October 02, 2015
It happened on a Sunday afternoon nearly 45 years ago. I was a freshman in high school, and we lived in Des Plaines, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago — not exactly the most auspicious place for a teenager who was really into the outdoors.
Nevertheless, I managed to locate an area where I could get away from city traffic and take my two border collie mixes to chase rabbits€¦and if I was feeling especially daring, I'd sneak my BB pistol along, tucked into the waistband of my jeans under my sweatshirt, to plink at cans, bottles and maybe the occasional field sparrow or redwing blackbird. I'd have been busted, big time, if the cops had ever seen me — remember, this was in the middle of a Chicago suburb — but luckily, none ever did.
The area was about 10 or 12 blocks from our house and everyone in the neighborhood called it "the train yard" because the Chicago Northwestern commuter trains were parked there overnight after they completed their daily runs to and from the city. The rail yard was surrounded by maybe 20 or 30 acres of weedy fields and a few patches of woods.
My dogs and I spent hours out there, rambling around after school and on the weekends. They loved to chase rabbits, but they were both reliable about coming when called, so I never had to worry about them getting into trouble on any of the train tracks that laced the area.
One Sunday afternoon in early spring we were out there after lunch, making our way through one of the fields toward a stand of willow trees in a swampy area at the far end. The older of my two dogs, Lassie (talk about an original name for a dog with collie blood) started yipping excitedly. She'd do this occasionally if she was on an especially hot rabbit trail, but there was something even sharper about her pitch this time and I hurried to keep up with her.
We had only gone a few more yards when a rooster pheasant came up cackling in front of Lassie. Glorious€¦magnificent€¦to this day those words hardly seem adequate to describe that bird, outlined so vividly against the clear, blue sky.
I'd seen pheasants before, of course, but this was the first one I'd ever flushed, and I stood rooted in my tracks, watching as it leveled off and soared out across the field to come down at the far end. The only way I can describe the experience, corny or cliché though it may sound, is to say that it touched my soul. At that moment, a bird hunter was born.
My dad was a lifelong rabbit and squirrel hunter and I'd gone out with him quite a few times and shot my own share of small game. But this€¦this was something entirely different.
After a minute or so I recovered enough to call the dogs in and start for home. I knew — knew — that something extraordinary had just happened. Finding a pheasant in the middle of a Chicago suburb (I would subsequently discover there was a small flock of them living in those fields surrounding the train yard) was remarkable enough, but this went beyond that.
I wanted more of what I'd just experienced, and even as I walked the dogs home that afternoon I was already forming a game plan. I was going to become a bird hunter, and I was going to need a bird dog to accompany me afield.
Thus began a year-long campaign to convince my parents to let me add a third dog to our household. Like many Baby Boomers I'd grown up reading Jim Kjelgaard's "Big Red" stories and I quickly settled on an Irish setter as the type of dog I wanted. I read everything I could find about the breed, plus every book on gun dog training I could lay my hands on. At a time when most of my buddies were focused on buying their first car, I was concentrating on getting my first bird dog.
After a year, my folks gave me the go-ahead. I found an ad in the Chicago Tribune for a one-year-old male Irish setter named Shannon, and he was soon accompanying me on my excursions to the train yard, where we began exercising the resident pheasants on a regular basis.
It was another year or so before I killed my first pheasant, but the one that still stands out most vividly in my mind is the rooster that flushed that Sunday afternoon and marked me for life as a bird hunter. At this writing, I've been the editor of Gun Dog magazine for more than 16 years; and Mattie, my current Irish setter, is my seventh.