I know when I’m the outsider. As a longtime Nebraskaland Magazine writer and photographer, I’m well aware when I’m interrupting someone’s hunting or fishing trip. So when I went on a top-secret hunt near Ashland with a group of hunters I barely knew, I had been gifted an exclusive trip.
But it wasn’t the first time I had been on a hunt like this.
On the night before the open day of pheasant season in 2008, I was at Frank’s Bar with Scott Miller of Lincoln and his friends before hunting his dad’s land near Trenton. I was about to witness my first true Nebraska pheasant hunt, complete with the stop-off trip at Cabela’s on the way out for last-second supplies, a group dinner and hunting on land that had been in the family since 1942.
So when Russ Schellpeper, a close friend of Scott’s, came up to me in the bar — his 6’3 frame gazing down at me in a not quite grimacing, but definitely not inviting, glare — I was ready for just about anything.
“It was Scott’s idea to bring you here,” he said. “Not mine.”
I took a sip of my beer and continued to stare at him, knowing he wasn’t finished.
“We do this every year, and we do things a certain way. Don’t mess it up.”
“I won’t,” I smiled. “I can promise you that.”
As a Nebraskaland photographer, you’re along for the ride. I’ve never been put in an illegal or compromising position, but I’ve been with multiple people who were unfazed by my fancy camera equipment, people who simply wanted me to take whatever was thrown my way.
I received one of these potential curveballs in 2014 while covering the Patriot Hunts program, an organization dedicated to planning hunts for wounded veterans, first responders and their families. I walked into a cabin that housed a group of Purple Heart recipients and knew the atmosphere before I entered.
They bantered constantly, counting each others’ bullet holes and shrapnel wounds and searching for anything they could find to make fun of each other. So when they said to me, “So you’re the guy they sent from Cosmopolitan Magazine,” all I could do was smile. Then I immediately retaliated, knowing they would have swallowed me for sure if I backed off in any way.
Schellpeper had prepared me to respond to just about any situation, as I made it a point to hustle like crazy getting every image I wanted on his opening day pheasant hunt with him barely knowing I was there. The result: We’ve hunted together multiple times since and text each other frequently — usually questionable insults left best off the pages of this family publication.
So when I was invited into the Ashland blind last winter with a group of people I did not know, I was extremely prepared for anything that would come my way. There were the few, customary questions that arise regarding “how did you get into this line of work” and “how did you get to Nebraska in the first place” because of my Southern accent, but I knew I had not impressed them in any way.
But I was OK with that. See, just as they have their hunting crew, I have mine. We do things a certain way, invite the people we want to go and the days’ assignments usually go like clockwork. It’s smooth. Comfortable.
When we host an outsider, it often works out perfectly. But there was at least one day I was hunting with a new partner, and he told me that the tom turkey we were pursuing wasn’t worth the 400-yard walk through a muddy creek bottom to get to him. We never hunted together again.
Much like I don’t know if I’ll hunt with the Ashland crew again. They have their system. They know who’s calling and who’s calling the shot. They know who’s cooking, who’s putting out decoys and who’s assigned to the homemade airboat to retrieve birds or open up a hole skimmed with
Geese are their preference. While they killed several mallards, the ducks were an afterthought. I’ve hunted with duck hunters who travel the entire Central Flyway in pursuit of greenheads and would never be able to comprehend this.
But you know what? This crew could care less what those guys think. They’re after Canada geese and, quite frankly, they didn’t invite you in the first place.
They did invite me, however, and I remain very grateful. Through my years of working for Nebraskaland Magazine, the people I have met and the memories I have made and witnessed are immense. The Summit Lake ice-fishing cook-out of 2010 ranks right up there with the coyote hunting trip to the Sandhills with Chris Pokorny in 2012. The quickest turkey hunt I ever covered was with then-18-year-old Brad Cheloha of Columbus, and one of the longest was with then-63-year-old Lloyd Warren of Beatrice and his son, James.
My memories of this day near Ashland, less than 15 minutes from my house, as an outsider are just as special. From the airboat ice breaker to the indelible image of the retriever walking the dead goose through the decoys, I’ll never forget this day.
If not for the images I was able to capture, but for one more reminder of how thankful each of us should be if we have someone to hunt with. ■
Thanks to Andy Mink of Complete Retrievers. Learn more about his dogs at completeretrievers.com.