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The Rites of a Pheasant Hunting Family

The Rites of a Pheasant Hunting Family

A child carries pheasant on a bird hunting trip.

From a childhood of pheasant hunting to revisiting places and memories of a family tradition.

Doyle was now deep into middle age. He was not the young father I remembered from two decades earlier. I was excited. He let me hunt. I doubt he knew who I was since it had been more than a decade since any of my family had hunted there. I was a teenager at the time and full of hope for the ring-necked pheasant season. Now, I just wanted to hunt the bird that had meant so much to me as a child.

Pheasant hunting was life for my family. I grew up listening to bedtime stories of Talbot, Jones and Palmer. Hunters and fisherman always name their spots. We were no different. There was the Burr Ditch on Jones’ property. There was Talbot’s olive trees and Palmer’s wash. I knew them all long before I ever stepped foot on them. Bedtime story after bedtime story from my father.

In those days, my dad and my brothers would return to the house after a weekend of hunting and I would hold the birds up for photo ops, pull the tail feathers and watch them clean the birds. I’d take the tail feathers and throw them, pretending to shoot them with my cap gun. I loved pheasants and couldn’t wait to be old enough to hunt. Coming of age in my family meant being allowed to pheasant hunt with a gun. We all started at the feet of our father.

We rarely hunted in our home state of Utah. My dad became a traveling pheasant hunter in the 1960s and we never really stopped. It was a rite of passage to be old enough to go on the trips.

My first opening happened when I was 9 years old. Back then, the opening of the Idaho pheasant hunt was at noon, which gave us plenty of time to get our licenses. Usually at the old bar named Jones’. I distinctly remember the cloud of smoke as we entered the small bar, or was it a store? The place had the smell of a time long since passed. There was the grizzled old owner who got the license. My dad and brothers quickly got their licenses and we were off.

My dad worked to get us on some farms. Growing up on a farm himself, he had a way with farmers. We almost always got on in this town, but he had been hunting here for decades.

Read: Lessons from Growing Up in Fields of Upland Birds

My first hunt started with my dad on Jones’ place—the farm, not the bar. It was a small ditch. I distinctly remember eating one of my mom’s sandwiches waiting for the season to start at noon. They were not good, but they helped the time go by and it went by ever so slowly.

Our dog, Buffy, a soft-mouthed Brittany, was waiting in her kennel. When the clock struck noon we were off. Down the ditch we walked and it wasn’t very far until we saw the first rooster bust from the cover. My dad shot and dropped the bird in the field. I retrieved it before the dog could. There are some things one never forgets. That moment was one of them. I will never forget the sense of awe when I picked up that rooster—the weight of the bird, the warmth from its body, but most of all, its beauty.

After an hour or two my dad, my brothers and I were all together back under a grove of trees. Few birds had been bagged that day, so we struck out for other locations. Apparently, Jones’ was not the hunting place it used to be. However, it was already special to me because it represented a first. I had actually been to a place that I’d heard of from a bedtime story.

From that day forward, opening morning would be spent at Doyle’s. Behind Doyle’s house was a line of olive trees. To the south was a small ditch that connected to a drain ditch which formed the entire west boundary of the property. It eventually connected with the olive trees and the ditch that formed the reservoir. To the west were more fields and a main ditch that was covered in wild rose bushes. The main ditch eventually intersected Doyle’s drain ditch and the reservoir ditch.

I hunted my first day there with my pheasant shotgun. I’m sure I missed my first rooster there, too. Some of the most vivid memories of my youth were on that property and other properties that Doyle owned or leased.

In order to get us access, my dad would bring fish caught in the summer at our cabin. Doyle loved them. He was a good man to know and had control of around 2,000 acres at the time, allowing us to hunt all of it. My dad just had a way with people. I spent my early bird hunting years by his side. I was the second bird dog and I took pride in my job. To this day, I still have a knack for putting roosters in the air. Of course, hitting them is a different story.

There was the day we pulled up on opening with nine roosters playing and fighting in a grainfield. We believe we got all of them. There was the morning in 1981 when we hit the property at the same time as a snowstorm. Our dog pointed a limit of roosters for three in a matter of an hour or so.

Then one day something happened. The birds started to disappear from Doyle’s properties and across the whole valley. The winter of 1983 saw feet of snow in the valley and birds were scarce the next fall. We had to hunt more and more property to find birds, and our old haunts were not as productive. Just before we quit hunting there, Doyle told my dad he thought the birds would be back. According to him, nearly one-third of the valley was going into CRP. We hoped, but life does not always follow the paths of our hope.

After the opening in 1984 we never went back to the small valley as a family; we left there to spend our time in the Magic Valley. Up until his death a couple years later, my dad always preferred the smaller confines of that place to the sprawling Magic Valley. He once told me he liked the ditches and the one-on-one with a rooster.

The Magic Valley was an area we’d also hunted since the 1960s but it was usually one hunt a year. The second weekend was normally spent there as we stayed with Aunt Helen. There had been flocks of pheasants back in the Magic Valley in those days and 1980, ’81 and ’83 had been epic years.

I had returned alone that fall day when Doyle gave me permission to hunt. My brothers were back in South Dakota pheasant hunting. It was the late 1990s and the hunting was excellent there, as good as it had been in decades. Financial considerations kept me from going, but I scraped enough money together to head up to Idaho bird hunting. I was alone and exploring, just the way I liked it. I felt anticipation that I’d not felt in a long time.

I was so happy when Doyle said yes. He’d sold one farm and no longer leased other properties, just keeping the property around the house. He told me I was welcome to hunt it.

I parked on the north end of the property. There was a large group of mature trees that eventually went into the reservoir, intersecting at a 90 degree angle at a drain ditch and eventually a delivery canal. To the west was CRP, at the intersection was wild rose bushes. I hunted the reservoir first. No birds. As I headed west, a rooster popped out of cover and began running. As a lone dogless hunter, I took off after him. After a few moments he took to the air. I shot and missed.

As I headed down to the intersection of ditches, the birds began to fly. They blew out of the wild rose bushes. They were everywhere, just like the good old days. My heart quickened, my senses sharpened as the group of birds flew out to the west. I never did get a shot. I just watched.

I hunted the drain ditch on the west of the property. I jumped a rooster, but missed again.

Then I decided to hunt the olive trees. They could not all be hunted, because Doyle’s house was on the end. I walked down the olive trees 50 yards south of them. When I got far enough away to maintain a safe distance from the house, I entered the trees. As I walked a rooster jumped up. I shot, he fell. I picked him up just like I’d picked up the rooster for my dad years earlier. The feeling of wonder was the same. I’d come home. As memories of my dad rushed in, I was a kid once more, full of wonder and adventure. It is a feeling only a hunter understands.

As was customary for my dad, I went to Doyle’s door and offered him the bird. He politely declined. It had been a good day and I got in the truck and began the drive to town. A lot of thoughts came to my mind, but most of all, excitement. I’d begun the day as a quest for adventure. But I’d been rewarded with so much more—a homecoming.

They say you can never go home. I disagree. Sometimes it is precisely what one needs to do. It’s just that home is not always were we sleep. It is where we live.

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