Tradition, Pheasants, Cold Beer…

Every November, the weekend before Thanksgiving, my son and I take off for southern Illinois for two days of pheasant hunting, laughing, and drinking a few cold beers (not all at the same time, mind you!) The occasion is the annual “reunion” with my best friend with whom we spend the time at his log cabin in the wilds near Sparta. 

My son will pick me up very early Saturday morning, and we’ll hop onto I-88 for a short trip west to I-39 where we’ll travel south to join I-55 in Bloomington/Normal to take us deeper into south central Illinois. A few hours later, we’ll arrive at my friend’s remote cabin, and all will be good once more! It won’t be long before the first of many cold brews is fished out of the well-stocked, well-iced cooler. If it’s one of those wonderfully comfortable warm, temperate southern Illinois’ November afternoons, we’ll not have a worry in the world. His dogs, down a ways in their pens, will offer a bark or two in greeting, hoping that it’s time for their romps around the fields out back. 

We will hunt pheasants at Wayne Fitzgerald State Recreation Area on Sunday morning, but in the meantime Saturday will be a day of swapping new stories and re-telling old and familiar ones we’ve heard a million times through the years and simply catching each other up with all that’s been going on in our lives since last we met. And as the day wears on, we will begin to make plans for Sunday’s hunt over near Rend Lake. Despite the impending early-hour “wake up” the next morning, we’ll still spend some hours Saturday night going to one of our “traditional” restaurant/bars for dinner and, of course, enjoy one or two more beverages before calling it quits for the night.

Now I want to make it very clear that I hunt once a year with my son and my friend (and not very well, usually!) but it’s a tradition that is permanently inscribed on my autumn calendar. The old adage that it’s not so much the outcome of the hunt which is important, but the hunt itself surely holds up in this little annual activity we share. My friend, let it be said, hunts and fishes and does things outdoors many, many times during the week. He is a deadly shot and a wise scout when pursuing the prey. His dogs are well trained and a pleasure to watch work as they pad and nose about in thickets and underbrush and along hedgerows that seem to extend for endless miles. 

Up by 5 a.m. Sunday, we dress and scold ourselves for being way too “convivial” the night before, and gather up or shotguns and ammo and head out to the truck. The dogs are loaded up into their travel boxes which are filled with a straw bedding. Usually, we’ll make a quick stop for coffee at the convenience store and then continue the 45-minute drive over to Wayne Fitzgerald State Park. The first order of business will be to visit the “check-in” station and secure our official tags and assigned hunting area. Next, we’ll get back in the truck and make the short drive over to the Lodge where they serve a terrific “Hunters’ Special” breakfast. This cholesterol fest is quite good: eggs, hash browns, bacon, biscuits, gravy, toast, and orange juice. A few more cups of coffee makes it all the better, so we’re well fueled for the morning’s walk in the fields. Afterwards, we drive back for the “meeting” with all of the other hunters as we’ll be instructed by the DNR guy of all the rules and regs that will be in effect for the hunt. We’ve heard them so many times that we can recite them right along with him!

Once we’ve met and been dismissed out to our assigned areas, we wait for 9 o’clock and then set off to attempt to get our limit (2 pheasants apiece). The first 30 minutes always sounds like a war zone. The released birds from the night before have stayed in the underbrush and corn pretty close to the road; they haven’t run yet. Many hunters with luck and good shooting skills on their side, often obtain their limit very early into the hunt. Others, such as us, usually have to expend way too much effort and energy walking the fields and fence rows to come close to “limiting out.” 

We know that the enjoyment of the day is all about just being there, and shooting a few birds is really a bonus. Weary and forcing the arthritic knees to forge on as best they can, I think good thoughts of the post-race beverages and food that we’ll enjoy. Many of the adventures that have transpired after many of these hunts are  legendary–and best left for another post.

How this tradition came to be is a story in and of itself and will be the topic of my next post as well. The friendship that developed between the two of us is well worth writing about. It will take us back to August of 1973, oh, so many years ago. Yet the memories are as clear today as if they had just taken place. It will include watching our sons grow up and be an important part of this tradition. My son, a graduate of Southern Illinois University and employee with the City of Naperville; my friend’s son, a high school graduate and proud Marine who saw action in Faluja, Iraq. It will be about how we watched them grow and share in the tradition themselves.  

I look forward to reliving many of them in the next post. With those good thoughts of friendship and traditions and sons we love, I travel on down this road on a sunny and windy November Friday afternoon…MLA

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