Traditions have to start somewhere, and in this film, Ruben Mata takes us through his start in the mountains of California in pursuit of Valley Quail.
Inspiration comes in many forms. The origin stories of how we become hunters, get bird dogs, and enter this community vary widely from one person to the next. Among the more unusual stories is that of a child in a non-hunting family that immigrated to the United States, who grew up to say that Disney inspired him to pursue hunting as an adult. This is that story. From his first dog named Pluto to his pursuit of valley quail across the wild, public lands of California, Ruben Mata’s journey is the kind of story we should hear more often.
Through the profound generosity of Quail Forever members and his determination to discover hunting no matter how difficult the entry, Ruben is now a regular part of the upland landscape. This Project Upland Original film is presented by CZ USA, Federal Premium, and Quail Forever. Ruben is featured on the cover of the Fall 2020 Issue of Project Upland Magazine; below is Ruben’s featured story from the issue.
To My Boys – Fall 2020 of Project Upland Magazine
By Ruben Mata
I write you this letter in the hope that you will understand the importance of having traditions and keeping them going. I’m envisioning the sort of traditions I saw growing up and the experiences that led me to where I am today. I remember as a child always loving our family traditions. We had gatherings every holiday at my nina’s (godmother’s) house, and one of my favorite memories was looking forward to the strawberry tamales that my mom made for Christmas.
Having something to look forward to doing with your loved ones is exciting and strengthens your bonds with them. And traditions also strengthen your character in some important ways. First, I don’t ever want you to think some activity isn’t typical or common because of your ethnicity. Second, I want you to treat the resources you use with respect, as if they were your own, so they can be available to you for generations to come. Third, I want you to have a vast horizon of opportunities available for you. And most important, I want you to remember that when you have such privileges, you must always stay humble and respectful to everyone no matter where they come from, how they look, or their financial status. I will do my best to guide you in the right direction and set you up so you can have the best path possible.
For me, growing up in East Los Angeles in the late ’80s and early ’90s was quite a contrast . . . and quite an experience for a young child. From being woken up by helicopters spotlighting the area, looking for what I could only imagine was someone running away from the cops, to having my bike stolen and finding it painted a different color and being ridden by someone else.
Any great parent wants a better life for their children, and my parents were no different. They had enough of the sleepless nights and having to worry about our safety. It took a toll, and they decided to move elsewhere—Santa Paula, California, about 80 miles west and a little north of Los Angeles.
There the pace was much more relaxed. The sound of helicopters was soon a thing of the past. I was able to be outside for most of the time with the neighborhood kids, taking our bikes, slingshots, and BB guns down to the river bottom to see what ground squirrels we could shoot, amongst other activities. Summertime rolled around, and now cartoons and cereal in the mornings were a thing. Mickey Mouse shorts were my favorite!
I vividly remember the episode “The Pointer.” Mickey Mouse was trying to teach his dog how to point game, and I was so amazed that Pluto was doing such a thing. I knew I wanted a dog just like that. So I would ask and beg my parents for a dog, but the answer was always the same—no. Finally, an uncle of mine happened to come across a dog, a Dalmatian. He’d known about me wanting a dog forever, so he brought the dog over to our house just to “show” us. Well, I suckered my dad into letting me have the dog. You can probably guess what I named him. If you said “Pluto,” you’d be correct.
I can remember going to our town’s library, getting every book I could on how to train a canine, and doing everything with my time to train Pluto. I taught him to heel, sit, and lay. I had never felt so accomplished in my entire life. Unfortunately, like all things that come to an end, I had to give up my dog because we were moving from a house to an apartment, and dogs were absolutely not allowed. That was one of the saddest days of my life,
saying goodbye to Pluto.
My teenage years came around, and fishing became my favorite pastime, if I couldn’t get my dad to take me to our local beach or jetty, I would sneak into the local golf courses to fish while no one was around. Being caught a time or two didn’t stop my friends and me from trying to nail the hogs that were in the pond! We never did keep the fish. Even then, I knew the importance of having them be available for the next time we came around and for others to enjoy the thrill of the catch.
Time went on, and I had to grow up quite quickly. Moving out at 18 seemed like the best move possible for me at the time, but little did I know the hard work it would take to live on your own. Trying to juggle school and a full time job was no joke! I got away from hunting and fishing because making a life for my children was more important than anything else. But I never forgot that having traditions was important, and it seemed more important now than ever before. Since you were both able to hold a rod in your hands, you’d best believe you had one, and oh boy were you slaying them fish!
When life became less chaotic, and I seemed to have all my ducks in a row, so to speak, I still wanted my bird dog. Finally, the opportunity came, and I got my German shorthair pointer. Paying homage to my Pluto, I named my GSP Pongo after the character in 101 Dalmatians.
Not having any hunting experience, and being a first generation American, figuring out what to do and who to talk to was incredibly hard. But like I’ve always said, “If you try hard enough in life, you can have whatever you want.” The number of tattoos I have created a sensitive situation and made talking to people difficult. I was often stereotyped as a someone to stay away from because of the way I looked, but that never stopped me. Hunting was important to me. I wanted to do this! Soon enough people realize who you really are if your intentions are good.
I didn’t know where public land was—that’s still a gray area to me—so I invested in clubs that provided hunting access. I worried about the amount of trouble I could get into if I happened to be in the wrong area by mistake with a gun. That was something I wanted no part of. Then on one of the opening days I was supposed to meet one of the club employees to show me the area. I was on time and he was not.
As I approached the gate, I ran to a group of men with all their upland gear and dogs, and I asked if they were part of the same club that I was in. They quickly replied “No!” At this moment I thought, “Well, I either have to try and figure this on my own or ask these guys if I can tag along.” So I asked. “Hey do you mind if I tag along with you guys?” I watched the gentlemen analyze me. They went back into their truck to discuss the situation, and after a couple of minutes, to my surprise, they said yes! I was introduced to all of them and learned that they were part of our local chapter of Quail Forever. They talked about it, and the day went well.
Who knew that this group of local retired sheriffs would turn out to be such great friends! I was quickly intrigued because I had read so much about the organization. They invited me to their meetings, and I was skeptical at first because this was still new to me. But I finally went, and to my surprise I was the only one who looked the way I did. I was happy to learn about conservation and preservation. It wasn’t long before I stepped into a role. I became our chapter’s vice president. Soon the meetings were a time we looked forward to as a family, and the club members enjoyed seeing
young ones around.
“The days and hours spent out in the wild with you carrying empty
shotguns brought me so much joy just knowing you wanted to be out
there with me no matter how awesome video games were.”
The days and hours spent out in the wild with you carrying empty shotguns brought me so much joy just knowing you wanted to be out there with me no matter how awesome video games were.
Soon enough, the time came around when you were able to get your own hunting license. Taking you to get your first birds was all I could focus on for the upcoming season. But the season passed, and you swore that your shotgun was cursed! Coming home empty-handed, you were upset, and I tried anything to cheer you up and make you understand that you don’t always come home with game. You didn’t get it. You were upset because your focus was “winning,” and I explained to you that hunting wasn’t so much about “winning” as about spending time out in what God created. That still didn’t make you feel any better, so I tried to make you not focus on that, and we spent our time talking just about random things. Those early days of hunting with you are some of my fondest memories.
Another time, during our turkey hunt, I got us lost but you found our way back, never knowing that I knew exactly where we were because of our Garmin. I wanted to make you aware of where we were the whole time. It definitely built your confidence. You’d tell everyone when they asked about how our hunt went that I got us lost and you found the way out . . . You were so proud. I wouldn’t change that for the world.
After a day of shooting pheasants during our Kansas hunt, we had a day to burn, so I decided to buy a doe tag since buck tags were for residents only. When I got a beautiful, huge six-point whitetail in my crosshairs, you kept on telling me to shoot, but I told you I couldn’t because I didn’t have buck tag. I know you were bummed, but you later realized why I didn’t take the shot. I hope this shows you that just because no one is around it doesn’t make it okay to do something that you know is wrong and against the law. When you come of age and take your own kids hunting, you can show them just that.
Over the years, we have crafted our own traditions, such as going dove hunting together on opening day, turkey hunting before Thanksgiving, quail hunting Christmas weekend, or just going out whenever we’re not at the hockey rink. I hope you look forward to it as much as I do.
Times are very different from when I was a kid, and with things being so fast paced, we use the time we spend hunting to escape and slow down, to realize what a beautiful world we actually have. I want you both to understand hunting isn’t just about taking away; it’s important to care for and do our part to give back to the planet. Always remember that just because there aren’t a lot of people like you who are doing the things that you want to do, you never have to let that stop you from learning or creating your own path in life.
A.J. DeRosa founded Project Upland in 2014 as an excuse to go hunting more often (and it worked). A New England native, he grew up hunting and has spent over 30 years in pursuit of big and small game species across three continents. He started collecting guns on his 18th birthday and eventually found his passion for side-by-side shotguns, inspiring him to travel the world to meet the people and places from which they come. Looking to turn his passion into inspiration for others, AJ was first published in 2004 and went on to write his first book The Urban Deer Complex in 2014. He soon discovered a love for filmmaking, particularly the challenge of capturing ruffed grouse with a camera, which led to the award-winning Project Upland film series. AJ's love for all things wild has caused him to advocate on the federal and state levels to promote and expand conservation policy, habitat funding, and upland game bird awareness. He currently serves as the Strafford County New Hampshire Fish & Game Commissioner in order to give back to his community and to further the mission of the agency. When those hunting excuses are in play, you can find him wandering behind his Wirehaired Pointing Griffon in the mountains of New England and anywhere else the birds take them.