Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Anticipation II

Our navel gazing continues as pheasant season opens in mid-October.

The first truly cold mornings of the year greet us as we gather up vests and and guns and dogs to hit the pheasant fields.  I look forward to the bracing wind, the stinging ears, the first brave little flakes driven on the promise of many more to come because I know the flush of the pheasant is something to behold, all flash and color, noise and bravado.  Hunters will cover miles of hard ground for that chance, and it's all well worth it when that gaudy rooster launches in range.  Pheasant hunting is a much more social activity than the other upland pursuits because you can actually see your partners, as you follow the dogs to the end of one tract, and back again up the next.  So the joy of the flush, swing, and shot is more easily shared between friends.  You laugh and high-five when you hunt pheasants, you sweat and pick briars out of delicate places when you woodcock hunt.

A couple seasons ago, on a still, frosty morning, I was lucky enough to have a pair of roosters flush in front of me just minutes from where we'd parked the trucks.  With what I'd like to think of as a measure of skill and easy composure,  I managed to down both birds.  Murph ran over for high fives and back clapping, screaming, "That was the coolest f***ing thing I've ever seen!"  The following weekend, in nearly the same spot, I couldn't get my safety off, and missed an easy shot at another rooster.  I'd wussed out, and put gloves on.  Them's the breaks.  Just when you start to think you're looking pretty damn fine in your Filson britches, the omnipresent hand of karma deftly cuffs you upside the back of the head, a la Moe Howard.  None of which matters when you put protein to plate.  There's not much better than enjoying the fruits of your outdoor pursuit with close friends and an appropriate beverage.

"One Pan Pheasant"  Easy and beautiful... just like a good prom date.

As we troop back to the trucks, our vests heavy with our brightly feathered take (God and Kurt Russell willing), my mind begins it's own journey down the calendar.  It is drawn inevitably, unflinchingly, and without fail, to deer camp. 

Gun deer season in our part of the world, as in many others, is almost holy.  The pilgrimage up north to camp, the sacred rite of reaffirming friendships in hearty handshakes and hugs, the unpacking of blaze orange vestments all lead us to one glorious moment.  Opening day.

Opening day is such an anchor in the year, a red letter day in our hunter's minds, than it has become an unspoken reference point in the language of our camps.  We do not call the days preceding opening morning "Friday" and "Thursday."  They are casually referred to as "the day before" and "the day before the day before"  The time when we gather at camp to slow down, and prepare.  To toss some cards, and tell some jokes.  If Rog called me up right now, and said, "Hey, you remember the day before, 2001...?" without batting an eye, I would understand his reference -- the day before the day so important to us it need not even be named.

Opening morning itself, on your stand for the first time in a year, is a thing of magic.  All hope and prayer, excitement and calm, balled up in a knot in your stomach with a little reverence.  If you've prepared well, if you have minimized your mistakes, you might be blessed enough to gather some of that precious, delicious protein.  But there are no promises.

As the week rolls on, the success of the hunt becomes almost secondary.  There are stories to be retold and reheard around the warmth of the wood stove.  There are card games to win and lose, jokes to be told well and poorly.  And there's food.  Mountains of glorious food.  It can be tough to sit it out in driving sleet when you know there are pasties or lasagna or rare venison tenderloin calling you home.

Inevitably, the week must draw to a close.  As the "day before" is one of the greatest days of the year, the ride home is one of the worst.  Knowing the return to the world is here, that we won't all be together again like that for another year can be downright tough to swallow.  There is a remedy, however.  The wandering mind consoles itself with daydreams of the next call of the wild...

... the call of the coyote, that eerily playful yet sinister serenade rolling in from a pack of wild dogs or a lone animal.  Coyote calling is one of the only hunting pursuits in North America where the hunter becomes the hunted, and therein lies the draw.  There is something very primal about sneaking into a place, imitating wounded prey, and knowing those dogs are coming.  Coming with hunger and blood lust.  Coming to kill you.  Well, not to kill you, but the to kill the rabbit or fawn you've hopefully become in their mind's eyes.  Put plainly, it is killer versus killer, and seldom is there a more difficult match to win.  You can scarcely have more fun on a cold winter night... at least not with that many clothes on.

Here, doggie doggie

You cross a frozen pond in the dark, careful to spot soft spots in the ice, and you know your favorite bluegill bay has locked up for the season.  It's time to ice fish...

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