Guest post by: Mike Pothast
How does a guy like me end up here…
Take long looks, Mike. Take it in for real. Mental snapshots. File it away for when the season is done and you’re not out here for 10 months. Cold, long winter days and nights will be better...if you just remember this. It’ll keep you going.
That’s all I keep thinking as I take in another late season, December sunset in South Dakota. Better authors than I have tried to put these sunsets into words; some more successful than others, but none that truly do it justice. How do you put those swirls of red, orange, and gray that dissolve into purples and pink like a kaleidoscope of hues and colors into words? All backlit by a sun that dissolves into the horizon at a steady pace until it quickly disappears. Nature is an artist to be imitated, but never equaled.
The bigger question, though, is how did I end up here? I imagine anyone choosing to read this finds that an odd question. It is not the literal sense of the location that raises the question, but rather the activity that brings me to the open plains of southwestern Minnesota or South Dakota. The reason I get to see so many unforgettable sunrises and sunsets. This isn’t the story of a guy who grew up hunting and finds himself introspectively looking back on decades of memories. Far from it. In all honesty, I remember touching a gun maybe once or twice as a kid. An old Stevens pump .22 my dad had in the basement. I didn’t go on an actual hunt until I was 35. It wasn’t that I was anti-hunting or anything like that. Actually, I enjoyed the stories friends had about their times in the woods or fields. I just never chose to pick it up until later, which is an old(er) age to get started. It was a series of unrelated events that sent me on the path to open plains and sunsets.
The first event was the death of a dog. Abby was not a hunting dog. More of a running/hiking partner and house dog. Along with her passing, I had started dating (soon to marry) someone whose father hunted and had a hunting dog. His stories of bird hunting with a dog intrigued me and watching his dog’s passion for fetching and fetch training really drew me in. With Abby gone, and with vague plans of becoming a hunter, I decided to get a dog from the same kennel as my father in law’s dog. Looking back on it all, there is no story if I hadn’t of landed the right dog. One that I just really couldn’t screw up. Into my world landed Rufus. A pudgy, hyper yellow lab puppy. Strip away all other factors, the people, the places, etc… and the key to it all is Rufus. That dog is the one non-negotiable, essential element of the story. No Rufus. No stories. I truly don’t know if I’d stick with hunting if not for him. Fast forward almost 9 years, and there I am in the back of a truck reminding myself to take in another prairie sunset.
The rest is history…
To make the story even more atypical is the fact that my time with Rufus didn’t start off with pheasant hunting. Actually, my first hunts with him were chasing geese and ducks. Don’t get me wrong. Duck and goose hunting is great, and watching a dog break ice to get a duck or chase a wounded goose across an open field in Canada are memories to keep any hunter interested. Yet, that type of hunting didn’t “have me” fully.
But then came my first pheasant hunt. Even still, the story isn’t the fairytale kind that would explain how I ended up in the back seat of a truck admiring yet another prairie sunset, already dreaming of my next trip. My first pheasant hunting trip was with a friend to the Breckenridge area. Just us two and Rufus, as he didn’t have his dog yet. We spent a day hunting WMA’s, hoping to get my and Rufus’ first pheasant. I don’t remember all the specifics perfectly, but we found one already dead rooster and saw another that flushed out of range. What I can say for sure is I did not shoot a rooster that day. I didn’t even shot AT a rooster that day. In many ways it was a bust. Roosters 1. Hunters 0. But it wasn’t. Far from it. Watching Rufus work to find a pheasant was something new to me. Like nothing I had ever watched unfold before. It would be a lie to say I wasn’t disappointed to not get a rooster that day, but I left with something more. Pheasant hunting with Rufus had hooked me. Add actual success and shooting roosters on later hunts, and I was done. Hook. Line. Sinker.
Why? What’s so great about it…
A lowball estimate of how many times well intentioned and/or curious friends and family have asked me that question is 5000 times. The majority of those have been from my wife Sarah, especially when I am setting a 3:00 AM alarm to make sure we get out and on the road to be at a hunting spot on time. I get it. If you told me I had to get up in the middle of the night to drive five hours to do almost anything else, I would give you the “Why? Why would I do that?!” lines as well.
So, how? How to put into words why we are willing to get up early, drive for hours, and drag ourselves through thick cover until our hip flexors burn. Maybe we are just stupid and gluttons for punishment? There’s some truth in that, but the why goes much deeper.
The unplugged, simple focus of it all. The “WHY”.
Life is busy, noisy, and full of all kinds of “noise”. Family, work, and the constant plugged in nature of my life in particular is close to non-stop. A 3.5 year old and a 5 year old are quiet, when they are asleep. Work is a constant barrage of calls, texts, and e-mails, with most of those being complaints or someone needing something….RIGHT NOW. Add to this my mind that has a tendency to just never stop planning, plotting, and brooding, and by the time the day is done and the kids are asleep, I make it another hour before I am out. Maybe I mix in some actual conversation with Sarah or a show on Netflix if we are getting crazy. Wake up the next day, and repeat.
Where do you find a break to decompress? Everyone has their “thing”. Some workout. Some read. Some binge watch movies or TV shows. You name it. I have done and do all of those, especially in the off season, but I have yet to find anything that simplifies, quiets, and focuses my mind like a pheasant hunt. My phone is usually in the truck. I sometimes bring it for a “just in case” moment. I might pay for that someday, but I am pretty sure my hunting partner brings his. All that is left are a very few, particular “worries” to have. Where are my hunting partners? Check my safety. Watch the dogs. Sure, there might be a few others simple thoughts in there, but overall, for the ONLY time in my day(s) I can shut it all down, simplify, and lock into an activity. Can’t this happen on a run? I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have thought about or pondered the family budget on a run or rattled off a faster than usual mile thinking about a co-worker who got under my skin. Go get lost in a book? Maybe, but I often find my mind wandering off to some worry or concern from the day. The prairie, the silence, and the constant “is this it” and “be ready” thoughts can control and consume my mind. None of the extra noise of life to be found. I don’t know the cost of a therapist, but I HAVE to believe that travel, lodging, shells, and licenses are still cheaper and healthier than paying to talk with a professional or paying for the medication to get my mind to do this.
We are back to The Dog
The forever horizon and beauty of the prairie is hypnotic and so different than the forests and rolling hills of the Duluth area. I love that about it. Those endless prairies have a beauty all unto themselves, and much of my passion for pheasant hunting is rooted in that scenery. Still, the most powerful draw, the fun and joy of it all is deeper than that and tied into something in particular: Rufus. I know. I know. There a billion stories out there about a guy and his hunting dog. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to spill into tales of amazing flushes and epic retrieves. How many hunting dog stories can someone hear before it is just too many? Well, this is my story and my dog, so I am going to write about it. Besides, anyone who has ever hunted with a good dog knows exactly what I am getting at, and feel free to sub in your dog’s name for all of this because I am sure you can.
A Dog’s Lesson to us
In our lives, how often do we get to see someone or something do anything for the absolute pure joy of it? No ulterior motives. No strings. Just because they truly love it? Really think about that. Work is generally for a paycheck, though some do find happiness in their work. Still, is it a simple and pure joy? It just can’t be. Too many people. Too many working parts. We love spending time with our families, but there are so many working parts to that as well. It just isn’t simple. In our lives, there are always strings attached or some extra layer of “stuff”. It is just part of the deal. Pure and simple is nearly impossible to come by. The closest I might see for pure joy are when my kids are jumping in puddles or running through the grass just because it is fun. It makes them happy…”just because”. No other reason. They aren’t doing it to impress anyone or prove some point. It isn’t required of them. Yet, for most of us as we age, that simple joy and wonder is harder and harder to find. We don’t experience it, and we rarely see it.
Unless, you have a hunting dog.
Flashback to that first “bust” of a pheasant hunting trip. No birds, but a hooked hunter. What about that trip and EVERY DAMN TRIP after that is ultimately the draw? It is simple and no secret: watching Rufus work. What he does is beyond belief. Miles and miles of intense physical labor. The kind that would break most normal humans. Still, that isn’t what makes a hunt so special. It is why he works. He completely, with no hidden motives, loves it. He isn’t getting paid. He isn’t being forced to do the work. He doesn’t have some fan club watching him that he must impress. When he is fully dialed in, he doesn’t care about ANYTHING else besides that moment. That stretch of cattails. That stretch of willow. That row of corn. That scent. That bird. Simple, focused passion.
After 100’s of miles walking, and sometimes running, behind Rufus, I have learned to read him. If his chest is low, he’s nearly crawling on the ground, zig-zagging in almost irrational patterns, the tail is spinning, and there is a grunt/snort from his nose on the ground, it is time to be ready. I have tried to imagine what must be going through his mind when he is on a bird. My suspicion is that there is literally nothing else on his mind but that bird. And with the exception of one last check of my safety and remembering to keep my finger near it, there is nothing else on my mind either. At that point, I trust him and his instincts fully. Where he goes. I follow. We, and you can call this hokey or cliche if you’d like, are linked in those moments before a bird flushes. Hearts racing. Minds clear. No noise. No mental clutter. It is impossible for me to say how long those moments last before a bird explodes to the sky. I couldn’t know. I am completely lost in the moment. What I do know is the experience is pure and perfect in its simplicity, and those snapshots of time don’t happen without that damn dog doing his thing. No Rufus. No stories.
At the end of the day
Riding in that truck after the sun has gone down, my mind wanders to those moments of adrenaline mixed with calm clarity before a bird flushes. I wonder if Rufus is reliving it all as well, tucked into his crate in the back. Maybe. Or, most likely, he is sound asleep after running double digit miles through thick cover. The kind of totally satisfied rest a hunting dog deserves. I also try to calculate just how many of these moments I missed out on with starting hunting so much later than most. Usually, I temper that with the fact that I am there now, enjoying it all. Just have to live in the moment. And I do. I live in those sunrises and sunsets. I live in those wide open spaces and sometimes biting cold winds. I live in those cattails and prairie grasses. And, with Rufus getting up in age, I make damn sure to live in those moments with him, synced together, finding that singular focus and enjoyment that I find with him, doing what he was born to love and I’ve grown to love.
Take long looks, Mike. Take it all in. Mental snapshots. File it away for when the season is done and you’re not out here for 10 months. Cold, long winter days and nights will be better...if you just remember this. It’ll keep you going.
Mike Pothast is an English teacher by trade and was my English teacher in 11th grade. He was also my 9th grade basketball coach. He is the type of teacher and coach that makes an impact. It isn’t just about writing beautiful sentences, but what is the message? It isn’t just about basketball, it is about being a hard worker, showing up on time for your team, and ultimately being a better person. I am honored to be able to share his hunting story with you all.
- Ali Juten