Hunting five states in five days as part of the 2012 Rooster Road Trip is accompanied by a lot of windshield time. Time spent traveling two-tracks, tar roads and interstate highways. Time spent looking at the landscape. And one fact is depressingly obvious through our travels; America’s wildlife habitat is disappearing.
Black tile litters fields by the mile, sloughs are burning under plumes of gray smoke, and CRP lands have already been tilled in preparation of spring planting. Our fathers’ remember the end of the Soil Bank when fencerows and ditches were removed. We’ve all heard those stories and the joy CRP brought back to America’s pheasant fields. As I drive, I can’t help but wonder how much corn the human race could possibly need and if we’re on the road to repeating our own tragic habitat loss history. On the Rooster Road, it’s painfully obvious to me that history is indeed repeating. There is too much proof beyond the windshield to deny that fact.
In the last year alone, 6.5 million acres of CRP expired from contracts with most of those acres leaving the program for the plow. 6.5 million acres of habitat homes for all varieties of wildlife. 6.5 million acres filtering our waters, mitigating flooding and keeping our under-appreciated soil in in place on the ground. Without a new Farm Bill during the last session of Congress, CRP and all of America’s federal conservation programs hang in limbo.
So as a new class of Washington leaders prepare to transition in and out of elected offices, Pheasants Forever urges the 2012 Congress to finish the job of a 2012 Farm Bill. Our nation’s wildlife is too important to our way of life for habitat to continue to hemorrhage from our landscape under this generation’s watch.
The World is too much with us; late and soon
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
--Excerpt from William Wordsworth’s poem “The World is Too Much with Us”
You may recall these lines of poetry from high school English class and wonder of their place in this pheasant guy’s blog. The answer to their presence begins on Saturday morning under a glorious sunny sky.
I was hunting with my dad, brother, 10-year old nephew, my dad’s Brittany and my two shorthairs. The temps were crisp and the winds were low. All the elements were in place for a memorable day afield.
Then, I began to shoot and miss. In total, I racked up a dozen misses without meat for the pot by late afternoon. My frustration mounted. My smile disappeared. My words became short. I had lost perspective.
That’s when my 7-month-old shorthair, Izzy, raced back to me with terror in her eyes and a mouth full of porcupine. Quickly, my dad and brother came to my aid, and we successfully removed more than two dozen quills mostly outside of Izzy’s muzzle. It’s no secret a bad porcupine encounter can be life threatening. Izzy and I had gotten off lucky, and in fact, that porcupine had given me perspective on my inaccuracy, in shooting and in how I’d been living life that day.
What was true in Wordsworth’s time is still true today; the world is too much with us. I often think about society’s disconnection to nature from Leopold’s perspective of food and land. However, the weekend’s porcupine added the complexity of society’s disconnection to nature that Wordsworth references. In simplest terms, life is short. A missed shot, even a box of missed shots, shouldn’t deflect your eyes from the blessing of a day afield with a healthy family, happy bird dogs and our natural world.
Perhaps today’s blog is a little too heavy, so allow me to lighten up my point. Take tomorrow off from work and go bird hunting. You only live once, so you better make the most of the trip.
A group of my friends were recently debating the weekend’s hunting itinerary. Although Saturday is the pheasant opener in Minnesota, North Dakota & South Dakota (resident only on public land), these lost souls were contemplating the merits of spending the morning in a duck slough followed by a walk through the grouse woods. One guy even mentioned the possibility of attending a college football match instead. My jaw dropped as these avid bird hunters seriously contemplated skipping what is likely to be an awesome opening weekend of pheasant hunting.
I took a deep breath and began the process of convincing them to lace up their boots and hit the pheasant fields for the opener. Here are the five reasons for my enthusiasm around this year’s pheasant opener.
1) Mild Winter Weather. Pheasant country was blessed with less-than-average snowfall which resulted in excellent carryover of adult birds into spring. These favorable conditions were particularly beneficial to hens entering the reproductive cycle in healthy, strong shape. The equation is simple; the healthier the hen population, the higher the rate of nesting success.
2) An Early Spring. The spring of 2012 featured good nesting conditions for pheasants with warm weather and enough moisture to green things up to produce nesting habitat and insect production (chick’s primary food). Cold snaps and heavy rains are the concerns, which were relatively minimal during the spring of 2012. While the summer’s severe drought certainly hurt what could have been a big boost in pheasant numbers, most states have forecasted modest jumps in pheasant populations and these inclines are largely due to gains in spring reproduction.
3) Crops. Traditionally, pheasants on the opener find safe haven from hunters in standing rows of corn and soybeans. This year, due in large part to the drought across most of America’s heartland, more than half the corn and bean crops were already harvested by the beginning of October. With the crops out, the birds will be more concentrated in the grass.
4) Gathering Storm of Habitat Loss. It’s no secret that quality habitat is the primary ingredient to producing pheasants. Unfortunately, there have been a string of worst case scenarios in the last few months for our nation’s wildlife habitat. First of all, Washington, D.C.’s politicians failed to produce a new Farm Bill, which has led to America’s most successful conservation programs being left in limbo. Secondly, more than 6.5 million acres expired from CRP enrollment on September 30th. The demands on our lands to produce food, fiber, feed stock and energy have never been higher. The loser in this struggle continues to be habitat, and ultimately wildlife. The road ahead includes a crusade for habitat that Pheasants Forever will wage from Washington, D.C. to Pierre, South Dakota; however, our road is likely to be long and our battles arduous. So, all that bad news leads me to one point: The pheasant opener is a time for celebration and carrying on our traditions before our habitat crusade ahead.
5) Pheasant Fun. Bird dogs bounding through waste high grass waving in an autumn breeze. A rooster explodes toward a robin’s egg blue sky with a cackle of color and commotion. Great grandpa’s over/under slides into your shoulder as you touch the trigger with a BANG! There is laughter and blaze orange at the end of a tailgate, followed by a pheasant feast next to a roaring fire.
The pheasant opener is truly a celebration of family, friends, food and tradition. You wouldn’t ever consider skipping Christmas morning and you shouldn’t consider skipping the pheasant opener.
Will you be hunting the Minnesota pheasant opener this weekend?
Last week, a group of my colleagues from Pheasants Forever’s marketing department attended a shooting lesson conducted by Jeff Hughes, proprietor of Wild Wings of Oneka Hunt Club. The primary purpose of our visit was to record some of the lesson for use on Pheasants Forever’s website and social networking platforms. Not only did we take away fantastic footage for the creation of that video, we also learned that even as a group of experienced shooters, we were each guilty of some very basic wingshooting mistakes.
People too often overlook marksmanship in the field as playing a role in conservation, but at its core, your wingshooting skills are directly tied to your commitment to conservation. “Crippling birds is something none of us want to have happen, so it is imperative that we always work on our shooting skills, leading to cleaner and quicker kills,” said Huges, preaching from his heart to a choir of believers (our group was comprised entirely of Pheasants Forever Life Members).
“Hunters, by their nature, love wildlife more than any other group on the planet. In fact, hunters have backed up their love for wildlife by donating more money to habitat conservation than any other constituency,” Hughes continued, “So why wouldn’t they want to do their best to ethically harvest what they work so hard to protect?”
In the past, I’ve been as guilty as anyone in letting my shooting skills deteriorate over the summer months. Historically, I’ve grabbed the shotgun the weekend before opener, ran through a couple rounds of trap or skeet, and declared myself ready for hunting, often improving the shots I was already comfortable with, but staying the same (or getting worse) on the shots I consistently miss, which for me is the rooster flushing like an airplane straightaway from me on the runway.
However, Jeff’s pre-pheasant hunting lesson opened my eyes to just how beneficial and painless a coaching instruction can be to improving my shooting ability. It makes common sense; we have coaches all our lives in sports and throughout our careers, why wouldn’t we get help for our favorite outdoor activity? Enlisting the assistance of an expert shooting instructor is no different than enlisting a professional coach’s opinion on your slap shot and it just happens to be quite a bit cheaper.
If you’ve ever wondered “Was I behind or in front of that bird,” then a pre-season shooting lesson is a fun way to tune yourself up before the pheasant opener gets here. Shooting lessons are available at most local gun clubs and are usually very affordable. Our lesson was a mere $50 per person for one hour. Public shooting lessons are available through Jeff Hughes’ Wings North of Pine City, Minnesota and to members of Wild Wings of Oneka. To learn more about shooting lessons or club membership, email Jeff Hughes at Jeff@wildwingsofoneka.com.
I was struggling. It was Sunday morning and I was on the second day of a fruitless grouse hunting/scouting excursion intended to produce some new spots. You see, I’ve been hunting my exact same haunts the last five years and “my” aspen stands were starting to age out of their grousey prime. So, I’d set off east and north of my normal destinations in search of new coverts.
I spent Saturday pounding decent looking grouse woods with very little flushes. And the one layup shot presented to me clanked off the backboard with a horribly makeable miss.
Truth be told, I was really struggling with two nagging thoughts in my mind. First, it was my first solo exploring expedition with two dogs, so I was very nervous about losing my 6-month old pup in the woods. Second, I was nervous about getting lost myself. Despite my GPS lock on my truck’s location, I had trouble diving into the grouse woods with abandon. Fortunately, hope was just around the corner.
Around 11AM on Sunday, I rounded the corner of a state forest gravel road and passed two trucks on my right. To my surprise, I recognized the two faces under the blaze orange hats. If you’ve attended Pheasant Fest or Game Fair in the last ten years, then you’d probably have recognized both of them too. They were Tom Poorker and Mark Haslup from Focus Outdoors Television and Midwest GunDog Kennels.
After commenting on the serendipity of their coming out of the woods at the exact moment I drove by, I shared with them my frustration of learning a new grouse woods. That’s when my luck turned around. Although, they’d both been set to finish their hunting for the day with dog training obligations waiting at Midwest GunDog Kennels, they offered to show me a spot in their home woods. They even went so far as to insist on my two pups being the only dogs in the woods as their bird dogs had already completed their work for the morning.
Needless to say, we found grouse and woodcock in the woods where these two veteran hunters aimed our trio. In fact, Mark bagged a nice opening weekend timberdoodle that my young pup was able to deliver to his hand, and Tom brought down a beautiful ruff with a dandy shot. However, I earned the trophy of the morning’s walk with renewed confidence.
After sharing a few laughs over our impromptu hunting trip and thanking them for their generosity, I went north in search of some spots of my own. And I finally started to find what I was looking for in the woods. In fact, in one particular alder/aspen mix, I elected to hunt my 6-month old shorthair solo for the first time and she produced three neatly pointed woodcock, quickly earning me a day’s limit.
To me, the moral of the story is that membership in Pheasants Forever definitely delivers more habitat on the ground - we’ve got 8.5 million acres of proof of that fact - however, membership in Pheasants Forever also creates friendships. Whether you’re a chapter officer, banquet goer or Pheasant Fest attendee, your involvement in Pheasants Forever will introduce you to new people, good people. Some will even become your friends, help you train your dog, and show you a new hunting spot.
To Mark & Tom: Thanks a bunch for a great experience! It truly meant a lot to me for you to take the time out of your plans to give me a little nudge in the right direction.