If you ask any of the guys I hunt with about the man-eater, you will get an immediate reaction. Some will shudder and give a look of terror. Others will just shake their heads and start mumbling incoherently.
Personally, I have had nightmares about it, and have feared for my life when confronted with the man-eater.
This is the time of the year that talk of the man-eater usually pops up among the group of hunters I gather with on most weekends. We are a gang of dyed-in-the-wool upland bird hunters who will do just about anything to bag a late-season pheasant. We’ll even, in the direst of times, take on ... (cue dramatic music) ... the man-eater.
During the first couple of months of the hunting season, the man-eater never really enters in our conversations. If it does, we all just laugh it off and quickly change the subject. None of us is foolish enough to even think about taking it on during the pleasant days of October.
But as winter arrives, after some good freezes, a healthy rainfall or two, and hopefully some snow, the man-eater becomes a little less threatening. That’s when we begin to let our minds wander around the edges of the beast.
The man-eater once was a much more docile foe. But in the past several years, it has grown and matured and expanded into a maniacal creature that has no regard for the human spirit. In fact, it will gobble up a hunter’s passion and go-get-’em attitude and spit it out in tiny pieces.
Personally, while doing battle with the man-eater in past seasons I have been driven into an almost uncontrollable urge to start running and screaming, as if a hive of bees were after me.
The problem is, once you enter the jaws of the beast there is no such thing as running. Screaming, yes — and you will hear many muffled screams if you listen closely — but no running.
You might hear some sobbing, too. And possibly — no, probably — even some cursing. When faced with the knowledge that there is no quick escape from the man-eater, I have often wanted to sit down and cry.
There will be no sitting, either. The man-eater doesn’t allow it. Even if you fall, which happens often, the man-eater stops your momentum, keeping you upright, and actually pushes you onward, drawing you farther and farther into its bowels.
And as you walk it grabs your legs, only letting go after much pulling and struggling. Every step is a chore. Within seconds your calves begin to burn, your hamstrings start to tighten and you ask yourself, “What the hell am I doing in here?”
Pride of accomplishing the near impossible will keep you going. It’s akin to climbing Everest. The only way to beat the beast is one step at a time.
Knowing I can conquer the man-eater, and possibly have a crack at a crafty, long-tailed rooster while doing it, makes me soldier on. That and the knowledge that if I falter, the monster might totally swallow me, never giving up my remains to my loved ones, keeps me plodding ahead.
Some of my hunting buddies have taken on the man-eater only once. When they were finally spit out, chests heaving, sweating as if it were July, tears running down their dirt-covered cheeks, they have said they would never confront the beast again.
And, true to their words, they haven’t.
Others, including me, are a little more stubborn. We have been rewarded not once, but several times for our grit and stamina. We have done battle with the walls of seemingly impenetrable kochia and puncturevine, Russian knapweed and field bindweed, thistle and morning glory. And we’ve come out victorious. Not unscathed, but victorious nonetheless.
In its infancy, the man-eater was a mild-mannered asparagus field, with neatly groomed rows in which to walk. Pheasants and quail casually strolled amongst the stalks and lollygagged under the greenish-yellow fronds, shaded from the sun and hidden from danger above.
Now, fallow for half a decade, the giant field has become the noxious weed authorities’ worst nightmare. Wily old pheasants, with one-inch spurs, burrow into the matted tangle of vegetation and wait out the final days of the hunting season. They know they are safe, because no hunter in his right mind has chosen to wade into the man-eater…yet.
As the seasons change, though, the man-eater becomes marginally more conquerable. Mother Nature tames the beast ever so slightly.
So, come this time of year “attacking the man-eater” pops up more regularly in conversations among my hunting buddies. Mostly still in jest, but deep down each of us knows fat roosters with 23-inch tail feathers are entrenched in the man-eater now. We know if we gird our loins with brush-buster pants, get in the right mental state and attack from all angles, shots will be fired and birds — big, colorful, cackling roosters — will be bagged.
We know this because of history. In years past, those with courage and determination, facing down fear — and, of course, the man-eater — have been rewarded.
The time has come. It is the fourth quarter and we need a score. It is now or never, before the season comes to an end. The buzzer is about to sound, and we have to do it ... we must take on (cue that dramatic music) ... the man-eater!