Father and son hunkered down in the scrub at the Frog Pond waiting for doves to cross within shooting range.
Nearer the earth
Islamorada, FL – The sun is coming out and it's warming up outside, wrecking an otherwise perfect autumn couch potato football day. I love my home in the Florida Keys, but this time of year, I miss the fall seasons of my youth in Wisconsin...
Story Photos and Text by David Schneider
I took my son Robert dove hunting yesterday and, of course, Dad came along. He wasn't physically with us in the car as we headed north to the Everglades Frog Pond, but he was there as surely as if he were in the driver's seat.
Robert called him on the cell phone to wish him well as we reached the entrance where the C111 canal crosses Highway 9936 leading to Everglades National Park.
Doves replaced deer today. It is mid-November, and if we had been up north with the rest of the family in Wisconsin, Robert and I would be entering the cold, snowy confines of a balsam fir bog, hunting for whitetails on this opening day of deer season.
But we live in the Florida Keys now, land of tarpon, bonefish and spiny lobster. While these make for very enjoyable pursuits, they are hardly a substitute this time of year for an autumn hunt with a gun in your hand, especially for a man raised in the Midwest and his son.
We're doing the next best thing down here: hunting doves, and it occurs to me as I park the car that, had I grown up here, this is what Dad and I would probably have been doing every year.
As I climb out of the car and watch Robert go to the gun cases, a gust of humid air brushes my face. It is a cool breeze. A rare cold front passed last night, triggering the familiar wrench inside me every year, no matter how long I've been away from home. It drives me. Not just to hunt, but to feel crisp air, see the frost on burnt amber leaves, smell the woods, be warmed by the company of those I admire, respect and miss greatly this time of year.
I watch Robert take the .410 out of its case; the same shotgun Dad gave me when I was Robert's age. I remember the first time I ever shot it. Dad and his old buddy Gene Rankin took me out in the sticks with a box of clay pigeons. I broke the second one out of the thrower as I recall, then never hit another target all day.
As Robert gears up, I say a word of thanks that Dad is still on this planet with us this morning. He had a small stroke – a TI – last night at my sister's while preparing to go up to our northern Wisconsin cabin for opening day. I silently ask that he not feel too disappointed that the doctor forbade him to make the trip this year. He would have to watch my brother-in-law Lee and nephew Michael back out the driveway with all that blaze orange and anticipation in the pickup, while he stayed behind with my sister. I smile at the thought of those hunters having to cook for themselves at the cabin since Dad won't be there. We never eat better than at deer camp, and Dad always goes all out for us in the cabin's tiny kitchen.
I remember the year Dad had to leave deer camp early to be with my Story Photos and Text by David Schneider grandfather who, now that I think about it, had just suffered a stroke opening morning. Dad left us with a pork roast for that evening's meal in the refrigerator. Normally, he would have cut his hunting day short to return to the cabin early and to put the roast in the oven under slow heat for the other hunters to enjoy upon their return from the woods. Well, my Uncle Lloyd, who could sniff out eight-point swamp bucks in his sleep but didn't know a meat thermometer from one of his welding torches, took it upon himself to prepare dinner that evening.
"Somebody get a saw," he commanded while pulling the frozen roast out of the icebox, and my earlier daydreams of an apple-roasted pork dinner turned into quickly fried pork chops – served with ketchup.
Robert and I started down the levee of the C111 canal, also known as the Aero jet canal. It's named for the company that was to build the huge rocket boosters for NASA's Apollo moon program in the 1960s. The canal had been dug out of the limestone and sawgrass in the Everglades to float the huge solid rocket segments from the nearby plant down the Intercoastal Waterway and ultimately up to Cape Canaveral. The plans were eventually scuttled; another company won the NASA contract, and the rocket plant buildings and hangars once on the cutting edge of technology and discovery sit now as rusting relics while turkey buzzards and red-tailed hawks ride the high thermal currents above.
Down here in southeast Florida the adjacent Frog Pond is a special permit area that was an old agricultural field. It was sold back to the state and is about the only public hunting spot open and accessible that attracts an abundance of birds, but on this November day it is closed to hunting, so we have to settle for the levee.
Robert and I walk the levee with guns unloaded as regulations require, looking for a flat opening devoid of tall thick sawgrass and palmetto scrub where we can step down and wait for the doves. The cool breeze whistles through the leaves of mahogany and buttonwood trees growing high on the levee. It all looks strange to a Wisconsin boy in November. We see no birds.
Still, it is a wondrous day. Wispy cirrus clouds dip and turn into puffy cumulus as they prepare to transform the patchwork blue sky above into the familiar daily Everglades Rain Machine. The Aerojet canal, straight and wide, narrows into the Glades, beckoning to where Von Braun's mighty Saturn rockets were to be built. Robert is up ahead, his trigger finger getting itchy, and I regret not being able to give him a better hunt today. Yet, as I call ahead to him, I don't see how it could get any more beautiful than this.
It is 4:30 in the afternoon now; 3:30 in Wisconsin. Up at the cabin, Lee, Mike and the others are probably settling in to their late afternoon buck stands for "happy hour," when the north Wisconsin pine forest turns silent and light snow flurries dance amid soft dimming twilight. I am certain Dad is thinking of the same thing at this moment and I think about him. I don't know how many stories I have told Robert beginning with the words "When I was your age" and concluding with tales of Dad, Lee, Uncle Lloyd, and cousins Mike and Skeeter, and squirrels and tree stands and buck snorts and breakfasts before sunrise.
I continue those stories on this day, even as I'm ever conscious that our new Florida traditions accompany old ones. The word "legacy" is never far from my mind.
My thoughts return to last month when Robert and I traveled home to Wisconsin for nephew Mike's wedding. I had purposely set aside an extra day so we could all grouse hunt together. It would be Robert's first hunt with his grandfather. Dad's hunting days are pretty much done now; it hurts him to merely walk some days, but he came along anyway, for moral support. I suspect he knew how important it was to me and to Robert. It was a day like this, and I think about it as Robert and I drive home from our dove hunt. More than once, Robert asked me "Why all the smiles and sighs?" All I could say was "You'll see someday, son."
Those who love the outdoors will immediately recognize the symptoms that accompany falling leaves and a west wind veering north. The sportsman displaced by time, geography (and perhaps wanderlust?) truly feels a dilemma at this time of the year, every year. It transcends work, chores, women, all otherwise enjoyable pursuits and routines. It envelopes soul and heart as well. It is joyful to contemplate, yet somehow keeps me nearer to the earth. To quote my favorite line from the movie The Deer Hunter, "This is this." We all live in the now, but we appreciate that which transcends time.
The Florida Keys locals call this part of U.S. Highway 1 "The Stretch." As Robert and I drive back south towards our island home, I look over at him, pleasantly dozing in the passenger seat. The sun is setting over Florida Bay to my right and Barnes' Sound glows to my left. My eyes return to the road and again I smile. My son is with me as are my dad's lessons and love. The outdoors always whispers what matters. Hot or cold, whether in Florida or back in Wisconsin, the important things stay the same.
Originally from Monona and now living in the Florida Keys, David Schneider reflects on family, the sporting life and his roots in Wisconsin.