Something caught my eye on ESPN recently that made me remember a fine spring day spent with a boyfriend in the Shenandoah Mountains, chasing six-inch trophy brook trout and listening to the cushioned thunder of male grouse drumming for love. Maybe, I got to thinking, it was that day that really became the turning point in how I was to progress through my life as a professional in the hunting and shooting industry. I think that, because it had been a day of firsts.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t had any firsts before. I’d shot my first gun before. I’d had my first deer hunt, though no deer had taken the opportunity to step in front of my rifle. I’d had my first turkey hunt, too, and a successful one at that, yet that entire event spanned just two hours, and, when I got right down to it, I’d done little to make the hunt a success except sit still and pull the trigger at the right time. My boyfriend was the one who knew where the turkeys were, knew how to set the decoy and where to set me up, and he’d done all the calling. So while I’d had a good time, was glad to have had the experience, I didn’t feel like I’d really participated.
That day spent wandering along a stream in the Shenandoahs, on the other hand, that was different. I saw the grouse drumming. I pulled on fly fishing waders and felt-soled boots and gravel guards for the first time. I caught my first trout on my first fly line with a fly I’d tied on for the first time. Every foot of water we waded that day revealed something new, something refreshingly challenging. Read the water, see the ripple, watch the drift, Damn, who put that tree there! By the time I was through with the day and Henry and I were back in the truck taking long draws on icy Buds (not my first time with that, but it might as well have been for the way that precious moment stands out in my memory), I was in sensory overload – I’d interacted – and all I wanted was more.
I was sitting in bar with a good friend a few months ago. It was a quiet afternoon, and the establishment wasn’t busy. We had the bar and the bartender to ourselves, and when you’re drinking casually and easily on lazy afternoons like that conversations take on a certain freedom, one where judgment doesn’t come into play; tongues flow freely because there’s a sudden and unexpected intimacy in such moments, rather than because alcohol has loosened them. We chatted and the bartender revealed that she had five children, the youngest of whom she and her husband had adopted. They’d taken the girl in, it seems, when the infant was just a couple days old and addicted to the heroin her mother had used throughout her pregnancy. The bartender was familiar with the problem, having both a brother and father who were heroin addicts. In surprising camaraderie, my friend spoke up, saying that he, too, had an addict in his family, one who’d tried crack just once and had been battling an addiction to it literally from the moment he’d lost his grip on making good decisions in his successful middle-aged life and taken that first hit. My friend said to me and the bartender, “He’s always chasing that first high. The ones after it never match it, but he keeps doing what he does, hoping one day one of them will.”
Chasing that first high. That defines addiction, obsession, in probably the purest sense. I believe that’s why I hunt and fish to this day, have for the past twenty years or so. Addiction is why I get up and climb into a blind on morning five after four previous mornings of not seeing a thing, because the fifth morning just might be the one. It’s why I hike further into new fields and forests, looking for woodcock and grouse and pheasants for quail, because I just might put up a bird or three where I’ve never put one up before. Hell, I might just walk where someone hasn’t walked in a hundred years, or even ever walked before—that first-man-on-the-moon philosophy alone is enough to make me pull on Double Tins and an elbow-patched canvas shirt.
So yes, I am chasing that first high. Again and again and again. And yet I, you, we, are so much luckier than the drug addict, and for more than the obvious reasons. See, we get to repeat those first highs every time we step out the door and load up the truck. We get to have that first high when we sit in a favorite treestand for the umpteen-millionth time, because the sunrise will be different—and sometimes the buck that walks in front of the bow or rifle or shotgun will be different, too. Every ripple in every turn of every creek will be different, no matter how many times we’ve fished it over the years, because today’s temperature and cloud cover aren’t the same as they were last year or last month or yesterday and because a giant tree collapsed down across the stream a mile ahead of us last week and altered, forever, the flow of water where we wade right this moment. And for every ringneck cockbird we run to put to flight when you catch him by eye sneaking through a cutover row of milo, we get the one that scares the bejeebers out of us when it explodes two feet back from what we thought was a bare and birdless patch of ground.
These are our firsts. These are our highs. These are the reasons we call our hunting an obsession, an addiction. Chase it, my friends, chase it.
Jennifer L.S. Pearsall is a professional outdoor writer, photographer, and editor, who has been a part of the hunting and shooting industries for nearly 20 years. She is an avid clays shooter, hunter and dog trainer. Please visit her blog “Hunting the Truth” at http://huntingthetruth.com.