THERE ARE TIMES WHEN THE BEST MEDICINE IS A DAY IN THE FIELD WITH AN OLD FRIEND AND A GOOD DOG
The healing power of an opening-day dove hunt. Plus, pigs, deer, and early teal.
Ididn’t fully understand until later. Not until the day was done, and I was leaning against the truck and waiting for Tommy to walk out of the dove field.
It had been a rainy, nasty, post-hurricane dove opener. When I picked up Tommy Krisulewczs at his house, we both felt it. The storm was scrambling our plans. No one would spend the night at Stillwater. There would be no late night by the bonfire, no big feed with Greg’s funky white Alabama barbecue sauce, and no caravan of trucks storming the field at dawn. There would be none of the pageantry and community that typically marks our opening-day dove hunt.
But I haven’t missed a dove opener since 1980, when I went home with a college buddy over Labor Day weekend and shot my first dove. That bird spiraled down into cut corn and red clay mud, and there was laughter all around the field and a pig picking afterward. It was the first time I’d ever hunted in a big group. In the years since, I’ve hunted opening day when I had nowhere else to go but crowded public fields, and I’ve hunted when “hunting” meant pulling a pickup truck into a borrow pit and sniping doves as they flew in to pick grit. I never miss opening day. So it was just me and Tommy and my little Lab, Minnie, driving east in a hard, gray rain.
The storm wasn’t the only thing that had fouled my mood. Work was a mess. I was behind on deadlines, juggling projects as all the balls fell at once. It didn’t help that it was my first opening-day hunt in a decade without my son, Jack, who was away at his freshman year in college. There are times when you just feel sorry for yourself. I had worked till nearly midnight on Friday night and was staring at a laptop at 6:45 A.M. on openingday morning. I opened the refrigerator for cereal milk, and the duck breasts and wild pig loin I’d planned to cook at the club were dull lumps on a plate. Outside, the rain pounded.
Tommy’s phone call had been a pinprick of light. Hell or high water, he was hunting too. On the drive to the dove field, he told me that he’d just returned from three days at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota—his third round in the ring with prostate cancer. I told him I was sorry, that I hadn’t known. He said he needed a day under the sky, rain or no rain, and the smell of gunpowder and fresh dirt.
For the first time in days, I felt a little lucky: Minutes from the sunflower field, the rain tailed off to a mist. By the time we pulled the guns from the cases, the sky was clearing. The storm had passed. Minnie bounded ahead, so excited that she ran with a stilted, bow-legged gait, pissing on the run.
In a field turned sweltering and steamy, the birds went crazy. Bottled up through 36 hours of hurricane slop, they rained into the sunflowers low and fast. The shooting was stupid. Minnie held steady with each downed bird, flanks tremoring with anticipation before vaulting through the field.
On my 5-gallon bucket, I thought about that little dog and all our mornings together, and how lucky I was to have my farmer friend, Robert, who let us have his dove field after the club hunt fell through. I thought about the way a dove hunter can recognize a dove in flight a quarter mile away by its arrowed trajectory and the long tail feathers and stout chest that you sense almost subconsciously. I thought about Jack at his first college football game as a student. Slowly, like clouds breaking, I began to understand how wonderful it all was.
Across the field, Tommy whooped with every bird he shot. There was no ring of triumph in his shouts. Each sounded like a cry of gratitude, hurled to the sky for the gift of this day.
Minnie picked up 14 of my 15 birds. We walked back to the truck, and I leaned against the tailgate as she rolled in a cow pie, and I swear I heard my own voice: Remember this. Remember what it feels like to lose yourself in the moment of the hunt, in the healing power of something that requires all of yourself—mind, body, spirit. I thought of how Tommy hadn’t whooped in the last few minutes, and how I bet he’d limited out too. I thought of how I hadn’t fussed about work for one single second. Remember what you never thought about.
As I watched Tommy make his way through the sunflowers, my phone beeped. A text came in, a last benediction. “Happy opening day, Pops.”