Wednesday, December 16, 2015


As morning light threatened, we abandoned the house in practiced silence, save for a shrill whistle and the rhythmic clinking of a field collar. Its owner, Tucker, a sprightly, peppery English setter, rode the truck’s back bench-seat well. Curled in a ball of muscular fur and tradition, his position was suggestive of the grit that often characterizes upland hunting and its participants. I diverted my gaze.

    The winter sun was veiled by clouds and fog, presenting the day in a melancholy haze. A half-hour drive landed us on the brushy banks of the James River, at a boat landing in the Hardware River Wildlife Management Area. The lot was empty, and with reason. Migratory woodcock had long since abandoned the tangled successional growth of the riverbottom for the swampy groves of the Old South, squirrel and deer season had withered, and February’s biting personality had fishermen frightened from the banks of the meandering river. For the season, the secrets of the almighty James seemed secure under a thick haze.

An early bird hunt.
    Tucker glided out of the back door tenderly. Dad corralled him to adjust his collar and behold his soft, wispy ears. Few words were uttered before the morning commenced with a locating beep from Tucker’s collar and our shotgun-toting footsteps crunching upon frost-bitten cut corn.

    The weather on such days is enough to draw my thoughts inward and leaden my tongue in meditation, but there was something more spiritual at play in the bottomland. We followed our four-legged guide closely, observing him peruse cover, rather than observing the cover he perused. A cottontail dashed from cover. Tucker ignored it from good training. We took little note, our reflexes jaded by thought.

    The communal element to bird hunting was as clouded as the sun, as Dad looked forward to Tucker for conversation. I understood. More than a decade’s share of memories tied the companions. From cool Minnesotan nights, to fast-paced grouse shooting in the snow-blanketed forests of the upper-Midwest and Virginia highlands, their relationship was one of mutual dependency. Second only to a common love for grouse and woodcock, Tuck’s affinity for crisp northern nights and his habit of filching laps of scotch from his Master’s unattended glass mortared a friendship only strengthened over years working for each other.
Training time, with a harnesses bobwhite quail.
    Of course, the memories I perceived pouring from my father’s pensive eyes were imparted to me only as nostalgia. My relationship with Tucker was different. He was introduced to our household just months before I. It was he who provided much of my transportation in my pre-walking years, dragging me about the wood floors of our Fluvanna County home by the stocking feet of my pajamas, and hauling my saucer-sled over fresh powder by a leash fashioned as a harness. I hunted over him—rather, pointed over him, with my training cap shotgun—as a young boy. Still, most memorable was his good-natured spirit that established him as a childhood friend and shot-gunning companion.

    We entered the fourth in a chain of linked, riparian corn fields when we made the decision to turn back. Our halt lit the flame under the hooves of a 12-point buck bedded on the field’s edge. The morning’s first audible words were spit in reflexive excitement.

    The shadow that loomed over us soon returned, our hunt half over.

    Tucker’s senses roped him from the intricacies of the field to the cover of the tangled riverbank, where, after nosing methodically, he uncovered the magnificently large shell of a river cooter. I dusted it off and found it a place in my pack.

    It was New Year’s Day the last time Tucker yielded me a prize of his own industry—a chukar taken on the wing from a game preserve in Southside Virginia. That was a different hunt—one lively and filled with comradery. He zig-zagged cover unrestrained, ears bouncing loosely in the frosted sun, feet treading deftly, on track to a bedded bird. At dusk, we collected our party and turned back. 

    Tucker plodded exhaustedly in the lead, but caught our immediate attention when he froze mid-step, convulsing briefly.

    As we approached the truck, the oppressive haze seemed to lift. Conversation emerged and colored our unloading and packing as a statement of burdensome acceptance. With the fading light in the riverbottom, yet another Virginia grouse season would be retired to the pages of sporting memories in the mountains—but we were not hunting for grouse. There is no grouse season this far east. We were hunting for a memory. All three hunters recognized that the brain tumor that was steadily revealing itself in our beloved setter with every soulful step would make this season a concluding one, and this hunt, a final chapter—an epilogue worth writing and cherishing, forever.

*Originally published in the Rural Virginian


Matt Sargent said...

A lovely tribute to a childhood friend, thanks for sharing Matt.

Debbie Stollings said...

So eloquent. Beautiful.

Matt Reilly said...

Thanks, guys. It's a special one to me. Tuck was once-in-a-lifetime.