I prefer the company of those strange characters who stop the hunt for five or ten minutes after each bird is taken so they can tell you how the dog worked, how the bird flushed, which way it flew, how the shot was taken, and how the retrieve was made.
Hunters and shooters
Thirty years ago a companion on a December pheasant hunt in northeast Iowa inadvertently taught me that not every person who buys a small game license is a true bird hunter. Despite being decked out in Orvis clothes and Cabela’s gear, and running top-flight bird dogs and carrying Caesar Guerini over/unders, some who go afield in pursuit of game birds are just shooters.
The sun had set and the last light of a winter afternoon was fading as we walked together, wearily, across hard-frozen clods in a harvested and fall-plowed cornfield, stumbling over broken corn stalks that jutted through a four-inch blanket of snow. We had come to the end of a two-day hunt and were ready to begin a long drive home. Even my dogs admitted that they had had as much of this frigid fun as they could stand.
My hunting buddy was glum, but I thought his sultry mood was due to the weather and his exhaustion. I was wrong. He was disappointed in the hunt. Bitterly disappointed.
By touch, he counted the number of empty 12 gauge shotshell hulls in the depths of his coat pocket and said, “I only fired five rounds in two days of hunting. That’s just not acceptable!”
It was an effort for me to get my head around his “not acceptable” appraisal of the past two days since it had been a good late-season pheasant hunt. Temperatures both mornings were in the single digits, but there was almost no wind, and bright sunshine and clear skies made the afternoons seem warmer. A few deep drifts amid the four or five-inches of accumulated snow made walking difficult in places, but the previous week’s snowfall had been gentle, not blizzard-driven, so the sections of restored native grass prairie and wooded draws that we hunted were standing tall, not flattened or blown full of snow. Perfect bird cover.
Scenting conditions had been good for the dogs, and we had seen lots of pheasants. My two springer spaniels had worked at least twenty birds, almost all hens, and we had bagged four roosters – and would have had two more with better shooting. All-in-all it had been more than an “acceptable” hunt, it had been a most memorable December hunt, one to reflect on and tells lies about come June and July.
I told him so, mistakenly thinking that as a tyro pheasant hunter he had unrealistic expectations. Winter hunts in the North Country are much different from winter hunts in the pages of Gun Dog magazine. By this time of year the surviving pheasants have learned every trick in the hide-and-seek game, weather and ground conditions can be hard on your body and harder on your dogs, the layers of heavy clothing and thick gloves make handling your shotgun cumbersome, and the bird coverts and feeding areas have all been changed by snow, crop harvests, short days, and the threat of avian predation by hawks and owls.
That is why we are out here in the first place, to test our mettle in these kinds of conditions. The hunt itself is the reward, and even one rooster in the vest would be a trophy. We had taken four, something to brag about.
“Four pheasants!” he said derisively. “You call shooting four lousy pheasants a good hunt?”
Back in the pickup I said I would field dress today’s two birds and put them in his cooler. I would take home the two we shot the day before. He said that I should keep them all; he didn’t want any of them. “”My wife won’t cook any meat that doesn’t have ‘USDA Inspected’ stamped on it,” he said, trying to make a joke out of his disdain for eating wild game.
He didn’t much like bird hunting, and he didn’t like eating game birds at all. So what the hell was he doing out here?
What he wanted to do was shoot, not hunt. He wanted birds in the air in front of him every few minutes, three dead roosters in his vest in an hour, and then a steak and a beer at the local chop-house while we talked about what a swell hunt it had been.
His days afield would have been better spent at a European-style driven pheasant shoot on an estate where beaters herd and flush pen-raised birds toward you, loaders handle your guns, you shoot a hundred pheasants, pickers-up with docile Labrador retrievers fetch the dead birds at the end of each drive, and all the amenities are provided for you: lodging, meals, transportation, shooting stations, shotshells, and mixed drinks at the end of the day.
Or perhaps he would more enjoy a few hours on a shooting preserve with a “guide” who takes you on an all-terrain vehicle to a field with mowed paths where a half hour earlier a pair of bird planters had driven through with a truck full of caged pheasants, taken one out at intervals, shaken it as if it were a cocktail mixer, and tossed it dizzied and disoriented into thin cover to be found and pointed by a lethargic German shorthaired pointer, all employees of a bird shooting operation.
In either case, he would get lots of bird shooting. No bird hunting, though.
As you can imagine, I did not hunt pheasants with him again, or perhaps more accurately stated he chose not to hunt pheasants again with me. He did his bird shooting at a game farm for a few years but soon became an avid sporting clays shooter because, he explained, “Pheasants cost $17 apiece, and I can shoot a hundred clay targets for that price.”
I applauded his decision. A sporting clays range is the right place for him. For me, too, a few times each summer. Sporting clays is a fun game for shotgunners, and I enjoy it more than any other type of target shooting.
But come bird season, I want to spend my days with hunters, not shooters. Hunters who are skilled at recognizing good bird coverts and reading the wind and weather and landscape; who look for bird tracks and droppings; who have spent many days afield with their dogs and know how to read them; who have shotguns with a lot of wear and tear as evidence of years of use; who have duct tape holding together their hunting vests.
I prefer the company of those strange characters who stop the hunt for five or ten minutes after each bird is taken so they can tell you how the dog worked, how the bird flushed, which way it flew, how the shot was taken, and how the retrieve was made. The guys who open the bird’s crop to see what it has been feeding on. The guys who say, “Look at his spurs and tail feathers – this must be a two-year-old rooster!”
And you know what? Most of the time, in the wild, not at the game farm, these guys shoot the most birds, too. The joy for them is in the hunting, though, not the shooting.
So that uncomfortable end to a December pheasant hunt thirty years ago was an important moment in my life. I was fortunate to learn early on that I want to spend my days afield with true hunters, not shooters.
More stories about upland bird hunting are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.
He did you a favor by showing you his colors that day, otherwise you might have wasted more hunts on him. Good quality Hunting partners that value the hunt in all it eccentricities are very hard to find these days, if they were ever easy to find in the first place. Hang on to the good ones and move the bad ones along as quickly as possible.
This story made me think of a kid (now grown up) I mentored in hunting and fishing. I hadn’t seen him in years but we got together for a deer hunt. We never got a shot or even saw a deer in Three days of hunting, but on the last day a turkey flushed by the truck (turkeys are rare here) and he looked at me and said “well that made whole trip worth it right there”
I’m sure the young kid you mentored has grown up to be a man who enjoys the true rewards of hunting. He was fortunate to have you as a guide and role model.
The guy I took on the winter pheasant hunt those thirty years ago is really a good fellow, just not a good hunting companion. I probably portrayed him too harshly in the essay; and he had had a bad day of it, what with falls and missing birds and out-of-control dog and spilled coffee. We are still friends, but it was best that we went our separate ways as far as hunting-shooting is concerned.
I am lucky to have four or five hunting buddies who share my ethic and values. They seem to be a rare breed these days.