I kept looking at those four blank days on my October calendar. And I kept looking at the yellow dog.
I knew it was time to head west, to where Minnesota nudges up against South Dakota — to where the pheasants live.
Normally, we’d have already been there, a couple buddies and me, holed up in the old red farmhouse. But the corn harvest is running late this fall, and one of my hunting partners was driving a big John Deere combine, gobbling up corn stalks at his family’s place near Windom, Minn. The other was off designing cross-country ski trails in Montana.
But the weather forecast looked good — cool and dry, not too windy. Perfect for a Lab snuffling the footprints of roosters. I started packing.
I text-messaged my farmer friend out west to tell him I was coming out solo.
“You can stay with us,” his return text said.
I knew what I needed, and it wasn’t all about pheasants. I needed to walk through some chest-high switchgrass behind a good dog. I needed to step outside at night and look up at celestial bodies thrown across the wide prairie sky. I needed to listen to the conversation of a great-horned owl down in the grove.
I wanted to be in farm country, like the kind where I’d grown up in Kansas, where clerks at the store talk about the crop harvest and ask how much rain you got out your way or how you think the football team will do on Friday night.
Don’t get me wrong. I love almost everything about life up north. But something about hunting in farm country in October always carries me back home — all the way back to the little farm town where my grandpa ran the John Deere dealership. Back to where Dad handed down a Browning Sweet Sixteen shotgun to me when I was 14. Back to Walt Fund’s road with my brother Jim and a covey of quail roaring from a plum thicket.
I loaded the dog, and we headed west.
When I arrived, Stan was in his machine shed. He was hip-deep in harvest headaches — cranky grain dryers, trips to town for parts, a combine breakdown and a region-wide shortage of propane to power the grain dryers. Somehow, he was keeping it all in perspective.
He asked if I’d like to hunt with his grandson Davis, 13, some afternoon. I’d hunted with Davis’ dad, Tim, when he was almost the same age three decades earlier. Now Davis’ dad runs a guided pheasant hunting operation across the border in South Dakota. Let’s just say Davis gets plenty of time in the field.
A day later, at the parcel we planned to hunt, Davis pulled his shotgun out of its case. It was a Browning Sweet Sixteen, new this fall. Imagine that.
He unloaded his black Lab, Rio, and I took my yellow dog, and off we marched through tawny grasses. Shortly, Rio pointed a rooster pheasant. When the bird realized its options had dwindled, it launched in a percussion of wingbeats. Davis squeezed the trigger of his Sweet Sixteen. Rio delivered the gorgeous bird to him.
Davis gave no indication that this was a big deal. He collected the bird from Rio. He slipped it into his game vest. On we went.
Not much later, the yellow dog convinced a running rooster it was time for lift-off. My old Sweet Sixteen delivered, and the dog came trotting back with a mouthful of color.
“Nice shot!” Davis hollered.
And for a moment, it felt a lot like one of those hunts with my brother Jim back in the late 1960s with our pointer, Chico. Those days are long gone, and the bird populations there have declined precipitously, Jim says.
But for just a while on a sunny October afternoon, hunting roosters with Davis and Rio, it felt as if something had come full circle.