Pheasant hunting provides unusual challenges … and unmatched rewards
By E. Donnall Thomas Jr.
It had been a long slog through a long patch of frozen cattails. The previous day’s cold snap had left the ice atop the slough exactly the wrong consistency: too thick to drag my waders through, but intermittently too thin to support my weight.
As a result, I kept winding up on top of wet, slippery plates of fractured ice that sent me crashing to my knees repeatedly. My forearms were soaking wet, and so was my shotgun. With the temperature still below freezing, I had every right to be miserable and feel sorry for myself.
But I wasn’t, because the chase was on. Kenai and Rosy, my two female yellow Labs, were running the show while I tagged along behind them and hoped for the best. They had picked up scent at the edge of the tangle a hundred yards ago.
But my hope that they would flush a rooster or two quickly, while I stood on the bank and shot, had proved to be magical thinking. No surprise there. These were wily, late season birds: At the first sign of trouble they had retreated into the nastiest cover they could find and started running.
Fortunately, I was hunting behind wily, late season bird dogs that knew how to attack the cover without bumping running roosters up out of range.
The dogs were breaking through soft spots in the ice too, but the cold water hadn’t deterred them. After all, they were Labrador retrievers, and they were doing what they lived to do. I could follow their progress by listening to the crashing noises they made as they bulled their way through the brittle cattails. Their determination left me inspired.
Then a trio of pheasants — two hens and a noisy rooster — erupted from the cover ahead well beyond shotgun range, and I felt me spirits sink. After all this team effort, to be outwitted by birds with brains no larger than a chicken’s felt downright unjust. However, based upon tracks in the snow back at the edge of the field and the dogs’ behavior, I had already decided that we were on the trail of one of those late season pheasant congregations that contains a lot more than three birds.
For once, I was right. After anchoring the dogs with a whistle blast, I hustled ahead as fast as the footing would allow. Suddenly the air was full of pheasants that had decided to stop running and start flying at the same moment.
These situations require a hunter to make a lot of accurate decisions in split seconds in order to avoid lost opportunity and embarrassment, even if the only witnesses are dogs. Differentiating between cocks and hens is obviously the first consideration, but that is easy with pheasants compared to other gamebirds.
After that, the choices get tougher. Turn right or turn left? Take the 40-yard shot and risk being left with an empty gun while stragglers flush underfoot? Fail to concentrate on one bird, shoot holes in the air, and leave the dogs whining in disappointment at the loss of a retrieving opportunity?
In this case, the answer fortunately proved to be “none of the above.” By the time I made an easy crossing shot, another rooster was towering overhead cackling his disdain at the world in general, at the dogs, and at me in particular. The second load of #6s wiped the smile off his face, leaving one easy retrieve for each dog.
As I slid the second bird into my game vest, I heard a great line from Johnny Cash echoing through my brain: I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.
Of course, I didn’t shoot those birds just to watch them die. I loved the pageantry of the hunt, wanted to reward the dogs for their hard work, and take the pheasants home to eat them when I was done. And I certainly don’t “hate” pheasants, as the perhaps inappropriate title to this piece might imply. I just view them in a fundamentally different way from other gamebirds.
With a few exceptions — chukar, for example — most other upland birds are easier to hunt, although not necessarily easier to shoot. Credit the pheasant’s keen eye for truly nasty escape cover, which often involves, at least in western terrain, steep coulees, water, ice, thorns, and similar impediments to human progress on foot.
Perhaps even more importantly than these physical considerations, there is the pheasant’s intellect. That may sound like verbal inflation when applied to a creature that is literally bird-brained, but veteran rooster hunters will have no difficulty grasping what I mean.
Pheasants seem to have a remarkable ability to learn from past experiences, which is one simple definition of intelligence. Late season grouse and quail may be a bit more wary and prone to flushing at longer ranges than they were on opening day, but by December wild roosters act as if they’d been taking graduate courses in how to avoid getting shot. They know the drill, they know the cover, they seem to understand what the dogs are doing, and they anticipate what you are going to do before you know yourself.
Finally, there is the matter of attitude, although this consideration may only exist in our own minds. While the plumage of most upland birds is designed for camouflage, a cock pheasant’s brilliant feathers seem intended to declare is presence — and importance—to the world. Then there is that haughty cackle, which always reminds me of trash talk on a basketball court.
All that amounts to a glove slapped across the face to invite a duel.
These characteristics combine to make me approach pheasant hunting with a special intensity that goes beyond my usual appreciation for good dog work or the pleasure of eating what I shoot.
No, I don’t hate pheasants. But I certainly enjoy meeting their challenge when I can. They are worthy opponents, and that explains why I love them before, during, and after every hunt.
Don Thomas ponders the mysteries and realities of pheasant hunting from his home in rural Montana.
This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2020 Issue of
Pheasants Forever Journal.
Photo credit: Josh Dahlstrom PF.