The Best of the Day

No matter how the day ends, its beginning is a gift that hunters share.

There are, of course, certain professions whose members are in on the birth of many new days: loggers, railroaders, pilots, cowboys, farmers, police officers. I like to think, though, that hunters are blessed with a unique — some might say mystical — affinity for the day’s earliest moments. We live for them. Whether we stand with a rifle on a mountain in Wyoming or kneel in a Louisiana duck blind, we are transported to someplace pretty close to heaven when, at last, the eastern sky starts to show color — when the pines on the far canyon rim become sharp and distinct, when the first flights of bluewing teal slash overhead, when the scent of elk moves in on the breeze — and we feel that electric twinge between our shoulder blades that tells us we’re as tuned in as any human being can get.

But there is a price to be paid for the privilege of watching dawn come. We have to settle for a few hours’ fitful sleep and then abandon our warm bed or frost-glazed sleeping bag in the middle of the night. Sometimes, regrettably, our compulsion to rise early causes someone we love to feel slighted. We still go. We often skip a decent, warm breakfast and make do with a cup of instant coffee and a lumpy muffin — or nothing at all.

In the black, silent hours we roll out, get dressed, feed and saddle horses, unchain bird dogs, set out goose decoys, hook up duck-boat trailers, fumble around to find missing socks or binoculars, call the weather service, fret about our bum knee, climb into a tree stand with a flashlight clenched in our teeth…. We scrape ice off truck windshields and drive bad roads, sometimes for hours, fighting drowsiness, bolstering ourselves with the belief that if we can only get to our favorite spot early enough, magic will happen.

And invariably, whether we kill game or not, it does happen — at least during those first glowing minutes of a day, when hopes are sky-high and nothing seems impossible. By sundown, we may be heading home flush with success. We may just as easily finish the day exhausted, empty-handed, half frozen, and discouraged.

But, just as Bogie so memorably said to Bergman in Casablanca, “We’ll always have Paris,” we will always have the way the sky looked one bitter-cold morning when hundreds of Canada geese rose in a cloud at first light and fragmented into smaller bunches, when some of those bunches headed straight for our field, and the lead bird of the lead group locked his wings the instant he saw our setup.

We’ll have the memory of sitting on a high, rocky reef in the Bitterroots, listening to bull elk bugling in a timber basin, shifting our gaze between a brilliant moon descending in the west and the first lance of sunlight coming through lodgepoles on the eastern skyline. We’ll have endless coyote music, the grunt of moose, and the harsh, metallic cries of rooster pheasants. We’ll have the stars, the bite of the wind at timberline, the smell of sagebrush, the silly splashing of coots in the cattails, and the ghostly swoop of owls. We’ll have the first sip of hot coffee from a battered thermos, the otherworldly sound of ice fractures on sheet water, and the whistling wings of mourning doves. We’ll have the thrilling clink of rolling rocks as a muley buck climbs unseen out of a dark ravine and then, on top, pauses to look back, his elegant form silhouetted against a pink sky. We’ll have the look in a Lab’s eyes when, at last, the tailgate drops, we swing the sack of decoys onto our shoulders, and speak the most exciting words a retriever can hear: “Let’s go.”

By the time most of our fellow citizens are up, we hunters have already had the best of the day.

We are a damned lucky bunch.