My father has been a lifelong hunter, fisherman, and general outdoorsman. One of my favorite parts about him, though, is that he has just never been very good at hunting or fishing, at least in the traditional sense. His limited success has paradoxically inspired in me a deep love for hunting and fishing.
On his annual waterfowl excursion to the Lake Huron waters near our home, my father struggles to wingshoot; he jokes his shotgun must have a defective curved barrel. Fishing seems like a game of luck; one spot seems as good as the next to his eye, and his stringer is by turns full or empty seemingly at random. Never as intense as some other hunters, he never entered the woods without steaming, odiferous coffee, and couldn’t help crunching his way through every snack wrapped in the loudest of crinkly foil.
A Michigan deer hunter of many decades of experience, my father has never shot a deer. To those unfamiliar with my Michigan-based progenitor, this makes him sound like a bumbler, or, at the least, a poor provider of wild fish and game for the table. To me as a child, he was nevertheless the rugged outdoorsman of the magazines I saw on the shelf at sporting goods stores. In my mind, he was a hunter and angler, nevermind the results. On the contrary, it made any time we had a successful hunt or fishing excursion all the more special. Moreover, it focused me onto the experienceof hunting and fishing.
He created a love of the process early. I grew up attending an annual “Deer Camp” hosted by a family friend at his wooded property. My father brought me as soon as he could convince my mother it was a worthy endeavor. My earliest “hunting” memory was as a lad of 6 accompanying my father on what I now realize was a simple walk along a wooded path. I was easily convinced of his earnestness by the (comically) large hunting knife he brought along.
In the following years, we actually began hunting in reality. Sitting in field edges, under trees, we pursued highly pressured deer in southern Michigan to no success. Indeed, success was seeing anything vaguely brown. The first doe I observed was almost magical.
Over the following years, my father designed and created a series of box-style blinds throughout the property, every new blind increasing in complexity. Game still eluded us, but at least we were out of the wind. It was only after I began hunting alone that I harvested my first deer at the age of 15 - a small “Michigan 6-point” with a broken antler I shot with a slug gun.
My father was the first man to respond to my frantic phone call, the first to help drag the fallen buck out of the ditch it was in, and - in all honesty - did almost all the field dressing of that first deer. I harvested several more deer at that property, and he was always the first to come to offer aid and help.
Unfortunately, he was never able to connect. One year, he missed over the top of a deer. The next, an ill timed bathroom break forced him out of the blind (gunless) in time to spook a large buck heading his way. Never one to back down, he never linked hunting to harvesting.
Instead, my father was a teacher, a helper, and the ultimate “hype man” needed by a rather awkward young man. To him, enjoyment flowed from the experience, never from the results.
In 2021, it was my honor to host him on a Arizona Coues deer hunt. It was a wildly different experience. We hunted public land instead of private. He took in the desert and mountain vistas with pleasure, pleasantly surprised at seeing more deer further out than he ever had before. I was struck by the reversal of roles - I had the tag this time with him as the excited observer. Fittingly, we had a series of unfruitful hunts.
The mix of novelty and nostalgia lasted for a week. After seven days of hard hunting, it was time for him to return home. The morning he was to return to the airport, he graciously insisted I hunt while he packed up. Sure enough, a fine buck appeared as if by magic in the same spot we had watched for a week. A quick stalk later, and I met success, but my father had missed out on another harvest.
My father was, once again, my first phone call. Once again, he helped me clean, carry out, and begin processing the deer. His grin was the same size as the grin I remembered when I was 15. As he was perilously close to missing his flight, we hugged goodbye at a public processing station. I stayed with the deer, he traveled home to Michigan.
Simultaneously, I dissected the experience as I did the meat from that deer. Initially, I felt bad about harvesting without my father present. At the same time, I knew it was possible that his absence improved my chances of a harvest - whether through his snack odors, a clumsy movement, or a reluctance to stalk with two people. Had I cheated my father out of his first taste of deer hunting success?
A phone call from the airport put my worries to rest. My father had made it to the gate on time. Even better, he had shared “our story” far and wide via phone, text, and social media. That phone call had nothing but gratitude for the experience, excitement for future hunts, and a focus on how much fun we had together.
As I focus on raising my own family, I hope that I can somehow channel his positive attitude in the future. If anything, I almost regret that I have had my kids join me on successful hunts. Maybe that way, they could have imbibed the positive attitude that the experience matters more than the meat. Then again, maybe I will try and do both.