“Well Bubs,” I said, using Winchester’s nickname, “I don’t know about you, but I don’t think my nerves can handle another day of this.” His blank stare in return suggested he didn’t care much one way or another about my nerves.
We had driven nonstop from Alaska, and had reached western South Dakota two days earlier than planned. I had intended to arrive the evening before the nonresident season opener, pick Christine up at the airport and be ready to hunt with friends the next day. We would hunt South Dakota for a couple of days and then head north and hunt with my dad in North Dakota.
Having spent my formative hunting years in North Dakota, one would expect my dad might have taken me across the border to the pheasant mecca of the world. He hadn’t, and when I asked him in later years why, he said he never saw a reason to travel for a few more birds in an unfamiliar area.
Dad and his hunting partner, Eddie, were homebody hunters, and rarely traveled far to hunt. Years of covering the same areas left them with a near-photographic memory of the country. Both had the enviable ability to know where the fauna of the area was at nearly any given time.
With a couple of days to kill, I figured Winchester and I would hunt for sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge in the Grand River National Grasslands in the northwestern corner of South Dakota. A fine idea said the fellow at the Grasslands office, just watch out for the rattlesnakes. Snakes?
It was late October and typically temperatures in that part of the world have driven the snakes into hibernation. This year had been an exception with the midday temperatures in the 80s and the snakes active. “Just stay out of the prairie dog towns, you and your dog will be fine,” the fellow said.
Snakes terrify me for no good reason, but they do. But, I figured we could avoid the prairie dog towns easy enough. That worked until Winchester disappeared over a hill and, when I followed, found him coursing a hillside covered with the dirt mounds of the little digging dogs.
Winchester had no experience with snakes and I spent the day calling him in when he got anywhere close to the horizon. In other words, I squashed his hunting rhythm. He still found birds but it was not a fun day, and that night I decided we could find a better way to spend our next day.
That night, I called Dad to see how his hunting had been. The resident season had opened about a week before, and I expected Dad and his Labrador, Lady, would have collected numerous ringnecks by then.
“Haven’t taken one bird yet, and have only seen a few,” he said when I called. A combination of things had occurred for him to announce something I had never heard him say during an opening week of the pheasant season. Bird numbers were down, the corn fields hadn’t been harvested, and his old dog was having trouble getting around.
In a flash, I saw an opportunity to do something for the man who had given so much to me in the hunting arena. For the person I owed the most and could never repay, I figured Winchester could find him a pheasant.
I told Dad about the troubles with snakes, and since we had a free day, how about I just drive over during the night, and Winchester and I would meet him and give it another try. “Well, you can’t hunt here for a couple more days,” he said. “The only thing I can’t do is shoot,” I said, “and I don’t need to do that.”
Smiling to myself as the call ended, I turned to Winchester and told him I found him a job, and there wouldn’t be any snakes. He flipped over onto his back, feet straight in the air, his favored road position, as if to say, “Wake me when we get there.”
Traveling on rural roads is my favorite way to cover ground when there is no hurry. That part of the world is host to all sorts of wildlife and passes road time well. I thought about the coming morning and knew where we would start. Dad’s favorite cattail slough surrounded by several hundred acres of prairie grass, six miles northwest of his place. Winchester knows it well, and I could visualize how he would hunt it when told to “find the birds.” And he will, I thought.
It would be different from so many times in the past by the absence of Eddie, Dad’s best friend and hunting partner who had been a part of hunting for me since childhood. He had undergone back surgery and wouldn’t be up to that type of hunting just yet.
It never occurred to me that these two, my dad and Eddie, were getting old. At age 78, they were active and never missed an opportunity to hunt, scout, or catch some fish. They seemed timeless to me.
When I pulled into his yard at 5 a.m., I could see Dad pouring coffee into a couple of battered old cups, those reserved for hunting. The morning brought star-filled skies and frost, a good sign for the day.
The morning was seamless, as if we did it every day, as if I didn’t live 3,500 miles to the north.
We took separate vehicles to the slough. His old dog, Lady, liked to ride shotgun in his pickup, and you do what you can to keep the hunting dog happy.
We parked by the slough a half-hour before shooting time, rolled our windows down, and listened to the countryside wake up, like we had done my entire life. The silence confirming our ritual, with no need to say anything.
“Well, let’s see what that high-powered setter can do,” Dad said with a smile as he cracked his door. Ten minutes later, the GPS announced Winchester had a bird pinned. “He’s on the backside of the slough, if you can keep Lady in check, we’ll walk in and get you a pheasant,” I said through the grin that only comes from the fierce pride in that damn setter.
Lady stuck close to Dad as they walked up behind Winchester. The rooster’s cackle was interrupted by the shot, and a moment later, Lady bringing the bird to hand. Dad grinned at me and said, “He really is something, isn’t he.”
I couldn’t have been happier in that moment, and I couldn’t have known that we would never be able to hunt together again.
Some cultures believe the hunting partner relationship is more important than a marriage partner. I don’t know. I do know that taking time, no matter what it entails, to hunt with that person in their waning years is priceless. Make the time.
Steve Meyer is a longtime Alaskan and avid shooter who lives in Kenai.