Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pop, and Learning to Hunt and Fish

I remember…
                It was early.  The stars were still blazing in the frozen sky as we crossed the barbed-wire fence and started into the woods on a long-unused road bed around the side of the mountain.  The deep grass was white with a heavy frost that gave the impression of a light snowfall instead.  It was cold.  To my ten-year old body the cold was a probing blade seeking gaps in my none-too-efficient armor which consisted of an old pair of Texas Steer work boots from Kmart with all the socks I could fit in them, long johns and denim pants topped off with an undershirt, a long sleeved pull-over, a flannel shirt and a coat.  My head was capped with a knit cap, primarily called a toboggan in the Western end of North Carolina. 
I wasn't worried about the cold at this moment; I had one thing on my mind, and that was   squirrels.  The mountains around Maggie Valley, North Carolina are full of them and this was the first day of hunting season.  And my dad, whom we have always called Pop, was taking me and my brother Roy hunting.  It would be the first of many trips into those woods learning the ins and outs and ups and downs of squirrel hunting.  We made it a tradition and we almost never missed first day until my brother and I each joined the military and could no longer make it. 
Pop planted the seed…
Pop got us our first guns.  My first was a daisy BB gun and my brother got a Crossman air rifle.  Later we graduated to our first shotguns; a .410 for me and a 20 gauge single shot for Roy.  We were in hunting heaven.  He taught us gun safety early and often, and we learned to respect firearms.  We had no question what they could do; the evidence was vividly displayed in our first squirrels and doves.  Young people who actually learn to handle real guns don’t have a problem with treating them with the respect they are due.
…back to the hunt…
We eased quietly around the dark mountain in the graying dawn and up to a ridge that runs out from the side of the mountain, where he turned us up and back into a large stand of old-growth hickory trees.  The mountains across the valley were turning grey by now and Pop picked us out two nice spots and told us to watch the trees above as the morning progressed that the squirrels loved the hickory nuts and would be in for some breakfast.  He was going to circle below and get some at another spot, just down the mountain from us.  Pop had taken us with him hunting near home along the Catawba River many times before we got old enough to carry a gun so we were safe. It never occurred to us that we could be otherwise, besides, looking back, I realize that he needed to kill his limit, if possible, to help feed our family of six, at the time.  Money was tight and squirrels were good food for the cost of gas and a few shells. 
Roy and I sat and waited while he eased off the ridge to circle the base of the mountain.  The cold came creeping and probing in short order.  It’s one thing to stay warm while you hike around and up a mountain.  It’s an entirely different story when you stop moving and your heart rate slows down.  My fingers and toes went numb first, and then I started shivering.  Then I couldn't sit still.  I wanted to move, which Roy tried to discourage at first, but he was in the same boat.  We were several yards apart watching trees in different directions, but close enough to whisper rather loudly to each other, which we did more than we should have.
The sun was behind the mountain and we were on the western slope.  We watched as the sun crept down the mountain across from us.  It looked so warm over there, and the ridge to either side of us was glowing with the sun peeping around the side of the mountain.  The tops of our hickory trees lit up brilliant yellow as the sun began to creep down them.  The leaves were still on and at the height of their autumn color explosion, a part of the tradition that over the years I began to love even more than the hunting.  Soon enough we decided the trees over there were just as likely to have squirrels as the ones we were watching, so we gave in and crept over where the sun was shining.  It was deliciously warm. 
Pop’s gun began to boom with a rhythmic regularity as he circled below.  We continued to see nothing.  Finally Roy spotted one in the trees to our right and he started trying to sneak up on it.  I don’t think he got the first one, or maybe even the second one, but I think he got one or two before we left that section of woods.
Pop came back and we hunted with him for a while. He showed us how to trick the squirrel into circling the tree by sending one ahead while the other waited behind and stood quiet and still.  When the lead guy went by, the squirrel would try to keep the tree between him and the hunter and would circle to where the second guy could get a shot.  By taking turns we could each get chances at several kills.   There were many other things we learned through the years of hunting that mountain with Pop.
…Pop shared his knowledge…
Pop seemed to know every tree and bush.  He knew what it was called, what the leaves look like, what it was good for, if anything.  He pointed out weeds and told us their names.  A bird or an animal would appear and he would identify it and tell us its habits.  We learned of sourwoods, dogwoods, maples, hickory, oak, and so on.  We learned what ragweed, milkweed, Indian paintbrush, goldenrods and black-eyed-susans were.  We saw wood hens, goldfinches, mountain bluebirds, crows, ravens, hawks, blue jays and doves.  On and on, Pop opened up the wild to us, and we made it our own. 
He taught us how to walk quietly in the woods, even in dry leaves.  I was never perfect, but always passable and before long I could creep up on a tree with a squirrel in it and for the most part not give myself away.  Stalking was something he was really good at, and he taught us the tricks.  Sometimes he would whisper and tell us what to do.  Sometimes a hand gesture or even a nod of his head would indicate what he wanted us to try to do.  Sometimes we failed miserably and sometimes we nailed our quarry.  Often, we didn't even realize we were learning something about the woods, but then years later I recall doing something and suddenly realizing I had learned that from Pop.   

Pop taught us to enjoy it…
Pop took his deer and squirrel hunting seriously.  I think he had to.  He had a family to feed, and had hunted growing up to help feed his brothers and sisters. But dove shooting and rabbit hunting was another matter.  We dove hunted on the same farm where we squirrel hunted, only lower on the mountain in the cow pastures.  There was a group of us that went year after year to the farm to shoot the sky full of holes trying to kill a few birds.  We were good friends and when good friends go hunting together, the good times roll.  The hills rang not only with the sounds of gunshots, which echoed and rolled down the long valley, but with the shouts and laughter of friends poking fun at each other and each other’s shooting. 
There were times we were laughing so hard we couldn't shoot.  There were times we couldn't believe the shot someone just made.  There were times the birds flew in, in numbers that seem unbelievable when I look back, and there were days we sat and watched the empty skies.  Not one of those days will be forgotten and not one of them was wasted. 
When we started rabbit hunting we had no dogs.  Guess who played the beagle?  Most of the time it was me stomping through a brush pile or a thicket to scare up a rabbit, while Pop and a friend flanked the cover to either side and waited for me to run them out, but I got my share of shots when we would work our way up the valley in a skirmish line.  With rabbits, we didn't have to be stealthy or soft-spoken.  Once again we let the insults and laughter fly.  I had a Remington and our friend had a Winchester and we got a lot of mileage out of poking fun at each other’s favorite gun.
…Pop was a fisherman…
                As far back as I can remember, I recall Pop bringing home stringers full of fish.  I can’t clearly recall my first fishing trip.  I remember black Zebco 202 reels on fiberglass rods, with bobbers, hooks, and sinkers.  We dug “wiggle worms” and caught night crawlers in the yard for bait, which we used to catch bluegill, bream, and catfish in the river.  Pop showed us how to tie hooks and lures on with a knot that wouldn't slip out when we hook a big one, not that we hooked many of those, but just in case.
                Pop taught us how to cast lures and retrieve them at a speed and with some action to attract the fish we wanted to catch.  We learned that “fish ain't growing in the tree’s, boy”, and “leave it in the water long enough for them to find it”, and “all that racket’s going scare the all the fish in the river”, and many other pearls of wisdom associated with fishing. 
                Pop took us trout fishing on Buck Creek and Little Buck.  We sat in the truck in the dark and listened to the creeks as they tumbled over rocks and old dead logs into pools we hoped were full of trout eager to bite anything we had to offer.  Often they were.  Pop showed us how to float corn into and out of a pool or eddy to present it to a hungry trout.  Later we learned to use other lures and work them to get a wary trout to come after its dinner, only to become ours.

…Pop was a deer hunter…
                I remember from before I started grade school that Pop loved to deer hunt.  At some point in those early years, some idiotic hunter shot at Pop during deer season and hit the tree he was standing next to.  It was years before he would let me or Roy go with him deer hunting.  Finally, one year I saved up my money and bought a rifle and got it sighted in.  It was a lever action 35 Marlin and it was used but in good shape.  So we scouted an area and I picked out a deadfall that looked down into a hollow which had several intersecting deer trails.  Pop thought it was a good place and I was excited and expecting to make a kill on my first hunt.  It wasn't to happen that day, but that morning I saw a very nice buck jump a log on a logging road bed that was out of range of my 35.  It was as beautiful a picture as ever you will see in any magazine and I was hooked.
                As it turned out, It was several years later, after my military enlistment was up before I got my first deer, but It was Pop who arranged the hunt and helped me learn the lay of the land. 
…Pop passed, and still passes, his knowledge along…
                From trailing deer, to catching fish, to sneaking up on a wily old squirrel, to the best way to lead a flying bird to get a killing shot, Pop was free with his help and guidance to not only my brothers and I, but to several other young people he took under his wing at various times.  He also often gave advice to older hunters who wanted to know the secrets of his successes in hunting and fishing. 
…And then I had a son…
                My son John was born in 1993 and before his first birthday I had his lifetime licenses purchased.  The Bible says “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”  I was determined to raise my son to love the outdoors as much as I do.  I began when he was old enough for a cap gun and a toy lever action.  Early and often I talked about gun safety and respect for the weapon and the game.  I had toy raccoon and other stuffed animals that we pretended to stalk and kill. 
                Later I got him a BB gun and took him with me hunting for squirrels and doves.  I taught him the same things my Pop had taught me.  My father-in-law handed down to my son his old .410 and I got John a Henry lever action .22.  I had him on the right track, but more and more I had to put in some long hours at work and a lot of weekends.  My ability to get him to the field and woods was severely impacted and both he and I got frustrated with it. 
                One sad week I wanted desperately to take my son hunting but was mandated to work again.  I was upset terribly.  Then the thought crossed my mind.  Send him with Pop.
                I called up my dad and asked him, “Pop, are you going to the mountains this weekend?” He said yes and I asked if he could take my son along.  He was happy to get the chance to do that and I sent him off with Pop on Friday evening so they could go groundhog shooting in the mountains on Saturday. 
                Sending my son on that hunting trip turns out to be one of the best things I have ever done.  Pop took him under his wing and taught him more about hunting and fishing than I ever could have and in the process built a bond between them that will last forever. 
                Groundhog hunting is like a fine art in long-range shooting.  You find a groundhog way off down the valley with your binoculars, estimate the range, figure out your windage and try to bust it in one shot.  It’s a primo way to hone your sniper skills, and my Pop is the best I have seen at it.  I’m mediocre at best.  Pop has now spent ten years teaching my son to make that kind of shot and my son is now as good as Pop is, and a better shot than I will ever be. 
                That is why my son is deadly on deer.  Pop has taught us both everything he can about deer hunting and we both do very well almost every season in recent years. 
…Pop is 73 years old…
                To this day, Pop is still taking new hunters under his wing.  A couple or so years ago, he began to take one my nephews on hunting and fishing trips, and this year he started with another young nephew who needs a mentor in the outdoor skills he needs to become a hunter.  He has begun to nurture the interest there that will bring these young men into the hunting fold with the rest of us.  If you look at his legacy, my Pop has done a lot for his family and for our heritage of hunting, fishing, and loving the wild outdoors.  Every time we go, we will have stories and laughs to share and remember with and about the man who showed us the way. 
                Now it’s our turn.  The next generation is coming and they are a blank slate.  I hope I can teach more to my nephews, once my Pop no longer can, as we continue to hunt and fish the hills and valleys of western North Carolina and beyond. Then the torch passes to them.

James Lee Frady (c) 9/21/2014