“I’d rather have a moment of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special” – Steel Magnolias
That quote probably explains better than anything I’ve ever heard why hunters and fishermen take to the woods and water. What they’re after isn’t just food for the family; those days are long gone. Although it’s hard to beat venison tenderloin grilled over hot coals or a brace of wood ducks nestled on a bed of wild rice, few of us depend on wild game to keep body and soul together.
No, the reason most of us leave a warm bed in the dark of night to stumble through the woods or mortgage the family milk cow to pay for a new fishing boat has little to do with what we expect to bring home at the end of the day. It’s all about the pursuit of special moments – those instances when time seems to stop; experiences that are frozen in our memories long after other, more mundane, things have faded. Folks who don’t hunt or fish often have a hard time understanding. They equate success with a full game bag the same way some people define happiness as having a fat bank account. Don’t get me wrong, being rich is better than being poor; and a 30 lb. king mackerel certainly trumps a 6 oz. pinfish in the cooler. But, in the outdoor sports, it’s about a lot more than bagging a trophy.
Consider for example an early season bow hunt. I climbed into a tree stand one afternoon and watched the dusk begin to settle over a hardwood thicket I figured deer would traverse on their way from a cutover to some nearby bean fields. I was focused on a couple of gray squirrels cavorting on the forest floor when a slight movement caught my eye. I looked to my left and there stood two does – both definite shooters. One was occupied with some fallen acorns but the other one – a big-bodied, chestnut brown whitetail – was staring a hole in me. She knew there was something in the tree that didn’t belong there but she didn’t know exactly what it was or if it was a threat.
Outfitted in a “Leaf-a-Flage” suit complete with a head net and camouflage gloves, I figured I was part of the tree as far as the deer was concerned, at least as long as I didn’t move or she didn’t detect my scent. What followed was about five minutes of intense mental and visual warfare. The deer stomped her foot in an effort to get me to react, craned her neck and almost constantly tested the wind. I, on the other hand, remained rock-steady, even partially closing my eyes so she wouldn’t see the whites or catch movement.
Eventually, the deer relaxed, lowered her head and started picking at some white oak nuts. My instinct was to raise my arms and shout, “I won!” Instead I also relaxed a bit, only realizing then that I had been as tense as a bow string the whole time. I continued to watch the deer as they fed in a circle around the stand and gradually moved away from it.. Occasionally, the larger one would look back and I would freeze. Several times she moved behind foliage that gave me an opening to pull my bow but I was content to just watch the two of them feed. I told myself I was being selective, waiting for a larger deer – maybe a big buck – to appear. In reality, I didn’t care whether or not I filled a tag that afternoon. My hunt was already a success. I had been eye-to-eye with a crafty, mature deer and hadn’t been busted. During those brief moments I wasn’t even aware that I was breathing or my heart was beating. It was something that can’t be recreated anywhere but in my memory.
I recollect having similar feelings bass fishing on Virginia’s Back Bay years ago. The Eurasian Milfoil was so thick in most places that the only way to fish effectively was to cast a weedless lure and start reeling an instant before it touched down and sank in the thick foliage. I perfected the art of skimming a Johnson’s Silver Minnow spoon across the grass, watching intently as it approached small, clear pockets in the vegetation. One thing I never did master was my nerves when I would see a bulge in the water following my plug. It looked like a small submarine running just below the surface and it might be right behind the lure for ten feet or more. I knew when I saw it that, at any moment, there would be an explosion and the plug was going to be engulfed by a bass that might be a yearling or the trophy of a lifetime.
As in the case of the deer, the bass following my lure created a scenario that was incredibly intense and seemed to occur in slow motion. Such moments are like scenes in movies except, in real life, there are no fake special effects or stunt actors. The persons involved are the real deal and so is what’s happening around them.
I’ve been fortunate to enjoy special moments in a number of outdoor venues. A tom turkey blasting the air with his baritone gobble right behind where I was sitting in the early morning woods is definitely an experience that will outlast any game I might have bagged. So is a trolling rod doubling over and the reel’s drag starting to scream as line disappeared in cobalt blue ocean swells.
Special moments don’t have to be enjoyed by just the hunter or fisherman. A bird dog locked up on point at the edge of a thicket, trembling with anticipation as the mesmerizing aroma of bobwhite quail fills her nose, waiting for the eruption of feathers and the explosion of a shotgun certainly experiences something that makes an indelible mark on her mind and in her heart. I know it does on the hunter who eases up behind her and then pauses for a moment to take it all in. It’s one of the “moments of wonderful” that make a “lifetime of nothing special” worthwhile.