I was standing next to Mike Gooder in the basement of his rustic home in rural northeast Iowa. It was the night before Mike’s annual kick-off weekend coinciding with the start of Iowa’s pheasant hunting season, and friends and family from all over Iowa and beyond had gathered to hunt, eat, and enjoy the merriment.
With a glass or two of whiskey on his breath and deep passion in his eyes, Mike grabbed my shoulder and said, “There’s a whole lot of wholesomeness going on here that most people are not aware of.” Mike was speaking not only about his group of family and friends and the activities surrounding his annual pheasant-hunting weekend, but also about the often misunderstood culture of rural America more generally.
“Hunters are truly great environmentalists because we, through our license fees and excise taxes, we give back to nature,” said Mike Gooder of Cresco, Iowaa. Gooder has attended his family’s “pheasant opener” hunting weekend every year since he was 4.
Mike knew that I had traveled to his home outside Cresco, Iowa, to film and write about rural America’s captivation with hunting. Although he understood that I had a job to do, Mike wanted me to experience what few East Coast journalists get to experience—the best rural America has to offer.
Mike was well aware of the antipathy rural hunters can evoke among those who have never taken the time to meet them. But the image of rural hunters as backward people who get pleasure from killing defenseless animals and pillaging the environment could not be further from the truth.
I first met Mike, his wife Rachel and their family a few months earlier at the Mighty Howard County Fair, the area’s largest annual community gathering. My brother Daniel and I attended the fair to try to better understand how a county that had voted for Barack Obama by 21 points in 2012, then voted for Donald Trump by 21 points in 2016.
This time I had traveled to Howard County to participate in my first-ever pheasant hunt. In fact, it was my first-ever hunt of any kind. By participating, I learned a little about hunting, and a lot about what hunting means to many rural communities around the country.
“I haven’t missed the opener since I was 4,” Mike said proudly as we set off Saturday morning for our first day of hunting. “I’ve hunted with my dad and my uncle and their friends, and that tradition now we’ve passed through my group.”
Over the next two days Mike, his son John, about a dozen of their friends, and two pointer dogs crisscrossed corn and alfalfa fields and a variety of other terrains searching for pheasants (roosters) to fly out from their nests.
Hunting is an experience and tradition that has brought individuals, families, and communities closer to the land, nature, and one other.
Hunting, at least pheasant hunting, is a rather monotonous endeavor, but one that instills patience, discipline and teamwork. We netted only a couple of pheasants in the first few hours. But when a pheasant did quickly fly out from its nest, I was surprised at the economy and accuracy of the shots taken. The men in the group I was hunting with knew what they were doing and took it seriously.
The group’s love for hunting went far beyond the thrill of the chase. “The weekend is our way of training young kids and guys and girls that have never had the opportunity to understand what the shooting sports are about,” Mike said. “We talk a lot about gun safety and how to properly carry and discharge the weapon without any harm to anyone.”
Additionally, the group (which consisted of farmers, horticulturalists, business owners and others) seemed to have an acute understanding, built on lifelong experience, that conservation, environmentalism, and hunting go hand in hand. “Hunting is not about randomly going out and shooting. In our case it’s about the ethical harvest of game, we support that,.” Mike told me over a beer after the first day’s hunt.
“Hunters are truly great environmentalists because we, through our license fees and excise taxes, we give back to nature.” Across the country these fees and taxes contribute to wildlife funds to help repopulate endangered animals, among other things. Ethical hunting also helps keep wildlife populations in balance.
The hunting philosophy Mike and his fellow hunters adhere to focuses on connecting the dots between nature and what the human experience has traditionally included, an ethical hunt and preparing and enjoying a meal (in our case it was pheasant cordon bleu) with family and friends. These men and women live, work, and spend the little free time they have in nature, and their respect for it is instinctive.
I had traveled to rural Iowa to participate in my first-ever pheasant hunt. In fact, it was my first-ever hunt of any kind. By participating, I learned a little about hunting, and a lot about what hunting means to many rural communities around the country.
Sitting down with Mike and his friends after our first day of hunting, everyone communicated their disapproval of how hunters, and gun owners more generally, are often depicted in the media.
“Every time that we have a shooting, a mass murder,” Mike explained, “the first thing that typically the left wants to do is try to counter by taking guns out of the hands of gun owners that are ethical and have no intent to hurt.”
If you think about the way in which guns are represented in popular culture, rarely is one used in a safe and legal manner. If you only watched news reports and Hollywood films, instead of, say, talking with a gun owner or joining a hunt, you might get the impression that just by holding a gun you could be turned into some sort of homicidal maniac. For many, ignorance about guns results in a fear of them. But it is rare to find a person who has spent significant time in rural America who is afraid to touch a gun or nervous about entering a home where guns are stored. They know better than to be frightened.
For many in rural America, an attack on gun owner rights and hunting is an attack on their culture and their communities. It’s often said that rural communities resent the resources and lifestyle of urbanites. It’s more accurate to say that any resentment they feel stems from the desire of city dwellers to control rural communities without attempting to understand them.
In this sense, most gun owners feel that a move to weaken gun rights is more than an attempt to curb gun violence; it’s also an attack on hunting and an attempt to control a culture urban elites seem to have little interest in understanding.
This feeling of being under siege moves many hunters and other gun-rights supporters across the political spectrum to support only political candidates who will preserve rural some sense of autonomy in rural communities. Mike explains, “Yes, the NRA is a very strong lobby for us as gun owners. I think that voting block is more unified and stronger than ever. We built a country based on individual freedoms and that right of ownership of guns is one of those freedoms afforded by what we’ve built here in the states.”
It’s often said that rural communities resent the resources and lifestyle of urbanites. It’s more accurate to say that any resentment they feel stems from the desire of city dwellers to control rural communities without attempting to understand them.
While flying back to Washington, D.C., after our weekend of hunting, it dawned on me that I had experienced something special, but not rare, with Mike and his friends. It was an activity that communities have participated in for time immemorial. It’s an experience and tradition that has brought individuals, families, and communities closer to the land, nature, and one other.
“I don’t think there will be a day, in my lifetime, that I won’t be a gun owner.” Mike pledged to me. “And I really doubt, until they have to drag me out of the field, that I will not continue to hunt and enjoy the camaraderie of outdoors and the thrill of the chase, the ethical harvest and the enjoyment of game. It’s part of our tradition.”
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