By Nick Simonson
The rooster rose from the drain’s snow-filled cattails near my feet and curled out in front of me, banking against the northwest gusts that spurred the addition of new layers which my scattergun snagged on as I attempted to raise it to my shoulder. The slick thumb pad of my second pair of gloves slid across the safety and up the stock as I struggled to get the shotgun in place between my chest and shoulder. I pushed again on the safety and it coldly clanked into the firing position as I found a semblance of my autumn form. As I looked out after the rooster, I fired two late chasing shots that sailed behind the bird; my poor aim resulting from the donning of additional, thick clothing and the lack of manual dexterity which the rapidly-falling temperatures along with the rising wind had spurred.
“I couldn’t figure out why you weren’t shooting right away,” my buddy said with a laugh as I explained the frustrating set-up efforts after the brightly-colored winter bird had made its way well over the expanse of cattails in front of us.
“Let’s just call that conservation,” I responded, chuckling as I practiced my mount over the thick combination of base layer-sweatshirt-jacket-hunting vest I had on.
While the competition on the landscape for these winter pheasant hunting opportunities is low – particularly on days where the temperature and the windchill plummet – the chilly conditions, the habitat the birds reside in, and the spookiness of pheasants still give roosters the edge at this late point in the season, and that’s okay. For me, it’s a welcomed trade. Gone are the days of a single layer and temperate conditions in the cold of the final month of the season and each brightly-colored bird is earned against these elements, but the world – in terms of pheasant hunting opportunities – is almost totally mine.
The challenge of the cold weather and the fact that me or my little group may be the only ones out there adds to that feeling of man-versus-nature, and while it might not be the trek through the mountains for an elk, the physical nature of any late season hunt means protecting skin from biting winds. Gloves get thicker and sometimes make connecting with the safety or even the trigger a bit trickier when a rooster rattles its way out of the frozen cattails. Facemasks and hats are pulled tight, changing the cheek mount on a gun that might sit out a bit farther as it comes to rest near the shoulder over multiple layers of clothing. Everything is off slightly from those comfortable walks just a few weeks ago.
With the start of winter, the birds know where to be as well: deep in the thermal cover of sloughs, thick stands of brush, or deep overgrown farm groves with plenty of grass and other vegetation around the bases of their twisted and gnarled trees. I can run on a treadmill with regularity and be devoted to leg day in the gym each week, but there is no test of locomotion like a stomp through a frozen winter swamp. With high knees plowing through matted cattail tops raising the heart rate, and a smokescreen of fluff from the full heads of the lowland plants aiding in the exciting escape of any flushing rooster, a pheasant slough is a challenging place both physically and in terms of visibility. It is more than worth it, however, as that is where birds will be found when snow fills the grasses of early season and forces them into their winter retreats.
Sure, a good majority of the pheasants are edgy and far-flushing, hightailing it at the slightest sound of crunching snow or the rustling pursuit of my lab through the remaining grasses, brush and reeds. But when there’s that one rooster that decides to wait out the group and trigger the adrenaline rush that sends a surge of warmth throughout my body and the feeling back into my fingertips, well, there are few moments as exciting in the outdoors. The burst of color against the white and gray backdrop is a standout instant in the outdoors, and when it happens up close with cattail fluff flying and snow spraying, it makes the challenges of the late season worth it, especially when a shot connects and the dog makes a good retrieve in cover.
While this weekend’s treks in the breezes and sub-zero starts produced a number of moments like the first flush from the drain, including some panicked mounts, rushed shots and missed birds, success came sporadically until my pouch was filled with long tails and my memories were packed with the birds bagged and those that managed to wing themselves out of harm’s way. Each walk was worth it, watching the remaining populations of pheasants cruise out of sight over the snowy hills or deep into the unwalkable stretches of slough, assuring me that another chance for this excitement would exist before the season ends, and likely occur in the late stretch of next autumn when I find myself in the cold once again…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: The author and his lab, Ole, with a pair of birds taken on a chilly morning walk on lands around the old family farmstead near Watford City, N.D. Simonson Photo.