By the time we reached the wheat fields, the dog had already thrown up once and was looking at me from his place on the passenger side floor boards, fangs of saliva dripping off his jowls, his eyes dour, pleading to please just stop.
The windshield wipers weren’t keeping up with the rain and wind gusts bowed the trees on the side of the highway, stripping them of leaves. The summer slick wheels of our car skated back and forth between the lines. It wasn’t yet daylight, at least not by the book, and the boy was sleeping in the backseat.
I was focused on drinking coffee, keeping the car keeled downstream and the dog from upchucking into the side door compartment.
No, buddy, I coaxed. Easy now.
The three of us were on our way to kill some birds and the Palouse wheat fields rising from the dawn were the stubble dreams that kept this notion together.
I like telling my kids about the time back in the day when I regularly destroyed 23 of 25 clays on the trap range, and of those difficult shots afield that seem more prevalent now than the many pheasants, grouse and assorted wildfowl that winged idly away unscathed as the wad of my shot shell petered skyward.
Introspection however reminds me of one pheasant in particular that busted downhill straightaway as I unloaded a Mossberg 12, the bird disappearing untouched into the last evening of a season long ago.
These are No. 6 shells, I told the boy that morning as we loaded up in the pitch black monsoon, not those No. 8 low base that we use on grouse. He knew. Blearily he recited to me the definition memorized, or something close to it, from his hunter safety training manual as he tumbled into the backseat, asleep before we left the driveway.
When much later we parked along a gravel road in another county in the gray early morning light, the dog realizing his journey on the Santa Maria had passed, perked up. Empty stomach, sharp-eyed, with a muzzle coated with lint, he pointed at a group of cows in a nearby field and made them uneasy. This bolstered his confidence.
The wind had lessened now and the rain was a drizzle.
I woke the boy who wiped the sand from his eyes, ate a bite-size Snickers, and sniffed some coffee before we crawled under a barbed-wire fence and into the tall grass of a lowland meadow. Ten minutes later the first rooster cackled skyward.
Ring-necked pheasants, known as China hens in the old literature, are, like chukar, an Asian import. Introduced to the western U.S. in the late 1800s, the birds flourished in Washington and Oregon before being established in the Midwest — a land that likes to lay claim to the longtails.
We didn’t claim the first rooster. Or, the second.
They squawked, clucked and fluttered into the air and didn’t come down. Not for a couple hundred yards despite our best efforts.
Hours of preparation hadn’t helped. During my son’s introduction to clay pigeons weeks earlier, he dusted many with his youth 20-gauge, and twice shot a double.
Out here it was different.
What happened? I asked.
I panicked, he said.
It went like this for most of the morning.
Seven birds up, one bird down.
In one scenario, a pheasant trio, spooked from the edge of a high field, glided into a patch of swamp grass 100 yards away. We hatched a plan, the boy, the dog and I, and sniggering at the prospect of shooting ducks in a barrel, we snuck toward the ringnecks. Like overweight cats loaded with our guns and shells and game bags, we were slow, but sure-footed and purring. Except for the dog who eyed us with rancor.
What followed was a vaudeville skit, very loud, with nothing coming down but the curtain.
My son hung his head.
“It’s called hunting, not killing,” I said, in a voice like Father Knows Best. “You’re learning a lot about hunting today.”
The only thing missing was the Borkum Riff.
Four hours later, one bird down and back in the car, we talked about the hunt as hunters are prone to. Reliving the pieces, the missed shots and the one that connected. Pup and the cows made a pact of mutual respect before I set him on the passenger side floor boards and we headed north.
Leaving, however, required a small task asked of us as hunters using land that others worked and fenced and made a living from. I filled out a survey at a box next to the road. Idaho Department of Fish and Game Access Yes! surveys help the department know whether or not it’s worth spending our money renting a good piece of ground for the public to enjoy, where people can take their children to pass forward the hunting tradition, and maybe get a bird or two in the process. Land where city-reared pups can learn to point and retrieve and that a cow on the hoof deserves respect too.
So that’s what I did.
I only wrote one word.
Fantastic! I said.
• • •
Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.