The last flights of woodcock were trickling through the Wisconsin north country, the flaming brilliance of a few weeks earlier having faded to somber gray. My friends had pulled out at first light, leaving me to do a “soft” close on our hunting cabin. Sometime after Thanksgiving, we’d reconvene to drain the pipes, shut off the propane, and close it down for the season. Geese were moving ahead of a brisk northwest wind, and bands of dark clouds scudded low. One minute, the landscape would be thrown into shadow as volleys of snow rattled down; the next minute, the brightness of the sky would be blinding.
I’d budgeted an hour for our final hunt. Endings are always bittersweet, but no matter what happened, my English cocker spaniel, Rumor, and I had enjoyed a good season. The birds hadn’t come easy; there were days we hunted long and hard to bag one or two. But it felt as if we’d hunted well, making the most of our opportunities.
We drove to a sprawl of brushy popple studded here and there with towering white pines. Another squall arrived just as we did, rudely peppering me as I let Rumor out of her crate. I was hoping for a lingering woodcock, but after 45 minutes of bouncy, industrious hunting, my little dog hadn’t flushed a bird. We were nearly at the turnaround when she made a quick move to my right. A woodcock twittered up, and, just like that, the skunk was off.
Soon Rumor flushed another, and with two in the bag I decided that the long-billed birds were safe from us for another year. You can sense the line between satisfaction and excess approaching, but it only comes into focus when you’re a single step from crossing it. Walking back to the truck, it seemed like wishful thinking to hope for a crack at a grouse before we got there, but when we did, I pulled three birds from my vest. —Tom Davis
For an elk hunter, the Trophy Room Lounge in Last Chance, Idaho, was an oasis in a desert of needle pine trees, a place where you could buy a burger patty from the bar and cook it on a grill, then sit by a wood-burning stove where a bulldog named Mutt napped on a scrap of rug.
I was 13 days into a 14-day muzzleloader season in the Centennial Mountains, and although I spent most of my nights under the stars, several times I hiked out to drive into Last Chance, where I drowned my hunting woes with a Virgin Mary.
On that 13th day, I’d climbed all the way to the Continental Divide and was trudging back to camp on a gravel road when a pickup pulled alongside me and a man with a heeler riding shotgun offered me a ride. On the short drive to my camp, I held the dog on my lap and confessed to this good Samaritan that in two weeks of hunting I had yet to see a legal elk. He told me to pet the head of his dog for luck, and to hunt my last day up Tin Cup Creek.
That evening, I drove into town, where I flipped my burger and petted the broad head of the bulldog, figuring if one dog was luck, two were better luck still. On the last day of the hunt, with no more than an hour of light left in the sky, I shot a cow elk up Tin Cup Creek.
The Trophy Room Lounge burned to the ground some years into the echo of my shot. Built on its ashes is a high-dollar lodge that has outdoor hot tubs and riverfront vistas—but no grill, no soul, and no dogs to pet for a hunter’s fortune. Only the memories remain. —Keith McCafferty
The only way to beat end-of-hunting-season withdrawal is to close on a note so high you don’t mind that the song is over. To drop the mic and walk away. Two years ago, I lay staring at cold, empty skies that had been full of Canada geese the day before. Late in the afternoon, I accepted the fact that the geese weren’t coming back and decided it was OK just to be out on the last day. I dug electric mittens out of my bag, set them to high, found my snacks, and settled back into the blind. Even without geese, life was good.
And then it got better.
The author’s last goose of the season came with some bonus jewelry. Dean Pearson
The flock came in silently. I never saw them until they were 100 yards out, bellies nearly catching on the stubble. When they backpedaled, I shot the leader and the goose next to it. The rest flared, except for one that popped straight up.
Our limit is three. I hesitated for a moment, debating whether I should end the season, then thought, Of course I should. The goose hit the snow feet-up. I could see the band on its ankle from the blind. In a few seconds my gooseless vigil had turned into a triple, a limit, and some last-day jewelry to remember it all by.
I could almost hear the thud of the mic dropping as I picked up my geese and headed home. —Phil Bourjaily
Merry Christmas to Me
It was the night before the final day of the year’s final deer season, and the forecast called for a wintry mix. Christmas was coming, and the kids were hoping for snow, which adds a little magic to the season. And to a hunt. Any outdoorsman will tell you that there’s something about new-fallen snow that transforms the woods, rendering them full of promise. Like anything can happen.
When I woke up, though, it was to the sound of rain pounding the rooftop. I almost didn’t get out of bed. But it was the last day, so I wrapped myself in rain gear and my muzzleloader’s action in cellophane and trudged out into the downpour, telling myself that the conditions were perfect for sneaking into a buck’s bedroom.
I knew the locations of all the conifer-sheltered knolls and ridges where these big-woods deer liked to bed, and I filtered into each one without a sound. To no avail. By midday I was miserable, and by afternoon I was freezing cold and cranky. There was one last bedding area to check before heading home, a knoll where deer lay up under the canopy of 100-foot white pines with their backs to the massive trunks. I slipped in and ghosted from tree to tree until I was sure the place was void of deer.
As I stood there, sulking, a streak of white fell past my face, and I looked up to see against the green ceiling of the pines that the rain had turned to snow and that huge, heavy flakes were now parachuting down between the tall pillars and falling softly all around me. I laughed at my luck. Of course it would start snowing the second my season ended. Oh well, at least the kids will get their Christmas magic, I thought.
And when I turned to leave, there was a buck standing right in front of me, not 20 yards away.
It was long drag home over a patchy blanket of wet and sticky snow. But I couldn’t complain. It would have been too much, after all, to ask for a sled too. —Dave Hurteau
Call It a Season
One evening, I sat and made turkey calls with Harold Knight. He invited me over because it was February, the month when you begin discussing turkeys, and because he enjoys making turkey calls with friends.
Most people who press their own mouth calls use gauges to precisely measure the stretch of the latex to thousandths of an inch. Knight just eyeballs his and then listens to each draft, like a guitarist tuning strings by ear. I told him that I like double-reeds, with a little split V or splits on the edges, because I do a lot of soft calling on public ground.
I sat against a cypress tree and belted out a blind string of loud yelps on Harold Knight’s mouth call. I didn’t expect a turkey to gobble, but one did, just 75 yards away.
He worked with the confidence of a surgeon, making slight cuts to the reeds with tiny scissors. “Try that,” he said, and handed me a call. The first one made turkey sounds but not good ones. Knight held up a hand, as if this was an expected part of the process. The second call was closer, and when I tried the fourth one, he said, “OK, we need to step outside so you can lean on that one.” It was perfect.
I used the call all through the spring season, and by the last weekend, the poison ivy was a foot tall, and it was hot. At 11:15 in the morning, I sat against a cypress tree and belted out a blind string of loud yelps on Harold Knight’s mouth call. I didn’t expect a turkey to gobble, but one did, just 75 yards away, its fan popping into view seconds later. I finished him to 25 steps with some soft yelps and filled my last tag of the spring. I placed the call on the dead bird for a photo, and when I did, my dry finger stuck to the wet reed, which ripped away from the frame, rendering the call useless.
But I still keep it in my vest. Some things, like the memory of a spring season ending on a perfect note, you don’t throw away. —Will Brantley
Seven years ago, I made a pit stop in Iowa for three days of goose hunting on my way home for Christmas. The first shoot was one for the books—three limits of corn-fattened honkers in less than an hour. Day two was a different story: Not a single shot was fired. My buddies and I all hoped for a rebound on day three.
Five minutes into the final hunt, however, we knew it wasn’t going to happen. The wind had vanished, the sky was too blue, the sun too warm. I remember thinking it would’ve been the perfect winter day to go trout fishing. Time crawled as we stuck it out till the end of shooting light.
When the hunt truly seemed over, a couple of us sat up. Just as we were about to begin fetching the decoys, one of my friends spied a group of birds approaching from our left. “Get down,” he said. “We still have time.” We hunkered back into our blinds and waited for the call.
The three of us sprang from our coffins, 12-gauges blazing. We emptied every chamber from every gun—and missed every single shot. As we watched the geese flap away, we muttered some choice words, then sat in a stunned silence of disbelief and embarrassment. Eventually, we rose to pick up the spread, and by the time the final deke had been bagged, we were already poking fun at our piss-poor shooting. “We’ll rest this field for a few days and come back next week,” one friend said.
“Wish I could be there,” I replied.
Truth was, blanking on that final flock of geese marked the end not only to my pit stop in Iowa, but also to my hunting season for the year. We walked back to the trucks. While I was a little bummed to know the annual end had come, I also couldn’t help but smile at the thought of going home for the holidays, knowing I’d now get to greet my family with a surprise gift—a Christmas goose. —Colin Kearns
Autumn had gone long at Black Mesa mine in Arizona, where I’d been working on a crew doing mine reclamation—and where my dreams of big-game hunting in Montana had ticked away with each bluebird desert day. The drive home was endless. At the house in Corvallis, the snow was no more than a couple of inches deep, but the elk-hunting spots I knew best were in the high country, already drifted in and empty. I dithered on the couch as the season faded.
Finally, on the next-to-last day, I set out long before dawn. The house abutted a state game range, and I decided to walk up there, through familiar sagebrush country, heading for timber a couple of miles away. It was the longest of odds. The place wintered a small herd of elk that shifted over to private land with the heavier snows, but I’d never seen a bull there.
The bull swung his head toward me, his wide anters almost black—and bigger than those on any bull I’d ever killed. Impossibly, he stepped forward into a clear, well-lit space, broadside.
I reached the timber just after shooting light, sweated through, the snow crunchy under my boots. Firs and ponderosas came into focus against the sky as the light strengthened. On an open hill, I found a melted-out oval in the snow where an elk had been lying, with nearby patches pawed away and the grass close-cropped.
I followed a single set of tracks uphill into another stand of timber, and in the gloom there, I made out the horizontal line of the elk’s back. There was no wind and no way to move quietly on the crust. I simply stood there, breathing. The bull swung his head toward me, his wide antlers almost black—and bigger than those on any bull I’d ever killed. Impossibly, he stepped forward into a clear, well-lit space, broadside.
It took me three days to pack him out and down to the house. I brought the antlers and the last of the rib and neck meat down on the morning after the season had closed. Those antlers are hanging on my barn right now, almost 30 years later, reminding me that it isn’t over until the last light of the last day. And that you’ll never kill anything from your couch. —Hal Herring
End of the Road
For two decades, I hunted big game on an industrial basis. This required the horror of air travel. But the last hunt of the year, in mid-December, was eight hours away by SUV in a wide place in the road called Scherr, in West Virginia. It is not the drive down that sticks in my memory, but the drive home, which, as time went by, took on the nature of a pilgrimage.
It began in the dark of morning on a mountaintop, with a mile-long downhill skid on a nonroad, three times through—not over—a winding stream that could be a trickle or a raging torrent. Next was a paved road that twisted and wound its way through what West Virginians call “gaps,” breaks in the mountains carved over eons by streams, ancient when people traveled on foot and horseback.
By and by, I drove into the present, and if I’d timed it right, I would emerge onto a highway and a mountaintop just as dawn broke. From there to home was a grind, but it let me reflect on how lucky I had been to have the season, or any season, because you don’t get to hunt forever.
Indeed. There is no more stream fording in the dark of morning or sunrises over the Blue Ridge Mountains for me. But I remember it all. Hunting season is over, but it goes on as long as the hunter does. —David E. Petzal
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