YAKIMA, Wash. — A few weeks ago I was hunting pheasants, trying to keep up with my Lab Bailey, as she worked a ditch filled with cattails, when an out-of-place color on the ground ahead of me caught my eye.
The thing was a light purple color, and as soon as I took a second to focus on it, I was immediately taken back to 1969.
The purple item buried in the grass was an old 16-gauge shotgun shell hull. The brass at one end of the shell was tarnished from sitting in the weather for who-knows-how-long and the purple color in the plastic hull was faded from the unrelenting beat down from years of sitting in the sun.
I didn’t have to pick up the old spent shell to know it was a 16-gauge. I knew instantly what it was from years of carrying around purple shotgun shells in my youth. No other shotgun shell came in the purple color.
For you non-hunters, shotgun shells come in different colors as a safety precaution to keep hunters from putting the wrong-sized shell in their shotgun. Not always, but normally, 12-gauge shells come in red, or green, or even blue. Yellow is the color of most 20-gauge shells, and although I haven’t purchased a box of 16-gauge shells in years, they are most often purple.
Anyway, when I saw the old shell in the grass in the old road, a ton of memories came flooding back to me.
I first starting hunting birds when I was 12-years old. My shotgun was a hard-earned Stevens’s single-shot shotgun in 16-gauge. I worked all summer to raise the 20 dollars I needed for half of the purchase price of the little shotgun. My dad, through an agreement we made when I told him I wanted a shotgun of my own, offered to pay half if I earned the other half.
So, after much looking and thinking, I ended up paying cash for the single-shot Steven’s at Jed’s Sportsland, and that fall I was ready to hit the fields with my dad and our overweight Brittany spaniel, Scamper.
I don’t remember but I’m sure my dad bought my first box of shells for me because I was almost assuredly tapped out after buying the gun. My dad’s 12-gauge shells were red, so I was surprised when I opened the box and saw the weird purple-colored shells sitting in neat rows in the box.
My first year of bird hunting was not terribly successful as far as bagging anything goes. The birds in the Yakima Valley were safe in front of me. But it was fun and incredibly educational. And the more I hunted and the more I missed, the more determined I was to get a rooster pheasant.
That day came in my second year of hunting, right around Thanksgiving in 1969.
My dad liked to hunt in alfalfa fields that had been left uncut into the fall. On this particular day we were hunting in a field out in Moxee that was about a foot high, and for some reason, there were bales of hay still sitting in the field from an earlier cutting.
We were about two-thirds of the way through the field when almost subconsciously I spotted a rooster pheasant head pop up from behind one of the bales of hay just in front of me. The head ducked back down in a millisecond, but even though I was still not sure I had actually seen what I saw, I started to raise my shotgun in preparation of the flush.
And flush the rooster did in a thunder of wingbeats and a cackle that will scare the bejeebers out of the even most veteran pheasant hunter.
It didn’t bother me though, I guess. Because when my little 16-gauge boomed, the pheasant folded in a cloud of feathers.
I was in disbelief and incredibly excited, but my dad was beyond that.
“How in the world did you get that shot off so fast?” he kept asking me as he patted my back over and over again.
When I went over to pick up my very first pheasant I couldn’t have been happier if it was a bull elk or a record book buck.
In the years that followed my dad talked about that first pheasant of mine many times. And over time, he watched me become a decent wingshot. Still, I believe he thought that first bird was maybe my best shot ever.
And who knows, he may have been right.
That was 50 years ago almost to the day, and in the half century since then, I have bagged over a thousand pheasants. I know because I have kept a hunting journal every season over that time. And, while I don’t remember the details of very many of those birds, I will never forget that first pheasant taken on a late November day, with my 16-gauge shotgun, loaded with a purple shotgun shell.
• Rob Phillips is an award-winning freelance outdoor writer who has written the Northwest Sportsman column for over 25 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org