The Good Old Days
My father fished from a plywood boat he built in our backyard and powered with a sculling paddle. He worked long hours but somehow still found time to catch stringers of crappie and bluegill from the area sloughs and ponds. When the weather turned chilly, he put away his boat and picked up his Remington 870 and, more often than not, returned with squirrels or rabbits, often with me in tow but only at my request. His outdoor passions were not pushed upon his children.
It was under the tutelage of this quiet, no-nonsense, practical-minded man that I was introduced to the world of rods and guns and dogs and wild game and wild places and my place in them. The lessons, brief though they were, stuck.
The trips were both pleasurable and practical, as the game he brought home reduced the grocery bill and filled our supper plates, laying the foundation of the philosophy that occasionally puts me at odds with my trophy-hunting friends and even with myself: Wildlife is a resource not to be squandered or hung on a wall. If you kill it, cook it—or give it to someone who will.
Then it all ended. Stricken with cancer, my father left a teenage son numb with confusion and frustration. Into this void stepped Mr. Hickman, a neighbor, whose rod and gun skills also put food on his family’s dinner table. He became a mentor, friend and unlikely hero, a man of limited education but boundless outdoor wisdom and unbendable field ethics. Through his guidance, I found solace in the woods and waters. I still do.
Later, searching for more, I was delighted to learn that Christ’s first disciples were fishermen and eventually came to share the shaky though harmless theological view of Norman Maclean’s sons.
Eventually, outdoors became my work, an unintentional legacy, of sorts, to the men who set the groundwork.
A few years ago, I was invited, along with some other media folks, to observe a wild turkey trapping project. This was when birds were still being trapped and relocated as part of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ turkey restoration project. (The restoration work has since been completed. Kentucky’s turkey flock, estimated at nearly a quarter-million birds, is one of the finest in the nation.)
We arrived at first light. The weather was chilly but not cold; the sky overcast and threatening. Rain would thwart the project, so it was hoped the birds would arrive early. The agency workers made final preparations to the trap site, which was baited (illegal for hunting, legal for state game agency trapping) and flanked by five or six small cannons that would launch the net and trap—but hopefully not injure—the clutch of birds.
The men quickly finished their work, and then everyone, including the invited media, crowded into a small blind. A thermos of coffee and a box of donuts appeared. Working with wildlife requires a blend of stealth and patience. There was nothing to do but wait for the birds.
Joe Bland, then the conservation officer of the department’s 3rd District (now retired) was one of the guys in charge. Joe is also a skilled turkey hunter and dedicated conservationist.
The press, which included a TV film crew, was assured that they were in for a short wait—that turkeys usually appeared around 8 or 9 o’clock. But turkeys being turkeys, I recognized this as PR in its purest form. Turkey movements are impossible to predict with any real accuracy.
As mid-morning came and went, optimism waned, especially among some of the invitees. Bland adopted the role of cheerleader.
“They’ll show up,” he assured the TV crew members, who were becoming antsy.
Just then, a small flock of birds appeared at the edge of the woods, then scurried to the food plot in that clumsy, awkward way turkeys have of moving en masse when they’re not frightened. The cannons exploded and the net soared over the food plot, penning a dozen or so birds. Workers streamed from the blind, moving quickly to secure the turkeys before they injured themselves struggling against the heavy net.
Bland appeared at my side. We watched the organized chaos.
“People talk about ‘the good old days,’ ” he said. “My father hunted in Kentucky all his life. He never killed a deer. He never harvested a turkey. Those things are common now. If you ask me, these are the good old days.”
I thought of my father and my friend Mr. Hickman, both of whom I recall commenting that there was nothing good about the good old days. I doubt they were referring to rod and gun sports, but if they had been, their opinions would certainly be different today.
Readers may contact Gary Garth at firstname.lastname@example.org.