Jefferson Weaver • The Hunt for Promises Kept
My friend called at the perfect time – after deadline, and before the demanding demons of the day realized I had a few moments to breathe.
We talked about politics and the news of the day. The conversation might have sounded abrupt or even harsh to a passerby, but it’s just the way we communicate.
As we prepared to hang up, his voice softened a little, and he reminded me that I hadn’t been hunting this year.
“You never need an invitation,” he said. “Just come on.” And I promised, as I always do, that I will try. It’s a promise I intend to keep this year, having failed miserably over the past couple seasons.
A night or two later, as Siberia dumped its excess weather on Canada, which promptly expelled it into the United States, I was exchanging Christmas greetings with another friend. Neither of us is getting any younger, but the night was cold and we started talking about coonhuntin’ as Lauren the bluetick-Catahoula was noisily trying to tree one of my housecats. Her sister Gloria (the Catahoula-bluetick, but that’s a long story) was more circumspect, being content to lay in front of the heater and absorb all the converted liquid propane she could.
“I’d hate to be catching a hound on a night like this,” said my friend, once a dedicated coonhunter of the first order. Before marriage and children and grandkids and a small business, he hauled hounds across a dozen states, chasing ringtailed bandits through hardwood uplands and hooded swamps in all kinds of weather.
The same day, I found myself waxing poetic to a young friend about the joy of running a trapline, on land or in the water, when the weather is so cold you can’t feel your fingers. She thought I was more than a little bit off.
For some of us, there is a need, more than a desire, to hunt. It isn’t a desire to kill – I don’t even want to kill the coyotes who frighten, eat and hurt my livestock and poultry, although if anything deserves killin’ for the sake of killin’, it’s a coyote. The pursuit is more important than the harvest. If it was just about killing a deer or a coon or a squirrel, there are more practical, if illegal ways, to make meat.
I can’t say if our ancestors who relied on hunted game for food had time for philosophizing about their motivations. It’s unlikely. I know some of them enjoyed the hunt, as that is well documented from medieval times and further back. You never hear stories about tales being told about gathering fruits and vegetables. There are no legends about berrypickers, or many millennia-old songs sung about farmers (though there should be.)
Cave paintings show hunters, not gatherers.
I have been privileged to sit around the fire at a particularly well-known hunting club, a place visited by more than a century of movers and shakers, industrialists and megabankers, move stars and starlets, and even my literary hero, Robert Ruark. Regardless of what one is outside the gate, when you enter the camp you are just another hunter. Some do well, some do poorly, and some will be the butt of jokes for several generations more, as long as there is hunting on that hallowed ground. There’s another, simpler camp where I am more comfortable, where my necktie and telephone have no purpose, and can be left behind with no guilt and less trepidation.
Unlike most men my age, I didn’t start hunting as a small child. I had run the gamut of Scouts and church groups and various ball-centric sports, and while each had some qualities I enjoyed, something was still lacking. When I began fishing in earnest, I felt closer to my calling. The book, Where the Red Fern Grows, caused me to obsess over redbones and coonhunting as it did several hundred thousand other kids, even before we realized it wasn’t about the huntin’, it was about the relationship between a boy and his dogs.
When I found the desire to hunt, my parents got me a mentor whose job was to teach me not to be a menace to society and myself, as well as how to hunt (in that order). It was at the sometimes-impatient knee of Mr. Woody that all the members of the orchestra tuning up to play the Call of the Wild finally got on the same sheet of music.
There would be times later, of course, when work or living in the city or any number of unsatisfactory excuses got in the way. Once there was a really poor excuse for a girlfriend. There were other obstacles that weren’t as pretty, convincing or soulless, too.
But I always come back, whether it’s with a comfortable old shotgun beside a fresh-cut cornfield, or a WWII era Springfield rifle that was converted to a far more peaceable sporting rifle when it was finished safeguarding the world for freedom.
Sometimes I return with a flintlock in hand, and in the heart, since I can’t stomach the idea of wearing modern, practical hunting clothes when I’m carrying a muzzleloader. I feel out sorts if I’m not wearing moccasins, a long shirt and a powder horn when the day’s hunt calls for a musket, fowler or Dutch rifle. I feel a bit closer to my ancestors when my accoutrements, clothing and weapon complement each other. We primitive hunters like to call it experiential archaeology, whilst our wives call it silly and normal hunters call us crazy.
Crazy is an integral part of coonhunting, as my aforementioned friend can attest. Yet that insanity is a small price to pay for a ticket to hear the music of the hounds echoing through a primordial swamp under the light of a frozen moon reflecting off the ice rimming the cypress trees.
I have a wide range of musical interests, but there is no operatic aria to match a black and tan striking trail, then tree. Few gospel quartets can match the sheer joyful harmony of a handful of happy beagles. Wagner never wrote a stirring bass martial symphony to match the roar of a Plott, redbone or a bloodhound coming face to face with a 400 pound bear. No half-dressed gyrating poptart of the moment can stir the heart and soul like a string of Walkers driving a deer from deep with a tangled bay on the first crisp day after Thanksgiving.
There are joys that come from the hunt even without a four-footed partner, of course – the sense that you own the woods for that few minutes before sunrise, or the few minutes before sunset, when the squirrels chatter and the jays criticize and the odd fox coughs. There’s the sheer September beauty of the colors of a sunset when a hurricane is a week away and the harvested corn dust still hangs in the air and the doves are twisting, turning rockets that reflect pink and purple. Then there’s the way the sun breaks across the horizon and reflects on the frost as the truck bounces out of the woods and across the field, the single dark spot in the field marking where a winterprime coyote discovered a steel bracelet guarded an interesting smell and made one last mistake.
Yes, the meat or the hide at the end of a hunt are important, although for any decent hunter that moment brings a little bit of sadness sometimes, even if just a second. But the joy that comes from the hunt itself is what is most remembered.
The joy of a new hound learning from an old one, the satisfaction of a shot perfectly placed after a long trail and stalk, the feel of a winter-full bobcat with silver dollar sized spots—those are the things that will be remembered, sung about, painted on cave walls, and photographed.
Even when there is no harvest, those are the hunts whose promises were kept.