My first hunt was a fraud. Eight years old and accompanied by my father, uncle, and cousin, I was prepared to take on these unseen creatures that they called pheasants. I was armed with the smallest side-by-side shotgun that I have ever seen to this day. Along with that shotgun came a box of shiny, blue-plastic, metal-capped shells. Exploding with a zeal only found in children, I loaded that shotgun: one blue shell for the right, one blue shell for the left. What I didn’t know was that the shells were blanks. My father told me this secret years after the fact, but his admission to the trickery doesn’t diminish the memory of that hunt at all.
Simply put, it is the hunt that draws me, not the catch. It is impossible to deny the good feeling that comes from walking off the field with the solid weight of the gamebirds pulling on the pouch of my jacket, but when I first step out of the car in the morning, my breath is stolen not by anticipation of that final moment: It is stolen by the natural grandeur that surrounds me. It is stolen by the infinite depths of the cornfields; by the brisk morning air so fresh it hurts; by the distant cackle of a cock pheasant searching for a meal; by the yelps and barks of the dogs as they leap and roll all around us. But this is just the start.
Not only do I revere that stark, American vista, but I cherish the competition with an opponent who bests me as often as the opposite occurs–and opponent is the correct word, not prey. I have been much humbled too many times by the birds to call them prey.
Since that first hunt, I have walked down countless rows of corn. There have been entire fields devoid of birds and single rows so filled as to have been enough to feed my family for a month–had I the aim. There have been cold winds and snow, and blazing suns and air as still and heavy as rock. There have been times when returning home was an honor, when bursting bags could be held aloft and future meals anticipated with a salivating mouth. And there have been times when entering unnoticed would have been a pleasure: when hands and shell boxes have been equally empty.
But regardless of the ups and downs, regardless of those long empty days which end with little to show, I have never regretted the passion for the hunt that first day instilled in me. Even when visiting the little farm my father grew up on, a farm that will soon be swallowed by the ever growing suburbs, I feel a tingle. When I see the sunlight dancing down the field, I feel my heart beat. My breath catches every time I see a pheasant spread its wings and soar, a glint of green glancing off its majestic head.
The call to return to the field is sounded loudest by the birds who remain to fly today, by dogs still yelping and prancing, by clear autumn mornings. The hunt attaches its ties deep in the heart, and I am anxiously looking forward to my next time out.
Nathaniel Sokol is 17 and lives in Orland Park, Illinois.