We all reflect upon our lives and memories at Christmas, and I’m no different for times spent hunting at Christmas with my dad, family, and friends. Here’s a particularly good one.
We all have our Christmas traditions, and one of the best memories of Christmas growing up for me was a family hunting trip – an annual rabbit chase with my dad and his brothers.
There was a houseful of them, eight in all, and some who would get together on the morning of Christmas eve, or Christmas day, and let off some steam in the hills of southern Ohio, along the Ohio River outside Proctorville, Ohio.
I was about eight at the time and Dad would allow me to tag along – glorious days as I reveled in his ability to pick off a running cottontail through the briars at 50 yards…or bring down a fleeing quail from a sudden covey burst that took everyone else by surprise. He was a marvelous shot, as were my uncles Charley and Dan, and there was always some brotherly competition. But I remember more than once coming home being proud of Dad for doing something that the others couldn’t.
Fast forward forty years and I became my Dad in the regard of continuing that activity during the holidays. Different circumstances, of course, as I didn’t have eight brothers. But at Christmas, or New Year’s, I often headed west to Iowa to hunt pheasants with my son Matt, and friends in eastern Iowa during the time when that state was still flush with wild birds. This was before the loss of millions of acres of CRP ground in 2000 due to the surge of corn production for ethanol fuel. Pheasant numbers plummeted and it’s never been the same. I dare say, it will never be again.
On the week of Christmas 1998, I called my friends Eldon and Nancy Hotz, who farmed in Lone Tree, Iowa, and asked them about the prospects of a holiday hunt.
“We’ve got a foot of snow and it’s supposed to be zero all week, but there’s birds around and you’re welcome to come out,” said Eldon. “We’ll have plenty to eat if the hunting’s no good. I’m cooking twenty hams for Christmas, for family and friends.”
At the time I was still managing the BK Photo and Gallery store in Troy, Ohio, and wildlife artist Gary Moss, from Plymouth, Minnesota, did a lot of work with us.
“I’d like to join you for a winter pheasant hunt,” Moss had said earlier in the fall. “Maybe I can get an idea for a new pheasant painting in the snow.”
We met on the day after Christmas in Iowa City, Gary driving five hours from Minneapolis, while Matt and I drove the eight hours from Ohio to get there. And true to Eldon Hotz’s prediction, snow was piled high and the wind chill was below zero.
Nonetheless, we dressed accordingly and set out on December 27 in that frigid weather to find roosters in the densely-grown fence rows and sedge fields that lay down out of the wind, and along a creek that bisected Hotz’s farm. It didn’t take long. Birds were sitting tight to avoid the conditions, and Moss’s female Brittany had a wonderful nose, even in those conditions. Gary was a good shot and within an hour had a three-bird limit.
It was miserable hunting in that snow, and 12-year-old Matt had trouble navigating the drifts. He didn’t carry a gun yet, but his boyish enthusiasm kept him going, anyway. He wanted to see birds and hear the shooting, which I could appreciate. What worried me was bringing him home with a bad case of frostbite.
After a hot lunch of maid-rites and chili in the Hotz’s kitchen, we went back out to try to find more birds in the afternoon. The wind had come up, blowing from the northwest, and the wind chill was now in the twenty-below territory. There were some strips of unpicked corn on the back of the farm and Eldon suggested we walk an abandoned fence row close by that was thick with broom sedge and multiflora rose. “That should be full of birds,” he promised.
He was right, but the birds were all the wrong color. Hens, one after another came boiling out – frustrating as the wind blew harder in our faces, and we got more chilled with each passing step. Gary’s dog had injured a paw on the morning hunt and she was sitting out the afternoon. It was just Gary, Matt and me, with Matt doing his best bird dog imitation. Imagine a twelve-year-old that’s frozen like a popsicle stick stomping through cover that thick in twenty below weather…and with nothing but birds that you can’t shoot to show for it.
“There has to be a cock bird in there somewhere,” Gary shouted, struggling to be heard above the wind. “We’re probably walking by a few. Tomorrow, maybe?” I could tell his patience and enthusiasm was waning.
But just as the words left his mouth Matt stepped on a big pile of grass and weeds that began to twist and flutter…and a moment later a raucous rooster came bursting out in a shower of crystalline snow, cackling angrily while he tried to gain elevation. The problem was he was trying to get airborne into the wind, and the wind was holding him right there, denying him escape. His wings flapped furiously for what seemed like seconds before he got oriented and turned downwind. When he did he gained speed rapidly and was just on the limit of range when my Ithaca 12 gauge boomed and he came down in a burst of feathers, coming to rest in a snowdrift.
“Wow,” shouted Moss. “I’ve never seen anything like that – a bird that couldn’t fly because the wind was blowing so hard. That’s my painting.”
Matt retrieved the rooster and we called it a day on an up note. Back at the house Gary made me a proposition.
“I’d like to paint that scene and enter it in the Pheasants Forever competition next year. It might win Print of The Year,” he said. “You can have the original and I’ll sell the limited edition prints.”
“Fine,” I agreed, and a year later Moss did win the competition with a print he entitled, In Your Dreams. But when the original painting arrived at my house there was a chrome plate affixed to the bottom of the frame with a different title engraved, “Matt’s Rooster”.
The prints of that painting are long sold out, but the original still hangs in my den, along with the bird that Matt kicked out of the snow. A taxidermist in Cedar Rapids did a beautiful job on it and it rests now above the painting as a reminder of a Christmas hunt, days with my dad, and memories of holidays past.
Eldon Hotz is now gone, too, and I think of his hospitality, the good times and the laughs – hunting with family and friends on Christmas.
Of good will towards men, and roast pheasant for New Year’s dinner.