Hunting with my wife (P3)

Kristina has been slow to acquire this brand of forwardness, though. She has become a precise shot, but not routinely a fast one. She does not always watch the dogs closely nor move to them with sureness when they are near birds. She is often still startled by a flushing bird, occasionally says Oh!” when the bird appears where she isn’t expecting it. Sometimes she will walk too strictly by my lead and close to me instead of hunting on her own. In a covey rise of wild quail she is more likely to see the birds before she registers hearing them. And I believe privately (now publicly) she sometimes daydreams in the field, hikes the easy edges of the cover where her mind can wander, instead of “busting briars’ the way I think she should and do myself. Her pleasures are, of course, her own.

I’m certain these reactions are not a “gender thing.” The popular wisdom that women are more naturally nurturers and conflict resolvers, and men better at kick-boxing, shooting down enemy MiGs, and staging public executions, has just never been interestingly proved to me. Plenty of men are not good hunters – probably most of them. And women hunt as avidly and shoot as fast as and sometimes much more accurately than men, if they’ve simply hunted as long as the men they’re compared to.

So it’s probably only experience, or the lack of it, that makes Kristina less avid. An it also may be just a personal trait, like a quickness to laughter but not to anger, or a facility for staying up longer on Rollerblades, or a sovereign dislike for the peremptory in anything – qualities I wouldn’t want her to trade for being a better covey shot or worse, for finding a way to be me. Ultimately, she makes up for not having developed avidity before she knew what avidity meant by being, in the useful spirit of comradeliness, not a born competitor; by being hour after walking hour in rising spirits about the whole enterprise of hunting, misses and all; by wishing no one to male special concessions for her, which they don’t; and by determinedly getting better.

Still, if she had found after months of trying that she simply couldn’t do it, couldn’t make progress, could please neither herself nor me, I believe she’d have laughed it off, forgotten the whole thing, and gone on to other challenges. Hunting is worth no more than that nowadays – forget what those men with hushed voices say. In the modern era, hunting is just a choice you make over windsurfing.

I don’t remember actually learning to shoot. I remember a few times my grandfather tossed up some No. 10 tomato cans out at the little farm lot he owned outside Little Rock, and I shot at them with an old side-lock Savage that belonged to his brother Buster. As I got better, he tossed up smaller cans. Later, my pal Danny Henley and I lied our way onto the skeet range at the Capitol Gun Club in Mississippi – saying we were the sons of men we were not the sons of – and there shot at clay pigeons part of one summer. No instructed us. No one talked to us at all, and we weren’t inclined to invite conversation on ourselves. We may simply have been afraid of being terrible shots in the presence of slightly threatening strangers and got better that way. We were young, too. Learning was easier

I must have learned just by doing, as the poet advised, in those years when I had plenty of time and friends who were no better than I was – hiking out on cold January school afternoons to stalk but usually miss resident bluebills on Vickers Lake, or stealing into somebody’s absent grandfather’s cutover milo field to shoot roosting doves in the dusky tree lines. It was in the casualness of youth that these skills accrued.

Allied, of course, to the issue of learning to shoot is the issue of learning to miss, which ought to be spoken of at least briefly since from the beginning, as I’ve said, I have watched Kristina miss many, many birds in many, many situations, felt that thump in my chest many times, wished better luck for her, pummeled over why it didn’t drawn, spoken encouragement, suppressed all comment, until over time her missing became a feature of my hunting life as well as her own.

Missing what you shoot at is a confounding aspect of learning to hunt, though not an inglorious one, since it means the bird gets away, somehow eludes you, which is no disgrace, and good for the bird. The goal is certainly, 100 percent, to hit everything. But hunting isn’t a matter of succeeding by killing (hunting with someone you love makes this very clear). Men, the buckos I hunt with, men who have hunted all their lives, miss all the time. I miss, too, though God knows why. Maybe I’m distracted or hung over or too tired from hunting the day before. Maybe shooting’s not as easy as it looks. Beyond that, all of us who have hunted all our lives have occasionally shot beside men and sometimes women who never missed, for whom missing simply wasn’t a concept. And surprisingly enough, it isn’t even dispiriting. Such aberrant precision’s, in fact, a cause for speculation that the shooter is probably a bad person, a Mensa member, a person with odd habits, a man who’s snide to his wife and too strict with his kids, and who does everything the same way: bitterly, mercilessly, well.

When you first go hunting, though, everything seems to be about shooting and missing. A novice – though Kristina never evidenced this in my presence – becomes possessed by the idea that people who don’t know how to hunt almost always miss, and that people who know how almost always don’t. Once, along the Smith River, below some chalky rimrock where there were clumps of still-green roses and wild sage scrub, an old rooster burst up in front of our dogs, and I cleanly missed it straight away, both barrels, not even feathers, after which Kristina just stood looking at me, her gun on her shoulder

“Why didn’t you shoot?” I asked, feeling once again the thunking sensation in my chest.

“Well,” she said, in a way meant to encourage me, “You shot, and you always hit everything. So when the bird didn’t fall, I was so surprised I just forgot to shoot. I didn’t think you ever missed.”

“So you know now,” I said glumly.

“Well. Yes. I guess I do,” she said. “I’ll remember that.”

In her case, in all those early hunting years with me in Montana and Tennessee and Mississippi and Arkansas, I don’t know why she missed the birds she missed, though there are plenty of good possibilities: She shot behind the bird, shot under it, shot over it, shot through too-thick cover; she shot too fast, shot too slow, she lowered her cheek to the stock instead of raising her stock to the cheek, she didn’t get her safety off smoothly; she dosed one eye, closed both eyes, die bird was out of range. Or none of these. Moreover, for a beginner, as she was, missing is doubly, even triply, enigmatic, since you are never sure if you missed because you lack skill, or because you lack luck, or because of some other reason, some defect in your person you know nothing about and never will. Missing’s a reproach, a disappointment, a mystery, a potential deal breaker.

Leading may also be a problem.

“Tell me how to lead them,” Kristina asked me one warm February morning on the Cumberland Plateau, when I had persuaded her to stand in dose on a covey rise, but without shooting, so she could hear the burst of wing sound, see the true size and shape of the quail, learn how much time she actually had to shoot. She’d missed some that morning.

“I don’t lead them,” I said, which seemed to puzzle her. The truth is I’ve never believed that I lead birds, not upland birds, anyway – grouse, quail, woodcock, partridge – birds that hide, flush fast and startlingly, and instinctively put obstacles between you and them. I have always been of the cover-the-bird-shoot-and-keep-on-swinging school, a protocol similar in spirit to a pitcher’s habit of following through on his big fastball; this, rather than hanging a load of shot at a guessed-at distance in front of a flying, darting bird and expecting the two will collide.

Kristina’s first hunting experience, long before I figured in things, was with her father, an Air Force flyjockey, and her younger sister, Lisa, on the dry sage flats of northern Utah, near where her father was stationed. Her pappy, a typical Kentucky boy, liked to shoot mourning doves in the late afternoons after work, and his pleasure was to find the birds in the trees near the water, take a position that offered cover but also clear shooting, then send his two little girls giggling and skipping across the open fields to worry the doves into flight, whereupon he would shoot as the birds passed over the water by habit, and the sisters would bring them back. Leading, I think, was his idea. “You have to lead them, Krissy,” I’m sure he said to his breathless, slightly awed daughter, age 8, showing her the little duff-colored birds collected on the rough ground at his feet. And maybe he did lead them. Maybe, being a pilot, he knew how things flew. It’s conceivable. But each time I have tried to lead a quail or a pheasant passing in front of me so that I thought the shot was sure, I have missed. Something seemed odd – something about not shooting straight at the bird (which seemed testing enough) but shooting instead at some supposed spot in the wide air you hoped the bird would occupy. Too much calculation seemed required in too little time. Though it’s also a fact that many times I have stood under a flight of slow-winging Canadas, heard their sharp cries, raised my barrel to the nose of a bird and fired and missed, or, more unhappily, seen the one behind it – the wrong bird – fall. And I always say the same thing when this happens: “They fly faster than I think. Maybe I should lead them.”

There is really no single rule that nicely applies to the problem of positioning yourself to shoot. In one way it just seems common sense to get as close as you can to a departing bird. Yet in another way the challenge of hitting a bird in flight is often met, not as a result of common sense, or doing everything right, but as a result of doing sometimes very few things right – often just pointing and pulling the trigger when a bird comes into view.

I’m sure I have been remiss in teaching Kristina how to position herself, an omission that resulted – at least at first – in her displaying a kind of tentative, wandering, atomistic behavior when the dog went on point. A basic, though not exclusive, premise of positioning is that the hunters (two is perfect, three stretches it, four is unwise) should walk toward where the dog seems to be pointing, staying in the dog’s sight if possible and in view of the other hunters, expecting this movement to excite the bird or birds to flight. This scheme isn’t always workable in dense cover or in trees, in which case one hunter moves to flush the birds by walking toward them, sometimes sacrificing a shot, while the other hunter positions herself so that, relative to the dog and the cover and her partner doing the flushing, and thoughtful of the wind and the sun and which direction the bird might fly, a shot becomes feasible. The presence of a body of water or some other close-by topographical oddity may also affect one’s choice of position. Pheasants seem always to want to fly across a river where you can’t go, so that positioning yourself to close off a river escape is always good. Pheasants will also often fly when they have run to the margins of thick cover, so that getting quickly up to where the cover thins is a wise idea. Hungarian partridge will often fly if they hear you or see you top a rise of land and become visible by silhouette, so that keeping to the low ground and downwind is useful. There are a lot of these things to think about, a lot more than I’ve said, and it all has to be done in a hurry, without much planning, or the birds will get up and fly far away, and you’ll never see them again.

There seems to be a self-defeating human instinct in such situations as these – when birds are present and one is not sure where to stand – to stay back, to stay out of the immediate area of the dog, the birds, and the other hunters, as if what one really needs to shoot a flying partridge is not avid, prompt advancement toward a point of forced confrontation and flight but a wide panorama for the bird and oneself to occupy jointly, across which one will have available the fullest number of shooting strategies rather than simply the best one. Many times I have walked toward my dog, where she has locked in on I knew not what – a rooster, a flock of Huns, a skunk, a porcupine, a deer, a rattlesnake – only to look around to see Kristina poised, ready to shoot, but with her feet locked in cement like a hoodlum at the bottom of a river, 20 yards behind me, or farther. This is the occasion for more furious but silent arm-waving and stage whispers: “Get up here, get up here now!” Actually shouting, “Get the goddamn hell up here and get ready to shoot!” would frighten most birds to flush, and also distract you from what you’re doing – trying to flush the bird yourself so that get a shot.) I can only suppose there must be something about this tableau – a poised dog in wild cover with precious, alerted birds ready to fly for their lives, and you yourself there with a gun in tense and expectant limbo – that has an element of danger in it and causes less seasoned human beings not to want to make a mistake, or to risk shooting badly, or to be unsafe, or in any way to be less than the situation demands, and so keeps them at a distance.

I should do better. I should be more purely teacherly toward Kristina, and lately I have tried. I’ve stood back from the point, shouldered my gun, pledged not to shoot no matter what. I have calmly directed her forward, making soft-spoken, mindful mention of the cover and the topography and the footing and the wind and the impediments, and of what I guessed the dog to have found – a pheasant, a partridge. I have pointed out what was in range – those trees, those rocks, the edge of the plowed ground, that fence: “It’s why you have a gun. You can reach things far away.” Though I’ve told her, too, if you think a bird is not in range, then don’t shoot at it. Crippled birds that watch flutter and limp away leave a dry and bitter residue in memory, and is much, much worse for the bird.

Still, there is an urgency to these moments I can barely resist. This avidity in me, learned over such a long time, these nearly instinctual replies to the vital evidence of hunting, these will disappear out of me after a time – used up – and some jealous part doesn’t like spending them in efforts to bestow them on someone else, even someone I love. Part of hunting’s essentialness to those who do it involves loss of this peculiar, anticipated kind, and the attendant feeling that certain chances, certain moments, don’t come twice, and you must be scrupulous to husband what you know and can do. Everything heads toward solitary extinction. And in a way that’s affiliated, hunting is, in large part, an act you do for yourself alone.

When I began to hunt ruffed grouse, 12 years ago, with my friends Geoff Norman and Carl Navarre in southern Vermont, I was eager to prove myself a hunter, having put in all my years down South hunting quail and feeling I was up to whatever one hunted in the other latitudes. So that with them I was always eager to walk in to flush a pointed no matter the weave of the cover, supposing I would get the t shot but also prove myself to be a selfless, stand-up guy by busting (a paradox all too standard in my nature). Yet my experience came to be that I would flush the bird and Norman would get the good t, leaving me immobilized in a poplar thicket or a cedar clump or a dense orchard of fallen apples, where I would either miss or not even to shoot, and could only listen, my heart tingling, as the bird rocketed through the branches, all but invisible…(P3)

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