March 28, 2011
Learning the fun of the upland pheasant hunt
The first pheasant I'd ever seen looked larger than life. The rooster was dauntingly sized and luridly colored and he propelled from the food plot not more than a couple yards in front of me. Surrounded by quietly shifting golden brush and steady blue skies, his violent movement skyward was like a tantrum in a library, a distracting theatrical performance of flying feathers.
All eyes were on him, but none more intently focused than mine. I heard his wings flap, saw his body looming above me and wondered whose heart beat faster, his or mine. I pointed my shotgun at his body and pulled the trigger in a quick reflex. And this triumphant pheasant continued on, nary a feather busted by my wayward pellets.
I lowered my gun and squinted at his departing silhouette, framed neatly by the sun. Now the sky was quieter, muffled by the heaviness of disappointment--the dogs' and mine.
"Darn," I said.
But the smell of gunpowder in the air and the constant snuffling of the dogs diving through the field kept me giddy. The possibility of another bird crouching in cover, ready to blast into the air within shooting distance at any time, was a continuous source of adrenaline. As my hunting partners and I strode on, I recalled the slogan on the "Welcome to Iowa" sign that greeted us that morning: "Fields of Opportunity." Perhaps this was what they meant.
Such is the pull of the upland hunt, of which this was my very first. Arranged at the Highland Hideaway Hunting preserve in Riverside, Iowa, we were to hunt pheasants in mid-March, shortly before the season's end.
My partners in crime were a seven-year-old German shorthaired pointer named Gauge and a four-year-old vizsla named Grace, along with Gun Dog editor Rick Van Etten, Wildfowl editor Paul Wait and Highland guide and trainer Wes Boothe, Grace's owner. Paul and I had driven over from our office in Peoria, Illinois, earlier that morning and met Wes and Rick at the preserve's lodge.
When we got to the field, the two dogs sprang from their crates and landed on the field with a flourish, showing off their contrasting characteristics. Gauge was a broad mass of tight, shivering muscle covered in neat liver-and-white fur, a substantially sized GSP. Darting around next to him was Grace, red, petite and slender, even bony, but she had a quickness about her that made her seem more strapping than she actually was.
WATCH: Exclusive Video From This Hunt
Their soft ears flopped as they began our hunt at a jog, noses exploring the fields as we humans walked slowly, monitoring them and their beeping collars. Their styles were as different from each other as their appearances: Grace had long, galloping strides, seeming to leap from one spot to the other with a wide grin on her pink muzzle. Gauge was a bit choppier with a shorter but efficient pace, his snout fervent and determined. Both seemed tireless.
When asked how long the dogs could hunt, Boothe responded confidently, "They could do this all day, for a week." I saw no reason to believe he exaggerated.
The first pheasant encounter had come quickly, as did my miss. But several minutes later someone called out urgently, "POINT!" Another bird catapulted out, held staunchly by the two dogs until it could no longer contain its nerves. I reacted too soon, shooting in a jolt and wincing as the rooster flew off, carefree.
"Take your time," Boothe advised, smiling. "Your shot's moving at more than a thousand feet per second. The bird's going a lot slower. You have time."
"Look at the bird," Van Etten added.
READ: How To Pick A Pointer Breed
I nodded again, absorbing the suggestions. Think bird. Bird, bird, bird, I said to myself.
"You'll get it," Wait assured me "Keep going. There will be plenty of chances."
And there were. A bit further along, a bird flushed, lifting high as I raised my gun. I saw its colors from where I stood and zeroed in mentally. The dogs, the other hunters, the breeze that whispered by--I wasn't aware of any of it. The gun and I were a singular entity. I felt as fixated on the rooster as the dogs were. Bird, bird, bird. Look at the bird.
Down he went.
The instinct to retrieve is not inherent only to the sporting dog. I discovered this quickly after I killed my first bird and began trotting gaily toward it, still dedicated to the position of my bird and not wanting to lose sight of it.
Grace knew her job, however, and I stopped in my tracks as she delivered the rooster. Even with a bloody beak and ruffled feathers, he was handsome, and his body felt so solid and right in my hands.
"How did that feel?" Van Etten asked me moments later, the pheasant now tucked away in Boothe's vest.
"I'm high as a kite," I said, uncontrollably beaming. Previous misses of birds--to say nothing of the myriad sporting clays in the past months that had whizzed by me intact--felt like matters of the distant past. Here was the reward, one that would culminate in dinner the next evening. I was now a member of a tradition, a classic routine that had been performed for centuries. I was gratified.
READ: Tips For Late-Season Pheasants
But when the next bird was found, my 20-gauge Mossberg still went up. The movement felt more confident and fluid this time, and the scene was picturesque: Both dogs pinned a hen from either side, both crouched forward in sinewy points. To my left was Van Etten, his own gun raised cautiously.
We both crept forward with Boothe at our sides, boots crunching loudly with every step. I steadily navigated closer until I was near where the bird likely sat, trying not to look at the ground for its location. Grace and Gauge were as still as porcelain figurines, their tails pointing like lightning rods.
After a couple of nervous seconds, the bird bombed up, a new blur of chaotic wings. My gun cracked, followed by Van Etten's back-up shot. The hen tumbled down and was retrieved just as fast by the bounding Grace. It couldn't have played out more smoothly. Two birds--not bad. I was on top of the world.
For the remainder of the afternoon, Van Etten and Wait both took their own shots, downing three more roosters. Things slowed down after that, but we didn't mind. The sun was unusually radiant for a March in Iowa, enabling us to move at a leisurely pace and observe the serene surroundings.
Nature seemed hushed but alive; at one point, a few bluebill ducks whizzed by above my head, sounding like tiny fighter jets. In the distance, roosters squalled, too far to pinpoint but audible enough to be a tease. The air smelled clean and fresh air, but I knew it smelled different to the gun dogs.
"It's like hiking with a reward," I said to Van Etten.
"That's exactly what it is," he responded. Every golden collection of brush, bush and stalks held a potential surprise. It was such a different way to look at nature.
READ: Tips For Public Land Ringnecks
During lunch at the lodge, Van Etten reflected out loud on one of Grace's unwavering points from early that afternoon.
"Boy, was that intense," he said admiringly to Boothe. The moment was captured on video and as we watched the footage, the point was so strong that she looked like someone had pressed Pause, her lithe body taut toward the bird.
Boothe nodded and smiled, accepting the compliment of his dog humbly, but his eyes were full of pride--pride in the training and bloodlines of a good hunting dog. I may have been new to upland hunting, but I understood the look.
Angela Pham is the associate editor of Gun Dog.