September 23, 2010
A limit of pheasants--the hard way.
In China, they would call this a "Pheasant Fire Drill"--not one of those combat drives with skirmish lines of drivers and junkyard dogs advancing on blockers who are willing to withstand showers of falling sixes in order to waylay a flock of footloose roosters--but a couple of guys with pointers out to have a good time and maybe get in range of a ringneck or two. Sounds simple enough but somehow these things almost always seem to go awry.
One or two guys with pointing dogs out to have fun in open pheasant range may find the challenge a bit daunting.
Clint and I pulled up to the picked cornfield in which we had earlier observed a swarm of birds stuffing themselves with spilled kernels. We had a plan. The escape cover used by this flock was a quarter section of bluestem CRP, kitty-corner across the road intersection from our corn stubble. One of us would take a dog and ease through the knocked-down stalks while the other waited quietly in ambush at the corner. It would be almost too easy.
With Junior the pointer on a short lead, I softly closed the passenger door, keeping low in the roadside swale while Clint drove the Bronco stealthily past the intersection and parked. Junior trembled with anticipation, whimpering faintly and stomping his feet in the wet grass. He had a snootful of upwind ringnecks.
As Clint opened the vehicle door, getting set to sneak back to the corner, there arose a clamor of cackles and iridescent color as a wave of ringnecks sped across the intersection, some legging it, flattened like turtles, others sprinting like roadrunners, legs churning and necks craned. The last of them scudded into the bluestem less than a yard off the ground. It was all over in an instant, the intersection empty and silent as if nothing had happened. Clint, who hadn't had time to draw his gun, shrugged and threw up his hands.
Every ringneck is a trophy when you hunt the birds one or two on one.
Before I could signal him to take up his intended position, he jumped in the Bronco and flipped a U-turn. I had launched Junior when Clint stepped out of the vehicle and he was moments too late to preempt my starting into the cornfield. In fact, Clint was only half-way back when Junior slammed a hen which, at the flush, raised another wave of birds that rocketed straight for the now abandoned corner, cackling and flashing electric blues, greens, browns and some white necklaces. Clint spun yet another U-turn, for the second time, a dollar short and a few moments late.
If you are a pheasant hunter who follows some kind of shooting dogs, reading this little saga may invoke some of your worst nightmares. But you will not be surprised to learn that Clint and I doggedly pursued those birds into the big bluestem, in what proved to be one of the most irrational fiascos we ever embarked upon. It is fascinating how angry we become at our objective when we've screwed things up badly. Golf balls and ringnecks really make me mad.
A pack of hyenas could not have lifted those pheasants from that CRP and it took us an hour to recover our dogs from it. We managed to sack one rooster that was late flying out of the corn stubble and nearly dropped in my lap when I shot it.
A limit of roosters the hard way calls for a celebratory breather for gun dog and gunner.
Clint and I decided to take a break while the gittin' was good and headed for the café in town for some hot coffee. Sharing such a hunt with someone to whom you needn't apologize for your bungling and who can laugh at his own screw-ups is a great way to make memories, and one good reason for not hunting alone.
A hunt, either with someone or solo, in a duck blind or grouse woods makes for a cozy, familiar environment where the mood is quiet and contemplative--albeit broken now and then by cupped-wing visitors or a thunderous flushing ruff. Gunner and gun dog can get close and tuned in to each other. However, there is nothing intimate about wild pheasant hunting or the environment in which it takes place, for the most part.
Pheasant hunting is more like a paint-ball battle or a rodeo clown act. Ringnecks do this linear, cover-strip thing, and whereas a proper grouse or woodcock gunner would never resort to chasing the dog or bird on a dead run with a loaded gun, pheasants often foment just that kind of predatory behavior in the best of us.
I have hunted ringnecks by myself, just me and the dog, and never has the urge to be two or three places at one time been more pressing. Unless I get extremely lucky (a rare occurrence) I wind up feeling like a setter pup chasing its tail. We can plot and plan all we want but the birds always seem to have an answer. Natural environment decidedly favors the pheasant and, if worse comes to worst, it can always fly.
I once found myself alone with Patch the setter at a long, deep drainage ditch in Iowa pheasant country. This swale separated two bare stubble fields but was choked with weeds, brush and cattails. I knew there were roosters in it and I was fairly sure what they would do when Patch and I entered it. All I needed was one more player at the far end of the ditch to make a game of it.
I recalled conditioning Patch as a pup to sit and stay while I left him seated in the yard and observed him from the garage window. While I'm pretty sure Patch's memories of this exercise are not particularly fond, it progressed to the point where he would remain in place for as long as it took me to eat lunch. Faced with quite dismal prospects for lifting any birds from this ditch, I hatched a scheme to place Patch on "stay" at one end of it while I quietly made a wide half-circle through the stubble to the other end of the swale some 200 yards distant.
Upon reaching my position I whistled Patch to me, figuring that if he were delayed by a bird that held for him, I could make my way toward him through the swale using the pup as a blocker. We had the birds trapped in a pincer ploy from which there was no escape.
It helps to have a pointing dog with pheasant-specific experience as ringnecks can be counted on to hold only when cut off or pinned fast.
Would have worked, too, if those darn roosters, about three limits' worth, hadn't pulled the same stunt I did, departing the ditch on foot and streaking across the stubble with Patch in hot pursuit. He was pretty fast for a 70-pound pup, but those birds had a big head start. It is just such blighted schemes that make posting up under a hailstorm of number six shot begin to seem almost tolerable.
I began experiencing this vexation at a single-digit age, hunting with my dad and some beagles. Two of these hounds, in particular, were fine bunny runners, but they were also truly outstanding bird dogs. They could not only boost ringnecks from the nastiest cover, but their voices kept us informed on their progress. Sooner or later, the pheasant had to fly or die.
Of course, the rub was that the birds didn't always fly where we could get our sights on them and that's where the frustration often set in. I remember a weed patch with a dried-up creek bed running through its middle. In Montana it would have been a coulee. We mostly called it a gully but Dad had an unprintable name for it, owing to the fact that more roosters shucked us in that location than at all our other haunts put together.
The gully was overgrown with brush and a tangle of tall sapling trees that saved the lives of more cock pheasants than I could count. There were always a few birds in there and it did no good to flank both sides because they would simply lead the dogs up the middle until out of range and then flush, cackling tauntingly. Once, following a heavy snow, we raised more than 50 birds from the gully and never had a shot.
It was after a subsequent snowfall that we made a more careful study of the birds' tracks, prompting us to attack the gully from both ends at once and converging on the middle.
Looking back, I suppose we could have attacked the thing with the Michigan militia and still not have gotten the better of those birds. As with most upland gunning, the sport is in the hunting, not in limiting out. Even late-season, hard-hunted roosters will occasionally slip up and offer me a measure of redemption. In a world that is moving much too fast to suit me, I can still find solace in loading up the dogs, leaving the cell phone at home and going one or two on one with the ringnecks. Who knows, some day I might just up and join one of those skirmish line scrimmages.