By Tom Huggler
Illustration by Gordon Allen
Whenever the latest issue of Reader's Digest arrived in my parents’ mailbox, I was often the first to page through it while looking for “My Most Unforgettable Character.” Thinking back over many years of bird hunting, I’ve met my share of unusual people, including dog trainers, hunting guides and fellow nimrods. Many were vaguely memorable, to be sure, but truly unforgettable? That takes at least 40 years to qualify.
One autumn afternoon in the mid-1970s, I met Nelson “Red” Karnahan in my friend George’s barbershop in Honor, Michigan. While George snipped away at the few remaining tufts of Red’s copper-colored hair, he introduced us to each other as his favorite hardcore woodcock hunters. That’s all it took to plan for a hunt on Wednesday, George’s day off.
Red had retired early due to job-related stress as an oil-field supervisor. Too young for Social Security, he relied on a meager pension, cut and burned his own wood, and ate fish and game. He was unmarried and lived with Trapper, his three-legged setter, in a cabin in the woods. The two of them lived for fall, when they could hunt woodcock every day during the then 60-day season. A high-strung, full-throttle guy in good physical shape, Red liked to walk the legs off younger hunters like me, and he usually kept at it until he, at least, had bagged the daily limit of five woodcock.
His goal was 300 woodcock every year, and he never passed up grouse, either, although they were of secondary importance. To this day I don’t know why Red was so wired, prompting me to wonder if he loved woodcock or hated them. We never talked about it. Politics was another favorite subject, and whenever we took a knee (to rest the dogs, of course), he would wind up, growing so red-faced angry that the veins on his temples would bulge like clothesline rope. Then, as the color would slowly faded, the voice would calm and Red would announce: “Time to hunt.” And that was that.
Although I lived downstate a couple hundred miles away, Red and I hunted together at least once every fall until Red died. George told me what happened. During a rest break, Trapper wandered off and found a bird. His beeper collar signaled that he was on point. Red told the other hunters to wait while he went in after the dog. They heard a shot; but Red never came out.
They found him on the ground, his back to a tree, a dead woodcock in his hand.