Gene Hill is among the most-lauded outdoor writers, with staples such as A Hunter’s Fireside Book and Hill Country to his name. He also penned unforgettable essays for Field & Stream, Guns & Ammo, and Sports Afield, among others, specializing in pointed, episodic vignettes. His brevity highlights the significance of his sentences, as if he permitted only the most truthful and telling lines on the page.
Despite Hill’s razor-sharp prose, his essays are tinged with longing for past days afield and biting humor for hunting’s sillier moments. On one page, he’ll mock his gun-buying obsession, then on the next lament the death of a favorite dog. He’s gruff and unkempt, then sentimental and sweet. He spins yarns and tall tales, then gives it straight. In short, Hill, who passed in 1997, whether addressing the tragedies or triumphs of the field, made the fewest words go the farthest, and kept us coming back for more. Below we’ve included 13 of his greatest passages.
At home a friend will ask, “Been bird hunting?” You will say that you have, and when he asks,” Have any luck?” You will think of what you have held in your heart instead of your hand, and then answer that you certainly did—without a doubt.
And what will we take from November? To some of us, the pheasants will seem smarter, the quail and grouse faster, the ducks a little higher than we remember. It is not important that we do especially well; it is important only that we went.
You know what the ideal dove gun for any-given day is? Your other gun—the one you left at home.
A hunting camp is one of the few places left to us where we can dream of a near-perfect tomorrow. Where the harsh realities of lost riches and faded glories can be forgotten and the dreams of what might be come down to a delightful day with not too much wind, a crisp morning silvered with frost, and find us—at long last—with the right gun, shells, dogs, and friends who will be pleased forever to remember the day we “did it all.”
Our greatest trophies are not things, but times.
If in a single day we smell coffee, dawn, gun oil, powder, a wet dog, woodsmoke, bourbon, and the promise of a west wind for a fair tomorrow—and it’s possible for us to reek “happy”—that’s just what we will do.
Soak it up, go into it softly and thoughtfully, with love and understanding, for another year must pass before you can come this way again.
We’ve hunted together before and we’ve hunted together since, but the talk always takes on a softer, special tone whenever one of us starts a sentence, “Remember that day in the rain . . .”
What friends I have, what days I treasure most, what places that I think about and smile . . . they are because shotguns are. Without them I would have been empty. They have made my life full.
But the truth, to my way of seeing it, is that those who love the bits and pieces of being there—the sweetness of a singing lark, the way one whitetail can suddenly fill up a clearing, the fearsomeness of a sudden storm, and the almost unbelievable sense of relief when we’ve gotten out of a very sticky situation—have to have a sense of the magic of it all, a belief in the intangible and unknown, and no small degree of unquestionable wonder.
Good fires make good friends.
A grown man walking in the rain with a sodden bird dog at his heels who can smile at you and say with the kind of conviction that brings the warmth out in the open, “I’d rather be here, doing this, right now, than anything else in the world,” is the man who has discovered that the wealth of the world is not something that is merely bought and sold.
Remember when time was cheap? The songs we sang about it told us that we had time on our hands, that time stood still, that tomorrow would be time enough. And now we find it was not. Suddenly times to come have become times past, and we must hoard it and spend it cautiously as the tag ends of a small inheritance . . . which is what it really was all along—except no one told us.
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Cover image via Hill’s A Hunter’s Fireside Book.