My dog, Molli, retrieves a pheasant on opening day a few years ago.
Hunters and fishermen are traditionalists by nature. They hold fast to the customs passed down from their ancestors all while trying to stay current amidst an ever changing landscape.
If you grew up in a family of hunters and fishermen, there’s a good chance you already take part in several traditions that have been passed down generation after generation. Maybe you all get together for dinner the night before a deer opener, take a fishing trip to Canada each spring or have a favorite breakfast spot after an annual family waterfowl hunt.
No matter what is going on in your life, no matter how busy you get, you make time for these traditions because you realize that you will never get those times back and there is nothing that brings a family together quite like experiencing the outdoors.
My family is no different.
Regardless of demanding schedules there is one thing my dad, my brother and myself will never miss as long as we’re healthy enough to take the field — Iowa’s pheasant opener.
Some of my fondest memories are of chasing ditch chickens with my father. A self-taught outdoorsmen, my dad chased mostly small game like rabbits, squirrels and, of course, pheasants with his single shot, bolt action .410 shotgun.
When I came along, he still enjoyed chasing pheasants and I spent many fall days sitting in his brown Ford Ranger, coloring, playing with Legos or rifling through his glove compartment, usually bored out of my mind. It made it all worth it when I heard a gun shot. With my face pressed against the window of the truck I scanned the grass for signs of movement.
Did he get one? Is he coming back? I’d better clean up this mess!
More often than not he would return to the truck empty handed. He never was much of a shot and still isn’t (just kidding Dad).
But every once in a while he’d come back, shotgun slung over his shoulder, rooster in hand. There was nothing more exciting in the world!
Eventually I got to the age where I could carry a gun and walk alongside my dad while my little brother sat in the truck. It was his turn to suffer, after all!
I remember that first pheasant hunt like it was yesterday.
I was as nervous as I had ever been in my life but I was a grown up — all of nine years old — when my dad first handed me his trusty old .410. Walking down a narrow grass strip between two rows of hardwoods and not seeing a bird I began to envy my little brother as he sat in that little Ford Ranger and I pushed through neck-high grass, struggling with every step.
Coming close to the end of the grassy strip, I suddenly had a bouquet of pheasants flush right in front of me. My dad fired three shots as the lone rooster of the bunch sailed, untouched, out of sight. I never even shouldered my gun.
“Why didn’t you shoot?” my dad asked.
I had no response.
I was mystified by that first flush of pheasants and left speechless. I had never seen anything like that in my life. The sound of the birds busting through cover and taking flight and the beauty of that rooster was unmatched.
From that point on I was hooked on pheasant hunting.
Eventually my brother joined us in the field and we also got our first hunting dog, a chocolate lab named Brooke. A knot-headed mutt she was in those early days. She chased anything that would run and would not stop until she was on the verge of collapse. But she always tried her hardest and we couldn’t fault her for that.
During her last few years on this earth she became one of the best bird dogs I’ve had the pleasure to watch. She was the definition of a late bloomer to be sure.
My brother was very similar. I remember going out to shoot clay targets in preparation for opener and the ground broke far more targets than he ever did. I was never a crack shot but I broke my fair share and my dad did as well. Watching my brother attempt to hit those bright orange disks was darn near painful. As he grew up he started leaning more toward waterfowling. When he entered high school he really began to hit the marshes hard.
On the morning of pheasant opener during the fall of his sophomore year of high school I was ready to show my little brother how it was done once again. But It didn’t take long for me to realize a harsh reality. As the four of us reached a creek, Brooke flushed two roosters, which my brother promptly dropped, one after the other, before my dad or I could bat an eye.
Apparently those long days of chasing ducks had paid off and my days of being top shot were now over.
Nowadays we make it a point to still head out together for every opener. Sometimes we may bring other friends along to enjoy the hunt, but we remain at the core.
Sadly, Brooke is no longer with us, but her successors Molli and Faith try their best to fill her awfully large paw prints.
We still miss more than we hit, although some days are better than others, but we all realize that it’s not about how many birds we can harvest. It’s about not taking for granted the things we cherish most and making time for traditions that hopefully we can continue to pass down through the generations to follow
With this year’s pheasant opener scheduled for Oct. 29, preparations are underway for the Heinrichs family outing.
We may luck out and get into some birds or we may get skunked, but one thing is for certain, we’re going to have a blast.