“Daddy, I’m big enough to go too”

By Troy Hoepker

When you’re 6 years old it’s just plain hard to watch Dad load the truck and then disappear with your puppy for a morning of pheasant hunting without you! That’s especially true when your older brother, who is old enough to hunt himself, sometimes gets to go and you don’t. So after hearing, “Daddy when can I go pheasant hunting with you? I’m big enough to go too!” it was time for a Tyler and Dad day of pheasant hunting! Just the two of us!

It’s so easy to get absorbed in the desire to give each hunt the best chance of success that we forget that “success” isn’t always measured in how many birds we shoot, or if we will be finally able to get a shot at that 14-point buck we know is hanging around. A hunt is about much more than that! It’s also about enjoying the camaraderie of good friends, reveling in the sights, sounds and beauty of the natural world around us and about making unforgettable moments with those we love in the outdoors. Tyler was six and it was time for him to be introduced to the world of pheasant hunting!

Instead of being up and out the door early like I usually would be for a typical Saturday bird hunt, I waited until almost noon, giving the December 7th air a chance to warm up a bit so Tyler wouldn’t get too cold on the hunt. We loaded Ace into the truck and headed to one of my honey holes not far from home. The farm usually held plenty of birds and Tyler could easily walk the mowed paths that the landowner had mowed in strips throughout the field. Almost as quick as Ace’s first pawprints hit the ground, Tyler was amazed to see the transformation of his loving puppy dog. The Ace that he knew that lazily cuddled with him on the couch or played with him in the backyard was now all business in his element. Tyler couldn’t get over how Ace whisked through the grass, catching only a glimpse of him over here, yet in a flash, he’d be seen momentarily over there. Headed south into the wind halfway to the other end of the field with Tyler happily bouncing along behind me, Ace settled in on his first point of the day and I moved in flushing a hen.

“Why didn’t you shoot Daddy?” Tyler asked, forgetting the conversation we’d had in the truck on the way there about how daddy can only shoot the roosters. Tyler had certainly seen plenty of roosters when I had brought them home in the past, but I explained again, “Because it was a hen buddy and we can only shoot roosters.” further clarifying that roosters have colored heads.

Pushing into the corner of the property I knew it was usually a hot spot to jump birds and Ace became birdy again. I pointed out to Tyler what to look for in his dog when a bird is near, “See Ace’s tail going crazy and how he is working faster with his nose to the ground?” I told him to get ready because there was going to be a bird in the last piece of grass.

“How do you know that?” Ty asked and the reply was easy. “Because Ace’s nose never lies Tyler!”

It was Tyler that spotted him first, yelling out, “Dad, a bird!” As I turned, a rooster had fled from the grass and into the bean stubble as he took low flight making a hasty get away. I didn’t have a shot but Tyler got to watch it run out of the grass right before him. Ace didn’t see the rooster either at that range and kept working the area. Soon he came to the corner of the grass but worked up the edge right towards Tyler. He stopped at a point and just as he did a hen sprung out from the very edge between dog and boy. He had now seen first hand the talents of his best friend Ace and I think held a new respect for his puppy!

After walking the south end of the field and only flushing yet another hen we swung around the end of the east side of the grass and headed back north. I told Ty to follow the mowed path that curved along the top of a terrace while I went below the terrace into the taller grass where Ace was busying himself doing what a motivated bird dog does. I knew Ty could see me the whole time from his elevated position. I lost sight of Ace in the dense, taller bluestem that evidently preferred the wetter soils draining from the terrace, but experience told me that the dog was birdy since his beeper collar hadn’t moved for over a minute, always a sign that he was working scent closely. Sure enough as I spotted Ace he was creeping slowly and moved deliberately into a solid point. With the touchdown of my foot even with the dog’s nose, a rooster rose from the depths of the lanky bronze grass. Flying straight away from me, I unconsciously shouldered swiftly and brought the bird down. Ace ran quickly to the spot. I heard Tyler yelling, “Yay, you got him Daddy!”

“Did you get to watch the whole thing Tyler?” I asked, in which he responded with an emphatic, “Yep! That was awesome!”

As I got to the spot where the bird dropped I couldn’t find the bird? The dog began working east of me about 10 feet away when he stopped, nose buried in the grass. As evident by the sound of bones crunching before even seeing it, Ace had the bird. Knowing that Ace only crunches down on birds that are still very much alive I said, “Don’t let him go Ace!” Naturally Ace let loose his grip and the bird sprung forward through the grass. The dog lost sight of the bird but I did not and the chase was on! The rooster kept up just enough speed to stay in front of my outreached attempts to grasp it repeatedly. Finally I corralled the rooster, pinning him to the ground. “We got him Tyler!” I yelled.

By this time Tyler was already coming to me and I had to admire his determination. I could only make out his little face and an orange stocking cap as he bravely marched through the weeds twice as tall as him yammering the whole way about how cool that was. He wasn’t going to miss out on getting his hands on his first rooster with Dad!

After pausing for a quick picture we moved on through the field. Ace roused yet another hen and we circled back towards the truck. By this time, Tyler’s 6-year old legs were beginning to tire. A hunt with a 6-year old has to be kept short to keep them entertained and so that they won’t remember the hunt as some sort of punishable death march. The cure for tiring legs, just as it is for us aged sportsmen, is the anticipation of the next rising ringneck. As Tyler and I walked together in deep conversation about how that bird went down, I kept an eye on the twitching tops of bluestem up ahead of us indicating that Ace was plowing a path unseen underneath. With just enough bird seasons under his belt, for Ace too the whiff of pheasant primes new adrenaline into his legs. He seemingly works as if we aren’t even there.

Burrowing his way through whatever obstacle lay ahead, left and then right, wherever his nose takes him, yet always briefly stopping every so often to make sure we are within range. For him, it’s always the next scent to find and the next puzzle to solve.

He came to the end of the next puzzle a few moments later and as we moved in flanking the statuesque dog I told Tyler to get ready because Ace had another bird pinpointed. This rooster blew up quickly in front of Ace’s nose and as I fired the first shot was too close. I hadn’t let the bird get out far enough for the 5-shot and modified choke to do its job. Quickly jacking in another shell, I kept my aim and folded the bird in the air with the second shot. Ace was on him in an instant even though he was a fair piece ahead. This bird was dead on arrival and Ty came up in a dash to examine our second bird.

We posed for another picture of both birds and got back to the truck. I asked him if he was too tired to keep hunting and wanted to go home. He replied, “No, I think we should try and get our limit first!” That’s my boy!

Across the road we went to similar cover to take a short walk. Ace got a spooky rooster up only 30 yards from the truck’s parking place, too soon for us to get there and take a shot. The next rooster Ace found went running out of the grass and into the mowed path near where Tyler was. Ty was able to watch it spring skyward and I was left without a shot because of its nearness to Tyler. Ty was now getting tired and after one more hen I almost had to step on to get airborne we decided two birds was a great day!

The next morning found Tyler begging to go hunting again. His spirit of adventure is one of the things that I love most about him. This time we headed to a different farm and Tyler found a coiled up garter snake in the mowed path within the first hundred yards. The inquisitive nature of children finding interesting things in the outdoors is just something we must make time for even while on a hunt. Make it as much fun for them as you possibly can. Meanwhile, while I was answering questions about snakes, Ace was hunting his way farther and farther away from us. Sure enough as soon as we left the snake behind, we could hear the hawk scream coming from Ace’s collar a fair distance away, indicating a motionless dog. We moved quickly toward the direction of the sound while Ace held that bird the entire time. A rooster burst straight upward leaving me with a fairly vertical shot and as the copper plated shot hit home in the rear of the bird, the feathers softly fell down on us like snowflakes falling from the sky, no two alike.

Our third bird of the weekend was in the vest and Tyler had been able to watch all three birds rise and fall. We traveled farther than I had hoped before Ace finally found any scent to work once again. He locked up on a hen and then another in rapid succession before finally pointing another rooster. This rooster was a little off the beaten path so Ty stayed in the mowed strip while I went in to flush the bird. I missed the first shot but recovered on the second shot. The bird fell but I could see his wings beat once or twice as he disappeared in the grass. Like usual, Ace was on that bird in the time it takes to yell “Rooster” and I could hear the wheezing air escaping the ringneck’s lungs from Ace’s powerful jaws before I could see the dog. “We’ve got another bird Tyler! Ace has him!” I yelled as Tyler yelled back his excited approval.

Three more birds flushed wildly ahead of us on the last 100-yard trek back to the truck, two hens and a rooster and all too far to shoot at. But one more bird would stay put for Ace to hunt down. In the last bits of grass Ace stood frozen in form, pointed at what was sure to soon be a bird in flight. Ace was pointed straight at me with the bird between he and I and as the rooster rose, he went away from me and low over Ace’s head. The bird swung low into the saddle of the waterway between two hills and as he did Ace ran charging after him in pursuit. Being conscious of the dog with a low flying bird, I probably aimed too high being more careful than I needed to be. Finally Tyler got to see the old man miss and our day’s limit sailed safely away. We loaded up and finished off the day by hopping in the combine to run some corn with our good friend Brad. A good day for Tyler and Dad for sure!

Looking back on all the hunts over the years, the miles walked, the dogs on point, and the many flushes of wild birds it’s clear to me that there are only a handful of hunts that are so special that you know you’ll always remember the particular details of the day forever. This was one of those weekends. When we share our passion of hunting with those we love most, our bond is so strong that it often instills the same passion in the one you are hunting with. I hope that weekend ignited the same passion that will burn for a lifetime in my youngest son Tyler to love every aspect of bird hunting! It doesn’t have to be bird hunting either. The next time the little one in your life wants to go hunting with you, take them. As hunters we always seek and hope for an extraordinaire hunt, yet as parents and grandparents, sometimes the simplicity of extraordinaire is right in front of us and we don’t always see it. They aren’t too little to go hunting too!