So welcome the wind and the wisdom she offers
Follow her summons when she calls again
from the song Windsong by John Denver (1943-97)
Welcome the wind
Wind provides a sweeping musical accompaniment to all my memories of pheasant hunting in South Dakota. An orchestral wind is always blowing in Dakota, occasionally a pastorale with gentle adagio tempos, but most frequently a dissonant symphony performed grandioso under the direction of a slightly mad conductor.
A dozen bird hunts in South Dakota have convinced me that the wind is always blowing. Hard. This year’s trip was typical. Three of our four days in the field we were buffeted by gale-force winds, constantly howling at 35 miles per hour with grass-flattening gusts of 40 to 45 miles per hour.
Leaning into these blasts, you can tip your shotgun barrel at a 45-degree angle to the crosswinds to produce the moaning sounds of an English horn, or even the screech of a bagpipe. Although you and your dog may be pleased with your ability to create these windy etudes, do not expect your hunting companions to express their appreciation. This is harvest time in Dakota, after all, and every now and then the wailing gun barrel will sound more like the horn of a fast-approaching semi-trailer truck.
High winds affect pheasant hunting in several different ways, none of them good. Scenting conditions for the dogs are challenging, to say the least; your dog may unknowingly pass by a bird that is hunkered down in the grass only a yard downwind, or staunchly point a bird that sits 40 yards upwind. Although my young dog Abbey is a good tracker, we sometimes spent 10 minutes or more searching and casting for a downed bird that may have run no more than 20 or 30 yards before it expired.
Hearing a wild-flushing pheasant take wing was nearly impossible, and by the time I caught sight of a rooster scudding with a 30 mile-per-hour tailwind he was at the edge of gun range, even with loads of No. 5 lead shot, and moving so fast I did not trust my shooting ability enough to attempt a shot. This happened several times, each followed by a common bird hunter’s expletive which I will not repeat here.
There was no shortage of pheasants in the part of the state we hunted. Which I will also not mention here. We saw 50-plus every day, and about a third of the birds were roosters. But we could seldom get close to them in that wind, and shooting at birds that burst from cover 30 or more yards ahead of us we missed almost as many as we hit.
Fortunately, I was hunting with a good foursome on this South Dakota trip, and we did not allow windy day frustrations to ruin the fun of our trip. Comes a time in life when “being there” is the most important element of the hunt, and we were all happy just being there. Bagging a few pheasants each day was icing on the cake.
Our final day afield brought perfect weather: a 25-degree morning with temperature climbing to almost 40 by noon, sunny, and most important a steady five mile-per-hour wind. We were able to hunt only two hours that last day, but it made the hunt for me: beautiful countryside, excellent dog work, tight-sitting pheasants, and good shooting by everyone in the party. There was the annoyance of a skunk that sprayed one of the dogs, but Dakota bird hunting veterans that we are, we had a skunk bath kit in the truck and had the dog washed and deodorized – well, almost deodorized – before we packed up at day’s end.
That final day was a great ending to a good pheasant hunt. My goal and my hope for each day’s bird hunt, whatever the game bird and wherever we are hunting, is “one perfect bird.” The perfect bird is one that my dog locates, works, points, and holds – and on which I make a killing shot. A good retrieve caps the moment.
I would rather shoot one perfect bird on a day’s hunt than a limit of birds that were brought to possession by walking them up, pass-shooting them, or taking them in any of those ways I have come to regard as serendipitous. I have bagged my share of birds in this lifetime and am not excited about adding up more numbers. I am excited to have more, many more, of those days when the bird, the dog, the gun, and the hunter come together for one perfect moment.
Abbey worked very well the whole four days. Six or seven birds were shot over her points, about a half dozen were missed over her points, and she worked and pointed 20-plus hens. She found several of our dead or crippled birds that we would not have found without her.
This was her first real pheasant hunt, and I was pleased to see that she quarters naturally out to about 50 yards and checks back on her own. I seldom had to toot the whistle to call her in. She is death on running birds and tracked one rooster more than 250 yards before it finally flushed, in range, and was shot. Pretty good pheasant work for a 26-month-old dog.
We ended up with 14 birds in the cooler but could have had at least 20 with better shooting. About half our hunting was on private ground and half on public ground. The public land was waterfowl production areas, which required steel shot, so, yes, I killed one bird with the pump gun. I do not want to talk about it.
Perhaps fittingly, we stayed at a motel that used to be a 1960s style hospital. Almost all the hunters there were old coots, so the hospital setting seemed appropriate.
Fates willing, we will return to South Dakota next year, the pheasants will be as plentiful, the companionship will be as rewarding, and the winds will be soft and gentle. You know: only 15 or 20 miles per hour. We would welcome that wind.
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.