My sister was incredulous.

“Who hunts on Christmas?” she barked. “What’s wrong with you?”

We were on the phone, but I swear I could see her icy gaze through the fiber optics. She was disgusted that I had planned an impromptu late-season pheasant excursion to South Dakota, forgoing a day of family merriment on Jesus’ birthday. Her Irish hackles were up and on full display.

A bit terrified, I didn’t say a word, observing at least for the moment an old proverb: “Do not speak unless you can improve the silence.” I couldn’t, so I didn’t.

Over the years, I’ve used the holidays (and the time off that comes with them) to hunt in South Dakota, forgoing family and food for the Lord of the Prairie: the gaudy ringnecked pheasant. It started in the middle 1990s with Thanksgiving, when it suddenly occurred to me that getting four consecutive days off work without having to take vacation was a rare, good thing. Eventually, it became my annual tradition.

One year I conned my cousin Scott into going with me. More accurately, he conned his wife into letting him go. Well before Thanksgiving, I gave him some marital advice: “Start priming the pump now. Mention that you have this great opportunity to hunt in the pheasant capital of the world for the first time in your life, and see how she reacts. Lay it on thick.”

Scott’s wife, Kaye, is no dummy. She quickly deduced that I was the behind-the-scenes puppet master — a role I’ve exploited over the years with her husband. The upshot: Scott made the perfect pitch (OK, he begged like a small child), and we had a great time. Thanks, Kaye.

Around 2002, South Dakota lengthened its pheasant season into January. I immediately had visions of flushing ringneck pheasants dancing in my head. But skipping out on Christmas would be a thorny family negotiation. My mother has always embraced my obsession with bird hunting, although she would occasionally channel her inner Belinda Jensen and posit a few subtle hints why I shouldn’t go.

“The weather looks bad. It’s going to snow out there. Maybe you should wait a few days before you go. They’re predicting blizzard conditions. Might be better to go after Christmas.”

“I hear you, Ma. Thanks for the update.”

My younger sister was another matter. She needed finessing. “Hey, kid. How are you? I know it’s Christmas, but I’m thinking of … .”

Sparks would fly, of course. Then silence. Dead silence. So I cut a deal: As long as I was home on Christmas Eve to open presents and have the family meal, she’d agree, though never fully with her blessing.

Over the years, my Uncle Jim has been my faithful Christmas partner in crime. I’d often spend Christmas Day at his house, eating turkey and dressing with all the fixings. When I mentioned that we should take advantage of the holiday and go hunt, he was all in.

“We hate to eat and run,” he once famously said, as we loaded our gear and dogs into his truck and took off. Other years we’d skip the meal altogether and take off by midmorning. By early afternoon, we were hunting pheasants in the hinterlands of South Dakota.

Driving to South Dakota in late December is one thing, and driving in South Dakota is quite another. My uncle says when you get past Worthington, it turns into Siberia. He is right. Road conditions can be treacherous. A light exhale of snow can turn into a whiteout. Ice seems to form from thin air and coat the roads. Slow, steady, white-knuckle driving is the norm. Penance, perhaps, for the sins of leaving our family on Christmas.

My conscience would occasionally fissure with guilt, although absolution was mine when the first ringneck flushed at the nose of my black Labrador. Truth is, my uncle and I had more fun hunting Christmas ringnecks than two people should be allowed.

My pheasant hunting days are over, so today I’ll spend Christmas with my family. We’re having a heavy, nontraditional meal of lasagna, Caesar salad and baguette. I’ll likely walk it off at the nearby wildlife refuge, where the unblemished tallgrass prairie sways and hisses in the wind like a grass harp. Maybe I’ll even flush a pheasant, like I have there many times before.

Either way, no more will my sister be incredulous with her brother on Christmas.

 

Tori J. McCormick is a freelance writer from Prior Lake. Reach him at torimccormick33@gmail.com