DEC. 3, 2003
A man for all outdoor seasons
By MARK HENCKEL Of The Billings Gazette Staff
Old and dear friends die. That's a sad fact of life for all of us. As a writer, you can't write stories on all of them, especially as you get older yourself, and the list of dead friends grows at such an alarmingly steady pace.
But I can't help but write on this friend's passing. Frank R. Martin, longtime resident of Lewistown and former manager of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, died Thanksgiving evening in Great Falls.
Frank was a mentor of mine, long before the term mentoring became so trendy. He just called it going hunting and fishing together. It was really much more than that.
If there ever was a man for all outdoor seasons, Frank was that man.
Already retired from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when I first met him, Frank seemed to spend every day in the outdoors, saying goodbye to his wife, Betty, early each morning and then heading out for the day's adventures in whatever that particular day and that particular time of the year would bring.
He fished with flies, lures and bait for cold-water and warm-water fish species on creeks, rivers, ponds and reservoirs in all seasons of the year. He took a long string of white-tailed deer with his recurve bow, hunted with a rifle for big game and with a shotgun for turkeys, grouse, pheasants, partridge and waterfowl.
Frank loved to call in and shoot coyotes, then skinned, fleshed and stretched the pelts. He trapped a bit. He was a many-times-published wildlife photographer and outdoor writer. He hunted for morel mushrooms in season and knew all the other mushroom species that were both safe and tasty to eat, too.
Frank cut, split and stacked his own firewood. He picked wild fruits to make his homemade wine, smoked his own fish, butchered his own big game and made his own venison jerky. He knew the names of all the bird species, all the wildlife and every twig, tree and blade of grass.
Generous with knowledge
To a young outdoor writer, Frank was a wealth of information on so many topics dealing with fish, wildlife and ways to enjoy the outdoors. He taught them to you gently. Plus, he made them all fun with a wry sense of humor that would sneak up and grab you when you least expected it.
One time, he was outfishing me badly on a trout pond where the ice was just going off. In fact, he had me 10-0 before he came over and watched me quietly as I flycast fruitlessly.
Finally, he spoke. "I've been analyzing what you're doing out there and figured out your problem," he said. "Your problem appears to be that the fish don't like you as much as they like me." Then he went on and really told me what I was doing wrong and coached me along.
Another time, his subtle lesson was in how you need to protect your good fishing spots and not tell everyone you know about them. My truck was following his truck across a wide-open and desolate piece of prairie toward a distant "secret fishing spot" when his vehicle suddenly stopped.
Frank got out and walked back to my outfit, where he said, "Normally, this is where we put the blindfolds on people so we can keep the secret of where this spot is. But seeing as you're driving, I guess the blindfold is out." Then he walked back to his truck, chuckling all the way.
Frank took me to rattlesnake dens and sharp-tailed grouse dancing grounds. I shot pictures of a drumming ruffed grouse from one of his photo blinds. We hunted the white-tailed deer woods of autumn, and he was there when I called in and shot my first spring turkey.
Then we'd head back to his Lewistown home where Betty would have some sumptuous dinner awaiting us. When my wife Carol came along on these trips, she and Betty would have a great time together. And when my sons arrived, they were included warmly as well.
Betty preceded Frank in death. Their son, Steve, continues the family wildlife tradition as wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, near Great Falls.
At a loss for words
How do you thank someone for being a mentor like Frank was to me? How do you thank hunting and fishing partners who do so much for you and teach you so many things? If you've ever attempted to thank your own partners, you know what I mean.
Frank and I were sitting in his travel trailer once, trying to avoid the squadrons of mosquitoes that swarmed around us on a June walleye fishing trip to Nelson Reservoir, when I tried to thank him for being such a good friend for so many years.
As often happens in heartfelt things like this, it didn't come out easily. I sort of stammered around, and went on and on, and the sentiment sounded corny and the words didn't convey all the things I really felt for this man.
I tried my best to thank him for teaching me so much, for taking the time to help me develop as an outdoor writer and photographer and for sharing the many parts of a life that made him a man for all outdoor seasons.
"Well," Frank said when I was done. "After all that, I guess this must be our last trip together. I've taught you everything I know. You know it all now. So good bye!"
Then he smiled. His eyes twinkled. And we went back out fishing again where he taught me many more things.
Mark Henckel is the outdoor editor of The Billings Gazette. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 657-1395.
Jeff "Jesse" James - Owner of Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors
You can always tell who's in 2nd place by who's whining and crying the most. - Old hockey coach.
Dum spiramus tuebimur
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