As in years past, it is the Saturday before the buck season opener and I am in camp cooking, making chili of course.
This won't be a run of the mill "chili in one skillet" endeavor. Oh no, this batch of chili starts with a pot of white beans (great northern beans, to be exact) cooked with a couple of smoked ham hocks. After we have a meal from this, I will transform what is left in the pot with chili spice, diced tomato, onion, more beans of various kinds, venison hamburger and some random seasoning I would tell you about if I could remember what it was.
Bill arrives in camp Sunday afternoon, and about the time he comes in another friend, Jay, calls on the phone. (Jay is a writer friend and the editor of the online Hunting Wire.) Jay is driving through, going to Virginia on his way back from a hunt in Kentucky. It is deer camp talk, and we have him on the speaker as we discuss the buck he has taken in Kentucky and deer season in general.
Taking it all in, I imagine it would be great if we were all here in camp and not talking to Jay on the phone. I grudgingly admit to myself it is harder and harder to get people together.
All hunters know that food is important at deer camp, and this unique pot of chili will be one of my contributions. My buddy Bill has showed up with various donations to the larder, and when I tell him I am making white beans/chili, he comes out with the exclamation "Great! I brought a corn pone that Dawn got for us!" I am glad to hear this, as nothing goes better with beans and chili than cornbread, and corn pone is one form of cornbread.
Unpacking the various provisions later, I come upon Bill's "corn pone," and that is where things go sideways. The strange concoction in a plastic bag, which he claims is corn pone, is — well, anything but. At first glance, it appears to be rectangular, very moist, sweet in taste and weighs as much as some rabbit beagles. It could be an overmodified zucchini bread, banana bread or even a dreaded fruit cake, but this thing is not corn pone, my friend!
As you might surmise, this was a lively topic of discussion for the next three days, Bill stridently defending the mystery loaf and its ancestry, me loudly proclaiming this thing has no connection with cornbread whatsoever. I mean, the name of this column (and my website) is "Guns and Cornbread," you know?
In between eating too much and arguing about corn pone, we did find time to deer hunt a little bit. We made a pact at the start and agreed this would be a gentleman's hunt, meaning we would relax, take it easy and not get too mad at the deer. No pre-dawn treks to the stand, no daylight to dark endurance grinds, we would follow the advice of the Eagles in their song "Take it Easy."
Monday we do a leisurely drive to one of our favorite areas, and I deposit Bill on a stand for a couple hours. It is a good place, but about the time I am ready to go check on him, he comes walking out, no love from the deer. We head to another nearby property, and when we are in sight of it, a little forkhorn buck comes off the hill to our right, crosses the road in front of us and ambles across the small field on the left.
I figure he will disappear into the pines about 50 yards away, but as we sit and watch, he turns around and strolls back toward us, seemingly unaware that this is the first day of buck season. We have permission to hunt here; it would only involve getting out of the truck, getting away from the road, and we could legally take this buck.
Neither one of us does any of this. We just watch and tell the little buck he will likely not survive the week.
Bill walks up the hill to his stand, and while I am parked and deciding where I will go, old friend and DNR officer Jason pulls in. Jason tells me he has been on a long route today through Greenbrier and Monroe counties, and amazingly he has seen just four hunters — and we are two of them. There is no doubt the buck season opener is not the mega event that it once was; it just isn't. Jason and I bemoan this, but it is good to catch up with him and hear about the various officers and the area I retired from. Retired folks may understand: You miss it, but you don't. You miss people you worked with, but you don't really want to go back.
To be honest, I don't think I understand it at all.
About dark, I pick up Bill and he reports he has passed on two smaller bucks and one doe (the doe season is in these two weeks). We return to camp for more heated discussion on corn pone and other hijinks, so evidently this isn't just about deer hunting.
The next day we more or less repeat the first outing, but the deer do not visit Bill as they did before. I don't see anything either and admit to myself I am more interested in finding turkeys and turkey sign than deer. The deer are here in this area, no doubt, because we see them going to and from the stands, in fields along the way, we just don't see anything while taking the rifle for a walk.
As always, Wednesday comes too soon and we both will return home for Thanksgiving with the family. Bill packs up, and I watch him pull out and head down the road. We will get together next month for the doe hunt, hopefully with others.
I enjoy his deer camp visits; I just hope he doesn't bring any counterfeit corn pone next time.
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at email@example.com.