“Failure has humbled me but never stopped me. I missed the next bird, a woodcock, on an easy shot and in that, normalcy returned.”
By Mitch Mode
If I was to stand on the 50 yard line of Lambeau Field and have a grouse fly straight away I would likely fire away and empty whatever gun I was using. The grouse, on most days, would escape unscathed. I miss easy shots at birds. It happens frequently, has for decades now and there is no reason to think that it will ever change. The easiest shots to make; the easiest to miss.
I’ve grown to accept it in the same manner I accept my befuddlement at the complexities of mathematics or my inability to shoot a basketball very well. There are things one does well, others that one bumbles. For all the years I’ve spent hunting grouse I don’t think I’ve gotten much better at hitting them on the wing.
So it was with some sense of amazement that when a bird flushed in the thickness to the side of the old road then flew out and angled directly away, an easy shot, it was with some wonderment that I raised the shotgun, pulled the trigger and killed the bird. I stood there for a moment, shotgun lowered, the sweet smell of gun smoke in the air, stood there like a child, gap-mouthed in amazement.
I said to myself, “I should quit now; one shot, one bird, one hundred percent success.”
From there the success rate would drop as fall leaves drop and as temperatures drop. At another stage of my life I perhaps would rail about it, beat myself up with an internal monologue about failure and ineptitude. Now I just live with it. Keeping score of things of such inconsequence speaks to ego which should have no place in the world of hunting.
Failure has humbled me but never stopped me. I missed the next bird, a woodcock, on an easy shot and in that, normalcy returned. A day later I killed a grouse on a difficult crossing shot in thick cover, felt good about that, then missed the next on a near identical opportunity. Cockiness and confidence both fell in a way that the bird had not.
You cannot hunt grouse and woodcock in the thick woods of September without accepting failure; it is part and parcel of it all. You cannot hunt at all without walking in failure at least part of the time.
There are other rewards and only a fool or a child measures the quality of the hunt by the weight of the game bag at day’s end. A hunt is not, nor ever should be, a numbers game. Save that for golf or the IRS or the baffling expansion of fantasy football.
With the burden of success as measured in numbers off one’s shoulders one can hunt with a careless joy, following, in my case, my hunt dog twosome, Riika and Thor. The two hunt with a sense of joy and passion and in that I find more inspiration than in too many of my fellow huntsmen who insist on keeping score.
Riika is stone deaf. Her world is silent save for her beating heart which surely must drum in her ears as she runs. Vet says, “I’ve seen dogs go deaf, I’ve seen them go blind, I’ve never seen them lose their noses.” Riika can still gather scent, rich, musty bird scent. Gather it and chase it; a bird dog’s life.
She runs, runs with heart and soul and a wildness that cannot be learned. Nor can any of it be taught, not for her, not for me. The good dogs, they run through it all and at the end of the hunt, beat and battered and worn out, at that time would run more if you would allow it.
Riika does not do well in heat; 60 degrees and higher takes it out of her. So, early season, we hunt the places that hold water; creeks and bogs and muddy puddles and when we come to water Riika lies down and lets the water cover her. I stand still for if I do she will linger and in that cool down. If I take a step as if to leave she will come to me, ready to hunt.
I let her stay in the water for the water cools her and gives her respite as it does me on a hot day. Go hard in the heat and you will wear down; rest, take water, you can go on. Riika does it; I do it. We manage the warm days as we can and on those days water is an elixir.
On warm mornings when the heat and humidity rise too fast we quit early. We hunt on the cooler mornings and this week on a day of frost and on that morning when the sun shone on the frost it was as if was crystal and the world was alive with color and light and we, the dogs and I, took it as a gift. Birds in hand did not matter.
I took the dogs to water, a small, shallow creek, fast-flowing and chill. Riika lay there and the current carried a long strand of green weed and it draped over her shoulders and around her neck. And the green was a bright, rich green and it looked like a garland on an Olympian’s brow in the ancient days of the Greek games. The green seemed to glow against the chocolate brown on Riika’s coat.
When she walked from the water the green strand remained and I left it, for in what she does a garland is appropriate. Riika looked at me, garland framing her, met my eyes, held, then turned into the thickness of the early autumn woods and hunted. She runs in her world of color and scent, in her world silent as the night, runs for what she loves more than anything. Run, she does, with joy and without regard for my ability to shoot a bird on wing which is only a numbers game and in that meaningless in her world and mine both.
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