It's one of those picture-perfect, crisp, fall mornings. The sun has yet to rise. The moon is only revealed enough to illuminate a few faint clouds slowly passing by as I make my way through the frost covered cow pasture. On the far side over the fence, a stand of oaks forms a funnel to a secluded hay field that is adjacent to a thick, edged, wetland area. The does have been bedding here and a couple of bucks have been using this funnel on a regular basis to check on them. My stand is set just off a trail that is littered with scrapes and at the edge of the hay field are some impressive rubs.
In addition to the good wind and weather, I am accompanied by my youngest son. He is seven years old. He was dreaming of this hunt all year long and has been packing his equipment for well over two weeks now. As we settle into our seats, he is just bursting with excitement and anticipation. We’ve watched all the hunting shows and spend most of our free time in the woods. Without hesitation, he will pass up video games and friends to get out in the woods to look for tracks and wildlife. Looking into his eyes, I now understand the sense of pride that my father must have felt during my induction into hunting. I watch him as he quietly scans the surrounding area and acknowledge his hand signals towards the sounds he hears in this pre-dawn hour.
As special as this moment is, something is missing. And though I do my best to suppress my thoughts, my eyes begin to well with tears as I am overwhelmed by images and memories of hunts past. I scan my surroundings from my perch and catch a glimpse of a shadow that has been haunting me for several months now. Most days it is just a brief flicker... but on rare occasions I can almost reach out and touch it.
Aside from being archery season, this is also opening day for pheasant hunting - and my first opening day in fifteen years without Luke. Luke was a field springer, a family member, and my best buddy. Last February, we took him to the vet for the very last time. I struggled, stubbornly, to admit that it was time to let him go. He was one month shy of 15 years. In the end, I realized that I was keeping him alive for selfish reasons... and looking back, I believe he was clinging to life for me.
Luke was a natural from the beginning. We belonged to a small pheasant club located a mile or so from the house where we stocked and hunted from mid-October until the end of January. By age six Luke had been on more birds than most dogs see in a lifetime.
When my son turns to me to ask what's wrong, I tell him it's nothing, but we both know that's not true.
As I shake myself, try to stifle my grief and refocus, I look in the direction of the hay field and there he is - working a sweeping arc away and back to me. As he comes around, I think he might have something; his nose is low on the ground, his tail is wagging a figure-eight, and he is zig-zagging sharply. He has a bird for sure, and the bird doesn't know it yet but his time is almost up. The cock pheasant explodes, cackling into the air with Luke lunging, grasping at his tail feathers. I pull up and pull the trigger twice: one shot behind and one shot high. This lucky bird makes it out of the range of my 12 gauge and heads for the tree line on the opposite side of the field.
Luke stops and cocks his head to one side, looking at me in judgment and disbelief. I know what he's saying: "Are you kidding me? How the hell did you miss that shot?"
I yell back to him, "Ya I know, my bad, don’t worry." We'll pick him up again on the other side of the field. Luke would instinctively begin working in that direction and he would always, without fail, pick'em up again.
But this is only a shadow of Luke. My memory of this amazing bird-dog... a memory that my sons will never share. In his world, Luke was the dog who relentlessly stalked him at dinner table. He was the outfielder who fetched long balls during backyard baseball games. And the friend who was always there to greet him as he climbed off the school bus.
When my son gives me a nudge, I wipe my eyes and try again to make these bittersweet images and sentiments of days past subside. He whispers "buck" as I am still trying to focus and I see a small, four-point deer at 50 yards slowly coming up the trail towards us. I cautiously grab my bow, attach my release, and turn my head ever so slightly to make eye contact with my son. I recognize this look on his face and I can see his little mind processing everything; this is the moment that he has been so eagerly waiting for. I have not seen this expression of wonder, amazement and accomplishment since he was a toddler and first pulled himself up to stand at the coffee table, or when he found a new world to explore behind the recliner.
The buck is now in range and just before I draw, I glance over to make sure he is ready. He looks at me and shakes his head. I stare a bit longer and raise my eyebrows as if to ask "Are you sure?", and he nods again. The deer passes and we watch him skirt the field, quickly disappearing into the thicket. My son turns to me to say, "He was too little, let's wait for the big buck."
I put my arm around him, pull him in tight, and tell him "Good call buddy." The next buck will be a monster. Though we don't find that big buck today, my son is completely satisfied with the hunt. And that is all that matters. I know that this hunt will be forever imprinted in his memory, just as every hunt that I have been on with my father is in mine.
Walking back to the truck my son excitedly recants every detail of every event. How he spotted the deer first, how he stayed still so the deer never saw him, that in a couple years he will be a really, really big buck, and so on. I could feel that shadow of Luke beside me and think, at such an early age, could my son already get it? His sense of gratification is not due to how many deer we drop, or how many birds we shoot. It is about the hunt, the lessons, the adventure, or simply being out with your hunting buddy. My greatest pleasure with Luke was just to be with him, watch him work a bird, do what he was bred to do and what he loved most. As we continue walking, we chat about our next hunt and subconsciously I am still on the lookout for that shadow. I can feel Luke's presence but so desperately need to see him again.
I recall my father always saying that every man has one great dog in his lifetime. Though I struggle to accept this truth, as I look back through time and remember all the stories of all the dogs in my fathers' and grandfathers' lives, and consider my own great hunting dog, I cannot deny my fathers' insight. I wonder, "Did my father dwell on the fact that I only have a few memories of his one, great dog?"
Back at the truck, we pack up our gear and climb inside. As it warms up, I sip my cold, leftover coffee, and reach up to grasp Luke's collar that is hanging from my rear view mirror.
My son looks at me to ask, "You miss Lukey?"
I answer, "Yes buddy, I do. I miss him a lot, he was the best."
He reminds me, "Mom said we can get another springer spaniel."
I tell him, "There will only ever be one Luke, but someday I promise you will have a dog as good as him." I look down at the floorboard where Luke used to curl up after a hunt and see him in full color, barely a shadow, looking back at me, panting, all wet and covered in briars, and I know that is a promise that I can keep.