These stories are in my book, A Lifetime Of Hunting and Fishing, published by North Country Press.
Of Pheasants and Fathers
The crisp autumn afternoon, the stiff point of the English setter, the explosion of a pheasant from the tall grass, the heft of the shotgun as I brought it to my shoulder, the crack which cut the cool air, and the folding of the colorful bird followed quickly by the dog’s retrieve, set my course for a lifetime. Dad’s presence right behind me reinforced the hunting tradition and all its glory.
On my office wall, I still have the photo of us with the setter and my first pheasant. I look awfully small but I must have been twelve years old.
Forty years later, I returned the favor and introduced Dad to turkey hunting. After a year of hunting turkeys myself, I knew he’d love the challenge, camaraderie, and interchanges with the Tom turkeys.
A couple of years ago, on opening day of the May season on turkeys, we sat at the edge of a Mount Vernon corn field as I “talked turkey” to a Tom down in the woods. Eventually, the Tom moved out into the field and headed for our decoys. Dad shot him at about twenty yards, a hefty 21 pound bird. I retrieved the bird. We haven’t had setters in a long time.
What we do have is a generational bond, forged in the fields and forests and on the lakes and rivers of Maine. Hunting and fishing have always been my links to Dad. The time we spent together in the woods and on the waters is priceless – beyond the comprehension of those who are less privileged.
The canoe paddle dips silently into the calm waters of Hopkins Stream, mist hiding the shoreline ahead, allowing us to sneak up to three Buffleheads that take off in surprise. A muskrat slowly meanders toward shore, in no hurry to get away. He steps up on land and gazes out at us.
We quietly exit the canoe, quickly glancing at the oak knoll in front of us where deer have been feeding heavily. Fresh deer sign is everywhere as we trudge three hundred yards to our ground blind on the top of a small ridge overlooking the oaks.
This morning Dad and I choose to sit together. He looks one way, I look the other. It’s quiet, comforting, cleansing for the mind and body. I’ve been known to nap in the woods during deer season. We enjoy coffee and muffins, content to sit in anticipation.
Anticipation that a deer may appear at any moment is the very best part of the hunt, and we do a lot of anticipating. This particular morning, that’s all we do. No deer appear, although later in the morning I jump one in a thick fir stand, hearing the crack and commotion of an escaping Whitetail without casting my eyes on the critter.
I pause to enjoy the smell of the firs, the cushion of the mossy forest floor, the skittering of red squirrels, and the sharp taste of my fresh Maine apple. A chickadee alights two feet from my face, unafraid. I remember the time an ermine ran up my leg and arm while I sat on the ground leaning against a tree. Last year I was mesmerized by two fisher cavorting along through my woodlot. They never saw me. You see amazing things while hunting.
As I move into an open area with a parcel of standing dead trees, a magnificent Pileated woodpecker cries out, then lands thirty yards away. Wow! What a bird!
I am living proof that hunting does not destroy the ability to love the critters in the forest. A few I shoot and eat, respectful of them and what they contribute to my life and my table. I am not a killer. I am a hunter. And I do understand the difference, thanks to Dad.
Dad had been looking forward to turkey hunting this spring, but he’s in the Hospice Unit at the Togus Veterans Administration in Augusta, nearing the end of his 91 years of life, and his legs weren’t up to the challenge of chasing turkeys. So we got in the Subaru and drove around the Windsor and Somerville area where we first hunted turkeys with our friend Harry Vanderweide.
When we got to the place where Dad shot his first turkey, we stopped and reminisced. As Harry drove up the road that day 8 years ago, we spotted a big Tom turkey in the strawberry field where we had permission to hunt. But he was close to the road, so we told Dad there was no way he could sneak up and shoot the turkey.
Dad insisted that we stop. He hopped out, loaded his shotgun, and somehow managed to sneak up on the Tom, using a big tree as cover. When Dad got to the tree, he peaked around it, raised his gun, and shot the turkey. I wish I had recorded the smile on his face as he walked back to the vehicle with the turkey.
As we sat in that spot last May, retelling this story, we looked across the road and spotted a flock of turkeys. Dad was so happy about that! “Well, they’re still here,” he said. And so too is Dad, for which I am so very grateful.
We didn’t have firearms that day, and didn’t kill anything, but that’s the smallest part of hunting, so I counted it as our 54th year of hunting together.
With thanks to Dad
I was born a Maine sportsman, raised a Maine sportsman, and will die a Maine sportsman. Thanks to Dad. Just like Dad.
My first memories are of pheasants, rabbits, setters, and beagles. Or course, before that, there was the hunter safety course and lots of shooting at the range of my Dad’s club. Ezra Smith insisted on that.
We raised English setters and used them to hunt the pheasants Dad’s club raised and put out all over Readfield, Winthrop, and Monmouth. I’ve never forgotten the experience of shooting my first pheasant, with Dad right beside me, in a field at the end of Maranacook Lake. In that exact spot, there’s now a house.
We also had beagles and I absolutely loved rabbit hunting, the cold mornings, the trudge through the snow into the woods, usually up on Memorial Drive. The baying of the beagle, and the knowledge that the pursued rabbit would run in a circle and pass right by me if I got into the right spot, was electrifying. Occasionally, I even shot one.
Dad also taught me to trap. He always accompanied me to check my traps, early mornings before school, on a nearby stream. It was so exciting to find a muskrat in a trap. And we returned to that same stream to hunt ducks. I have a vision of a flock of Black ducks flying low over our decoys, and Dad saying, “Shoot!” We shot at the same time and each got a duck.
But it was deer hunting that put us in the woods together for the longest periods of time, and ironically, the sport that I was least successful at, initially. I didn’t shoot my first deer until I was 25 years old. I’m remembering that there weren’t that many deer in the 1960s – but that may be fanciful thinking.
Dad introduced me to deer hunting on his old farm in North Wayne and in 2013, we hunted there for the 53rd year. That’s where I shot the Thanksgiving buck, my favorite deer hunting story. It happened about 20 years ago. I was sitting on a bucket in the woods, behind an old cemetery, and Dad was hunting his way up over a ridge from the farm, towards me.
It was a very cold and icy day, and I heard the tromp, tromp, tromp of a deer coming from a long way off. I got the gun up, aimed for a small opening in the trees, and when the deer – a huge buck – stepped into the opening, I shot.
Tromp, tromp, tromp, he continued on his way. I had missed. As the family gathered mid-day for a Thanksgiving feast, I was morose. Worst Thanksgiving ever.
The next day we decided to try it again, only I moved slightly to have a better shot if a deer came up over the ridge. Thirty minutes after I sat down on the bucket, I heard him coming. Tromp, tromp, tromp. I was sure it was the same big buck. And it was. And this time, I hit him.
But he continued for a ways, so I shot him again, and he ran straight into a tree and flipped completely upside down. Dad said he could hear me hollering, even though he was several hundred yards down over the ridge. Best day-after-Thanksgiving ever. Particularly because Dad was there with me.
Eventually, I purchased a woodlot in Mount Vernon and we started hunting there. One year we shot nice bucks two days apart. I got the first one, 153 pounds. Two days later, Dad was sitting in one of our favorite spots, when a buck burst out of the bushes, running right at Dad. His buck weighed 155 pounds, giving him bragging rights.
Eventually, as Dad and I got older, the hunters’ breakfasts became as much a part of our tradition as the hunt. But ever year, one or both of us would get a deer, and we piled up story after story after story. Some were pretty amazing, like the time Dad was sitting just outside the bog, watching a ground scrape, when a spike horn walked up to him and he shot it. Before he could even get out of his seat, a huge buck came along, following the spike horn.
I returned to that seat the next day, and sure enough, the big buck came back. I was reading a novel when I looked up and he was straddling the scrape. I put the book down, picked up the rifle, and shot him. He weighed 196 pounds and had a beautiful rack.
And then there was last year. Dad was hurting but determined to hunt. I put a chair up near the road, at the top of the steep hill that leads down into my bog, and told him to sit there while I thrashed around in the bog. But he trudged all the way down the hill, and when I found him there, it took over an hour, with a lot of stops, to get him up the 200 yards to the road. I knew then it would be our last year of hunting together.
Dad is in the Hospice Unit at the Togus VA hospital, unable to hunt this fall. But he hasn’t given up fishing. Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife stocks a small pond on the hospital campus, for the patients. I’ve taken Dad there five times, and casting from his wheelchair, he’s caught brook trout. For sure, at the age of 91 and in poor health, he is still a Maine sportsman – and we are still creating wonderful memories.
Opening day of the deer season this year won’t be the same. But I shall return to our favorite spots, think a lot about Dad, and let the memories flow by me. Maybe I’ll even shoot a deer.