By Nick Simonson
The chill of the near Halloween night had left a layer of ice on the small feeder creek which led down to the lake at the center of a small Wildlife Management Area. The cold, still air amplified the crackle and snap of each footstep of my young lab, Ole and I as we made our way through the cattails that lined the edge of the water. The pheasants tucked into the mix of reeds and cane ahead could hear our presence long before we were within the shooting range of my 20-gauge, and a number of roosters and hens made early exits, with a few of the buff-colored birds straggling behind to at least provide some heart-pounding flushes.
As we wound our way through the crackling cover, I watched the far-flushing gray silhouettes cup their wings and glide against the similarly colored skies in the distance and spied a small stretch of real estate on the far side of the river into which a couple of their forms coasted in and dropped. Finishing up the cover on the near side of the stream, we headed back to the approach where the truck was parked. On the way, Ole’s nose switched from the more-desired pheasant scent which caused his tail to spin excitedly, to the more-present and recent ones on the coyote trails, which made the dander on his neck stand up defensively in a small mohawk. Guiding him off the scent of the wild dogs and to the tailgate, we loaded up and headed to the small stretch of slough on the far side of the river.
Ole hit the ground running as soon as I opened his kennel, and he dove into the untouched area with a sense of purpose and a nose which pounded like a vaccuum cleaner. A close flushing hen busted cover, but she was well off to his left. Another one thundered off to my right, shattering cane and sending seeds flying in her wake, but still well behind the line my dog had taken straight ahead of us. Then, the running stopped. A rooster squawked his alarm as he rose straight ahead and peeled back over my dog, flying right above me. On instinct, my gun mounted and a shot thundered out and crumpled the bird, sending him crashing down in a trajectory behind me toward the small stream, which I traced with the end of my gun until its completion.
The bird slammed down, head first into the ice near the far bank of the newly-frozen river, flapped its wings twice, flopped out of the chilly water exposed by its crash and rolled over to its back on the thin surface coating next to shore. After a couple of twitches, the rooster laid as still as the morning air around us, wings sprawled out on either side of the frozen water beneath him, and I spared the follow-up shot which would only add lead to the cleaning duties which were certain to come. Amazed by the shot, surprised by the landing, and troubled as to how I would exactly retrieve the bird – with my pup inexperienced in regard to the dangers of thin ice – I stared at the opposite bank, a sloughed mess of dirt and tangled, thorny buckbrush. For several minutes, I plotted the retrieval process which would require driving back to the other side of the WMA, while mentally marking the spot along shore where the lifeless bird lay. As my dog and I made our way back to the truck, I turned to mark the spot again from a distance, with the dead rooster’s orange breast feathers and white ring serving as a beacon for one last look.
Arriving back at our initial starting point for the morning, I repeated the process of unloading the dog, loading the gun, and setting off along the well-used coyote trail. I identified the brushline atop the bank and beelined toward the frozen shore of the creek after breaking a branch off a nearby deadfall which I’d use to scoop my quarry off the slightly-frozen surface. Looking down, I saw the area of impact just fifteen yards to my left, and the bird, I presumed, lay along the cattail edge awaiting extrication, but obscured from my vantage point.
I was able to find a hole in the brush which allowed me to squeeze through. As I entered the leafless vegetation, the fingernail-like gray thorns poked and pricked my hands and forearms drawing blood and scraped against my orange hunting vest, tearing fabric. Realizing a few steps in that the close quarters and the steep drop to the water’s edge which lay ahead was no place for a loaded shotgun, I emptied both barrels, took off my orange hat and covered the business end, leaning the firearm against the densest area I could find and resumed my journey down the embankment. Balancing each foot on the tiny walkway formed by the earth which had fallen away, I looked down to the ice where the bird had made impact. With a few more steps, I was right behind the cattails, and searched for the rooster’s color through the browns and beiges of the now dry vegetation, while my faithful pup made his way down behind me. Leaning over to get a look at shattered ice and the point behind it where the bird should have been, an unsettling feeling set in as my dog poked his nose between my feet. The rooster was gone.
For a moment, I blamed the coyote-ridden area, but I was quickly reminded that what is dead may never die. To my right a startled clucking grew to a laughing crow as the rooster bounded up the steep embankment, reanimated with a zeal that allowed its orange and green backside to be all that I saw in a blur sliding between branches and brambles that would have shredded me or my dog. Nevertheless, Ole gave chase, winding in as far as he could until the pursuit of the zombie pheasant became nearly vertical, and we were both left pinned between a wall of dirt and thorns and the frozen water. With stick in hand, I slammed the brush in a combination of amazement, frustration and futile hope that I’d strike the bird that had pulled off an Oscar-worthy performance and a supernatural reincarnation.
Perhaps my great shot wasn’t so great afterall. Perhaps the impact with the ice had knocked him out cold and he never truly died. Perhaps I should have opened that second barrel up on him. More likely, it was all three in combination with that temporarily-forgotten fact that the will to survive is the deepest-seeded instinct in all of life, and death, no matter how certain it appears with pheasants, is sometimes just temporary.
Bloody, torn, and dumbfounded at the sure thing which became nothing but a disappearing trail of scent, I made my way up the bank behind my pup, and we pursued the bird until his last traces disappeared over the gravel road separating the WMA from private land and into the barbed wire and grass of the well-posted farmyard. We repeated the process again to be certain he was gone.
It was not the ending I had imagined for my hard working dog and a shot that seemed dead on, nor was it among those I envisioned for the rooster during the drive to retrieve him – a warm cup of pheasant soup or a fly tied from his long tailfeathers. Unwilling to take only the wounds to my pride (and the bleeding ones on my wrists and hands) from the experience, the moment provided me with the reminder that, proximity to Halloween or not, with the instinct to survive so ingrained in all living things, dead birds can rise again.
(Featured Photo: Through brush and brambles which would tear a mortal to ribbons, a reanimated rooster that lay cold and dead on the ice for many minutes before an attempted retrieve makes an escape and surprises the author. Simonson Photo)