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It’s the meat of the season here. Whether yours is just starting or well underway, maybe you can relate to a brief accounting of mine, so far.

It’s been a fall chock-full of what defines “why we hunt” in every survey I’ve ever asked you to respond to. Sure, birds and plenty of them. But so much more.

One hunting friend is a big fan of the mobile app OnX Hunts, marking everything from elk wallows to covey flushes and shot birds. He also marks what OnX calls “Sasquatches.” Those are spots on the map that look tempting from behind the wheel at 80 miles an hour, that bear further inquiry. I’ve been in search of my own Sasquatches all season, purposely avoiding tried-and-true honey holes for new adventure. I’ve found prospectors’ cabins, oases in the desert, chukars on level ground, buckaroos’ willow corrals, in stark landscapes where Natives have trod for centuries – and still do periodically (did I mention the pictographs?). It’s working for me – how about you?

Killing birds and eating them? A fantastic culmination to the hunt. But between the packing and the unpacking, there’s the people. Stars aligned on every trip so far, where I’ve made new friends, re-acquainted with old ones, and met some memorable characters. Each has enriched my life – are you keeping your eyes open for those kind of opportunities?

“Carpe’ diem” is Latin for “seize the day.” But even on a long-distance, well-planned excursion (add TV crew and it’s almost like moving an army), there is room for spontaneity. A brief stop, longer conversation with someone at a gas station, buying a beer for the guy on the next stool … you never know what will come of it. New hunting spot, access to private ground, unfamiliar dog breed, all have come from having no expectation but for a little fellowship.

Strong bird populations in many places are a pleasant surprise. Most stunning has been the number of Huns in hardscrabble places that are more akin to rattlesnake habitat.

Two-year-old Flick has also dazzled me well beyond his age and abilities. I won’t take most of the credit, but his training apparently “took.” Long, steady points, retrieves to foot (versus “to hand” – we’re not quite test-worthy), stunning endurance, and even a water retrieve on camera. As Wayne and Garth said “I’m not worthy.”

People, places, a good dog and a few birds. What else is there to life? You tell me!

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He walked, alone, in the cathedral stillness of the shelterbelt. We’d hung back, me and my camera operator, to let Ben gather his thoughts on this, his first bird hunt. We did it again as the trees opened to a field of waist-high grass, gathering the rest of our party on the dirt road and ultimately cheering as he doubled on ringnecks, solo.

It was a study in what the shooting and hunting “industry” (yes, that’s you, me, and us) now calls “R3,” Recruit, Retain, Re-activate.

Ben was part of the first “R,” and should be a case study in how it works, a lesson here for all of us. Bruce, his across-the-street neighbor, was an avid hunter unlike Ben’s father. An 16-year-old baseball player who plans to be an Army Ranger, he pitches in when something heavy needs lifting, or there are too many groceries for one person to carry. In the course of that neighborly behavior (if only it was more common!), he was acquainted with Bruce’s dog, taxidermy, and passion.

Soon, Bruce was taking Ben to the range, teaching firearms safety, ethics, and shooting skills. Ben had his challenges – right-handed and left-handed conflict that I can relate to, sports and academic distraction, teenage life in general. But he persevered, and so did Bruce. If you’re ever taught someone to shoot, you know of the hills and valleys, the roller-coaster ride of triumph and frustration.

When Bruce won my CZ-USA “Take Your Friend Hunting” contest, there was no question who was going with him to Grand Ciel Lodge in Plankinton, South Dakota. Permission granted, travel arranged, and Ben’s first pheasant hunt would soon be a reality.

The day dawned cold and crisp, blue sky and puffy white clouds. My camera operators were ecstatic, and so were we. Dave Miller of CZ-USA (fresh from another world record-setting effort with four youth shooters) transferred Ben’s clay-target skills to wingshooting; the rest of us laid plans. Bruce’s teaching manifested in safe, skillful shotgunning by Ben, polished by Dave. Then, we were into the field.

It wasn’t long before Brad Boisen’s two Braque Francais skidded to a halt, then cat-danced down a soybean row. Hand on his shoulder to ensure a safe gun mount and swing, I urged Ben ahead of the next point. A stillness in the air … then three roosters cackled skyward.

You know what happened next. And it didn’t include a retrieve. But so it goes – who wasn’t as rattled by their first pheasant flush?

Initial jitters over, we re-grouped and skirted standing corn, finding a point here, a bird there, and a lot of holes in the air as everyone including our newbie dialed in a new CZ “all terrain” gun (you’ll get your preview soon), new birds, and an adrenaline overdose.

What Ben was thinking when he made his solo forays, we’ll never know. Do you remember your first hunt? I can tell you one thing. He’s now a hunter.

Even the blind hog finds the occasional acorn, and we get it right some times, introducing newcomers to our world. That’s the lesson I took away from our visit to Grand Ciel. Bruce’s lessons could be our own: be visible, open and frank about your hunting lifestyle. Interested kids, neighbors, friends, co-workers will inquire. Be situationally aware, sensitive to their questions and interest in your weekend plans, your dog, your wild food.

I know it’s hard as giving up your secret spots, but share your knowledge, tell stories. Like Freemasons, the interested ones will ask more questions, including if they might join you. Then, it’s about firearms safety, skills, ethics, and practical application of each on trips to the dog-training yard, range and into the field. Most will wash out, some will stick.

Forever.

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