Our Outdoors: In hot pursuit of cold weather pheasants
It's a cold day with clear blue skies following the winter's first blizzard, which left six inches of snow as an early Christmas present. A group of buntings flits from the shoulder to the field edge as I turn my hard-starting pickup off of the h...
It's a cold day with clear blue skies following the winter's first blizzard, which left six inches of snow as an early Christmas present. A group of buntings flits from the shoulder to the field edge as I turn my hard-starting pickup off of the highway. We rumble down the gravel road toward a splotch of yellow land on my map, that judging by the creek running through it, might be a good place to look for some pheasants and seize the advantage the recent cold weather has given us. The sloughs and slow-water areas are now frozen, enabling my yellow lab, Gunnar, and me to chase roosters where once the slog of the watershed would have stopped us.
I pull over next to the orange "Open to Public Hunting" sign peppered with the silver circles of disrespect from a small-caliber rifle. I shut the truck off and pocket the key to avoid the door-ajar ding that would alarm any nearby birds. I tuck all of my fingers into my mitts, save for my trigger finger, and open the door. Gunnar jumps from his post in the passenger seat before I set my second foot on the ground. He springs into the ditch and begins to survey the area around the approach. While he gets his bearings, I uncase my shotgun and quietly load the three shells into position, slowly working the action to minimize the noise.
I set the door back into place and gently lean against it until I hear the dull click. I give the quietist whistle I can, which sounds to me like a chirp from a chickadee or sparrow. But for all I know, it could sound like a hawk screech to these wily birds that have undoubtedly dodged both raptors and lead at some point this fall. Where earlier in the season I would have hollered, "hunt 'em up," to get Gunnar going, this signal is enough and he dives headlong into the grasses of the management area.
As it whips by, the wind grasps at the opening of my balaclava in an attempt to peel the mask from my face. While it isn't a pleasant element, it does do us a favor by rustling the freeze-dried vegetation enough to hide the sounds Gunnar and I make as we follow a line of fresh four-toed tracks in the December snow. No orange-clad patrols of hunters in 1500s or SUVs circle the small piece of public land that we have to ourselves on this blustery morning. I'd say we're alone, but judging by the growing superhighway of footprints running into the stand of cattails, there's about a dozen pheasants somewhere ahead of us.
The evidence of the birds' direction of travel is partially erased as Gunnar's nose plows up the snow, absorbing the odoriferous flotsam and jetsam that are pieced together in his olfactory nerve and translated into a swirling tail wag that lets me know the trail is hot. He slithers through the growth while I rumble along behind, knocking fluff into the breeze as the cattails crackle and pop with each stride. We move in and out from grass to cattails, as the trail skirts the dense cover of the creek bank. We venture out onto the young ice and it pops beneath each of my footsteps but does not give way to the water below.
I can see the tracks forming a trail across the frozen creek, and Gunnar follows them. But I, weighing about three times more and focusing it all on two legs instead of four, think better of this area and walk back up to the road, across the wooden bridge and down the other side. Gunnar meets me a few yards in, hot on the trail of our quarry. Suddenly, I hear wingbeats and look out over the frozen marsh. Two long-tailed silhouettes peel to our right, well out of range. Gunnar continues, nose-down on their scent and hopefully that of others.
As we work the edge, a hen pops up and Gunnar bounds after her as she takes flight over the disked cornfield. I whistle him back, and as I do, a rooster breaks cover at the end of the finger of cattails jutting into the grass. I put the butt of my shotgun to my shoulder and fire behind him. My second effort scores a hit and feathers explode from the bird's body, but he continues on his flight path. I have little time to be disgusted at myself or amazed by the rooster's resiliency as he makes his way to a stand of small trees a hundred yards ahead.
A second bird rockets into the air with Gunnar's teeth gnashing at his tail feathers. I fire and the rooster crumples to the ground. Gunnar gives it a quick inspection and moves on, circling wildly as hens flush all around us. With the blood flow returning to my fingers and my heart pounding in my ears, I stow the bird in my vest and follow my lab into the trees on the slough edge.
Twenty yards in, Gunnar goes on point and I give the "Go!" command. He pounces forward and a rooster flushes, but it falls back to the ground before I can shoulder my gun. Gunnar weaves around the small trees and into the cattails and after a brief struggle returns from the dense cover with the bird in his mouth. With the find, he remains perfect on the year for retrieving wounded birds and our day afield ends almost as soon as it had started.
I shoulder my unloaded gun and retrace our steps back to the truck. In a sort of instant replay, I find the spot where the birds had flushed and pick up three empty red shells. With stealth, snow and some good tracking on our side, this trip afield serves as a reminder that while December may produce some of the most difficult hunting conditions of the year, the final month of the season can also be one of the most rewarding ... in our outdoors.
Nick Simonson is an avid hunter and multi-species angler who has been writing about the outdoors for over nine years and in the Budgeteer for about six months. For more stories and tips, log on to www.nicksimonson.com or become a fan on Facebook by searching: "Our Outdoors by Nick Simonson."