A serious sportsman – even if he prefers Bud Light – has much in common with a wine connoisseur.
The average consumer who drinks a glass of wine is satisfied to recognize that it’s red or white, sweet or dry, bitter or smooth.
The connoisseur expands that experience by sniffing for a distinguishing aroma, letting taste buds investigate the wine’s complexity and detecting hints of berry or oak.
Similarly, while the average person might pick out a few headlines in a walk through the woods, an experienced outdoorsman or naturalist will find a full-length novel.
The “Who cooks for you?” call from the trees above won’t go over the head of a true outdoorsman; it will conjure up the image of a barred owl.
The flower blooming under the ponderosa pines isn’t just another face in the crowd. It’s a grass widow. The outdoorsman knows it by name, and that it blooms soon after the buttercups and just before the arrowleaf balsamroot, which is followed by the serviceberry.
And he can distinguish wildflowers from weeds.
In college, one of my best friends was a forestry major. He knew every tree in the Montana woods, in English and Latin. We never went on a trip on which he didn’t find some cause to pause and pluck a few needles from a branch. Every fly fishing trip to the Bitterroot River was a scientific adventure another favorite friend, who was writing his masters thesis on caddisflies.
To this day, I marvel at what their studied eyes saw in the outdoors beyond my capacity for observation.
I had bagged many ruffed grouse in my hunting career before a wildlife research biologist years ago educated me on distinguishing whether the bird was a male or female.
As a boy, I’d been told that female ruffs have a color gap in the dark band on the central tail feather. Generally, that might be true, the researcher told me, but it’s not a reliable indicator of sex.
A distinct black band indicates a male, but males do not always have a complete band. The band on a female is generally not complete.
A more accurate sexing method requires plucking and measuring the central tail feather and measuring it. On a male ruffed grouse, this feather generally is 6 inches or longer while it’s shorter than 6 inches in females.
After learning that tidbit, I always pause briefly to study a grouse’s tail after the dogs retrieve it, and I know that much more about what I’ll be eating that night.
Great scientists have used their gifts for observation to reap enormous rewards for humanity. Even a sportsman can take the power of observation beyond mere enjoyment.
Consider Jason Overlook, an East Coast man who tapped the GI Bill to revisit higher education with the wide eyes of a 30-year-old veteran.
Even though the Maine native had been fly fishing since the age of 10, Overlook, had never turned a detective’s eye to his quarry until winter two years ago when the senior in aquaculture studies was feeding five brook trout in the Unity College laboratory observation tank.
Each dorsal fin appeared to have a different pattern, he observed.
Jim Chacko, Overlook’s aquaculture professor who hails from India, gave his student the nod to conduct research, recalling that elephants have distinctive notch patterns in their ears and individual humpback whales can be identified by markings on their flukes.
Eager to start, Overlook headed out with hook and line to catch more specimens.
“Unfortunately, it was winter in Maine,” he told me in a telephone interview. “After a miserable 40-below day at Moosehead Lake, I figured there was a better way to get fish and photograph their fins, so I got 40 trout from a hatchery.”
Preliminary research confirms Overlook’s fin-print theory. “Now we’re observing to make sure a 16-inch fish has the same pigment pattern it had at 6 inches,” he said.
The discovery could eventually save hassle for fish researchers, not to mention the fish.
“We could develop scanning equipment to record dorsal fins and put them in a data base like the FBI scans for fingerprints,” Overlook said. “With that information, we wouldn’t have to clip fins or tag fish for many research projects, which is pretty time consuming and invasive.”
Having an eye for discovery, however, can be a curse to an angler.
“Now, every time I catch a trout, I have to get a mental picture of the dorsal fin, and now I’m starting to look closer at the tail fin: Does one have 20 spots and another have 15? It can cut seriously into your fishing time.”
The discovery was like a splash of cold Maine water in the face of Chacko, who’d been a professor at Unity for 21 years.
“I’m thinking, ‘What the hell, I’m teaching 40 years at the college level and I missed something this obvious,’ ” he said. “Now I’m wondering what else I’m missing.
“It’s serendipitous,” he continued. “We see things in our everyday life that we take for granted and yet somebody with a fresh viewpoint can see something new.
“I am trained to be very observant. If not, I’d be out of business. But in a hurried life we don’t have time to observe things.
That’s a lesson for all of us.