As Donald J. Smith of Grand Rapids piloted his Pilatus PC-12 turboprop plane from Michigan to North Dakota, part of the intercom conversation with his co-pilot Tim Fox went like this:
“Let’s see,” said Smith. “With the pheasant we can shoot males and females, right?”
“No-no!” Fox corrected. “Just roosters. These are wild birds we’ll be hunting. You can’t shoot hens in the wild.”
Smith couldn’t be blamed for not knowing. Up to that point he had only hunted on game farms where both sexes are fair targets. Like any kid anxious to learn, he was brimming with questions.
The only difference is that by just about anybody’s standard, Smith is anything but a kid.
Over the past decade or so, the terms recruitment and retention have been used in the world of hunting to underscore the important of bringing new blood to the activities. Loads of social changes factor into this, but basically the fabric of family hunting traditions is wearing thin in America. Gotta’ actively recruit youngsters to participate in hunting. Got to do whatever we can to retain their interest.
Smith represents another sector of the population that can be encouraged to join the hunting fraternity: older neophytes who just hadn’t dipped their toes into the waters of available hunting activities. Their eyes-wide-open approaches and insights also offer a fresh look to long-timers, helping them to revisit links they had forged and lessons they had learned so long ago.
At age 53 and retired from an engineering career that was so successful that … well … that allowed him to retire while in his early 50s, Smith hadn’t just dipped his toes. He had dived into the deep end of the upland bird hunting pool. Smith’s first move when he decided to take the plunge was to purchase a Llewellin setter pup from Fox.
Fox is a dog trainer and the owner of C Fox Kennels in Kent City. Smith bought Ryder and turned his training over to Fox. By the end of the summer, Smith had seen the amazing progress Ryder had made in the training field and on some practice hunts, and he was excited about the possibilities of their first hunt together for wild pheasants. Fox has a fellow trainer/pal in North Dakota, and the trip quickly came into focus.
Serious, levelheaded, accomplished, clever – Smith is everything you’d expect of an engineer who has built and profited from his own companies and also flies his own planes. He has enough of a sense of fun to collect classic pinball machines and to laugh at himself. He’s also a serious student of things he’s involved in and was probably a bit more in tune with and intrigued by his hunting experience than a teenager would be on his first hunt.
For example, as Fox was cautioning him about the need to be as quiet as possible and to refrain from slamming truck doors when they would arrive at a hunting spot, Smith correctly deduced, “Because pheasants have good hearing?”
“Oh, yeah!” Fox responded. “Their ears are huge.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen that.”
“We’ll take a look once we get a bird in hand,” Fox told him while making a mental note to point out the sound gathering holes, almost as big around as a pencil, on the side of a pheasant’s head. Others in the group made sure the demonstration took place as soon as a couple birds had been collected.
Over the course of several days, Smith asked questions when he didn’t understand and applied what he was told about spacing himself when walking, the theory of being a blocker, pivoting on one hunter in a line of them, special gun safety concerns when hunting in a group or with dogs, and so on.
One morning, the temperature dipped to 12 degrees with stiff winds. Smith dressed accordingly. When the group broke for lunch after a two-hour hike along a twisting river bottom, one of the first things he said was, “I guess I didn’t need to wear all these layers.”
Little by little he was learning the secrets to a successful hunt; more and more he was becoming an experienced bird hunter.
Marty Monsma coincidentally also lives in Grand Rapids. Unlike Smith who had previously done a bit of waterfowling, Monsma had had no experience at all with hunting. As a child he sometimes angled for panfish with his grandfather, Rolph Carlisle, inventor of the brand of wooden fishing bobber that bears his name. More recently on a trip Out West he took a half-day fishing trip and a quick fly fishing lesson. That’s pretty much it.
“Not much history or experience in sporting pursuits,” he said.
He added, “I’m a 43-year-old guy and have kind of picked my trajectory or my mode of recreation. It’s more of a mountain-related, skiing, backpacking, climbing package,” or “the non-motorized wilderness sport thing,” as he calls it.
“That’s the driving aesthetic. Like if I’m buying art prints for the house or clothes for myself, or if I’m riffing on a look, it would be a little more fleece and a little less Filson.”
So, unlike Smith, he was just testing the waters.
Monsma divulged all this while on the road down to WingHaven Lodge in Providence, Kentucky, where he would participate in his first quail hunt.
He explained why, with no family history or experience in hunting and with outdoor interests lying in other directions, he wanted to try bird hunting.
“Partly it was just opportunity, marrying a wife who came with an uncle who knew about such things. All of a sudden I was connected. So that was part of it.”
(Total disclosure: I am the uncle.)
“And I guess to some degree there’s some sort of aesthetic to it, too. The equipment interests me, and I find that true of a lot of things I enjoy doing, whether that’s mountain climbing, rock climbing, skiing, backpacking. The equipment kind of makes you want to get your hands on it. Just the tools. Which is probably why I became a carpenter. You see a cool tool and want to learn how to use it right.
“The third thing is a seasonal bulletin board decoration in fifth grade. Our teacher had a picture of a father and son with an Irish setter. Shotguns on one knee with fall foliage behind them. I always liked that photo. It piqued my interest, so that when I had the opportunity I was ready to try it.”
He was prepared to learn what he thought were “a number of components” required of bird hunters. “I think you have to be a good three-dimensional shooter as opposed to a two-dimensional rifle shot.” He also mentions the need to have both dog handling and “general woodsman” skill sets.
“There’s a knowledge of the birds. Where to find them. When. And what they look like, and fairly fast. Because I imagine that when you are hunting for quail or grouse, something else might fly up, and you have to make sure you’re not so amped up that you shoot the wrong thing.
“I guess I’m looking forward to seeing how I assimilate into all of that.”
Though as a former U.S. Marine he was familiar with firearms, Monsma otherwise saw himself as a blank slate in the world of bird hunting.
“I don’t think I know enough to know what I need to know. I guess I have a question about other people in the area. How close we would be to other parties. How situationally aware I have to be about other parties or can I just be focused in on the bird I want to shoot. If I have to be aware of other parties, hunters, dogs, houses, roads, power lines and if so, how much that will affect my ability to hit the birds when I shoot. Kind of a safety issue.”
Russell Edwards, owner of WingHaven, knew what Monsma’s concerns were and what he needed to learn. Soon after Monsma arrived, Edwards assigned WingHaven’s resident dog trainer Bobby Eddings to give him an introduction to the birds, the dogs, and the style of shooting he would be experiencing there.
Monsma’s biggest surprise came from watching the dogs work.
“I thought when the dogs went on point, that sort of was the flush. That the dogs scared up the birds. Or that the dogs pointed and the birds flew up on their own. I didn’t know you had to walk forward” to flush the birds.
“Also I was pleasantly surprised that I actually hit some of these birds. Last time I shot a shotgun, out of a box of 25 shells, I think I hit one clay target. I went in with low expectations of myself as a shotgun shooter.”
Monsma found himself confronted by another aspect of the experience we all have to make peace with: Hunting is a consumptive activity; one cannot unshoot a bird.
“One of the questions going on in my head was the question of willfully taking a life. I’ve never done that before. Aside from fishing for sunfish and setting mousetraps. I was concerned about how I would feel about the idea of taking a life.
“I’m not feeling much one way or the other. But toward the end of the hunt, I felt I needed to stop hunting and absorb the experience. Needed to process what I had done and just sort of how I felt about it.
“It’s interesting because I asked Bobby, ‘These are pen-raised birds. The ones that get away what happens? Do they become wild birds and procreate?’ His answer was no, they are usually dead by the end of the day. Bobcats get them. Coyotes. And so the twofold take-home for me is one, getting shot by a shotgun and getting grabbed by a dog is probably not as bad as getting bobcatted.
“Second, they’re like chickens raised on a farm except that you shoot them yourself instead of getting them at a store.”
The next day, Monsma hunted with Edwards, his dogs, and me. On the drive home he analyzed the experience.
“I thought it might be significantly more difficult with more people hunting and kind of less controlled circumstances. But it wasn’t really too much harder.”
On being a new hunter but not a young one, he offered, “Well, I think coming at an entirely new activity when you’re older forces you to be willing to eat humble pie, make a lot of mistakes, go back to being an absolute beginner. I think at some point in growing older we don’t want to take that risk. And you have to take the risks to look stupid and make mistakes because you will because it’s something you’re new at.”
The experience at WingHaven made Monsma a convert – within limits. He didn’t contact Fox to get on the waiting list for a puppy. As a small business owner he hasn’t much free time. He has even less, considering he also came to the marriage game at a seasoned age, and he and his wife Elizabeth currently juggle careers and two children under the age of four. Plus there are the mountains and the ski hills that he’s drawn to. But he hasn’t completely eliminated bird hunting from the table of possibilities.
And why should he? Tyro or not, he carries the memories of an old pro:
“I had a really good morning. It was sunny. The fall foliage was beautiful. It was good to be out in the fields with a bunch of guys. The dogs running around doing what they love to do.
“I had hoped for that.”