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Babe In The Woods

Babe In The Woods

A hunter's love for all things outdoors is passed down to his family.

Say the name "Babe" and you have a one-in-four chance of getting the right critter.

Babe enjoying some time in the woods with Scamper, his springer spaniel.

There's the pig from the movie of the same name. There's the blue ox that Paul Bunyan cleaned up after. There's the guy who hit a bunch of home runs when beer was the drug of choice rather than steroids.

And there's the one that outdoor types know to the exclusion of the rest: Babe Winkelman, nearly as brawny as Paul Bunyan and hailing from the same hometown, Brainerd, Minnesota.

For 25 years Babe Winkelman has been a fixture on television. People hang on his every word and half the conversations in half the hunting and fishing shacks in half the world begin with, "Well, the Babe says..."

That's because he learned his trade in the trenches. He was a hunter and angler before he ever thought of being a television icon--in fact, almost before there was television. What shows existed 50 years ago were in glorious black and white and most of them appeared to be broadcast in a Minnesota blizzard.

Babe Winkelman is far more than a corporation with a fishing rod in one hand and a shotgun in the other. There are pine knots that cringe when he wanders by. Tough? And opinionated? Yes. Smart? Yes. Conservationist? To the core. That last is perhaps as important as his skill with rod and gun. He believes in the classic definition of conservation ("the wise use of natural resources") and he practices it.

Babe owns 262 acres on a gravel road somewhere west of Backus. You couldn't find it unless he wanted you to. This is his getaway from a peripatetic life that would wear out Henry Kissinger. It is where family gathers to deer hunt and duck hunt and grouse hunt and love each other. Wife Kris does the cooking and youngest daughter Carlee, now nine, has been going to the woods with Dad since she was about four years old.

"She doesn't hunt yet," Babe says. "But she loves to go along and she's never once complained about having to get up at four or five in the morning."

It's a woman's world around the Winkelman retreat, with, the day I was there, four daughters and a wife sandwiched between Babe and his first grandson, Cayden, a nine-month-old with a broad toothless grin and as chunky as his grandpa.

He belongs to Jasmine, oldest of the Winkelman girls at 24. Then there were Donielle (22) and Mackenzie (19) who were helping sight in a deer rifle for the coming season.

After that was done, we went to the grouse woods, flushed perhaps 20 birds, and shot four.

The "we" in this instance was Babe with two for two, and my son Andy with two for two.

I didn't get a shot and my son-in-law Ron DeValk proved he belongs in my orbit by missing twice.

It was far more than a hunt with an outdoor legend because this guy is for real when it comes to conservation. We walked trails planted with clover for critters. We passed food plots and prairie restoration. Babe has put his money, lots of it, where his mouth is. The acreage is a model of wildlife conservation, including projects specific to non-game species. "Our septic system had a bunch of pipes sticking up and they were unsightly," Babe says. "So I put up some feeders and houses on them and now it's a bird sanctuary."

He also is establishing native tallgrass prairie and has a goal of 70 prairie wildflowers to complement the big and little bluestem, Indiangrass and other warm season grasses.

Anyone who has tried to establish a native prairie knows it takes both money and time.

The woods are cut into blocks of several acres each by trails planted to clover, ideal for both grouse and deer. There's a mix of crops, woody cover, native grass and fallow strips on the open fields--creating a huge amount of edge.

It has paid off. Turkeys have found the place and now are proliferating. Geese and a variety of ducks use several ponds and Babe is hoping to create a four- to five-acre lake on a tiny creek that flows through woods, an ideal spot for mallards and wood ducks, as well as for fish.

It's worth checking into Babe's Web site ( to read his conservation columns. He pulls no punches and is fiercely dedicated to conservation. "It's important to me," he says simply. So important that he gives the conservation column away to any publication that wants to print it. He figures his readership is well into the millions.

Babe sat at his kitchen table and between wolfing a deerburger and schmoozing with baby Cayden, he growled at moves in Congress to kill the Conservation Reserve Program.

"They'll never kill CRP," he said. He paused. "They better not." I would not want to be the Congressman who gets between Babe Winkelman and something he believes in.

"It makes sound fiscal sense for farmers to support CRP in the next farm bill at 45 million acres nationwide," Babe wrote in a column. "During its 20-year history, the CRP has racked up an impressive and indisputable list of accomplishments across America's rural landscape. I say indisputable because statistics tell the story."

And he lays out the statistics in detail. Hard to argue with facts, although Congressmen rarely pay attention to such annoying details as facts, especially when the factless come with fistfuls of money. Congress will decide whether to re-authorize CRP in the 2007 Farm Bill and with pressures from various lobby groups, they're leaning toward deep-sixing the program that has meant a resurgence of upland wildlife and vital dollars to stressed small farm owners--the ones who don't have the cash to buy votes.

Ethanol, for all its supposed benefits to the environment, could be a disaster for upland bird hunting. If the country converts to corn to feed the ethanol craze, what happens to wildlife habitat? That may be the tipping factor when Congress decides whether to re-authorize the CRP program.

We passed several deer stands where family and friends would be hunting in a few weeks. "We would find grouse in the creek bottom," Babe said. "But that's a deer bedding area and I don't want to disturb them." No matter--we moved grouse in nearly every one of the little woodlots.

Babe was limping as we headed down the first of many clov

er-clad trails that cut through his woods, dividing the area into several-acre chunks of grouse habitat. "Had knee surgery three weeks ago," he said. "Took out half of my meniscus." Most folks with recent knee surgery would be laid up watching football on a weekend, but not the Babe.

As tough as Mr. Bunyan, he was ready for grouse as he proved moments later.

I heard a bird flush, that muted roar of wings, and a shot. Babe doesn't miss often. His springer spaniel, Scamper, retrieved the dead bird. When Babe was a kid, wild game was persistent on the Winkelman menu and good shooting insured good eating. He started hunting when he was eight and hasn't quit yet, bad knee or not.

Carlee joined us, unable to stay away when Dad was hunting. "She's my bird dog," Babe said. "She loves to go along." Babe's wife Kris also appeared and admired the tail fan of the grouse. She would be the chef when it came to the table end of the equation.

Kris cooks on Babe's television show and shares recipes on his Web site, as well as acting as co-author of a wild game cookbook. Check out the Winkelman Web site for Kris's recipes for wild game and fish.

It's immediately obvious that family is enormously important to the Winkelman clan. So much so that it once got Babe crossways with the Department of Natural Resources, which ticketed him for using a radio to check up on his 80-year-old father who was deer hunting in bitter cold weather (it's illegal in Minnesota to use radios "in the taking of game").

Considering the elaborate system of trails and stands and the hefty population of deer on Babe's place, electronic aid was unnecessary and Babe was taking care of family, not cheating. Outdoor writer Mike Faw says, "That caused a big public uproar for a while up there--in Babe's favor.

"I saw him stop in to visit an elderly lady viewer of his show in rural Illinois--at a grandson's request. The woman was speechless that a celebrity would stop in and visit her--and Babe was the host of her favorite show to watch. He's a great guy and a serious hunter. I've shared several camps with him."

And Audubon magazine writer Ted Williams, a fierce critic of phonies and cheats, says, "Babe really gets it. And his wife Kris is a fine lady and a great cook."

Baby Cayden pawed at his grandpa while the Babe devoured his venisonburger. "Don't give him any meat," Kris warned. "He can't digest it yet." So the Babe shared fruit with his grandson and ignored baby slobber and the two of them cooed and grinned at each other, this big rough guy with the beard and this little baby tugging at the whiskers.

Pretty darned nice to see€¦ It's an often ignored issue among bird hunters--wearing warning colors in the field.

Mostly it's "hunter" or "blaze" orange, but Arkansas calls for chartreuse for deer hunters.

The idea is to alert those who all too often shoot at motion or sound. Most states mandate the use of hunter orange for deer hunting but some don't. It's not required in Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon or Vermont or on private land in Texas.

Several years ago I mentioned to a Pennsylvania hunter that I thought it would be a good idea to mandate hunter orange for turkey hunting and he nearly had apoplexy. It would be, he said, totally awful. I was insulting the gods of turkey hunting in his view, even though the idea was to keep hunters from shooting each other--something that happens far too frequently in the turkey woods.

He felt that because turkeys see color they would flee screaming at the sight of a safety vest. I quickly abandoned the argument because he looked ready to duke it out, but I could have pointed out that turkeys see color all the time--the spring woods is full of it.

And I have successfully hunted with an orange warning band wrapped around a close-by tree. Didn't bother the birds a bit.

And I know successful turkey hunters who have worn orange just to prove it could be done. One hunted out of an orange blind. "You could tell they saw it and were wary but when nothing moved they came right in," the hunter said. Motion is what spooks turkeys, not color alone.

When it comes to upland hunting, there is no, repeat, no substitute for hunter orange.

Never mind the old-timey hunting posters and ammo calendars and such that show grizzled bird hunters clad in brown. They drove buggies, too.

A grouse hunter I know shot his partner, not seriously but painfully. The victim was wearing a minimum of an orange hat and his buddy simply didn't see him. I almost did the same once on a dank, drizzly day when a grouse flushed and I swung on it and barely registered the other hunter almost hidden against a conifer. He wore all brown and nearly wore all blood. Scared the hell out of me and I refused to hunt with him until he invested in an orange hat.

Orange is no guarantee that even a safe hunter won't swing on a bird and fire before the orange registers, but it's light years ahead of traditional brown as a warning color. I wear a red shirt, orange hat and orange vest.

Looks like a pizza nightmare, but I'm comfortable with it.

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