There are many ways for fathers and sons to bond, but I can think of none better than for a father to teach a son to hunt and fish. In addition to getting closer to each other, the father also teaches the son to bond with the land, the water, the air — with nature itself.
Selfishly, it's also a chance to cheat time itself — to become a boy again vicariously, catching that first fish or shooting that first duck all over again. There's also a deeper, spiritual connection that comes from teaching and learning outdoor stewardship. My happiest childhood memories are of mornings in the marsh with my dad, who taught me how to fish and how to shoot — and how and when not to shoot.
Our first fishing trip was on the banks of a lagoon behind Biloxi, Miss., where we caught bluegill all day. My dad was patient and thoughtful enough to let me catch most of the fish — or at least, to let me believe I had caught most of them — and I insisted that we take them all home to show my mom. The first thing I told her when we got to Aunt Jenny's house was that I had caught the most fish. I didn't notice at the time, but I'm certain my dad smiled proudly.
Even today, I can close my eyes and transport myself to a flatboat in Tiger Pass, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, to a time when duck hunters could take 10 pintails each. It still ranks as the best duck hunt of my life — except, of course, for every hunt I have made since with my son Will, who loves the outdoors even more than I, and that's saying a lot. I joke with friends not to leave a bucket of water anywhere, because Will might drop a line into it.
I remember the first time I took him into the marsh on a duck hunt. He was 5. I gave him a BB gun and put him behind me in a sunken blind in the Labranche Marsh in St. Charles Parish. I knew he was destined to be a life-long duck hunter when, as soon as I shot a passing teal, he shouted, "I got that one!" Like my father before me, I let him believe that a BB gun could drop a teal. "You sure did, son — great shot!"
As the dog bounded into the water to retrieve the bird, Will insisted that we not pluck it. "I want to take it home to show mom," he beamed.
Years later, as an eighth grader, he had to write an essay for speech class. He chose the topic of coastal erosion, and he wrote passionately of how, even at his early age, he had already seen some of his favorite fishing and hunting spots disappear.
And for this story, I asked him to share his thoughts on hunting with his father. Here's what he wrote:
"Some of the fondest memories I have are of mornings spent in the cold, rotten-egg scented marshes of Pointe-a-la-Hache or the Labranche Wetlands on duck hunts with my dad. Despite the lack of sleep the night before, I am full of energy and running on adrenaline. Legal shooting time is around 6:15 a.m., but I can already see flocks of teal whizzing past our blind. The next wave of greenwings flies by, and we take our first shots. Three birds fall — two for the young gun and one for the old-timer. (My dad is a good shot, but not quite as good as I am. I think it has something to do with aging eyes.) The next 20 minutes are spent thinking of Mister Mickey's breakfast and waiting for some mallards or grays to appear. Suddenly my dad whispers, "Three big ducks, 11 o'clock." I try to sit still and hide my anxiousness, but it's too hard not to turn and look. As my dad calls them in, I flip the safety to red and wait. They head straight for our spread of decoys, and just before they land, I jump up and three fall — two for my dad and one for me. Maybe he was just a little rusty the first go 'round. After a successful two-hour hunt, we head back to the warmth of the camp and enjoy a giant breakfast."
Like my father did with me, I know that he will share this same bond with his sons one day. I can think of no greater gift to give — or receive.