Sports column by Matt Dickerson: Thoughts on hope, hunting and Christmas

In my house growing up, Christmas was a both a joyful time and a time of hope. It was mostly about being together as a family, enjoying meals and games and snow and a break from school and work, and about church services celebrating the birth of Jesus. It was not so much about the commercial aspects of the season.

Still, when I was a kid I admittedly had a certain anticipation about opening presents on Christmas morning. It was an anticipation wrapped up in hope that I might get whatever was the particular gift I really wanted that year. It was with that hope I went to bed on Christmas Eve after my last glass of eggnog, and with that hope I arose in the morning and urged my parents out of bed and out to the Christmas tree. Since I had a decent sense of what my parents were (and were not) able to afford, my expectations were generally reasonable and my hopes were usually (though not always) fulfilled.

I have often commented that hope is also one of the most important ingredients in my enjoyment of fishing and hunting. Now by “hope” I do not mean merely wishful thinking; I mean a looking forward to some promised or desired future event with a realistic expectation that it might actually happen. Although it would be great to be given an all-expense-paid exotic fishing trip to pursue trout in Chile, or Atlantic salmon in Iceland, or marlin in the Bahamas, I can’t actually say, “I hope to do that some day” because I have no realistic expectation it will happen. I do, however, hope to return to Alaska in the next few years to catch more Kenai River rainbows, and perhaps another 40-pound king salmon. While this sort of hope is never guaranteed — many of my hopes have ended in disappointment — it is nonetheless based on reason and evidence. (I have family living in Anchorage, and quite a bit of frequent flyer miles building up.)

So what has this to do with fishing and hunting? It is popular among anglers to say that catching fish isn’t the important part of fishing. There is truth to that. But it misses something important. While there have been a few days in my life I was catching fish on nearly every cast — a three-day stretch on Montana’s Big Horn River, and a more recent day on Oregon’s McKenzie River — on other days I might make a hundred casts without hooking a fish for every one cast that lands one. And I can enjoy every one of those hundred fishless casts. Part of what makes them enjoyable is the hope I might catch a fish: the anticipation that at any moment one might strike. Catching the occasional fish, or at least seeing fish feeding, is the evidence that sustains the hope that makes all the other casts enjoyable. (I could also speak of many fish I have lost because my expectant hope had disappeared and thus my attention had faltered and I was not ready when a fish actually struck.)

The same sort of thing is true of my hunting. Waking up before dawn on the opening morning of this year’s rifle season, having spent the night in my new hunting stand, I was full of hope for my prospects of a successful harvest. There had been deer in the neighborhood: three does regularly moving around my little meadow, and a larger herd of seven showing up from time to time. An antlered animal was bound to smell those does and come by sooner or later. When, at 9:30 a.m. on that opening morning, a buck chased a doe along the ridge to my west, even though I was not able to squeeze off a shot at the swiftly moving animal, it was enough to raise my hopes for the next several days.

And while that hoped-for legal buck never did appear again, enough does continued to show up that I never lost hope. Not until the last bit of light failed on the final evening of the season. Even then, when rifle season hopes died, I still had hope for the December muzzleloader season. I had a doe tag, and had been regularly seeing does in November. If I’d been able to harvest a doe during rifle season, I would have had one on the second day.

Mysteriously, however, the does disappeared during the first few days of muzzleloader season. But then came that nice snowfall on the last day. And again my hopes were restored. Sunday afternoon I abandoned my stand and headed out looking for tracks in eight inches of fresh powder. It didn’t take long to find a set of three. Following them slowly through the woods, I walked onto a bed that looked at most an hour old and began to move more carefully.

And then the tracks wandered off into posted land. I could go no further. My hopes sank. Only 90 minutes remained in the season. Running out of options, I circled back to some thick firs further down the hill, below where the tracks had disappeared, and I sat on a stump to wait. As the minutes passed, my hope faded. The deer might come back, my hope told me; they were around somewhere. But my despair was also speaking; it was telling me that the deer had been heading away from me, and probably would not be coming back that afternoon. As my hope faltered further, so did my attention. Instead of keeping a careful watch and listening attentively, I sat with my head on my hand gazing off vaguely southward.

Forty-five minutes passed. I shifted my head from my right hand to my left hand and turned to look westward. And that was just enough movement to spook three deer that had being quietly making their way toward me through the firs. They had gotten within 40 yards without seeing me, and without me seeing them. In that inattentive moment my careless movement spooked them. Three white tails sprang up in plain sight, and three large supplies of venison bounded off into the woods. Because my hope had failed me, and with it had gone the careful watchfulness that comes with hope, I had missed this one best opportunity of the season.

Which brings me back to Christmas morning, and particularly to that first Christmas some 2,000 years ago. Christmas is a season of hope. It is a time of promise. The ancient prophets had foretold of a coming messiah. “To those living in darkness, a great light would dawn,” the prophet Isaiah had written hundreds of years before Jesus’ time, when his people were heading into a long period of slavery and captivity to the empire of Babylon. Yet that yoke of oppression would be shattered, Isaiah promised. The warrior’s blood-soaked garments would be burned. Where there had been sorrow, there would once more be joy. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given … And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.” Some who heard those words never gave up the hope. Hundreds of years later, they were still waiting and watching.

That hope and promise were fulfilled on the first Christmas morning so long ago when the prince of peace entered our world. And in our own dark time, when war and violence abound, poverty and injustice are common — and it seems harder to believe that the big buck will come walking by or that the next cast might catch that huge fish of our dreams — the hope of Christmas seems more important than ever. And more dear when we get a taste of it.

May you be blessed with a taste of that hope, joy, and peace this Christmas season. And may you find a fat fish on the end of your line some time in the year to come.

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