There are a variety of Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks programs designed to recruit new hunters and anglers. All efforts are in response to a declining trend in the number of Kansans who purchase hunting and fishing licenses, as well as the desire to see our outdoor heritage passed on. But the positive impact of teaching youngsters about the outdoors may go much deeper than merely passing on a heritage.

Monday, November 17, 2014

CREEDE

The term “heavy heart” is an overused expression, and I never gave much thought to what it felt like. However, cliché or not, I don’t know how else to describe the weight I felt in my chest this past July. After having him by our side for 13 ½ years, our black lab, Creede, is gone. We held on as long as we could, and so did Creede, coping valiantly with what I can only imagine near the end. He didn’t appear to be in pain, but we knew he was struggling. Lisa and I did everything we could to make him comfortable and keep him around as long as possible, as much for us as him. Then came that dreaded July morning when I knew it was time.
When I returned home after burying Creede, every reminder added to the weight. As I got out of the truck, I missed hearing his hoarse “woof” that always greeted me, letting me know he’d seen me from his perch by the sliding glass door. In the house, his “happy toy” lay conspicuously near the top of the stairs. It was an old rubber squeak toy that he carried around whenever he was excited. When we came home, he would rush around the house looking for that toy, then he carried it, head thrown back, tail wagging, welcoming us as if he hadn’t seen us for a week.
His absence leaves a hole in our lives, but he’ll always be a part of us. He was an average hunter and retriever, but his unconditional loyalty to Lisa and me was anything but average, and our bond was instantaneous. I had pick of the litter and acted like I knew how to select the perfect puppy. In reality, Creede chose me. While the rest of the puppies quickly became bored with my attention and ran off to other adventures in the backyard, Creede stayed with me. From that moment until his death, he stayed with me.
He spent his first night at home in a large cardboard box next to our bed. I reached down with my hand to comfort him, and he went to sleep quickly. However, he woke me four times that night, and we went out to the backyard each time. The next night, he slept through, and so did I, both content, I suppose, with this arrangement. And he slept in that spot, sans the box, for the rest of his life. When I would get up in the night, I would slide my feet along the floor to avoid stepping on him. Usually, before I found him, I would hear his tail wag, thump, thump, thump, on the floor, helping me locate him. It was common for me to wake, listen for his rhythmic breathing or snoring and once I heard it, go right back to sleep. In the waning weeks of his life, he became restless around 4 a.m. He was having problems eating and keeping food down, so when I realized he wasn’t beside the bed, I got up with him. I continued to wake up at 4 a.m. after he was gone. In a half-awake daze, I listened for his breathing, then I would remember and feel the weight.
Losing Creede was tough because of our connection. He was a dog that wanted to be near us no matter what we were doing. Whether we were hunting, fishing or just working in the yard, he stayed close, just in case he was needed. He seemed to especially enjoy our September vacations to the mountains, taking long hikes with Lisa and standing belly-deep in the Rio Grande, waiting for me to catch a trout. We’ll feel that weight without him this fall, and I know I’ll smile through teary eyes when I look down and he’s not standing beside me watching my cast.
Some might say, “he was just a dog,” but our lives were happier with him along, that’s for sure. I’ll never know the extent of his physical ailments in the final weeks, but I’ll forever admire the way he coped and kept his dignity to the end. We can learn a lot from old dogs. We’ll have another black lab one day, but I know we’ll never have another Creede – and I’m okay with that.

Friday, February 15, 2013

What Would I Have Missed?


I’ve written extensively about how fortunate I am to have the hunting experiences I’ve had. I know that hunting with my father and granddad shaped who I’ve become as a person, what I do for a living and where I live. But, while looking at a picture from a recent hunt the other day, I wondered what I would have missed without hunting in my life..
I know plenty of kids who have great relationships with their parents and grandparents without going hunting. I will assert, though, that I think spending time with kids one-on-one teaching them to hunt and fish is a great way to build solid relationships; it may not be the only way, but it might be one of the best. But what would I have missed with those hunting experiences.
I would have never felt my heartbeat surge when a rooster pheasant flushed at my feet. I wouldn’t have seen the gleam in my granddad’s eye when he bragged about the shot I made on a pheasant. I would have never known the incredible anticipation of approaching a Brittany on point.
And those are just the very beginning. I could go on and on, but the point is that I can’t imagine my life without those experiences that have become indelible memories. Every year, I look forward to adding a few more. Of course things change, people come and go in our lives, but hunting still gives me optimism for the coming year.
Hunting is about relationships, passing on a treasured heritage, and sharing experiences that stay with us for life. Without the experiences of hunting with my family, friends and cherished dogs, my life would have been  – well I don’t even want to think about it. Never underestimate the power of passing it on.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

GRANDDAD'S .22


My shooting experience was limited to my Crossman BB gun before we moved to Greensburg. I was 11 and completely obsessed with fishing, and even though I had spent my life to that point living in large urban areas, I had a strong attraction to hunting. I read every hunting magazine I could get my hands on, and I was mesmerized by my granddad’s stories of hunting in Kansas and Colorado. Moving to a small town in southcentral Kansas opened the door to hunting for me.

A part of that move was Mom and Dad coming home. Mom had been born in Greensburg and Dad was born in Haviland. Dad’s family still owned land south of Haviland, and when he reconnected with the abandoned homestead where he had lived as a boy, we found a perfect place to plink. I still remember putting my first holes in a tin can with a .22 rifle.

The old bolt-action .22 had always been in my dad’s closet next to the canvas and leather case that held his shotgun. The .22’s wood stock was stripped bare of stain and varnish – a refinish job Dad hadn’t completed. That first winter in Greensburg, I proposed to Dad that refinishing the stock would be a good seventh-grade woodshop project.

“That’s a great idea. If you do a good job finishing that stock, the gun will be yours,” Dad said.

He then went on to tell me that Granddad had given him the gun. Even back then, that old Wards Westerfield had some age on it, but it was the best rifle in the world as far as I was concerned. Much later in life, I learned that my granddad’s brother had given him the gun sometime in the late 1920s to make up for breaking Granddad’s eye glasses. I don’t know where Granddad’s brother got the gun.

I spent what seemed like half a semester sanding the bare wood in shop class. Each time I would take it to Mr. Moore, our shop teacher, for approval, he’d slide his hands over the wood, pull a mechanical pencil from the pocket of his coveralls, then make some pencil marks where it needed more work. Mr. Moore discovered a small crack near the grip, and he showed me how to work wood glue into it before we clamped it tightly together .

Finally, I stained the white pine with a dark walnut stain. Then I spread a satin wax finish over it and polished it. When I showed it to Dad, he seemed impressed. We reassembled the stock to the barrel and action, and he handed me “my” gun, commenting on how smooth the finish was. I was proud.

I still have the gun. I’ve hunted some rabbits and squirrels with it over the years, but mostly I just get it out of the gun safe from time to time to remember. I’ll notice dust on the scope lenses and wipe them clean before shouldering the rifle. As I peer through scope, I remember my twelfth Christmas. I can actually remember opening that long, narrow present to uncover a Weaver box holding a variable power scope and rings. It wasn’t really a surprise. I had asked for a scope, but I was blissfully happy. We had to take the gun to a gunsmith just outside of Rozel so he could machine grooves into the barrel and install the scope. He must have known what he was doing because 40 years later that gun will still drive tacks.

It’s one of those old guns that has no market value to speak of. It was built by Mossberg for Montgomery Wards, and it was not an expensive gun at the time. The barrel shows evidence of rust from many years ago, and the crack in the stock still shows. The wood still holds my junior high woodshop class stain and wax, but the bolt action still works smoothly. I’m stuck with it for sentimental reasons, and I’ll always treasure it as part of my own hunting heritage.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Perfect Hunt


It was mid-November 1972, and we didn’t have eighth-grade basketball practice that Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving. Instead of goofing off with a couple of buddies on the six-block walk from school like usual, I hustled straight home. Granddad and Grandma had arrived the evening before, traveling from their home in Canon City, Colo., to stay with us over the holidays. I was looking forward to spending time with them.
When I burst through the door, cheeks red from the brisk November wind, Grandma smiled and in her soft, slow drawl, asked me where my hat was. I told her it wasn’t cold enough for a hat, and she just clicked her tongue at me. Granddad motioned for me to sit with him. I settled next to Granddad on the couch, and he patted my knee and mentioned something about pheasant hunting. I had been looking forward to hunting together over the weekend and assumed that’s what he was talking about. My eyes got as big as saucers when he clarified that he thought we had time for a short hunt that evening.
“We visited the farm this morning,” he said. “Dale got the milo on our eighty cut, and I think we have time to walk the stubble before it gets dark tonight. He said he’s been seeing some birds along the road,” Granddad added with a wink.
I exploded off the couch and tore through my bedroom, tossing clothes off a pile in my closet while looking for old jeans and my hunting boots. I changed, grabbed my tan hunting vest and cap, cased my 20-gauge and was back in the living room before Granddad could finish tying his boots. He chuckled, “Slow down, son. We’ve got time.”
The 10-mile drive to the farm seemed to take forever, and as we drove, I thought about how we could hunt the stubble. Dad and I had hunted the 80 earlier that season before the milo was cut, and we’d seen birds. But as we pulled up on the west end of the field, I silently wondered how just two of us would flush any pheasants in the open stubble. I was only in my second hunting season, but I knew enough to be skeptical. Granddad sensed this, so he laid out his plan.
“I think we can split up. I’ll let you off at this end, and I’ll drive to the other. Then we’ll walk toward each other. That might confuse an old rooster long enough for one of us to get a shot. We’ll have to keep each other in sight and be very careful about where we can shoot safely,” he added as I quietly slipped out of the car.
As I watch Granddad drive off, I was still unconvinced. The field was flat, and I could easily see him as he walked to a row about half-way in and waved to me. We started our slow walk toward each other. I wasn’t expecting to see any pheasants, at least not within shotgun range, but when we were about 80 yards apart, I heard something to my left. As I swung around, a magnificent rooster cackled its way into the sky. The noise and shock of a rooster flush always flustered me (it still does), and my panic was doubled because I was so complacent. I rushed my gun mount, and the butt plate slipped too high on my shoulder. I slid it back into position, but by then the bird was out of my range. The shot was futile.
“Dang it,” I mumbled under my breath, as I grinned sheepishly and shrugged at Granddad. “He was right.”
Granddad just nodded and continued walking methodically toward me. Five steps later, another rooster flushed near me, taking the same route as the first. I was more ready this time and only half has flustered. I swung through the bird, shot once, and it crumpled. I was in disbelief — because I got a second chance and because I dropped the bird stone dead.
That was the hunt; 45 minutes, two birds flushed and one in the bag. I was elated. I felt proud of our success, and it didn’t hurt my ego when Granddad bragged about the shot I made. Thinking about that afternoon is still gratifying. I can see a snippet of my life that was perfect. No 13-year-old boy loved his grandfather more than I loved that man.
Forty years later and I can still immerse myself in the thrill of that hunt and my feelings for Granddad. Granddad’s been gone 32 years, but I am forever grateful for our relationship and can’t imagine my life without it. Hunting and fishing together was part of our bond, and I know now I was one of the lucky sons. Never underestimate the power of passing it on.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Something To Look Forward To

Hunting has always given me something to look forward to. When I was 13, opening day of pheasant season was a big day that couldn't arrive soon enough. I usually started to get the fever in August when my family would take Sunday evening drives in the country. I'd be watching for pheasants -- scouting. But I didn't have to see lots of pheasants to be excited for opening day. As a boy, I didn't know how important the camaraderie would become, and I didn't have the foggiest idea how important hunting would be in my life. I just knew that something new and exciting was going to happen, and I loved every minute of it, whether there were lots of birds or not.

Today, I understand how important hunting has been in my life -- how important it is to be in the field with certain people and dogs, and I fully appreciate every day. I'm looking forward to the hunting seasons even though the prospects for good bird populations in my area aren't good. The drought and heat have taken a toll on pheasant and quail populations, I'm afraid. But I'm still making plans to hunt. I've already made arrangements for my cousin to join me on opening day. Last year's bird hunting was disappointing, but we had memorable experiences, hunting ducks and even did a little crappie fishing. We made the best of what we found. We'll do the same this year.

Kansas provides a variety of opportunities, and we'll stay flexible and enjoy each other's company. I can't wait for hunting season!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

No Substitute For A Mentor

I've written often about individuals who've mentored me, and how fortunate I am to know them. I've learned plenty about the outdoors by reading, watching video and just getting out there, but I learned invaluable lessons from mentors; lessons that helped me be more successful, safer, and legal in the field. Recently, I've had a couple phone calls from potential hunters wondering how to get started. Both were men in their 40s. Neither had any hunting experience, and neither knew anyone who hunted.

So what can they do? My advice is get acquainted with a hunter or hunters because there really is no substitute for an experienced mentor. And I know that's not as easy as it may sound. While most hunters I know freely mentor people, hunting is very personal. Everyone hunts for different reasons, and those reasons are shaped by life experiences, personality and lifestyle. So just walking up to someone who looks like a hunter and asking them for help learning about hunting may get a cold shoulder. However, getting to know a hunter first will nearly always result in the transfer of information and possibly personal mentoring.

I recommend getting to know hunters through conservation organizations, local gun clubs or outdoor shows and events. It will take time, but conservation organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, the Kansas Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever, or the National Wild Turkey Federation are made up of hunters and outdoor people. When they learn of your interest, desire and commitment, they'll take you in. Likewise, local trap, skeet and sporting clays ranges include many members who hunt. The small clubs are always recruiting new members, so newcomers and beginners are usually welcomed.

Just remember, a potential mentor will want to know you and trust you before any mentoring will takes place. Developing a trusting relationship takes time. Get to know people and let them get to know you, then you can begin a journey to become a hunter.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Hunt Etched In Memory

It was mid-November, and I was out of eighth-grade basketball practice early. Granddad and Grandma were in town, and Granddad told me he thought we had time for a short pheasant hunt before dark. I tore through my room, rummaging through a pile of clothes in my close to find my old jeans, boots, tan vest and hunting cap. I dressed hurriedly, cased the 20-guage and ran through the house to the living room where Granddad patiently waited. I was READY.

In 20 minutes, we were parked on the land Granddad and Grandma still owned from the family farm. It was milo stubble, and while we'd seen birds in the field before the milo was cut early in the season, I was not optimistic that the two of us would find any birds. I was a rank beginner, but I had a couple of pheasant seasons under my belt, and I knew enough to know that wily rooster pheasants would easily out-maneuver two hunters in the open stubble. However, Granddad a plan. He dropped me off at one end, then drove to the other other end. "We'll walk toward each other," he said. "And we might be able to get a bird to flush between us. You'll have be really careful, and know where you can shoot safely."

I still wasn't convinced, but I was game. It wasn't a large field and it was flat, so I could easily see Granddad when he got in position. After he waved, we started a deliberate walk toward each other. I distinctly remember when were about 70 or 80 yards apart that a rooster flushed in front of me, flying to my left away from Granddad. It was a safe, open shot, but in my panic to shoulder the gun and shoot, I pulled the butt stock clear above my shoulder. By the time I pulled it back into position and took a shot, the bird was likely out of range, and I missed. The flush of a rooster pheasant always flustered me, and it still does today. I remember thinking that maybe Granddad knew what he was doing, after all. I looked back to him and shrugged and he just grinned and kept walking toward me at a measured pace. I was on full alert when another rooster flushed. This one was closer to me, and it followed the same route as the first one. I swung the shotgun up and through and pulled the trigger. The bird crumpled.

That was it for the evening. Two birds flushed, one bagged, but I was ecstatic. I'll never forget how proud I felt, and it didn't hurt that Granddad bragged about my shot when we got home. I don't think any 13-year-old boy every loved his grandfather more than I loved that man. That was more than 30 years ago, and the spontaneous hunt that lasted less than two hours remains one of my most treasured boyhood memories. Never underestimate the power of passing it on.