My next-door neighbor Jim was one of those young guys who’d bought into the “get big or get out” theory of farming. The day before pheasant season opened, Jim had his 1,000 acres combined, and all the stubble turned to black dirt save for the few strips of unpicked corn left standing in the fields. Packed into those picket fences of corn was Jim’s crop of young pheasants, disoriented by the sudden removal of 980 acres of cover-feeling as you or I would a couple of days after a tornado took the roof off the house. Saturday morning a small army of Jim’s friends would gather at his place for a very noisy hunt, after which Jim’s wife would feed the threshing crew. The harvest complete, Jim would go out after lunch (“dinner” where I come from), combine the remaining strips, and plow them under. By sunset, Jim’s hunting season was over. Jim’s operation represents the extreme, but similar versions of this opening-weekend pheasant harvest take place throughout the Midwest. It’s a social gathering, a family reunion, and a gang hunt in the old, communal farm-country tradition. Roughly half the birds killed in a given year are bagged during the first two weekends of the season, yet the gang hunt, like all harvest operations, leaves plenty of crop in the fields. What the harvesters miss, gleaners like me try to pick up.
For the record, I have hunted with big groups exactly twice. Once I was a member of a party of 12 in Nebraska. We were rousted out of warm, cozy beds well before daylight and convoyed down snowy gravel roads to the edge of huge CRP fields to stand shivering in the dark, awaiting the signal to form a line and wade into the high, wet grass half an hour before sunrise. The other time, in North Dakota, I hunted as one of a group of 23 hunters, which is at least 20 hunters too many.
Gang hunts require that pheasants be present in large numbers, flush more or less on cue, and die in sufficient numbers to make a sizable pile in front of the happy hunters in a photo at day’s end. I’ve got no interest in walking in a line and shooting pheasants when they jump up in front of me. I want a chase from my birds. The scattered, wary survivors of opening day will run, sit, double back, and flush wild; each one is a trophy to remember.
When your dog takes off at right angles to the line of march on the track of a bird, you can’t convince 22 other hunters it’s time to abandon formation and beat feet after him. It’s probably just as well. It would be like a swarm of kindergartners chasing a soccer ball, but taller and with guns. So, I go by myself, or with a friend who agrees that the best choreography for a hunt is no choreography at all. We don’t make orderly passes through the cover like a combine, hacking at our dogs with whistles and electric collars to keep them underfoot. My idea of strategy is this: start at the downwind end of the field, turn the dogs loose, let them range, and then follow them to the birds. Why make a dog quarter back and forth through empty, picked-over cover when his nose can lead us straight to the pheasants?
Sometimes wide-ranging dogs will put birds up far in the distance. Often, hard-hunted pheasants flush 200 to 300 yards ahead of us with no provocation from the dogs whatsoever. I don’t worry about wild flushers; I mark them down and hunt them up again.
Late last season, my friend Tom and I hunted one of my favorite public areas, a flat expanse of bottom fields inside a huge bend in the Iowa River. When the waters finally receded after the 100-year flood of ’93, the farmers in the levee district took one look at the heaps of sand and debris covering their fields and voted unanimously to surrender the ground back to the river that claimed one in every three of their corn crops. The state bought them out and let the fields go fallow, and the pheasants moved in. Now, amid the foundations of abandoned barns and silos, the weedy fields make ann ideal stage for running bird dogs.
That December afternoon, the birds were late for the curtain. We saw nothing for a couple of hours until Tom caught the slightest glimpse of a rooster flushing far ahead of us, scaling over the top of the native grasses, across the gravel road toward a slough. Although Tom couldn’t see exactly where the bird landed, the likeliest cover was a long wedge of canary grass bounded by the slough on one side, a grazed pasture at the other, and ending at the gravel road. Leading the dogs across the road, we quietly made a wide loop around the slough to outflank the rooster and put the wind in our favor. When we released the dogs, we were rewarded almost immediately by one of Tom’s young Gordon setters skidding to a halt. My English setter, Ike, nearly back-ended him but then locked up to honor the point. It was picture perfect for an entire split second. Then the rooster decided: Enough of this sitting and waiting to get killed, I’m gone.
Long ago Tom and I learned not to saunter casually up to a point discussing whose turn it is to take the shot. We were right behind the dogs when the bird busted out of the cover. Tom’s “There he goes!” was my cue to shoot. That was the only rooster we saw all day.
It’s not always one bird at a time. Even we gleaners sometimes reap bumper crops. When Ike was a puppy, he would routinely point pheasants from 15 or 20 yards away. Chalk it up to his West VirginiaÂ¿Â¿Â¿southern Ohio bloodlines; the best grouse dogs cautiously freeze at the first whiff of scent. Transplanted to pheasant country, Ike soon taught himself to hunt wild ringnecks aggressively. During that first season, though, he would point uncertainly far away from the birds and I would have to stomp around in front of him to figure out exactly where the pheasants were, or if they were there at all.
One afternoon he ran down a fenceline and came to a stop, head held high, not really pointing, but not running anymore either.
“I think Ike’s pointing,” I said to my cousin.
“No,” said Shaun. “He’s just admiring the view.”
We had crested a hill overlooking the kind of Grant Wood landscape that’s so common where I live that you can all too easily take it for granted. Golden cornstalks covered fat, round hills split by a gravel road leading to an iron bridge over the creek. A neat white farmstead sat atop the opposite side of the valley under a blue sky streaked with a few wisps of cloud and the fuzzy contrail of an airliner.
Ike was not thinking view. He was smelling pheasants. Twenty yards in front of his nose a flock of 25 birds crouched unseen in a brushpile. Shaun and I walked past the dog, down to the end of the fence where the corner post had been pulled and the bulldozed trees piled up. The entire flock burst into the air at once, blotting out the tranquil landscape in a flurry of cackles and wingbeats, as if Wood had given up and thrown a glob of bright paints into the middle of the canvas. Recovering in time to shoot, Shaun and I dropped a rooster apiece from the flock. We marked the scattered singles down, and in a minute it would be time to reload and get after them. First, though, with the long-tailed, copper-feathered warm bird in my hand and the landscape rolling out before me, I made sure I took some time to admire the view.