"PHEASANT HUNTING" by John Hightower: First Modern American Book on Pheasant Shooting, and still one of the best!

Alfred A. Knopf made the Borzoi label famous in the 20th century publishing world. Especially interesting was the series of books on hunting and fishing that came out under that imprint over several decades. The back dust jacket of my copy of “Pheasant Hunting” by John Hightower, 1st ed., 1946 looks like this:

(Double Click to Englarge and you
can read the text.)

The listing shows some of the great authors of the beginning of the “golden age” of outdoor writing in the United States, in my view. Hightower’s book is listed at top right. It can still be found today in hardcover for a few dollars per copy attesting to the fact that many thousands of them were published. The demand must have been huge for an outdoor book. Returning servicemen, starved for news of the outdoors populated by ringnecks rather than machine gun nests and landmines, were hungry for anything they could find on hunting and fishing. The ringneck’s sudden explosion onto the scene during the 20’s and 30’s really accelerated during WW II and John Hightower’s writing met the need.

The book is classic in its scope: personal hunting experience; many examples of various dogs used for pheasants and how to train them; cover and techniques used in various parts of the US; breeding, stocking and cultivating the wild pheasant population under many conditions; equipment and guns; recipes and many other cameo notes. The episodes concerning cultivating of the wild birds sound quaint today, but would that we could return to those days when sportsmen and farmers banded together in common interest to produce the greatest concentration of these wonderful birds ever seen in North America! Pheasants Forever is a very small attempt to do this, but the days Hightower describes are gone.

I have read many articles and books about the ringneck pheasant in the past 45 years and none has improved very much on this volume. Oh, yes, a detail or two here or there, updating of data on the types of guns and ammunition available, something about a variation on hunting dog breeds not tried before, new clothing or footgear, etc. Hightower even described preserve shooting back then very much as we know it today. Given the burgeoning population of the eastern states he certainly sensed the future importance of preserve shooting to keep the sport alive.

I shot my first pheasant ever in a Nebraska milo field late on an early December afternoon in 1965, hunting by myself with an old Stevens 12 ga. double gun, wearing khaki pants and low-cut shoes, not even having a proper vest. I can remember the whole thing vividly–the smell of the day, the warm colors of the harvested stubble, slipping on the muddy surface as I tracked down a rooster I had seen land in the field. He cackled as he flew into the field to feed while I walked along the fence row. That’s why I noticed him at all. Five minutes later I was on my knees in the muddy grass, stroking the beautiful feathers, marveling at the miracle of what the Creator had wrought. I’ll never forget the setting or the feelings I had. I was hooked on pheasants!

I have shot most of the major upland game species of the US and southern Canada since that time. I agree with Hightower’s conclusion after his first day shooting pheasants in Pennsylvannia as a boarding school student who had been weaned on bobwhites in the Deep South:

“It was probably, in the first place, overconfidence. Those doggone birds looked so easy to hit. Then, after having been badly fooled a couple of times, I tightened up, and from there on it was a case of pure over-anxiety. Nothing is so fatal to a man’s shooting eye as tautness and too, much eagerness. The harder I tried, the further off I pulled, and it was a chastened, but mad, pheasant hunter that went to bed that night. But I was just that, irrevocably–a pheasant hunter for the rest of my days.”

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andy W. says:

    Walter, I have H.L. Betten's book coming in the mail. I agree with you that those were the days of the golden age of outdoor writing. Right now, I am enjoying Ted Trueblood's writing. I've never seen the Hightower book, but I'll keep my eye out for it and get it when I can. Andy

  2. Isn't it funny how we remember our first rough necks roosters! I was about 12 years old when I shot my first one over my friends wired haired pointer in Utah.

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