What I Learned on My First Hunting Trip

Copyright 2008 by Neil Chethik www.NeilChethik.com

I had never before shot my own dinner. At 38 years of age, I'd lived most of my life in suburban America, where hunting usually referred to searching for parking spaces at the regional mall. I had never in my life picked up a loaded shotgun, let alone aimed it at a living creature with the intent to kill.

But over the recent holidays, I lost my innocence. After four years of enjoying an annual quail dinner at the home of my in-laws, I was informed this time around that I'd be expected to help put the meal on the table. If I was willing to eat the bird, they suggested, shouldn't I be willing to see it die?

We headed out at first light -- six male adults and two teenaged boys -- driving west from Tallahassee, Fla. It was a crisp late December day, blue-skied and just below freezing, and as we drove, I savored the calming beauty of North Florida's pine woodlands.

A day earlier, my brother-in-law, Tim, a military veteran, had taken me to a woods near his home for a crash course in marksmanship and gun safety. It was a miracle to me that I regularly hit the milk cartons we set up, and even more astounding that on that very same day, the state of Florida -- with no testing whatsoever -- issued me a permit to shoot at living targets.

Now, as we emerged from our vehicles to begin our hunt, I had to carefully observe my comrades to ensure that I was holding my gun in the appropriate way.

Tim and I were the first shooters. My father-in-law had hired a guide for our hunt, a young man whose family had for more than a century stalked deer, duck and bobwhite quail on their 2,000 acres of land. Tagging along with us was his dog, Belle, a pointer whose job it would be to find the quail and flush them out.

As we walked, waist-high in brush, into the hunting field, I learned more about our prey. These were not wild quail. Like cattle and chickens, they had been raised for the kill. Released the previous day from the huge pens in which they had been fed and bred, their survival skills were limited.

Nonetheless, they could bob and weave in flight, and I expected not to hit a single one. The first three times Belle flushed a covey from the bushes, my gun was barely up before the quail were out of range.
As we prepared for the next flush, however, I summoned all my concentration. And when the birds scattered, I found one in my line of sight. Instinctively, I pulled the trigger. Pop! The animal froze for a moment in mid-air, flipped, and then tumbled from the sky.

When Belle brought the dead bird back to us, its tiny head dangling from a puffy chest, that was enough for me. I felt neither regret nor exhilaration; I just knew that the hunt had given me all it could.

And what was that? For one thing, it had offered me a taste of the sport's allure -- the challenge, the quiet, the unity of purpose among a group of men. I also could
begin to understand the dignity possible in a sacred hunt, in which the hunter enters the animal's natural habitat, patient, reverent, attentive to the sounds and smells of the deep outdoors.

Yet despite these positives, the hunt also challenged my meat-eating way of life. I'd always known, of course, that beef is cow and pork is pig, but somehow, as I bit into a cheeseburger or glazed-ham sandwich, I'd always managed to deny the essential link.

I no longer can. I still eat animals, and may forever. But these days, just before I begin a meal of meat, I'm connected to its source by a persistent image of one quail's final desperate moments: the shot, the flip, the flutter, and the fall.

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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at neil@neilchethik.com or at www.NeilChethik.com .

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Copyright 2009 Neil Chethik