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  • August 20th, 2018

IT’S IN THE BOOK

By Joel M. Vance

I started bird hunting in my 20s but only started keeping a diary or a daily log of my adventures in the field I half a century later. 50 years lost. Not totally lost, of course. The years cough up bits of themselves. The memories are conveniently skewed so my shooting recalls better than it was, and the dogs of recollection are far more efficient than the dogs of actuality.

The real value of a diary is in the narrative, that spot, however extensive, where you relive your impressions of the day. I tried to go beyond the dog-and-shot brags to the real meaning of the hunt.

Golden hemlocks flaming in an alder bog? A grouse fanned on the ground in front of the dog? The pup tentatively bug-eyed on his first woodcock? The ghost buck that you glimpsed, but didn’t shoot at (or the snort in the night just before dawn and legal shooting hour)? The turkey that came in behind you so close you could hear his measured footsteps in the dry leaves and his spit-and-drum?

“Really nice day,” I wrote back in 1986. “Good dog work, good shooting, good guys to be with. Andy is so much fun to hunt with. I’m lucky to have such a fine son and good hunting buddy.”
Andy is halfway through his 40s now and I am half way through my 80s. And 1986 was more than 30 years ago. It’s not so much what was written but that it is a remnant of life of importance to me, certainly, but potentially for those who will read it long after I am gone.

This is the stuff that needs telling so you can recall it once again…or so someone else can. Maybe you never again will crack the pages, but someone will. Your son or daughter, your mate, maybe your hunting buddy, grown old and with eyes too dimmed to see the flicker of a buck’s tail in the dark woods, but not dimmed to where he can’t read about those times you enjoyed together.

I remember the first quail I shot. It flushed under my feet as I struggled out of a Chariton County gully and I got the old Stevens single shot half-mounted and pulled the trigger.

That gun was the bastard child of the Missouri state animal–my all time favorite equine, the mule. It kicked me back down the slope of the ditch and the top lever ripped a chunk of meat out of the webbing between my thumb and forefinger. My memory tells me I killed the bird and perhaps I did, but it’s more probable that I created a dead bird as the consolation for having maimed myself.

Memory is far more certain of the fact that a large Labrador retriever ate the first rooster pheasant I ever shot, filching it from the tailgate of my station wagon where I’d left it while I went looking for someone to brag to.

And I remember shooting two boxes of shells on my first dove hunt without scratching a feather. “That’s all right,” said my host. “It’s not uncommon at all.” “Then why do you have a limit?” I grumbled sourly, indicating the pile of defunct doves on the tailgate of his vehicle, and he had the grace to blush.

I should have been writing all that down, the defeats as well as the triumphs, but I didn’t, not for all those lost years. There were the thousand and one hunts that Foster Sadler, my best friend, and I made together–trips to the Dakotas for prairie grouse, camping along the ridge in north Missouri where the turkeys prowl.

Foster’s pointer, Joe, was the first bird dog I hunted behind. I spent half of the hunt jumping when Foster or his father would scream, “Joe! Cut your head in, dammit!” thinking they were shouting at me. Mr. Sadler not only was the school superintendent, but also our basketball coach and I was not his most apt benchwarmer.

Most hunting diary entries are dull enough to put an insomniac to sleep: “Two coveys. Big one in beanfield flushed wild, up to road. Ginger pointed 3 birds. Guff found dead bird. Andy missed, I missed….” And so boringly on.

Nothing much changed in my shooting, I see (one for five that day), but Andy certainly is better than the 0-for-2 of that 1984 opening day of quail season. Later on that year, I see we put up a bunch of woodcock at the Stringtown access. It was a consistent woodcock producer then, but the pole thicket grew out of favor with the little bogsnipe and now you won’t find them there (which is why I have no compunctions about naming the place–you couldn’t have dragged it out of me with white hot branding irons in 1984).

There are other reasons for keeping a journal. There always is the chance that you’ll become famous and someone will plunder your past for archival material. Thoreau would be just another nut living on chokecherries if it weren’t for his journals. Lewis and Clark are familiar to us because of their daily jottings. Journals don’t have to be literary efforts. They are a sketch of your thoughts, your experiences. They recap the day as you saw it, in whatever detail you care to supply.

For the literal-minded, a journal is a dry recitation of statistics. My father, not given to imagination, carefully recorded the weather conditions in his journal. He might mention that he and Chaps had treed and shot two or three squirrels in the Bend. Little Chaps was the product of an affair between a cocker and a springer spaniel. She was the quintessential squirrel dog. She treed them and barked until my father appeared with a .22 single shot Winchester.

That team accounted for many a squirrel over the years, but what did my father think about his relationship with the faithful little dog? I’ll never know, for he didn’t write it down, only that it was dry, but looked like rain, and the temperature was 75 degrees. The corn was made and the beans looked good. My father was a farmer first, a hunter second.

But my dogs raced through my journal pages, muddy and bloody, triumphant and chagrined, sometimes heroes, sometimes goats. They were my partners and I wrote their entries for them. It was a ritual. Each evening, after I cleaned birds and ate, cleaned the shotgun, took a shower, I got the diary out. I always paused a moment to collect my thoughts–but as much as anything to savor the pleasure of this ritual. There was a woodstove in the family room and I would open the doors to let the flames flicker hypnotically.

I could feel the soft warmth of the stove, the pleasant ache of my legs and arms after the long day. Sometimes I would read the previous hunt’s entry, though it still was fresh in mind, just to contrast that one and today.

Occasionally, some event is so transcendent it leads my entry, but mostly the writing is chronological, a progression of events. “What a wonderful day! Hunted deer early and shot at a spike buck at 30 yards. Had crosshairs right on his chest and missed. Saw a huge gobbler on way home running across Highway C. On to quail at H-C. Bumped a river bird and dumped it nicely. Ginger found it in the prairie grass. Missed an easy shot at another, then doubled on a double point. Missed a pointed bird on first shot, nicked it on second and lost it. Scrivner Road–saw a covey fly out of milo and land, circled them and Guff pointed nicely. Hit one of two on covey rise. Didn’t follow. Then saw about 40 turkeys and another covey that flew out of milo across river. No shots. Beat Andy one-on-one in basketball…twice!”

I found later the scope on the deer rifle had been mis-mounted and the gun was shooting ‘way off. The “river bird” was one from a covey that invariably flew a sizable river out of range. Killing any of this covey is a triumph.

Andy was 16 then, lean and tall, and I was 52, short and, well, flabby is a fair word. But I nailed him twice on the basketball court. That day was a jumble of unrelated events that, in total, brightened my life for a time.

Lined Big Chief tablets or a three-ring binder notebook will work as a journal, but they aren’t exactly pretty and they deteriorate. A formal log is an incentive to use and it also is more durable.

One hunter I know uses accountant’s ledgers, bound in pebble-grain imitation leather. There also are commercial shooter’s diaries. What you put in a diary is subjective. Some enter weather, scent conditions, the minutiae of fishing and hunting. It may help to know that the water reached 62 degrees on April 17 last year if you’re trying to figure out when to start crappie fishing. But it may not if this year is colder or warmer than last year–a thermometer will do you more good than year-old information. On the other hand, it will be of interest to read that “today I caught the first crappie of the season in shallow water, earliest ever.”

Covert locations and detailed maps are helpful if you have a brain like a sieve and are prone to forget where you killed a limit of woodcock in 45 minutes. I may forget my children’s birthdays, but I damn sure never forget a limit covert. Sketch maps are most helpful when there aren’t many landmarks and the turns are tricky. I’ve been into some northwoods coverts where you either know the exact route, within a couple of yards, or you flounder hopelessly in alder bogs. One involves a beaver dam crossing; another is through a hemlock thicket. There are no alternative routes. There is the right trail or there is the Creature From The Black Lagoon.

Here is what should go in a shooter’s diary: the date of the hunt, weather conditions, companions (most important), the area hunted, guns and loads used, the hunt results. If it’s a bird hunt, list the dogs and if you’re box score oriented, you can list finds and retrieves (and backs, too, which are like assists in hockey and basketball), and shots fired and species bagged for yourself.
I’d rather rely on memory when it comes to shooting success. Time blunts hard edges. Actual figures tend to depress.

Sometimes one mood overrides everything and it is the bulk of the entry. “The pits! Dropped Nikon motor drive in creek. Then Ginger rolled in something long dead and stinking. Guff and/or Ginger bumped the only covey we found and the birds vanished. Jo rolled in something worse than Ginger did. Toby rolled twice in cowflops and ate horseapples twice in the first 200 yards of the hunt. It’s a wonder lightning didn’t flash out of a cloudless sky and the last voice we hear is huge and booming, growling, ‘I don’t know, guys, there’s just something about you that ticks me off.'”

I suppose the super-organized keep a log for each activity: Hunter’s Diary, Angler’s Diary, Shooter’s Diary, and so forth. There even are computer database programs which invite you to fill in the pertinent information for a given outing. Then you can call up information in various relationships, even print it out. But that seems stiflingly technological. I don’t want a journal to help me kill more or even kill better; I want one to help me remember.

One friend is meticulous. His log is a model to which the rest of us can only aspire. He draws neat sketch maps of grouse coverts that look as if Rand and McNally did them. His printing is monastic, elegant and ornate. I suspect he’d decorate with gold leaf if he could afford it.

My diary, in contrast, is a scribble which looks like the prescription file at a pharmacy. There are blots and beer stains and what looks suspiciously like shreds of last year’s woodcock dinner.
But it is legible to me most of the time and that is what counts. There is an entry from Nov. 21, 1984, which tells me it was “Beautiful–sunny and 40s.” My hunting partner was Foster Sadler, first time we’d hunted together for a long time. He’d had some problems and we just hadn’t gotten together. But now we were out and he had his old Parker and I shot my L.C. Smith.

Just a couple of old friends with old guns. The dogs didn’t work well. Foster shot a wild flushed quail for the only bird of the day. But I didn’t mind. It was enough being out with a friend of nearly 40 years. We found a small stream on the back side of nowhere and made plans to fish it come spring. A few weeks later, I find an entry that begins: “The perfect day…” and goes on to detail a long, solitary hike across the ridges of a favored hunting area. “Everything was simply fine,” I wrote. “I’m proud of my pups and feeling more relaxed than for a long time.”

The next entry was five days later and it is terse: “No hunt. Today is the day I lost my hunting buddy, Foster. There’s no space here to record 37 years of memories.”

It was cold and cloudy.
-30-

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