Stallard

I once went hunting for bear.

Man. That sounds pretty cool. I almost hate to tell the rest of the story.

The truth isn’t near as cool, unfortunately. I was a kid, and my grandfather owned a fish pond way up in the mountains of East Tennessee. He raised trout in the pond, and he made money from allowing people to fish there.

Grandpa Gouge noticed some of the fish half-eaten on the edges of the pond. I still remember him showing me some big tracks. He already knew what was coming out of the mountains and eating his fish.

A bear.

Black bears are indigenous to those mountains, even though I can honestly say I’d never seen one. But when the old man asked me if I wanted to help him hunt the bear?

I was ready to don a coonskin cap and go all Davy Crockett if it meant hunting with him.

He let me tag along with him — he even let me carry his gun — as he used his own experiences in the mountains to follow the tracks. I ain’t gonna lie. After all the anticipation of the possibilities of going up against a bear, the actual hunt was pretty boring for a kid. We just walked and talked a lot. He pointed out some tracks, and some “scat” (a nice word for “poop”). Apparently, our bear had been eating a lot of apples. Recently, since the pile was still steaming.

Suddenly, in mid-stride, he stopped and pointed.

Way over on another part of the mountain, we could see a black figure working its way among the trees. Yes, it was the bear, and one of the only ones I’ve ever seen in the wild.

I was in awe.

The old man didn’t even try a shot. The bear was just too far away. When we returned home, my grandmother asked him, “Did you get anything?”

“Nah,” he answered as he put away his guns.

She didn’t ask me. If she’d asked me if I’d gotten anything, I’d have answered, “Yes, ma’am. I got pretty danged excited.”

I once hunted a mountain lion.

Man, can I just stop there while this still sounds like a cool story? Or do I have to tell the truth?

Fine. I’ll tell the truth.

Back in the mid ’80s, I was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, Arizona. One of the guys in my unit heard about the state’s “problem” with mountain lions (or, as we called ’em, “cougars”). Those beasts were coming out of the mountains (I seem to remember something about a drought) and raiding farms and ranches for livestock. Basically, hunters were given a green light on hunting the animals.

My buddy, a big deer hunter in his home state of Pennsylvania, decided he wanted his chance at bagging a cougar. I didn’t know why. It wasn’t like we were gonna eat it. I guess he just wanted the bragging rights on bagging.

So off we went, dragging along a couple of other guys. We drove into northern Arizona, parked our vehicle and began a three-day adventure involving hiking, camping, beer drinking, hunting, beer drinking and more hiking. I mean, dang. Who knew that hunting for something would involve so much hunting?

We climbed some pretty steep terrain. One afternoon, I pulled myself with one arm over a rock shelf — only to come face-to-face with a coiled rattlesnake. Sucker drew back his head as if to strike, so I did the only thing I could do.

I let go of my rock.

I bounced down those rocks like an empty beer can. I still can’t believe I didn’t break my stupid neck.

Once I finally stopped rolling, one guy laughed and said, “Hey, did you get him?”

Maggot. He was lucky I was temporarily paralyzed.

We returned from our trip empty-handed. We saw nothing of a lion. Not a track. Not even cat scat.

When the guys back at the base asked us if we’d seen anything, my buddy answered, “Nope.”

But by the end of that trip, all we’d seen were some bighorn sheep, some more snakes and some incredible scenery.

Didn’t see anything? I beg to differ.

I’ve tracked a pack of wolves once.

(Heavy sigh.)

You know what’s coming, right? I’d sound a lot cooler right now if I’d just shut up.

Another jaunt with a would-be big game hunter. The guy wanted to hunt elk near Yellowstone National Park. He was from Montana, but said he’d somehow never managed to hunt an elk. It was on his hunting bucket list.

Another few days of roaming, camping and tracking. Didn’t see a single elk anywhere. Not one drop of elk poop.

We did, however, see a group of people moving into an area with some trucks and other equipment. They greeted us and explained they were there to release some wolves, and that we actually weren’t supposed to be where we were. We’d roamed slightly out of bounds of where we were supposed to be. They were nice about it, thankfully.

Real, live wolves. I struck up a conversation with one of the ladies (OK, I may have been developing a slight crush on her, but it led to a great conversation). She showed us a place up a hill where we could watch the release.

Man, it was amazing. Those wolves bounded out of the big trailer, sniffed the air for a moment and then just went wild — literally. They seemed overjoyed with their new home, and they ran off together. Probably heading out to eat those elk we couldn’t find.

I wanted to follow them, so we picked up their tracks for a short time. They moved faster than we did, so we never saw ’em again.

Still, I can say I’ve tracked wolves. Right?

Again, our return to base was met with, “Did you get anything?”

Yeah, buddy. I got the experience of a lifetime.

Hunting season in East Texas is heading this way fast. Personally, my hunting days ended pretty much the day I killed my last buck and my 3-year-old daughter thought I’d murdered Bambi. She’s always been more important than anything else I do, so after that, I stuck to fishing.

But so many of my friends spend their mornings, afternoons and nights out in the woods performing some form of hunting. They go with friends, of course, but a lot of them are parents who take their children along. I see pic after pic of Dad and son or daughter in a deer stand, or couples stalking wild critters together. Whether they bring anything home doesn’t really matter. It’s all about the experiences. The outdoors is still a captivating place, especially for youngsters. They’re going to see, hear and feel things they can’t find anywhere else.

Sure, there’ll be trips when they come home empty-handed. They won’t “get” whatever they went hunting.

Who gives a scat? They’re creating memories, they’re seeing some beautiful parts of nature and they’re spending quality time with friends or loved ones.

Did they get anything?

Yeah, I’d say they did.

They got pretty danged happy.