Sunday, January 24, 2010

Baby, it's cold outside

Actually, it's not nearly as cold as it was earlier in the month and if it were, I could deal with it.  It's worse than cold right now - it's raining.  And raining means I'm stuck inside for the weekend.  When it comes to the weather you play the hand you're dealt, though, so I made the best of it and devoured Larry McMurtry's second memoir, Literary Life, which proved a relatively easy and thoroughly interesting diversion. As Chad Love noted in a post on his blog several weeks ago McMurty mentions that he was, earlier in his life at least, a hunter.  That's about as far as the memoir goes on the subject but the author expounds a bit further on the topic of re-reading selected books, a habit I've developed over the years as well.

While I don't have quite the list of re-reads that McMurtry does, I do have a few that I continue to pick up at unplanned intervals as the years tick off.  One of those is a somewhat obscure text by an equally obscure writer that is simply my favorite hunting book ever.  Guy de la Valdene's For a Handful of Feathers is a first hand account of the author's efforts at nurturing and hunting quail on his estate in north Florida, an account that strolls through a year on the land knee deep in the relationship between the landowner, the dirt, and the resident wildlife.  Lyrical enough to remove it from the category of simple journal, it appeals to me mostly because of  Valdene's incredibly candid, bare-bones, take me as I am style.

Valdene is no stranger to literature, having run for years in a Rat Pack that includes Tom McGuane, Jim Harrision, Tom Corcoran, Jimmy Buffett and others, but his manner is boldly unique.  At one point he describes beating the summer heat by plowing his fields buck naked, a visual I could do without but much appreciated for its shameless honesty.  The message that unfolds, however, is one that bears repeating and re-reading.  In a time when more and more are throwing in the towel when it comes to the future of the bobwhite, Valdene proves that while it's not always effortless, it is far from impossible to return huntable numbers of birds to a piece of land.  If you're already one of the naysayers, well I feel kinda sorry for you but don't let that come between you and a fantastic story.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hope vs Reality

Our dove season is divided into three decidedly unequal segments.  The first season begins the Saturday before Labor Day and runs through the first week or so of October.  These are the salad days, the afternoons when you stock the freezer for the off-season.  It's not unusual to bag three or four limits, which last year was increased to 15 birds, and have a couple of  5 or 7 bird days to boot.  Birds fly in big numbers with reckless abandon, not yet wise to the fate that awaits if they insist on getting into the field to eat.  Even a shooter having a bad day can end up having a pretty good day.

The second season opens the Saturday before Thanksgiving and closes the Saturday after.  That first Saturday is the closest to a sure thing I've ever seen.  It's a barnburner, in the field by 7:15am, out with a limit by 7:45, and we walk back to the trucks giddy every year.  One week later you might as well stay in bed.

The third season opens a few days before Christmas and closes, for good this time, around mid-January.  Call this one a potluck dinner - you might fill your plate and bask in your good fortune or you might go home hungry in spite of acres of possibility.  I've had both feast and famine during the third season and I guess I'm an optimist because I always approach it with hope. 

We had a tough third season this year in spite of all the pieces being in place.  Our corn field was crackerjack, plenty of food on the ground and plenty still standing, a regular cornucopia.  Sorry, I couldn't resist.  And the birds were there, problem was someone had tipped them off that we were coming and they were on the lookout.  It's hard to give dove credit for being smart during the first season when they'll practically fly right down your barrel, but these birds got themselves an education somewhere between October and January.  They were skittish two weeks ago, cautious to the point that most of them passed on dinner a week later, and Friday morning, the last day of the season, they were just plain gone.  Probably having coffee at Rachel's Cafe down the road amid high-fives for making it through another season alive.

I guess shooting a limit on the last day of the season is sorta like hitting a hole-in-one.  Once you've done it, you know it's possible so you keep thinking you can make it happen again.  The left side of your brain knows the odds are highly against it, yet you persist.  One thing you can bank on: I'll be out there on the last day of the season again next year, 8 iron in hand.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Population 50

I didn't make it to South Dakota this year. Halloween (read trick or treating with my kids) and a recession stepped in and kept me right here at home. The Halloween part I honestly don't mind, after all how many years will I actually have before they would rather throw eggs at houses and smash pumpkins? The recession I could do without.

This trip has always been good medicine for me. It's a different place at a different pace, and the place is SO big. Big in every direction, literally as far as the eye can see. Big views of big fields are a big change for a kid who grew up surrounded by trees. I'm sure there's a metaphysical existential explanation for the effect wide open spaces have on our brains. I can't explain it, but I can tell you it's real, real enough that I can't stop myself from just staring off into that bigness at times.

We hunt in a small town about halfway between Aberdeen and Sioux Falls, and by small I mean small. The sign at the edge of town says the population is 50, which means the head count surges 20% when we show up. Our hosts are a local farming family and once I asked the older son what it was like living in a town with 50 people and he said, "Well everyone knows everyone else's business, and nobody cares." Refreshing.

One immutable fact of life is that your perspective on things changes as you get older. I grew up in a town of about 50,000 and couldn't wait to get out - it was too small for this big-time cowboy. I left for college and mumbled sayonara and don't think I even checked the rear view. Graduated college (finally), moved to our nation's capital and basked in all that the big city had to offer. Two years, countless hours in traffic, and Lord knows how many parking tickets later I'd had enough. Been back here 19 years this April.

I got the big out of my system, at least in terms of cities, and found that the small was rooted very, very deep. It would be no effort at all adjusting to a place like Turton, SD. Sadly there would have to be compromises and sacrifices. My wife, for one, wouldn't consider moving there even if they built a Target on Main Street and that's a good thing, 'cause a Target would put a booger on the Picasso for me anyway. I'd miss all my boys at home, too, and would have to buy a plane so I could get back for the important stuff, but hey I need a reason to justify playing the Powerball anyway, right? For brevity's sake let's just say I could go on but there's no need. I'm not moving any time soon.

Which makes missing the trip this year all the more difficult. I'll most likely be back again in the fall to get my fix, my prescription filled with fine folks, an absence of traffic, food I can't get around here, and lots of big, open space.

And the pheasant hunting ain't bad either.