By Nick Simonson
Here and there the frozen trickle of the creek bed shown through in the little draw. The last remnants of a dry summer and fall, it was fueled in places by tiny hillside seeps which were almost invisible, save for the change in density and variety of vegetation growing around them. The golden grasses with just the slightest trim of white from the dusting of snow the night before created small pathways winding up the valley. In those spaces the trails of four-toed tracks would weave and merge in a central stretch, and then scatter back out. Instead of water flowing down the natural funnel it was scent, and my lab, Ole, was overcome by the onrushing odors on the northwest breezes to the point where he became unruly and my late-season whistle checks turned to reluctant voice commands at times to slow him down. He was birdy as soon as we crossed the fence, and when the first rooster broke cover two hundred yards up a small side rill and zoomed off over the horizon, my brother-in-law and I knew we were in for a good hunt even if the pheasants would be spooky, as is expected in late December.
The dog was bonkers from the start, as the scent consumed him. In past walks, where we struggled to pick up the trail of a few birds, there was no doubt about the flow of information coming to his nose on the gusts and eddying in the brush and brambles along the edges of the gully. Our pursuit produced rangy shots to start, as only a few birds held tight and provided points in the tight pockets of buffaloberry bushes and the crunching and snapping of branches preceded the thundering wingbeats of the unfortunate hen or rooster that decided to hang around and be rousted by the dog’s pursuit.
As we closed the distance to the final fence line in the first half of the walk, a group of hens took flight and spread out across the rising hill of the harvested bean field. I opened my gun to clear the barbed wire quickly in hopes of catching up to what I was sure were the remaining birds in the pocket slough. By the time I swung my second leg over the top strand and reloaded my over-under, ten more pheasants – half roosters – were up and out, and only a pair of straggling hens remained as we finished surveying the area. Ole spent the time chasing the ghosts that lingered as pockets of scent drew him back along the far side of the cattails on the grassy hill where the dozens of birds had likely been sitting for much of the afternoon, warming themselves in the partly sunny conditions, and sending their smell down the valley.
Over the hills and back up the draw of another creek arm we went, to recapture the flow of air and the scent lines it carried. The valley was completely dry, save for the low pools along the two small stock dams, and the connecting rills between the two were ice-free walks, but still loaded with the trails of pheasants. As I made the turn around a large bush, a rooster rocketed out in front of Ole and I made the close left-to-right shot on the long-spurred bird. Twenty yards up, Ole locked on the side of the drain and a rooster rose between us and my brother-in-law closed the deal. As he fired, a bunch of pheasants took flight 100 yards ahead, but we were both comfortable, each having a bird in the hand, knowing such close flushes were premium moments on the hike. A few stalwart hens remained on the bends and the rise of the stock dam, but the scent of the long-gone roosters kept Ole on task until the final steps of the walk.
With the sun approaching the horizon, we made the turn along the cut beanfield and I spied an unusual three-arch formation sticking in the dirt of the field edge. It was a nice four-point antler from a whitetailed deer, and after brushing it off, I hooked it on my vest and we headed for the truck, winding along the hilltops with the wind at our backs. A few of the birds we had busted had relocated along the edge of the high ground, but now they benefitted from the breeze as it carried our footsteps and slight end-of-day conversation, giving them the information they needed to make a far-off escape as we exited the field. While I hoped the walk wouldn’t be the final one of this year’s pheasant season, I was okay if it was. The extra weight in our vest pouches was a good reward, the curling antler a great bonus find, and all the birds we saw made it memorable once again to be following a hard-charging dog chasing the flow of scent on the winter wind …in our outdoors.