Every tag has a story. Even those that go unpunched.
Hobbies have always been a large part of my life. The Magic the Gathering card game is one of those hobbies. It is a game I’ve enjoyed with my younger brother for many years. No matter where I am or how stressed out I get, Magic makes it better. One of the benefits of playing Magic is the community. I have a local playgroup and enjoy traveling to regional gatherings. I met a fellow Michigander named Jay at such a gathering. We struck up a conversation and I ended up telling him about my life outdoors – bowhunting in particular.
That must have struck a chord with Jay, who messaged me a few months later, regarding the value of some hunting gear belonging to his late father, Joel. Photos followed and included an old Bear Whitetail compound, green bolt-on Bear quiver, some early carbon arrows, and other odds and ends.
It was an interesting assortment. What it lacked in monetary value, it oozed in character and nostalgia. I was drawn to the odds and ends in particular, which included shooting stalls, a hand drawn map to one of Joel’s hunting spots, and an unpunched Michigan bow tag from 1978.
These were both remnants of a bygone era and the life of a bowhunter rolled into one package. My imagination ran wild with visions of a Michigan autumn and Joel’s pursuit of the elusive whitetail buck. “Where did he hunt?” I wondered. “Was it on public or private land?” “What did his license cost?” “Did he prefer the thrill of a treestand or watching them breathe at eye level?”
I was able to fill some of those gaps by pestering Jay. I already knew the when, he helped me paint the scene with the where, which happened to be his grandfather’s cabin in Kalkaska County. I had recently visited that area on a fly fishing pilgrimage to Grayling and enjoyed the scenery immensely. Meanwhile, the DNR’s 1978 Preliminary Report (courtesy of my friend Jamey Burkhead) added a bit of spice to the mix and my imagination did the rest.
According to the report, Joel paid $7.50 for one of the 63,536 resident licenses in 1978. I would like to think he did so at a local sporting goods store on his way to the cottage. Maybe a mom-and-pop like Jack’s Sport Shop on Cedar Street, where he could get a Coke, the license, and a few sticks of beef jerky to tide him over for the evening hunt.
He probably went to the cottage from there, the crisp Fall air blowing through his cracked driver side window, as he navigated side streets and gravel roads. Odds are he passed a cornfield or two and slowed to check the edges for feeding does – not for the prospect of hunting the property, but for the excitement.
The drive to the cottage would have been a short one, giving him enough time to unpack and send a few arrows into the old burlap target out back. I could imagine him unzipping the leather case and pulling the bow from the red plush interior, making sure the components are tight and in working order. I could envision the determination in his eyes, as he draws it and the smile on his face, as his arrows find their mark. He is ready. Even in 2019, I could see that he is ready. It is time.
He pulls a pack from the truck, zips his tag and jerky into the front pocket, and lays the map out on the hood. He runs his finger along the pen-scribbled lines until he finds the letter “D”. He taps it twice with his finger and looks towards the woods. D marks the spot on the ridge he hunted the year before. D is where he saw his deer. And D is where he is headed. He folds the map, slides it into his back pocket, grabs his bow, and strides off to meet his destiny.
What happens next is anybody’s guess. We know that Joel started with a plan and ended with an unpunched tag, but the middle is uncertain. Did his spot produce? Did he get a shot? Did he miss? There is a part of me that would like to know every detail of his 1978 season, but there is another part of me – a larger part – that would prefer it remain a mystery. I would like to think he had an adventure. One that filled his head with memories and his heart with satisfaction.
Success, after all, depends on the narrative. A tag, punched or unpunched, is just a memento kept to help us remember our story while we are here, and inspire others to make their own when we are gone.
Note: Jay was nice enough to gift me his father’s tag shortly before writing this. I’ll think of Joel whenever I see it and look to it for motivation when I need it the most.
Do you enjoy my writing? Have you bought my book? You should. It is called “Life and Longbows” and I think you’ll like it. Signed copies are available in my store while quantities last. You can get unsigned paperbacks or the Kindle version on Amazon. Whether you buy one or not, I appreciate the support and wish you the best!