When you lose longtime close friends, ones with whom you have shared field and stream, your own life stops short for a while.
Such losses are a wake-up call and part of the grieving and closure process is good remembering.
So the outdoors news-mill slows down today to reflect a bit on the lives of Bill Nietz, master gunsmith of Gibsonburg, and Dick Walle, renowned fly fisherman from Toledo, both elder statesmen of the region's outdoors, who died within the last few days. Their obituaries were featured earlier this week in The Blade, but the following thoughts are for the good remembering:
Bill used to call himself, in jesting modesty, “the best gunsmith in Madison Township.” He was the only one in the Sandusky County hamlet.
For those of you who spent countless hours in Bill's “Gun Fixin” shop on the Anderson Road, you know he was a master gunsmith, one of a handful of true craftsmen and artists.
He was a machinist-extraordinaire who so understood his craft that he made his own special tools out of billets of steel — often for one specific job on one specific model of rifle or shotgun.
When he closed up shop after a long bout with cancer some years ago, they auctioned off his collection of tools and parts. I am certain that some of those tools were pure Greek to whoever wound up with them.
But for all that, it was not his extraordinary gunsmithing and the old-fashioned calendar-print coziness of his shop, complete with old pot-bellied stove, that I remember most. I remember a white-haired old man in an oily shop apron, blue jeans sagging, and a long-sleeved nondescript print shirt. A cup of coffee on the bench.
Better still, I remember the merry, mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes, the curl of a laugh at the corners of his mouth already preceding his next prank or practical joke or funny story. It just mostly was fun to be around Bill Nietz. It was not just about guns.
That is the way you remember — it was not what they were, the human doing part, but rather, who, the human being. With Bill, you never stopped by to visit without him greeting you with enthusiasm and joy equal to the return of a long-lost, best friend.
He could have been a grouchy complainer and whiner, what with all the surgeries and ailments he quietly endured for most of his advanced years. But no, you didn't see that with Bill. You saw a guy who wanted to make light of trouble and make the best of every day.
He was a master with a shotgun, especially at skeet and trap, a champion who had an attic full of trophies that he never flashed in anyone's face. He shared his wing shooting skills in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II at Kingman, Arizona, as a gunnery instructor teaching prospective gunners on bombers and fighter pilots how to hit moving targets. For once the Army used talents for more than cannon fodder.
Bill could virtually build a rifle from scratch, nearly a lost art in these days of mass-produced, computer driven “black guns.” Bill's guns were of walnut and blued steel: He was a master at bluing, said that the secret was careful polishing and fresh bluing salts. He could match or far exceed the best of any factory custom bluing. Bill's guns were alive and warm in the hand, not cold and menacing — the oils from his fingers were worked into the wood and metal.
A railroader by trade, he never charged enough for his gunsmithing, not by a long shot. He just loved it too much, for 50 years.
Take a trip with Bill to the Grand American Trapshoot, back when it was at Vandalia, Ohio, and gunsmiths and suppliers from all over the country — no, the world — would know Bill by name. They knew him on sight at Perazzi, the renowned Italian shotgun maker. No wonder trapshooters from all over, some with guns costing well into five figures, brought their pieces to him for fixin'.
I also have fond memories of Dick Walle, who in body or spirit never was far from a trout stream. Sometimes he would spend 300 days of a year in Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Montana, and Alaska, flyrod in hand.
He was my favorite curmudgeon, a term he wore with pride and which he shared with another flyfisher, the late Bob Miller of Fremont, until Bob passed on to the Great Stream. Dick liked to appear gruff, but he smiled too much to make the case.
He always had a half-dozen or more flyrod outfits of different weights laid out in the back of his van, ready to go, saying, “I'd hate to get caught short.” He had books and books of self-tied fishing flies crammed in his vest, including some flies so teeny-tiny that you needed a magnifying glass to see the eyelet.
Threading such a wisp of a fly onto the flimsiest of tippets gave new meaning to the term “fumble fingers,” at least for me.
Dick was always teaching on the stream as well, and it was justified. He knew his craft. A few tricks he taught, such as using a bright egg fly for a strike indicator, with a tiny insect imitation tied on a dropper line beneath, often worked like a charm.
“I fish for trout,” Dick used to say, “because they live in the most beautiful places.” Can't argue with that.
Muzzleloaders, Get ready
Ohio's muzzleloader deer hunting season opens statewide tomorrow and continues through Tuesday, with up to 210,000 hunters expected afield, the Ohio Division of Wildlife said.
Last year, hunters checked 24,078 white-tailed deer during the statewide hunt. So far this year, 210,361 deer have been taken when combining the adult and youth gun seasons, early muzzleloader season, gun weekend, and the first nine weeks of the archery season.
That compares to a total of 227,748 killed last year during the same time period. Hunters took a record 261,314 deer during all of last year's hunting seasons. Before the start of the season, Ohio's deer population was estimated at 750,000.
Ohio's small game, furbearing and waterfowl seasons also will be open during the muzzleloader season. During those overlapping four days, small game hunters and deer hunters must visibly wear a coat, jacket, vest, or coveralls that are either solid hunter orange or camouflage hunter orange in color.
Hunters still are encouraged to donate extra venison to organizations Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry, which is working with the wildlife division to help pay for the processing of donated venison. Hunters donating to the program are not required to pay the processing cost as long as the deer are taken to a participating processor and funding for the effort lasts. Counties being served by this program can be found online at www.fhfh.org.
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