The rooster was up now, rising in a clatter from chest-high grasses. The dog, a cross between a Lab and a German wire-haired pointer, was leaping for the bird as it sprung into flight.
The hunter had to use both hands telling me the story — the rooster in all its glory, right here, she said with one hand. The dog, she demonstrated with her other hand, just below the bird’s tail feathers. All of this happening right before her in the field.
She had hunted pheasants many times before. But this moment — this spectacle of predator and prey, this explosion of rooster hues against the drab fall grasses — it just grabbed her.
Enthralled, amazed, captivated, she had not yet thought about shooting.
Her husband, watching all of this unfold, shouted to her, suggesting with great urgency that she consider shooting the rooster, and fairly promptly. By the time she processed that suggestion, though, the rooster was out of range. She never fired her gun.
She didn’t seem sorry about that. The moment was worth it. She can still see the rooster. She can still see the lunging dog. The scene — those brief, wild seconds — is seared into her memory. Maybe for years. Maybe forever.
Most of us who hunt pheasants, I suppose, would have felt the same way about such a flush. But most of us likely would have instinctively pulled the trigger at some point.
I would venture to say many of us have filed away similar memories from our hunting past — a setter swept into a twisted point, a woodcock flitting into late afternoon light, a daughter’s astonishment upon shooting her first whitetail.
I worry sometimes that those who do not share our love of hunting have the impression that all we care about is the shooting. The shooting is part of it, to be sure, but the shooting is only the brief and final act. The time we spend shooting during any given day afield is by far the smallest slice of the day.
Most of our days in marshes, in grasslands, in stands of young aspen are spent in the anticipation of shooting opportunities. But blended with that anticipation is the intense appreciation of a dog sifting scent, a milkweed pod exploding with downy seeds, the calling of a great horned owl from the grove.
Much of hunting is simply being on the land — out there — experiencing moments that, over time, become more and more the reason we continue to hunt. I can see one particular pheasant curling up and out of a cattail slough bathed in early morning light. I can see my first Lab, working through broomstick aspen in the morning chill with clouds of condensation coming off her back. I can hear the rattling call of sandhill cranes migrating overhead while I push through cattails down below.
Some days, I carry my granddad’s old side-by-side and can still see him feeding his English pointers in the evening cool. Some days I carry my dad’s old Browning 20-gauge and see him quail hunting along Walt Fund’s road, poised for the covey rise.
Those are the kinds of memories most hunters carry with them on every hunt. We are fully present in the moment, but those moments are colored by all that has come before.