ANOTHER PLUM LAKE ice fishing tournament has come and gone. Fishermen came, fishermen caught fish, prizes were given away and everyone went home happy.

But not before they suffered a little first. With temperatures that dipped to the minus 25 neighborhood last Saturday morning, fishermen had to suffer before catching a fish. My only suffering for the day came compliments of a loose steel bolt in my recliner that wanted to push through a warm cushion seat and into my rear end.

I know, however, from long experience that if you want to reap the rewards of a day spent fishing or hunting, along the way you will have to suffer before success finds you.

That lesson was taught to me in one sentence by Hizzoner, the honorable president of the Old Duck Hunters’ Association Inc. He said in a tale written by Wisconsin’s most famous outdoor writer, Gordon MacQuarrie “But you got to suffer first.”

In that story, MacQuarrie and Mr. President were deer hunting on an opening day that saw the thermometer rest at near zero with a foot of snow on the ground. MacQuarrie agrees to make a silent drive while the aging Mr. President sits atop a ridge along which MacQuarrie intends to drive a buck. Having a soft spot for the old man, MacQuarrie forces him to bundle up in heavy clothing and wear his warmest boots. He insists Mr. President build a warming fire. 

The upshot of the story was that Mr. President was so comfortable in warm clothing with a warm fire that he fell asleep and never saw the monster buck MacQuarrie drove past him practically right under his nose. The next day, Mr. President insisted on the same strategy, only that he wore his old, worn, brown mackinaw and his lightweight brogans.

MacQuarrie drove, Mr. President shot a 10-pointer. When they joined up, he lectured MacQuarrie about having to suffer. When Hizzoner joined him at the bottom of the ridge where the buck lay, MacQuarrie wrote “Mr. President was certainly a sight. His nose was red and his lips were blue. He was hunched and shivering beneath the old brown mackinaw.”

After the deer was dressed and dragged, MacQuarrie further wrote “Well, you sure got warmed up.” To which Mr. President replied “I did, but you got to suffer first.”

Over the years, I have taken that philosophy to heart many times, even when I didn’t want to. Early on, when I was just 13, along with my then-20-year-old brother, I learned that before you get to kill a duck on an October day when a quarter-inch of ice covers much of the lake, you got to suffer by taking a swim in that water.

Not that we meant to, but while putting out decoys, a flock of bluewing teal buzzed us. Without thinking, we grabbed our guns and fired. As I was shucking a second shell into my 20-gauge pump, my back hit the ice cold water. After a frenzied trip home for dry clothes, we went back and were rewarded with some ducks for the roasting pan. But we had to suffer first.

I don’t think I ever suffered more in my hunting career than the years I spent going buck-less during Wisconsin’s deer season. The season of 1964, when I was 15, turned into a momentous one for my cousins and my brothers by the time the opening weekend ended. Two cousins and my brothers had killed the first bucks of their careers. I had not.

I was distraught. I was very distraught. I was suffering like no bumbling teenager should have to. Visions of buddies snickering behind my back and worse, snickering to my face over the fact that all my peers had killed bucks while I had not was truly suffering at its worst.

Understand, it was not like I was 42 and the only Rueben Soady never to have killed a buck, as Jeff Daniels’ character in “Escanaba in da Moonlight” was, but believe me, it was great cause to be suffering as the only Maines-Long family member never to have killed a buck.

Thank goodness for Thanksgiving Day. That morning in 1964, I finally discarded the mantle of only cousin or brother never to have killed a buck when a curvy-horned buck was dumb enough to let me miss him broadside at 40 yards not once, not twice, but three times, before a fourth shot at what my brother paced off as 96 yards finally let me realize my dream of being in the brotherhood of “buckslayers.” But I had to suffer first.

I had to suffer quite a while before catching my first legal muskie as well. I “guided” my cousin when we were 10 to his first muskie. Actually, he caught it when — to settle an argument over who had to row the boat on a windy day — he won a casting distance contest.

Not only did he best my cast, but as he was reeling in, a 341⁄2 muskie grabbed his giant Abu. After a successful fight, his first legal was in the boat. I remained an avid muskie chaser through my early teen years, suffering all that time as a muskie-less lad next to a cousin who was a muskie catcher. After that, I pretty much quit on muskies, at least as serious business. 

My heart was — as it has been since the age of 5, when I caught my first one — firmly with the native brook trout. Between fishing them for pure love, and fishing for northern pike, walleyes and panfish for table fare, I pretty much bid farewell to muskies.

Still, the picture of a 10-year-old cousin besting me continued to push me into an occasional foray onto muskie waters. In college, I finally struck gold. One morning, on the Eau Claire River, I caught four: two legal, two undersized. At the time, the legal limit was 30 inches, and mine checked in at 32 and 35. Finally, I could hold my head high. But I had to suffer first.

Turkeys were no different. My first trip to Missouri in 1985, those smart old toms taught a know-it-all Wisconsin neophyte who is the boss gobbler. I came home empty-handed.

The next year was almost a repeat, but on a last morning hunt — after a wade across a waist-deep, ice-cold river with no waders to wear and after an agonizing 20 minutes in a horribly twisted position half over the opposite river bank — I killed my first gobbler. I was in heaven, but I had to suffer first. 

It was only right and proper, Mr. President would have said.