Anderson: A day to be dazed by pheasants

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2012 - 6:42 PM

The rooster crop was as dry as the land on a southwest Minnesota sojourn. But there was no shortage of memories.

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Hiking grasslands in hopes a rooster pheasant might flush skyward, cackling, is one of life’s great joys, especially on an unusually temperate December afternoon.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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Upland hunters who have made the rounds might favor an old-fashioned Georgia quail hunt over other options. I say this having never done it. I have hunted quail on horseback in west Texas. And near Waco in the same state, I once shot these sporting birds over my setter on a ranch owned by former Twins pitcher Ron Davis. His father, my host, had killed a deer in honor of my arrival, while instructing me, come evening, in the fine regional art form of drinking from a bottle in a paper bag.

I was thinking about this on Tuesday as I loaded a couple of dogs into the truck for a drive to western Minnesota. The forecast called for temperatures in the mid- to high 40s, with a blue sky. This was December, and you couldn't beat it with a stick. The dogs' names were Allie and Brill, and by the time I reached cruising speed they were fast asleep.

Pheasant hunting in Minnesota isn't good these days. The uninitiated might even describe broad swaths of Chippewa, Lac qui Parle, Stevens and Renville counties, among others, as vast wastelands of corn and soybean fields. And drain tile. Which they are. But it's also true that among the seams of these producing lands lay patches of residual cover, many on wildlife management areas. Even in late season it's here that the pheasant hunter with a good dog can chamber a load of chilled 4s and not unreasonably expect an occasional rooster to flush.

The trade, of course, is that measurable amounts of boot leather must be exchanged for the opportunity. This can discourage the hunter who hasn't seen better times, or, especially, good times. Those who have, meanwhile, are propelled ever onward even in these lean years by "hunting memories," or recalling occasions long ago in this place or that when not just one cock bird came to wing, or two, but three or even four. This is a very addictive experience, and oftentimes soon following is the purchase of an additional dog and maybe even a new, bigger truck.

Logic is lacking here, but you get the idea.

• • •

Allie and Brill are young, just 2 years of age each, both Labradors, one yellow, one black. When I finally unleashed them from the truck, they couldn't have been happier. The air was clean and crisp, and the dogs sprang ahead of me quickly, noses to the ground. They might have been unsure exactly what they were doing. But they opened their strides and quartered with enthusiasm. I felt good.

To be successful, pheasant hunters must be ever-alert. Cover thickness must be continually assessed for its possible concealment of birds. The countryside's relative undulation and the placement of big bluestem or other grasses alongside corn, whether harvested or standing, also warrant attention.

Paramount in this mix is a hunter's ability to read his or her dog's body language, and equally so a certain shrewdness in imagining how a rooster might flee upon detection.

Most of these birds will run, of course, especially in late season when they know well the dangers of taking wing within gun range. But the bird hunter can be tricked here if he or she races too quickly ahead, or pushes dogs to do so. Often a rooster will double back, or hunker so low that the hunter oversteps him, unaware of the mistake until the gaudy bird flushes well behind.

Important also in this bird-finding equation are appreciation of wind direction and the experience of the attending dog, the best of which will turn themselves inside out to find their quarry.

• • •

I saw enough hens that under ideal conditions will help seed a good crop of birds next spring and summer, an upbeat note.

Two roosters also revealed themselves, florid specimens beneath the bright December sun. But they flushed wild and offered no shots.

There you go, I figured: late-season pheasant hunting.

Reloading the dogs into the truck, I angled toward Nobles County where, I knew, Scott Rall of Worthington was hosting various riffraff from the Twin Cities, all of whom, like me, on this day were playing hooky from more responsible endeavors.

Finding this bunch scattered hither and yon on 80 acres of rehabilitated farmland, I watched first from a distance as the late-afternoon sun alternately illuminated and shadowed their blaze-orange caps, vests and jackets.

One and all, the hunters bore arms and high-stepped through tall grass, exercising not so much their Second Amendment rights as their need for mental-health breaks, the likes of which few shrinks prescribe.

Here the reader might expect a certain crescendo of activity leading to, metaphorically, a tympani roll and cymbal crash, followed by descriptions of game straps heavy with pheasants.

In fact, some birds were in hand by day's end.

But when darkness had fully enveloped southwest Minnesota late Tuesday afternoon, that hardly seemed the point of the day's efforts.

Or at least not the only point.

Tired now, the dogs had been given a good workout and were that much closer to understanding the wiles and wherefore of pheasants, no small shakes.

Also, Scott and I and the others had traded some boot leather for new insights into just how dry western and southern Minnesota are, an unhealthy situation not only for pheasants and other wildlife, but for farmers and their crops.

And therefore for all of us.

Sheathing our guns, we followed soon our trucks' headlights, trailing long plumes of dust and using up ground in the direction of Rushmore, Minn., population 342.

There, amid the folksy confines of Pd's Bar, we celebrated our good day while concocting plans to return the pheasant to its rightful status as king of Minnesota game birds.

Plentiful during the Soil Bank days and during the peak of the Conservation Reserve Program, these feathery trophies would rise again, we just knew it.

How, we weren't sure.

Until then, we'd hunt memories.

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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