Last Saturday evening I was sitting alone in a cold, gray, drizzly swamp in Mississippi. The only sounds were those of an occasional squirrel or rabbit and the rain lightly pitter pattering in the woods around me. Suddenly and with no announcement the silence was shattered by the sound of my son growing up. How did it come to this?
There are a thousand incremental steps a boy takes on the way to becoming a man. It’s awesome when we are there to watch them take those steps, and even better if we are able to recognize the significance of what we are observing.
Over the years my son has transitioned from watching me hunt, to hunting on his own with me doing the observing. His first trip to the field was when he was three years old. In those early years he’d just go and watch. He loved just being out in the woods and as a new dad I loved watching him out there. Until that time I didn’t know that simply jumping up on a log in the woods and walking it like a balance beam could be so entertaining for a child...I guess I was going to learn as much as he was as these trips took place.
I was hoping in these early years that he’d grow to like hunting and we’d be out there together every year. If I could have an activity that my kid loves to do with me then I’d be guaranteed to have a good connection with him long after he’s grown up and moved away. Time would tell.
As he grew older he got to go on more trips. Pretty soon he was going with me almost every weekend. He learned to safely handle a gun, to shoot well, to track deer, to stalk deer, and more...basically he learned everything I had learned over the years...all of my knowledge and ethics were simply passed down to him. Taking game for the dinner table is such a normal thing to him that on his 5th Thanksgiving when his momma brought the turkey to the table and he leaned in and asked “ooooh...who killed it?”
When he was seven or eight years old he got his very own rifle. I’ll never forget the first time we went out with it. It was a typical cloudy and cold winter day and he had his new rifle cradled in his arms and he looked at me and asked “Where’s your rifle?”
I replied “I’m not the one hunting...you are.”
The smile that took to his face when he realized he wasn’t in my shadow anymore was priceless. At that moment he realized that he was the hunter. He wasn’t there to watch...this was HIS hunt. If a deer came out, he would shoot it, he would be the one putting the meat on the table. That smile was priceless because it was much more than just a smile...it was a moment when he realized he had just grown up a little. He had worked hard and responsibly and he had earned this moment...and on that occasion I got to watch him grow up a little bit.
As he started his career with his own rifle I was always there to answer questions and help guide his decisions. I’d sit right beside him every time. Rather than simply tell him what to do I wanted the process to foster an analytic approach...I wanted him to be the one thinking things through and coming up with the answers. I’d ask questions and let him give me the answers. If he had questions for me I’d walk him through the hints and let him find the conclusion. It’s amazing how quickly kids can learn and even more impressive to see how they put those lessons to work on their own. He killed several deer over the years with me by his side just watching.
As an observer I have a great time. It’s always fun to watch a kid try to deal with the sensory overload of a massive adrenaline hit that inevitably arrives the moment you realize success or failure is at hand. Their hands and legs are a trembling mess as they try to get their brain to focus on the task at hand. They have the knowledge and they have a target, now they just have to force themselves to settle down and make a good shot. I get a kick out of watching that every single time.
Recently I started talking about him hunting on his own. The first time I asked him if he wanted to do a solo hunt he thought about it for a moment and then told me “nah...I like hunting with you...there’s nothing like having your dad cracking jokes for three hours while you’re waiting on a deer to show up.” I smiled when I heard it...my plan was working.
All of this leads us back to today. It’s been tough to get on the deer this year so he decided that tonight we’d split up. I dropped him off in his spot on the southern boundary of the property and then I made my way to the swamp on the north end.
I sat in my spot eager to see not only what my own hunt might deliver, but I was really excited to see if he’d get a shot on one of his first solo hunts. As is always the case with an afternoon hunt, it gets dark far too quickly. You never really want the hunt to end.
As the light faded I was shocked that I hadn’t heard anything from my son. I just KNEW there would be deer coming to feed in the area he had chosen to set up on.
The evenings silence was punctuated occasionally by the soft and distant thunder of duck hunters on the river a few miles away. As sunset approached they were eagerly taking the last few ducks of the day.
My mind alternated from scanning my surroundings and studying every hole in the swampy vegetation, to wondering what my son might be seeing half a mile to my south with the same darkness closing in around him. Was he bored? Was he unable to move due to too many deer being close to him? Was he currently locked in a struggle with adrenaline? How would he do if a deer emerged without me there for support? Was he even awake? I smiled and shrugged off the thoughts...he is good enough to handle whatever happens...if he wasn’t then he wouldn’t be allowed to hunt alone. If he messes up and spooks a deer it’s just all part of the learning experience.
With those thoughts out of the way I re-focused on the task at hand. I resumed scanning the silent landscape around me with no shortage of surprise at the lack of activity. By this time there should be deer trying to travel past me to get to the agricultural fields to my north. This is a dynamite spot and I thought that if they’re not moving here then they must not be moving anywhere until after dark. Now I felt a little disappointed that my son would end this hunt without seen anything at all.
KABOOOOM!!! When his single shot shattered the late afternoon silence and echoed it’s way to me I immediately recognized that I just heard my son grow up a little bit more. I had no idea what he had shot at...but I knew that whatever transpired on that field to the south had caused him to raise his rifle and fire a single shot. One shot. No follow up.
Half a second later my own heart started racing with adrenaline. I wanted to jump out of the tree and run down there to get the story. I could hardly contain my excitement. After a moment I calmed down and figured he’d wait at least 20 minutes before he started tracking it and it was dark so he might not even do that until I got there. I decided I’d finish hunting the last 10 minutes of legal light and then head down. Those last minutes were spent trying to picture what had happened on that field. I could picture his hands shaking after the shot...they always do that...so I knew at least that much about his hunt. What had he shot? There is a gigantic rub at the back of that field...could he have shot the monster buck that left it? Did he see a coyote and drop the hammer on it? I had no information at all...only a single gun shot from his location.
After waiting perhaps the longest 10 minutes of my life I began heading that way. Halfway there I met him. I saw his flashlight on the dirt road as he made his way back through the dark woods to meet me at the barn. The moment I stopped the ATV I could hear him telling the story...he talked faster than I thought was possible. He was talking faster than I’d ever heard his momma talk...and that is saying something. It had been nearly 20 minutes and he was still so full of adrenaline that his voice and hands were shaky and he couldn’t quit talking. I was smiling so hard it hurt. My face actually hurt from smiling so long.
After a quick drive back to the scene of the crime I finally got the details on the hunt. He had been surveying the field in front of him when out of the corner of his eye he noticed something to his left. Perhaps 40 yards away a deer was on the edge of a plot of standing corn. It was actually just inside the first row or two of the cornfield. His first thought when he saw it was “Man that’s a big squirrel!” Then it lifted it’s head and he got a good look at what it was. It was a single doe. He said he started to shake immediately. Not only was he shaking but he had to reposition to get the angle for the shot...he was worried he’d make noise doing it which caused his shaking to increase even more.
Like a seasoned hunter he slooooowly eased everything into position. You can’t rush that shot...not with a deer that close. There was nothing but open ground and thin air between them. If it sees you or hears you moving it will be gone before you could get the gun up, and your emotions would crash from the great heights of expectation to the great low spot of failure. Success hinges upon gathering lessons you’ve learned and executing them perfectly on this cold, darkening field, alone and under great pressure.
He said his last thought before pulling the trigger was “I can’t believe how steady these crosshairs are.” BOOM! The shot heard round the county was unleashed. His new 30-06 barked with great ferocity, the familiar recoil pushed back into his shoulder, the cold air smelled of burnt powder and the deer crashed down in a heap right where it stood. He was no longer alone...his new companion was success. With words still flowing from his mouth faster than the speed of sound he told me that he was so excited that he wanted to shout right there on the spot even though he was by himself.
In the end he took all the hunting lessons he had learned, threw in a lot of tenacity and hard work, and put it all together to create success. Maybe someday he’ll get to hear his own kid take a similar shot...only then will he realize just how great a shot that was.
As for me, I can’t wait to hear him grow up some more on the next trip.