The Smell of the Hunt


We first meet at a Ducks Unlimited Banquet in Queensport in the mid-80s. Fate seated my wife and me with T.C. and Skip - a father/son lawyer team from nearby Bronson City. Classic southern gentlemen they were - sharing my joy rather than showing jealousy - when the auctioneer called my name as the winner of the grand raffle prize, a Mercury outboard motor. T.C. was in his 60s and Skip was nearing 40 back then. They were more than law partners, more than father and son. They were best hunting buddies and it showed in the twinkle common in their eyes as they jointly enjoyed that dinner.

My initial evaluation of those two was confirmed and re-confirmed many times over the next several years. We first shared a hunt on my little corner of the Holston River in the Christian's Bend section of Hawkins County. T.C. was the fasted gun in the east, sometimes discharging his often used Remington Model 870 from somewhere between his hip and chest before Skip or I could ever shoulder our weapons - let alone aim and fire. He was deadly, too. And he was great company with a thousand tales from the good old days of duck hunting on Currituck Sound on the North Carolina coast. It didn't matter that the three of us were only able to scratch out one limit. "That's why they call it hunting instead of killing," he'd say.

Once my teenaged son, Andy, and I traveled with T.C. and Skip 700 miles to Arkansas to sample the Ky-Ark Hunting Club and the hospitality of Miss Ida Butler at the Butler Lodge near the White River. I wanted Andy to see first hand why I marvel at the sight of thousands of ducks in one place where you can actually hunt them. I wanted him to hear the raucous, near deafening sound of hundreds of snow geese in a single flying-V. I wanted him to hear guides expertly persuade the ducks to choose our spread of decoys over all the other spreads in the Mississippi flyway. Mostly, I just wanted Andy to be with T.C. and Skip - to see the example of the way I'd choose our relationship to be thirty years from now.

Last year I cried. Skip called to say his dad was now legally blind and for the first time in his memory would not be going on their annual father/son excursion to Currituck Sound. But my tears vanished as pride welled up within me. Skip asked if I'd go with him to Currituck in his dad's place. We'd hunt with their old guide of nearly a half-century, Bootie Caldwell. He has his own little setup - a pond of a couple of acres in the middle of the marsh. "It'll be great," Skip said, "always is."

And it was. I learned first hand why T.C. became such a quick and accurate shot. The teal, bluebills, blacks, and cans that come screaming through the spread are on you in a heartbeat. More significantly, if you don't shoot straight and true immediately, the downed bird ends up in the marsh - a retrieve too exhausting for most dogs and too exhausting for just about all humans.

Skip and I called T.C. to report on our success. The conversation was bitter, sweet for Skip. His tone of voice made it clear he missed his old hunting buddy from all those years. He chose his words carefully, too, so as to avoid leading his dad to the sin of envy since T.C. couldn't be there, too. His report, laced with the most descriptive adjectives I ever heard, included all the things we had seen during our three-day hunt.

T.C.'s response was equally eloquent. With an undertone of nostalgia that would break your heart, T.C. reminded Skip and me that we use all our senses when in the wild and that our next report should include what we heard and what we smelled.

He reminded us how wonderful bacon smells cooking in a pan over a charcoal bucket, how the smell alone from a freshly opened thermos of hot coffee can warm you on the coldest day, how heavy the air smells just before the beginning of a big snowfall, and how the smell of recently burned gun powder makes the heart race as fast as it did just after that first kiss.

We cleaned our guns that night in the motel room before beginning our eight-hour drive the next morning. As Skip cleaned the Model 870, I noticed the tears running down his face. He saw my stare and in self-defense he simply said, "It has daddy's smell."

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