Field and Stream - - CAMPFIRE - IN­TRO­DUC­TION BY T. ED­WARD NICK­ENS Pho­to­graph by DON­ALD M. JONES

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.”

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