While picking up the gallons of orange juice, milk and five dozen assorted donuts, crawlers and long johns for breakfast from the local grocery store at 5:30 on Saturday morning, the mass quantities going back into my cart at checkout set off the curiosity alarm in the night clerk’s mind.
“Whatever you’re doing, it sure looks like fun,” he laughed as he pointed to the fall-themed baked goods balanced on top of the orange and white plastic jugs.
I explained, in short form, that the food was for my Pheasants Forever chapter’s annual mentor hunt that day, where more than a dozen kids would show up, socialize, learn more about hunting and conservation, and talk with the local game warden and PF members all before going into the field at opening hour with dedicated and knowledgeable mentors and their dogs in hopes of bagging their first rooster pheasant, before coming back for lunch, a few rounds of trap shooting and a bird cleaning demonstration, and then an afternoon hunt before heading home at the end of the day.
“Wow…I wish someone would have done something like that for me when I was a kid,” he replied, a bit stunned at what lay beyond the breakfast items in the cart.
In that moment, so was I, that the event which has been a regular annual occurrence for me and so much a part of my regular fall rhythm, seemed so amazing and rare in the eyes of the man who helped me load up and send me on my way to the local gun club. As I unpacked the truck, organized the food for the volunteers who’d come in, fire up the grill and get lunch ready, and set out the check-in materials, the clerk’s comment continued to stoke my rapidly rising fire of excitement for the event.
Going through the list of mentors and dogs, parents and participants, I picked out the many names I had seen before, men and women who had helped with the event in previous seasons, who showed up at our annual banquets and supported the chapter’s conservation efforts and I smiled, knowing that if it wasn’t for them, many of the kids on the list would be left wishing for such an opportunity. Organizing the aerial map handouts for each group, I picked out my favorite places on each one of the generous landowners’ properties – spots where I’d flushed birds before and recalled instances where young hunters took aim at their first rooster in previous seasons. Without this incredible access to their hundreds of acres and the support of wildlife habitat preservation from these forward-thinking land stewards, there’d be no birds. With no birds, there’d be no reason for the hunt; and with no hunt, there’d be a bunch of kids – ten, twenty, thirty years down the road – who’d just be wishing that someone would have done something for them.
The day was a rush. The weather was perfect. The smiles were innumerable, the excitement was immeasurable. I watched as mentors whispered instructions to the hunters as their dogs went on point, and a few moments later a boisterous, cackling rooster shattered the ceiling of bluestem and gray sweet clover stalks and shots whizzed across the horizon. I did what I could to collect the memories on my camera, but the excitement of switchbacking dogs and flushing birds often left me dumbfounded, camera at my side, able only to shout out “Rooster!” or “Hen!” to help the participants decide whether or not to shoot.
As the event drew to a close I was in contact with the team of nearly 20 mentors, who reported that all of young hunters had at least a chance to take their first shots in the field, and many bagged their first wild roosters as a result. With the sinking sun painting the harvested corn fields a shimmering gold, and adding an orange tint to the tar of Highway 19, I motored back into town from my group’s final field. Unloading my dog, gear and the papers and preparatory materials from the event in the still-warm evening air, I looked up to see the first star of the night and made a silent wish of my own, that the day’s events would just be the beginning of these new hunters’ great experiences…in our outdoors.