The last season in my little piece of paradise started out with bang, or bust if you will.
Sept. 1 has always been a monumental date for my family. Dove season marks the beginning of all the hunting seasons for us.
Since we were married on Sept. 8, 2001, Nikki and I have celebrated each of our last nine anniversaries with a dove hunt in paradise, a 3,000-acre cattle ranch bisected by Spring Creek and the Saline River in northwest Ellis County.
Now, I must admit, the anniversary hunt has always been her idea -- yes, I am a lucky man to have found a woman who wants to celebrate this day with a hunting trip.
This is the last season in paradise for us, and the outing was bittersweet.
Only a few days prior to the opener, my wife and I found out that in a few short months we would no longer be able to trek on this land we cherish so much.
Dec. 31, 2010, will mark the end of that privilege, the end of my wife's employment on the ranch, and the end of my father-in-law's employment there, too. This date also means that our two families will no longer have homes in the heart of paradise.
My wife and father-in-law have 23 years of memories that just ended after the ranch owner decided it was best to manage his investment a little differently. Even in paradise, the harsh reality of big business cut us off at the knees, that's right, just above our Tony Llama boots -- not that we could ever afford that brand, it's just an expression.
The hard-working family that I married into was now devastated. Paradise was offered up for lease to a farmer.
Hunting was always secondary to work on this ranch. It was limited and controlled and because of this, it became a wildlife haven.
When the work was done, we enjoyed the fringe benefits.
Our first outing during the dove season was anticipated by my aging female chocolate Lab, named Leather.
Walking out of the back door in camouflage while holding our shotguns sends her into a state of excitement that is impossible to describe in words -- spinning around uncontrollably, barking and smiling. It happens every year on the first day of dove season. She knows what it means, the start of all the hunting seasons. It's what working dogs love, the chance to go hunting after a long summer of rest. Leather also grew up here on the ranch. She knows better than I do all places where game birds chose to hide.
Sitting at the waterhole in our west pasture, we managed to harvest a handful of birds -- as the darting doves were hard to see through the film of tears in our eyes.
Our daughter, Danielle, accompanied us on our anniversary hunt a few days later. She shot the first dove of her life on her first and only shot of the evening. She was one for one -- an accomplishment that neither Nikki nor I can lay claim to. I am sure that it took me at least half a box of shells to harvest my first flying bird. I am not really sure how many shots it took my wife, but I really shouldn't ask. For both Nikki and I, our hard working dollars go up in smoke -- actually smokeless powder. That is why we have high hopes for Danielle, who has started out so well.
Over the last several weeks I have been trying to prepare for the archery deer season. My level of enthusiasm about hunting has been quite low, knowing this will be my last season here. The stories and photographic opportunities will soon be ending. I am trying my best to get excited about hunting -- words I thought I would never utter. I owe thanks to the friends and family who have helped lift my spirits.
It would be nice to get one last chance to fling an arrow at a big, old buck. I wouldn't mind bettering the one buck I did harvest here in paradise over the last 9 years, a 150-incher.
Halloween night was my first evening in a deer stand this season. The hesitancy and lack of enthusiasm disappeared after just one hunt.
Wow, what was I thinking?
This hunt will go down on my list as one of the most remarkable evenings I have ever spent in a stand without harvesting a deer.
God has truly blessed me and my family with so many wonderful experiences in paradise.
I hope the next caretakers appreciate God's gifts and treat nature's paradise with the same respect as we have over the years. If they do, they will be rewarded too.
Chapter 2: "The last season in paradise" coming soon.