Our Last Hunt by James L. Bruner
Sitting back, eyes closed, the memories play back in my mind like an old slide show flickering at high speed. Random frames appear punctuated with importance as they slow just long enough to capture the event and pull me back to the moment.
The gray figure was merely a mottled shape in the shadows of a pre-dawn forest but, certainly appeared out of place even to my un-trained eye. Barely visible, with no discernable movement, I continued to focus until I felt a hand touch my knee. I knew better than to make a quick movement. A hand gesture came into my peripheral vision pointing in the direction of the gray mass that stood still as stone some 50 yards away. Time, sound, and movement, seemed to lapse into infinity. The only thing I recall at that point was the pounding of my heart before a brilliant flash overtook my vision and the thunderous echo of a single gunshot repeated itself in an endless pattern through the forest. It seems that my aging mind has lost a portion of that memory as it puts my father and I standing over a large doe, my hand in his, on my very first deer hunt. Before the frame fades, the focus becomes an 8 year old boys smiling face looking up at the one person he admires the most.
I believe it was the next fall when when my memory panned down on a young boy atop his fathers shoulders, both clad in camo and chest waders, making their way to the duck blind. I cradled a small brown bag in my arms which would be our lunch of sandwiches and cold chili. Dad carried what seemed an impossible bag chock full of decoys through water that was nearly touching the soles of my boots even from my lofty perch of security. I climbed from his shoulders into the raised blind as he began to set decoys. I recall the subtle sound that each small wave made as it slapped the weathered stilts of our waterfowl blind. The water was clear and deceiving yet mesmorizing in all it’s fluid motion and depth. I watched the decoys create their magic as dad waded back to the truck for the shotgun and ammo. It seemed to take forever before he returned and climbed the old wooden ladder to sit next to me. We settled in before any calling began and I couldnt help but notice the solitude while staring across this large body of open water scanning the horizon for incoming ducks. We watched several loners and smaller flocks take notice but skirt the edges before a single came in only to meet his demise. Again, the picture fades from memory.
Through the following years we hunted and fished religiously. Some of my most memorable moments were grouse hunting in the fall. In those days grouse were everywhere and we always had some great action that began to bring out my competitive side during each hunt. We walked the edges of the beechnut trees as the crisp leaves crackled with every step in the cool early morning hours. This was something I truly enjoyed just waiting for that first bird to flush and send my heart into an erratic pattern of excitement. The scent of gunpowder and the tell-tale visual confirmation of feathers floating to the ground told the entire story.
Jump-shooting ducks through the reeds was something we pursued but not with the same integrity as the grouse. I could hit a bird standing or at a close-quartering distance no problem but a duck flushing or zipping along the waters surface proved much more of a challenge. Team that with numerous carp running into your legs as you wade through the reeds, a single shot 410, and I guess at that young age I had 3 strikes against me right off the bat. Regardless this was hunting and how we spent nearly every available minute.
I recall smelting in the springtime very vividly. Back then it was a very family-oriented sport and, maybe not so enviromentally friendly as people burned tires for heat and lighting. Yes. Tires. Grab an old tire on each shoulder, throw them on a small fire, and you had intense heat for hours. I remember the first time I saw my dads face after burning a tire while smelting. He looked like he had tangled with a chimney and came out on the short end of the stick and I was the carbon copy. Pun intended. Back in those days you could fill your 5 gallon bucket with a single dip into the creek or river and that was it. You were done for the evening and free to just relax alongside the creek drinking soda. The realization was you now had hundreds of smelt to clean and also dozens of meals for the table.
Ice-fishing for huge walleyes in the local bays was pretty much mandatory and the small groups of shanties were all friends. We spent many days out there from dawn to dusk cooking our lunch over the shanty stove while waiting for the next line-stretcher to happen along while playing the ocassional prank on the other fishermen when they werent paying attention. A full can of soda tied to the end of your buddies line while he is out of the shanty always gets a good laugh. Then there were always the annoying pranksters that found it entertaining to sneak over to your shanty and shut off your propane tank. Wouldnt be long before the icefishing holes would begin to glass-over with a thin layer of ice. Shortly after you’d hear the victim just bitching away as he wandered out in the cold to turn the propane tank on again. Yep. Them were good times not just for the fishing but the company you kept.
As I grew into a young man I began to venture out on my own with all the knowledge given to me by my father. When my day in the outdoors faltered I always reverted back to his wisdom and success for the answers I needed. Not everything worked but it always put me in the right frame of mind. We had grown apart in a larger sense of the word but were both very active in the outdoors on seperate ocassions in different areas. All of that changed when dad was no longer as independant due to a back injury.
I was at the peak of my interest in pursuance of archery hunting for whitetails during those days. Scouting all year, documenting, logging, and filming deer, while others were at the beach on a hot summer day. It seemed I had the woods to myself and the deer moved about at their leisure. It was a great time to log some hours and study the habits of this highly respected game-animal. This was a new avenue for me. Dad and I had never done anything like this and, when a bachelor group of a dozen bucks took up residence in my viewfinder during the end of summer, I couldnt wait to share the footage. It was enough excitement to justify a hunt together even in his deteriorating condition. We decided on a location which would present a good chance for either of us to connect with a good buck during the beginning of bow season if he could manage to pull a bow at all when the time came.
Early October found us partnered once again heading back to some old familiar hunting grounds that held many memories. Dads condition was debatable and several of the silent moments during the drive to our hunting area seemed awkward and void of enthusiasm. My mind began to wander as I pulled into the area we had set aside for dad to hunt. It became apparent that our roles had reversed dramatically over the years. As he leaned on my shoulder I kept the slow rythmn of his pace while carrying his bow to my side, and, working the flashlight to light the way. Here was the man who once carried me on his shoulders as a little boy on a duck hunt, someone I had always viewed as chiseled from stone, in need of help for every step. I admit I didnt realize the extent back then but writing this really makes it hit home. When I situated him at his blind I hesitated to leave until he affirmed himself with that simple gesture of pointing me back towards the trail. I knew that very same gesture from that first successful deer hunt. It was, in an odd sense, comforting.
I sat that morning wondering, worrying, and daydreaming. The projector in my mind played back every day dad and I had spent together in the outdoors. It felt as though I was being pulled into several directions at one time and wanted to leave and see if he was alright. I guess in hindsight I had realized what he felt the first time I walked into the woods on my own. I knew he wasnt helpless but, just the same, he was always there for me through every step of the way.
I left my scaffold earlier than usual that day and found that dad had already walked out on his own. He could only sit idle for so long and through his own pride and determination, had made it safely back to the road. Again we didnt have a lot to say to one another and I realized that this was the end of something we both once cherished. Before fading out of sequence the last frame shows a father and a son, rolling down the highway in an old truck, with no deer, but, one last memory of the final hunt.
And thats where my memory of our last hunt ends seemingly so abrupt yet filled with many years of great outdoor memories. So, for dad, if you ever get a chance to read this…Thank You.