I was born a Maine sportsman, raised a Maine sportsman, and will die a Maine sportsman. Thanks to Dad. Just like Dad. My first memories are of pheasants, rabbits, setters, and beagles. Or course, before that, there was the hunter safety course and lots of shooting at the range of my Dad’s club. Ezra Smith insisted on that.
We raised English setters and used them to hunt the pheasants Dad’s club raised and put out all over Readfield, Winthrop, and Monmouth. I’ve never forgotten the experience of shooting my first pheasant, with Dad right beside me, in a field at the end of Maranacook Lake. In that exact spot, there’s now a house.
We also had beagles and I absolutely loved rabbit hunting, the cold mornings, the trudge through the snow into the woods, usually up on Memorial Drive. The baying of the beagle, and the knowledge that the pursued rabbit would run in a circle and pass right by me if I got into the right spot, was electrifying. Occasionally, I even shot one.
Dad also taught me to trap. He always accompanied me to check my traps, early mornings before school, on a nearby stream. It was so exciting to find a muskrat in a trap. And we returned to that same stream to hunt ducks. I have a vision of a flock of Black ducks flying low over our decoys, and Dad saying, “Shoot!” We shot at the same time and each got a duck.
But it was deer hunting that put us in the woods together for the longest periods of time, and ironically, the sport that I was least successful at, initially. I didn’t shoot my first deer until I was 25 years old. I’m remembering that there weren’t that many deer in the 1960s – but that may be fanciful thinking.
Dad introduced me to deer hunting on his old farm in North Wayne and in 2013, we hunted there for the 53rd year. That’s where I shot the Thanksgiving buck, one of my favorite deer hunting stories. I was sitting on a bucket in the woods, behind an old cemetery, and Dad was hunting his way up over a ridge from the farm, towards me.
It was a very cold and icy day, and I heard the tromp, tromp, tromp of a deer coming from a long way off. I got the gun up, aimed for a small opening in the trees, and when the deer – a huge buck – stepped into the opening, I shot.
Tromp, tromp, tromp, he continued on his way. I had missed. As the family gathered mid-day for a Thanksgiving feast, I was morose. Worst Thanksgiving ever.
The next day we decided to try it again, only I moved slightly to have a better shot if a deer came up over the ridge. Thirty minutes after I sat down on the bucket, I heard him coming. Tromp, tromp, tromp. I was sure it was the same big buck. And it was. And this time, I hit him.
But he continued for a ways, so I shot him again, and he ran straight into a tree and flipped completely upside down. Dad said he could hear me hollering, even though he was several hundred yards down over the ridge. Best day-after-Thanksgiving ever. Particularly because Dad was there with me.
Eventually, I purchased a woodlot in Mount Vernon and we started hunting there. One year we shot nice bucks two days apart. I got the first one, 155 pounds. Two days later, Dad was sitting in one of our favorite spots, when a buck burst out of the bushes, running right at Dad. His buck weighed 155 pounds too.
Eventually, as Dad and I got older, the hunters’ breakfasts became as much a part of our tradition as the hunt. But every year, one or both of us would get a deer, and we piled up story after story after story. Some were pretty amazing, like the time Dad was sitting just outside the bog, watching a ground scrape, when a spike horn walked up to him and he shot it. Before he could even get out of his seat, a huge buck came along, following the spike horn.
I returned to that seat the next day, and sure enough, the big buck came back. I was reading a novel when I looked up and he was straddling the scrape. I put the book down, picked up the rifle, and shot him. He weighed 196 pounds and had a beautiful rack.
And then there was our last year. Dad was hurting but determined to hunt. I put a chair up near the road, at the top of the steep hill that leads down into my bog, and told him to sit there while I thrashed around in the bog. But he trudged all the way down the hill, and when I found him there, it took over an hour, with a lot of stops, to get him up the 200 yards to the road. I knew then it would be our last year of hunting together.
Dad was in the Hospice Unit at the Togus VA hospital, unable to hunt the next fall. But he hadn’t given up fishing. Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife stocks a small pond on the hospital campus, for the patients. I took Dad out there five times, and casting from his wheelchair, he caught brook trout. For sure, at the age of 91 and in poor health, he was still a Maine sportsman – and we were able to create more wonderful memories.
Opening day of the deer season in 2014, the day after Dad died, wasn’t the same. But I returned to our favorite spots, thought a lot about Dad, and let the memories flow by me. Today, I wear a piece of his clothing, on all my hunts, so he’s still out there with me.