Lying nose down in a dry lakebed while shotgun pellets rattle the tops of tall cattails nearby is a real adrenaline rush, I learned one fall afternoon during a pheasant hunt.
It was a routine hunt until that moment. It was early in the season. Birds were plentiful and not as skittish as they would be later in the fall. The hunting party included my dad and uncle, a couple of other family members, some invited hunters from either Sioux Falls or Rapid City, and me and my cousin Leo. He and I were the youngest, so we did the tough walking and chasing. That’s how we wound up in the lakebed, flat on the cracked ground and hollering for the shooting to stop.
The cattails were tall that fall. We kicked through them and flushed a couple of roosters. When the shooting started, we realized we’d gotten ahead of the hunters along the sides of the lakebed. We heard pellets rattling the tops of the cattails somewhere ahead of us, and we hit the dirt.
We weren’t in actual danger. The birds were high above the cattails, and the pellets, as I said, fell somewhere ahead of us. That assessment came, though, only after the shooting stopped. We made our way to higher ground where a loud and lively refresher course in hunting safety was in progress.
Each year when pheasant season arrives, I remember hunting days back on the farm. I no longer hunt, but I remember. I haven’t hunted since we sold the land after Dad died. I guess I’m too introverted to ask permission to hunt someone’s land. I’ve never hunted anyplace except where I grew up.
We didn’t hunt with dogs in those days. We always had dogs, for sure, as early as I can remember. They were farm dogs, you know? Great pets and companions, but they didn’t live in the house, they didn’t retrieve, they found their own food, they disappeared for a day or two at a time, and when they returned, they sometimes had a snout full of porcupine quills or the lingering odor of an encounter with a skunk.
The only time I remember my dad using a dog to help with a hunt was when he acquired a frisky black Labrador named Nipper. My dad was a smart guy, but for some reason he had this notion that Labradors were hunting dogs by nature and didn’t need training. The first time he took Nipper along on a hunt, the dog ran around ahead of the hunters and actually scared up a rooster. When my dad dropped the bird, the dog ran and picked it up. With my dad hollering, “Bring it here, buddy,’’ Nipper did a couple of loops around the field and dropped the bird in the farthest corner of the fence row. Then he returned, tongue out, tail wagging, ready to accept praise for a job well done.
Nipper didn’t hunt after that. But who in those days needed a hunting dog, anyway? Farm families in our neighborhood had kids who could flush birds. When we hunted with adults, I automatically figured I’d spend my day walking and chasing. I didn’t mind, although it was frustrating sometimes to flush a cloud of pheasants and watch the blockers burn off a box of shells without bringing down a single bird. What part of doing their part didn’t they understand?
When I started hunting pheasants, the bag limit was four birds. My dad never said four shells means four birds, but the message was clear. I went four-for-four a couple of times and thought I was pretty hot stuff. Reality returned after a couple of oh-for-four afternoons. When I talk about my pheasant hunts, I like to end the story with the four-for-four days.
In spite of that lakebed scare, the hunts I remember were safe and sane. The ones I recall most fondly involved me, my cousin and maybe my big brother. We grew up knowing how to handle firearms and hunt responsibly. And walking and talking an afternoon away was every bit as enjoyable as bagging a bird.