It was December 2014 and I was looking forward to a three-day pheasant and duck hunt with my friend Stuart. My dad had passed away on June 5, 2013, at age 95, and I could think of no better tribute to him than to bag a few pheasants with my old 12-gauge Marlin Model 90DT. The over-and-under was a gift from my dad, made even more special by my shooting some old Federal Field Load paper-shell reloads that Dad had likely reloaded in the1960s.
Dad bought the Marlin (made in 1950) for me used in 1957 when I was 14. He cut off the stock to fit my smaller frame, and when I grew bigger he added a piece that he cut from another stock. The wood grain doesn’t match and the finish on the frame has mostly worn off, but in addition to being a gift from my dad and my first “grown-up” shotgun, there is just something about how it feels and shoots that makes it special. I killed my first pheasant with it in 1957 while hunting with him, and for more than 50 years it has remained my favorite pheasant gun.
While preparing for the hunting trip, I discovered an old box of Federal Field Load paper shells on which Dad had written “1½ oz – #5s.” In an effort to determine when he might have reloaded them, I called Federal Premium Ammunition. The person I spoke to told me their shotshell lot records only go back to 1966, and that they had no record of the particular lot number printed on my box. The company address on the box included the zip code, and zip codes weren’t introduced until 1963. Based on the information, it’s likely Dad reloaded those shells sometime between 1963 and 1965 while I was in college and still hunting pheasants at least once or twice a year with him.
I was particularly pleased that my nephew Scott (Dad’s grandson), would be hunting with me because, with Scott living in Illinois and me 900 miles away in Virginia, we have very few opportunities to go hunting together. Dad taught Scott to shoot, just as he taught my brother, my two sisters, and me to shoot. Dad took Scott skeet and trap shooting at least two or three times a month during Scott’s junior high and high school years. Whether it is due to my dad’s tutelage or Scott’s excellent eye-hand coordination and innate ability, Scott is a natural with a shotgun—even though he has no central vision in his right eye, the result of an accident from playing ball in junior high. Fortunately, he is a natural left-hander and is left-eye dominant.
While in college Scott joined the shooting team at Arizona State University, and during his junior year he was national college all-around champion in five events: skeet, international skeet, trap, international trap, and sporting clays.
The evening before our hunt, Stuart stopped by our hotel to go over the game plan for the next three days. Our original plan was to do two combination hunts (duck hunting in the morning and pheasant hunting in the afternoon) and one full day of pheasant hunting. We agreed that we would hunt pheasants the following day and do combination hunts on days two and three.
Stuart picked us up at the hotel early the next morning, and within 20 minutes we were ready to make our first pass along the perimeter of a 50-acre field of CRP interspersed with milo food plots. Stuart brought along Jade, a 5-year-old female pointing Lab, and Peanut, his 7-year-old female German shorthaired pointer. I was carrying the Model 90 with Dad’s old reloads in the chambers, and within minutes of entering the field both dogs started acting birdy. It didn’t take long to realize the birds were running. We flushed a couple of hens, and as we approached the end of the field, 15 to 20 pheasants, including many cock birds, exploded about 100 yards in front of the dogs.
After hunting hard the rest of the day, stopping only for a nice, hot meal prepared by Stuart’s wife, Crystal, Scott had killed two birds. Despite several chances, I had yet to bag a pheasant. Discussing the day’s hunt over dinner that night, we were both a little disappointed with our results, but we weren’t discouraged. We saw birds even though they weren’t holding, and we had some missed opportunities. Besides, Dad had taught me by his words and actions that it’s not the number of birds in my game bag that makes a day in the field a success.
The next day, after a successful morning duck hunt with Stuart and his 5-year-old black Lab, Witch, on Lake Wilson, we enjoyed another of Crystal’s fine meals and were ready for our afternoon pheasant hunt. Scott was walking about 25 yards on Stuart’s right and I was about 25 yards to Stuart’s left as we started hunting cut milo adjacent to a CRP field. Jade started acting birdy, and before she could come on point a pheasant flushed between Scott and Stuart, flying back over Stuart’s head in my general direction. I immediately turned 180 degrees toward the bird for a quartering, left-to-right shot. It was hard to contain my excitement when I saw that pheasant crumple in the air and fall dead on the ground about 35 yards out!
By 4 p.m. Scott had gotten his limit of four birds, and I was pleased to have killed three with Dad’s gun/load combo. As far as I was concerned, if we had to leave the next day, it would have been a very successful trip, because I had accomplished what I hoped to do as a tribute to my dad. Having his grandson with me made it even more special.
Fortunately, we still had one more day to hunt. We decided to forego the morning duck hunt and spend the entire day hunting pheasants.
We were in the CRP early the next morning with Stuart and three of his dogs: a 2-year-old yellow female pointing Lab, Jewels, and black Lab males Apollo and Deke—Deke placed second in the 2013 National Bird Hunters United Hunting Trails competition.
By noon Scott and I had each killed three pheasants. After lunch, with Stuart running fresh dogs, we both missed what should have been relatively easy shots to get our limits. With about 30 minutes left before we planned to call it a day and head back to the hotel, we were walking rows of cut milo to where the field formed a shallow bowl adjacent to waist-high CRP when six cock birds flushed, and we had our limits. We couldn’t have asked for a more exciting way to end our last day in the field. Being able to watch Stuart’s outstanding dogs work made our experience even more memorable.
There were very few pheasants in south-central Illinois when I grew up. During my high school and college years, 1957 to 1965, Dad, his buddies Harry and Jack, and I hunted pheasants once or twice a year in the corn fields and grass waterways two hours north of our farm. Being able to bag some pheasants using the same gun and the same type of shells I shot then brought back a flood of memories from those special times.