By Nick Simonson
On my first pheasant hunt in 2003, setting foot on the east side of the open grass field down from my grandmother’s green farmhouse with my uncle and my cousin, I received a piece of advice about upland hunting that served not only as an extremely optimistic guidepost for a first time hunter but a challenge for each adventure that came after it.
“You only need three shells,” my uncle stated, in his matter of fact fashion.
He proceeded to roll the first three roosters he saw that opening day, and I bagged my first pheasant two shells into my second box of ammo on the weekend. While the gap has certainly shrunk in my shots-to-birds ratio, I had never quite accomplished the feat of going a perfect three-for-three in my 16 years of upland hunting.
Riding a good string of shooting behind my oversized lab and ultralight 20-gauge in recent outings, I had set out on some PLOTS land north of town in the spitting rain-snow mix that early November often brings. While the conditions were far from ideal, I knew they would provide bunched birds in deep cover which was always a welcome challenge.
Not far into the walk with my lab along the full slough at the middle of the parcel, a flock of more than 50 mallards took to the sky from the water, and as they did, they drew with them a young rooster pheasant from the surrounding cattails. Flying lower than the flock, I sized up a shot and fired. The fallen bird disappeared behind the cattail edge with a resounding splash, and my heart sank with the thoughts of difficult retrieve in the deep black mud and unwadable waters of the pond. I worked with Ole to find a path to the edge of the slough and saw the pheasant floating ten feet out. I bluffed a throw into the water and Ole jumped in, swimming out to the only target he could see. He grabbed the bird like a retrieving dummy on a summer day at the lake and brought it to hand before we gingerly stepped our way back to the relatively drier environs of the soaked and snowy field grasses along the cattail edge.
As we made our way around the far side of the slough, flushing the occasional hen as we approached the large gray metal support towers for the massive powerlines that ran through the area, the snap and buzz of the moisture falling on the cables was audible. Finding my truck on the far side, I plotted my path through the southern fingers of cattail draws which fed the area as Ole bounded through the thick stuff to my left. We wound our way up along a deer trail that cut through one thin stretch of cattails, and the stink of black mud caught my nose as something more pressing found its way into my lab’s.
A rooster flushed from the far side of the reeds and cut from right to left, zipping behind the first two legs of the support structure for the overhead lines. There was only one shot to take and it would be in the 20-foot gap between the legs of the metal monstrosity standing before me. I traced the bird through the metal scaffolding and as it cleared, I let the bottom barrel loose and took the back end of the rooster out, sending him tumbling into the grasses. It was by far the most Annie Oakley-style shot I had ever taken in the field. Ole was on the rooster and soon it was in my vest. I could feel my smile lighting up the gray morning as I made my way to the smaller slough on the eastern edge of our hunting area.
I crossed the gravel road and went into the edge of the cattails with my dog, sending half a dozen hens into the air as we did. On the far side a rooster flushed wild, and I followed its lead into the grasses adjacent to the harvested field. In the distance a farm truck rumbled up the road as my dog worked the scent-filled area. As it approached, a rooster flushed from a small clump of grass and cut toward the oncoming vehicle, providing an otherwise ideal opportunity to finish the day in utter perfection, had the truck not been there. Flummoxed, I lowered my gun and clicked the safety back on, recognizing that my third shot of the day would not be safe, and it was best to let the bird go. Kicking the grass in frustration at the timing of the events and the lost chance at a perfect outing, I finished the slough out with my lab, content in his hard work on the hens that remained, while I consoled myself with the two birds in hand.
We turned up the ditch embankment toward the road and my truck parked to the north. As I broke into the cattails of the low spot just before the rise to the gravel, the cackle of a flushing bird caught my ears well before his wings shattered the matted tops of the reeds in front of me. I shouldered my double-barrel as he rose and let my third shot of the day fly. The bird toppled and collapsed on the far shoulder and Ole made an easy retrieve.
I shouted in celebration as he brought the bird to me on the near side of the road and knew the sweet feeling of success that came with the challenge-laced advice my uncle had provided to me on the farm some 16 seasons before; three shots, three birds. My cold and soaked legs warmed with elation, my waterlogged boots were as light as air as I walked back to the truck and my white-tipped fingers flushed pink again with a rush of adrenaline-carrying blood as I laughed and cheered my dog on through the falling snow on our first perfect morning.
Featured Photo: The author’s lab Ole with three roosters coming on three shots in the wet and snowy conditions of early November. Simonson Photo.