For me, Thanksgiving has always seemed especially designed for outdoorsmen. Everything about it is outdoor-oriented. Pilgrims held their feasts of turkey and deer. All through literature, reference to the taking of ducks, geese, snipe, and quail are a part of the Thanksgiving scene.
In my family, this has been particularly true. When I was a youngster, the men of the family would wander off after a staggering Thanksgiving dinner to hunt quail. I always tagged along behind my Dad, armed with my trusted BB gun (I remember once firing my BB gun into a rising covey and when two birds fell, my dad let me believe for many, many years that I had actually killed one with my air rifle).
My dad was a quail hunter by nature and inclination. At a very early age, he taught me some of the fundamentals of hunting and conservation that have stuck with me all of my life. Like most sons, I suspect, I am biased in thinking back, but not once can I remember an incident in which he steered me wrong. He was one of a disappearing breed: a gentleman and a sportsman. For this I am exceedingly grateful.
Later on, quail hunting at Thanksgiving time was replaced somewhat by deer hunting. Even now, deer hunting and Thanksgiving are virtually synonymous. Dad loved deer hunting and the sound of a pack of hounds almost as much as he loved quail and bird dogs.
A Thanksgiving deer camp became almost traditional in my family. One particular Thanksgiving morning, Dad, my young son and I all bagged bucks before noon, a day I will never forget.
Although the years slowed him down a bit, my dad never gave up quail hunting entirely and still continued to keep bird dogs, mostly for my use. All I had to do was to drive by his house, pick up the dogs and hunt and, on my return, recount every point and every shot for the benefit of both of us.
One bitterly cold night in January, a few days after we had closed one of the best deer camps that I can remember, Dad left us without warning with a heart attack. Somehow you get through such times and a week or so later, in an attempt to return to some semblance of normalcy, I picked up the bird dogs at my mother's house and drove down on the bayou to hunt.
Things were just right that day. A bitter cold front had moved on. The ground was wet and scenting conditions were perfect. My fast little pointer, Bob, was feeling his oats.
We quickly found two huge coveys on the bayou bank and killed four quail. I watched my old pointer Dick retrieve them from the water.
Moving down the bayou, we found a crossing. In a little three- or four-acre patch of waste land, we began finding single birds. Bob, with clocklike and almost uncanny precision, would point; I'd drop the bird; and Dick would retrieve. In 15 minutes or less, I had sacked the limit and was on my way back to the car.
Slogging along through the sticky buckshot, I realized I was mentally rehearsing exactly what I would say to my dad in describing the hunt. The reality struck me that never again, in this world at least, would I be permitted to tell him of my triumphs and failures!
For a long moment, I was literally overwhelmed by a sense of absolute loneliness. It was a chilling, physical thing. Completely shaken, I stumbled over to a fallen log and sat down, feeling absolutely nothing at all.
I began to realize that it was getting late and that I should move on. The winter sun was sliding down behind the brooding cypress that lined the bayou. As I sat there, absorbing the somber beauty of the Delta at dusk, a very strange thing began happening. Very slowly, an almost euphoric feeling of peace came over me, and after a bit, I found that I could smile again and be thankful that the memories I had of our times together were the kind that you cherish.
A tired, middle-aged man, I got up off that log, called in my dogs and walked back to the Jeep whistling. I suspect now that this was the day on which I finally grew up, and I am grateful for another good Thanksgiving season.