Yesterday was the last day of what folks around here call the Springer General hunt. The white dog and I celebrated by going hunting. I almost chickened out. The temperature was in the mid-twenties with a chilly breeze blowing from the northeast, and I am a fair-weather hunter. I’m a fair-weather everything, come to think of it. But I layered up, stuck my license in my pocket and we headed down the road.
This time, we found some pheasants. The problem was, they were hunkered down in a shelter belt and weren’t relinquishing that warmth and safety for anything. A few yards past the trees, my non-bird bird dog finally kicked up a hen. Excited to actually see a pheasant, I rushed my shot and missed her by a mile. Safe from my shot, she tucked her wings and disappeared into the tree belt.
A few hundred yards later, the white dog hit a scent again. I watched, ready, as she found another hen. This ol’ girl didn’t want to get up and fly, instead cruising just above the ground and Roxy’s head, preventing me from taking a safe shot.
As we rounded the corner for home, Roxy put a rooster in the air. He doubled back, soaring right over my head. This time, I took my time, kept my head down and made the shot.
It wasn’t the wind or ringing in my ears I’d heard as I dialed in on the rooster. It was my dad’s voice. “Want to know the three rules of hunting?” I heard him ask in his big, booming barritone. I repeated the punchline as walked up to the downed bird.
“Rule #1. Keep your head down. Rule #2. Keep your damn head down. Rule #3. Keep your God damn head down.”
It was joke he’d tell over and over. He never got tired of telling it. Oh what I’d give to hear him tell it to me again. It’s been almost a year since he died and I wanted so badly to hear that stupid joke one more time, my heart physically ached. It was that thought that congealed into tears and trickled down my cheeks as I slid the rooster into my vest and loved up my dog.
Dad and I did a lot together when I was growing up. He was always there for soccer games, school plays, speeches and horse shows. But hunting and fishing wasn’t sometime we shared. I don’t know that it ever really occurred to him that his tenderhearted animal lover would actually enjoy hunting. I know it never occurred to me to ask him to take me.
By the time I started working for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, his health prevented us from sharing a day in the field. Instead, he passed on his trusty .22 rifle and behemoth double-barreled shotgun to me. Anytime I asked, he would regale me with stories of his days hunting pheasants at Springer, including the time he almost lost our family dog, and the time he got stuck over night in the mud and the muck.
In that moment, as I stood wiping angrily at my eyes, I knew. I knew that if he was up there, somewhere, somehow, he was watching and he was proud. Not proud that I’d finally got on the birds. But proud that I was trying. Proud that I was taking care of my family, following my passion for writing and photography, staying true to my own beliefs, and taking risks. Proud that I could make my husband chocolate-chip cookies in the evening and chase pheasants in the morning and wrangle a 4-year old after lunch. Proud that I was out there, living my life with the people I loved.
Roxy and I spent another half hour looking for pheasants before we called it a morning. I headed home with a heart that felt lighter than it has in almost a year. If anyone saw me out there, they would have just figured it was me and my dog, hunting solo in the first snow of the season. But really, I was hunting with my dad. I’d carried him in my heart this whole time.
I miss you big guy.