Home to Roost

Alert man, in pursuit of pheasants.
by Terry Wieland
From the November/December 2008 issue.

There is no melancholy quite like heading out for the last day of bird season. The trees are gray, the ground like iron, and early snow swirls austerely in front of the car—the advance guard of winter, as sinister as a prowling mamba.

There’s time to think when you’re driving, especially across South Dakota, where the roads are straight and the distractions minimal. And when it’s the end of the season, what do you think about except the season so far? Birds flushed, birds missed, the odd memorable hit. Wholesale disasters. I was fresh from one, that December South Dakota day—a trip to Colorado that ended knee-deep in mud and endless rain, with one lonely chukar to show for it, collected not by me.

So I was hoping to stage a comeback there in South Dakota, to end the season on a more positive note and give myself some shooting memories (as opposed to near-death-by-drowning memories) to keep me warm through the long winter nights.

The two days certainly boded well: I was headed for a private farm, with the land leased for crops and operated to provide pheasant shooting for my hosts, Mark McDonald and Dinny Falkenburg. Dinny is a professional animal trainer with two lovely dogs, a veteran Gordon, Broto, and a young English setter, Leon. The ringnecks were reported present in alarming numbers, and the weather reports were favorable for Mark’s last shoot of the year.

As I drove along, searching the horizon for my landmark of two silos, one with a cap and one without, a pheasant rooster rose from the stubble and flew across my bow like a warning shot from the pheasant population. Two more flushed and flew in front of the silos as I turned into the driveway. It was chilly and clear in the setting sun, and Colorado’s torrents were far, far away.

In a country where more than 70 percent of game birds are shot on preserves, it’s understandable that wingshooters come to regard the birds themselves as a commodity and legal limits as little more than arcane rules that apply to a few farmers

This is true of bobwhite quail and pheasants, certainly, which are the two mainstays of shooting preserves. The ringnecked pheasant is probably the single most-shot bird in the world, from Hungary to England to the American Midwest. In South Dakota, which is to pheasants what Wyoming is to pronghorns, you see the birds in stubble fields as you drive along, and you know the long grass harbors tons more. And so it’s a difficult adjustment to realize that there are game laws—strict laws that limit you to three birds a day, all roosters.

Suddenly, the demands change. In a game-preserve world where the tough part in a flush is deciding which bird to shoot first, you’re confronted with a series of judgements as the gun comes to your shoulder. Is it a rooster? Is there a rooster in that bunch? Can I get a shot? How do I do it? And then, and only then, do you put your head down and swing through.

The hens, at a rough guess, outnumbered the roosters 10 or 20 to one. Rare indeed was a single rooster flushed, and a rooster within shooting range? It was late in the season, and while the hunting pressure on Mark’s farm wasn’t intense, the birds weren’t fools. Driving up, I was asking myself how sensible it really was to drive 12 hours for just two days of hunting and a maximum of six birds. By the time we went in for lunch on day one, with one rooster in my vest and feeling lucky to have that, the questions I asked myself were quite different.

Dinny and Mark are gun people and dog people. Particularly, they are vintage English gun people. Dinny was shooting a side lever Thomas Boss with Damascus barrels, Mark an early Westley Richards boxlock. Our fourth member, Eric,
a rancher from Colorado, was shooting a Tony Galazan side-by-side, and I had a Pedro Arrizabalaga. Our chokes were open and our loads were light, and the object of the game was to work the dogs as close as possible and put up birds within range.

The popular image of late-season pheasants flushing 60 yards out and being blasted by three-inch trench mortars was decidedly not us. Broto, the lanky Gordon, rustled through the standing crops and patches of uncut grass, left
tall for pheasant cover.

Points were nonexistent, partly because we couldn’t see him but mostly because the birds were so plentiful (the hens, at least) that most flushed here and there, ran and flew or broke out to the sides or back over our heads, leaving us to make instant judgments on which were which, and which we could shoot at.

The flying action was greater than the shooting action, but there was enough of the latter so that no one got bored. Broto, however, was a little frustrated at all these birds with so little to show for it. He seemed not to grasp the roosters-only rule, a pheasant being, to him, a pheasant.

Late that afternoon, though, Broto suddenly locked up and I walked in, flushed a straightaway rooster and knocked
him down, and Broto pounced on him with a flourish. His disgust at our seeming inability to play this game turned to grudging approval.

Still short one bird for the day, Eric and I walked a patch of standing corn as the sun went  down, put up (and put down) a big rooster, and walked home happy. When I got there, I found Broto in firm possession of my bed, with one pillow pulled down and his feathery Gordon leg flopped over the side.

“He’s adopted you,” Dinny said. “Must have been that pheasant.” At least he didn’t snore.

José Ortega writes about the hunter as “alert man,” returning to an existence when, as both predator and prey, a hunter’s senses were honed and heightened. The blue sky is bluer, the sharp wind sharper, you hear the rustle of the tiniest leaf, the hiss of each indrawn breath.

This isn’t just passive awareness, intense though it is. It combines with penetrating concentration that magnifies every aspect of every minute. At its most acute, it is an exhausting emotion that leaves you wrung out at the end of a day but feeling as though you have lived that day like no other.

By noon the second day, into the swing of it and with enough pheasants in the bag that we didn’t need to discuss it, our awareness flowed into a wordless teamwork that left us searching the grass and walking the cornrows in a kind of trance. Our guns weighed nothing.

The nine-month-old Leon, already the size of a small pony, joined in and roved back and forth, giddy with the scent of pheasants under every tuft. He seemed unable to understand why, silly people, we didn’t do this all day, every day, through all eternity. Huh? Huh?

Unlike Broto, who dislikes retrieving (he prefers to stand with one paw on a downed bird and wait for someone to come and pick it up), Leon couldn’t wait for the feel of warm fragrant feathers in his mouth, and he carried each pheasant like the Nobel Prize.

I pulled out at four in the morning, headed home to roost with snow falling heavily across South Dakota. Broto and Leon saw me to the door, and then Broto went back to bed, this time with the pillows all to himself. Twenty miles of snowy backroads lay between me and Interstate 90. Feeling my way through the snow and the velvet blackness, I replayed in my mind each bird and each shot of the last two days.

Again I felt the rush as each pheasant lifted; again I heard the cackle of each rooster. A cry of alarm or a sneering epithet, flung back over his shoulder? These were the last days of my bird season in 2007, two days of triumph at the end of a long road that would provide many warm thoughts through many cold nights.

I cackled gently as I drove: Take that, winter.

To end each day on a good shot, to end each season on a good day. Can’t ask for much more than that. To view more of Susan’s lovely work, visit www.susan-norris.com.

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