Young Writers Contest Winners

Read this year's winning essays. PLUS: exclusively on fieldandstream.com, the two runners-up

Field & Stream Online Editors

Dances with Dogs
First Place, Ages 19¿¿¿22
George Elder, 20
Valley Center, Kansas

He looks different in the framed photograph that sits on a shelf in the kitchen. There are boyish qualities in the smooth face and thick red hair, but it's definitely Dad. Rocky, Dad's old setter, is standing on his hind legs with his front paws in Dad's hands, almost like they are dancing. Both seem happy, not with the number of quail at their feet, but with the moment's significance. The night before my first hunt, when I was just 10 years old, I looked back and forth between the picture and my dad, across the dinner table. Dad's cheeks had become rough like sandpaper, and his hair was tinged with gray. Rocky had since retired from hunting, and Dad had a new dog. As I went to bed that night, I remember wishing that I would feel what Dad felt the day that photo was taken.

The next morning, we left before sunup. My two older brothers and I breathed on the windows and wrote our names in the condensation while Dad talked to us about the day ahead. The hand-me-downs we wore had been hanging in the closet for years, and they were still too big. Dad had on the same checked shirt he is wearing in the photo.

We got out of the truck in a farmyard behind a modest house and a red silo. A wiry man in a chore coat came out to greet us.

"I'm glad you boys got your Dad back here," Mr. Koehn said in a pleasant voice. We smiled in the cold. Dad and Mr. Koehn had worked together on this farm before we were born and Dad moved to town to work in the factory. "You ought to find some coveys in the back pasture, or by the swimming hole," he told us. After gobbling down a few giant cinnamon rolls, we headed out.

At first, everything was unfamiliar and exciting. My brothers and I marched behind Dad and his pointer, Dee, with unshakable faith that they would lead us to birds. Dad walked with a slight limp from an old football injury, so it wasn't hard to keep up. But after three hours of trudging through an endless succession of fields lined with brown hedges, we lost all hope and started dragging our feet.

"Don't worry, boys," Dad said. "We'll find them." I stared at him like the Israelites must have looked at Moses when he assured them that the Red Sea would part before their eyes. Dad kept walking.

Minutes later, as I ambled after him, wallowing in boredom, I caught sight of 10 small birds trotting in a line like so many fat women doing a ballet step with their skirts raised high. Dad whispered, "Quail!"

"Where?" I said.

"Running across the road."

"Those are quail?"

"Get ready," Dad said. Then, like popcorn shooting out of a pot, they began to fly. Whiz, whir, sputter. They were everywhere. I raised my gun, and as birds flew directly away from me, I fired. The report of Dad's gun echoed my own. A bird crumpled. Small wispy feathers hung in the air, and it was suddenly quiet again. I looked up at Dad. He was smiling. "Good shot," he said. For a moment, I saw beyond the silver hair, the weathered cheeks, and the wobbling knees; I saw the young man from the picture and I knew why he looked the way he did. I felt it in my stomach.

Ten years have passed since then. I look back on that day and wonder how Dad could have enjoyed it. His knee hurt and we complained too much, but when he tells the story of my first quail, it's obvious that he cherishes the day as much as I do. Dad doesn't shoot many birds these days, but he still goes hunting with my younger brothers, Walter and James. Each time he comes home with one of the boys dangling a quail as proudly as I did long ago, I am reminded: Although Dad may not be a great hunter, he has always understood what hunting is about. Sometimes, it can make you want to dance. [NEXT "First Place, Ages 13-18: Uncle Buck, by Jeremy Kidd"]

Uncle Buck First Place, Ages 1¿¿18
Jeremy Kidd, 17
Centerville, Indiana

You can have all the heart and guts in the world, and it won't matter. To become a real sportsman, you need another sportsman

For me, it all started with a Daisy BB gun that I bought from Wal-Mart with a gift certificate I won in the fifth grade. I covered the brown stock with camouflage tape (which seemed like a pretty good idea at the time). Every Saturday, after waking up early to watch the morning hunting shows, I'd suit up, grab my air rifle, and head out to the "woods" behind my house--a strip of trees about 2 feet long and 4 feet wide within yelling distance of the back door. I never saw a deer, or any other wildlife except sparrows, but it was still exciting. I just wanted to hunt.

Without a single hunter in my family, going on a real hunt with a real gun in real woods seemed like an impossibility. But then, after a disappointing summer spent trying to turn my mom's rat terrier into a rabbit dog, I met my best friend, Abram, in the sixth grade. Abe was always talking about hunting with his grandpa and uncles. All I could think was How lucky. One morning after I had slept at Abe's house, his Uncle Aaron came to pick him up to go hunting. Aaron must have seen the look in my eye because he asked me if I had a gun. I thought of ol' Daisy but said no. He told me that I could come along if I wanted, though I'd have to just sit in the blind. That was fine with me.

My first hunt was eye-opening. I realized that I didn't know much about the sport I loved. I never knew, for example, that I had to hide my scent, or sit extremely still--and those are just the basics. But I was counting on Aaron to teach me.

My birthday that November was a little different from past birthdays. Rather than Nintendo games and Hot Wheels, I asked for a Scent-Lok outfit (like the one Aaron had) and deer calls. I hunted with Aaron all season without a bow or gun. I was learning the tricks of whitetail hunting, and by the end of the season, I knew as much as a 12-year-old could know about deer. Aaron had schooled me on scrapes, the rut, wind direction, feeding times, and food plots.

That summer, Aaron managed to convince my dad that I was old enough and ready for my own 12-gauge shotgun. He also helped me negotiate a good deal on his buddy's old bow. I shot the gun and bow every day for weeks until--after a couple of shoulder bruises--I could handle both with confidence.

As summer crept into fall, I came down with a bad case of buck fever. A few days before the season opener, Aaron pulled up to my house in his truck and called me over. His tree stand was in the back. He told me that he had bought a new one, and this one was mine now. It was then that I realized just how lucky I was. I wondered why he was so good to me, why he even went through the trouble. So I asked him. He laughed and said, "Why do you think? I get half the meat if you get a deer." Then he turned serious. "I think every kid should hunt," he told me. "It's fun and it can teach you a lot, even lessons that apply out of the woods." Aaron wasn't only the best hunter I knew but also the best guy I had ever met.

I am 17 now and have taken eight deer--one of them a 12-point buck that Aaron saw me harvest. Aaron, Abe, and I still go hunting together every year in eastern Indiana. I've been showing my little brother and two 12-year-old cousins a few things I learned from Aaron. I hope to do for them what he did for me. I agree with what he said the day he dropped off his tree stand: Every kid should be lucky enough to hunt. I want to thank Aaron, along with all the people who are keeping this great sport alive. I plan to be among them. [NEXT "Runner Up, Ages 19-22: Siblings in the Family Tree, by Emily Courtney"]

Siblings in the Family Tree
Runner-up, Ages 19-22
Emily Courtney, 19
Clinton, Mississippi

My brother, Matt, is responsible for my addiction to hunting. He introduced me to the sport and taught me everything I know about it. He also imparted what it means to be a responsible hunter, and in the process, he changed my life. Matt didn't just give me a hobby. He gave me something to believe in.

I remember the first time I asked Matt if I could tag along with him in the field. I was 13, struggling through junior high school and trying to figure out who I wanted to be. He was 17, about to begin his senior year of high school and his life as an adult. Nonetheless, he quickly agreed, as if he had been waiting for me to ask. It didn't occur to me at the time, but as I grew older, I began to realize how extraordinary it was that a teenaged boy with plenty of friends and plenty of other things to do would take his little sister hunting. I suppose, however, that the most extraordinary thing was that he didn't simply take me hunting; he showed me how to hunt.

The day that I asked to tag along, Matt went straight to his room and returned with his deer rifle, a Browning .270, which he had received as a gift from our grandfather. He dove into a detailed explanation of how the gun works and informed me that we would borrow a smaller-caliber rifle and that I would practice shooting it until he was satisfied with my accuracy. Then, and only then, would he allow me to take a gun into the field. With Matt's coaching, it wasn't long before I earned his approval.

The shooting lessons were just the beginning. Matt took me scouting so that I could see what deer tracks look like. He demonstrated how to walk quietly on the dead leaves that cover the forest floor in autumn. He taught me how to climb into all different types of tree stands, and how important it is to wear a safety harness. He showed me how to tie a secure knot around my gun or bow to pull it up to the stand. My first year afield, we often sat in the stand together, and he would point out deer behaviors and explain why the animals acted the way they did.

Matt was in the stand with me when I shot my first deer--a 4-point buck--and the things he said in the moments that followed helped me to fully grasp the significance of what I had done. He told me that it's okay to be proud of something that I worked hard to achieve. But he also reminded me that I would have to hunt twice as hard to kill a trophy buck. Matt's words taught me a new degree of humility. I felt grateful for the opportunity to hunt. And as I hiked out of the woods with my brother, I understood that family is the greatest blessing of all.

Matt recently returned from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he was deployed as a National Guardsman to help with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. During his six years of service with the National Guard, Matt has been away from home on deployments for a total of two years. I always miss myrother, Matt, is responsible for my addiction to hunting. He introduced me to the sport and taught me everything I know about it. He also imparted what it means to be a responsible hunter, and in the process, he changed my life. Matt didn't just give me a hobby. He gave me something to believe in.

I remember the first time I asked Matt if I could tag along with him in the field. I was 13, struggling through junior high school and trying to figure out who I wanted to be. He was 17, about to begin his senior year of high school and his life as an adult. Nonetheless, he quickly agreed, as if he had been waiting for me to ask. It didn't occur to me at the time, but as I grew older, I began to realize how extraordinary it was that a teenaged boy with plenty of friends and plenty of other things to do would take his little sister hunting. I suppose, however, that the most extraordinary thing was that he didn't simply take me hunting; he showed me how to hunt.

The day that I asked to tag along, Matt went straight to his room and returned with his deer rifle, a Browning .270, which he had received as a gift from our grandfather. He dove into a detailed explanation of how the gun works and informed me that we would borrow a smaller-caliber rifle and that I would practice shooting it until he was satisfied with my accuracy. Then, and only then, would he allow me to take a gun into the field. With Matt's coaching, it wasn't long before I earned his approval.

The shooting lessons were just the beginning. Matt took me scouting so that I could see what deer tracks look like. He demonstrated how to walk quietly on the dead leaves that cover the forest floor in autumn. He taught me how to climb into all different types of tree stands, and how important it is to wear a safety harness. He showed me how to tie a secure knot around my gun or bow to pull it up to the stand. My first year afield, we often sat in the stand together, and he would point out deer behaviors and explain why the animals acted the way they did.

Matt was in the stand with me when I shot my first deer--a 4-point buck--and the things he said in the moments that followed helped me to fully grasp the significance of what I had done. He told me that it's okay to be proud of something that I worked hard to achieve. But he also reminded me that I would have to hunt twice as hard to kill a trophy buck. Matt's words taught me a new degree of humility. I felt grateful for the opportunity to hunt. And as I hiked out of the woods with my brother, I understood that family is the greatest blessing of all.

Matt recently returned from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where he was deployed as a National Guardsman to help with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. During his six years of service with the National Guard, Matt has been away from home on deployments for a total of two years. I always miss my