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Pheasant Memories

The best Christmas gifts aren’t under the tree.

My youngest son Griffin spent the past week with Danielle and I. With little happening in the duck hunting realm, I booked us a field at Quail Point in Zamora, California for a pheasant outing. No one was left behind this time; Danielle joined us, and so did the little dog, Abby.

I had high hopes for Abby, a mix of three hunting and one working breeds, with a better nose than Schatzie. Gunfire proved a little shocking for the normally fearless and rambunctious Abby. And when her big sis dropped a dead rooster at her feet, that was it. She practically climbed Danielle’s leg to get into the safety of mom’s arms. I don’t think Abby is going to ask to come along, as she has in the past, the next time Schatzie and I leave for hunt.

But there were other things very special about this hunt. A pheasant hunt was how Griff’s hunting life began. That was more than 15 years ago, and I remember it as if it happened yesterday. We were all new to hunting when I took him and his older brother Gray to High Desert Hunt Club in Gorman, California. Both boys got birds, Griff’s taken with a single shot 20 gauge he bought with his own money.

The 10-year-old Griff walked that field behind the borrowed dog with a gleam in his eye and a calm confidence rare in a freshly-licensed young hunter. He missed the first fleeing pheasant, shooting behind it with his one and only shell. No anger, no frustration; his face showed only a determination to get the next one right. And he did. When another pheasant flushed it was felled with a single pop of the little shotgun – and lost its head in the process.

That was an important morning, more important than I could’ve imagined as we pulled off the highway onto the road leading to High Desert on a small corner of the vast Tejon Ranch. A mist was just clearing when we arrived, revealing hunters covered in orange and dogs yelping to get in the game. The scene was all so new. I went thinking I was giving the boys a fun day in the field, something novel and not so commonplace and meaningless as a trip to the local amusement park. And the chance for them to put some food on the table, something most kids don’t get to claim. But after, when we were packing up to go, it was clear the day had left an indelible mark on Griff.

This time out, watching the 25-year-old Griff, nothing had changed but his size. There was still that quiet enthusiasm and eagerness. and the self-assured aura. Not cockiness at all; but a belief that effort and focus will pay off, if not the first time, then the next time with corrections. It has always been that way with Griffin. I worried about hunts; Griff knew they would be good, in some way. While I would bemoan the lack of ducks on a refuge hunt, Griff was always quietly working it out, sure that there was one duck or goose out there somewhere he was destined to get, if he paid attention and tried hard enough. And more often than not, he was right.

Later in the morning, Schatzie flushed a pheasant and Griff got off one shot that jerked it sideways. It fell but before the dog could get to it, the bird rose like a Phoenix, off again across a long stretch of field and up a hill. I watched Schatzie and Griff pursue that bird, until Griff was able to got off another shot and finish it. That pheasant reminded me of all the times Griff had to make it happen.

Something else that was special about this trip to Quail Point was that Griff was hunting with his Grandpa Mike’s old shotgun, a Remington 1100. Mike passed away many years ago, but he was with us on this hunt. The 1100 did its work with a smoothness and grace you’d expect from a good old gun, handed down from a good old guy. We ended the day with three pheasants each and a tired but happy Schatzie.

We’re all a bit sad now that Griff has flown back to Orange County, including Schatzie. One night a few years ago, Schatzie jumped up in our bed after a visit from Griff. She’d never been allowed there, but Griff had introduced her to the idea and there was no going back. So Griff occupies a special place in the pup’s heart.

It was a great Christmas present to have him here, to hunt with him again – for pheasants, just like the first time – and to see that of all the things that have changed so much in the past several years, the kid beside me in the field is still the same.