MADISON, Minn. — I have come west again, to kill a pheasant. Maybe several pheasants, should our fortune be so good.
Gone now, the too-warm early-season days of October. Gone, too, the massive tracts of standing corn where the birds had too much room to hide.
This is the early December hunt. The corn is harvested. Three of us have come, as we have for more than 30 years, to hole up in the red farmhouse. That’s three dog lives for some of us, four for others.
It’s the pheasants that have drawn us over the decades, and the birds still matter to us. We drive for five hours for this privilege. When one of my companions finally turns off the asphalt and onto the gravel, his Lab senses the rumble beneath the tires and begins to whimper with anticipation. That’s how we all feel.
We say it’s the pheasants, but we all know this hunt is more than that. It’s blood-red December sunrises through the branches of the old cottonwood. It’s the sere texture of the land. It’s cold fingers, ice-covered sloughs and stingy daylight.
It’s personal history, too. We cover a lot of ground in our conversations around the kitchen table. Almost no topic is off-limits — life, death, hopes, fears, kids, regrets, politics, health. That old kitchen has been a crucible of friendship.
On the land
But when it’s time to hunt, we hunt. We walk all the familiar covers — the switchgrass, Lake Marge, “the 200,” the willow run, Bruce’s cattails, the north-south tree row. We may start out together, but our dogs invariably lead us in different directions. We follow them. We understand they know a lot more about this than we do.
Each of us long ago realized this is the purest form of pheasant hunting — one hunter, one dog. So free and easy. The object is simply to cover ground until suddenly you notice an intensity in the dog that wasn’t there a moment ago. Scent. Everything about the dog — the squared-up ears, the nose pulled along the ground, the quick, sharp turns. If you’re following a Lab, your pace increases dramatically. On the longest and fastest chases, you get the same feeling deep in your throat that you knew running the half-mile in high-school track.
If you’re following a pointer, as one of my buddies does, the pace decreases as the scent increases. Finally, the dog becomes a statue, and the hunter knows the sky could be full of rooster at any second.
A rooster flush has nothing to do with stealth. It’s an explosion. One moment, it’s just you and your dog. The next, the bird is improbably at shoulder height. He’s just there. You almost never see him rising through the grass or cattails. His powerful legs simply launch him.
He’s improbably gaudy, and if the sun is right the sight is almost too much to bear. You’d need the 64-count box of Crayolas to color this guy — the emerald crest, the crimson cheek patch, the white neck ring, the russet chest.
And that’s just the video. The soundtrack is equally arresting — the percussion of wingbeats, sometimes the indignant cackle.
An adrenaline surge initiates the gun’s path to your shoulder. Somehow, you must override that chemical jolt as you find the bird beyond the end of the barrel, slow down, swing, find the safety, squeeze. That’s what they teach you. What you do, on any given bird, may be the CliffsNotes version of shooting: hurry the mount, mash the safety, yank the trigger. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a second shot. You’ll need it.
One day in last week’s hunt, we shot our limit of nine birds. (Minnesota’s pheasant limit increases from two birds per day to three on Dec. 1.) One of my partners shot all three of his in just over an hour on the evening hunt. We met back in the farmyard, where we clean our birds. We took turns describing each of our hunts, every flush and just how the dogs worked.
Later that night, he would say, “That evening hunt — that was worth the whole trip.”
We knew just what he meant. Yes, we like to make the most of our opportunities. But beyond the momentary thrill lies a deep sense of gratitude — for the privilege of hunting good habitat, for being healthy enough to go afield, for friendship, for the intense joy of working in concert with amazing dogs.
On any given winter night, one of us might pluck a neatly wrapped package — “Pheasant, 2017” — from a freezer. When we sit down to share the meal with friends, only part of the warmth we feel inside will come from the caloric benefits of these magnificent birds.