I’m changing his name to protect his guilt. Not guilt, really, for he didn’t do anything wrong. But still, my pal—I’ll call him “David Knight”—would probably rather this story not be told.

There were three of us in the blind that day on Currituck Sound in northeastern North Carolina—myself, the so-called David, and another good friend, Tim Gestwicki. We’ve worked together on various conservation issues for 30 years but, oddly enough, didn’t start hunting together until just a few years ago. Now our duck, goose, and deer hunts are traditions, and I look forward to them as much as any other outdoor pursuits across my 40 years of hunting.

We had set up on a marsh creek narrow enough that any duck flying by would be in range. But not many ducks flew by. It was a bluebird day and warm enough that we were shedding layers as the sun climbed the sky. Inevitably, the cutting up and trash talking commenced. And then we heard a hoo-ho-hooing over the marsh. A lone tundra swan was winging our way. I threw a few lackluster swan-like whoops into the sky, for comedic relief as much as anything. And dang if that bird didn’t veer straight toward us, low and purposeful. It set off a mad scramble in the blind.

“Who has a swan permit?” I asked hastily. “I didn’t get drawn.”

“Nope,” Tim replied.

“I do,” David said.

“Alrighty,” I said. “I reckon you’re up.”

The swan beelined down the marsh creek, 30 yards out and practically at eye level with us. David emptied his gun. Three shots at a pretty easy distance, on a bird so large it could block out the sun. He never cut a feather. Tim and I doubled over, of course, howling with glee as we prepared to offer our friend the emotional support he would need at such a difficult time.

Jiminy crickets, that thing was throwing a full solar eclipse!

How could you miss?

Three times!

We poured it on until Tim looked up and shushed us quiet. The bird was coming back.

Impossibly, the swan had turned 180 degrees. It was flying right back toward the blind, retracing its earlier route as if it had dropped its wallet and was scooting back to pick it up.

“Holy cow, man!” I hollered. “Get your gun!”

“It’s empty!” David replied. “And I’m out of shells!”

The swan was already in range. I handed my shotgun over.

I want to stop here for a moment and add a bit of context to this tale. The waterfowling world is well seasoned with stories and anecdotes about lifelong and long-term friendships. Hunting with a buddy year after year and decade after decade can lead to a harvest of meaningful memories. But I’m learning that there is similarly deep value in making new, late-in-life hunting pals. At my age, that’s the only way to start making old hunting pals.

New hunting friendships are a bird of a different feather. For starters, after 40 years of hunting, I’m just a teeny bit set in my ways. That can cause some consternation, as my new hunting friends tend to have their own ways pretty dialed in as well.

On the positive side of late-breaking friendships is this: The more gray hairs—or gone hairs—you sport, the less you need to prove anything to anyone. Patience and wisdom seem to sprout alongside arthritis and age spots. None of us gets bent out of shape when life gets in the way of our hunting plans. You need to check on your mom after her doctor’s appointment? No problem. A work crisis pops up? No sweat. David is the youngest of our trio, and he still has kids he needs to haul to basketball practice and scout meetings. Tim and I get it. We’ve been there. We’ve done all that by now, so we’re much more likely to extend understanding and grace to our hunting buddies.

Most of the time.

Now, back to that swan.

The bird was 30 yards out on its boomerang route and closing in. We were slack-jawed at this sudden turnaround of fortune, and, of course, our extension of understanding and grace commenced immediately.

“You do not deserve this,” Tim said as David shouldered my gun. “You are not worthy.”

Shot number four whiffed. The blind shook with our laughter.

The payload from shot number five rocketed into the ether as well. The swan winged on, unruffled as a backyard butterfly.

“Not a feather!” I hollered. “Holy mother of Nash Buckingham. What are you doing?”

On the sixth and final shot, however, the swan crumpled, dead as a doornail, on the edge of range. For a long moment, we were all gobsmacked into silence.

Then David broke the reverie. “Did you see that shot?” he howled. “What a shot! Forty-five yards and going away! There aren’t many people in the world who could have made that shot!”

In these late-in-life friendships, I’ve learned, there’s no reason to tear another man down. We all need a boost, and a fistful of ibuprofen, to make it to the end of the day.

But six shots on a close-range swan? I want to be a good late-in-life friend. I really do. But it’s hard.

So here it is. I’m coming clean. Actually, I didn’t change his name. He missed five times, for crying out loud!

David Knight, you know you’d do the same for me, right?

I know you’ll understand. After all, what are friends for?