Saturday morning when the Minnesota pheasant season begins at 9, Will Smith, Denny Lien and I will take to the field armed with an advantage many of our wing-shooting brothers and sisters won’t have.
Our edge won’t be measured in firepower: We’ll tote the same 12 gauge scatterguns into state wildlife management areas many of our compatriots will.
Nor will our legs be stronger than those of other hunters, or our dogs be better bird-finders than the tens of thousands of canines that will be loosed Saturday on what is expected to be a clear and chilly opening morning.
Our supremacy instead will be in our heads, in the form of memories.
Memories of opening days past when as college kids in west-central Minnesota we could barely afford hunting licenses, and often had to pool our cash, coins included, to pay for gas to cruise the hinterlands, alert for ringnecks.
Memories of a long stretch of years when pheasants were abundant and every motel in Morris was booked weeks in advance for the opener. One such establishment, the old Sunwood Inn, would be so ringed with pickups on the eve of pheasant-hunting’s first day the place looked more like a truck dealership than a lodging house.
Memories of opening-morning breakfasts in the smallest of small farm towns, Hancock, Chokio and Herman included, where an omelet with a side of hash browns or a short stack of hot cakes, a tumbler of orange juice and a cup of coffee would set us back $2.75 a pop.
Memories of points, flushes and especially long retrieves made by what over the years has been a menagerie of furry best friends: Labradors, certainly, also golden retrievers, springer spaniels, Deutsch Drahthaars and English setters.
Memories of sneaking those dogs into motels. And motel beds.
Memories of those dogs encountering skunks, and the chaos that ensued.
And memories, especially, of noontime repasts on the season’s first day when, with a half-dozen florid cock birds to our credit, we’d perch ourselves on pickup tailgates beneath blue skies and wash down sandwiches and homemade cookies with gallons of iced water while our dogs lay splayed beneath the warmest of October suns, legs peddling in their sleep while dreaming the dreams that pheasant dogs dream.
After which, on Saturday afternoons, while driving from wildlife management area to wildlife management area, we’d listen on the truck radio while the Gophers gridiron squad lined up against its weekly opponent, reading into Ray Christensen’s intonations even before he revealed the score whether the home team was ahead or behind.
These and many more memories will keep Will, Denny and me walking Saturday when others newer to the pastime might quit, worried as they are that in these seasons of low bird numbers their effort, measured by time and money expended, isn’t worth the potential reward.
Uplanders who over the years have worn out a few inches of boot leather in quest of the wily ringneck know better.
They understand intimately that their next footfall might yield the jack-in-the-box-like rising of a big-bodied, fast-flying gallinaceous bird identified universally by its red face and iridescent green-blue neck, the latter interrupted audaciously by its namesake white ring.
Hued autumnal gold and brown and paint-brushed green, purple, black, dusty blue and white, the body feathers of the male pheasant are colored more subtly, suggesting divinity’s handiwork.
“If they cackle, touch the trigger,” Bill Marchel of Brainerd is famous for advising, noting that sometimes even flamboyant roosters can be indistinguishable from their drabber feminine counterparts while jumping up into a bright morning sun.
The challenge for today’s pheasant-hunting newcomer is to build memories that include chances to level a Winchester or other meat-getter at a fast-departing rooster — when so relatively few of these birds exist to target.
Here, Bud Grant’s advice might be good to remember. A rooster pheasant, he believes, is not just a bird, but a “trophy,” and should be considered as such, in the manner of other commodities that are rare and valuable … and therefore obtainable only by those who sacrifice convenience, comfort or both.
What remains certain in these uncertain times is that the world is forever in flux and that pheasant numbers will rise again in some future year, as they have since being transplanted here from China at the beginning of the last century.
Assured of this, wing-shooters of a certain age will be afield Saturday, fueled during their long hikes through tall grass not only by their recollections of past hunts, but by the chances the new season affords to make still more memories.