Sure, there are the halcyon days, fish and game around every corner and under every rock, the camaraderie and food and sleepy, hypnotizing camp fires. But there are also the missed shots and lost fish. The ones that stick with you forever, that pop into your half-awake mind, and keep you from falling asleep. The ones that mark a geographical place indelibly in your mind, so that every time you pass it, you think, "there's the spot where I screwed the pooch on that one."
There is a short stretch of bank in Gibb's Chute, between the Mississippi River and Lake Onalaska, that haunted me for more than a decade. I lost the biggest, baddest smallmouth I have ever seen at the end of my own line there. I can see the red eye and tiger stripes now, glistening in the spray of his acrobatics, six pounds of pissed off riverine muscle and power. He broke off at the boat, and before disappearing forever, leapt one more time behind me, my black Heddon Torpedo still dangling from his jaw. The angling equivalent of flipping me the bird. I'm secretly glad we got rid of the fishing trailer up there so I don't have to go back, and commit seppuku.
The bad ones feel like you've had the wind kicked out of you during an awful interview while watching your team fumble away a lead at the last possible minute. Disappointment and self-loathing get together, and conceive a shame baby in your stomach.
Not all shots or lost fish. Some shots happen so fast or were so ill-conceived to begin with, they don't have the investment to make you sick. You learn this quickly as a grouse hunter. Often as not, you're firing at where you think the bird might be through the spruces or balsalms, instead of actually seeing it. Those misses are dismissed out of hand. You're just happy when one magically tumbles to the forest floor. Upland shotgunning is very often like that. I'm still surprised all the time when a sharply swerving woodcock suddenly explodes in a puff of feathers, and falls through the willow thicket.
I can get excited over big bluegills and perch, but losing a few here and there doesn't really rate on the soul crushing disappointment scale. That's probably part of the reason I don't fish for them much anymore. There are no stakes involved, other than whether or not I have to clean the deep fryer.
Look very, very closely at the other end. You won't see the coyote because he kept right on running.
I was a great practitioner of missing from an early age. A prodigy, even. Pigeons, chipmunks, and squirrels often remained unscathed in our yard, snickering at the boy who couldn't shoot, safe on their perches thirty feet away. Cans and baby pumpkins swiped from the garden sat unmoving and inert on the fence rail, unfazed by my attempts to murder them. It taught me humility and the value of practice. It also taught me not to shoot dime store pellet guns with any faith. That thing was a pile of crap. When I finally learned how to sight in a gun, I tried to get that one on paper. It was given away or lost shortly after that. No point in sighting in a gun that sprays pellets around like a drunken Mardi Gras reveler chucking beads all over the place.
As I grew older, under the guidance of Dad, I eventually became a fairly good rifle shot with my .22. He paid me a bounty on woodchucks from the garden and Grackles from the bird feeders. $1 for the woodchucks and $.25 for the Grackles. On a good day, I was pulling down $2.25 after school. Just enough for bait and a couple cold sodas for Josh and I.
I went on to win some Boy Scout and NSSF rifle shooting competitions with that little gun. Not exactly Olympic gold, mind you, but you get the idea. I was 14, seven feet tall and bullet proof with that rifle in my hands. I can still look through that Lyman target peep sight, and be immediately calmed. Like some people looking at a famous painting in a museum, I guess. The squirrels no longer paused to mock and chatter. Mostly, they ended up as pot pie, one of the first dishes I ever learned to cook on my own. Or skinned and gutted on a stick over a campfire when we wanted to play Rambo. Not delicious. Even when Brian and I go after them to this day, the standing bet applies. First guy to make anything but a head shot buys the beer. I seldom have to buy.
Still, I miss. Seemingly all the damn time. We all do, at least those of us who get out there enough. I can't think of anyone I've ever consistently fished or hunted with who hasn't missed a shot or pulled a bonehead move to lose a fish. It happens. The big fish comes unbuttoned or the deer doesn't tip over, and there is this pause. Time freezes while your stomach balls up in a monkey knot, and then, if you're with friends, the jeering begins almost immediately. Not that we want our buddies to fail. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's more a form of intimacy, for lack of a better term. You wouldn't laugh at a stranger if he missed, or a client, but when one of the boys doinks an easy lay-up it off the rim, look out. That's all part of the fun.
Of course, this is all leading up to the story of my miss yesterday.
I met up with my buddy Rick to do a little coyote calling, our first trip of the year together. I like hunting with Rick because he brings great coffee. I've successfully given up almost all coffee, but certain concessions to sanity have to be made in the shivering pre-dawn darkness.
We'd made two sets with no action by the time the sun was fully up, and were set up at our final calling station of the morning. Rick was fifty yards downwind of me, I was manning the mouth calls. Foregoing the howling we'd tried in our earlier spots, I set right in with the bunny distress. After a few rounds of dying rabbit, a coyote appeared out of the blue. I hadn't seen him come in, as so often happens, but there he was, popped out from the edge of the frozen cattails, just staring in our general direction.
We tried and tried to coax him across the little creek that separated us, but he was having none of it. Cottontail distress, pup yelps, barking; he was a rock, firmly planted and unwavering. I knew he wasn't going to hang out all day, so I decided to take the shot. It was fairly long (187 yards on the range finder I won in our deer camp raffle), but certainly a make-able shot for the trendy Ruger .204. I had a good rest, plenty of time to get comfortable and take a few cleansing breaths, no wind to speak of. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Don't strangle the gun. Relax. I held and felt my heartbeat and squeezed.
Nothing. That gorgeous dark gray dog just turned and trotted back into the marsh. That was it. And there I was, a shining beacon of suck in the soft morning light. I had no idea where or how I missed as that sinking feeling set it.
Of course, we walked down to check for hair and blood. Nada. Rick tore me a good-natured new one on the ride home, as is the right and duty of any hunting buddy. I wouldn't have expected anything less, and I'm look forward to returning the favor the next time he shanks one into the rough.