There's an old, tattered black and white photo of my dad as a teenager with a bunch of his high school buddies. They all have shotguns on their shoulders and are standing behind a line of freshly bagged ringneck pheasants.
I remember looking at that photo as a young kid wishing that, someday, I could be just like my dad.
On a cool fall day, with the sun nearing the horizon in the west, I found myself in a situation to make that wish come true.
Dad and my brothers and me had just finished milking and feeding the herd on our dairy farm and were making our way back to the house when the unmistakable cackle of several ringneck pheasants got our attention. Dozens of them were gliding just above the long grass at the bottom of a hill in our pasture. They were getting ready to bed down for the night.
My brothers and I ran for the house to get our shotguns. Our dad was on our heels.
I had only been hunting pheasants (perhaps "trying" to hunt pheasants would be more accurate) for a few weeks. I was probably 12 or 13 and Dad was letting me use his shotgun -- a Model 12 pump action Winchester 20 gauge.
During this fall, so many decades ago, I had yet to bag my first ringneck. It wasn't that I hadn't been trying. Shortly after passing our local hunter safety course and getting the proper small game license, I suddenly became much more efficient at completing my evening chores to give myself a small window of hunting time before I had to return to the barn and participate in the tedious task of helping to milk our herd of Holsteins.
I'd run to the house, grab Dad's shotgun and fill a pocket with shells and start hiking across one of our fields as quickly as I could, hoping I could find a pheasant or two. I usually would head for a nearby slough or low-lying area -- to a place that remained somewhat wild and had been avoided earlier in the year by my dad and uncle when planting crops.
These sloughs, gullies and lowlands that I was frequenting, I'd tell myself, had the type of cover that pheasants love. Surely, I'd flush one out.
Time and again I tried. Each time, I'd return home to the herd with no compelling story to share with my brothers and dad. I had not seen a single pheasant. I had not taken a shot.
Lisa Price, in an article she wrote a couple years ago for "Guide Outdoors," notes that "pheasants are sly, crafty and noted for their elusive, often unpredictable behavior patterns that can frustrate both experienced hunters and seasoned bird dogs."
No kidding, Lisa.
She suggests that "many pheasant hunters make the common mistake of trying to cover too much ground too fast as they quickly work from one field or cover patch to the next. On any given day, ringnecks will sit tight or run depending on conditions."
If only Lisa had a time machine. She could travel back about 50 years, publish her article so that I could read it as an aspiring, young hunter and learn not to make this "common mistake."
After about a week or two of coming up dry on my solitary sojourns with shotgun in hand, I had simply concluded that I was being outsmarted by my potential prey.
"In this writer’s opinion, hunting with a bird dog is the right way to go, and whether you choose a pointing or flushing breed, a trained dog is an asset in finding and recovering game," Lisa writes. "Whenever possible the dog should be worked into the wind, as this will make it easier for him to pick up scent and locate birds since the scent will be carried to him."
Maybe that was my problem. I had no bird dog.
"Pheasants will frequent food crops such as corn, soybean and sorghum and they also like to spend time in the islands of brush and other cover that are sometimes left standing in a crop field," Lisa continues. "Places like these should get plenty of attention on a pheasant hunt."
I tried, Lisa. I really tried. She notes that pheasant behavior can "drive a hunter crazy."
No kidding. I know from experience.
"Why not turn the tables and drive the pheasant crazy?" Lisa writes. "This can be accomplished by combining the slow walking technique with an easy 'stop and go' procedure. Whether in an open field or dense cover, pheasants get nervous when slow moving hunters and dogs pause briefly at intervals while covering the area. Many times this technique will unnerve a bird and cause it to flush, when it would have held tight under other circumstances."
I'm pretty sure pheasants remained pretty relaxed when they saw me ambling their way. I never saw or heard a single bird during my first fall of hunting. I resigned myself to the fact that they likely just sat tight, stifling the urge to laugh out loud at me as I stumbled along nearby through high grass trying to find them.
The situation I described at the beginning of this column, however, was different. My brothers, Mike and Jeff, had seen the pheasants land in our pasture, as had our dad. The three of us soon were all hiking quickly down that hill, each carrying a shotgun. Dad was walking beside me.
As we neared the bottom of the hill and began entering the longer grass, Dad gestured, getting us to spread out, to put some space between each other as we walked in a slow line.
Suddenly, it was as if fireworks had gone off, yet none of us had fired a shot. The sky was filled with a cacophony of noise and color -- there was cackling and the startling sound of several heavily-feathered wings, adorned in various hues of brown, flapping mightily.
It was a moment comparable to the conclusion of the fireworks show on the Fourth of July in Vermillion, when a barrage of rockets is lit and send skyward all at once. It's startling and loud and beautiful all at the same time.
With heart racing and adrenaline flowing, I raised my gun, fired and hit nothing but air. I pumped out the empty shell and so a fresh one filled the chamber and spotted another target streaking through the sky in front of me. Bam! Nothing.
With one shell left in my shotgun, I had nearly determined that my dry spell was going to continue. I kept walking with Dad about 10 feet to my right.
And then this big, beautiful ringneck rooster took flight right in front of me. I raised the Winchester to my shoulder, pleading "please, please please" and pulled the trigger.
The bird fell out of the sky.
I was too shocked to see anything else. Dad tracked its downward descent and sprinted through the grass. He walked back gripping a freshly-bagged big rooster pheasant by its legs and he handed it to me. He was grinning ear to ear and I'm sure I was, too.
My brothers and I, for all the shots we had taken just moments before, had missed nearly every bird that we had just flushed. Dad had watched where they had flown and landed, however. I handed over his Winchester and three shells to him, and suddenly my dad was transformed into the teenager I had long admired in that old photo.
He quickly walked to where he had watched the birds land. I struggled to keep up with him as I was now toting my freshly-killed ringneck.
Before long, a pheasant crashed upward through the grass, doing what it could to startle us as it took to the air.
I watched, in amazement, as Dad calmly placed his shotgun to his shoulder, followed the bird for a bit and squeezed the trigger.
Soon, we both were walking home, side by side, each carrying a pheasant. I was euphoric. I had finally bagged a bird. And I had done it with my dad.
Strolling up the hill back to our farmhouse, I felt like the luckiest kid on the planet.
Turns out, in that moment as the sun dipped below the horizon, I was.