Both the simple and the complicated answers are “I don’t know.”
I took a trip to Kansas for the state’s Nov. 13 opening day of pheasant hunting season and I don’t know if I shot one.
I had my chances, for sure, with opportunities where for a few seconds I was the only one shooting. I missed those shots, however. And I’m sure of that.
My second and sometimes third shots — those that came when everyone else also was shooting — well, maybe some of those hit.
I don’t know, though.
I tell anyone that asks that I’m a hunter, but that word means something different in Routt County than it did in Sedgwick County, the south-central Kansas county in which I grew up.
I , and even though most trips have ended with the same “I don’t know” response to the “Did you get any?” question, I’ve always treasured it.
This year’s trip was a chance to reconnect with a wealth of childhood memories. I’ve hunted pheasant since, but for the first time in 15 years, my family traveled to the north-central part of the state, to my great-aunt Kay’s house for a big family reunion/hunt/feast.
Pheasant hunting is a phenomenon particularly popular in the Midwest. It’s not unheard of in the Rocky Mountain region. Outfitters are available in the western regions of the state, including Grand Junction. But it’s a bigger deal on the plains, where on opening day, long lines of hunters, some parties as large as 20 or 25, stretch across harvested milo fields and patches of brush.
A hunting party in transit is often a caravan of pickups, three, four or five hunter-orange clad participants sitting in the back of the truck, whether it’s legal or not. Such caravans canvass rural Kansas.
Kansas isn’t the center of the hunting, which is popular throughout the Midwest. Plenty of outfitters are available in eastern Colorado, and hunters range throughout the region and especially in the Dakotas.
But it’s a good place to go at it, and the state’s north-central region is considered bountiful for the birds. It’s where I learned what pheasant hunting is all about.
Same old stories
It was the same every year, growing up. We’d wake up at 4 a.m. on the opening day of pheasant season and drive three hours to make it by first light.
So many of those memories have existed in a childhood haze that after 15 years away seemed as much a dream as real memory.
I remember massive hauls — three dozen birds from one field — and stories about even greater hunts from before my time. I remember being as perplexed as to whether I had bagged any birds then as I am now, even though I spent many of those years walking every field with my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun.
The trip back brought so much of that into focus. I struggled at first to remember names and relationships. None of that is important when you’re 10. But it came back slowly.
Much was the same earlier this month. Hunters still made half-joking excuses about why they’d missed shots, and the large spread of breakfast treats and lunch that awaited between fields still was delicious.
Some things were new, too. The weekend marked my first hunt with a new shotgun, a Christmas gift from two years ago that I’ve not deployed while living in Steamboat.
Turns out, it may suffer from the same deficiencies as my previous shotguns — either consistent user error or, as I like to suspect, a horrifically bent barrel.
But it was a good day. The group of about 20 brought in 14 pheasants, a fine total, though far from the epic adventures those older than me swear they took part in.
The next day proved better, after we drove back home. Looking to set up a good hunt, my dad left portions of a milo field unharvested. We went out with friends from the area and scared up so many pheasants and quail that we had to start rationing shells.
We left with five pheasants and six quail between seven of us, all of which were cleaned and packed off to refrigerators.
So did I get a pheasant? I don’t know. I positively shot an unfortunately slow moving quail.
I didn’t remember being a good shot 15 years ago, and apparently, that memory was accurate.
The golden rule of pheasant hunting then and now is that with family to your left and right and doughnuts and stories waiting at the end of the field, it doesn’t make a big difference whether or not you shoot a pheasant.
For me, pheasant hunting always has been about more than what I brought home.