Anticipation is better than realization.
– Traditional Folk Saying
The moment seemed endless, but it was probably only half that.
– Steve Toltz, from his novel
A Fraction of the Whole
The best part of pheasant hunting is that moment when a big, gaudy, fully feathered, long-spurred, two-year-old rooster bursts squawking and flapping madly from the grass in front of your dog, lifting off from the launch pad with an apparent trail of smoke and fire, as if his two-foot-long tail was a Saturn rocket booster.
Or maybe it is the anticipation of that moment, the buildup of eager expectation that climaxes in the bird’s exploding flush from cover, that time of heightening drama that stretches out over the four or five minutes when your dog first catches the pheasant’s fresh scent, shows birdy, works the ground wildly with tail wagging a hundred miles per hour, locates, relocates, and locks on point.
Or the first hour of slow, sweet enjoyment of the hunt itself on a frosty fall morning. It begins as your struggle into your bird vest, let the dogs out of their travel crates, close the doors and tailgate of the truck, open your gun and insert two shotshells (right barrel No. 6 shot, left barrel No. 5 shot), and take those first steps into the field. Clouds of vapor puff out of your mouth as you breathe deep in the face of a cold north wind, your dog bouncing and acting the fool until she settles down to work. You go through your pockets to make sure you have not forgotten any gear: whistle, knife, gloves, compass, handkerchief, water bottle…
The anticipation heats up and simmers like a kettle of water slowly coming to a boil, small bubbles of steam becoming bigger and bigger, faster and faster, as you look over the country and see that it is excellent pheasant cover. A newly harvested corn field borders a hayfield of knee-high brome that was missed by the haybine at second-cutting in August, grassy habitat that is thick, warm and brittle. A dry run, not quite dry on this wet year, runs along the opposite side of the hayfield, taking a turn toward the corn stalks halfway along so that the lay of the grass tapers from a hundred-yard span to fifty-yards, thirty, ten, and finally to a blunt point capped by a plum thicket.
You can feel your heart beating faster when you step through a flattened and matted patch of grass, a bedding spot for pheasants that flocked in here for the night. The dog confirms that scent is fresh; she’s hunting frantically for the running birds’ escape trails as you push ahead. Did they go into the corn stalks an hour ago for their morning feed? Are they holding tight along the creek, pinned between steep banks and searching dog? Did they fly out low and phantom-like a half hour ago when they first heard the slam of the pickup truck’s tailgate?
Or does your time of anticipation begin the first evening at the motel? The Over the Hill Gang assemblies for yet another adventure, choosing rooms and roommates, unpacking gear, setting up a camp kitchen of sorts in the breezeway out back, grabbing a stick of venison jerky and raiding the refrigerator for the first beer of the night, debating whether to heat up the pot of chili that is in the cooler or celebrate the start of the hunt with a too-big meal and drinks at the local steak house.
Sitting in the Gang’s “council circle” on folding chairs and watching the sunset, you talk about the disappointments of last year’s hunt and the hopes for this year’s, expound on the triumphs and tribulations of training your newest dog, recall the best moments afield with dogs long gone, show off a new shotgun or an old one that has had some modifications over the summer, and argue about shotshell loads and shot sizes.
And now that we are all past sixty, we have to compare physical injuries and breakdowns, health problems, and the noisome medications we reluctantly take. We try to out-do one another with self-commiseration about how our coordination and stamina have slipped, our eyesight is failing, our hearing is lost, and the catlike quickness and grace that we all possessed in our youth has faded to possum-like lethargy and clumsiness.
We confess we get weary after an hour’s hunting and become stumblebums who can barely mount the gun let alone catch and swing through the rocketing flight of a flushing rooster pheasant. Not a bird will fall this year, based on Over the Hill Gang’s woeful tales of age and decrepitude, but for many seasons I have witnessed the miracle of returning youth and vigor when a dog goes on point. The expectation of seeing it again is a mellow part of this phase of the hunt.
Or maybe your glow of anticipation began days before, during those hours spent preparing for the trip. You reflect on bird hunts of the past while you look over maps and photographs and old faded hunting licenses – tokens of trips made long years ago.
Your excitement about this year’s trip rises as you read down the packing list: brush-front pants, orange shirt, hooded sweatshirt, strap vest, canvas hat, shooting gloves, boots (leather pair and rubber pair), your favorite bird gun, the bucket of dog gear… All familiar, all having been listed and packed for dozens of previous trips, but you always forget something. Boot dryer? How the hell did I forget the boot dryer? Oh, well, I needed to buy a second one anyway.
As in so many parts of life, anticipation can be better than realization. I have learned to enjoy these times as much as I enjoy the hunt itself. Well, almost as much.
Realization prevails when I step in front of my dog on point and that big gold-red-green-bronze rooster rises cackling from the grass, the shotgun comes automatically to my shoulder, the barrels swing through the bird’s line of flight, and my finger tightens on the front trigger.
This is the long anticipated moment. Savor it.
More stories about bird hunting, bird dogs and bird guns are published in my collection of essays, Crazy Old Coot, and my novel, Hunting Birds. Both are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.