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Reflections on a Season not Hunted

By March 29, 2018 Adventures

“… you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”
Joni Mitchell

When I was a boy, the year was divided into just three parts. In descending order of importance they were; the hunting season, Christmas, and the rest of the year.

Once I was old enough to drive and began exploring the local river bottoms, duck hunting became my singular passion. Everything about it appealed to me. It was romantic to be awake in the hours before dawn, while the rest of the world slept. It was exciting to be on the rivers and in the flooded timber; wild and dangerous places in the extremes of winter. Perhaps, most importantly, the birds were migrants from mysterious and distant lands. I fell in love with duck hunting for the same reason I prefer to fish moving water. It’s said that you can never step into the same river twice. Likewise, a duck marsh is in a constant state of change with weather and migration.

I hadn’t fully appreciated how important duck hunting was to me until, a few years ago, I decided to give it up for a season. The decision wasn’t made lightly, nor was it welcome.

My wife, Lisa, manages to balance my passions with the precarious living I make as an artist. The second floor of our home had tipped the equilibrium, however. I’d gutted it seven years before to prepare a nursery for the arrival of our daughter, who was now six years old. My time and focus was needed at home.

Although I didn’t hunt that season, I still tasted the wind and gauged the weather every time I went to the woodshed. My snow-bound canoe hadn’t moved from its resting place under the cedars, but my heart still thrilled to think of meandering my way through the labyrinth of channels in the marsh. My eyes still searched the evening sky.

Just as we sometimes take our loved ones for granted, forgetting the small things about them that are unique and special to us, I found that not hunting for a season inspired me to reflect upon what I love most about spending time in the marsh.

Certain sparks were predictable of course, like watching a pair of mallards twisting through the trees to land on the brook behind the studio. Others were more subtle and interesting.

These were some of my most poignant recollections.

Waking up to the sound of Luke’s tail thumping in the darkness. Certainly he’d known that we were hunting; he’d watched my preparations. How did he know that it was time to awaken? Did he hear me stir, or had he been waiting all night?

The smell of that first cup of coffee; it smells different standing on the back porch in the darkness before dawn.

The feeling of being alone, awake before the rest of the world.

I missed the pre-dawn moan of the wind through the limbs of the ancient white pine that guards our home.

A dark, low, woolen sky spitting sleet, and the sound of it on the tin roof of the woodshed.

Water dripping off the end of my canoe paddle, and the reflections of the night sky, distorted by the wake of my passing.

The sound of gusts, coming suddenly through the flooded timber driving wind-devils across the water.

I didn’t realize how much I cherished the slow eventual greying of dawn.

The lonely calls of crows over the marsh, as they seemed to paddle their way across the sky.

I missed the smell of wet wool, a wet dog, and pipe tobacco.

I’d forgotten about the times I gathered marsh hay in my blind for the added warmth… and being grateful for the warm retriever beside me.

Luke’s whines when he spotted birds on the horizon I hadn’t yet seen.

I can close my eyes and hear the ripping-silk sound of unseen ducks as they fall from the sky.

The sounds of shot shells falling to the floor of the blind as I desperately try to reload.

Nothing tastes as good as a nearly frozen liverwurst sandwich and a barely warm boiled egg!

The wind showering the river with maple leaves as I paddled through long afternoon shadows.

I remember the quiet sound of falling snow on still evenings.

Watching dusk creep across the marsh and up the bluff. The rusty reds of the oaks deepening to ruby and orange while the shadows turn into pools of ultramarine and purple.

I missed the calling of swans, and the knowledge that the last of the northern birds will soon follow.

I miss the satisfaction of birds hanging under the eave of the back porch, a perfect kinetic sculpture twisting in the wind.

I remember the smell of roasted duck and the sizzle of dripping fat. The earthy aroma of wild rice and butternut squash, and the sound of a long cork pulled from a bottle of Argentine Malbec.

I still recall Luke’s tail thumping on the floor in the living room as he chased ducks across his dreams.

Later, in bed, while following the twisted thread between consciousness and my dreams, I realized that the most poignant stories about hunting aren’t written during the heart of the season, but after it’s end… just as the truest love poems are composed in the absence of a lover.

Luke’s been gone for several years now… but I still awake to the thumping of his tail and his muzzle gently but silently on the bed next to my face.

There are no more ducks in the freezer, none hanging on the porch.

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Like paw prints on your heart, warm memories never fade.

  • Dan'l says:

    Trapper, I didn’t birdhunt at all last fall and the fall before only two or three easy walks in easier, flat Mason Tract coverts.Didn’t kill a pat or a woodcock. Never fired. My eight-yr-old pointing lab Emma has genetically betrayed leg joints, fore and aft. My bionic knees are so-so on flat ground but my balance is bad, whether in bird cover or astream in waders. I did make one pheasant hunt at Rend Lake in 2017, invited by an old hunting buddy with two dreamworld GSPs. I couldn’t help him much behind his dogs–couldn’t keep up. But the hunt had a storybook ending for me. We decided to push one last piece of cover , a cut cornfield divided by a deep, overgrown draw. A cut cornfield is anathema to me and my legs, so I was way back from the draw, where two smart old roosters were running back and forth, driving the dogs crazy in the thick hide. One burst out at least 80 yds from me–no shot– but the other flushed moments later and curled back across my bow at about 50 yds, heading for big timber on one side of the cornfield. I thought, What the hell, and swung a healthy goose lead on him. To my amazement, the lead was enough . The bird began slowing down his wingbeats and dropping altitude, gliding deep into the timber. My partner’s dogs found him dead. I thought at the time, helluva good (or lucky!) shot with my old Ithaca 16 ga. double. Then, good way to end my birdhunting days.

    I often recall that image. Sadly? Not really, mostly happily. I wish it could have been my Emma on the point and retrieve but at least one of us was there that cloudless, crisp November afternoon.

    Really enjoyed yr reflections. Over so many years, I can’t hunt a familiar piece of cover without memories of hunting partners, good bird dogs, and birds almost always smarter than I am. If I kept my mouth shut when I remembered, how else could I bore my hunting partners?

  • Lanny Tuller Webster says:

    Loved reading this, Bob. It brought back wonderful memories of hunting and fishing experiences around the world
    Hope you and Lisa are well.
    Have a wonderful Easter!
    Love to you both, Lanny

    • BobWhite says:

      Hi there, Lanny! It’s so great to hear from you!! All is fine here; working hard and enjoying my gals. Our daughter, Tommy, is 14 now… time really flies! Our very best to all! Love, Bob & Lisa

  • Tony Halek says:

    Bob,
    Oct 2nd, 2018 I had my third lower back surgery in 7 years.
    I was lucky enough to experience MN duck opening weekend with my lifelong hunting partner!
    I missed the next 10 weeks of the hunting season due to my recovery.

    To “test the water” I went for a short walk in a MN walk in, for Pheasants with my almost 10 year old golden retriever, Colby.
    In an hour walk he flushed a couple roosters and I missed the first and bagged the second.

    I was sore but happy and drove home listening to a Vikings win on the radio.

    That night Colby would not eat. After 3 days of not eating, a trip to the vet. discovered a large tumor in his stomach.
    My wife and I let him go the next day.

    Your story warmed my heart and reminds me of how important living each day to its fullest.
    How wonderfully fragile life really is!

  • Gordon Wishard says:

    Really well said, Bob, For a number of reasons the season of 2017 was probably my last, at the same club on the backwaters of the Illinois where I”ve hunted since 1980 when I was 35, where every acre and the other hunters were altogether familiar, and close friends. Life will go on but not quite with the same anticipation when early fall comes.

    Best wishes,

  • Dave Hoff says:

    Hey Bob,
    I still remember those great hunts we had with you and Luke in Alaska. Great story! Look forward to seeing you again in this September in Alaska. Dave

  • Tom aka Lenny says:

    Bob, youre a gifted man. Thank you for sharing your gifts. You are doing exactly what you were meant to do!

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