Shotgun Memories

It is always in the home stretch before a hunting season that I get all nostalgic about hunts gone by, and this year is no exception.  Some time ago, my father wrote a piece for the CK Times website (the link is here) about the things he had been privileged to see throughout a lifetime spent in the wilderness.  His lifetime is far from over (I hope) and he’s still making memories every year as he heads into his early sixties.  I’ve got a significantly longer time to go to even up with the years Dad has been hunting, and given the different paths our lives and careers are tracking on (Dad grew up in a rural village and spent 30 years working for Ducks Unlimited, where his work responsibilities often took him into the wild spaces he loves…I grew up in a mid-sized city and my job often takes me to airports, office high-rises, and business-level suburban hotels) it is unlikely that I’ll ever accumulate the literal decades of time that Dad has been in the woods, fields, and marshes.  Since I won’t equal his time afield, I thought I’d at least steal his premise for a post and talk about some of my fondest memories experienced while I was lugging a firearm through the wilderness.

First off, it may just be easier to tell you the fondest memories I have that don’t involve a hunting experience: my wedding, the birth of my two sons, and winning a couple of Regional soccer championships as a teenager.  Aside from those, pretty much everything else I hold dear to my mind involves guns, mud, blood, friends, fur, feathers, and the outdoors.  But here are some specifics to get you primed for the opening of whatever hunting season is coming up near you.

The very first morning I ever hunted turkeys, the dawn broke exactly how I figured it wouldn’t.  My idealistic mind pictured an early morning sunrise, with the glossy feathers of a hefty tom shimmering into view, and the big gobbler stopping in front of me and getting a headful of lead #6s.  After all, that’s how every turkey hunting video I had ever seen had run.  My experience was significantly different.  A low grey sky gave way to misty drizzle, and inside of ten minutes I was soaked in all the places that a hunter hates to be soaked.  The seat of my pants was dampened, but my hopes were not.  Then I heard it for the first time in the wild, the gobbling of tom turkeys.  They were the width of two fields away, and I never got a visual on them but they hammered away in ‘row-row-row your boat’ fashion for fully forty minutes.  I was hooked for life after that, and if you haven’t heard a couple of gobblers sound off like that through the fog and the mist, well, you haven’t lived.  That morning I even managed to call a tom in, but he obviously hadn’t seen all the hunting videos that I had…he stayed in the woods behind me and never came anywhere near where I could see him, let alone shoot.  I had other encounters in the other years since, but that first drizzly, misty, foggy, damp morning sitting on a vest-cushion with wet underpants as I listened to the gobblers do their thing was all I needed to know that I was doing something good with my time.

I had never seen geese side-slipping until my second or third season of hunting them, but the first time I saw it I think I actually shouted some term of wonderment out loud.  We were hunting a field in the days before layout blinds, and we were all safely stationed in the fenceline crouched under low shrubs or sitting in tall fringe grasses.  A gaggle (to use the term precisely) of geese were winging towards us, but I sensed from instinct that their flight path was taking them beyond us.  They were high and they were moving fast.  The one-by-one in a pattern that seemed both planned and utterly chaotic the birds began flipping over onto their backs, dropping speed and altitude with every barrel-roll.  My young eyes had never seen anything like it and I was in awe of this controlled plummeting.  As fast as they dropped in the birds set their wings and the contrast between their rapid descent and the near hovering that they did as they committed to the decoys had me completely bewildered.  Someone shouted to take them, and I managed to drop a single goose from the middle of the flock.  This was coincidentally one of the last, if not the final, time that lead shot for waterfowl was legal in Ontario so that hunt has some historical significance for me too.

Staying with goose hunting, the first time I had ever heard really, truly proficient calling for any type of game was on a goose hunt.  We had set up in a deep ditch in the Ferndale Flats on the Bruce Peninsula (the ditch being the only decent cover) and had put out a dozen or so decoys.  After some time, a line of geese on the southern horizon became visible, and they were making for our setup, or at least that is what I thought.  At about 200 yards or so, there arose such a sound from the next field east of us that I was sure there was another flock coming.  The most true to life clucks, moans, and bawls I’d ever heard drew the attention of the flock from the south and they swung wide of us before setting their wings and dropping to the field on our east side.  Six shotgun reports and a few falling birds later it became immediately apparent that a very accomplished goose caller was working the ‘field next door’.  So it went for a couple flocks more, and though we managed to score a few birds as they fled the gunfire east of us, it wasn’t the hunt for us that it could have been.  But it didn’t matter, at least to me, because my eyes had been opened to a whole new dimension of goose hunting.  After the hunt we waited on the side road for the other group, and as it turned out we had been hunting next to a championship-calibre caller: Craig McDonald.  He was hunting in the area with his Dad (they had a cottage in the vicinity) and while I was expecting an arrogant ‘professional’ (don’t ask me why) he was exactly the opposite; he was nice and humble and offered a few tips, and he had the nicest truck I’d ever seen to that time.  The next week I went out and got my first short-reed goose call, an instructional CD, and started to practice in ways that drove my girlfriend (now my wife) insane.  I’ve done a contest or two myself, but I’m still not even close the level of calling that we were treated to that day.  Nonetheless, I can pinpoint that hunt as the start of my obsession with game calls.  Now my wife knows who she can blame for the soundtrack to her life.

I may have told this story before, but with the early goose season looming, it bears repeating again.  On an early goose hunt in 2006 we spent the better part of a very hot September morning rolling hay bales into a makeshift set of blinds on a field that geese had been loafing in during the early afternoons and returning to in the evenings.  As with all things in goose hunting, as soon as the bales were setup, we went to get some lunch.  Wouldn’t you know it?  As soon as we drove off, forty or fifty geese dropped into the field to hang out.  We devised a plan of attack and secretly began a broad circle that led to us stalking from hay bale to hay bale until we were within sixty yards of the birds.  On a prearranged signal our friend Tack began herding the birds our way.  When he was just under a hundred yards from the birds they got up and began to head out.  They came our way broadside and a mere twenty feet off the ground.  Inside of fifteen yards Rory, my cousin Dane, and I opened up the shotguns; we had to wait that long just for them to provide safe shooting options.  I crumpled a bird with my first shot and then missed in the most embarrassing of fashions on my second and third rounds.  Dane and Rory both emptied their guns, and Rory managed to re-load and pop two more rounds as the birds put altitude and distance between us and them.  Angry at myself such atrocious shooting, I trudged out to pick up my goose.  I was dumbfounded to find that I was the only one picking up a bird: my cousin-Dane has a well-deserved reputation for being lethal with a shotgun, and Rory is no slouch either.  Yet here we were: eleven rounds spent and one goose to show for it.  Dane muttered various curses, exclaiming that he could see the tongues and eyes of the birds, among other things.  Rory blamed the soreness in his cheeks from wisdom tooth extractions performed just days before.  For once (and probably the only time since) I was able to look smug and bask in some accolades.  And the laughs…man did we laugh about that.  A while later, just as we were about to call it a night, a big flock came rocking and swinging into our decoys and we all redeemed ourselves, scratching down another eight birds.  That day at the hay bales was certainly one for the memories.

One of my fondest deer hunting memories isn’t even of hunting deer.  After a long cold day in an early November downpour, we had a sumptuous steak dinner.  We ate whipped potatoes, Brussels sprouts slathered in butter, sautéed mushrooms, and perfectly seared T-bones that were big enough to force all the other fixings off your plate.  Long after many others had turned in my cousin Luke, my brother Donavon, myself and the camp’s oldest member Frank Sweet turned off the generator, lit up Frank’s old Coleman lantern, and sipped cold beer while we swapped stories.  We talked about women, and hunting, and government, and literature, and told entertaining jokes and stories from our lives (although Frank had a significantly larger well of jokes and stories to draw from) while the rain fell on the roof and tinkled against the chimney pipes.  I don’t even recall what time we all eventually turned into our bunks that night (and the rain persisted to keep us all in camp the next morning) but I do recall thinking that there was no greater relaxation than just sitting around with the guys telling benign lies to each other, remembering girls we’d loved, and figuring out all of the world’s problems in one go through.  I was secretly sorry for those who never had (or never would) experience moments like that, and it was bittersweet to know that it was one of those perfect moments that would pass, and that I would spend the rest of my life trying to re-create it.  Frank would be taken away by heart failure the next spring and that just reinforced the fleeting beauty of the times spent in the hunting tradition.  The loss of a friend like Frank, while sad, also galvanizes me every year to go out and make as many memories count as I can.  And in less than two weeks my friends, my family, and countless others will re-embark on that journey.

Enjoy your journeys as much as I’ll enjoy mine and maybe I’ll see you in the fields.

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