Thanksgiving – a time for giving thanks, sharing a bounty of food and making outdoor experiences. I thought about all of that and more this past weekend while big-game hunting on the hills of southern Steuben County for the regular-season opener. It’s a magical time of year for sure. It’s a tradition that started for us more than five decades ago – the same hill; the same tree in some cases.
There were five of us huddled under different trees in the Town of Greenwood when the sun finally came up on Saturday morning. It was unusually mild out, making for more favorable conditions for the “veteran” hunters in the group like Bill Hilts, Sr. of Sanborn. Just a month shy of his 85th birthday, the elder Hilts shared a little excitement and spark when preparing for this year’s hunt. Health issues kept him out of the woods last year. This was another chance to chase whitetail deer again … and share memories of other hunts. Camaraderie is an important part of every hunt.
One memory involved a big 11-point buck that “Big Bill” took on Thanksgiving Day decades ago. However, his reflection was still as vivid as if it was yesterday. Listening to the stories were Rick Hilts of North Tonawanda, Thure Larson of East Amherst, and, new to the group, Carl Mottern of Kenmore. Brother Dave Hilts of Burt was on call for road patrol in Newfane driving a snow plow so he couldn’t make it. Don Starkey of Lockport, another long-time member of the group, passed away last year after a bout with cancer. Art Hartley of Niagara Falls, one of the original members hunting this hill, also passed on to the happy hunting grounds this past year.
While those missing members were not there in body, they were there in spirit. In fact, I hunted from a favorite tree of Starkey’s on Saturday afternoon while the wind was whipping up from Argos. Earlier in the morning I hunted from my Dad’s favorite hemlock – the same tree that he took that 11-point buck from (and many more over the years). It produced a doe this year. The spirits of past hunts live on as we remember these outdoor adventures and give our thanks as only a true hunter can.
Growing up in a hunting family, we never had Thanksgiving on Thursday. We spent our time hunting, giving thanks in a different way. Our special family dinner would always take place on Sunday, following the hunt. While times have changed for us, every family, every group, settles in with their own ways of giving thanks. Here are some other ways sportsmen in Western New York pay homage on this special day:
“Thanksgiving to me is more than turkey dinner with all of the trimmings,” says Andrew Gombos of Lake View. “This is a day where I get to spend time with my whole family and truly give thanks for everything that God has blessed us with. My Thanksgiving weekend starts off at our hunting camp with my father, uncle, two brothers and now my sons. We enjoy the morning hunt, and then wrap the day up with football, family conversations and a wonderful dinner that my mother and wife prepare. I love Thanksgiving weekend because it allows my family extended time to be with each other and pass on our traditions to the next generation. My father and uncle are able to tell my children the stories of what hunting was like when they first started and the importance of being good sportsmen.”
“It means time spent with family and friends,” says Ernie Calandrelli of Youngstown, director of public relations and advertising for Quaker Boy Game Calls. “I have been fortunate enough to hunt deer in many states and Canada with the job I have. Missing a day of deer hunting is not as important to me as it used to be. I will be back at camp Friday morning after Thanksgiving with buddies that I have been lucky enough to hunt with for over 40 years. We will not hunt near as hard as we use to and the old stories will be flying around which is now, to me, what deer camp is all about. When you are in a deer stand you have a lot of time to think. Thanksgiving weekend I will think of days gone by hunting with my dad, uncles, cousins and friends and the times we had back in the day when deer camp was deer camp and any deer was a good deer. Some of my most cherished memories with family and friends. I am also thankful for the men and women in our military that protect our freedoms making it possible to do the things we love to do.” These experiences and outdoor values are also passed on through his son, Nick, and foster child Bill Smith. Yes, they will be hunting on Thanksgiving Day.
“Thanksgiving has always been a special time of the year for me,” says Mike Johannes of Ransomville, skipper for On the Rocks Charters out of Wilson. “As a youngster, I always spent Thanksgiving weekend in the Southern Tier with my father, grandfather, uncles and their hunting buddies; and their sons as we got old enough. That was a great way to grow up learning how to have a good time with good friends while we carried on the hunting tradition. Nowadays, I always hunt just the morning near home in Niagara County so that I can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner with my family. I guess that Thanksgiving has two meanings to me. First and foremost it is a special day for our family to be together. Secondly, it offers the opportunity for some great camaraderie with my friends.”
Thanksgiving has different meanings for different people. When you look closely, it really hasn’t changed all that much from the first feast in 1621 when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians broke bread in Plymouth. There’s a good chance that they had some wild turkey to eat back then. One of the main courses was venison. Keep that in mind when you are giving thanks this year. Happy Thanksgiving!