This is why I hunt
Mark Hadley is a member of the DWR's creative team, a team he affectionately refers to as "the best communications team in state government." When he isn’t writing a news-related item or helping a reporter, you might find him chasing ducks in a marsh or casting a worm or a jig for bluegills and crappie.
The photo is 41 years old, but every time I look at it, I get emotional.
It’s a photo of a skinny kid. He’s soaked, cold, straining to heft a game carrier filled with ducks his dad took that day.
And straining to smile and hold back a tear.
The kid in the photo is me. This is the story of my first duck hunt and all I’ve learned — about hunting and about life — since that rainy day with my dad.
It’s September 1977. My dad and I are in his Chevy truck, driving along a gravel road at the Greenhead Duck Club in Warren, Utah. He’s brought me to see the marsh we’ll hunt in just a few short days, and I’m under a spell. The magic of wetlands and waterfowl sunk into my soul that day, and it’s never let go.
Fast forward to early morning, Oct. 1. I peer outside. It’s windy and wet. Just the kind of weather that keeps ducks moving about. Perfect weather for my first time hunting as a licensed hunter.
My dad parks our ’67 Chevy off the gravel road, and we walk across the salt flats to a small pond. I’m wearing hip boots and carrying a little .410 Savage shotgun. It’s not an ideal gun for duck hunting. The shot shells are small, so the gun can’t fling as many pellets as other guns can. And it’s a single shot, which means I have to eject a shell after shooting it before manually loading and shooting another. I’m a small kid though, even for my age, so the gun is light and easy to handle. And, being a single shot, a lot safer for a first time hunter to use.
Before I know it, it’s 8 a.m., and shots start ringing out across the marsh. “It’s time, Mark,” my dad says. My heart starts pounding. My first duck hunt is underway!
As I squint through the wind and the rain, I see ducks everywhere. Some streak past like miniature rockets while others bank slowly overhead, looking for a place to land. My dad’s 12-gauge roars, and a bird plummets to earth. I pick a duck out, pull the hammer back, swing and shoot — and the bird keeps going. Wow, I never imagined hitting ducks could be so challenging.
As the hour moves along, my frustration and disappointment grow. I keep loading, swinging and shooting — and the birds keep flying away.
I’m almost out of shotgun shells when I see a duck flying straight at me. I pull the hammer back, put the bead on it and shoot. And down it comes!
The bird lands with a splash a few feet in front of me. It’s early in the season, but this duck — a fully mature drake mallard — proudly displays its iridescent green head. And then it starts swimming away.
“Dad, dad,” I shout. “I got one! A greenhead. It’s starting to swim away. Should I shoot it again?”
My dad has just finished retrieving his final bird of the day and is making his way back to his spot. “No, don’t,” he says, “I’ll be right there. I’ll wring its neck.”
“OK,” I shout back as the mallard slowly swims into some grasses on the edge of the pond.
It doesn’t take long for my dad to get to the spot, but it’s too late. The bird, which knows its world and how to survive in it a whole lot better than we do, is gone. My dad looks and looks, but he can’t find it.
I’m 14 years old, and I’m devastated. I was so excited — the bird was right in front of me — and now it’s gone.
As I stand there in the wind and the rain, I have a decision to make: how do I handle this? Swallowing hard and clenching my teeth, I decide my dad isn’t going to see my disappointment. He’s sacrificed for me. He’s taken time out of his busy life to bring me out here and give me a chance. It isn’t easy, but he means more to me than the disappointment I feel.
Wildlife and life
Since that rainy day, I’ve been hunting countless times. In the process, I’ve learned so much.
Putting fresh meat on one’s table is just a tiny reason why people hunt. The connection with nature and the wildlife that live in it is a much bigger reason for me. So are the memories of spending time outdoors with family and friends, challenging nature together and coming out on top. And the mind-clearing solitude I experience, the fresh air I breathe while afield, are better for my soul than any visit to a doctor.
Add to that the relationships we nurture in nature. My dad is still with us, and I love him as much now as I did walking back to our truck on that rainy day so long ago.