There are 365 days in the year. This is the one that counts.
By E. Donnall Thomas Jr. Photos by Don and Lori Thomas.
It has always been a Saturday in every state I’ve ever hunted, although I am sure there are exceptions. This tradition makes the opening day of pheasant season available to hunters with regular workweeks and kids who would otherwise be in school.
But the final countdown can be a delightfully excruciating exercise in anticipation, and at times it feels as if the new season will never actually begin. Fortunately, time does march on even when it appears to be standing still, just to test your character.
Here in Montana, we enjoy five weeks of sharptails and Huns before the pheasant season opens in early October, providing a wonderful opportunity to work out a lot of the rustiness that inevitably accumulates since the close of the previous upland season. But as we all know, pheasants are different: wilier, louder, more mobile, possessed of stronger legs and stronger wings.
Ringnecks also occupy different habitat, which is why the dogs and I don’t see many of them in September. Once that magical October Saturday rolls around, we’ll be hunting creekbottoms and steep coulees rather than the grasslands and stubble fields that held early season grouse and partridge. Preparation for opening day — mental and physical — has to take place all over again.
The week prior to that sweetest of Saturdays usually finds me busy studying public access maps and talking to ranchers (unless I haven’t filled my archery elk tag). While hunting other game, I’ve usually developed a pretty good idea of where I plan to hunt roosters — not by looking for pheasants, but by examining the state of the cover in various parts of the surrounding countryside.
Because of local variations in weather conditions, particularly during the crucial spring nesting period, pheasant numbers can vary considerably within an area of a few miles in Montana. Where am I likely to be looking at young, second-hatch birds? (Those places will be better left until November.) Which pastures have cattle in them and which are still un-grazed? If I don’t know, I’ll be asking questions and driving backroads looking.
This is also the time shore up landowner relations. That time is not ten o’clock the night before opening day!
I learned a long time ago that good seafood is always appreciated as a token of gratitude a thousand miles from the ocean, and since I spend much of the year in Alaska I always have plenty to distribute to friends in the farm and ranch community. Who likes their salmon smoked and who likes it fresh? Who loves crab and who is allergic to it? This is a great time to get that list straight, and it never hurts to ask if there is anything else I can bring out from town.
By Thursday, I usually know right where I’m going to be on Saturday. It will probably be on a friend’s place, not because I mind other hunters on public land but because I prefer to leave readily accessible cover to others on weekends, which might be the only time they can hunt. It’s simply a matter of courtesy. I can remember what life was like when I still had a day job.
Thursday belongs to the dogs: the last day of practice before the big game. By this time my wirehairs have had over a month of recent experience in the field, but pheasants are different. Unfortunately, there isn’t a good way to remind them of that difference short of heading out on opening day. At least I can review the basics of proper behavior one last time before roosters start running out ahead of them and cackling in their faces.
It’s the Labs that really need that final tune-up, since they usually haven’t done much in the field since January except spend a morning or two beside a pothole waiting for a few early season teal. This is the time to make sure they still know to stop and go when they’re told. And a dead sharptail or two usually makes a detour between my game vest and the kitchen to make sure the Labs remember that birds are to be retrieved and not chewed.
Friday usually represents an odd marriage of organization and chaos. No matter how hard I try to avoid it, I almost always manage to forget something important. One would think that a whole month of upland hunting would be enough to get my gear and hunting rig shipshape, but it doesn’t always work out that way.
Are there really some pheasant loads buried in those piles of steel shot and 20-gauge #8s? Which of those shotguns in the gun cabinet is going to get the call tomorrow? It’s always the same 12-gauge double, but I have to think about it just so I can justify all the others that have found their way to my doorstep over the years.
As a pilot, I always used checklists to deal with this flood of routine but crucial details prior to takeoff and landing, and I have evolved something similar to get me through the day before the pheasant opener. Gas in the truck? Check. Water for the dogs? Check. License in my wallet? Check. And so on down the line. It’s not perfect, but it helps.
Friday evening is family time, because opening day is too. I do plenty of bird hunting with friends, but on opening day it’s usually just my wife, Lori, and me, for several reasons.
No matter how much preparation I’ve put into the dogs, one is likely to respond to opening day excitement by misbehaving, and I don’t like to subject friends to sub-par dog work that might cost them a bird. Lori likes to carry a camera as much as a shotgun, and the fall foliage that provides such a beautiful photographic background in early October could get devoured by an arctic cold front at any time. Furthermore, I decided a long time ago that pheasant hunting together is good for marriages. It certainly worked for my parents, who hunted birds together for over 60 years.
Now that our own kids are grown and gone, the rest of the family consists of dogs. On the Friday night before opening day, the dogs all get to come into the house and hang around the kitchen while Lori and I cook our traditional pre-opening day dinner of sharptails, Huns or both. While I’m cooking, I’m also making tough choices. Not all those dogs will be in the truck when we pull out early Saturday morning. Whoever goes will need some personal attention in the field after the long layoff, and you can’t train one dog with three others running around in circles.
Will it be pointing dogs or flushing retrievers tomorrow, or one of each? Does Kenai, our aging Lab, have a long opening day left in him, or should I save him for a quick, easy hunt mid-week? Will this be the year to turn young Rosy, an accomplished waterfowl specialist, into a pheasant dog? Is little Max, the wirehair puppy, ready to meet his first pheasant, or should I just take our veteran GWP, Maggie, who has already pointed and retrieved dozens of birds in September?
With apologies to the two Labs, I make my decision. Kenai and Rosy each enjoy a special treat on their way back out to the kennel. Their day will come when the northern mallards start to arrive.
There was a time when I just couldn’t sleep the night before opening day. I do better now, but it still isn’t easy. Setting the alarm clock is always my last conscious act on Friday night, although it’s totally unnecessary. I’ll be up in the dark anyway, ready for another pheasant season to begin at last.
E. Donnall Thomas Jr. lives with his wife Lori and his Labs and wirehairs in Montana and Alaska, and he sleeps quite soundly 364 nights a year. This article originally appeared in the 2020 Upland Bird Hunting Super Issue.