For most, Thanksgiving is a time to spend with family and friends. It’s a gathering, and a feast, and it sometimes culminates with a few lazy hours of watching football on the television.
For many, there’s another traditional component that makes Thanksgiving Day special. Thanksgiving is the one day some sporting families know they can set aside to get into the woods and hunt.
And hunt, they do.
November in Maine is celebrated by deer hunters who wait the rest of the year to spend time chasing an elusive buck. Some families plan their holiday meal around the day’s hunting schedule: When does legal shooting time begin? What time can we expect to sit down at the table?
Sasha Tracy, 25, grew up in Hermon and has been a deer hunter since she became old enough to do so.
On the morning of Nov. 27, she knows exactly what’s going to happen: A dozen or more family members will meet bright and early and spend most of the day in the woods.
“We all get up in the morning and have breakfast that [my dad] cooks,” she said in an email. “Eggs, bacon, hash, beans and whatever else he makes.”
There’s another tradition at work here, though.
“We always joke and say, ‘If you don’t eat a biscuit, you will get a stick in the eye,’” she said. “[That] always happens if you don’t eat a biscuit in the morning.”
After breakfast, the uncles formulate a hunting plan.
At 11 a.m., the group meets again and grabs a snack. And in the afternoon, the youngest family members, some of whom aren’t old enough to hunt, join in.
“Every year is somewhat different because we have the younger generation getting older, and [they] can hunt,” Tracy said in the email. “We take them out in the afternoon, and they go walk in the woods with us to spend family time together and get used to what it is like.”
And after that afternoon session wraps up, the group meets to share their tales from the woods, then head back for the traditional dinner.
For others, such as John Kirk of Winterport, deer hunting isn’t as alluring. But that doesn’t mean he won’t spend time afield on Thanksgiving Day just like he has for decades.
Kirk is a duck hunter, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, he remembers venturing out on his own while he was living in Vermont as a teen. He admitted he was unprepared but didn’t know any better at the time.
“My grandparents had a big piece of land with lots of game,” Kirk recalled in an email. “I headed out by myself into the woods with a Model 94 Winchester that had belonged to my great-grandfather, a pocket full of shells and a knife. I had no license or any idea what I would do if I actually saw a deer. Fortunately, for the rest of high school, the deer were safe from me.”
Kirk tried everything he could think of, to no avail.
“I walked, I sat, climbed trees and fell in the water in the dark, in the swamp,” he said. “But I also started to gain a great appreciation for my struggles in the woods.”
Over the ensuing years, Kirk gradually began to focus less on deer and more on ducks. Then he began a Thanksgiving tradition that he still observes.
“I became more and more obsessed with duck hunting on the big, open and often dangerous waters of Lake Champlain,” he said. “From 1990 until 2002, some of my fondest memories are my Thanksgiving Day duck hunt. It was often really cold, snowy, and we would have to break ice to get the boat in the lake. The shooting was usually really good, and the camaraderie even better. Some of those hunting partners, human and canine, are gone now, but we had a time.”
That final year in Vermont still stands out for Kirk, some 12 years later.
With a boat full of dogs and friends, they battled 25 mph winds and 2- to 3-foot waves on Lake Champlain. The conditions were tough. But the hunting was fantastic.
By the end of the morning, all three hunters had bagged their limit. Only a scary boat ride back to the landing remained.
“My friend Jon took a picture of me, covered with snow, driving the boat into the storm, surfing over huge waves,” Kirk said in the email. “It is still one of the greatest days of my hunting life.”
Then, it was time to enjoy the other family Thanksgiving tradition.
“We got back to my house, into the warmth of the fire, the smell of the turkey and the kids running around,” Kirk said. “My youngest said, ‘Happy Turkey Day, Daddy! How was hunting?’ I replied, ‘It was perfect, Maclean. Just perfect.’”
Now, his children are older; two of the three are in college. And the family dinner isn’t the same: Like so many, Kirk is divorced. His ex-wife lives in southern Maine.
But he’s still a duck hunter. He still has treasured friends. And he still has an appointment to keep on Thanksgiving Day.
“I’m starting the tradition again on the Penobscot,” he said. “It’s different. But it’s still perfect.”