It has been a long season for me in Wisconsin and a very different year from my adventures last winter in the flooded rice fields of southern Louisiana. The hunting season this year in Wisconsin was a year of variables and changes like I’ve never experiences before. From a late crop harvest to extreme changes in the weather, it was increasingly difficult to stay on top of the bird activity as the season progressed. At times it seemed as though it would be a lost season, but there were many little gems and great hunts that still made it memorable.
Somewhere between the first big freeze and a cancelled flight of new migrating birds, I stopped to really reflect on who I was as a waterfowler, and what made this sport such a big part of my life. Even though the hunting was poor, there is still a fire burning in me to be a part of something bigger. I started to pick that feeling apart and reflect on a few little things that are special to me, and look at the things that really define what makes this all so worth it, and how it really makes the season complete. With the season officially over in Wisconsin, it’s great to look back and not call it a wash, for there are things far greater than full straps that define success and fulfillment.
For love of dogs
First thing on my list are the dogs, everything about them. They love this as much as we do and few of us give that instinct enough credit. Hunting is part of what defines my life and if I can relate that to a retriever, well, it’s the same thing. It’s what they are, and what they were made to do. Ever stop to wonder why you obsess and grind out every single season the way you do? Sometimes it hard for me to understand why I enjoy the sights and sounds of waterfowl so much; it feels instinctive. That’s what it’s like to be a waterdog. There’s no real reason to define it, it’s just there.
To me, that makes the bond of hunter and dog so special – it’s instinctive to both parties.
Think back to your best day hunting with a great dog that fought to bring back that cripple. Very different story had he not been there, right? I often think back to all the birds found in the thicket, a few of them banded, that I would have never claimed had it not been for my dog. I think back to the heat of the summer, throwing dummies and doing basic yard work. Working hard to align the stars for when opening day rolled around. You definitely remember the days you sat and wished that you had put more work in during the offseason.
It’s a great feeling to turn over your shoulder late in the season on a cold day of hunting to see your companion giving you the look. You are both shaking a little from sitting out in the frigid temps wondering why you left the comforts of a warm bed, but that look is still filled with satisfaction. Each of you, man and dog, can see the commitment of waiting for the next flock and one last try. That’s a feeling that you can’t get doing many other things, so it’s something I have come to really reflect on more this season.
Friends and Family
Unless you’re one of those minimalist guys who only ventures out alone (or only with your pooch), you understand the value of sharing the blind with friends and family who find the same enjoyment as you do. I have been fortunate to work as a guide and also frequently travel, so I have often found myself sharing a blind with some new people and some tried-and-true hunting partners alike.
To me, sharing the experience with others fuels hunting waterfowl. That’s why we choose to sit in a duck blind over a tree stand for most of the season. Next time you are deer hunting, try to crack a joke or tell a story – you can’t. That socialization is what makes sharing a blind so much fun whether the hunting is good or not. What I have come to value is the true relationships that form and grow through the journey of the seasons. No matter if it’s deer camp, a spring turkey tag, or the early goose season, hunting brings us together. We are able to set goals and accomplish the unknown, together.
With a trusted hunting partner, so many things are possible. For me, having someone to share in my level of enjoyment is unmatched. Working hard with some of my favorite hunting partners throughout the year gives me so much fulfillment and excitement that fuels the fire long after the last day of the season. A good partner is one who helps challenge you to be a better hunter, to pick you up when the going gets tough, and is someone who you can share the greatest victories with in the outdoors. This is something that none of us should take for granted because it is one of the most sacred bonds that we can create.
On opening day, before the first shots are fired, there’s something that happens to you every year.
You are overtaken by a very intense sense of awareness of your surroundings and you realize, “it’s opening day!”
That excitement can consume you forever if you stop to take in all the little things that spark your excitement. It’s the smell of the duckweed on that first setup in the marsh. It’s the sunrise on the coldest day of the season with a warming sun that sinks right into your bones. It’s looking out into the glowing horizon in search of a few black dots that may become wing beats. It’s who we are as hunters and living the deliberate life that makes us happy. All those sleepless nights spent rigging new spreads and scouting with an empty wallet. We get beat up sometimes, but we really can’t come up with a good enough answer to say that it’s all not worth it. It’s the tiniest of things that hooked us into the sport, and it’s all the subtleties that keep us coming back for more.
This is our life as hunters. It’s filled with more than empty hulls and full straps of game. It’s about being a part of something so much bigger, something that truly helps to define who we are. What this season has made me see is that through the hardest rain and the emptiest marshes, there are all those little things that bring me right back. I have come too far and now, there is no turning back.
By Eric Mathes
Photo Credit: HardCore