The Mockingbird and the Great Egret

There was a constant litany of nonsensical words spoken in the high boyish tenor of an 11-yr.-old.  I was riding shotgun and the 2 boys were in the 3rd row of seating in the Sequoia.  Cousins, being raised practically in the same neighborhood, and only 5 months apart, it was hard to discern which of them it was that was getting on my nerves.

The adults talked over the child, much as anyone would sitting on the back porch passing the time with friends as a mockingbird sitting on a high limb paying them no mind, constantly chortled in its mocking bird way.

In the beginning you enjoy the mockingbird’s song, but eventually you’ve heard enough and want to shout, “Shut up, already!”  But that part of my mother in me is overcome by that part of my father in me and I say nothing.

Besides, we were about to embark on a hunt with heart.  This hunt I imagined would be remembered by the boys long after we adults have gone to be with our maker.  I wanted this to be a happy memory, unmarred by a careless rebuke from a great uncle they were just getting to know.

We had target practiced the day before.  Brice, 5 months the elder, who reminded me of that at least 4 times a day in case I ever forgot, never missed.  Blake on the other hand was a bit gun shy.  No way under any circumstance was Blake going to shoot my Remington, 1100, 12 gauge shotgun.  He had witnessed Brice being knocked back a couple of steps when he shot it.  Case closed for Blake.

Blake looked the part of the athlete even at his tender age.  Blonde, almost white hair, tanned, good looking, and outgoing, you’d think he would be the bolder of the two.   But Brice, more slender with a slightly bookish bent, was the fearless one when it came to firearms.  Both boys had gone through a rigorous hunter safety course and so far had treated firearms with the utmost respect.  They hadn’t had one absent minded moment where the barrel of a gun was inadvertently pointed toward someone.  They remembered to put the safety on after every single shot even before I reminded them.  And I reminded them after every shot as I always did with every person regardless of their age.

Blake was a dead-eye with a .22

I had taken both boys with me that morning and squirrel hunted on Jack Mountain in the Highlands Wildlife Management Area about a 45 minute drive from our camp.  There had been a late frost during the early part of the spring that had stifled the production of oak and hickory in the slightly higher elevations.   But in the area we had hunted that morning, the red oak hit hard and the hickories did well, too.  I had never seen so many squirrels in the woods. It was certainly a target rich environment.

I took a sweet little Beretta 20 gauge on that hunt – 1 gun, three hunters. It was safer that way. In the beginning I walked with the gun and handed it to them when we had a shot. Brice killed the first squirrel we saw and then it was Blake’s turn. Blake missed 4 squirrels in a row. I told Blake he got one more try and then we were going to let Brice have another turn. Blake got his squirrel only a few minutes later when a big, old female chased a smaller one round and round the base of a big hickory and suddenly stopped motionless as they often do. For once Blake’s aim was true. Blake handed me the gun and both boys dived into the bushes below the road to retrieve Blake’s squirrel.

I knew Blake would never forget that moment as he came up the bank holding that big old sow by the tail.  And I know the experience will be just as memorable and probably more meaningful for me.

We ended up with 5 squirrels, Blake 1, Brice 2, and me 2.  Blake wouldn’t shoot a squirrel that was high in a tree because at that angle the gun dug into his shoulder too hard and it was difficult to keep his balance.  I respected him for giving up the shot on those squirrels. I took the shots on the ones running that were about to get away.

I eventually let the boys carry the gun full time.  We walked 3 abreast along a forest access road, ideally with the gun carrier a step or two ahead.  I coached them on how to walk quietly.  When the boys got too far ahead I would whisper them back.  They would walk with me for about 10 minutes, and then like eager puppies, their attention would drift and they would begin to range too far ahead again. 

I began to toy with the idea of a shock collar to keep them close. Then I thought about the proposition of shocking a person with a deadly weapon. I don’t care if they were kids, it still seemed a dangerous proposal, and so I didn’t muse on that idea for long.

Like puppies being trained, the boys tended to range far out.

When the squirrels quit stirring, we drove back to the camp. Danny, their grandfather and my brother-in-law from my first wife who had passed away, and Brian, Blake’s father, and Ben, Brice’s dad, had already come in from their morning bow hunt for deer.

I had anticipated deer hunting near the camp that afternoon.  After hearing the animation in the boy’s voices as they told their fathers and grandfather about our squirrel hunting adventure, I asked the boys if they wanted to go back for an afternoon hunt.   They did and their grandfather and Brice’s dad, Ben, wanted to join us.

I didn’t expect that.  Neither adult had a Virginia hunting license so they couldn’t legally hunt.  The boys were legal as long as they were with a licensed adult, which I was.  But five people traipsing through the woods together does not make for a good squirrel hunt.

I could have, maybe should have, said no.  But I didn’t.  I hid my misgivings in a smile and said, “Sure, I don’t know how it’s going to work but we’ll figure it out.”

When I was younger I would have spent every minute in the woods, traipsing into the far reaches of the long hollows and lonely ridges.  This time I’m more like the other members of the hunting club who in bygone years always hung close to camp, enjoying the comradery more than hunting.  The excuse I told myself was because I spent the first night and day in the hospital on this trip attempting to pass a 5 mm kidney stone.  The doctor had inserted 2 stents early Monday morning.  Why 2 instead of 1 I haven’t a clue. But while the stents made walking a little uncomfortable, that’s not what’s made the difference.  I blame it on the chemo, which over a year past the last sessions, I’m still recovering from.  At least now I feel like if I work at it hard enough, I can recover to a semblance of my old self.  My last 3 PET scans proved I’m still in remission.  All my labs and an echo cardiogram which I got the results for the week before I left for the camp indicated no problems.  After all the other stuff, even though it hurt like hell when the stone entered my ureter Sunday night, I can deal with it.

As Danny drove, I listened to the conversation adding my 2 cents occasionally, but mostly trying to figure out how we could make this work with the 5 of us.  I mulled the idea of driving to the end of the forest access road and walking into the woods where grandpa and dad could still see us while they hung back in the Sequoia. 

I remembered this journey when I was Brice and Blake’s age, my father driving us to the same woods and what it meant to me.  Squirrel hunting with my dad goes under the heading of Fondest Childhood Memories.  It was good/important that Danny and Ben got to experience this with Brice and Blake. And I instinctively knew it would be another highlight in my memory bank, too.

Danny turned off onto the forest access road.  We hadn’t gone 100 yards when we saw the first squirrel.  The squirrel jumped out of the tree he had hidden in when we stopped as I loaded the 20 gauge and handed it to Brice. 

By this time everyone else had piled out of the vehicle and was standing back waiting for Brice to shoot.  Brice followed the squirrel’s escape looking down the barrel of the gun.  He waited for the squirrel to stop, presenting a shot he was comfortable with.   But the squirrel kept going and was soon out of range.

Watching a squirrel as he went down into a hollow.

The mature oak and hickory forest was open and we could see all the way to the bottom of the hollow. 

“Can I follow him?” Brice asked.

I looked at Danny and Ben to get their thought and they both nodded yes. If I had been alone with the boys, I wouldn’t have let Brice follow the squirrel out of my immediate reach, not because I didn’t trust him, but because of an overabundance of caution.

“Don’t take the safety off until you’re ready to pull the trigger,” I told Brice and gave him the go ahead.

The hollow was steep and Brice carefully picked his way down the slope keeping his eye on the squirrel.  Brice followed the squirrel to the bottom of the hollow and I had my hand cupped around my mouth ready to call him back.  No way was Brice going to get close enough to that squirrel in these open woods.  But before I could shout Brice raised the gun.

One shot.  I shouted “Safety!” to remind Brice to click the safety on in the excitement.  At least he got a shot.  I really didn’t expect what happened next.

Brice walked over to the base of a fallen log and bent over to pick something up.  “No way,” I thought, “He didn’t just kill that squirrel after following it almost 100 yards in those open woods.”

But here he came, carefully holding the gun in one hand and the squirrel by its bushy tail in the other, sporting a smile you could see from 75 yards.  Blake broke over the bank and ran down to Brice like a puppy bouncing around Brice admiring the squirrel.  He took the gun so Brice could use one hand as they climbed up the steep slope together.

It’s crazy I know, but I began to tear up.  I looked at Dan and Ben who got to see the entire thing, hoping my eyes wouldn’t bleed the tear that was welling up.

God had let me survive the lung cancer, heart bypass surgery, and tolerate the kidney stones and allowed me to facilitate and witness this.  I whispered a silent prayer in thankfulness.

Brice heading back with his trophy/dinner.

There was a lot more to the hunt that afternoon, but now let me skip ahead and tell you the story of the birth of a great fisherman.

The department of Natural Resources had stocked the nearby creeks and rivers with trout the previous couple of days.  Unlike spring when they stock some streams weekly, they stock only once in the fall but mostly with what many consider to be trophy fish.

I had caught minnows on previous trips to the camp assisted by my lovely hunting and fishing partner, Mary, who also pulls double duty as my most appreciated and loved wife.  We caught stringers of big smallmouth bass on those minnows earlier in the year.  

Mary with a mess of smallmouth we caught earlier in the year.

The majority of people trout fish with store bought bait: concocted brightly colored, cheese-like paste you shape around your hook, or night crawlers, or maggot looking meal worms.  I’ve never seen another fisherman use minnows for trout.  Would the hatchery raised trout that have been fed only food in pellet form the entirety of their lives hit a minnow?

Of course they would.

Sitting in a portable blind when the deer aren’t moving, quickly becomes monotonous even when the woods are displaying their vibrant fall colors.  My camp mates were ready to give the woods a rest and fish for a day. 

I had brought five rod and reel combos appropriate for the kind of fishing we’d be doing.  First we tried for smallmouth in the Greenbrier River below Marlinton.  The river was low and very clear.  Although beautiful and the hole of water we were fishing was filled with wild geese and ducks, the fish were not at all cooperative.  We drove to the West Fork of the Greenbrier River near Durbin.   This is where the DNR stocked the big trout.

The boys were impatient as I tied on smaller hooks more appropriate for the trout than the smallmouth we had been fishing for. The river no more than a narrow creek this far into the headwaters, I expected the boy’s first casts to end hung up in the brush on the opposite bank.

A golden trout, a bright, almost brilliant yellow color, was clearly visible in the tannin tinged water.  There were rainbows camouflaged in the same run I could see only when they were silhouetted against the golden trout.

I left the hooks out for the inevitable break offs.

I was pleasantly surprised when both boys cast.  They were at ease with the light weight spinning tackle, Blake especially.

Blake had the same technique the pros used when I watched them on TV casting their artificial lures placing them right up against structure in tight places.  It was more of a flip than a cast.  After he saw the drift of the live minnow, he adjusted and put the minnow on the next cast right in front of the golden trout.  It moved to inspect but wasn’t ready to dine.

Just before the strike!

I replaced the boy’s worn out minnows for fresh ones several times. Finally, Blake started to retrieve his minnow in a dart and dash Morse code fashion in front of the trout. This was something I had learned to do to incite a reaction strike when fish were reluctant to bite, a lesson learned after years of fishing, certainly not at the tender age of 11. Blake did it instinctively.

Blake’s stance with his white shock of hair focused on the golden trout reminded me of a great egret ready to launch upon its prey. Brian, Blake’s dad was picking his way across the deepest part of the shoal just below Blake, the water nearing the top of his hunting boots, when the water erupted in front of Blake, his rod bent double. In a few seconds the big rainbow was flopping in the weeds with his Uncle Ben bent over trying to corral the flopping leviathan and Brian rushing back to help.

It was anything but comical as I watched in disbelief as the fish cartwheeled back into the water.  Ben darted after it.  Just like after Brice shot when he followed that squirrel down the hill for so long, I didn’t expect Ben to come up with the trout when he thrust his arms elbow deep into to the water, reaching vainly, I was sure, for the fish.

“No way,” I said to myself when he raised the trout triumphantly for us all to see with a secure lock on its jaw this time.

Blake with a big’un.

Brice the hunter.  Blake the fisherman.

That night I wrapped the squirrels individually in aluminum foil with a stick of butter sprinkled liberally with Emeril’s Rib Rub and threw them on hot coals in the fire pit.  The last ten minutes or so I threw on the trout fillets prepared the same way.

It was one of those meals you remember forever for a couple of different reasons.  No doubt, the memories of the hunt and the fishing trip with the boys will last a lifetime.

But next time I’ll parboil the old sow and boar squirrels to tender them up before putting them on the fire.  I slyly, feigning politeness, asked for the smallest squirrel on the serving plate.  My young squirrel fell off the bone and melted deliciously in my mouth. 

However, the guys with the old squirrels, Danny, Blake, and Brian had a slightly different experience.  Blake did better than his dad and grandpa, but all three filled up on fish and side dishes more than the squirrels, sucking on the squirrel meat because it tasted so good, more than tearing the tough old, leathery meat off the bone and chewing it. 

It tasted a lot better than it looked.

Danny put it eloquently when he wrote to me after arriving home from the trip, “I don’t think Brice and Blake will truly appreciate the trip and the events that unfolded for years to come.  They are still in the memory development stage, life is in the moment.”

But they’ll have this written bit of history to rely on as the story is retold in the future when the number of squirrels killed and the size of the trout will likely grow exponentially. All good hunters and fishermen know that the truth seldom captures the immensity of a good hunting or fishing trip. Fully half the fun of taking game is the retelling of the story. They need to learn that the truth seldom conveys the true gravity of the event. They need to learn how to stretch the story so that it only tickles the edges of the listeners’ disbelief.

They’re lucky they have a great uncle who can teach them how to do exactly that.

Uncle Greg, Grandpa Danny, Brian, Blake, Ben, Brice

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