Driving back from Oklahoma, I had plenty of time to reflect on a career of experiences in the outdoors. I recalled past hunting and fishing trips going all the way back to the age of three. That’s right, three years old. As I grew older, I was able to accomplish more and more in the swamps and on the ridges. Just like anything else, practice makes perfect. I thought about different game species and the pursuit of each and what the hunt’s true meaning beholds. There is much more to this wonderful sport than just a game vest with a full bag limit. If this is one’s ultimate goal, sadly, you are missing the point of what hunting truly means.
As I traveled corridor I-40, I contemplated the many seasons and opportunities we have in the outdoors. I consciously tried to narrow down which hunting activity brings the most nostalgia, or even romanticism, to the world of hunting. Of course, there is no right answer, so I will reveal my personal opinions regarding the subject.
Dove hunting does what it does for the introduction to season openings each fall. Squirrel hunting, though not nearly as participated in as it used to be, also does what it does for notoriety in the hunting world. These activities are usually a one and done sort of event, meaning an opening day or weekend flurry, then it is on to bigger and better things. Remember, these are my thoughts, and keep in mind, I love nothing more than an old-fashioned winter dove shoot, but let’s move on. Though there are many seasons, including but not limited to, rabbit, gallinules, snipe, woodcock, and more, I will focus on what I consider the “big four” and go through each as to what they mean to me. Again, my thoughts only.
I am probably consumed by legendary bucks more than any other species I pursue. Whether I am in the mid-west with a pair of rattling “horns” or perched on a limb in October with stick in string, or on the edge of a cypress slough during the peak of the rut, I am fully engaged when it comes to whitetails. By no means however do I place my obsession at the top of the list. I’ll explain why.
Most deer hunts take place with groups of fellow hunters in some sort of “camp.” Some of these camps are very large, consisting of large acreages and even more hunters. Activity can be non-stop, with people that is, and more times than not there is “drama” associated with deer hunting. Someone is always coming out of the woods too early, or not going to the woods early enough. Many times, there are too many rules to keep up with and sometimes a mediator is required to keep the peace. I’m sure many of you are nodding in agreement with me.
Going back to what I previously said, even with drama and conflict, there is nothing like watching a mature buck in his domain cruising through an impenetrable swamp doing his thing. I love it. Leave the high hunter numbers behind, squash the drama, and sit in your favorite haunt, alone, and there is nothing better, but when it comes to what poets write about, deer hunting isn’t at the top of the list.
Imagine circling mallards overhead with the sound of wings cutting the air. Grasp the image of the blue speculums and green heads as the sun reflects the iridescence of every color in the spectrum from cupped birds with red legs dangling. Beneath the show above, hunters clad in natural patterns of grass and bark await their quarry. Back in the day it was Model 12 pump guns, stoked with high-velocity true blues, in the hands of waterfowlers. Blinds sometimes held eight to 10 hunters depending on the size of the structure. In between flights, there were thermoses of rich coffee and biscuits and country ham shared while awaiting the next opportunity. Stories and laughter could be heard through brakes and flooded timber.
Many books have been written about the “heydays” of waterfowling and how it used to be. Leaning against a pin oak and “chuckling” mallards to your spread brings a sense of satisfaction and reward hard to beat. In the minds of many, this is what makes life worth living. I don’t totally disagree, for I have been there, and I hope to be again. Let’s continue.
It can be a sacred moment when you watch the day come to life. Slowly, and I mean ever so slowly, the dark of the night gives way to a gray hue as the morning sunlight awakens Earth as gently as a mother wakes her newborn child. The sounds of the brown thrasher, the cardinal, and the barred owl, are pale in comparison to the spine-tingling gobble of the wild turkey when the outstretched neck shatters the stillness of a spring morning. The hunter, sitting alone at the base of the mammoth oak draped with Spanish moss, slightly adjusts his seat, and prepares for battle.
One on one, the two foes meet in an arena of a may-apple and fern covered forest floor with vibrant redbuds and dogwoods overhead. The outcome is uncertain. Each adversary is worthy of the competition. Unseen perils play a role in every aspect of the game. Sometimes the hunt is textbook and one to write about. Other times, rather most times, the hunter is left pondering what went wrong. Failure is not the word to describe the result when the hunter slowly walks back home. I prefer to call it a learning experience, for one will surely need to recall the mistakes made in hopes of not repeating them.
Spring turkey hunting may be close to what a true hunt means. In fact, some claim there is no other sport that can even come close to epitomizing what true hunting is. I won’t disagree, however, there is another we must visit before any conclusions can be drawn.
The old man sips his coffee from a saucer. Methodically, each tablespoon is gently lifted from the cup and allowed to cool in the flat container. Sometimes a sliver of bold cheddar is dipped into the steaming brew to soften before being placed on his biscuit. While two biscuits rest on his plate, only one will be partaken of for now.
His tools of the trade, the worn field jacket, the game vest, and the Belgium Browning rest in the corner where they make their home throughout fall and winter. As he exits the back porch of his quaint country home, a sharp, but brief whistle brings his partner to him. Names like Sally or Polly may represent a timid, but capable, Llewellin. In contrast, Buck, or Sport, may represent a staunch, wiry, pointer. Either, or both, are up to the task.
Shells are slipped into the magazine as the duo head down the old logging road. It may not take long before the dog becomes “birdy.” Many times, the setting can almost predict where the covey resides. Is it next to an abandoned cemetery where clumps of lespedeza create a border next to the fence surrounding the home of those that have departed this world decades or even centuries ago? Maybe it’s the old sharecropper’s home place, with remnants of the old pea patch or cornfield still barely visible that holds the feathered bombshells. The setter may crawl in almost a serpentine fashion before drawing a line in the sand and taking one step too many.
The pointer may go from a full gallop to a screeching halt when his keen nose picks up the faintest molecule of scent from the hiding bevy. The hunter, with gentle reassurance to his dogs, eases in. The gun is mounted in a fluid motion as the exploding flush rises. A single bird is picked on the outside of the covey. If all goes as planned, the loyal companion will deliver the prize to the hand of not its owner, but to their lifelong companion. The encouragement and gentle pat may end with a nuzzle of affection or perhaps a lifted paw to get that much closer to his or her best friend. The bird is delivered to the bag and off again to find singles or perhaps another covey.
To me, this is the ultimate definition of what a hunt truly means. I know I am repeating myself, but how romantic is this scenario? I dream of these days, though here at home most now are only memories. The quail hunt, or more aptly described, the bird hunt, stirs me to drift back to my grandfather’s farm when it was a mecca for the bobwhite. Though the farm is overgrown in gum thickets and pines now and the birds left with the mules, gardens, and the farmer, the ghosts of each remain. Maybe this is why I hold in such high esteem, the bird hunt, and all that goes with it. We still have the previous described hunts, but this sport, for the most part, is lost. You do know, many times we don’t miss something until it’s gone. Regardless, I have placed them in order from start to finish through my writing, so the birds have it.
What does hunting mean to you? Which sport is your favorite? Remember, there is no wrong answer. I hope I have stirred you to think and recall great memories of what so many of us live for. Think about the true meaning of what we are blessed with to enjoy. If you have other thoughts on what may be your favorite, you know I would like to listen. Give me a call sometime, it would be good to catch up. Until next time enjoy our woods and waters and remember, let’s leave them better than we found it.