MADISON, Minn. — We stepped out of the old red farmhouse on the prairie into 8 inches of powder snow. This was good. Maybe the pheasants would hold in the deep powder.
Three of us, 30-year friends, had come west to live at this Lac qui Parle County farm for a few days in December. We had made trips earlier this fall, and we found some birds. But not all of the corn had been harvested during those hunts, and the birds still had sanctuaries that were impractical or off-limits to hunt.
Late-season pheasant hunts are an entirely different matter. The crops are harvested. The birds are in the grasslands and willow runs and conifer plantings where our dogs can track and flush them.
Ah, but the birds had been hunted since mid-October, and they had developed new strategies. They were mostly schooled up like fish, traveling in packs. They were wary and cagey. When one got nervous and flushed, they all went, often well out of gun range.
We had witnessed that behavior several times already on this trip — before the snow came.
“I flushed a bunch of them below the dam on Lake Marge,” one of my partners had said after that first evening hunt. “Thirty to 50, I’d say.”
They had almost all gone out as one, all beyond gun range. Our hunting had become almost purely a spectator sport.
In cruel cold — hunting at 1 to 8 degrees above zero — we had scratched out just three roosters in a day and a half. A hunter can keep his core warm, and usually his feet, in that kind of cold. And maybe the hand that cradles the forearm of his shotgun. But in serious cold, no glove has been invented that can simultaneously keep your digits warm while offering the manual dexterity required to flip off the gun’s safety and pull the trigger.
Here’s three ways you can intermittently warm your hands on a brittle December morning:
— You stop and place your hands, one at a time, between your upper thighs in the Zone of Perpetual Warmth.
— You take off your gloves, one at a time, and thrust your bare digits against hot, bare skin in the Zone of Perpetual Warmth.
— You leave gloves on and swing your arms wildly, windmill-style, until you can feel the blood pulsing into your fingertips.
The dogs mostly stand nearby, looking up blankly, perhaps pitying the two-legger who is not fully adapted to his biome.
But now, snow had come overnight. Snow changes everything, especially deep and fluffy snow. Pheasants lose their flock mentality — not all of them, necessarily, but enough of them. We aren’t sure what snow does to a pheasant’s psyche, but we suspect the birds think, down beneath that comforter of crystals, that they are safe. Maybe, we think, they cannot hear us coming so easily, our footfalls muffled by the snow.
Walking along a row of trees that morning, I could see a set of fresh pheasant tracks in the snow. They disappeared beneath the sheltering boughs of a fledgling conifer. I called the yellow pup, 7 months old, over to the tracks. A little light went off. She followed the tracks under the tree and a glorious rooster — all rust and red and iridescent green — burst skyward in a shower of snow.
My initial reaction was, my gosh, he was beautiful, his long tail quivering as he accelerated to the northwest. That morning the temperature was 14 degrees. I could still feel my fingers. The rooster came down hard in soft snow just outside the tree rows, and the young dog had marked it. She plunged her little muzzle into the snow and came out with the bird. She was still new to the game, and I stood nearby, offering enthusiastic vocal reinforcement. Never mind, as one of my partners pointed out soon after, that I had been calling her by my old dog’s name. It happens regularly. But she gave me the warm bird and snapped at the feathers still falling to the ground, and we had the day’s first bird.
On we went, the three of us working snow-flocked cattails along frozen sloughs, thick willows and heavy cover wherever we could find it. The dogs — two Labs and a German wire-haired pointer — flushed or pointed according to their instincts. Birds went up. Some of them came down.
As was customary for the three of us, we had started hunting together and eventually drifted in our own directions — one hunter, one dog — the purest form of upland hunting.
In Minnesota, the daily pheasant limit changes from two birds to three in December, a bonus for those of us willing to keep hunting after some have put away their guns for the season. The three of us finished with nine roosters that day — our limit.
One of my partners shot all three of his within a 100-yard stretch of cattails, he said, each over his dog’s staunch points.
“High-percentage shots,” he called them.
My other partner had gone out for the last hour or so of the day with his Lab and was back within 45 minutes toting three roosters. Just that easy.
Yes, it was brutal cleaning and washing birds under the yard light at day’s end. It always is.
But once inside, where the Franklin stove and a propane heater kept the old house toasty, circulation returned quickly.
The dogs circled up in their respective lairs and dreamed whatever hunting dogs dream.
The three of us ate homemade beef stew, told the stories of our separate hunts and praised the snow gods.