Zack Johnson

Zack Johnson and his hunting dog SHR Doc.

As a boy, I quickly developed a desire to experience the outdoors.

My first hunt was at the age of 6 and I got to experience nature in deep isolation as a fly on the wall. It was so pure, so exhilarating — from then on I wanted to challenge myself and become closer with and further immerse myself in nature. When I was hardly pulling back the state- required 45 pound draw weight of my PSE Spyder compound bow, I dreamed of harvesting a bull moose in the bush of Alaska. Of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea of what that dream entailed. The knowledge, experience, and not to mention the money it would take to reach that goal would take awhile to accumulate.

I’ve grown up and learned a bit since then but the ultimate dream persists.

For the majority of my years I’ve spent my time harassing whitetail deer in southern and central Illinois. I’ve had my share of shutouts and also days where the deer won’t get far enough away for me to itch my nose. I’ve been dripping sweat in the heat of early October and I’ve been frozen to the core with boots full of needles in late December trying to hold out “just a little bit longer” for the slim chance at a monster buck.

In recent years I’ve gotten myself into waterfowl and just like my early days with whitetail I quickly became obsessed. The joy of success and learning overshadowed the sorrows of my mistakes tenfold and I couldn’t shake the itch to get back out in the blind.

When planning my season these days it usually looks something like this:

Oct.  1-23: Deer

Oct. 23- Nov. 15: Ducks

Nov.16- Dec. 10: Both

Dec. 11- 24: Ducks

This schedule makes for a long few months but I love every second of it. Using saved-up vacation days, coordinating hunts with family and friends, making new friends, waking up before the sun, first cups of coffee, telling stories and making memories are all a part of the grinding joy- filled endeavor we call hunting.

Every year when my season comes to a close, and before I even have a chance to catch up on sleep, I miss it. I’m filled with regret when I think of all the buddies who couldn’t make it out for a hunt, peak rut days I missed or when my friends hit a six-man limit before noon without me. It always seems like more could have been done.

The real bummer is that deer and waterfowl seasons only take up about four months of the year and when it ends you’re stuck twiddling your thumbs and planning for next season — and it always seems like the off-season lasts forever.

Going after one of every species

Inspired by my off-season blues and desire to connect more with nature it hit me -- just hunt more. In my lifetime I’ve hunted most game in our region but have never made it a priority. I may have picked up a squirrel or pheasant hunt every now and then, but I’ve never committed myself to learning how to hunt a variety of game. I figured, “If I can’t moose hunt right now why not learn how to hunt all of the game that’s readily available to me?”

I then devised a plan to satisfy my itch for outdoor adventure that would extend my season from four months to nine. I decided, to the best of my ability, I would try to hunt, harvest and eat at least one of every species of animal in season in Illinois this year. From squirrels in the August heat all the way to the brisk sun-draped mornings of conservation snow geese and spring turkey — I will hunt.

This means, if everything goes as planned, I will hunt, harvest, and eat: Squirrel, dove, Canada geese, snipe, rail, deer, turkey, ducks, light geese, white-fronted geese, crow, woodcock, rabbit, pheasant and quail.

As I glance at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ (IDNR) hunting and trapping digest to see what I’m up against, I read down the list of available game seasons and think, “I’ve never even seen a snipe or woodcock...what is a rail? How am I going to do this when just writing that list was exhausting?”

Missouri and Illinois 2019-2020 hunting seasons

By no means am I a master outdoorsman, but I wouldn’t call myself a novice, either. Regardless of my skill level, reaching this goal will take a good deal of effort. Not only will it require time and energy, but it will force me to learn where and how to hunt game I’ve never even heard of. On top of that, I’ll have to make a meal using what I harvest — which can be an extremely difficult and fragile task. It is also important to remember in hunting there are no guarantees of success!

There are countless factors that could get in the way of reaching this goal. What if it’s a bad birth year for a certain species? What if I blow my one chance to harvest an elusive critter? What if I overcook the meat and don’t get the chance to harvest another? What if I can’t even find the critter? What if life gets in the way?

Starting with a plan

I’ve set a measurable goal for myself (see the accompanying schedule) but when it comes down to it, success is not the sole driver of my happiness. No matter the outcome of this adventure it will be worth it because, in the words of bow hunting Hall of Famer and outdoors philosopher Fred Bear, “If you consider an unsuccessful hunt to be a waste of time, then the true meaning of the chase eludes you altogether.”

So far I’ve knocked out squirrels and as I vigorously knock on wood, I’ll anticipate, by the time you read this this article runs, a successful harvest of doves and Canada Geese.

Zack Johnson does some teal hunting in early September. (Photo provided by 

My success with squirrels has come from finding a location with a good number of hardwood trees, entering the area slowly and patiently, sitting down for about 10 ten minutes to listen, and following my ears. I typically listen for the sound of dropping objects — more specifically, things dropping from the treetops I can hear rip through layers of leaves before hitting the ground. I hear this sound and slowly work my way that direction and usually find a large hardwood tree surrounded by fresh broken nuts. I’ll back about 20 yards away from this tree and sit and wait for activity.

Once harvested, I made my best attempt to make a dish closely resembling buffalo wings - which I, as I feared, I dramatically overcooked. As I took my first bite along with my sister and cousin there was a moment of silence in which I was trying to let my pride override my taste buds and they were obviously just doing their best to be polite — a true test of friendship. They were quick to follow suit when I broke, spit the meat back on my plate, and vocalized my disgust. Luckily I’ve learned from my mistake and have since recovered and set myself back on course to reach my goals.


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