Many sportsmen realize there is a lot more to hunting and fishing than putting a bragging-size animal on the ground or in the boat. They understand that the outdoor experience is a cornucopia of sensations, including some auditory. That’s right – sound. Experienced hunters and anglers know that the sounds that accompany their favorite recreation help to make their time in the field or on the water special. Some, like the crunch of oak leaves underfoot on a fall afternoon or the hiss of the surf as it slides up a barrier island beach, are generic to any outdoor activity and can be recalled by anyone who ventures out of the house on occasion. Other sounds, though, are heard only by those who call themselves hunters or fishermen.
Outdoor sounds can be classified according to the effect they have on the person who hears them. Some are startling. They cause an involuntary crouch, a quickening of the pulse, a gasp. One example is the “woofing” sound made by a black bear when he’s surprised by a hunter on his way to a deer stand in the predawn darkness. Another is the roar of wings as a covey of bobwhite quail explodes from some thick cover unexpectedly. Both are what a friend of mine used to call a S.E..E. – Significant Emotional Experience. They are sounds that, once heard, live in a sportsman’s memory forever and are part of what makes the outdoors special.
Other sounds might be considered anticipatory and, to a certain extent, they are what keep a hunter or angler hanging in there day after day, year after year. Sitting in a deer stand, a hunter hears a steady, shuffling coming toward him though the dry woods. A ten-point buck, a 600-pound bear? It may be nothing more than an overweight possum out for an afternoon stroll but the impact is the same. The suspense is almost palatable. It’s something that a non-hunter might find hard to understand but, in some respects, it’s the epitome of what hunting is all about. The actual appearance of the animal is almost anticlimactic.
A comparable experience for waterfowl hunters is the quack of mallards or whistle of widgeon as they pass by overhead. The birds’ vocalizing suggests they are looking for company. The fact that the hunter can hear them means they are close enough to decoy – and might if the waterfowler can make a seductive sound of his own with a duck call. But, even if they don’t drop down and cup their wings, the plaintive sound of the birds is as much a part of the hunt as the chill wind and the heft of the shotgun. It’s the song of spring on the Canadian prairies, of moonlit nights over Chesapeake Bay and frosty mornings in a Pamlico Sound stake blind.
People don’t generally think of sounds as being part of the angling experience but offshore fishermen know better. The steady drone of the boat’s engines, the splash of waves against the bow, the whine of the wind around taut monofilament lines and, most dramatic, the scream of the reel as a rod bows and line goes ripping off. Those are the sounds bluewater sportsmen know so well and cherish so dearly.
There are other anticipatory sounds that make time in the outdoors special: the “slurp” that a big bluegill makes as it takes a bug off the surface in the shallows of a farm pond; the hurried scratching of a squirrel when it heads down the side of a white oak tree on a frosty winter morning; the “whirp-whirp-whirp” of doves’ wings as they sail over a cutover corn field. One, though, is a sound that probably represents a particular sport more than anything else. It’s the gobble of a tom turkey. Resonating through the spring woods, the mating call of a lonely gobbler is the very essence of turkey hunting for all who pursue those regal birds.
A third category of outdoor sounds are those that are simply part of the background. They’re sort of of like the music you hear in an elevator. The cawing of crows in the distance; the contented purr of a squirrel just before it crawls into it nest for the evening; the whistling of wood ducks as they begin to stir on a wooded mill pond at first light. These are some of the sounds that we tend to take for granted but also some that the world would be much poorer for it they didn’t exist.
When I was a kid, I would lie in bed at night and listen to the whistle of a train as it headed down tracks a mile or so from my house. To this day, whenever I hear a train whistle in the distance, I get a warm, safe feeling. I get the same feeling when I hear a coon dog baying in a distant creek bottom on a chilly, autumn night; or a flock of swans honking as they wing their way past a cabin on the Alligator River in the half-light of dawn. Those are sounds that are as ancient as the ages and as special as anything I’ll ever experience in the outdoors.