In the nearly 30 years I’ve known Tom Huggler, he has always been highly organized, disciplined, and intensely focused—all necessary qualities for success when you make a living as a freelance writer.
And Huggler has been one of Michigan’s most successful writers and photographers, covering numerous subjects in the more than 50 years since he sold his first story to Outdoor Life. That story was about crow hunting, and Huggler wrote and submitted it between his junior and senior years of high school at the age of 17. He’s probably best known for his books and articles about bird hunting—his limited edition A Fall of Woodcock, long out of print, now fetches as much as $400 a copy on eBay.
On Tuesday morning, he had another deadline to meet: he had to pick up his two young kids from school in Sunfield, Michigan, which was a seven-hour drive from where our annual bird camp was located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.). He figured if he left our lodge before 7 a.m., he’d have 90 minutes for a foray into a classic aspen slashing he’d recently discovered, and invited me to follow him to it. It was not an opportunity to pass up.
Huggler and I have hunted in the U.P. many Octobers starting in 1986, when he first invited me to his bird camp. Back then, he hunted with an English Setter named Lady Macbeth and a yellow Lab named Holly. It was déjà vu on Tuesday as he let his current two dogs out of the back of the pickup. Ragan is a male English Setter named after one of Shakespeare’s characters in King Lear, and Scotch is a compact, athletic female yellow Lab his daughter named Butterscotch because of the dog’s color and because her puppy ears were “soft like butter.”
I learn something about bird hunting every time I hunt with Huggler.
“This place has little patches of aspen, some the size of a living room, and there are a lot of birds in here,” he said as we got our dogs ready to go. “See how rich the ground is? Across the road is a big cow pasture and the theory is the woodcock go over there at night to probe for earthworms.”
Not 20 yards from where Ragan hit the ground, he went on point. As the dog’s beeper collar made hawk shrieks, I couldn’t see either hunter or dog through the thick brush but heard Huggler’s 28 gauge fire once.
“Did you get him?”
“No. It was a woodcock.”
Within about 45 minutes we’d had seven woodcock flushes and I’d downed two of them, my Golden Retriever Gabe finding both in short order.
“If you get another I’m just going to head on home,” Tom said. “I don’t really care if I shoot them anymore. I just like to seem them fly and other people get them.”
That’s a big change from the early days of hunting with him, when each day he was always the first to leave camp and the last to get back. The 10 of us who have been coming to our camp since the late 1980s still joke about “A Huggler Death March,” which would entail a string of five or six guys heading through swampy aspen slashings, the underbrush and blowdowns so thick that rabbits might have a tough time getting through. Huggler, the huntmaster, hunted fast, and we always had to hustle to keep up. Eventually, we knew we’d hear the four most dreaded words of the autumn: “OK, pivot on me!”
Age and experience can mellow even the hardest of hardcore outdoorsmen.
“It took me a bunch of years, but I started to realize no one wanted to hunt with me,” Huggler said chuckling. “I’d say, ‘OK, who’s going with me tomorrow?’ and the silence would be deafening.”
I personally don’t recall ever turning down a chance to chase birds with Huggler, and think he might be exaggerating about the reluctance of other camp members. I felt privileged to be able to spend part of a morning with him this week. When he said he’d be heading home if I shot my third woodcock for a limit, I actually kind of hoped I wouldn’t get another one right away. Maybe that’s why I cleanly missed the ninth bird, which flushed right in front of me and offered the rare, easy shot. By then, though, the sun was already heating up the woods. My Golden Retriever was flopping down for a rest at every opportunity and it was time for Huggler to hit the road so he wouldn’t be late to pick up his son and daughter.
As he crated his dogs and broke down his little side-by-side shotgun for the trip, it was a bittersweet moment for me. My friend and outdoor-writing hero and I had shared another great, too-short time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, another great memory to file with many. As he said as we shook hands and promised to stay in touch and maybe hunt a preserve later in the year:
“It’s just too long between Octobers.”
Image by Dave Mull