A Hunter’s Holiday

Many of us remember a long box under the tree on one special Christmas. Those blessed with children certainly remember working long into the night like demons possessed, assembling toys from unintelligible instructions. And the little subterfuges as we tried to keep Santa Claus real for one more Christmas. At some point on Christmas Eve, Dad would always say, “I hear sleigh bells!”

How many of us left milk and cookies by the chimney? Somehow, they were always gone by morning. My favorite: Flour in a shoebox, perfect for making tracks from hearth to tree, and back again. (Also, fairly simple to clean up.)

Among us, the holidays carry different significance depending on our faith and background. But, almost universally, the holiday season is a short period we set aside, perhaps just relaxing and reflecting and spending time, whether quiet or raucous, with family and friends.

Hunting has been an important part of my life since I was a kid, and for more than 40 years, hunting has been part of my profession. I have few specific hunting memories that coincide with Christmas. It’s a time when, perhaps uncharacteristically, I have usually made peace with my world.

Like anyone who served as long as I did, I spent some Christmases (and other holidays) off with the Marines in some weird place, perhaps voluntarily, but not exactly by preference. Surprisingly, considering the depths of my addiction, I have never passed a Christmas day on an international hunt.

In part, this is because outfitters, too, take a Christmas break when possible. It’s also an accident of geography. I live in the Northern Hemisphere. Late December is dead of winter and peak of summer down south. The Christmas season is generally a poor time for hunting in the Southern Hemisphere, and after fall, so are hunting seasons in much of the northern half of the world.

Family and local traditions vary. We always did a Christmas brunch. Mom’s centerpiece was usually quail, wrapped in bacon and broiled. After the presents were opened, the house completely trashed, tummies full, Christmas afternoon is often a quiet time, perhaps to watch Jimmy Stewart’s It’s a Wonderful Life for the umpteenth time, perhaps to read a bit or spend a couple of peaceful hours at the reloading bench.

There have been exceptions. One Christmas Day, I had a rifle I was desperate to use and write about. Somehow, I cajoled August Harden into a pig hunt. It was dangerous only because these things often take longer than predicted. We got our pig, he made his Christmas dinner, and we’re still friends…but I do regret taking his time on that day.

But the days before — and just after — Christmas are fair game for hunting.

In the Kansas of my youth, we had no deer season until 1964, but upland seasons were long. Bobwhite and pheasant hunting got better when the mercury dropped, and cover was beaten down. I didn’t properly appreciate it then, but in eastern Kansas of the ’60s and ’70s we had world-class bird hunting. Quail loved the milo. Dirty hedgerows and brushy creek bottoms were sure to hold coveys.

“No Hunting” signs were uncommon. Posted or not, just a knock on the farmer’s door was usually all it took for permission. Who could refuse access to a red-headed kid with a gorgeous bird dog? For a too-short decade from the late ’60s, we had the sweetest, best-looking English setter God ever created: Sam the wonder dog. When I knocked on a farmer’s door, I took Sam with me. I think he understood the drill.

Dad grew up with Irish setters, in a time when hunting Irishmen weren’t uncommon. Our last red dog had promise, but we lost him too young. Dogless, I found Sam cowering, underfed and terrified, chained under the porch of a trailer just south of the Seven-Ten trap and skeet range where I spent so much of my misspent youth.

I took him to a nearby spot where I knew a covey should be. In minutes, he pointed and held. For $25, I bought a dog with the best nose, staunchest point and best disposition! He started in the kennel, but soon moved into the house and never moved out. Through the tail end of high school and my college years, Sam and I roamed widely across eastern Kansas. We had our own special spots, sometimes hunting alone, often with Dad, sometimes with trapshooting friends. Anyone with an exceptional bird dog has plenty places to hunt!  Forty years later, I keep a framed picture in my office. It’s Sam on his last hunt.

Sam wasn’t perfect. He’d “hunt dead,” but it bored him, as did retrieving. Only rarely would he bring a bird to hand. Usually, he’d drop and wag his tail, ready to move on. “Did my job, Boss. Let’s find more.”

But what a nose! If Sam said a bird was there, best believe him.

By the 1970s, pheasants moved into northeastern Kansas. I could tell by Sam’s quivering if he were pointing a huge covey of quail or a pheasant, with their stronger scent. Most daily bags included a near-limit of bobwhites, plus a couple of gaudy roosters. I didn’t appreciate what we had, nor did I know it was so perishable.

And I wish I’d taken more pictures back then! At what would be the tail end of this great bird hunting, I have a photo dated by a 1976 Kansas license plate on Dad’s station wagon. I was home on leave from the Marines. The day after Christmas, Dad and I went bird hunting with Sam, Dave Bledsoe, and his also-awesome English setter, Bowser.

Bledsoe was a champion Kansas shotgunner, friend, mentor and hero. At American trap, I’ve never seen anyone so fast. On bobwhites, good grief! Bledsoe put a trap stock on his Remington 1100 so he could aim low and reduce gun movement.

We often hunted a brushy creek bottom out of Seneca, Kansas. Full of birds, it went north into Nebraska, but we weren’t certain where the unmarked line fell. Once, just at the start, Dave stepped into a big covey, and I thought he had a machinegun. Sam and I helped him find his birds, five on a covey rise, an unimaginable feat.

Other than the photo dated by the license plate, I have no specific memories of that 1976 post-Christmas bird hunt. In the day, the bag wasn’t remarkable: About 20 bobwhites and a couple of roosters on the tailgate, a great day, typical of the time.

What is remarkable: That photograph, Christmas 1976, marked our last great Kansas quail hunt. In years to come, I’d get home less frequently. When I did, the birds just weren’t there anymore. Nobody knows exactly what happened, although theories are legion: Poor predator control, bad ice storms, a farming shift from milo to corn (which pheasants love but quail digest poorly) and loss of habitat. Next time we saw it, that brushy ditch at Seneca was bulldozed bare. Its perfect cover was gone…and so were the birds.

Of course, it didn’t happen overnight, but that hunt in ’76 was the last time I saw wild Kansas bobwhites like I grew up with and had come to expect. That was also the last great hunt with Sam.

In that Bicentennial year, Sam was starting to show some age, but he was seasoned and sure. Bird hunters are fortunate if they are allotted just one truly exceptional dog. Sadly, Canine life spans don’t coincide with ours. Sam had no papers, no known pedigree, no formal training, just raw talent. My favorite Christmas hunting memories are inextricably linked to that amazing dog.–Craig Boddington

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