Airplane helps man in recording outdoors tales

Posted: Friday, March 25, 2005

FOSSTON, Minn. : Bud Johnson has had a fascination with airplanes since the first time he remembers seeing one fly overhead near Gonvick. The year was 1933, and he was 5 years old.

''I wanted to fly ever since I was a little kid,'' said Johnson, of Fosston.

So it was only natural that Johnson would buy a plane, a Piper J3 Cub, when he graduated from high school. He learned to fly and embarked on a 40-plus-year career that included everything from aerial crop spraying in the summer to bounty hunting for wolves, coyotes and fox in the winter. Hunting the animals from the air in Minnesota and Canada was legal until the early 1970s.

''Bounty was pretty good, and I did that for 21 winters,'' Johnson said. ''I made a living doing it. I wouldn't pass up a decent day to hunt, and it was a good way to make some money. I will say my best day was $46.''

Johnson, 76, recently put his adventures into words by writing a book.

''Flying, A Little Over Stall Speed'' features 178 pages of stories about Johnson's hunting and fishing adventures in northern Minnesota, northwest Ontario, northern Manitoba and Alaska. Released in July, the self-published book sold out its initial run of 500 copies and now is well into the second printing.

''I never had so much fun in my life as writing it,'' Johnson said. ''It brings back a lot of good memories.''

Johnson says he decided to write the book at the urging of friends and relatives, who told him he should share his adventures. He spent to winters working on the book and rewrote many of the stories three times to get them just right.

''People would say, 'How can you remember all that?''' Johnson said. ''I tell them, 'Read the book, and if any of those things happened to you, would you forget?'''

There were some close calls, Johnson admits, including the frigid January night in the mid-1960s when the engine on his plane conked out north of Kenora, Ont. He and a buddy were on their way back to Kenora from a moose-hunting trip and had to land the plane on a remote lake. The temperature that night plummeted to 55 below.

Before developing engine trouble, Johnson says the windshield on his plane fogged up, and he lost sight of companions in two other planes. He knew they'd call for a rescue team when his plane didn't show up in Kenora.

''It was 49 below when we went down, and the sun had just set,'' he said. ''All I can remember was, keep the plane out on the lake so when they're looking for you, they can find it.''

They were rescued the next morning, but Johnson says that night on the ice was probably the longest of his life. The plane stayed on the lake for more than a month, until mechanics could get in to replace the ruined engine.

Johnson says the encounter was probably the diciest in a career that included more than 12,000 hours in the air.

''I don't think I was ever scared,'' Johnson said. ''But a lot of times, I wished I hadn't done what I started.''

Johnson would strap a makeshift shelter onto a wing of his plane so he could go ice fishing when hunting was poor. He and his partners fished lake trout near Nestor Falls, Ont., back in the days when lakes now reachable by snowmobile were seldom fished in the winter.

''We couldn't spear in Canada, but we could angle,'' Johnson said. ''We'd always cut a big hole to watch the lake trout, and we fished a lot of northerns up there. Once, we saw five northerns in the hole at one time; we'd try to get the bait away from the small ones.''

Johnson also has plenty of stories about the aerial hunts, in which the pilot would steer the plane into shooting range, 8 to 10 feet off the ice, while a ''gunner'' took aim through an open window. Unsporting as it may sound today, shooting the animals from the air wasn't easy, Johnson says. He found that out the first time he tried shooting a fox and ended up blasting a hole through the wing, instead. They managed to land and repaired the damage with a roll of tape.

''The main thing is to watch the airplane,'' Johnson said. ''We lost quite a few pilots, and I knew a few of them that went down. They get too involved in the animal, and in some of those lakes, you get trees and hills, and they can't get the plane back out of it (above the treetops). It was hazardous.''

Johnson finished writing the book in 1999 and tried selling it to several publishers, but none of them were interested. Eventually, he discovered that Richards Publishing in Gonvick could print the book. He provided them with the text and the photos, and they took care of the rest. Johnson's brother painted the cover scene that depicts many of the book's stories.

The most nerve-racking part of the project, Johnson says, was the financial risk of publishing the book. Had sales been poor, he'd have been stuck with boxes of books.

That fear behind him, Johnson now is planning to expand his marketing efforts to other parts of Minnesota and North Dakota.

He says the response to the book has been gratifying.

''I don't believe it,'' he said. ''It really makes you feel good.''

Johnson moved to East Grand Forks in 1969 and spent several years flying for Ryan Potato Co. He retired in 1986 and moved back to Fosston five years later. Since retiring, Johnson says, he's only gone for one airplane ride.

''I just let my license go and everything,'' he said. ''I figured the fun was done. It's a young man's game.''

Writing the book, he says, has been the next best thing.

''It was an exciting life, I will say that,'' he said. ''I wouldn't trade it for the world, but I wouldn't do it again for a million dollars. That's one of the reasons I wrote the book, too. Most people don't know what we did.''


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