feature By: Randy Lawrence | November, 19
In Ohio in the late ’50s, “pheasant season” was one-half day long for George Hamilton — Thanksgiving morning on his sister’s farm.
While wives hauled covered dishes and roasters into the farmhouse, their men gathered in the barnyard. All of them, brothers and brothers-in-law, farmed on the thinnest of margins. Most, like George, worked a town job on the side to stay on the land.
Laughter huffed in the cold like smoke signals. Worn shotguns were lifted from the trunks of cars, shot shells stuffed into patched coveralls. Any kid sporting a shiny single barrel gun and stiff canvas hunting vest from a Christmas past had to endure the same tired wager from his elders.
“You carry what I shoot; I’ll carry yours!”
There were never many pheasants. The best bet was an overgrown machinery graveyard with picked cornfields on two sides, a five-acre plot bristling with junked appliances, old mowing machines, a broken combine header, a rusted tractor two generations out of use.
In the best years, a rooster, maybe two, would lift on the farthest edge, drawing Hail Mary fire before sailing out of bounds into the neighbors’ standing crops. The hens held tight, scuttling out two and three at a time when George sent the farm dogs into the cover, the skirmish line of hunters moving slowly as men kicked junk heaps in hopes at starting a rabbit or maybe even flushing a jackpot rooster, young and dumb, who thought he might cackle out the back door after the dogs and men passed.
For George Hamilton, that was pheasant hunting … until a friend at the electrical supply house where George had finally gone to full-time began raving about visits “Out West” to relatives in South Dakota. The friend passed around Kodak hero shots of pheasants piled on pickup hoods or hung in rows from strands of woven wire fences. He asked if George and two other fellows at their lunch break table might like to go along next season.
November found George and his three buddies standing in a small-town South Dakota used car lot, pooling money for a beater car. Their host explained that without a car, “Pheasant huntin’s just too much walking.”
For the next several years, George’s party started their annual South Dakota hunting trips buying what they called a “Rooster Buggy,” cross-country transportation to drop off standers at the end of a field before circling back around to begin a drive meant to push birds over the posted guns. At the end of their stay, the Ohioans would gift that rattletrap to their hosts as a bonus for room, board and, most precious of all, access to hunting land.
George Hamilton would never confirm or deny that some of those ringnecks lifting in waves ahead of the drive line were potted from sports perched on the generous fenders of vehicles lurching across fields of cut corn, but how his eyes did shine whenever he described what was one of the great adventures in his life — the camaraderie of the drives, the good times around farmhouse tables covered with homegrown, homecooked food, the marvel of real bird dogs that knew their business and pheasants in numbers that no Ohio farm boy could have ever imagined.
Twenty years later, the husband and wife tandem of Gary and Nancy Johnson would drive over from Minnesota looking for pheasant hunts of an entirely different sort. They lacked George Hamilton’s connections, and that was fine. They weren’t at all interested in big party drives or guided hunts. Armed with plat books and a willingness to knock on doors, the Johnsons stayed off the beaten path, looking for chances to hunt together their own way with their own dogs on wild pheasants they could rustle up on the fringe.
They were able to get on land that others couldn’t, in large part because of their innate courtesy, but also because they headquartered away from the more popular “big number” areas. Besides, there was the curiosity of a handsome, affable husband and former beauty queen/wife hunting partnership, a departure from the usual gang of hunters wheeling into farmyards, looking for a spot to post and drive.
The Johnsons are meticulous diarists, and they’ve made a science out of gaining access to private land. Looking through their journals, plat book notes and handmade maps, they can count more than 400 farmhouse doors they’ve approached in their ramblings, not only in South Dakota but also in Kansas and Iowa as well.
“In all, we’ve gained permission from 188 different farmers,” they wrote earlier this year. “We probably knocked on right around another 100 doors who opened to a ‘no’ and that number again where there was no answer.”
Those 188 farmers have offered up 500 sections of farmland over the Johnsons’ 48 years of bird contacts that would be the envy of virtually anyone. But every door that opened at their knock — and many that stayed closed — also offered a stark glimpse into a way of life beyond pheasant hunting that was rapidly changing forever and offered far more than just game dinners and memorable dog work.
For the Johnsons, that has made all the difference — their genuine interest in landowners’ lives and livelihood. They do their homework, poring over plat books until they have a clear idea of holdings before they ever stop to ask. They take care to learn names; listen more than they talk; are informed about issues affecting land prices, crop markets, weather impact.
When they are invited inside, they doff their boots.
They are not in a hurry, particularly with older folks who seem eager for company. Relationships grow around a conversation about a vintage photo of a homesteader in a bowler hat standing in front of his sod hut. Talk sprouts from tales of a new bride’s savings that went toward buying the farm’s first blooded bull.
A widower who’s politely asked if he shouldn’t think about taking in a hose stretched over the frosty backyard says that he can’t yet because he needs every drop of water to keep alive the tree planted in his wife’s memory.
Weeks later, the gentleman will receive in the mail a gift of gloves from Minnesota, meant to help with the cold task of taking in a frozen hose.
Thank-you notes and exchanges of phone calls and letters, a holiday box of fancy mixed nuts left after a hunt, new snow shoveled from a sidewalk, an emergency run to town for tractor parts — all turn names on a plat book into two visitors’ better understanding of people rooted in the land.
Visits to a shut-in farm owner who has moved to town become highlights of every trip, the gracious lady delighted to hear about the dogs and hunts on the land she and her husband loved and farmed for so very long. The Johnsons return, bringing a framed photo of the homestead along with some of Nancy’s homemade baked goods and jars of Minnesota honey and preserves.
The Johnsons’ diary recalls other times when encounters with landowners have gone unbelievably right.
At the mailbox, a grandpa leans on Gary’s truck door and insists, “Despite what the kids might say, it is OK to hunt.”
Another farmer stops conversation to say, “Here. Let me get my plat book and show you some spots.”
Standing in the doorway, a woman smiles. “Minnesota? I could detect the accent. You had a wrestler as governor.”
A return to a favorite spot sparks this greeting: “We were just thinking about you folks!”
A pheasant is dropped in the middle of a frigid pond. Dogs refuse the retrieve. The landowner happens to drive by, sees the problem then runs home. He returns with a trophy deer rack tied to a long rope. After dozens of tries, he gaffs the bird and drags it to shore, so sodden with icy water he has to go home to change.
After a big storm, a farmer offers to plow snow from the road just to give access to a juicy looking shelterbelt.
Then there was the time in a 50-mph snow squall when a farmer actually stopped and asked if they’d like to hunt his land. He had seen the Minnesota plates. “Anyone who spends hard-earned money to come so far to this part of the country deserves a place to hunt.”
Of course, there are other times, too, ones that have sparked Gary’s comment, “If you ever see me in this area again, shoot me.”
The Johnsons pull into the drive and see four feet on the other side of the farm equipment. Gary walks around and looks underneath. The feet have moved to the other side.
The yard dog lifts its leg and pees on the leg of Nancy’s brush pants while the farmer grins.
After accepting a dinner invitation from an earnest landowner, the Johnsons learn that dessert will be served along with an hour of Bible study.
One host is adamant about soaking the Johnsons’ hard won pheasants in an old Maytag washer kept for the purpose.
Gary knocks on a house trailer door. There’s no answer. He and Nancy step around to the back just in time to see a kid being pulled through the window.
The Johnsons are ushered into a farmhouse kitchen. The husband and wife landowners get into a heated argument over whether “these people” may hunt or not. First Gary, then Nancy, try to excuse themselves, but the couple only talks faster and louder. The husband finally convinces his wife to give permission on some “worthless land down south” they never hunt, nor do they see birds on … but only for exactly half a day.
Nancy writes, “Their bird-less description proved dead on.”
“It is difficult to keep asking strangers if we can invade their privacy,” Gary writes of a South Dakota that has seen pheasant hunting become entrenched as part agribusiness, part tourist trade over its 100 years of history. “We notice more leased land than pay-to-hunt these days. Combined with an understandable distrust of strangers and it is a tough sell to gain access.
“Our last trip had us out searching new ground with little success until we ran into a farmer who has been OK in the past … an intelligent, though often angry, young man. Today he was just cordial enough to be talkative, but basically only to tell us (that) he hates hunters. He says leasing farms to hunters has driven up land prices so he cannot expand. His is one of only five families left from the original fifteen who homesteaded this township.
“Of all the places we have hunted, this spot, hands down our favorite walk in South Dakota, has given us some of our best dog work. The ribbon of cover is narrow, just enough to keep the birds tight.
“So we listen. Finally, out of the blue, he says we can go ahead, but we won’t have any luck because it had been hunted hard the last few days.
“We drive to the spot and strap beepers on the dogs. Why let us on? He could have just said no. And knowing how he can be, why do we bother him by asking? Three people standing across more than that barnyard trying to figure the other side out.”
Gary writes, “But toward the end of that short day, he came racing by on his way home and almost accidentally ran Nancy off the road while he was watching and waving at me in the field. A strange situation from two parties that, given everything, still obviously respect something about the other.
“His fields turned out to be those of dreams.”