by Matthew Knoblauch
Hunting friends are peculiar, cut from a similar cloth as yourself in most ways. They tend to disregard political ideologies, religious beliefs, or financial status. They care more about subtleties and traditions, crystal waters and autumn woods, or some days just making you feel a particular way after you’ve missed the last four partridges that have gotten up before you. All in good taste, though. Friends are there to make us feel good and bring comic relief when we need it. They always ask the right questions, too, like when’s breakfast? Or, where’s the coffee? How could you leave the bourbon at home? Or, are you going to buy that new double gun or what? These good friends remind us of the important things that tend to get overlooked easily if we’re not careful. Their companionship is there for our taking, and it would be foolish not to take it. I do not know of a more desirable time than to walk through the woods, flaming in the red, yellow, and oranges of October, in the company of some lighthearted, feel-good friends.
There has not been a time when I coincidentally stumbled upon someone else in the heart of autumn pursuing game and frolicking through beech whips and alder bottoms that I did not come to like. Our cherished woodlands that harbor our beloved whitetail deer, cattail sloughs with familiar or not-so-familiar sun-beaten duck blinds, or sacred grouse covers with dainty and unnamed brooks and ponds coursing through, are all formal and rather distinguished meetings places for friends, old and new. I have become elated by the casual inviting of conversations in such places—ranging from dog breeds, beeper collars, and pedigrees to woodcock flights and hare populations affecting Ruffed Grouse numbers. Observations and opinions that are mutually and respectfully listened to in the presence of an October sky. The kind of talk that is listened to and not just heard.
I find it troublesome to think of the lessening of good people I’d know had I not been somewhere when they came along. There must be a location, a physical area attached to anyone that we’ve come to know. I feel it incredibly heartening to bridge the soft twilight edges of a duck pond, dirt roads hidden in hardwood shadows along far and distant hillsides, or Robinson’s farm, now grown unwieldy with hawthorn and hazel, to a particular face in the wake of time. To a face that was there when you were, wandering and poking about in the name of hunting. Making places memorable because we sauntered, gossiped, and listened there together, experiencing friendship, old and new, in these places that we’ve grown to love.
I met a guy once along the beaten edge of an old apple orchard outside of town. He had an Irish setter at his heel, charming and elegant looking. The faded orange cloth collar and bronzed bell strapped around the dog’s neck told me all that I needed to know. I liked him instantly, and we became lasting friends. We began to hunt somewhat regularly when worldly obligations would permit it. After a few short stints with him out in the woods, I knew why I respected his friendship. The reasons were quite numberless, but what I liked most was that he spoke softly in curiosity over the pursuits of hunting. The questions he came to ask were inquisitive and thoughtful, searching himself for honest-to-god answers like most of us do. They were the right questions, some empty of answers, but very much the point, and once I thought long and hard over them, they would also bring me pleasant and curious thoughts, which I tended to like. And most recently, I have learned that many of the questions set forth by our friends are the reasons for learning much about ourselves.
On most accounts, and subconsciously, I have learned to be a permanent student in the faculty of my peers. Watching my friends’ slow and prudent steps and knowing it isn’t so much about getting around well but more about enjoying precious time afield, learning that when the sun breaks sharply through the cedar trees along a silent beaver pond at sundown, you stop to watch the fading light. Sit beside your friends and rest, even when you don’t need to. Observe their movements, and watch how they handle their dog. Make it a priority to reach down more often than not and scratch your own dog behind the ears. Show them love unequivocally; how necessary they are in your life in the brief time they have here. The teachings from our friends on even silent lips will be infinite in wisdom, and you will be better off in your life for it.
I owe it to these companions I speak of for making me better than I was before I knew them, allowing me to observe under the descending autumn leaves colored with fire or to entertain my own questions and have someone there to listen. These places we venture to in pursuit of game or other things, perhaps even intangible, are somewhat unworldly, sacred, and mythical. They carry us softly and pleasantly through a smile reckoned sleep at the end of our day, and I cannot think of a better way to associate such places, such thoughts, dreams, and ideas than with people who have such a blistering passion for hunting as I do.