December pheasant hunts can be brutal on the body, especially when you are a nine-year-old boy trying to plod through the snow-matted switchgrass on the Dakota prairie, and your legs are only so long. Although I did not realize it at the time, I was a pretty lucky kid back then—this was one of my first trips to pheasant camp with my dad and the “old guys.”
My dad let me tag along on these long walks, and I tried to keep up the best that I could. Following behind while the hunters walked in a line, I remember watching the youthful exuberance of the Labradors and springers cast back and forth in search of that elusive scent. My dad put a downed rooster in my vest and made sure we could see the longtails stick out of the pocket for “good luck,” as he would always say.
The weight of the game bag and the quick pace was a struggle for me, to be quite honest. And, I remember thinking to myself, that maybe, just maybe, this was not as fun as I thought it should be. The cold conditions were the worst part—my hands felt like frozen bricks.
When we got back to our old Ford truck, my dad turned the heater on high and rubbed my hands in front of the blowing hot air. While we warmed, he relived the memorable moments of the recent hunt with a smile on his face. Never did he complain about the miles we walked or the crisp air we breathed. He then quickly made plans for the next hunt—always moving forward with me along with him.
I was just a young kid and learning—going through the motions, in a way, not understanding how fortunate I was to be along for the adventure.
Fast forward 30 years to this last fall: I too have a boy—eight years old at the time—and together we ventured to my favorite forest trail in the Northwoods of Minnesota. My boy helped me collar our two setters, and off we walked, set for an afternoon afield.
The hunt was not really about bringing home birds for supper. We just had a window of free time available to enjoy a clear October day, and I was conscious about trying to make this a positive experience. As I approached a few points, my boy climbed the hills, threw some rocks, and used a stick as a sword—all things a typical boy would do when having fun.
Preferring to cover ground, I did not realize that I was pushing the pace, gaining yards and time away from the truck. Meanwhile, the initially stiff breeze was calming, and the mosquitoes were becoming quite bothersome. To make matters worse, that year was a banner one for wood ticks too.
I put a grouse in my boy’s game vest, and we decided to turn back. As we walked, I could see his hands swatting the fierce bugs away from his face, and his little legs were tiredly trudging along the trail. I knew he was struggling—his eyes were on the verge of tears—so we stopped for a break. I knelt down to encourage him the best that I could, and we pressed on.
As I picked the ticks off of everyone back at the truck, I remember worrying that I pushed the hunt too hard—to the point where my boy might not want to do it anymore. But as we drove home—to my surprise—he chimed in and said, “Thanks Dad. When do we get to walk with the dogs again?”
My mind immediately flashed back to the time that I too struggled on that pheasant hunt at about the same age. I did not realize it until that moment when I heard my boy’s words, but I think my dad wanted nothing more than for me to enjoy upland hunting as much as he did. It dawned on me that he was careful to not push me too hard—his positive effort was extended in hopes that his traditions would become mine.
It was like a light turned on for me—I realized that I, too, wanted nothing more than for my boy to like bird dogs and grouse hunting as much as I did. Just like I struggled on the pheasant hunt and kept plodding along, my boy struggled in the grouse woods, learned some lessons, and still wanted to go again.
Thirty years ago, I remember simply enjoying time afield with my dad, and it was a pleasant feeling to know that now my boy wanted to keep hunting with me too.
We need to be careful to not push our kids too hard in the fields and forests. But through the same positive effort, my hope is to perpetuate this family cycle so that my boy can pass on the torch—this honor of fatherhood—to his kids someday too.
Happy Father’s Day!
Fast forward 30 years to this last fall: I too have a boy—eight years old at the time—and together we ventured to my favorite forest trail in the Northwoods of Minnesota.