In the six decades I’ve been hunting ducks and other game birds, I can count the seasons I’ve missed on one hand. They were the Air Force years back in the 1960s. But I missed this past season — and it wasn’t because of the call of duty for my country. It was the call of my health.
Blood clots in my leg sent me to a Regions Hospital operating room for a series of what today’s surgeons like to call procedures. By the time I got over that, including the loss of two toes, and looked up, the 2015 hunting seasons were over. Now I’m left to wonder if the ducks and pheasants missed me as much as I missed them.
These are some realities I thought about while forced to sit out an entire hunting season. In recent years I’ve spent just as much time and just as many units of labor preparing for the Minnesota duck season as I did back in the ’70s. Each year expecting the best but often experiencing the worst. This season’s reports from duck camp confirmed again the reality that duck hunting in Minnesota might not deserve all the preparation it once did.
I thought about hunting partners I’ve enjoyed. All the good ones lost to ill health or to the grave. It’s sad to go alone, no matter how much you love the hunt. Still, I probably would have gone ahead and hunted alone this season and again found it not as rewarding. But at my age, hunting without help probably isn’t smart.
The problem with many illnesses is not necessarily what they do to the body. It’s what they do to the mind. Until this summer I never considered myself old. I was just as active in my one-acre vegetable garden, just as productive cutting firewood and just as passionate about hunting as I was 30 years ago. But when you’re laid up for a few months and can’t do any of that, the term “old” comes creeping in.
Hearing September geese settling into my neighbor’s hay field from my bed isn’t the same as watching them do that from my blind with a Browning at the ready. Then there are the bags of duck decoys in the pole barn, still needing touch-up paint in November, standing in mute testimony that something wasn’t right this fall. And when flocks of tundra swans, the caboose of the waterfowl migration, flew over our place, the sad truth that an entire season had been missed was hard to ignore.
I know my gun dogs missed the hunting trips at least as much as I did. I could read it in their eyes on those frosty mornings. But in a season missed we learned we’re more than hunting partners. We’re good friends. And the comfort of the companionship between me and an English Setter, between me and a British Labrador, was truly gratifying during my recuperation. If absence makes our hunting hearts grow fonder, next season should be truly sweet.
To be honest, I didn’t miss the cold sleeping bag and the mice on my duck camp converted school bus. But I did miss the campfires. I didn’t miss the daylong chore of cutting cattails for the blinds. But I did miss the nirvana of searching the sky over a rig of well-placed decoys. I didn’t miss slogging through knee-high buffalo grass looking for a rooster. But I did miss hearing his cackle on the rise.
Weather is such an important element in hunting. I missed the necessary focus on atmospheric systems; on wind direction and speed; on the prediction vs. reality of precipitation. Being out in it is a lot more fascinating than just watching the weather through a window.
More than anything, my illness of the past several months let me see what a gift life is and what a celebration of life hunting trips can be. While my passion for hunting hasn’t changed, my focus has been tweaked. I’ve been brought face to face with my limitations. That is certainly humbling. But there are plenty of birds remaining to be fooled, starting with a certain gobbler turkey in April. I’ll be grateful for the chance to get after them again.