by Truman Ross
It's that time of year, leading up to the third weekend of October, and you can feel the anxiousness growing in my father and me. That weekend marks the beginning of pheasant season in South Dakota, a time of tradition and family. Friends from around the country meet in one place: Kimball, South Dakota. A town seemingly lost in time, where worries of work and school are left behind, quite literally, in the dust, as most of the roads are unpaved. We all have one thought on our minds during the 13 hour drive west, and it's birds, birds, birds. The journey west is a trip taken by generations of hunters. We can feel them traveling alongside us on that long stretch of highway, evidenced today by trucks with dog cages, gun cases in the back window, and Pheasants Forever bumper stickers on every other car.
This trip has withstood the test of time. My father started going almost 20 years ago, when his mentor and friend Nip invited him. Nip had been going for more than 20 years himself. And I'm sure in 20 years that I'll bring my own son. This trip has strengthened the bond of friends and family, and brought many great people together we wouldn't have known otherwise. A time we all look forward to. I will go into detail about my first opening weekend, fall of 2014. One of my greatest memories to date.
It had been brewing since childhood. I remember when my dad would leave and I begged him to let me go. He told me that I wasn't ready for the hunt, but I was too young to understand why. I started with a Red Ryder BB gun. We would hunt pheasant farms around Michigan and I would follow on his heels, he had his 12 gauge, I had my BB gun. The rush of the dogs and the flush of the birds were exciting, but I had a thirst for more. I watched as he hunted, studying every movement, and learning. I was hooked. I ran faster than the dogs to collect the bird, and brought it back to him with a smile from ear to ear. I had contributed to the hunt, and I was happier than I could imagine. Eventually I carried a single shot 20 gauge, and was able to put to use the gun safety and hunting etiquette my father was able to instill in me.
One year, when I was 12, my father returned with a hunting shirt. He said to me, "When this fits you, you can come with us on the trip." It was a men's medium, not even close to my size. Flash forward 3 years, and the shirt finally fits. I was ready for my first trip out west.
The first thing that you notice when you get out to South Dakota is the air. Dry as can be, the constant blow of prairie winds kisses your face, and by the end of the week, your cheeks are rosy and lips chapped. I think the thing I enjoy most about the outdoors there is the seemingly endless golden plains that stretch for miles. When you're standing in thick fields of grass and cane and kosha, you feel as though you're in the middle of a grainy ocean. The mass of cover moves like waves, caused by the ever blowing winds. A panoramic view with only pockets of trees, planted as shelter from the winds, broken only by the gravel roads and occasional stretch of power lines. Quite different than the one I'm accustomed to in my home state of Michigan.
On October 18, opening day of 2014, we set off for the field where I would take my first wild pheasant. Seated between my dad and his friends, I had no idea what was in store for me during the long, bumpy drive to the field. It was warm with the sun shining unforgivingly. We were all sweating before we even started walking. I was shaking with nerves. I was worried of making a mistake, shooting a hen or worse, a bad shot that could injure one of the hunting party.
We set off zig zagging the enormous field, and I prayed for just one rooster to flush. Everyone was anxious to see who would get the first bird. But that's not what mattered to me. All I cared about was getting just one rooster, and showing my father I could handle it.
As we walked, I was starting to believe that we might never flush a bird, and for some reason it was my fault because I was new. And just then, a vibrant rooster sailed into the air right before my eyes. In shock, I raised my hand-me-down 12 gauge, took the safety off, pulled the trigger, and missed. I didn't even graze the feathers. My father, hunting alongside me, took it down with one shell. Before I could think about the miss, another one flushed a few yards away from me. "Rooster!" He yelled. Determined not to miss again, I waited for it to reach a safe height, and dropped it with one shot, sending it down to earth.
I'll never forget that moment, my first wild bird, taken alongside my father on a hunting trip out west. We called it our Father-Son Double. I couldn't imagine a better way for the first day to go, and there were more good days to follow. Everyone congratulated me and I was welcomed into the group, and they've become some of my closest friends.
There are many things that make up a good hunting trip. Success in the hunt, good food and enjoyment of the outdoors. But what matters most are the people you spend those unforgettable days outside with. Sharing stories, laughing, and most importantly, living. That first weekend out west taught me that. I hope to return every year for the rest of my life.