By Nick Simonson
With the forecast in mind on Tuesday, my wife and I packed all of our lawn furniture in storage under the deck, broke out a bag of chicken wings and the last of summer’s hamburger patties and ambivalently celebrated and mourned under 80-degree evening heat the end of the warm-weather season. By Friday morning, the snow was drifted across the once-dry pavement and the green grass of my front yard in a snaking mountain that stretched from two houses up the block on down into my neighbor’s property. Sunday morning, I finished my fourth patrol on the front of the house, plowing and re-plowing the more than 14 inches of snow that had fallen – and we hadn’t gotten the worst of the system. On the south side of our yard, in the wind tunnel between our house and our neighbor’s, a drift fueled by the non-stop northwest gales grew so high that it touched the bottom of our deck nine feet up and buried a stretch from our basement windows to the fence, which was on average at least chest deep.
Snow, wind, ice and the things that come with the shifting weather in fall are part of living in the upper Midwest, and while it’s surprising in early October and somewhat concerning looking across what remains of this calendar and into the next one for the cold-weather season, nothing was more disappointing than the fact that the storm fell on pheasant opener. I hadn’t missed one in more than a decade, and only that one where I lived out of state and was sent to Detroit for a two-week work training. For that, I made up for it over the next two months, with a five-day trip back home and every weekend thereafter in the woods chasing ruffed grouse up to Thanksgiving and first ice.
Through rain, light snow, baking sun, high winds, low numbers, bumper broods of pheasants, full harvest and standing crops, in 17 of the last 18 Octobers, I had been in the field at the opening hour of what has become the season I plan for, live for and enjoy above all others. Some years, when the opening dates differed, I even doubled up and hunted both North Dakota and Minnesota’s season starts, savoring both weekends with child-like zeal as when as a five-year-old, I watched the release of Return of the Jedi in the theater on a Friday night with my parents, and dazzled by the interstellar laser battles and speeder races through the forest, returned on Saturday with my cousin to live it all over again.
So to not be out there on Saturday morning, easily strolling through the dry grasses of some CRP, or stomping the wet edges of a cattail slough, or nervously watching the heightened pace of my lab as he rumbles through the tightly packed caragana bushes and pines on the north end of the farmstead to roust the season’s first rooster, was disappointing. As the day wore on, to shake off the disappointment of not being afield or cleaning a trio of birds on the tailgate, I went where I always go in times of deep snow and even deeper despair (usually most of January and February) – to my fly tying desk.
With a sigh and the soft stroke of a full-colored pheasant pelt preserved from one of last year’s hunts, its fiery orange and maroon-trimmed feathers moving under my fingertips and adding color to the gray-and-white world imprinted on my brain from my last look outside, I set to work on filling the summer-made gaps in my fly box while my mind drifted to thoughts of past openers to buoy my spirits. With the placement of flashy rainbow beads and colored wire instead of the normal brass and copper options above the varying tails colored by the random beige, brown or black feathers I plucked from the pelt, my outlook brightened as well.
I have been told by a number of biologists and upland game experts that about 50 percent of the pheasants harvested in any given state are taken on opening weekend. Much like many casual anglers or deer hunters only set aside the two days around their respective openers, those first weekend pheasant hunters don’t get out much after the start of the season. That fact, and the idea that in weeks two through twelve those birds will be there for us, stuck in my head as I wrapped and wound my way through the half dozen size 12 pheasant marabou buggers decked out with their flashy accessories. Finishing off the last one, I petted my lab laying next to my chair, who was sound asleep after an hour of wrestling with my wife’s German shepherd in the monster snow drift outside.
“More for us, buddy, and better days ahead,” I ensured to him aloud as he looked up from his snooze and put his head back down, to what I hoped was a shared dream of the season’s first flushing rooster amidst the melting snow and crackling cattails of our opening day, whenever it comes…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: If you can’t chase them, tie them up. Six pheasant marabou woolly buggers were a consolation prize for a pheasant opener claimed by Mother Nature. Simonson Photo.