I turned fifty a few years ago, that dreadful age when you realize that life is catching up with you. You begin to wonder if you can still hunt. How many more days will you be able to get up at 3 AM?
How many more mornings will you spend in anticipation, waiting for the sound of a tom turkey echoing down the canyon, or the bugle of a bull elk on the next mountain. How many more evenings will you wait for a bear or a whitetail buck to appear out of the woods? How many more mornings will you spend listening to the sounds of the forest awakening around you, the small stirrings as the woods come to life, the tapping of a Downy Woodpecker looking for its first meal of the day, the questioning call of a Chickadee, the scolding of a Blue or Steller's Jay, the call of a Cardinal, and the sound of a squirrel rustling leaves or throwing pine cones down from the top a tree? When you hit fifty you begin to wonder how long the hearing will hold out. How long will the eyes that have served you so well be able to pick out the flick of a deer's ear in the dim light of a fall morning? How long will you be able to see an elk at the forest edge a mile away, or a pronghorn, scarcely visible on the prairie?
Then one day something wonderful happens. You have a new set of eyes and ears, a new appreciation of everything around you. You have a new hunting partner. This partner doesn't have the experience you have, or the memories you have, but they stir the old memories in you. A hunting partner like so many hunters have had before you; not a friend or a dog but something much more wonderful, a son or a daughter.
When my son Dallas turned five he went on his first goose hunt. The geese didn't fly that day, but he had fun playing in the "tunnel" between the corn rows, just like I did when I was his age. To me a cornfield is a place to hunt pheasants, or hunt geese after it has been picked, to him it was a fort where uncertain heroes and villains took up residence. On that goose hunt we set out a hundred decoys in family groups and faced them into the wind. He asked about the worn Remington 1148 I was using, and wondered when he could have his own goose call. I gave him one of my old calls. The sky was clear, the wind didn't blow and we didn't even see a goose. He had fun in his fort, but I was hoping to shoot a goose so he could experience the thrill of the hunt, so he would understand one of the reasons we were there.
His next hunt was for ducks. Before the hunt he helped me check the decoys for broken cords and lost weights, and we patched a few holes in the decoys. He made me promise to wake him up early for hunting the next morning. He helped pull the canoe through the jungle of cattails on the way to the slough. He dug excitedly into the decoy bag as I threw the blocks into the water, and he laughed when the young lab jumped overboard and got tangled in the decoys.
He was proud of his new camouflage outfit, an old Hodgeman raincoat with sleeves rolled up and pockets that reached to his knees. He felt pretty important when I told him he was in charge of the dog, so it wouldn't jump back in the water and mess up the decoys. Again nothing flew and nothing was shot. He got a little more impatient this time, asking the age old question, "Is it time to go home yet?" and "When are you going to shoot something?" That was the extent of his hunting the first year.
The next year I took him with me on the first day of the goose season. I had sixteen hunters going out with three guides. He played with the Labradors, set out the decoys (reminding me to face them into the wind) and he made some new friends. By this time he had learned to use his goose call and he helped bring in the first flock of geese. As the geese swung low there was a pounding of guns and he watched in amazement as the geese fell. "Dad, they dropped right out of the sky!" he said. Then I watched as he tried to drag a ten pound goose into the alfalfa so he could get his picture taken with the hunters. He had finally seen something shot, and we had some meat to take home. Now he understood part of what we were doing, and why we hunted. I felt his excitement and it made me happy, it even made me feel young again.
Sometime later I began to remember my own hunting experiences. The first duck I remember being shot landed in the canoe I still use. When my dad fired, the hen mallard crumpled and plummeted from the sky, almost taking my head off as it landed six inches behind me. Even at five you're not likely to forget such and experience. I remember the excitement of opening the box of Herter's decoys Dad got for Christmas. I helped tie the cords to the decoys and the strap weights to the cords. I remember sitting on Dad's shoulders as he sloshed through the cattails and "loonstuff" with a gunnysack full of decoys in one hand and the Remington 1148 automatic in the other.
The next year my son went scouting for the archery deer season. There were still too many leaves on the trees, and the wind was blowing too hard, but I had promised, so we went anyhow. We didn't see any deer, and because we were scouting nothing was shot. He did learn how to walk quietly through the woods and whisper when he wanted to say something. He learned to recognize the tracks of deer, fox, rabbit and raccoon. I pointed out deer droppings, and he saw his first rub and scrape. I showed him where the deer walked inside the first row of corn or skirted the edge of the meadow, just inside the trees. I showed him a trail crossing and where the deer stand was, and I explained why the stand was in that particular location.
Later that year he sat on a stand with me as a big eight point buck followed some does into the cornfield. He watched in amazement as I blew a fawn distress call and a doe left her fawns and came to our stand to investigate.
He was there when I brought the first deer home that year. He held the legs while I skinned the animal, explaining how to hold the knife and pull the skin away from the carcass as I went. I showed him where the different glands where and told him how they were used by the deer.
Then he watched as we pan-fried the back straps in butter. Later that night he enjoyed his first taste of venison.
As I look back I realized that I was teaching him and he was learning, but not just to hunt. He was learning to understand the ways of nature, learning how animals survive, where they eat, sleep and drink. He learned that we don't hunt during the summer so that the young animals have a chance to mature. He learned why we don't over-harvest, because we want to leave animals for the future. He was learning to respect nature and the animals, and the laws that govern them, both natural and manmade.
He also learned to enjoy hunting for the same reason I did. He made new friends and enjoyed their company and their experiences. He learned to enjoy the sport of hunting because it brought him closer to nature and the world that God had created. He learned to enjoy sharing his hunting experiences with his new friends. He learned that hunting is not about shooting something, it is about love of nature, sharing and tradition; a tradition that has been passed on from parent to child from the beginning of time; the hunting tradition. I would like to thank my father and my son for sharing nature; and their hunting experiences with me. I hope it's something we hunters never lose.