An adult-onset pheasant hunter steps onto a new stage and joins the upland community to the tunes of friendship, family and public lands
By Dave Simonett, Lead Vocalist for Trampled by Turtles
“Hen!” Yelled Bob St. Pierre off to my right.
At the sound of the bird I had shouldered my Browning, too slowly once again, and watched over the barrel as she flew away. I would’ve been too late even if it had been a rooster. But at this point in my first-ever pheasant hunt, I had become completely hooked anyway. Let me explain how this 38-year-old walked into a public wildlife area with a shotgun for his very first hunt.
I’ve always loved being in the outdoors. I grew up camping and fishing, and even shot a few shotguns growing up, but had never made the leap to hunting. Everyone I know who hunts has done so since they were a kid. That barrier seemed a little impenetrable, to be honest.
It’s also pertinent to mention that I am a songwriter and a musician by trade. The overlap between the worlds of hunting and music is slim. Life on the road limits the opportunity to hunt and explore the outdoors, and through whatever means, the two worlds are also often culturally separated. In the last few years, however, I had become curious about hunting.
And as irony would have it, my journey into hunting began through the radio.
SATURDAY MORNING RADIO
In Minnesota, there is a sports talk station, KFAN, which broadcasts Vikings, Wild and Gophers games in addition to daily talk shows about sports, politics and everything Minnesota. My favorite time slot is Saturday morning from 6:00 to 8:00 a.m., when FAN Outdoors
hits the air with fishing, hunting and outdoors banter.
is hosted by Billy Hildebrand, a retired teacher and tournament fisherman, and co-hosted by Bob St. Pierre, VP of marketing & communications for Pheasants Forever. Billy and Bob offer a sincere and oftentimes poetic perspective on a life lived in the field and on the water. I had never even tried to shoot a bird, but I could listen to them talk excitedly about pheasant hunting for hours on the radio.
Somewhere along the way, Bob and I started talking about fishing through Twitter, and I had to do a little soul searching over whether or not to share the fact that I had never hunted. Over the course of the conversation, Bob kindly wrote of his using my music as a soundtrack to his hunting and fishing road trips. Being very flattered, I accepted an invite to join them on the radio. During that interview, Bob, Billy and I got to talking about pheasant hunting, and my desire to give it a try led to an invitation to go on my first pheasant hunt.
JOINING PHEASANT CAMP
I drove up to Billy’s cabin for “pheasant camp” in Sauk Centre, Minnesota on a Sunday evening. Happily, I arrived in time for a pheasant and duck feast the guys generously prepared especially for my visit. Over the wild game dinner and a few beers, I got to know Billy’s sons, Erik and Chad, and immediately felt welcomed as we talked about the next day’s hunt. My concerns about feeling like an outsider were calmly quelled by this inclusive family.
MY FIRST HUNT
With a belly full of eggs and my first hunting license in my wallet, we pulled into the parking lot of a Waterfowl Production Area. With a loaner Browning cracked open over my shoulder and a pocket full of shells, I followed the line of Hildebrands, St. Pierre and seven bird dogs into waist-high grass.
It was gnarly and beautiful country, and I was excited to explore it.
As soon as we began walking, I felt the mood change. No speaking other than dog commands. The air felt pensive and exciting. Being a beginner, I had no idea what to expect should a pheasant flush from bluestem or the cattails. And that’s exactly how it began.
On my extreme right where Erik and Chad were walking, a rooster flushed 10 yards in front of the brothers. As it became airborne between them, they both shot and hit it. Watching the speed with which the brothers saw the bird rise, noticed it was a male, saw it was safely within their shooting lanes and took the shot, was impressive.
As we continued on, the dogs pointed and flushed several more birds. Though I don’t remember who shot which bird, there were a couple more in the game pouches within the first couple hours.
Watching the dogs work was a joy. Running back and forth, up and down, noses to the grass and the wind, professionally and gracefully fulfilling their life’s work. Their restraint when pointing a bird rivaled their eagerness and reliability when finding one that had been downed. I was having a grand old time and I hadn’t even fired my gun.
Billy and Snap
We walked on, adding a rooster here and there to our vests.
We rounded a corner to our left and made the final push toward the parking area, and suddenly birds came up like popcorn. A double rose and fell in front of Erik, then Bob had one rise off a solid point and he shot it cleanly. I rubbernecked with all the excitement happening around me, watching my companions and their dogs work in tandem.
Finally, a bird jumped up directly in front of me. “Hen!” Yelled Bob off to my right, assuring I didn’t fire on it. Immediately after her departure, a big, decorated rooster flushed from about the same spot and flew directly towards me as it rose. I shouldered the over-under, took aim at the bird which was now about ten feet away, and missed … I think.
As the rooster flew directly over my head, I swung on him. Billy, seeing the bird up, fired just as I let go of my second barrel. Now, Billy generously credited me with the shot and swore I was the one that downed the bird, but I will say that his shot most likely slowed the bird and allowed me to hit it or at the very least we hit it at the same time. I don’t think he missed anyway. It was a very fast and intense ten seconds and honestly the thrill of a lifetime.
One of Erik’s retrievers brought the bird back to me and I said a quiet thank you to the rooster for allowing me to take him. I put him in the pouch in the back of my vest and I will admit to feeling a little pride at the extra weight. That last half-hour of the hunt was one of the most exciting experiences I’ve had in any endeavor.
Back at Billy’s cabin, I got a short lesson in cleaning a pheasant and went to work next to Billy and Bob, drawing and skinning the birds. I was curious about this part of the process and actually found it to be a calming exercise and a fitting end to a helluva day, as well as a visceral reminder of nature’s way of recycling one life into another life.
PASSING IT ON
I wanted to write this experience down for my own good, but also in the hope that maybe someone else will realize that just because a person didn’t grow up in the field with a shotgun doesn’t mean it’s too late to give it a try.
While sitting in the cabin the night before our hunt, Billy brought up the astute point that the older we get the less likely we are to try something new; how it becomes harder on our pride to ask someone else to show us the ropes.
Though I know this to be true from my own experience, I also know that when said aloud it’s ridiculous, and that there should be no point in life at which it’s acceptable to stop learning and exploring. That’s a dark thought and should not be tolerated. And it sounds a little too much like death if you ask me.
Watching Billy with his two sons sharing a very deep bond over the hunt made me hopeful to one day have something similar with my kids. All those guys showed the utmost respect for the birds, their dogs, the land.
I think our world could use a lot more of that reverence for each other and nature. Humans have hunted since time immemorial and though modern civilization has hammered that instinct out of our center, it still sleeps in there. Our bodies and brains are made up of all those hunting generations, and though I wouldn’t call myself a ‘natural’ at the actual act of hunting, it was a very natural feeling being out there doing something humans have done since the dawn of our existence.
(Left to Right) Bob St.Pierre, Dave Simonett, Billy Hildebrand, Chris Hildebrand. Photo by Erik Hildebrand
Finally, as a new member of Pheasants Forever
, I am proud to be a part of the conservation community that has done so much to create and protect the habitat and public lands that so many in today’s society take for granted. And I’d like to extend my most heartfelt thanks to Bob and the Hildebrands. We all have the capacity to be a mentor.
In the end, I’ve gained a group of new friends and my first group of hunting buddies.
Dave Simonett is lead vocalist for Trampled by Turtles, a bluegrass-folk rock band from Duluth, Minnesota … and now he’s also an upland hunter.