The Yearly Duck Hunts That Keep My Family and I Connected

Trekking through the marsh with my Labrador retrievers and my 82-year-old dad gets me outside. That's what really matters.

Welcome to “How I Stay Sane,” a weekly column where real dads talk about the things they do for themselves that help them keep grounded in all the other areas of their life — especially the parenting part. It’s easy to feel strung-out as a parent, but the dads we feature all recognize that, unless they regularly take care of themselves, the parenting part of their life will get a lot harder. The benefits of having that one “thing” are enormous. For Greg Steinhoff, who lives in Columbia, Missouri, that thing is waterfowl hunting. His dad got he and his brother hooked on it 50 years ago and they’ve spent every fall together, trudging through the marsh, with one new addition: the labrador retrievers Greg trains to go on hunts with them. Getting away is his break from the world. Hunting helps him share that break with his family.

My father really enjoys waterfowl hunting. My brother and I went with him our whole lives. The trip was mainly about being with my dad, and being with each other in the outdoors. The time spent was tremendous.

As I grew up, I began hunting with other people. I saw them involving labrador retrievers in the hunts. I was really amazed seeing the instincts of the dogs. I went to a kennel that is serious about dog training. They taught me how to train my dogs, and I got my first lab. I started training him myself and it just took off from there.

The dog is a family pet. And the hobby of training is great. I work with my labs in the field and try to get them to do certain maneuvers that assist in hunting. We work and then we come right home and then they’re playing with the kids. I think I love training them and hunting because of the escapism part of it. You get away, your mind gets away from all the things that are on the to-do list. And the beauty of watching the labs work. I love bringing them out to waterfowl hunt with my dad. He’s 82 years old and still hunting.

When it comes to the daily training routine, it really helps me mentally de-stress. Each dog is different. You have to figure out what motivates your dog. There is a mental aspect to it. I have to figure out the personality of my dog, what motivates them, and then figure out how I can develop training techniques that will bring out their instincts and get them to do what I need them to do in order to be successful. Just like any hobby, there’s an art to it. I love that about it.

The dogs are always happy to see me! Tail wagging, jumping up and down. They’re dogs. No matter what’s bothering me, they just wipe that away. That’s the best thing. And then we have our routine. I start with throwing the bumpers and letting them have fun. I make sure that I’m making progress, I document what the dog achieves every day, and make notes about what I’d like them to see or do by the next week. Like any good hobby, there’s discipline to it.

Any time I spend with my dog is bonding time. It’s also, when I’m training, a lot of times I have the dog at my side and I’ll have one of my daughters be 75 yards out and throwing the bumper. I try to do it with my kids so I can spend time with them at the same time and they can see how the dog gets excited and they feel good about helping the dog become really good at the whole process. It can be a family thing as well.

My favorite thing is when I’m in South Dakota, and we are walking through a field or a grassy area, and the dog is ‘quartering’ — he’s going back and forth in front of me — and they’re all excited because they can smell the birds. They’re running fast, and all of the sudden they get that whiff of a bird, and they lock up. And, they look back at me like, there it is. They are so excited. I flush the bird, and they go and get it. It’s just beautiful. And I can tell they really love it.

It’s this magical moment: I’ve trained my dog for a year and a half, and the first time I see that, when they put it all together, that’s really the peak moment. Everything else is just reinforcing that.

There are different seasons for fowl hunting. We hunt in South Dakota, and we go up there once or twice a year for two or three days at a time. We really mainly go for waterfowl, where we’re out in the flooded marsh. In this case, my dog’s don’t quarter. They’re sitting next to me, waiting for me to bring something in. So they’re watching for geese and ducks all the time in the sky. Oftentimes, they’ll be sitting next to me, watching the sky, and they’ll see them before I do. If I just watch the dogs, I know that I can look where they are looking and there they are. That season is 60 days, no matter where you are. I probably go duck hunting for maybe 18 to 20 times a year, and pheasant hunting 5 or 6 days a year. It’s a fair amount.

I do like hunting. But honestly, my favorite part of the hunting trips is the fellowship. It’s your time to get away with the guys. The deer hunters are the craziest. They set up camp. They get really into it. They stay there for a week and don’t shave and all that stuff. I’m not into that. I’ll go out to the marsh in the morning and then I’ll go to work in the afternoon.

My dad, my brother and I have been hunting together for 50 years. A lot of people don’t like the idea of hunting. I just know that it’s a tradition, it’s something that we did and our grandpa did and our great-grandparents did. It’s been a way for my brother, my dad, and I to be together every fall for our entire lives. It’s the reason we have the relationship that we do. It’s really meaningful. Training my dogs, that’s the stuff I get to do throughout the year. But the other part of hunting that people don’t get is that it’s getting you outside. The dogs know we’re getting ready now; hunting starts the third week of October. I’ll be out there with my dad and my brother, spending time with them.