An Ode to Fall in the Field

“What is it about grown men sitting there in camo, waiting for those little birds to fly over?”

Photo: All by Chris Granger

It always feels different when the air turns in September. I don’t know what it is, exactly—pressure falling, temperature change, clarity in the shifting wind. Sometimes, as hunting approaches and the fishing gets better, I wonder if humans feel the same molecular buzz that sends birds to migrate, deer to rut, and fish to feed. My neurons always fire on those cool, clean evenings like the one my friend Matt and I shared on the water last week.

“You feel it?” I asked him as a single dove whipped by over tailing red drum, marsh hens cackling backstage. “It just feels more alive out here. Like something’s going to happen,” I said.

“Second weekend in September,” Matt said. “Just like the flounder tournament used to be.”

“That’s right. Bibs and boots. Mullet everywhere. Blue-winged teal and doves. Deer moving.”

“The beginning of the end of summer,” he said.

I’ve always been partial to fall.

Go back another weekend to the opening of dove season, and you would’ve found me in a cornfield looking up from a seat while birds traded from wire to field to woods. I’ve sat on a lot of buckets in a lot of fields that weekend through the years.

My wife (who grew up in a hunting family and, to her credit, looked at a plate of doves the other night and said “That looks so good” before devouring them) asked me a viable question before opening day.

“What is it about grown men sitting there in camo, waiting for those little birds to fly over?”

I paused.

“I know,” she laughed. “I’ve been around it forever, but you have to admit it’s just funny.”

I paused again. I laughed too.

“Well,” I said, “it’s hard to explain.”

What followed, I’m sure, was one of my typical diatribes on birds and fellowship, dogs and men, and the fact that the cookout before the hunt and the eagles circling on thermals above our 3:00 shade-tree nap were just as cool as scratching out a couple limits of doves.

Thinking about my Labor Day hunt with her dad, and opening day hunt with mine, I can’t help but add nostalgia. Sure, at the end of the day, it’s nice to walk out with a bag of birds and think about fowl wrapped in bacon off the grill. And sure, if you break it all down in a practical sense, it might seem odd. But to the fathers, sons, daughters, friends, and dogs, those moments in the field mean more than I could ever explain.

We used to hunt a hillside field back in Burke County, near the North Carolina mountains. The slope was sown in millet, milo, and sorghum. Doves poured in from the woods, and I learned how to shoot and how not to shoot from a bucket under a tree. Pretty simple, yes. But I was learning a lot more without knowing it.

My granddad and his buddies were there, in the shade of the porch, and every once in a while one of them would lean out and shoot a bird. Dad and his friends scattered in the field and found the good stands. They brought barbecue and beans, casseroles and cold drinks. They started at daylight and volleys echoed off the Catawba River bottom all afternoon.

Mostly, I was an observer, retriever, and shot at some doves. But I was building confidence. I watched them carefully as they gathered around each other. Some shot at low birds, some cursed when they missed, and others performed like sportsmen. Some men told stories, and others listened. Some dogs ran out wild in the field, and others minded at heel.

I realized that my dad was a reliable wing shooter and an organizer of events. Martin Lang was a crack shot and a comedian, and his little female lab was a rocket on a string. Randy Loftis III and his buddy Slinky were really thirsty and shot like Wild West gunslingers. My granddad was a marginal shot, same as he was on ducks, but seemed to draw people to his laugh, listening, rocking in a chair, squeezing all the time he could out of the day.

Gradually I learned when to shoot and when to wait, when to talk and when to listen. I observed the difference between drinking too much and having a good time. I knew what it would be like to have a good dog. I knew what it would feel like to be surrounded by friends with a common, simple, reputable interest in an often-questionable world.

My dad’s dad passed away in 1994. In his last moments, my granddad spoke to his nurse about things she didn’t understand. She found my dad and asked him to explain “pintails” and “oyster fritters” and “d’coys.” When he told me that, years ago, I realized the importance of many things: Hunting. Dads. And great moments outdoors, just to name a few.