By Nick Simonson
My buddy and I purchased pups from the same litter of labs at mid-summer. Through stories exchanged over the phone and text message, the two brothers are well on their way to becoming good field dogs, putting up the roosters and hens available in our respective areas during this challenging pheasant hunting season. While we both lament our lack of shooting behind them – his often due to the position of a rare and cagey rooster’s flush and mine more so due to my lack of innate aim – I stress the importance of getting the dogs in the field to build their experience, regardless of the number of birds we might bag. Knowing how my now-retired lab, Gunnar, turned out from having so much time in the field as a young dog, every chance during this busier portion of my life is important for my new lab, Ole.
Never expecting a whole lot of opportunities for my dog to be on birds, particularly in the late stretch of this season, I headed out to a large area of public land. With a fresh inch of snow on the ground, I pulled into the pristine parking area, where no tire treads or footprints signaled that I was the first to access the piece since the squalls two days before. Excited by the good fortune, I set about silently tip-toeing around the truck, with just the slightest squeak coming from the white carpet beneath each bootfall. I clicked open the topper and tailgate and collared my pup, and he dove off, ready to go.
Not twenty yards from the truck, a trio of hens broke from the well-established caragana bushes and curled out over the sprawling slough which made up the center of the complex. With a full morning to spend on the property, I was excited at the prospects of finding more birds deeper in the cattails, which my fast-growing dog seemed to take naturally to thus far in the season. We curled around the belt of brush and made our way along the slough’s edge, with an occasional hen popping up every 30 or 40 yards in the mixture of grass, cane and dried gray sweetclover.
In the middle of the eastern portion of the parcel, a small corn plot sat sandwiched between two tree rows, and with the northwest wind growing, we trekked out of the cattail edge and played the wind into the more open area, knowing we would come back to the slough at the end of the trip. The occasional hen would flush, putting the total somewhere around 15 birds in just the first 15 minutes of the walk, keeping Ole’s nose to the ground and a solid circular swing in his tail as his excitement grew.
Suddenly, as we approached the treeline at the corner of the plot, a flash of color took to the sky. It was a rooster at the edge of my shooting range rising out of the golden cornfield. I pivoted and spun my back to the treeline, then shouldered my over-under and gave him what for with both barrels in rapid succession, hoping the recently-tightened chokes on my 20-gauge would have the range to take him down. I squeezed off the second round and the bird sailed away, while I instantaneously shuddered at an explosion of a different kind behind me.
The southern stretch of trees let loose at least fifty hen pheasants following my shots as a blur of startled beige wrapped around me in all directions, some birds flushing so close I could feel the beat of their wings and see the blacks of their pupils, dilated with the rush of adrenaline that we shared. On down the small treerow and out into the cornfield, the flush continued like the wave at a Minnesota Twins game as hundreds of birds took to the crisp blue morning sky, bolting in all directions. Every thirtieth bird was a rooster, taking flight well out of range or surrounded by hens which shielded him from a shot as my pup and I sprinted after the massive flush, his nose hard on the maddeningly fresh scent of more birds than we had encountered all season long.
By the time we made our way through the area, at least 200 pheasants had taken off. An occasional straggler gave Ole the run-around through the shelterbelt before sprinting off into the corn and taking flight. In all, there were maybe four or five roosters in the mix, none of which gave me an opportunity beyond the first bird that lit the fuse on the explosion around us.
I let Ole bask in the olfactory afterglow, swirling and whirling his way through the cornfield, following the fresh tracks that surrounded the base of the cornstalks like some abstract connect-the-dots puzzle. As we progressed through the property, random hens continued to pop from cover, and he stayed on scent for the majority of the two-hour walk. I had one rooster flush at five yards in a straight vertical rise, which spun me 270 degrees, resulting in two very poor shots and a safe bird. We wandered along the far side of the complex and a stretch of grass leading to the slough. Ole plowed into the cattails, sending a rooster skyward at just the right range for my little gun. After missing the close-flushing vertical bird, I vowed the next one that got up would go down for my dog to retrieve. True to my word, one shot sent it tumbling and he ran after it into a small icy opening, bringing the bird back to me in the middle of the reeds.
It was the experience of the season, a perfect late-autumn hunt with all the scent my young dog needed to rekindle the fire within him and provide a taste of what his predecessor had experienced at the height of his time in the field a decade ago. We wrapped our trek up where we started, and a pair of hens flushed from the treeline leading back to the truck, adding to the well over 300 birds we had seen on the long walk. Headed back home, my confidence grew that other such opportunities would exist for my new hunting companion, his brother, and all others that still took to the field, not only in this season but also those to come…in our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: The author’s lab pauses at the end of the cornfield where over 200 pheasants flushed just moments before. Simonson Photo)