My Year Afield
As is my tradition as a writer, this February I look back on another season afield. As regular readers know, hunting consumes much of my free time throughout the year and the start and end of hunting season are touchstones that always cause me to reflect. If you will indulge me I’ll share my thoughts here…
This past year was such a mix of emotions for me as various personal dramas played out, often beyond my control. In a year of a change hunting was a touchstone that allowed me to stay grounded at times when I desperately needed something familiar to hang on to. As a versatile hunter I am fortunate to have game to pursue throughout the year and this provided me with mixed results.
Last spring I had a frustrating turkey season where the birds just didn’t seem to be around much except for one morning where I made a serious tactical error. I called in a group of toms who ran to my spot so fast that I never had a chance to position myself for a shot. I had one ancient bird walk so close to me that I could have clubbed him with my shotgun, only for him to position himself with a large oak between us and I went home empty-handed. As I often do, I learned a lot on that hunt and promised myself to do better in the fall.
Over the summer there was squirrel hunting in June. This was a joy as the foliage on the trees gave me opportunities to sneak in close and bring home several bushytails for the stewpot. Hunting in warm weather also meant I could travel light and I spent a long morning exploring some deep woods I had never visited before. The abundance of hardwoods and squirrels guaranteed a return trip this year.
In September I missed out on dove season due to commitments at work and I nearly cried when I heard tales from my friends of ‘the best season we have had in years’. I made it out to one of my prime spots for an early goose hunt and while we never saw any birds the trip was eventful as my hunting partner had to leave early to welcome the arrival of twins with his wife. Whether or not he was still dressed in camouflage and facepaint when he arrived at the hospital was a detail I will leave to the imagination.
October was my chance at redemption with the fall turkey season. I planned my hunt much more carefully this time and was ready when a baker’s dozen of toms and hens nearly overran my spot. One young male separated himself from the flock and on a morning when there was frost in the corn stubble I took my first ever fall bird. Serving the breast meat alongside our store-bought hen at Thanksgiving made me a proud hunter. There were jokes about the former being a Shelby County Free Range turkey and the fact that many of our guests liked the wild turkey better is a testament to why more people should try to harvest their own food.
Deer season arrived in November and since I still had venison in the freezer from my doe the year before it was a tough decision on whether or not to spend much time in the stand. Tradition trumped other thoughts and I reasoned that I could always give away some of the meat to friends and family. But a lack of preparation often means a lack of success. I had not prepared any food plots or scouted the farm as per usual and I only saw one deer during the entire season. I am ashamed to admit that I was in the middle of composing a text message to a friend when a nice 9-pointer slipped past me. Just after I hit ‘send’ I looked up to see him staring at me, and I could almost swear he was shaking his head in disgust. Technology is indeed a double-edged sword and as I raised my rifle for a shot he slowly walked behind a stand of cedar trees never to be seen again.
Shaking off this disappointment, waterfowl season arrived in November with high hopes. For me this is the main attraction for my year. I live for the sound of geese and ducks on the wing and nothing makes my heart beat faster than birds approaching our blind. The season started off slow as we were hampered by the same unpredictable weather that has plagued the country for most of the winter. We saw birds nearly every time out but something always seemed to cause them to stay just out of gun range. We experimented with lots of different setups and types of concealment. We tried haybale blinds and laying under grass-colored tarps and hiding under trees. Nothing seemed to work. Eventually we managed to scrape together a few ducks and geese but that one fantastic hunt was elusive.
The first big cold front to move through the country in mid-January brought high hopes. Typically cold weather pushes birds down the Mississippi Flyway and we pray to the hunting gods that they drift far enough east to visit Central Kentucky. That first weekend after the cold broke we had temperatures in the mid-40s and it was clear that the migration had arrived. Whereas before we had been seeing dozens of birds in the morning we were now seeing hundreds coming through in big flocks. That weekend the birds had not settled into the area and the new arrivals mostly flew around us. But they were here and we knew the coming week would be a good one.
On the morning of January 18th it was cold and there was about 4 inches of snow on the ground. The landowner had told me during the week that there were over 1,000 geese using his pond. I didn’t sleep much the night before and when we arrived the birds were still there. What may seem hard to believe to non-hunters is that the best tactic is to jump the birds off the pond and then set up our decoys, knowing they would return throughout the morning. I will share one picture here which is a beautiful view of the farmer’s home in the distance and my friends in their white coveralls waiting for the birds to start arriving.
And the birds did come. We all shot our limit on geese and we had three bonus ducks to take home. With the snow and our coveralls it almost seemed unfair as the birds came in right over the pond and gave us some great shooting. It was one of those hunts we will all still be talking about years from now. Memories of having to break ice on the far side of the pond with a garden hoe to retrieve many of the birds still brings a chuckle as waterfowlers are rightly called crazy by our fellow hunters.
With January over I am now left with just squirrels to hunt in February. We have more snow on the ground today and who knows what the weekends will look like this month. But I will be out and trying to add a few more to the freezer. March will come and my thoughts will turn to gardening and trying all the new recipes I have been saving throughout the year. Smoked goose breast, rabbit cassoulet and trying to make enough deer jerky to satisfy my coworkers who ask for it regularly.
Among the lessons learned this year are that I am getting older and slowing down a bit. I will be 39 this year and we have all noticed that we are a little more sore the next morning and the cold wind is adding crow’s feet to our faces. I can’t spend a whole day hunting in the rain like I could in my 20s and when I spend an entire day walking hedgerows looking for rabbits, my feet tell me when it is time to go home. I am reminded that this is a sport and while we would not dare call ourselves athletes, the physical part of it reminds us that we are not immortal. I have many years afield left in me but as I am about to enter middle age I will have to consider if this means I will have to be more selective on what I subject myself to. My hope is that as the next generation of the Dwyer clan begin to head out with us, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, maybe we will be renewed. Or perhaps we will sit and watch them do the hard work, younger bodies being ideal for dragging heavy decoys and canoes. Afterall, there should be some perks that come with being the elders in a hunting party. In the meantime, now is a time for sleeping in, attending to neglected chores and dreaming of next season.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.