I don’t get to do this as much I used to, or as much as I’d like. And sadly,time is running low for all of us who knew the joys of boyhood, only to lose it when life interfered.
Thunderhawk, N. Dakota – I’m in the best place I can possibly think of for the next four days, deep in the western reaches of North Dakota – on the Montana border – and in the heart of America’s best pheasant hunting.
I’m blessed to have met friends years ago, from Minneapolis, who have included me in their yearly plans to chase what we call the dangerous and threatening ‘ring-neck’; and appreciative for the opportunity to do what my father introduced me to as a young boy – hunting!
Hunting has taught me a lot over six decades of life.
I know that it’s given me a better sense of responsibility about guns, safety, ethics, and the sovereignty of life. No hunter is ever responsible for the mass-shooting atrocities on the evening news.
I know it’s given me that same sense of responsibility when I climb behind the steering wheel of a car.
And I know that I have a far better appreciation for the value of our environment and natural resources – what Press Pros outdoor columnist Tom Cappell claims would be missing altogether if it weren’t for hunting, and hunters.
I don’t shoot as many birds as I once did. None of my wonderful group of friends on this trip do – Jerry Moenning, Pat Jewett, and his son Casey. Rather, we walk slower, shoot more pictures, smell the roses, if you will…and pay more attention to the time we have with either other than time spent over dogs on point.
It’s a lot of trouble to get here…a flight to Minneapolis and then a nine-hour drive across Minnesota and North Dakota to ‘big sky’ country. But you have to do it if you want to find pheasants, sharptail grouse, and Hungarian Partridge…because you sure can’t find them in Ohio anymore.
In North Dakota and Montana there’s actually more wildlife than people, and when you’re out here you quickly become cognizant of that fact. And you appreciate the difference. There’s birds here because there are no people. And the people here farm and ranch with an appreciation for the fact that natural resources like gamebirds, deer, and antelope have their own place in the ecology of the landscape.
There are some third and fourth generation native Americans here, and more than one will tell you that the animals have been here as long as their ancestral lineage.
“My great-grandfather lived off this land in his day,” a cowboy and Sioux descendant told me on an earlier trip. “We give equal consideration to that relationship. It’s good that life here is not so convenient. Otherwise, everyone would want to come here, like they once did.”
I grew up reading the stories in Outdoor Life, Field and Stream, and Sports Afield about the very things I see and experience when I come to the West – pheasants that flush a dozen at a time, and flights of grouse going to their evening roost like ducks and geese. You once saw this in Ohio, but you’ll never see it again, despite the best efforts of Pheasants Forever or Quail Unlimited. There’s too many people and too little regard for the restoration of their natural habitat – hay fields, fence lines, and weeds in the cornfields. Farming practices and the encroachment of civilization have made a limit of birds in Miami County little more now than a distant memory.
For that matter, when I walk out my back door in Covington to look at a sunset I have to look past a housing development to see it. Here, you look at the distant buttes and mountains unabated…and all that sky. The landscape is so big you can’t gauge distance.
“How far are those hills?,” I asked a rancher once.
“How far you think?” he asked.
“About fifty miles,” I answered, sure that I had over-estimated.
“Take you about a day’s drive to get there,” he laughed. “And when you get there there’s nothing there but what you see. Save yourself the trouble. Just look at it from here.”
We found birds like we’ve found them on so many previous trips. Flushes ahead of Jerry’s Labrador Retriever, idyllic images from the days of stories in Outdoor Life, written by friends like Bruce Brady and Chet Hatfield.
And the instincts, happily are still there, the excitement of hunting and the skills passed down from my dad…to track, lead, and pull the trigger at just the right time. Wing-shooting is an art form, and the hand-eye coordination not to be taken lightly, or for granted.
The joys that he imparted to me, of being in the fresh air, carrying a good shotgun, the smell of freshly burned powder – Remington or Winchester powder – those same sensations washed over me like they did when I was boy.
What a joy to rediscover the fantasies of youth. How sad that boys have to become men. How delightful to again feel the surprise of a startling flush from a cackling rooster – youth rediscovered.
I took some time in the plunging temperatures of evening…watching that glorious sun sink behind the distant horizon. The grill is hot with dinner from today’s harvest – pheasant breast marinated in Italian dressing, grilled five minutes each side. You can’t do this in Ohio. You have to go West, like Horace Greeley once said.
My shotgun’s propped in the corner. My hunting clothes, boots and shells heaped in a pile, just like the old days – no one picking up after me, and no particular reason to pick up after myself.
The priority is friends, memories, and the reinstallment of time – boys being men, and men being boys!