by John Jonelis
He can feel it, hear it—his heart—beating hard, beating fast. Pounding above the din of those big nubbly tires and the blast of snow hitting the wheel wells. Is it anticipation? Fear? Primeval blood lust?
How will it feel to gun down a living animal? Can he really pull the trigger?
Today, Loop Lonagan joins seven seasoned hunters and four highly trained dogs to indulge in what his editor calls one of the great joys in life—slaughtering a few of God’s creatures. He’s a last-minute stand-in and rounds out the party to eight. Two hunters per dog. Perfect! How did he let himself get roped into this?
Loop is a man that loves a brawl—loves it more than anything in the world. He still uses his fists when he gets a chance, but he’s never taken the life of a fellow creature—at least nothing bigger than a cockroach. Today, for the first time, he will attempt to kill pheasant with a shotgun—and for some reason it makes him itch.
Pretty soon, the storm gets mean and he wonders if it could be the weather that’s crawling under his skin. Both highway and horizon fade to white. Only a stray stop sign proves they’re even on a road. And the driver tools along as if nothing’s the matter. Loop shakes his head and mutters under his breath, “Dis is ridiculous. Gotta get myself under control.”
“Hmm?” Jonelis flips on the wipers and smears half-frozen slop off the windshield. “You say something, Loop?”
“No—no, nothin’ John” Loop goes silent. No way he’s gonna slobber all over the boss with his stupid fears. Just look at the guy! He’s barely touchin’ the wheel. He’s wearin’ that big satisfied grin like he’s in some kinda bliss. What’s he thinkin’?
Wind buffets the truck. Loop looks mournfully out the window.
Finally he can hold it all in no longer. Pointing to the GPS, he shouts, “Dis don’t look much like Route 47 to me, John boy. We shoulda oughta turn back.”
The driver squints out the corner of his eye. “Turn back? TURN BACK?” He raises his voice to a roar. “WHAT ON EARTH FOR?”
Loop goes silent. He’s stuck here. He’s gotta tough it out.
“C’mon Loop—don’t pout like that. It snows in Chicago—every year it snows—you noticed that, right? And this whole bottom end always gets hit worst.
“Thirteen years, and my F-150 still gets me where I wanna go. It’s made for this weather.”
Still no response.
John suddenly cranks the wheel hard.
The truck swerves.
The faint white horizon flashes past the windshield at sickening speed and Loop grabs hold of something, anything.
When the truck straightens out, they’re again pointed the way they started. A 360 degree donut maneuver. Jonelis drives down the snowy path grinning and placid as if nothing happened. The guy’s gone psycho!
“Man, I love winter. Here, I’ll show you again.”
“NO!” Loop breathes fast and hard. “ARE YOU CRAZY?”
“Sorry Loop. I guess I just enjoy being immune to the elements. This front is supposed to be headed east in a narrow band. We’ll probably break out of it soon.”
Loop shakes his head, grunts, and takes his hand off the sissy bar. Certifiable—the guy’s certifiable. On pure reflex, he balls his powerful hands into fists and utters a silent prayer for a different ride home. But what’s he gonna do now—walk? He drops his chin to his chest and quietly moans.
John reaches across and pats his shoulder. “Loop, you’re a bundle of nerves. Get control of yourself or you’ll be useless during the hunt.”
Further south, they break out of the winter storm, just as forecast. The sun bursts through the clouds. Now it’s leftover snow banks and soggy ice-water puddles.
So they’re gonna live after all.
And Loop’s brand new Gore-Tex boots will prove a good investment today. He likes good investments and for the first time feels a twinge of optimism about this excursion.
At the Club
Everybody’s in the clubhouse. But Loop still sits in the parking lot, staring out at a field, trying to ease his racing heart.
All his life, he’s feared nothing, but that truck ride riled him up bad. Now he tastes bile. He swallows hard. Slows his breathing. Gotta focus on what happens next.
He goes over his fears one by one. What if he can’t hit what he aims at? What if he accidentally shoots another hunter? Or worse, a dog? These guys might forgive the first, but never the second. They spend way too much time training those little mutts.
Funny—none of that seems like such a big deal any more—not since the boss pulled that donut stunt. For the first time, Loop cracks a smile.
Zeke on point
When he steps out of the truck, his new boots sink into mud and gravel. This sure ain’t the streets of the big city. He opens the tailgate and rummages through his gear, slips on a borrowed blaze orange hat, a borrowed blaze orange hunting vest, and dumps a borrowed box of twenty five high-brass #5 shells in the big pockets.
Slowly unzipping a soft camo gun case, he hefts a borrowed 12-gauge side-by-side, replete with elegant scrollwork and Turkish walnut stock. This is a heavy and absolutely gorgeous field piece. It’s gotta take guts to lend $3,500 worth of the gunsmith’s art to a sloppy amateur.
He works the safety and practices loading shells. Loop has never actually fired a shotgun and his doubts run wild. Sure, he aims a rifle or maybe his favorite Smith & Wesson Shield at stationary targets. But from what he’s heard, this sport sounds more like baseball or maybe even golf than the gun range.
He practices mounting the shotgun one last time, swinging the muzzle past a nearby stand of trees, following through after each imaginary shot—just like they told him. It feels smooth and surprisingly natural. The stock fits him well.
“Okay, dat’s DAT! Time t’ face da music.”
Inside, Loop joins the party lounging around a big table. Introductions fly by him like dry leaves on a high wind, and in this cloud of new ideas he forgets every single hunter’s name. Strange—he remembers what they call all four of the dogs. Loop loves dogs.
Then one of them lays out the ground rules and mechanics of the hunt. It sounds a whole lot more organized than he imagined and he wonders if his 85 lb bull terrier Clamps can be trained to do this.
A sweet gal sits at the table and slides across a mug of beer. “Initiation time!” she says. “We don’t drink before a hunt but you’re new. You get one beer—just one. Afterwards I’ll allow you the pleasure of buying the first round for the rest of us.”
Some gals hunt
Loop slurps off the foam and downs the lager with relish. He wipes a sleeve across his mouth, and sighs.
Another group of hunters come in from the barbeque grill and offer a plate of pheasant tamales. Loop bites into his. Delicious! Like nothing he ever tasted before.
Now he’s leaning back in his chair. No more pounding heartbeat. Yeah—everything’s gonna be fine. Time for da hunt.
The group’s got two large fields today—one next to the other—all to themselves. They form a line and slowly march side-by-side, spaced well apart, dogs running all over the place, sniffing for birds ahead.
It’s almost impossible to see a pheasant running through this grass. But when one hunkers down in the brush, the dog finds it and holds its point until a hunter flushes the bird. A good dog will hold its position till the shot is fired.
Today each hunter will log 5 miles over broken ground, rocks, holes, tall grass and brambles, and slog through wet snow and water, but these little dogs each put in at least 15 miles and get wet doing it. They never seem to tire out.
Loop’s realizes that his bull terrier would plop down for a nap after half a mile. If he ever retrieved a bird, he’d crush and shake it until it was no longer fit for the table. But hey—Clamps is at home in the city, where he belongs. Every dog has his job.
Clamps in his element
The guy next to him (Rick, Gregg, Bob?—Loop can’t recall) moves ahead of Shiloh’s point, flushes a bird, and fires. The pheasant drops a leg and flutters down about fifty yards away. When the dog retrieves it, the bird is wounded but still alive. The hunter immediately breaks its neck to stop any suffering. All done so precisely. Very neat and clean.
Loop gapes at that rooster in awe. This is what they’re hunting? The color of its plumage takes his breath away. And look at the size of that thing—there’s gotta be alotta good meat on that bird.
The beautiful pheasant
When the hunter slips it in the game sack at the back of his vest, they continue their march. Loop looks at his elegant field piece and something changes inside of him.
Maybe it’s the sight of blood.
Maybe the finality of the kill.
As boots crunch through the brush, instinct takes a firm hold and his fear and doubt fade to the background. He zones in on his surroundings with a focus more intense than he’s ever experienced. The bite of fresh air. The array of indescribable wild smells. Four dogs running, leaping. Subtle pheasant prints in the snow. A sparrow flock bursts skyward to his left. A hawk circles high overhead. But most of all the dogs. He tries to keep them all in sight. Impossible.
Mud sucks at his boots, and looking ahead, he sees the field entirely drown in snow melt. No way around it. He utters a silent prayer of thanks for Gore-Tex boots, checks the line of his fellow hunters, and adjusts his position.
They slog on to the next snow bank.
“Duke’s on point! Hey Loop—your turn!” He sees Duke in thick cover just ahead—nose down, teeth clenched, saliva dripping from his mouth. The animal can barely restrain himself. Wow, do these dogs love to hunt! Loop knows a bird hides somewhere within 20 feet.
Duke on point
He makes his approach and a huge gaudy rooster flushes, cackling as it flies.
He mounts his gun. Swings the muzzle to shoot. Suddenly two dogs run into his sight picture, chasing under the bird. Nope—can’t risk a shot over them. The pheasant glides safely beyond the tree line. Yeah, those dogs broke training, but after all, they’re excited, just like he is. So what? He might still get another chance today. And maybe somebody will take that bird later.
Just like investing, hunting is lots of hope.
Upland game field
One guy is shouting at the white dog named Jack. That one ranges too far and finally breaks with the group to sniff out an area hundreds of yards to the side. Loop likes Jack best of all the dogs and breaking from the line of hunters, follows him. He feels one with him and shares the joy of the hunt as if he were an extension of the animal.
When he gets close, the dog is already holding point. Without warning, a rooster takes wing!
Jack on point
Without stopping to think, Loop swings his shotgun and fires. Bird #1 tumbles into high grass.
He’s about to search for it when Jack goes on point again. Loop moves ahead of the dog and kicks at a tangle of brush, then he tries another clump. It seems impossible that a big colorful bird can hide here, but Jack’s still holding that point.
Flushing a pheasant
The pheasant flushes behind his back.
On pure instinct, he wheels and shoots. An explosion of feathers—the bird drops straight to the ground. Loop fired way too soon—way too close. A real waste—not much meat left on that carcass. He chalks it up to inexperience and tells himself to slow down. But that’s bird #2.
Both barrels empty, he pauses to re-load. But Jack is on point again!
Jack on point again
He moves ahead of the dog, eyes wide open, searching, wanting the kill. The pheasant erupts from the brush and into the sky. This time, he waits for some shooting distance, then the muzzle roars. Bird #3 down!
Three shells, three birds—all in the space of a couple minutes!
A hat trick!
Jack retrieves one bird, then another, his tail wagging. Loop stuffs both in his vest and picks up the one he pulverized by shooting too soon. He glances at his hands, smeared with blood from the ruined bird, and amazingly, it doesn’t bother him. A couple hours ago he wondered if he could pull the trigger and now he doesn’t even want to wipe his hands clean. He reflects that the blood of these birds is a gift. His game pouch bulges out behind and he enjoys the weight of it. He can hardly believe that he gets this privilege—to experience this primal sport and come away with real food. Again, he utters a silent prayer of thanks.
One for the Road
Giddy from the hunt, Loop heads back toward the group, all his misgivings gone, every emotion urging him to break into dance. For the most part, he restrains himself. Zeke joins up with Jack, and Loop closely watches those two dogs.
He hears hunters call to each other in the woods.
Jack and Zeke
Two shots! He pivots toward the sound. Two more shots in rapid succession! A pheasant flies out of the trees, fast as it can go, well out of range of the barrage of pellets aimed at its tail.
Before it can fly past him, Loop swings his gun, leads the bird, and fires.
A head shot! It instantly falls out of the sky.
Zeke retrieves the bird and Loop stows it, feeling a deep satisfaction he’s never known. That’s bird #4—and he’s spent only four shells! Plenty for the day! He won’t fire his shotgun again this trip.
The hunters form ranks and march across another field. And Loop gets treated to an amazing site. Shiloh points a bird. Zeke and Jack honor that point like the well-bred canines they are. How do they train dogs to do that?
Zeke and Jack honor Shiloh’s point
Loop draws in a lungful of cold air. What a great day! Everybody gets at least three birds. Even John shot birds, but he claims it happened by accident.
On the way in, he pulls out his phone and snaps off a photo of the group.
Then they head back to the clubhouse to clean up, drink beer, smoke the compulsory cigar, and tell lies.
Meat on the Table
Back at the lodge, Loop makes a proposal that they all immediately accept. Dinner at his downtown penthouse.
He phones home. “Yeah Meadows—tell Anatole t’ dig out dat recipe fer Pheasant Zummer. I’m brinin’ da birds. And pick out da best wine. Yeah, all da trimmins, too. I’m showin’ up in an hour with seven happy guests in muddy boots!
He hears a professional, “Very good sir,” and can hardly wait to experience the joy of a feast with his friends. These aren’t just any birds—these are HIS birds—birds he hunted down alive and killed himself! He’s sure every one of those hunters feel the same way about their kill. And he remembers something John said—words that got him here: “That feeling of satisfaction lasts for days, maybe weeks.”
Loop’s fallen in love with this place. A hunter’s paradise! It’s gotta be one of Chicago’s best startups and he wonders if they need another investor. The place looks prosperous enough. There’s no membership fee—no monthly dues—no volunteer work—you pay for your birds—that’s it. Nice clubhouse and bar. Good fields. Extended season and no bag limit. You can hire a guide and dog here. They even clean your kill. Wanna go?
And he decides to ride home with the same crazy driver that got him here.
Erienna Hunt Club is located one hour south of downtown Chicago. The season runs from September 1st to April 15th. If you’ve got any primeval instincts left in your modern mind, check it out!
All photography by John Jonelis and Loop Lonagan, with thanks to all his hunting mentors, especially Gregg Patz, Rick Bohning, and Frank Spellman.
Chicago Venture Magazine is a publication of Nathaniel Press www.ChicagoVentureMagazine.com Comments and re-posts in full or in part are welcomed and encouraged if accompanied by attribution and a web link. This is not investment advice. We do not guarantee accuracy. It’s not our fault if you lose money.
.Copyright © 2017 John Jonelis – All Rights Reserved