Literal Footsteps

To the Point
Illustration by Gordon Allen.

Who introduced you to bird hunting? What caused your passion for bird hunting to grow over the years? The first question is easy to answer: father, brother, uncle, friend or someone else who led the way. The second question? Much harder to pin down. 

For me, the answer has much to do with the traditions started by others. Wherever I go to hunt birds, knowing that another went before is a reminder that what we do is part of something bigger than ourselves—something more important than today. Whenever I hunt prairie land, for example, I imagine scenes from my reading: knots of sharptails or prairie chickens exploding before the dogs, the 19th Century hunters walking behind, followed in turn by a groaning wagon pulled by mules. It doesn’t matter today that birds are fewer and that limits define how many I legally can bag. Being out there under the same sky chasing the same horizon? That matters.

I feel that way when hunting the North Dakota Badlands, following in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt, who also loved to hunt sharptails and wrote about it. You can’t share Teddy’s experiences by watching the Outdoor Channel. You have to go there.

One time I hunted woodcock in the same West Virginia covert where George Bird Evans was introduced to the long-billed bird in 1958. Walt Lesser, the man who convinced Evans that there was more to grouse hunting than grouse, was also my host. “The witchery of a woodcock covert where you feel in your bones the ’cock will be there is something precious,” Evans wrote about his inaugural experience. So true. On the day of my visit I missed eight of the nine woodcock I shot at and remembered something else Evans wrote about that same impossibly thick covert of alder and hawthorn: “Woodcock can shake shooting confidence very quickly.” 

What bobwhite quail hunter would not be thrilled to walk among the shadows of Nash Buckingham or Havilah Babcock in the very places they found special? What grouse and woodcock hunter would turn down a chance to tramp the New England haunts of Corey Ford and Burton Spiller? You still can do that, but you have to go there first. 

Closer to home, in Michigan where I live, I often reflect on the bird hunting experiences of William B. Mershon, author of Recollections of My Fifty Years of Hunting and Fishing (1927). Last fall I was privileged to hunt grouse and woodcock on land owned by one of the state’s venerable sportsman’s clubs. Leafing through a dusty records book, I saw that Mershon had been a member there for several years. You don’t think that revelation was on my mind while lacing boots and fitting a collar to my bird dog?

Think again. 

Tom Huggler’s Grouse of North America and A Fall of Woodcock won national acclaim and are now collectible. His Quail Hunting in America (Stackpole) is still in print. A Fall of Woodcock was reprinted recently by Skyhorse Publishing.

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  1. says: John Wiles

    Good article Tom, and you’re right. When I went to England the first time to shoot Driven Pheasants, I couldn’t get over that I was standing where royalty had once stood and that the time honored traditions of the shoot were still in place. It is humbling to know that we, whether ‘bird’ hunting over fine pointing dogs or shooting in the line of guns in Scotland or Spain, share something that is, really, timeless, and precious, and wonderful. Thanks for putting that into words.

  2. says: Bert Matzek

    In that case I’m an anomaly. The wallpaper in my grandmother’s spare room in the basement had an alternating pattern of fly fisherman netting trout and pheasants flushing over pointing dogs for a pipe smoking sportsman. I vowed I would hunt and fish rather than nap in the afternoons instead of just laying around when I grew up…

    In my late 30s, Burton Spiller fanned the embers into a full flame some 35 years ago and I suspect I yet pass on in the company of an English Setter, a double in my hands and with my boots on, God willing.

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