Learning on the Job

Two waterfowlers cut their teeth among prairie potholes

Story by Casey Sill  ||  Images by Daniel Sill
Video & Lead Image by Dylan Buss

Story by Casey Sill
Images by Daniel Sill
Video & Lead Image by Dylan Buss


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I am not an avid pheasant hunter, though I have done it enough to have invested in an English setter.

I assumed, mistakenly, that I was good at it, until I got hired by Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever in the fall of 2021. All of a sudden I was surrounded by people who actually did know everything about pheasants and pheasant hunting. They could read cover better than me, decipher what weather conditions meant in ways that had never crossed my mind, and they didn’t seem to have a mini-stroke every time a rooster got up right in front of their face, while I was basically catatonic for the first three seconds.

It was fairly intimidating. I’d gone from king of the kiddie pool to a minnow in a blaze orange ocean — entered the realm of true professionals. But being thrust into an arena with so much knowledge also quickly reenergized my urge to keep learning. I’d become rooster complacent, and Pheasants Forever woke me from my apathetic stupor.

My one saving grace around the office, and my only chance to impart any vague notions of experience or expertise, was whenever someone brought up waterfowl hunting. My nonchalant attitude toward pheasants has always been balanced out by a borderline harmful obsession with duck hunting, and I quickly discovered I wasn’t the only person at Pheasants Forever with this affliction.

Hunter Buth was hired on to the PF & QF graphic design team about a week before I started, and on my first day in the office a conversation about early teal season revealed our mutual dependency on waterfowl. Turns out we both wanted to become better pheasant hunters, and kill some ducks while we were at it. So last fall we knocked off the training wheels and headed out for a public lands combo hunt all on our own.

Buth is almost exactly a decade younger than I am, and has a big smile and a woodsmoke baritone voice he hasn’t quite grown into yet. He’s as ambitious and bright-eyed as he looks, without a touch of the complacency that had bogged down my progression as a pheasant hunter. His eagerness is infectious, and I was glad to have him along on the trip.

Our arrival coincided with ideal waterfowling conditions, and it was all we could do to keep from immediately burning our blaze orange as a ritual sacrifice to the waterfowl gods and do nothing but hunt ducks the entire weekend. Restraint won out, and we spent the first two days wandering from WMA to WMA, learning how to hunt pheasants. Pheasants Forever had been integral to the creation of the public lands we enjoyed on our adventure.

My first real lesson of the trip came on the afternoon of our second day, when I lost a rooster I thought was dead before it hit the ground. I’ve lost ducks before and it’s a sickening feeling. But I’ve always mistakenly believed with a decent dog there was no way a wounded pheasant could escape in short, grassland cover. I was wrong, and we ended the day in a rather dejected mood with just one rooster to show for our effort.

The next morning we returned to more familiar confines, with a duck hunt on a small pothole we had scouted the first evening of the trip.

I have watched a lot of sunrises from a duck blind. Everything that can be said about them has already been said by someone far more eloquent than me. But this sunrise stuck out to me among all the others, simply because we were inundated by so much life.

As the cattails came into focus there were more roosters cackling than I’ve ever heard before. With the red-winged blackbirds thrown in, the din was almost deafening. We actually had to speak up in the blind to hear each other talk. The ducks showed up right on schedule, and as shooting hours arrived, we realized we were surrounded by pintails.

I have shot a handful of pintails over the years, typically either out of a small flock or as singles. Almost all of them have been young birds and I’ve never seen more than a handful at a time. That morning there were flocks of eight, 15, 25 — all with fully-colored drakes that stuck out like a sore thumb in the sun.

Buth and I each picked out a nice drake and filled our limit of one pintail apiece. Some teal eventually made an appearance and decoyed with their usual reckless abandon, but we spent most of the rest of the morning as birdwatchers. We had come on this trip to learn more about hunting pheasants, but it ended up being this idle time that taught us the most.

When I started at Pheasants Forever I was almost hesitant to admit I enjoyed hunting waterfowl more than upland birds. But as I learned more about the PF habitat and public access missions, I realized it didn’t really matter. Watching that tiny pothole fill with so many pheasants and ducks at the same time gave that idea legitimate context: The habitat we’re trying to protect is valuable to so much more than just upland birds.

The trip also gave me a real glimpse at the depth of the organization’s work. As we walked back to the parking lot with decoy bags digging into our shoulders, I stopped to catch my breath on a small rise and looked back toward our pothole. Nearly as far as I could see to the south were pieces of similar habitat, intersected by gravel roads in a classic checkerboard pattern.

Permanent protection of habitat and public access on this scale is a massive undertaking, and only possible through coalitions. Pheasants Forever and countless partners have worked for decades to ensure this habitat continues to thrive — and is managed properly. Not only for pheasants and ducks, but for water quality, carbon sequestration and the dozens of other benefits mixed wetland habitat provides. On that rise, I saw the fruits of that labor.

Buth shot his first wild pheasant that evening just before the trip came to an end, a golden hour rooster taken on the same piece of public property we hunted for ducks that morning. As full circle moments go, that one was right up there with the best.

My time at Pheasants Forever has been transformative, far beyond just helping me learn to be a better pheasant hunter. I have come to understand the value of habitat in a much deeper way, and am incredibly proud to be a very small part of protecting all the birds that call that habitat home — whether or not they’ve got webbed feet.

Casey Sill is the public relations specialist at Pheasants Forever. He can be reached at csill@pheasantsforever.org.

This article originally appeared in the Upland Super Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal. If you like this content and would like to see more of it, consider supporting Pheasants Forever as an annual member: among many other benefits, you'll receive the Pheasants Forever Journal 5x/year in your mailbox.