Out There: Season's end

Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.

Winter will soon end. On this February day, however, the season holds tight the pallid landscape.

My breath swirls like storm clouds in the frigid air. I am cold, leaning here against a tree that has survived a hundred winters. But something inside tells me to stay.

A deer suddenly takes form in the glade of cedars before me. His footsteps are silent as the snowflakes' fall. What majesty he possesses! His antlers are tall and wide. He is heavy and wary and old.

I watch him for the fleeting moment I am given, and bid him well as he leaves. This winter may be his last.

The tracks lead into a blackberry thicket. I have followed them here from the barn up the hill. Last night, as snow fell, a cottontail found sanctuary beneath the old structure. But when the sun rose, the rabbit left. The tracks say the creature was hurried. Perhaps a fox was after him. Or maybe a coyote. Perhaps he just wanted to get from barn to thicket quickly to avoid the cold.

It matters not. The rabbit will soon die.

I see his eye first. It is the one flaw in his camouflage. All else blends with the crisscrossing brambles, but the round, black eye stares out.

The bullet passes cleanly through the rabbit's head.

I lift him and rub him against my face. His softness feels good. His warmth feels good.

The snow is crimson where he lay. I stare for a minute, transfixed. Red blood on white snow: death passed here, it says.

I do not grieve for the rabbit. He had to die as all things die. And I am glad it was I who took his life. Tonight, he will be my dinner.

The snowflakes fall harder now, pearly butterflies clinging to my face with cold feet. For some reason, they bring fire to mind. A hearth with burning logs. Warmth on my backside. I trudge faster toward home, the snow groaning beneath my feet.

The creek's iciness seeps through my boots as I wade across. The sound of it rushing over the rocks is like music in a quiet room.

On the far side, I see more cottontail tracks. They end at another thicket. And from within, a black eye stares.

Suddenly, the rabbit bolts. A bobcat bolts with him.

I do not see the drama played out, but as I continue up the hill, I hear the rabbit's screams. The rabbit dies. The bobcat eats. Life goes on.

Across on another hill, I hear beagles. It seems they might come my way. But it is not to be. The dogs turn away. I strain to see them through the blizzard, but cannot.

The beagles' baying enchants me like hymns being sung in a distant country chapel. And so I stop to listen.

I cannot see him, but I feel the presence of another hunter. I wonder if he is there, listening to his dogs as they race behind the cottontail. And though I know nothing of this man, if he even exists, I can't help but wondering if he, too, is feeling melancholy.

Today is the season's end. Months will pass before I can spend a day as I have spent this one. So on this, the last day of February, I can't help but feel sad.

The season will be over when the sun has set. It is only natural I should want to share my disheartenment with another, even if he is a stranger.

Many people I know eagerly anticipate the beginning of hunting season. Vacations are planned to coincide with opening week. For a few days, hunting takes precedence over all else. Charles Fergus touched on it in his book, A Rough-Shooting Dog: "For the hunter, fall is the island and the rest of the year is the swim."

So it is with most. But for me, it is the end of the season, not the beginning, that most stirs my soul. I swim to the island of fall, then continue beyond it to the island of winter.

Things are different here, different in good ways. For instance, winter embodies a privacy unknown in other seasons. Spring, summer and fall open their arms to people. Winter is more standoffish. It has fewer friends, and so, in winter, one can savor longer periods of peacefulness when you belong to yourself and not to others.

I also am enticed by the season's stark contrasts. It is our habit to dismiss winter as a time of lusterless grays and dull browns. But colors are never richer than in this resting world where everything is more elemental and direct. The reds of a cardinal are twice as red against February's stark backdrop. The cedars are never greener. The turquoise of the sky and the violet shadows cast by trees are feasts for the eyes.

When snow falls, the world is cleansed. Everything is white, white, white, as far as you can see. The landscape's wounds and scars vanish. Nature looks new, unmarred by time or use. And every animal that stirs writes the story of its activities on the surface of the snow. These things, too, draw me outside this time every year.

In the end, however, I venture out at season's end for one primary reason: I want to be reassured that hunters can still hunt without need for penance. I want to be reminded that death is part of life, and killing an animal to eat is as natural and healthy as the urge to procreate.

These things are most evident when I am cold and alone at season's end. No one is there demanding apologies or seeking recompense for my actions. And for a moment, however fleeting, I find myself fully merged with the raw side of nature.

It is then I feel most human. And when the sun sets on that final day, I grieve, for I will not possess that feeling again until another year has passed.

Across the hillside, I see the rabbit hunter. We meet in the swale leading up to the barn.

"Last day of the season," he says. "I always hate to see it come."

"Me, too," I reply. "Me, too."

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net.