For about 560,000 Minnesotans, fall means reconnecting with rich hunting traditions that lure them outdoors into woods, fields and sloughs.

For some of the other 5 million Minnesotans who don’t hunt, it’s likely all a mystery. They may assume the goal is simply procuring wild game.

But for many hunters, me included, heading afield means much more than just bagging a pheasant, duck or ruffed grouse.

There’s the camaraderie of hunting camps; the renewal of friendships; the bonding with hunting dogs.

Hunting provides a window to the outdoors, and experiences that we likely wouldn’t have if not lured outside by the hunt. Some of my most memorable moments had nothing to do with pulling the trigger.

Late last fall, just as my Labrador retriever and I started hiking across a field of prairie grasses searching for pheasants, we stopped in our tracks. Above us, endless skeins of mallards, snow geese, Canada geese and other waterfowl filled the sky, heading south with urgency and a cacophony of quacks and honks.

So thick were the clouds of birds that even the dog stopped and looked skyward in wonderment at the commotion. I stood in awe for several minutes, witnessing an annual event that has been occurring for eons.

It was a powerful moment.

Then there was the time one spring in the Black Hills of South Dakota when two friends and I were scouting for wild turkeys the day before our hunt was to begin.

Dressed in camouflage clothes and armed only with binoculars, we hiked through woods near the edge of a 50-foot cliff overlooking a picturesque little canyon. We heard several hen turkeys clucking in the woods just ahead.

One friend ducked behind a tree, but my other hunting partner and I had no time, so we just knelt and froze motionless.

Soon a line of 15 turkeys strolled cautiously out of the woods 15 yards from us. They clucked nervously and glanced at us, seemingly thinking something was amiss, yet they kept walking just yards away.

Never in all my years of turkey hunting have I been so close to that many wild turkeys.

As they pecked at the grass, they moved from the woods on our left to the edge of the cliff on our right. To our amazement, one after another they jumped right off, flying down to the valley below. It was the highlight of our trip.

And there was this during another spring turkey season: I was sitting against a tree when a bald eagle swooped from out of nowhere and hit the top of my plastic turkey decoy while trying to snare a real hen turkey that had strolled nearby.

Almost every time I duck hunt, I think back to the day in the northern Minnesota slough when it rained so hard my dog tipped her head up and lapped at the water flowing off my rain gear.

I don’t recall how the hunting was that day, or whether I even pulled the trigger. But I’ll never forget that moment.

Then there was the time in a Saskatchewan slough when a friend and I suddenly were in the center of a tornado of mallards, hundreds of them. Their wings whistling as they carved circles through the air.

We were so mesmerized we never fired our guns.

My hunting buddies and I often recount these wondrous moments afield. The stories of remarkable encounters or special moments almost always take precedence over the tales of bagging the big tom turkey or making an amazing shot on a fleeing pheasant or big greenhead.

Yes, we do recall great shots and wonderful dogs making wondrous retrieves. And we talk of the days when birds were especially plentiful and flushes frequent.

But more often we reminisce about the things we experienced during a hunt. Sometimes little things.

Like the time we hunted pheasants in a frosty blizzard where one buddy’s face was nipped with frostbite.

Or the time I got sprayed in the legs by a skunk while hunting in thick cattails. Afterward, clad only in boxer shorts and boots, I met up with my friends, who found great amusement in my predicament.

Now we’re in the middle of another hunting season. Some great shots — and some awful misses — have been recorded. More will come.

But I already have a favorite memory from our annual trek for South Dakota ringnecks:

Sitting on the tailgate of the pickup on sunny and blissful October afternoon, looking out over the expansive prairie, eating a sandwich with longtime friends and reliving the morning hunt.

How many pheasants did we get that day?

I don’t remember.

Doug Smith is a retired Star Tribune outdoors writer. He’s at