This article won the 2015 Best Newspaper Article category at the Professional Outdoor Media Associations conference held in Kalispell, Montana June 18th 2016.
I’ll never forget my very first pheasant all those years ago.
My grandfather Art Hayes and his side kick in everything hunting and fishing, Ken Lorch, pulled me aside one Friday evening after a family get together. My brother and cousins looked questioningly at me, wondering what I’d done wrong, relief on their faces it was I being lead away for the inquisition. I was sheparded to the garage where we would be alone. Both men stood sternly in front of me with critical expressions on their faces, looking me up and down as if I were some type of criminal.
Only being 15 years old, this type of confrontation with adults usually boded ill for me. It seemed I was always doing something wrong at that age for one reason or another and I was rapidly reviewing my latest list of sins, wondering which one I’d been caught at or which unknown law I’d broken. It was strange though that these 2 men would be forming the tribunal, usually mom and dad were judge, jury and executioner. It must be serious if grandad was laying down the law.
I stood uneasily, shifting my weight from 1 foot to the other and nervously wondering how to get out of whatever I’d done or what the punishment might be. My guilty air and nervousness wasn’t unnoticed by Art and Ken who looked at one another with satisfaction, as if my anxiety was fitting and proper for a boy of my years.
Ken spoke first. “Well, how’s the boy shaping Art? He’s grown some since last year and his mother said his grades aren’t too terrible, considering.”
Grandad held his pipe in his right hand and thoughtfully gave a couple puffs. The smoke curled out of his mouth and lazily circled his head while he looked appraisingly into my eyes.
“Well, he’s been pretty good at camp chores, good at least for carrying wood and doing dishes, which everyone knows are some of the few things a wild teenager is good for. He even showed a knack for breaking a few clay targets with the scattergun the other afternoon. I don’t know though, he’s been running around like an untrained puppy all summer, more high spirits than common sense, but I guess that’s natural enough.”
My mind whirled, what was going on? It didn’t appear I was about to be punished or reprimanded, but was instead being examined or considered for something; but what?
Ken tilted his head thoughtfully to one side, watching these conflicting emotions chasing themselves through my mind and now obvious puzzlement over this interview.
“Do you think we could trust him not to shoot us or the dog? The rest of the crew will be there, pretty embarrassing if he was to shoot any of them or their dogs either.”
Grandad raised his eyes and stared thoughtfully at the ceiling through the pipe smoke while I gulped with sudden excitement. I knew they were going pheasant hunting tomorrow and could they seriously be considering taking me! It certainly appeared so and my heart gave a wild leap, pounding madly as my mouth went bone dry.
Grandad looked back at me and saw I had put 2 and 2 together. He tried to hide it, but I saw the twinkle in his eye as he turned to speak to Ken.
It’s a terrible responsibility taking an untried boy out among respectable men, but maybe we’ll take the risk, providing he wants to go.”
Both men were grinning broadly now and I felt the sun rising in my heart. Pheasant hunting! Oh, boy, did I ever want to go!
I stayed the night at Grandads, it appeared mom and dad had been in on this adventure as they’d brought all my hunting paraphernalia to the party hidden in the car trunk out of my sight.
Grandad and I were out of bed early the next morning, Ken pulled in the driveway around 5 and we piled into his vehicle. I sat in the back seat with Ken’s English Pointer, Sis, who was as excited as I was. She licked my face thoroughly and stood quivering on the seat, her long tail lashing furiously, giving me a few shrewd blows in the process.
We ate breakfast at a little restaurant in Little Valley and pulled into North Dayton just as the western sky began to light up with gold streaks. A dozen vehicles filled the small parking lot by the club house as other hunters, doctors, dentists, business men, signed in, checked out their tags and exchanged small talk.
I listened fascinated to everything said; where were the birds, how were the dogs working, see my new shotgun and of course, whose the kid? I shook hands a little shyly, smiled nervously and received some encouragement and teasing about not shooting all the birds, leave 1 or 2 for them.
It was a wonderful feeling being accepted by the gentlemen there and Grandad seemed pleased with my behavior for I was exceedingly polite and said “Yes sir, No sir,” as often as possible.
It was fully daylight now, time to hunt and the men filed out into the vehicles everyone headed for their favorite spot. We parked by a large goldenrod field and let the dog out. Sis bolted out of the car and immediately heeled at command. We loaded the shotguns and began working our way across the field.
I was entranced watching Sis crisscross the field, quartering the wind and obeying Ken’s hand signals to investigate a particular birdy looking piece of cover she may have missed. A well trained and obedient bird dog is an absolute joy to watch.
Sis was dashing across in front of me; head held high when she suddenly skidded to a halt, turned and crept forward 20 yards, freezing on point in a little clearing covered in green grass.
Both men converged on me, telling me to put my finger on the safety, walk in front of Sis and kick at the grass. When I expressed doubt there was anything there both hunters laughed and scoffed. Old Sis didn’t lie; there was a pheasant there alright.
I was unconvinced.
Holding the 12 gauge at port arms I stepped in and kicked. Nothing happen. Sis remained frozen, her nose at a 45 degree angle, one foot raised, tail straight. She was a thing of beauty, a picture perfect, classical hunting scene, a sight forever etched in my mind.
I kicked again. “There’s nothing there,” I said. No pheasant could hide in grass that short.
Ken grinned and told me to kick a few more times.
I shuffled my feet forward and gave another half-hearted kick. The toe of my boot touched something and immediately there was the loud beating and thrashing of wings as a big cock bird exploded out of that short grass right in my face, cackling loudly! Shocked and stunned I stepped back; almost afraid of this brash, bold, big bird so close I could have touched him.
The beautiful reddish breast feathers, gray barred, flailing wings, wide, white ringed neck, piercing yellow eye and long, barred tail rose above me, leveled out and angled swiftly down the hill. I raised the shotgun, aimed at the bird, but never pulled the trigger. I was simply staring at this incredible pheasant rapidly getting smaller and smaller.
Grandad and Ken were pointing their shotguns at the pheasant also and shouting at me to shoot, shoot, shoot! Finally, I heard them as if from a distance it seemed and pulled!
The 12 gauge roared and to my surprise and everyone else’s at this point, the big cock bird fell, Sis went racing madly through the field to retrieve the pheasant and brought it back to me, lying it in my hand. She looked at me with laughing eyes, tail waving madly back and forth, so hard in fact her back end wobbled to and fro. She seemed to be telling me; “Good job! You had me worried for a bit boy, but pulled it off.” Then Sis turned and began quartering the field again.
Grandad and Ken pounded me on the shoulder, shook my hand and made me feel like a super hero. It didn’t take much, for I felt like one too. We stood for several minutes talking, until Sis went on point again. I was the first one there.
It’s been a long time since that first pheasant hunt; Grandad and Ken have long since passed away, but they gave me something that day forever priceless and enduring. A young man taking his first steps into adulthood was introduced into the company of gentlemen, where manners, respectability and ethics were critically important, but most of all, they gave me their love.