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Take it to the limit

A sports fan’s friendly wager leads to a sportsman’s dream hunt

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Though the words differ only by a space and a letter, the worlds of the sportsman and the sports fan are leagues apart. The sportsman is by nature a supreme engager, a nurturer of the wildness within himself, an allegiant to the animals he chases and the places they live. The sports fan is by nature a supreme observer, a nurturer of the often-failed competitor within himself, an allegiant to entities with whom he has no direct contact.

Thankfully, we live in a country that offers not only an embarrassment of riches for each type, but also the freedom to fully embrace both approaches, should your personality accommodate such variance. Mine certainly does—though outside of sharing a boat or a hunting blind with a like-minded sports fan, those split personalities have never intersected. Never, that is, until last year, when the two worlds collided with a glorious result.

The deal came about when the Green Bay Packers met the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in February 2011. My colleague Stacy Ratliff, an avid Steelers fan, proposed a bet that would have had me playing fishing guide for a day to Stacy and his brother, Jay, in the event of a Steelers win, or Stacy and Jay playing host to my hunt on their family farm in central Montana should my Packers prevail. To me, each of Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ three touchdown passes that day looked like the flight path of a wild pheasant, and his right arm earned him an MVP trip to Disney World while simultaneously punching my ticket to pheasant-hunting nirvana.

Any day of hunting pheasant is an exceptional one, but this had the makings of an epic. To begin with, I had never before hunted over a pointing dog, and Stacy’s reports on Slick, Jay’s 9-year-old German shorthaired pointer, were glowing. The kicker, though, was that Jay presides over nearly 500 acres of prime pheasant habitat, and had vowed to keep a section free of hunters for the first three days of the season so that we, on the fourth day, would be chasing birds that had not been shot at for the better part of a year—if ever.

Getting an early start from Missoula, I met the brothers Ratliff shortly after daybreak at a crossroads near the farm. Time spent around Stacy and his immediate family had convinced me that the Ratliff clan is constructed of exceptional moral fiber, and Jay added further proof when he confessed, at our introduction, that he himself was not a Steelers fan and that he was carrying his brother’s load because, well, that’s what brothers do.

From the rendezvous we headed for our destination, the roads progressing from smooth pavement to frost-heaved asphalt and then to washboard dirt. We pulled into the corner of a large field devoted to CRP—short for Conservation Reserve Program, a highly effective piece of federal legislation that pays farmers to plant erosion-preventing and wildlife-friendly cover on portions of their land—and I’m pretty sure Slick and I quivered on the same white-hot wavelength as we exited the vehicles.

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