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Enjoying the hunt, even when you can't 'hit the broad side of a barn'

Mychal Wilmes has fond memories of pigeon hunts, though he has never killed anything.

A group of pigeons on some logs.
Mychal Wilmes recalls pigeon hunts of old, getting his mom to cook the birds and the fact that he never was able to shoot well enough to hunt.
Courtesy / Pixabay
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We were reminded about the rules before starting a pigeon hunt on a crisp fall afternoon. No shooting was allowed inside a barn’s hayloft or aiming at the cupula or weathervane.

Other than that, farmers were happy to rid themselves of what were called flying rats. One person chased the pigeons out of the hayloft door so that hunters could blast them as the birds flew out.

Mother, who wasn’t eager to pressure cook the birds in a sea of dressing, relented under our pressure. We each devoured a bird and thought the meal among her best.

The pigeon population has declined as the number of barns has fallen; the birds have found new homes in urban areas as they struggle to find space among the crow population.

The hunt was good practice for better game, which included squirrels, cottontails, jackrabbits and deer. When the jackrabbit population was still large in southern Minnesota in the late 1950s, my brothers hunted rabbits in the marshes and wooded area just as Dad did decades before.

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He didn’t need a gun then because cottontails crowded around the haystacks. The rabbits were so concentrated that he hunted with a club rather than a gun.

The only time that Dad used a gun was to shoot a steer or hog for butchering. Firing a .22 rifle made him nervous out of fear that one shot might not be enough.

He used a shotgun to kill our collie when it tangled with a skunk and came down with rabies. He did so with great regret because the collie was the best farm dog he ever had.

An average-sized jackrabbit weighed between 6 pounds and 10. Hunting them was often an all-day affair and polished tracking skills. Mother fried the meat in spring chicken style. In the late 1950s, the government issued warnings that jackrabbits were infected with a liver disease that could possibly hurt humans.

Mother would not allow jackrabbits in her kitchen from that point on. The jackrabbit population — at least in southern Minnesota farming country — has dwindled since. I was startled to see one a decade or two ago while on a walk along an abandoned railroad track.

Wildlife officials in Nevada and in other states say disease threatens wild and domestic rabbits. The disease spread, if unchecked, could doom the rabbit population.

Squirrels were plentiful among the butternut, oak and walnut trees. The pheasant population varied by the year. Deer were rarely seen and wild turkeys nonexistent.

I was determined to graduate from pigeons but there was a problem. I didn’t own a gun, and my older brothers refused to let me borrow one from them. After much begging, they came up with a battered .22 rifle.

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I couldn’t — in their words and mine — hit the broadside of a barn. I wasted several bullets on squirrels before giving up. Along the way I discovered that being outdoors was the greatest reward. The smell of fallen leaves, the deep blue sky, and chill in the air helped refresh the soul.

I have never killed anything with a gun. People who asked to hunt on our farm property were always allowed to do so. Oftentimes, successful hunters gifted a pheasant or cottontail. Their kindness was much appreciated.

There were times when a gun would have been invaluable.

That was the case when I reached into a bag of chicken feed in the morning darkness, and something moved. It was an opossum, whose existence proves that God has a wonderful sense of humor.

It was dispatched with a baseball bat or at least I thought it was. When I returned for evening chores the opossum was gone. At least he may have left with a massive headache.

Other run ins with opossums followed, which kept me on high alert when reaching into a feed bag.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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