By Gary Lewis
Cured to a golden brown, the tall grass bent with the wind. Leaves, ablaze with October color, skittered down the dirt road. As the sun warmed the hilltops on a Saturday in October, we gathered inside a barn on a ranch called Horseshoe Bend between Klickitat and Goldendale, Washington.
Sitting on folding chairs and hay bales were 45 men and women who had signed up for this adventure. Among them were scattered volunteers and sponsors, there to make sure the men and women who served our country had a chance to enjoy themselves with a gun or fishing rod in hand.
I shook hands with a tank commander who served in Vietnam and posed for pictures with two mild-mannered brothers who were explosives detection and disposal experts in the Iraq war.
Some would hike down to fly-fish the Little Klickitat River for trout, others would drift the Klickitat for salmon and others would shoot clay pigeons and hunt pheasant out on the hilltops above the river.
My friend Rodney Smith showed up with Jack Hoffman and Jim Thurber of the Gold Rush television show. Hoffman planned to go fishing, but Thurber wanted to try his hand at hunting birds. We were joined in the field by Bill Bailey who served in the Korean conflict.
We started on the target range then took to the fields behind a couple of Llewellin setters and a black Lab. Our guide was Scott Sneer, owner of Blaze Outdoor Adventures (www.blazeoutdooradventures.com) and the host of this Hunting with Heroes event. As we walked, he spoke about how his team of volunteers reached out to veterans groups and how sponsors like McNett Corporation, Colt Competition Rifles, Pheasants Forever, Sportsman’s Warehouse of Vancouver, Washington, and Alpha Ecological stepped forward to provide the funding and gear.
After an hour or so, a few roosters had fallen to our guns, but there was still room in our game vests. We walked back along the edge of an oak forest where acorns were strewn underfoot.
Sneer stopped and cocked an ear into the trees. “Did you hear that?”
I looked down the hill where the ground sloped sharply away toward the river. There was a defined line where birds might hold.
The dogs had swept ahead so we walked in without them. A rooster scuttled from one bush to another. A bird broke away and Scott swung with it and fired.
Ahead of me, a hen stopped then started again. I shot at a rooster and missed then fired at another and connected. Two more streaked away and I accounted for one and missed the other.
My gun was empty and I clutched at my vest for more rounds while pheasant after pheasant after pheasant clawed for the sky. Five roosters and as many hens broke away before I could get my gun loaded again.
It doesn’t take much cover to hide a rooster. I looked ahead through the trees and saw a branch down on the ground. When I walked in, a rooster ducked out and hot-footed along the ridgeline, straight at the other half of our group. Halfway to Jim Thurber, the bird took to the air. When he saw the tall mustached prospector, he climbed like a jet fighter. Thurber waited until the bird was high over his head and fired.
We watched a hawk harry seven roosters that had collected along a fence line. The raptor looked like a first timer too, seven times he dove at the roosters and seven times they eluded him. There were more than a few first time bird hunters in the fields that day. And never did so many pheasants escape to see another day.
Hunting and fishing events for veterans have proliferated in the last few years. Organizers work with veteran associations and military bases to recruit interested participants. Outfitters donate hunts and fishing trips to encourage active duty personnel as well as retired vets to get into the field or to hit the water.
For some, these are their first hunting and fishing experiences. For many, this is their reconnection to nature after months in a foreign land.
When the event was over, Scott Sneer summed it up, “The hunt is a celebration of the freedom we enjoy in this country and when we celebrate our freedom, we should also celebrate our veterans.”
In the eyes of our soldiers young and old I saw gratitude, healing, enthusiasm and a sense of awe that other people, their fellow Americans, care for them.
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