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By Staff | Dec 28, 2018

Like most teenagers, I couldn’t wait to become a grownup. For me, being a grownup meant mastering the ability to live off the land with just a few rudimentary tools such as knife, a gun and a featherbed. A featherbed might seem out of place, but I didn’t see why “roughing it” couldn’t include some luxury.

My burning passion for hunting was ignited when I was introduced to outdoor magazines with names like “Manly Outdoor Living” and “Hunting Like a REAL Man.” This fascination was stoked by stories my school chums shared, tales of triumphant hunts that they had gone on with their dads and uncles.

A common thread running through these hunting tales was that they all described some sort of peak experience. It was almost as if the real prize of a hunting expedition wasn’t so much bagging wild game as it was bringing home stories of glory.

But with eight kids running around our farm, my parents were hesitant to introduce firearms into the mix. Their reticence only caused me to desire a hunting weapon even more.

There’s no persistence like that of a teenager. Teenagers are unmatched in their ability to wear parents down with unrelenting barrages of whining.

My parents finally capitulated. They said I that could have a gun but stipulated that I would first have to take a hunter safety course and could buy only the smallest caliber single-shot firearm available. I happily agreed.

And so I became the proud owner of a Stevens .410 single-shot. The .410 wasn’t exactly the mighty sky cannons described in the pages of “Studly Hunter” magazine, but it would do.

Our farm had acquired a mutt named Smokey. While we weren’t sure of Smokey’s heritage, a large portion appeared to be Black Labrador. I hoped that she would prove to be my pheasant-finding hunting companion.

Opening day of pheasant season at long last arrived. Smokey and I sprinted from our farmstead and into a nearby corn field.

Smokey indeed possessed a knack for finding birds. We had scarcely entered the corn when she began to chuff excitedly back and forth, nose down, tail whirling like a helicopter rotor.

A rooster pheasant burst into the air mere yards away, startling the stuffing out of me. It took several seconds to recover my senses. Too late, I put the .410 to my shoulder and pulled the trigger. The pheasant cackled as he rocketed away, laughing at my ineptitude.

But Smokey didn’t want to give up. She sped after the bird, quickly disappearing down the infinity of the corn rows. I yelled myself hoarse as I strove to call her back. Adding insult to injury, about a quarter-mile away two more roosters took flight at Smokey’s approach.

This wasn’t anything like the peak experiences my buddies had shared nor was it similar to the stories I had read in “Manly Outdoorsman.”

I hunted pheasants as often as possible and a pattern quickly emerged. Smokey and I would enter some promising pheasant habitat. Smokey would dislodge a pheasant; I would and panic and blast a hole in the stratosphere. The pheasant would wing toward the next state as Smokey gave chase while I hollered until my throat felt like sandpaper.

I would definitely starve if living off the land meant depending on my hunting skills.

A late-autumn snowfall muffled the prairie beneath a blindingly white featherbed. One restless Saturday afternoon, I decided to take Smokey out for the year’s final hunt.

We trudged across the desolate snowscape until we reached a grassland located nearly a mile from our farmstead. Smokey abruptly froze in a point, one front paw lifted, her nose aimed at a clump of grass.

I cocked the .410 and put it to my shoulder. “Get ‘im Smokey!” I urged.

Smokey leaped into the clump of grass. There was a flutter of wings and my heart jumped to my throat. A sparrow.

Smokey looked back at me with an expression that said, “Why didn’t you shoot?”

We slogged onward until we neared a marsh. Smokey became excited, nose down, tail helicoptering so vigorously that she almost lifted off. She pointed at an insignificant tussock of grass that couldn’t have hidden a butterfly.

I impatiently kicked the grass and a rooster nearly flew up my nose. The slough erupted as dozens of pheasants burst skyward, their iridescent plumage creating splashes of Technicolor against the monochrome landscape.

After the last pheasant had departed, I realized that I hadn’t even shouldered the .410. Smokey fixed me with a look that said, “See? I tried to tell you!”

“Let’s go home, Smokey,” I said. “It doesn’t get any better than that!”

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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