January 1, 2021.
2020 is finally over. It was a helluva year. It wasn’t ALL bad, but it was different. Very different.
Here’s an example.
At about 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, November 25, the day before Thanksgiving, just as hints of daylight were appearing in the southeast sky, four (relatively) old men huffed and puffed their way for about half a mile through a cut corn field to the top of a hill, hoping to arrive at their destination—a decoy spread set a half hour earlier alongside a weedy fence line where their shotguns rested against the top wire of the barbed wire fence so the hunters could find them in the dim light—before that first “scout goose” came buzzing in over the decoys.
In other years, only one of them would have had to make that walk through that field a couple miles east of the Missouri River near Washburn, North Dakota. The driver would have left his buddies on that fence line after the decoys were set, and driven off to park the vehicle across the road, down low where they figured incoming flocks would ignore it, and then he’d have walked back through the field alone, hoping to arrive before his partners shot that “scout goose.”
But this year, four men in three big pickups and a Suburban, under instructions from She Who Must Be Obeyed to keep their “social distance,” all drove to the top of that hill in darkness to set those decoys and unload guns and ammo, and then four vehicles left and parked across that road, and four hunters headed back to their decoys and guns, dragging heavy boots made for keeping their feet warm, not for hiking.
That was 2020. I’m guessing you know it well.
Earlier that fall, those same four vehicles had sat parked side by side on an approach alongside Highway 1804 east of Lake Oahe, south of Bismarck. Passers-by on that road must have thought there was an army out between the tree rows on that quarter section of PLOTS land, but it was only Jim, Jeff, Wayne and Al, hoping to bring back some pheasants to throw in the back end of those vehicles before going home.
Making matters worse, the last of our hunting dogs had gone on to that great “happy hunting ground” in the sky the winter before, and it was our first hunt without at least one little black and white bundle of fur bouncing around in front of us, bumping birds into the air to at least give us old guys a chance to put something in the back of our vehicles.
After a couple of hours of pretty leisurely walking up and down tree rows, with only one bird in the air and one missed shot, we decided this wasn’t all that much fun, and that somebody needed to find us a younger hunting partner with a couple of good dogs. We’ve become spoiled by our love for traveling and afternoon naps, and frankly, none of us has the energy, or the patience, to train, or care for, another hunting dog, at this stage of our lives.
So our attention has turned to waterfowl, and when the big black Canada Geese moved to the Missouri River this November, after all the little lakes and creeks froze over, it turned out to be a pretty good hunting season. There are geese in the freezer at four homes in Bismarck-Mandan. And with gas under two bucks a gallon, it didn’t hurt quite as much as it might have, to take four vehicles on every trip.
We’ve also gone a full year without sharing any time in a fish house or a boat. Solo fishing is an escape from the boredom of homebound isolation, but we’ve missed the conversation over those mid-morning Bloody Marys, made with my own tomato juice, and stirred by my pickles and Wayne’s deer sticks.
You might think we’re overly cautious, but the first number in our ages is 6 and 7, putting us in that “vulnerable” category you see in the pandemic charts. Our caution has paid off. So far. As I write this in early December, we’ve avoided catching any bugs that might have laid us low, pretty important for guys in our age group. We’ve decided we all want to live to see another season, and God willing, we’ll make it. Jeff says a couple of quick pokes in the ass this spring and he’ll be drinking Bloody Marys in the boat at ice-out. Heck, maybe even in the fish house at last ice.
But it’s been a long, mostly disappointing, year. The idea of going through a hunting season without putting a pheasant in the frying pan for the first time in about 60 years is troubling. And I was feeling pretty down-in-the-dumps about it when a text message arrived from my brother Blake, who lives in Sioux Falls, on Thanksgiving.
Let me tell you about Blake. He’s younger than me, the youngest in my parents’ brood of seven. He’s the cheerful one, the happy one, quick with a joke, and always looking for the sunny side of things. He’s not quite ready for full retirement yet, after a pretty successful career in the insurance business, but the 2020 pandemic kept him from his office much of the year, and provided him a taste of what it’s going to be like when he doesn’t have to go there at all. Like me. He tells me liked it. A lot.
His Thanksgiving text really cheered me up. It read, “I woke up in the night and was thinking about this year. I have caught and eaten more walleyes than I can ever remember. Golfed a few days a week most weeks. Saw upwards of 500 roosters get shot over my dogs (he runs a couple of German Wirehaired Pointers and sidelines as a hunting guide at Flying J Outfitters out of Polo, SD, in the fall). I have a beautiful loving wife who allows me to take an afternoon nap with my grandson when I am not doing one of the above.”
He went on, “You know, this virus is not going away, but at the risk of sounding selfish, I believe that I have been blessed with so much more to be thankful and grateful for this year than there are things to be angry and bitter over.”
Well, little brother, that’s not selfish. That’s taking a year full of lemons and making lemonade. Lucky for us, you and I had a dad, all those many years ago, who chose a place like the little town of Hettinger, right down on the North Dakota-South Dakota line, smack in the middle of some of the best pheasant hunting and bluegill fishing in the world, to raise his family, and taught us to appreciate the joys of life here in Dakota Country, a place where “social distancing” in the great outdoors just comes naturally. And we had the good sense to stick around.
One of these years, little brother, I’m going to come down there to South Dakota and shoot a few roosters over those pointers, and one of these years you’re going to come up here and sit on that fence line with me and pop a couple of those big old B-52s with their wings spread over the decoys.
Maybe this year?
(Reprinted from the January 2021 issue of Dakota Country magazine.)