Every Day on the Hunt was a Good Day

Note: this posting at the special request of a reader. Old friend and long-time reader Jack Lyon suggested that I hunt up this column. If there is column from the past that you would like to see reprinted here, please let me know and I will do my best to find it.

Winter may not be here officially for another three weeks, but for me it started Monday. It starts every year on the Monday after Thanksgiving. I always wake up on that particular morning knowing that even if there is a fresh mantle of tracking snow on the hills, it doesn’t matter. Hunting season is over.

I can’t explain it exactly, but it isn’t a bad feeling. I don’t hate winter. It’s just that somehow, with the rifle cleaned and stashed away and all my hunting junk piled in the basement, something important is over for another year. Oh sure, there may be more trips for ducks, perhaps a foray over east for pheasants, but really fall is gone with the last of big game season.

From early September I am preoccupied with being out there on the hunt. It’s been that way since I was a kid. More than once in high school I missed important information because I was gazing at the snow-covered mountains out the classroom window, wishing I was up there. In the years I was away from Montana, even in places where fall didn’t really happen, the autumn months found me distracted, yearning to be loose in the hills.

For my wife, who was by the way, supremely understanding, it was surely a difficult time. When I return from the last day of hunting, it must be like greeting a sailor who’s been away at sea for months. Sunday evening she seemed genuinely glad to see me.

“Welcome back to the real world,” she said with a smile.

This is the week I reserve each year to sort out what it all means to me, one more time. One thing I know for sure is that there is a lot more to it than meat and antlers.

This year was a case in point. I didn’t get an elk this time around. So I won’t be one of those people who get to say “Yup, twentieth straight year I got me a bull.” Well, actually,it was determined a long time ago that I wouldn’t be in that category. It was a good year anyway.

When I look back on 1987 in years to come, these are the things that will come to mind.

It will be noted as the year my dog Buster and I were introduced to chukar hunting, and found out why some consider it the upland bird equivalent of elk. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, followed by several hours of climbing up and down the near vertical slopes along Idaho’s Snake River, Buster let me know in no uncertain terms that pheasants were okay, but Labrador retrievers don’t hunt chukars. He walked along at voluntary heel the rest of the day and let a young English pointer do the work.

I will not forget the shiny faces and rosy cheeks of the Hutterite kids clamoring around for a piece of store bought candy the day we hunted pheasants on their colony near Great Falls. The girls, all dressed in cheery red and blue print dresses and the boys in somber black pants, jackets and hats buzzed around our truck like bees in the dusty yard outside their schoolroom. Meanwhile a good naturedly disapproving Hutterite woman somehow made sure that they each got one, and only one piece. When that was done, she gave a sly wink and pocketed the rest of the candy.

I will remember it as the year of noise in the woods. Things were so dry that the normally quiet carpet of needles on the forest floor crackled and popped with every careful step. Some days the woods were so noisy it seemed like my thoughts were being broadcast. Finally I had to decide to enjoy the balmy weather and forget the racket I was making.

So it will also go down as the year I was able to lie in the sun with my shirt off on a rocky ridge top one November afternoon. Hot and sticky from a long climb, I spent an hour that way, boots off, water bottle and hunk of cheese within reach, alternately dozing, munching and gazing off into the valley below, thinking about nothing but the feel of the place.

Of course I will not forget the November morning I heard the bull elk bugle close by. I was suspicious. Elk don’t bugle this late in the year, I thought. It must be somebody who doesn’t know any better trying to call in a bull. But it bugled again, and this time it was unmistakable and very close. My heart raced, my breathing quickened. To make a long story short, I spooked him and the bunch of cows and calves he had along, but I did get a look at him as he disappeared over a rise. He was one of those bulls who can bugle any time he likes, thank you.

My hunting partner Dan, on the ridge above me, was nearly unraveled when I met up with him a bit later.

“Whooee! Did you see that bull? He almost ran over me.”

The morning and the bull take indelible places in my memory.The thrill will last.The disappointment is gone.

Lots of other days and other moments will come to mind over this winter and winters to come. The memories collected over a season of hunting are kind of like stored honey for me. I feed on them all year long while making my way through the real world. Early one afternoon near the end of the season, I happened upon a fellow on a barren sun-washed knob high above the fog-blanketed Blackfoot Valley. He might have been fifty, maybe sixty-years old, one of those people you can’t really tell about. But he was six miles from the road, and not at all bothered to pass a few minutes with a stranger. Between mouthfuls of turkey sandwiches we chatted about elk spots and exchanged stories. I didn’t get his name, but as I was leaving he called after me, a grin creasing his face.

“Great day to be out. Good luck!”

They were all great days this year.

First printed in the Missoulian, December 3, 1988

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Family, Friendship, Gratitude, Hunting, Nature, open spaces, Traditions