My seven year-old nephew, Nicholas St.Pierre, has already won two fishing tournaments. He can identify the species of fish tugging at the end of his line in mere moments after a strike. This spring, he landed a 36-inch musky on six pound test line. Though I'm his biased uncle, I think it's pretty obvious he's something of a fishing prodigy. His dad, my brother Matt, always loved fishing. While I enjoy fishing, hunting has always been my passion of the two.
Consequently, when Nicholas requested his first pheasant hunting experience, I was thrilled to be able to escort them on the adventure. My wife Meredith also came along as chief camera operator.
To be honest, I was a bit hesitant to take a seven year-old into the thick grasses of a Minnesota pheasant hunt. Turns out, I learned a lot from one day afield with a seven year-old.
1) An excited seven year-old can walk all day through tough, tall grass if he's having fun.
2) Let me repeat, a seven year-old has more endurance than you or I, and can weave his way through cattails with the ease of a cottontail rabbit.
3) Any child under 10 looks adorable in a Stormy Kromer.
4) Excited youngsters make excellent pheasant Sherpas.
5) Dogs may be the key to new hunter recruitment. Nicholas was absolutely captivated by my shorthair's efforts to find, point, and retrieve pheasants. In fact, Nick's top item on this year's Christmas list is a living, breathing dog of his own.
6) Even a seven year-old feels okay about ripping his uncle after a missed a shot.
This season, I've hunted the islands of the Missouri River in Montana, crested the canyons of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands, flushed grouse on the shores of Lake Michigan, and watched the North Dakota skies fill with waterfowl at sunrise. However, the most memorable day afield for 2009 will likely be the Saturday after Thanksgiving spent with my nephew Nick, my brother Matt, and my wife Meredith as we bagged one trophy rooster and shared the stories of a successful hunt over a Padua Pub cheeseburger and tater tots.
On May 11, 1998, I was preparing for that evening's Saint Paul Saints game as the ball club's Director of Corporate Sales, Advertising&Marketing. Like any afternoon prior to a home ball game, the phone lines were off the hook, there was a stressful list of tasks to complete before the stadium gates were ready to open, and chaotic energy filled the air. My world stopped that day when a phone call brought me back to my desk and my mom's voice broke through sobs, "Bobby you have to come home right away." It was the phone call we all fear.
Without warning, my dad had suffered a brain bleed caused by an aneurysm which was followed by a series of strokes. The doctors had to figure out how to keep blood circulating in his brain and how to stop the strokes without blowing out the aneurysm which would kill him. At that moment, there was a priest at his hospital bed ready to give last rites. My mom told me he was not expected to make it through the night and I needed to find my way home to Michigan as soon as possible. In tears, we hung up the phone so she could make the same dreaded call to my younger brother Matt who was finishing his Ph.D. at Iowa and preparing for his wedding in two weeks.
My brother and I made it to my dad's hospital bed to see him on life support that night as we sank together with my mom into a hug of tears. For 10 days, the three of us prayed my dad back to health. Miraculously, dad achieved a complete recovery from the aneurysm, the stroke, and even a morphine-induced "get away" from the nurses/drug dealers that were out to "assassinate" him. To this day, he has absolutely ZERO side effects from this experience except the regret of being too sick to attend my brother's wedding.
So, what does all this have to do with grouse hunting?
As I sat in that hospital room for 10 days, I reminisced about my dad - winning Escanaba's Senior Little League championship with dad as coach, mom as scorekeeper, Matt on the mound, and me at shortstop; my netting of the family record musky on dad's last cast of the evening during our annual summer camping trip; and most importantly, I reminisced of walking the multi-colored grouse woods together each autumn.
Like most kids, I went through my own rebellious periods. But, it was ruffed grouse hunting with my dad as a high schooler where we really connected and I began to see things through his eyes. Sitting next to that hospital bed, I thought about all the things that I'd miss out on with my dad if he were to die - my wedding, having kids, and grouse hunting.
So this Wednesday night after work, Meredith, Trammell (our pup), and I will make the 8 hour trip home to Escanaba. It's grouse season again and I'm going hunting with dad. I haven't missed a Michigan grouse opener weekend in a while . . . and don't plan on missing one any time soon.
On December 22, 1982 - my 9th birthday - my parents bucked a trend that would ultimately shape who I'd become as an individual. The trend they bucked? My dad gave up his good paying city job outside of Detroit to move our family into the rural woods of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. I became a "Yooper." From that point forward, my life included ruffed grouse, a Brittany named "Tinker," musky fishing, canoeing, and camping. Growing up in the country was the greatest birthday gift I would ever receive.
Unfortunately, the opposite decision - to move to the city - is the norm for most families in today's society. In my opinion, this is the singular catalyst that has set a domino of other trends in motion; all leading to one disturbing truth that's got me and everyone else passionate about hunting and fishing shaking in our Danner boots - kids today don't spend time in the outdoors like we used to when we were youngsters.
Now, don't take this as a condemnation of city life. I fully recognize the cultural, economic, and societal advantages associated with living in an urban area. However, the city life has made getting outdoors complicated. My generation's dangerous Red Ryder BB gun is no match for the dangers lurking in America's alley today. Our children's safety and the fear associated with their protection have made organized, sanctioned activities, team sports, dance lessons, and video games a safe alternative to 24-hour surveillance. Again, don't take this as a condemnation of baseball, hockey, football, or dance. I cherish my own Little League memories and have been known to even kill a few mutant aliens with a joystick from time to time.
The point is today's youngsters don't get home from school, grab a fishing pole and head to the river like I did just two decades ago. "Big deal," you may retort. You may even point a finger and call me a "latch key kid;" yes that dreaded stereotype from the '80s. Well, it's those "latch key" trips to the river or through the grouse woods where I learned about nature, the land, myself, and life. I found snapping turtles laying eggs, uncovered salamanders, caught smallmouth bass on orange jointed Rapalas, and bagged flushing ruffed grouse with my Ithaca Model 37. It was a utopian environment for any kid to grow up within. A utopia that's difficult to find out the door of most youngsters' homes today.
I don't have the answer to reversing this trend and I'm not sure that anyone does. But, I do believe the trend does need to be reversed. I'll leave you with one final thought - "If those of us who care about wildlife and our hunting traditions don't take the initiative to pass down our passion for the outdoors, then who will?"
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