My cousin — he's a rabid waterfowl and deer hunter — left me a phone message the other morning. His voice was giddy with excitement.
"Going out to scout for ducks and geese after work and to talk to a few landowners," he said. "It's dried up quite a bit around here from earlier this summer, so I'm not sure what I'll find for water conditions. I'll let you know. Can't wait for the duck season to start. I'm pumped."
As the ghosts of summer begin to fade, and as many Minnesotans begin to grumble about winter "being right around the corner," hunters like my cousin are already in season. For many, the prelude to the regular hunting seasons began weeks, even months ago. These "preseason" rituals — some practical, some strange — are as ingrained in our DNA as hunters as the hunts themselves.
Some are inventorying and cleaning up their gear. Others are planning trips across the Midwest and beyond to hunt elk and pheasants, ducks or deer. Still others, like many of my forty-something hunting buddies, are using social media to show off their latest gear purchases — everything from designer shotguns to the latest high-speed trail cameras.
"Baseball has spring training, professional football has training camp and hunters have a similar preseason process, typically during the dog days of summer," said Bob St. Pierre, vice president of marketing for Pheasants Forever. "I'm a gear junkie, so I find myself this time of year wandering into Gander Mountain or looking through catalogs to find out what's new and hot. I don't shoot regularly during the summer, but I know this time of year I have to get out to the skeet range and brush up on my wing-shooting skills."
St. Pierre has other preseason rituals, too. In addition to training and conditioning his two German shorthaired pointers throughout July and August (which he calls a full-time job), he inventories his freezer. Yes, his freezer. "This is going to sound a little weird to some people, but I always look in my freezer to see what game I need to eat before the season starts. Right now I know I have one pheasant and some venison left from last year. I love this time of year because my garden is in full production. At some point soon, I'll make pheasant stir fry with fresh vegetables. I like making that wild food connection. It builds anticipation for the hunting seasons ahead."
When I was a teenager sitting in class in early September, my liberal arts education suffered greatly. My mind was lost in a Les Kouba painting of bluebills hitting the blocks in the spitting late-autumn snow, or hunting canvasbacks at historic Delta Marsh in Manitoba. Everything I did, or seemingly so, was a buildup to the duck opener. I read Field & Stream and Sports Afield magazines religiously, and each story — particularly those on waterfowling — fed my fascination about ducks and the upcoming season.
When I didn't have my head in an outdoors magazine, I doted on my waterfowling gear like a mother with her newborn. Every decoy I owned was cleaned and repainted. My pump 12-gauge shotgun was broken down, cleaned and reassembled. If I couldn't shoot clay pigeons throughout the summer, I'd practice shouldering my shotgun and swinging on a bird in my bedroom. Sometimes I'd even dry-fire my boom stick and visualize one of Kouba's bluebills falling from the leaden sky.
I owned but one duck call — a wooden double-reed Lohman — and, to the dismay of my mother, practiced with it incessantly, mimicking, as best I could, the sounds of a hen mallard.
As the opener drew closer, building into a crescendo of anticipation, I'd lay out all my gear on my bedroom floor and arrange it neatly for packing. Canvas waders and shotgun shell boxes, camouflage jackets and gloves. Everything. When I was done, I'd stare at my work, captivated and satisfied. The season couldn't come soon enough. In fact, even today, I inventory — and pack — my gear with the same obsessive-compulsiveness. It's in my DNA.
I finally got my cousin on the phone a few days after he left me his message; he was busy planning his five-day deer-hunting trip in November. He and his buddies hold their version of deer camp every year on public land near Grand Rapids. Throughout the summer, they'll meet at least twice at a watering hole in New Prague to make plans.
"This will be our 15th year, so we have a well-established division of labor already," he said, noting that he's camp chef. "I'm putting together some menu options right now and I'll e-mail them to my guys later today. It's a democratic process. I'll make whatever they want, but typically one meal will be my smoked prime rib. It is the bomb.
"Truth is, I really enjoy getting together before the season, making plans and talking about hunts past," he added. "It gets me excited for what's ahead. As I get older, the preparation is just as fun as the hunting."
Tori J. McCormick is a freelance outdoors writer living in Prior Lake. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.