No amount of snow or cold weather can discourage a boy’s opportunity to claim his first ringneck pheasant…no matter how cold, or how many times it takes you to do it.
Note: Tom Cappell is a guest columnist and outdoorsman from Missouri whose writing always reflects a proper respect for the outdoors, wildlife, and sporting ethics. His work has been published in publications nationwide, and we’re pleased to present his work as a regular feature on Press Pros, sponsored by Olde English Outfitters, in Tipp City.
By Tom Cappell
I’m sharing a story with you this time about boys, hunting, adolescent impatience, and ultimately…the jubilation of having a dream come true.
And this happened sometime in the winter of 1962, outside Amlin, Missouri with my Uncle Mel and his neighbors, the Stringfellow brothers, Tom and John.
It had been a tough season for hunting pheasants. One, for the fact of a wet spring and summer and a poor hatch – the numbers of birds were simply down. And two, because of the wet weather it took weeks longer than usual to harvest crops on Uncle Mel’s two hundred-acre farm. He raised a few beef cattle, and mostly hogs, and the hundred acres of ear corn he picked each fall meant profit or loss when it came time to market his animals.
I was fourteen at the time, barely old enough to carry a shotgun in the field, and for the fact of my inexperience Uncle Mel always made me carry one unloaded. “Show me you have good safety habits when you carry a gun and I’ll let you load up when you do,” he’d say.
Well, he had said it for two years, and by the end of the second year I was really bustin’ to have the chance to drop a Super X #5 shot in the breech of my 20 gauge Winchester and have a crack at a flying rooster pheasant.
The problem was…after hunting with Uncle Mel and the Stringfellow brothers on opening weekend that year there were no more opportunities because of crops and school. And by the time I could get away for one more chance it was the last weekend of the season, and the weekend before New Year’s.
Being out of school for the holidays, my mom dutifully drove me south from Columbia the day after Christmas to Uncle Mel’s farm and dropped me off for those final three days. But the anticipation of hunting was also tempered by a weather report of bad weather, heavy snow, and below-zero temperatures.
“If this stuff hits us you might be here for New Year’s,” Uncle Mel warned my mom and me. “But don’t worry, Sis, we’ll make sure he doesn’t starve,” he said with a wink.
Starving to me wasn’t the issue. I wanted to hunt pheasants and fulfill what seemed like a lifetime dream of finally bagging my first rooster. Lord almighty, how many times had I gone over it in my mind – how to maintain your cool during the surprise of a flush, how to not get flustered while cocking the gun and bringing it to shoulder, and how to take your time to get the proper sight picture and lead. It was the process I’d practiced over and over with Uncle Mel during the summer by shooting clay targets he’d throw behind the barn.
The Stringfellows owned the adjacent farm to Uncle Mel’s, a much bigger property that they farmed for corn and wheat. And when work allowed, they and their dogs, Mitch (a shorthair pointer) and Holly (a beagle), were regular ringneck partners with Uncle Mel. All three were excellent shots.
On the night of December 27 it hit – a storm that dumped a foot of snow on the state of Missouri and temperatures that dipped below zero. And in fact, when Uncle Mel went to feed the following morning the thermometer on the barn read -2.
“Can we still hunt?” I asked, apprehensively. “The cold won’t bother me. I have plenty of warm clothes that I packed.”
“It’s pretty tough weather,” Uncle Mel answered. “Look, let’s give it a few hours and see what it feels like later in the morning. Besides, with this snow and cold nothing’s going to be moving. I’ll call Tom and John and see what they think.”
The hands on the clock crawled, but the sun finally broke through about 10 am bringing light, if no heat, to the snow-covered fields. And as if on cue, within minutes a familiar red pickup rolled into the driveway and out piled Tom and John.
“We’ll give it try, Tommy,” John said. “Don’t want to have the dogs out too long in this cold, though. We’ll try to find a few birds along that old grown-up fence row in the back section. If there’s a bird anyplace they’ll be hunkered down there and out of the wind. C’mon.”
He didn’t have to ask twice. I had on so many clothes I could barely raise my arms. But after some adjustments the little Winchester 20 gauge I had carried for the past two years fit just fine. We crossed the pasture fence, the dogs fanned out, and Uncle Mel handed me a handful of bright red Winchester shells.
“Time to load up,” he said. “But remember to be safe.”
The snow was like a fine powder, easy to walk through because it was so light under foot. But there was enough wind to make it sting when it struck you in the face – hard to see in a brisk gust.
Worse, we walked a mile and didn’t see a thing, or a track. By the time we got to the old fence row on Uncle Mel’s back section of land we’d worked up a sweat. Mitch, Tom’s shorthair got things going first. Unexpectedly, a hen pheasant burst out under his nose…and moments later a loud, bright-colored rooster took flight, catching us all by surprise.
I was the only one to have a shot, but the surprise of the flush and my excitement caused me to hurry; and I’m not sure I even had the gun to my shoulder when I pulled the trigger on a wild, errant shot.
“Remember to take your time,” Uncle Mel cautioned. “You had the best shot of any of us that time. Remember, get a good sight picture, make the proper lead, and take your shot.”
That fence row was suddenly alive. Holly jumped a pair of rabbits within fifty yards of each other and John Stringfellow cart-wheeled one with a single shot from his Remington pump gun. We kicked up another hen, and another, and suddenly we were almost at the end of the quarter mile walk along the brushy fence.
Uncle Mel hit the jackpot first on an excited rooster that struggled out of its bed and through the heavy snow. He waited until the big cockbird was thirty yards out before dumping it with his Model 12 Winchester.
A moment later two more birds, a hen and a rooster, rocketed out between the Stringfellows. Tom missed and the bird quartered my way, offering me a fleeting shot. I did the best I could to remember to see the shot, take the proper lead, and then fire. But either the distance was long, or I was behind, because the the bird ‘bumped’ at the sound of my shot, and just kept going.
I was 0-for-2, and panic began to mount as I realized that we couldn’t stay out here that much longer in the stinging cold and mounting wind. Thirty yards before we got to the end of the fence, where an old windmill stood outlined against the sky, the shorthair locked up in a perfect point. Uncle Mel walked in…and it seemed like the world erupted.
There were suddenly birds in the air everywhere, maybe a dozen. Who could count? All I know is that out of the corner of my eye I saw the biggest rooster of my life, the last to rise, gaining altitude, a perfect straight-away shot. I was aware of other shooting around me, but this time there was no surprise. I saw my lead, held just above the fleeing target, and touched the trigger of the little 20 gauge.
I barely noticed the report, or the recoil. But in full view I saw perfectly my pattern crumple the big ringneck in a shower of feathers. I heard ‘thump’, as it hit the top strand of barbed wire and dropped in the weeds.
“Way to go,” Uncle Mel shouted, excited as I was. He had seen it all.
“We got three of them and everybody got one, so whatta’ say we get in out of this wind?”
There was no argument from me as the snow began to fall again just as the barn came into sight. Once we got in we admired the four roosters we had taken on the worst day of the year, and as it turned out…the last day’s hunting of the year.
That night another foot of snow fell and closed every road for a hundred miles. Uncle Mel’s prediction came true. I was marooned on the farm and spent a memorable weekend thinking about hunting pheasants in the snow.
Guaranteed, no one had a better New Year’s that year than me!
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