Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Day Thoughts

A long-standing tradition among many Native Americans, and European cultures as well, is that when we are hunting, the animal we are supposed to take will offer themselves to us. This concept is explored at some depth in a new book, “From Boys to Men of Heart; Hunting as Rite of Passage,” by Randall L Eaton, a behavioral scientist who has studied hunting for many years (I’ll have more about the book in an upcoming book review column).

Perhaps this notion may strike some of us as primitive to us 21st Century people. On the other hand, after many years of hunting, I would be hard-pressed to dispute the notion, especially when we take a closer look at big game hunting. Regular readers of this column have, no doubt, figured out that my preferred way of hunting is with a shotgun, following a dog across the prairies or mountainsides. Yet on those occasions when I do carry a rifle in search of deer or elk, it’s amazing how often, when I look back over the seasons, the animals I’ve taken have, seemingly, offered themselves.
For example, how else can I explain the big whitetail buck that stood in front of me at the opening minute of the 1983 North Dakota deer season? How else can I explain the few elk I’ve taken that stood patiently out in the open while I fumbled around and got in a position to shoot? Or this month, the whitetail deer that stood still in the middle of a field while I found a fencepost on which to get a solid rest? There is a mystical, but real, connection.

Whether we accept this concept or not, I’m sure many would accept that there is a special bond between us and the animals we hunt. The animals provide food for us and our families. In return, we have the obligation to give thanks for the gifts of life, and, in return, nurture a healthy environment for wildlife.

This week we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. It’s part of an ancient tradition among many cultures to give thanks for a bountiful harvest. We also look back, in this country, to the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony, the survivors of a long voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, who suffered from scurvy, malnutrition, and frostbite in their struggles to make a life for themselves in this new world. Without the help of friendly Indians, who themselves had recently lost many people to disease, there may have been far fewer survivors who gathered with their Indian neighbors for that first American Thanksgiving dinner. While they gave thanks for a good harvest, the wild turkey, deer, fish and lobsters on their tables likely meant more to their survival than the meager crops they harvested that first year.

Many things have changed since those long-ago Thanksgiving holidays when, as a child, I did go over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving. For one thing, we’re now the grandparents. In some recent years we’ve been traveling at Thanksgiving, but this week all of our immediate family will be gathering here in Montana.

In addition to our grown children and their spouses, we’ll have grandchildren and pets. A special guest will be Candy, the black Lab who was my hunting partner for many years until she took an early medical retirement and moved to California. She’s nearing the end of her life, now, and seeing her for likely the last time will add a bittersweet note to this family reunion.

Yet, life goes on, and another special guest will be a chubby little chocolate Lab puppy, coming from a farm in North Dakota to Montana in the first leg of her long trip to a new home in California.

Yes, it will be a special Thanksgiving celebration at our house.

And as we celebrate the gifts of family, we’ll also celebrate the many gifts of a generous Creator, and may we never forget that millennia-old bond between us and the animals that provide the food we put on the table.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Perfection Happens

Flicka went into the aspens searching for bird scent and a few minutes later went on point. I had to climb up a steep bank at the bottom of the hillside to get behind her, and a moment later, Flicka couldn’t stand it any longer. She lunged at the cone of scent and with a rush of wings the ruffed grouse took to the air.

I took a quick shot at the bird and missed, following with another shot, missing again. As the bird disappeared off into the forest I stood there pulling the trigger of my now empty gun, wishing that the shotgun was a repeater instead of a double barrel, and that I had one more chance at the grouse.

Though I could see I missed, Flicka went off to retrieve the bird. She reluctantly came back after I blew my whistle for her to return. Bless her little Labrador retriever heart, she had confidence in my shooting, even when I knew that my shots missed the mark.

Flicka wanted to get back out in search of the downed bird. “You shot the gun,” her body language seemed to say. “There must be a bird out there, right?” All I could do was apologize.

A little over a week earlier, we were hunting pheasants in North Dakota. Flicka and I were hunting alone that day. The skies were clear with a chilly wind, though a few minutes of walking warmed things up.

The lakeside cover is tough going, with tall weeds and brush. It would be a lot easier to walk in the prairie grasses a little higher up, but pheasants like the nasty cover, so that’s where we hunt. Suddenly a cock pheasant flushes. I swing on the bird and pull the trigger. The bird goes down and Flicka quickly finds it and brings it to me. I take time to smooth the feathers of the bird and admire its bright plumage before putting it in the back of my vest.

We continue our walk, meandering through the brush, tall grasses and other cover. On a hillside where the edge of the Wildlife Management Area borders croplands, we put up a number of hen pheasants plus a couple birds just out of range that might have been roosters. Sometimes it’s hard to pick out those colors when the light is wrong.

Our ramble across the prairie next goes to a thin line of trees. A few years ago a fire had swept across part of the area. After a couple wet years there’s little sign of that fire except for that line of blackened dead trees. Flicka locks up on point and when the pheasant flushes I get an easy shot and Flicka gets an easy retrieve.

Just a couple minutes later Flicka again goes on point next to a clump of brush, a tangle of weeds, tall grass, and fallen tree limbs. When she finally breaks point a cock pheasant takes to the air. While the bird’s flight takes twists and turns through the trees, I stay focused on the bird and when I pull the trigger the bird folds, and Flicka makes the retrieve.

Then it occurs to me that we’ve collected a three-bird limit of pheasants with just three shots. It has been some 55 years since I first ventured out into a field with a shotgun in search of pheasants. In terms of shooting success it has been a long progression since those early years when dropping any flying bird seemed akin to a miracle. Actually, it’s not that long a progression since early September when I went through 12 shells to produce two blue grouse on this season’s first day of hunting.

Over the years, especially the last few decades when one of several Labrador retrievers have been my partner, I’ve gotten limits of pheasants many times, but this was the first time I’ve limited out with firing just three shells.

Wingshooting involves luck, experience, good dog work, shooting skills, and above all, focus. As we remind ourselves in tennis, “Keep your eye on the ball.”

Still I wonder if I’ll ever again summarize a day’s hunt as “Three birds up. Three shots. Three retrieves.”