By Robert DeWitt
My son, Bob, doesn't usually smile for photos. Maybe it's because he just doesn't like having his photo taken. And I suppose he's a touch anti-social – like I was when I was a teenager. As much as I'm paying for the dental work he's having done, I ought to insist that he show every tooth whenever there's a camera around.
Nobody had to twist his arm to make his smile a week ago. Of course, I'm next to him in the photo and I'm smiling, too. There are 39 birds on the ground in front of us, 31 quail, six chukar partridge and two pheasants. Even though we had the help of another hunter, it was a good haul and enough to make most people smile.
Shooting preserve birds isn't quite like hunting wild birds. God still does it better men. But the liberated birds were good enough to make all of us miss some of the time. One of us – I won't say who – managed to miss three in a row. Anybody who laughed was a hypocrite.
Bob had just the opposite problem. A 17-year-old's reactions are a bit quicker than a middle-aged man's. A couple of the birds popped up in front of him a dallied a bit too long. Each time, the bird made a sudden lunge in the air at the sound of the shot and there was an explosion of feathers.
"That one's going to be a bit crunchy," I told him after the first one.
He did it twice more. Old time bird hunters who were fussy about spoiling meat might have taken his gun away until he learned better. I enjoy eating the birds – we'll have some this weekend – but I wasn't out there for the meat. The laughs we all got made it worth wasting a few birds.
People who have studied the behavior of hunters and fishermen say the go through stages of development. First they're proud to catch or kill anything. Then they want to catch or kill as much as they possibly can. Later, they only want to catch or kill trophies. But at some point, they start caring more about helping someone else and care little about what they catch or kill.
My father taught me to hunt and putting me in position to take the shot was always his top priority. He enjoyed shooting once he knew I was taken care of. But it was never his top priority. And the enjoyment he got from hunting couldn't be measured by the weight of his game bag.
It's a quality I've noticed in other people too. But I never expected to get there myself. I never thought anything would really supplant the thrill of pulling the trigger or feeling the rod vibrate in my hands.
I guess I've finally come to understand that there is something more. Don't get me wrong, I still love to shoot birds and catch fish. I definitely don't consider hunting and fishing merely an excuse to take a nature walk or a boat ride. Without action the day isn't complete.
There was a time that if the bird came up on the other hunter's side, I couldn't help but feel a little disappointment. If it happened too often, I'd feel frustration. I didn't feel any of that last week when Bob or the other hunter got the shot. In fact, I was so focused on hoping Bob got the shot that when a bird came my way, it felt more like a bonus than anything else.
It was like that last year when I took my friend Gilbert Nicholson's boys squirrel hunting. Shooting a squirrel could never give me the rush of enthusiasm and adrenaline that the boys got from pulling the trigger. I took a certain sense of professional satisfaction from making a head shot on the one squirrel I killed (OK, it was real close and I had a good rest and a lot of luck) but it wasn't the same at all.
I really don't know why we get that way as we age or what makes watching a child, a niece or nephew, a grandchild or a friend's child enjoy the sport. Some people have some sense that they are preserving something they love by passing it to someone else. Others gain a sense of satisfaction from doing a good job of teaching.
I couldn't tell you what it is for me. But I realized how I felt when Bob shot a big cock pheasant that flushed out from under his feet. I cringed when he missed it with his first shot, knowing how it would make him feel if it got away. But it crumpled up with his second shot. And it felt far better than if I'd shot it myself.
I set up the hunt so I could spend a February afternoon with my son the way my father spent days with me. I knew I enjoyed those times with my father. But I never realized how much fun he had until now.