim.
After all, Clarence taught his son to stay put. “I didn’t move, either,” Jim said, thinking back to his youthful hunting days. “My dad said ‘stay’ and it was my goal to please him. Not only that, I had deeper motives, if he could shoot a deer, so could I. So as a kid I really hung on to that lesson.”
Of course, Clarence wanted Jim to be successful. “He placed me in the best spots when we were chasing whitetails.”
Jim welcomed the sun’s smile on another deer season, but it was bittersweet, too. This would be a season without his dad to talk to afterwards and tell stories. Little did he know something special was about to happen.
Jim’s heart was on its usual opening day march, beating faster than normal. Senses and expectations heightened, Jim climbed into a stand that his dad would have approved of, mainly because of the strategic vantage point. The sight lines overlooked several escape routes that would give a big buck good cover while sneaking away from other hunters.
The bewitching hours morphed from dark to dawn to full light and gave way to the movement of chickadees and squirrels.
Somewhere down deep the order “stay here” reverberated in Jim’s consciousness. “I didn’t move, either,” Jim remembered. “Like when I was 12, I imagined where a deer would come from, where I might see it in time to shoot. I may have even prayed, something most of us do when we’re desperate.”
Jim glanced at the pocket watch from Nate. It was 10:15 a.m. He looked up, movement grabbed 100 percent of his attention. No, it was more than just movement; it was a massive set of antlers trotting down the oak ridge. In less than a second, Jim shouldered the 7mm Magnum, crosshairs followed the big buck’s shoulder. A slight opening gave Jim the perfect and only shot. “It seemed the buck went down before I even realized the trigger was squeezed,” Jim retold the story. He held the scope on the deer, watching, just in case. He took in what he had just killed.
“I was so buck-feverish that I could hardly climb out of the stand. I breathed deeply, thanked God, took in my surroundings many times over, and finally made my way to the buck.”
Ground-shrinkage did not reduce what Jim first saw when this king-of-the-woods came prancing along.
Jim phoned his son, Nate, who lived in western Montana and blubbered through the story, telling the details of the morning. When a hunter shares an intimate moment, a moment like that, the other hunter listens until the story concludes. Well-trained Nate was no exception. When Jim finally stopped talking, Nate said, “I bet grandpa was making a deer drive for you.”
Yes, Clarence made a deer drive that day, and it proved to be Jim’s largest buck ever. It scored more than 155 by the guys who measure such things and tell hunters how big their deer are. “The score was not anywhere near as important as the fact that my dad made his last deer drive from Heaven,” added Jim. “In my mind, he will always be with me on my hunts, and those of his grandson and now his great-granddaughters.”
K.J. Houtman is the author of the award-winning Fish On Kids Books series, chapter books for eight- to 12-year-olds with adventures based around fishing, camping, and hunting. Her work is available at Amazon and local bookstores. Find out more at fishonkidsbooks.com.
Images courtesy Jim Kalkofen, video courtesy In-Fisherman TV