Killing Softly

Sharp-nosed dogs, stealthy birds, and the sweet secret of dawn: A neophyte gets a taste of the hunt

On the way back, I ask how Carol will vote on the upcoming state ballot's constitutional amendment, which promises to protect Minnesotans' right to hunt, fish, and "take game" (i.e., trap) for perpetuity. "I'm for it," she offers bluntly. "The number of hunters is dwindling--we're a very small body. It's just like the NRA: I don't agree with all they're doing, but if we lose one right, it's just a step towards losing another one. Because the majority wins over--and there's a lot of anti-hunting sentiment."

On election day, of course, I'm one of the very small body voting against the amendment, which passes in a 77-percent-to-23-percent landslide. But Carol has reason to be defensive. In terms of demographics, the hunter looks to be a threatened species. In 1972, 14 percent of Americans hunted. By 1991, the figure had dropped to 7 percent. Minnesota has been something of a holdout against the decline; the Department of Natural Resources reports that in 1997, nearly 18 percent of us hunted, about the same as did in 1960. But here, too, demographic trends bode ill for blood sport: More than half of the state's population now live in urban and suburban areas, where residents are less likely to hunt than rural people. And in an October Star Tribune/KMSP Minnesota Poll, 80 percent of respondents said they hunted less often than they had in their youth; more than half said they were too busy to take their children hunting.

My father has a late-'60s snapshot of my Montana grandmother, an unruly grin on her face, standing beside a Plymouth with a mule-eared brown buck draped over it. That's the last deer our branch of the family killed. My brother remembers a single father-son hunting excursion during which, he recalls, they talked loud enough to send any animals over the next mountain. My brother's suburban daughters will find hunting as strange a pastime as sod-cutting--unless, like Al, they consciously convert, embracing the hunter's way of life precisely because it is falling away.

Carol has met these changes with a mixed strategy of retreat and missionary outreach. Her life's last adventure, she reveals, will be starting a hunting lodge in Babbit, just south of Ely, with her daughters. She has also become a mentor to Al and others, including the women she's taught to shoot and hunt as part of Minnesota's Becoming an Outdoor Woman program. "Oh, I wish you could've been along with us!" she enthuses about a recent BOW weekend hunt. "Here are these women who just took shooting lessons, now out hunting--and they're just astounded by how much they're enjoying it."

A woman is as "natural" a hunter as a man, Carol stresses, with an eye on my pen. "They're just never invited. And if they are, they're not helped along--or they're given a gun that'll knock her flat on her crack." She laughs like an old crow, and I laugh back. She's very convincing. "It's not for everyone," she continues tactfully. "You've got to find those things inside you--see whether you like it or not."

But what are "those things," I ask. What inner mouth is filled, stilled, by the hunt? Carol steers the van down the tunnel of the headlight beam, the early night drawing in around us. Her usual eloquence deserts her. "I know I love the woods--all my life I've been drawn to it. I love seeing my dogs work." The dashboard glows within the circle of her chest, chin, and arms. "I just feel like I belong." And I see her suddenly as I had Al, an instrument in the guts of a great, hoary wheel.

Brad Gatzlaff has been up since 3:30 a.m., hunting. First he and a friend drove to Weaver and huddled in their duck boat, grumbling as mallards and teals landed in the middle of the water, out of reach. Then he walked out to his deer stand--which he has used for more than 20 years--and did some housekeeping. Now, 10 hours since his first cup of coffee, he's heading to public lands south of Kenyon and West Concord, aiming for pheasant.

On this November Saturday, three hunting seasons overlap in southwestern Minnesota: We're halfway through pheasants (October 10 through December 13), in the midst of the first of two deer firearm seasons (November 7 to 15 and 21 to 27; bow-hunters enjoy a longer span), and coming up on the end of ducks (October 3 through December 1).

"We need something for the game bag!" Brad cries. His wife Mary Madison, who doesn't hunt, laughs from the backseat. Their blond Labrador pup, Blue, who is learning to, eagerly leaps into the front and is shoved affectionately back.

Leaving their Zumbrota farmhouse, I had spotted a heap of feathers in a porch planter. "It's a teal," Mary informed me. The small duck's emerald green swoosh still shone prettily, though the rest looked battered. "I'm teaching Blue to carry it in her mouth," Brad called from the Chevy Suburban. Labradors are retrieving dogs: Their joy involves jumping into frigid fall waters and finding downed ducks, by scent and the hunter's direction. In the field, they flush pheasant rather than point it, and bring the bird back when it's dropped. Except that Blue has been reluctant to hold that feathery weight in her jaws--especially, Brad says, the relatively bulky pheasant.

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