When I was a kid, the first day of pheasant season wasn't so much "the opener'' as it was a Saturday when we went to the farm and didn't work.

The main pheasant season this year opens on Saturday. Although a limited youth hunt took place a couple of weekends ago and a residents-only, public lands-only hunt went on last weekend, this Saturday is the one people call "the opener.'' From what I've read, it sounds like hunting should be good, comparatively speaking. Better than for a couple of years, anyway, and for a lot of people, a poor pheasant hunt is still better than spending an October weekend doing something else.

That's how I saw it back on the farm. If my dad and my big brother and my uncle and his oldest son were tromping through a field of cane or milo, they weren't replacing rotten boards on the branding chute behind the barn or mucking out the feed bunks in the cattle pen or cleaning the last of the oats out of the steel bin up the lane. And if they weren't doing those sorts of chores, then I wasn't, either. In those days, in my young boy's world, it was all about me.

So even before I grew old enough to carry my own shotgun into the fields, I found pheasant hunting to be a good thing. I was probably 13, or maybe 12, when my dad judged me mature enough to handle a weapon in the company of a relatively small group of other hunters. We usually didn't have giant hunting parties of the sort you sometimes see lined up behind a long row of bagged roosters in old black-and-white photographs. Our hunting parties were usually family and a few neighbors. Occasionally an outsider was allowed to join us. I liked it with only a few, familiar folks around.

I started actually accompanying the hunting parties when I was about eight years old. I didn't carry, as I said, but I did get to watch the way the adults handled their shotguns, how they crawled over barbed-wire fences, how they spaced themselves on a skirmish line to avoid having any members of the party way out front or otherwise in some vulnerable position. Watch and learn, my dad said, so I did. I didn't notice it at the time, but I suppose as I was watching and learning, he was watching me and judging my maturity. Not a bad thing to do with a kid like me.

We didn't hunt with dogs in my younger years. Why would we need to? We had youngsters like me to crash through the cattails in the bottom of a dry lake bed and to run pell-mell through the dry, noisy corn stalks to retrieve a downed pheasant. I didn't have to bring it back and drop it at my dad's scuffed boots, but I did a fair share of retrieving. I was pretty good at it, if I do say so myself, although when we went on duck hunts, I refused to splash into the water after a downed mallard.

Sometime, well after I outgrew my retrieving phase, my dad came home from town with a black lab named Nipper. My dad somehow had the notion that labs were naturally born to be hunting dogs. First time he took Nipper hunting, Dad dropped a pheasant out 50 yards or so and unleashed the hound. Nipper raced out and grabbed that bird, loped back to my dad, did a couple of circles and made a beeline to the far end of the field, where he dropped the rooster next to a corner post. I never retrieved like that.

My first shotgun was an old .410 single shot. Learn to hit a bird on the wing with that and you'll know how to hunt, my dad said. The firing pin didn't always strike true. I was never sure whether I had a bad gun or a bad eye. I didn't learn to hit much with that gun, but if the birds were happy, I was, too. It beat farm work on a Saturday afternoon.