By Justin Pelegano
Everybody wants to take a kid hunting. And that’s great.
But the frustrating truth for aspiring adult hunters – those seeking a way in, and those hoping for a way back – is that without support, our prairies and public lands, our most wide-open spaces, can seem insurmountably closed off.
It’s an irony that dies only by generosity.
The following six upland hunters, the new and the new again, embody the most elemental and powerful reasons we go into the field. Their journeys speak to perseverance, connection and tradition. Their stories are a call to lend our time and talents, or at the very least turn our attention, to the unique kindred spirits around us.
The future of hunting, of wild places, and of our beloved uplands, depends on it.
Pierce Canser, 29, Seattle, Washington
Occupation: Urban Planner
First Upland Hunt: Fall 2017
On his first ever hunt, Pierce Canser walked the woods just north of Emily, Minnesota with his buddy Alex, and never got a shot off.
“I did flush a grouse and a woodcock for Alex though,” Canser recalls, smiling. “He missed them both.”
There’s not a trace of disappointment in his voice. Canser knows the birds will come. As long he keeps hunting it’s just a matter of time. Besides, victory that day was about so much more than a ruff in the gamebag.
Canser’s life is a story of cities, of “built environments” – an evocative turn of phrase that’s typical from the 29-year-old urban planner. Born and raised in the South Side of Chicago, Canser spent his high school years in Milwaukee, his college tenure and early planning career in Minneapolis, and just this fall landed in Seattle.
It’s a list of relocations that conspires to keep a man from the uplands.
Throw in a wariness of firearms borne of a youth touched by gun violence, plus a downright maddening introduction to “hunters” (Canser’s college roommates demanded he give up listening to rap and R&B before he could join their informal “bro” hunting club; Canser declined), and it doesn’t take any mental contortion to see his inaugural hunt as a beautiful success. Longing for years to be closer to nature and his food sources, he had finally made it to the woods, on his terms, with a borrowed Remington 1100 at the ready.
Canser credits his mentors and firearms instructors – many of whom he met through a Minnesota-based, adult hunter education outfit called Modern Carnivore – with getting him there.
“The hunting mentors I had were kind and approachable, and their life stories could not be more different than mine,” says Canser. “But we connected on a human level, we treated each other with respect and we learned from each other. That was everything to me.”
Mike Wilmoth, 60, Wellington, Kansas
Occupation: American History Teacher
Upland Hunting Hiatus: 12 years
Growing up in Iola, Kansas, Mike Wilmoth’s hunting life started early and effortlessly. Unless, that is, you consider the back door of his grandpa Avery’s farmhouse to be a formidable obstacle. There was no great mystery to it, no bird dogs or pickup trucks. Wilmoth simply strolled – first with a BB gun, later a break-action .410 – following his dad and granddad along the farm’s hedgerows busting quail. Easy peasy.
“We never shot for a limit,” says Wilmoth. “And we never dreamed of traveling to hunt.”
And yet with access literal steps away, a chasm grew between Mike Wilmoth and the uplands. It seems adulthood can be the enemy of ease, even if you welcome and cherish certain complications.
For 12 years, from age 22 to 34, the born hunter stopped hunting. His attention had turned toward his two young children, his time toward the multiple jobs he worked to support them – teaching, coaching, officiating football in fall and scooping grain come harvest.
"I really missed being in the field," Wilmoth says. "But there's only so many things you can fit in a day."
A shotgun brought him back. That, and a hunting legacy that wasn’t about to go quietly.
When Wilmoth's son, Brandon, was in grade school, the "itch,” as he calls it, took hold – Brandon wanted to get into some birds. So Wilmoth led his boy on a quarter-mile pheasant walk. They flushed a single rooster and missed. Brandon was hooked. Around the same time, Wilmoth’s wife, perhaps sensing the moment, gifted her husband a brand-new Remington 870.
One perfectly timed gesture and a son itching to follow in his old man’s footsteps. That’s all it took.
Some 25 years later, Wilmoth doesn’t miss a pheasant season. Every fall he’s knee-deep in Kansas prairie grass, out there with Brandon or a former student – strolling, hunting, right where he should be.
Julia Schrenkler, 49, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Occupation: Digital Producer
First Upland Hunt: Fall 2013
As a pup, Julia Schrenkler’s German Short-haired Pointer, Wren, couldn’t stop pointing. Daily walks on the Twin Cities streets? She postured toward every urban chickadee she could find. Leaving a campground in the back of Schrenkler’s van? Full point … out the window: Wren had spotted a bird on a picnic table.
Wren was a natural, her point unshakeable. The only thing was, her owner wasn’t a hunter. Schrenkler and her life partner had been drawn to the breed’s energy and disposition and figured Wren could blow off steam hunting sheds.
But that pure, steady point …
Schrenkler was 44 when she hooked up with the Minnesota DNR-run Becoming an Outdoors Woman (BOW) program to learn hunter safety, shotgun skills and, of course, how to work Wren. It wasn’t easy; Schrenkler had conflicted feelings about owning guns and taking birds.
But a light had turned on in her dog, and she had to let Wren shine. If that meant taking responsibility for her part in the food cycle, so much the better.
Schrenkler supplemented her BOW classes by devouring online hunting lessons, and digitally connecting with newbies and experts alike. Then, where they could, they moved those connections to the field. Schrenkler’s community was forming. That community has kept her and Wren hunting.
“If I was in this alone, I’d have given up to stay in bed every weekend watching old movies,” admits Schrenkler. “But early on I had generous mentors and met other women new to hunting. We kept each other honest and encouraged each other to get outside.”
Five hunting seasons later, she and Wren are famous faces on their local PF scene, well known for inducting new hunters and then keeping them in the fold.
“Wren is great bait,” laughs Schrenkler. “People always tell me how cute she is. And I say, ‘Yep, now come hunt with us and watch her work.’”
Jeff Smith, 34, South St. Paul, Minnesota
Occupation: Software Tester
First Upland Hunt: Fall 2016
A 25-minute drive south from Julia Schrenkler, at the West End Trap Club, “community” comes in the form of a whimsically named shooting team called The Brave Little Toasters, or The BLTs for short.
Without The BLT’s, 34-year-old Jeff Smith might still find himself outside the uplands looking in.
As a boy in the suburbs, Smith didn’t hunt. He didn’t really shoot either. After a solitary trapshooting outing with his father he didn’t so much as touch another firearm until he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
From 2002-2007, including two tours in Iraq, Smith served on active duty building military communications systems. Like any other soldier, he trained and tested on the Army’s standard issue rifle, the M16A2. By his own admission he was awful from the jump. By calling on a mix of repetition and sheer stubbornness, he ended his service as an expert marksman and something of a shooting fanatic.
Eight years out of the Army, it was a mutual friend who introduced Smith to BLT’s cofounder Rachel Hoveland. An ebullient personality and lifelong hunter, Hoveland wanted to see what Smith was made of on the trap line. Then she wanted to take him gunning for early season teal. It was his first hunt; they limited out in less than an hour.
Smith’s two seasons of upland pursuits have been something less auspicious. From having the verticality scared out of him by a flushing grouse to the multiple roosters he’s locked onto then lost, he’s far from awful but still very much a novice in the field. Thanks to the Toasters and an expanding network of hunters, he’s more than happy to commit to the learning curve.
“My trap team keeps me connected to the people who got me into hunting,” says Smith. “They’re open and accepting; they have a really good time, and they’re always willing to teach what they know.”
Marissa Jensen, 33, Omaha, Nebraska
Occupation: Outreach & Communications for PF – Nebraska
First Upland Hunt: Fall 2015
In the mind and heart of Marissa Jensen, the matter had long been settled: She’d never own a gun and she’d never hunt. She revered animals, worked as a vet tech to heal them, and if she wanted a visceral relationship with her food, well, then she’d garden.
At 30 – in an about-face that still takes her family by surprise – Jensen picked up a 20-gauge Franchi Affinity and walked into the pheasant fields.
“I had a complete change in thought process,” she explains. “I wish I could tell you the exact moment it happened. I’ve always enjoyed eating meat, and I started to feel like there was this unfinished circle between me and nature.”
To close that loop, Jensen would overcome ageism (“As a latecomer I fall in the middle ground where nobody seems eager to take you hunting”), sexism (“Buying my first shotgun, I was asked more than once if I was shopping for my husband”) and an intimidating lack of experience.
Not that she was entirely devoid of support. A cousin, a seasoned hunter, encouraged her thoroughly. But he lived three hours away in Kearney. Jensen wanted hunting to interweave with her life, not show its face as an infrequent hobby.
So she took herself to school: videos, articles, the down-and-dirty trial and error of venturing onto public land alone. She worked through dejection and confusion and weather. She’d book it home from a full day of work, change, gear up, hop back in the car and drive 40 miles to a WMA just to steal the last few minutes of shooting light.
Jensen calls it addiction. It rings more like baptism by fire. On the other side was triumph and transformation – a life connected to the land, a burgeoning career in conservation, and, at last, a steadfast partner in the field: a three-year-old German Short-haired Pointer named Reese.
Chuck Hauck, 68, Iowa City, Iowa
Occupation: Academic Advisor (retired)
Upland Hunting Hiatus: 20 Years
Ten miles from the South Dakota border, near Madison, Minnesota, sits a farm that holds the thread of Chuck Hauck’s hunting life. He grew up there, laboring alongside his dad, cultivating the soil for corn, soybeans and wheat. In whatever downtime they could muster, they’d walk the crop rows and slough edges for pheasants, and stalk the Lac qui Parle river bends for ducks.
But a teenaged Hauck craved new rhythms. From the moment he finished high school, and for the next two decades, he couldn’t get far enough away.
Some of that distance he chose (a career-building sojourn in San Diego). Some of that distance was obligated (in 1972, Hauck was drafted into the tail end of the Vietnam War).
In his lost years away from hunting, Hauck served his country, met his wife, started a family and solidified his reputation in academia. By all standards his meandering had been righteous and his efforts successful. But something was off.
“I missed the beauty of the rural Midwest,” says Hauck. “I missed the seasons and my bond with the land.”
By the time he settled in Iowa, his personal hunting tradition had gone so dormant that when his son, Greg, got a hankering to revive it, Hauck punted – his younger brother, who had taken over the family farm, could play teacher. Greg would just go along for the ride.
His great return to the uplands was a complete bust of ugly weather and hunkered-down roosters. And it could not have mattered less. Hunting in the rain next to his brother, his son and his nephew, Hauck thought of his father, and of making it home. He thought about the thread he’d nearly let slip through his fingers.
“I’d lost my connection to hunting,” says Hauck. “My son picked it up and my brother welcomed me back. He was so welcoming. My family – that’s what got me back in the field.