‘Bear’ly a Deer Hunter

My weekly column from The Stone County Leader:

“Black bears rarely attack. But here’s the thing. Sometimes they do. All bears are agile, cunning, and immensely strong, and they are always hungry. If they want to kill you and eat you, they can, and pretty much whenever they want. That doesn’t happen often, but – and here is the absolutely salient point – once would be enough.”

-Bill Bryson
A Walk in the Woods

There it was.

Unmistakable, though I’d never seen one in that context before.

Eyes don’t lie. And with a few buttons pushed here, and a few arrows pressed there, the number four slide on my partner’s game camera jumped out, commanding immediate attention.

She was on all four, big, black, with a massive and burly form that just looked onery. Must have been 400 pounds, and right there not more than a few yards from my hunting spot for this year. The one I’ve been so excited about as I take an all-new adventure into the world of deer hunting.

Immediately, my thoughts turned to the potential headline, likely one my boss would bury on page 5B of next week’s Leader.

Bear Eats News Reporter: Good While it Lasted, the inglorious news likely lining someone’s bird cage a week later.

Ah, the adventures of the great outdoors.

With most of my years spent in the heart of the Mississippi River Flyway, I’ve logged many more hours in a St. Francis River duck blind than in the deer woods. It’s an exciting prospect as opening day approaches this Saturday – my first major investment in pursuing the elusive giant buck. Those days growing up on the St. Francis produced some of the richest experiences a young boy can know, and some of the fondest memories I had with a father who wasn’t exactly Ward Cleaver. Here’s an excerpt from a recent writing about those good times:

•••

When he wasn’t in the duck blind, my dad would sit at a bedroom window for hours, binoculars pointed to the river just a mile and a half west. Duck hunters dream of that magical day when there are so many ducks you can’t keep them off your pond, and the steel of your gun barrel stays hot, no time between rounds.

In those days, you’d find dozens of pickup trucks scattered about Highbanks Landing and the more northerly Jackson’s Landing, hunters having gathered for boat launches oftentimes long before there was enough light to maneuver the tricky river runs. Most could navigate by memory, jumping one log after another and dodging brush along the way. Shooting hours began precisely at sun up, and mallards move early for the day’s first feeding. Run a boat to your blind late between prime shooting hours of six and nine in the morning and you might just find it unplugged and half sunk at the landing tomorrow morning. One of the first rules on the St. Francis River is respect for the other guy.

If you’ve never been there, if you’ve never felt the adrenaline rush that overpowers you when 25 mallard ducks decide they’re coming into your pond, it goes something like this:

Three hundred yards out, a spotter first sees them headed due north. The blind’s designated chief caller, oftentimes an old river veteran in his fifties or sixties, makes his way to the shooting window as he reaches into a camouflaged vest pocket for his long caller. The call, maybe a black P.S. Olt, or a smooth, synthetic Rich-N-Tone, is doubly secured around the caller’s neck with a lengthy cord adorned with duck bands from past hunts. These bands, likely placed around the bird’s leg in the northern nesting grounds, are a research and reporting tool effective only when the hunter harvests the duck and returns the band to the research organization. Many prefer wearing the bands like an Indian bead necklace, each representing the memories of a past hunt and signifying their place within the tribe.

The chief caller takes a deep breath bringing the mouthpiece to his lips and the hopeful long call begins. The long call has a rhythm. A series of loud duck-like calls that grow shorter and closer together as the caller manages his breath with as much perfection as a first- chair trombonist. Almost like a plea of sorts, the long call is loud and imprecise, designed only to get the attention of ducks moving at a distance. Get their attention, and maybe they’ll like what they see. They’ll assess the wind, the pond configuration, decoy pattern, water clarity, and other factors before moving on or breaking for a descent. If he gets their attention, the caller then has a “working” bunch of ducks. Things are serious now, and the beauty of a seasoned caller unfolds.

Instinctively, the mood changes. Hunters give a quick check to their Brownings, Winchesters, and Remingtons. Safety on. Chamber full. Locked and loaded.

There is anticipation in this critical moment when it’s important to read what’s happening outside the blind. It takes years to get really good at this. The chief caller and the spotters now work together watching the ducks work the pond, their necks twisting and turning out the shooting window. The calling changes, now more intentional, more precise, as the ducks assess everything around them and make a final decision about a water landing. This is the moment a seasoned duck caller shows his skill alternating between working calls. There are calls to get the ducks’ attention, others that lure them in, feeding chatters, and a “come back” call for those that want to move on. The pros give the ducks exactly what they want to hear. This can go on thirty minutes or more, and callers frequently become so short on breath they find themselves light-headed.

There is not a memory from childhood more vivid than the clarity of my father’s eyes as he worked a bunch of mallard ducks on a freezing cold St. Francis River day. In those moments, all self-consciousness, issues of self-worth, all his imperfections vanished. Fluid, at ease, and seasoned with experience, he demonstrated complete control, perfect peace.

The call is reduced to the occasional soft chatter now. This is what separates the great duck callers from the good ones. A great duck caller knows when to call, and when to be quiet. Then, it’s in that quiet moment you first hear it. They’re coming in right over the blind. If Dad said it once in that thrilled whisper, he said it a million times. Grab your guns, boys. Get ’em on three …
You hear them before you see them, and the sound is unmistakable. Once a four-pound mallard duck commits to landing on water there is no turning back. With feet extended, body bowed, and wings cupped, the ducks flap wings violently for a soft landing. As they do, the wind whistles across long feathers in increasingly quick repetition. Shew-shew-shew-shew-shew. All movement in the blind ceases and you can hear a pin drop. Guns up. One, two, three!

The purest sportsmen will set their gun sights and pull triggers just before the ducks hit the water. Some prefer allowing the ducks to land, giving them even more time and accuracy for a maximum harvest. Either way, there’s not a moment more thrilling than the sound of wind over wings. It’s rare, but on the good days this scenario may play out six or seven times. They are the days you recount to your grandchildren.

•••

I’m hoping to share a few fireside chats with my own grandchildren from this deer hunting thing.

Here’s hoping not to be a mid-morning snack before a long, winter’s nap.

See you in next week’s newspaper.

(Steve Watkins is a reporter for The Stone County Leader. He is the author of two books, Pilgrim Strong, and The King of Highbanks Road.)

All Things Self Publishing: Join Our Virtual Retreat Oct. 22-25

If you’ve ever thought about self-publishing your own book, but just get overwhelmed at the thought of all that’s involved, and if you’d like to discuss best practices with two seasoned pros who have been in the self-publishing trenches, read on.

Our virtual retreat is scheduled for Oct. 22-25 and we’ll spend two and a half hours each evening speaking directly with participants in an interactive forum covering everything from craft of writing, to audience building, to sales and marketing ,and after the release … what then?

Beth Jusino and I are friends and colleagues. We’ve both authored books on our pilgrimage experiences walking the Camino de Santiago. Beth’s book, The Author’s Guide to Marketing is a fantastic guidebook for all things promotion. She’s a veteran writer, editor and writing coach who launched her career as a literary agent with Alive Literary Agency, and she’s also the author of the award-winning Walking to the End of the World: A Thousand Miles on the Camino de Santiago. Beth has worked as a developmental editor for some of the best authors in the business and counseled dozens of clients as they maneuvered both the self-publishing and traditional publishing realm. She speaks and teaches at the international level.

Check us out on this recent podcast.

I’m a mass communication professional with 25 years experience in the world of journalism, and someone who loves all things self-publishing. My first book, Pilgrim Strong: Rewriting My Story on the Way of St. James won several awards across the country and launched a nationwide speaking tour at 54 locations from the Potomac to San Francisco Bay. My new release, The King of Highbanks Road: Rediscovering Dad, Rural America, and Learning to Love Home Again was an Amazon #1 New Release 10 hours after it debuted just a week ago.

Beth and I love to talk about this stuff and share our experiences! Won’t you join us?

It’s affordable, convenient, and designed to include everyone. There’s even an opportunity for individual consults on your latest WIP, your platform, or even if you just want to talk marketing strategy.

Check us out here, and get signed up today!!!

When the Dirt Speaks

Here’s my debut column for The Stone County Leader published this week. They decided to call it The Flatlander:

***

The local real estate agent maneuvered his pickup down and around the winding, increasingly narrowing road with almost no effort at all. Blind curves, perilously low-hanging tree limbs, we descended steadily like an airplane on final approach for almost eight miles. A single deer bounded across Herpel Road, and a couple of little varmints I’d never seen scurried to the safety of the roadside ditch.

“How do you even know where we’re going?” I asked, slipping my seat belt on and as I made dubious eye contact with my wife in the back seat.

“Oh, it’s a ways down here, but it sure is pretty,” he said.

The day began earlier at a lovely little quiet area called Cool Water on the Izard County side of el Rio Blanco. We discovered three available residential lots on a corner we could piece together for a nice tract of land where we could build a main lodge and some guest housing for family and friends. And the price was right.

We walked the grounds for almost 45 minutes as I waited for the dirt to speak. When the right caretaker comes along shopping for land, the dirt will speak. Call out to him, actually. Raised on fertile flatlands of the Mississippi River Delta, I know this. Dirt speaks to the soul. It is the sixth love language – a beautiful gift God shares between two of His favorite creations.

The words never came clear, but I’ve always been in too big a hurry, so I suggested we head back to town and sign a deal at the agent’s office. Dana and I were ready to make Mountain View, and this place called Cool Water, our second home.
But God was still waiting to have His say. We often forget that He works on His time, not ours.

“Now, I’ve got this other place, and it’s way down there and right on the river, and the price is good. I don’t care to take you down there,” the agent said, surprisingly not in a hurry to ink the deal.

“Well, what the heck. I’ll take a look,” I said, fighting off the anxiety to just get on with it.
Forty minutes later that November Sunday afternoon and at the end of the eight-mile meandering road, we turned the corner onto six acres of river frontage at a place with a name as original as finely aged moonshine. We were at Round Bottom Landing, he said.

I opened the truck door, took a few steps outward, and did a slow, 360-degree turn.
My jaw dropped and I couldn’t close my mouth.

This is it. You’re home.

The dirt spoke.

And it was with unmistakable clarity.

“I’ll take it,” I said to no one in particular, and not breaking view from what had just captured my soul.

It was like standing at the bottom of a beautiful bowl, the swift flowing mighty White rolling just below and to the northwest, and spectacular eastern bluffs amazingly highlighted with flecks of red and gold from the soft fall light sourced low in the southern hemisphere. There were four surrounding mountains each with its own distinctive character, all infused with poplar, birch, maple and more, and bursting with brilliant colors.

“What did you say?” the agent asked, confused.

“He said he’d take it.” My wife has been there, done that, before, and she knows when something happens in my heart that’s not about to get undone. She took a deep breath, and laughed at the same time, surely both exasperated and thrilled at the next new and completely unknown adventure ahead.

At that moment, Tranquility Base was born, and a flatlander from cotton country just stared at a landscape so beautiful he couldn’t even dream it. I’m sure it’s not the first time it happened.

Ten months later, here we are. I’m writing and reunited with a college friend, Lori Freeze, at the Stone County Leader. Dana is selling real estate with a local firm and loving it. And we’re both waking up most mornings in this place that with every new sunrise, every new fog formation across the valley and river, and every new sighting of some amazing wildlife, thankful for our new home in Stone County.

I think we’ll sit here a spell.

See you next week in the newspaper.

•••
Steve Watkins is a reporter for the Stone County Leader. He is the author of two books including Pilgrim Strong: Rewriting My Story on the Way of St. James and The King of Highbanks Road: Rediscovering Dad, Rural America, and Learning to Love Home Again.

The King is an Amazon #1 New Release!

My deepest gratitude to all who bought and helped spread the word on our pre-order launch day September 1. With your help and kindness, The King of Highbanks Road been designated an Amazon #1 New Release in not one, but two categories!

But we could still use your help, and this is why.

From now until release on October 1, we’ll give $1 of every book sale to programs created from Sowing Seeds of Hope, a non-profit organization (1999-2014) dedicated to helping rural and farm families with behavioral and mental health issues. Most people don’t know the American farmer is among the most likely of professionals to take his/her own life. Farm life stress can be overwhelming.

Please join us in our mission to spread the word about this historic time in rural America, and to give back to one of the greatest unsung heroes of our nation – the Great American Farmer.

My New Book is Now Available!

Okay friends, this is the BIG DAY. The King of Highbanks Road is now available for Amazon pre-order!!!
This is the day I ask for your help, and hopefully, in return, give something back to you that is meaningful. Let me explain briefly why this day is so important.
Every single sale, especially today, is super important. Amazon rankings can make or break a new book, and I believe we have a legitimate shot at a #1 ranking today. It appears readers are already buying and we’re already moving up the charts, as high as #11 in one category. With your help, we can make this happen, and I’ll tell you why this is important.
It’s not for my sake, or for the pure sake of a ranking, but a #1 book “gets legs” and is all the easier to place in stores, especially across the South and Midwest, where this book really belongs. A #1 ranking will help assure our foot in the door at this stores. So…..
Buy a book for yourself today, and some for your friends, and more for your family. You won’t find a better $17 Christmas gift for a father or a son or someone connected to rural America or the farm. I promise, there’s something in it for everyone.
I’ll report our rankings through the day. We may need a push here and there, so please not only buy, but share this opportunity with YOUR friends and family and ask them to share it with theirs!
Whatever happens, I’m dedicating this day to anyone who comes “from the country,” and especially to the Great American Farmer, the unsung hero of the world.
God Bless, and thank you all SO much. Stay tuned. More to come as the day progresses!!!
Here’s the link:

Construction: Day 1

Today we kicked things off at Tranquility Base. While digging for a septic tank perk test isn’t very sexy, it’s something, and the sight of equipment and materials rolling onto our new property was exhilarating!

The trusses for Alissa’s Overlook arrived, and we used a chainsaw and Bobcat to clear brush and improve our river view for both the pavilion and the house. The view is SO much better! Monday, we begin pouring support pillars for Alissa’s Overlook.

A few visuals:

Trusses for Alissa’s Overlook.

Ten Things to Finish in My Fifties

•A world-class retreat center known for its hospitality and depth for writers learning the publishing business.

•Walk the Great River Road from Lake Itasca, MN to the Gulf of Mexico to raise money for AgriWellness, a non-profit that provides counseling to suicidal farmers, and studies rural American behavioral science.

•Have about five good books under my belt, and another five ahead.

•Be a more disciplined man in the areas of prayer and bible study.

•I’d love to run just one more marathon, even if it’s not pretty.

•Create some kind of center that provides hot meals for hungry people. The one thing I cannot tolerate in this world is hunger.

•Establish a sanctuary for bees and birds that would educate kids.

•Do some trail angel work on the AT.

•Syndicated newspaper/internet column.

•Know at 60 there were a few young men I had a positive impact on.

 

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