When she was 12, growing up in Hermantown, Carol Nyholm got her first shotgun. It was a Mossberg bolt-action .410.
“That was my recreation after school every day,” Nyholm said. “I’d run home, grab my Irish setter and my gun and go hunting. I’d be shooting grouse, and I could hear the football team practicing.”
She didn’t know it then, but those early years in the woods with her gun and her dogs would shape her life. Now 76 and living near Babbitt with her partner, Chuck Binkowski, Nyholm still is actively hunting and keeps a kennel of 11 dogs. She has spent her life breeding Labrador retrievers and Brittanys, boarding and training dogs, and guiding grouse and woodcock hunters.
On Wednesday afternoon, she put bells on two of her dogs, Skipper and Star, for a couple of hours of grouse hunting before sunset. The dogs’ bells tinkled as they coursed through the leafless stands of aspen.
Nyholm credits her dad, Ernie Nyholm, for grooming her as a hunter.
“I was a girl,” she said, “but it didn’t matter. I was his sidekick for hunting. We went to Willmar and Cold Spring (Minn.) to hunt pheasants. I did a lot of jump-shooting for ducks.”
This was in years just after the Great Depression. Times were tough. Those birds, along with deer, were staples in the Nyholm household. Nyholm and her younger brother learned early on that if you shot something, you ate it. Once, at the family’s cabin, her brother shot several red squirrels, Nyholm said.
“My dad made him go back to the woods and pick ’em all up,” she said. “We all sat around and skun ’em, and we cooked ’em up. Oh, God, were they terrible.”
Getting to the woods
After a year at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Nyholm trained to be a lab technician in Duluth. But she left the job after a year. She needed to be outdoors.
“I had to get there with the dogs and the woods. And I made it,” she said.
In 1965, she bought a yellow Lab from family friend Joe DeLoia, who began training dogs in Duluth after World War II. She was living in Grand Rapids then, divorced and raising two daughters on her own. She built her Roaring Winds Labradors kennel, which she still operates, from Ginger, that first yellow Lab she bought from DeLoia.
“It was my dream always to have a kennel,” Nyholm said. “I hung out at Joe’s kennel a lot, watching him train, listening in on his phone conversations. Joe really mentored me.”
She and the girls had 40 acres outside of Grand Rapids.
“My mom is very independent,” said Christine McKenzie-Burbie, Nyholm’s youngest daughter, who lives in Bovey. “She raised us girls. We never needed for anything, but it was tough for her, being a single parent.”
Besides hunting and raising dogs, Nyholm also harvested wild rice, an activity she still practices every year. And she ran a trapline for a time.
“She gave me my love and passion for the woods,” said her oldest daughter, Paula McKenzie of Babbitt. “She took me on a sled on her muskrat trapline when I was a little baby.”
Becoming a guide
Nyholm volunteered to guide for the National Grouse and Woodcock Hunt, a Ruffed Grouse Society fundraising event based in Grand Rapids, when it began in 1982. She guided for the hunt for 15 years. There she met a Connecticut man, Harry Henriques, who raised springer spaniels.
They formed a partnership called Wild Wings Guiding Service, and from 1988 to 1998 guided grouse, woodcock and duck hunters from a log lodge they built at Buyck, near Crane Lake. Nyholm guided most days for 12 weeks each fall.
“I loved it because I was in the woods,” she said. “I was running my Brittanys and Labs.
It wasn’t always easy being a woman in the role of a guide.
“Some men are polite and gracious,” she said. “Some other men aren’t. There were a lot of men who didn’t want to go with me. But there were a lot, after they’d been out with me, who would tell Harry, ‘Have Carol meet me at the airport.’ I’d have them a limit of woodcock before we got to the lodge.”
An independent woman by nature, Nyholm had to stand up for herself as a guide.
“I always had to think of making a living,” she said. “They were not going to knock me out of guiding. I was going to do what I loved — getting my dogs into the woods and hunting.”
She had 120 covers — productive patches of forest — that she hunted. Her Brittanys averaged 22 to 32 points per day, she said. The Labs averaged 10 to 15 flushes. She would run the Labs in the mornings and late afternoons, and she would run the Brittanys during the middle of the day.
The hunting life
After she and Henriques ended their partnership, Nyholm kept guiding grouse and woodcock hunters on her own, often based out of Ely. She met hunters from all over the country. All along, she kept building up her kennel, but she always has limited her breedings so she can give the pups proper attention.
“I feel you cannot justify breeding several litters a year,” she said. “I have two litters (of Labradors) a year. I do a litter of Brittanys about every other year. That’s it. By the time they go out (to buyers), they’ve been shot over, and they’re retrieving.”
Through the years, Nyholm has been fortunate to travel widely for hunting. She’s hunted geese in Canada, quail in Kansas and Texas, sharp-tailed grouse in Nebraska and pheasants in Iowa and the Dakotas.
“This was all done on a beer budget,” she said. “I’ve never earned more than $20,000 in a year.”
She guides much less now.
“I got too old too fast,” she said. “Now I’m semi-retired. I can enjoy my own dogs and don’t have to watch out for other people.”
We worked several covers near Babbitt on Wednesday afternoon. Nyholm carried her .28-gauge Browning Citori over/under, letting Star, a Lab, and Skipper, a Brittany, patrol the edges of the trail for birds. They hunted nicely, in close, checking back often with Nyholm.
We flushed just one grouse, and it’s presumably still out there, munching strawberry leaves and catkins.
It was a good hunt. Nyholm told stories about driving a truck across a beaver dam, about the antics of some hunters she guided and about what it was like growing up close to the land. She looked completely at home on the trail, moving along in her hunting chaps and her orange vest, ready for the next flush.