By Hannah Hayes
There are several components of the hunt I value more than a bird in the bag. As a bird dog fanatic, there’s nothing I enjoy more than watching my dog work. As someone who values connections with others, the conversations both afield and at the tailgate are ones I cherish most. As someone who has enjoyed the outdoors since childhood and have only recently been able to call North Dakota my home, the landscapes this state holds are enough to catch my breath every hunt. A lot of times when I get back to the truck empty handed, I don’t dwell on the vacant tailgate. I can acknowledge with ease that there’s always something of value to take away from time spent on the prairie.
However, as a newly recruited upland hunter, I still really, really want a bird in my bag. While walking the uplands, I’m always keen and ready for any opportunity to shoot a bird. I’m always quick to shoot a wild flush in range, I’ve regrettably shot over terrible dog work, and I’ve thrown plenty of hail Marys that have seldom resulted in a bird in the bag. I have a strong desire to feel the weight of success in my game bag and admittedly, my confidence as a sportswoman largely depends on my success.
Recently I was invited to hunt with a renowned upland guide and long-time Instagram friend on his day off. He had several rules I was required to follow. The two I had to keep in mind the most were no shooting at wild flushes and I’m only allowed to shoot over perfect dog work. I’d never had rules like that while hunting. I was so nervous my desire to prove myself would override my ability to remember the rules during the mentally blinding moments of the flush. Not because I would choose to break the rules; but because I’d never been challenged to maintain such an intentional mindset. So for the first time in my short upland experience, I walked through the prairie with my gun broke open anytime I wasn’t walking in front of a pointing dog.
Because of this forced patience, I experienced so much more. I was more present in conversation, I can’t count how many times I silently acknowledged how good the wind felt on my face, or how many plants I saw at my feet, or how lucky I was for the opportunity to hunt alongside someone so willing to share decades worth of lessons and advice in some of the most remote areas of the South Dakota prairie. The forced patience created space for a type of reflection I’d never experienced. For example, I genuinely value watching my dog work more than anything else in the upland sport. However, I was surprised to learn how blind I was to the low ceiling of potential I’d built over my dog. All because I really, really want a bird in my bag.
In short, I didn’t realize how much appreciation I had stifled with my non-stop eagerness to connect with a bird. I have always claimed I don’t put a lot of emphasis on shooting a bird, but the drastic change in perspective after a day spent hunting with my gun broke open proved otherwise. I didn’t leave the hunt totally absent of my desire to be successful in the field. However, I saw an example of the mentality I want to start working towards. I learned the energy spent preparing for the potential future of success is better spent enjoying what the present moment has to offer.
Like I mentioned before, I really value connecting with others through the sport of upland hunting. I enjoy hearing the stories and sharing the laughter that only hours of walking through the field can provide. Something I’ve learned from being a beginner who is eager to improve is that every interaction builds upon the sportsperson you will become. Everyone has their personal ethics and whether the lesson is “I want to do more of this” or “I need to avoid doing that” – the folks you surround yourself with will leave you with something. Some lessons make a bigger impact than others and I’ve found that most of the time, the big lessons are ones I didn’t know I needed. Today, I still really, really want a bird in the bag. After all, I’m still fairly new to upland hunting. But because I joined a one-day hunt with a new friend, now I move through the prairie with more intention, more appreciation for the present moment, and a new understanding of the value of waiting for the perfect shot.
Hannah Hayes is a Dakota Edge Outdoors contributing writer and the North Dakota Pheasants Forever Education & Outreach Coordinator.
Featured Photo: The author is learning more and more about what’s important in the hunt, and how not everything is summed up with weight in the game pouch. DEO Photo by NDPF.