I don’t remember the first bird I shot. But I do remember when I knew I was a bird hunter. As a burr-headed boy of about 12, I was walking with Uncle Jim along a field edge in Alabama hunting rabbits behind a couple of beagles. The sudden eruption of a covey of quail not only startled my nerves, but drew something up from deep within that said, “This is who you are.” I have now been a bird hunter for 50 years.
Want to know how serious that makes me? Growing up in Alabama, a state with a three-month deer season with one-deer-a-day, I never went deer hunting. Never killed one, never had the desire. But give me a cut-corn field in September for dove, or a soybean or cornfield edge for quail, and I was in heaven. Unfortunately, my early quail hunting opportunities were limited until I got out on my own and the Army sent me to some pretty good places for quail hunting: Forts Campbell, Bragg and Benning come to mind. And of course, bird hunting means bird dogs, and they’ve been there with me through the decades. It is true: I wouldn’t do it without the dogs.
And then I was introduced to the King of Gamebirds, the lordly ruffed grouse. After leaving the Army, we moved to the mountains of western North Carolina. I went to a local sporting goods store and asked where I could go quail hunting. The guy behind the counter said, “None around here. If you’re a bird hunter you’ll have to hunt grouse.” And so it began. I don’t remember the “where” and “when” of my first grouse flush. But I do remember the look on my setter Belle’s face when it broke cover. That look of wonderment as if to say, “Hey, these birds don’t play fair. What’s this about not holding for my point?”
So here I find myself with grey in my beard and in the winter of my years, my thoughts turn to why I hunt birds. What is so captivating about that brown blur to draw me back to the forests and fields every year? For me, it is the unmeasureable. Bird hunting releases me from a life full of metrics to simply experience the moment. My everyday life is full of numbers: sales goals, profit/loss statements, survey results and counting the number of Twitter and Facebook followers. Yes, I know some folks keep a gunning log recording flushes and birds in the bag. More power to them. I’m sure for them that’s part of the hunting experience.
I don’t, simply because it is an experience I don’t want to put a number on. How do you measure the look your 12-year-old son gives you when he shoots his first quail? Tell me how I can put a number on the anticipation when the sound of a dog bell goes silent in a Wisconsin aspen thicket? Where is the spreadsheet column to record the smiling eyes of my setter when he passes in front of me on an Appalachian mountain ridge on a crisp Autumn morning? Somebody please tell me how to transfer to numbers the laughter that follows your hunting buddy muffing a straightaway on a grouse down a logging road . . . with both barrels. At the end of the day, whether there are birds to clean or not, and the flush counter on my whistle lanyard is reset, the memories will always be there. That is why I hunt.
To join or for more info, go to www.ruffed.org