Ten years ago, when a hundred thousand acres of North Country farmland was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, who could have guessed that we would ever again drive more than five or ten miles to go bird hunting? These days we travel hundreds of miles to locate, scout and hunt marginal ground.
A report from the Wapsi
The Wapsipinicon River flows muddy and slow for three hundred miles along the western margins of the North Country. In wet years the Wapsi’s flood waters can devastate the farm fields and woodlands along its course, but most summers the river rolls sedately through a twisting, picturesque valley on its way to the Mississippi.
When I stopped to watch it from a county road bridge on this December day after a month of record-setting cold weather the Wapsi was clogged with ice floes and slush, and its channel was choked to a few yards’ width by ragged ledges of gray-brown ice along the frozen mudbanks. Far downstream a coyote walked cautiously on the ice, searching the edge of the open water for the carrion of fish, waterfowl, and other animals that had perished in the bitter cold of an early winter.
Late season pheasant hunts reconnect me with the harsh reality of the wild in winter. These are fascinating and rewarding days to be outside, once I have persuaded my aching old body to leave its comfortable chair near the woodstove and venture forth. Clad in long underwear, flannel-lined jeans, thick woolen socks, two thermal undershirts, and a fleece overshirt, topped by a vest and stocking cap and fur-lined mittens – I found I must still keep moving apace to stay warm, and this morning’s fifteen mile-per-hour wind gusts burned my face red-raw.
A perfect day for hunting, my bird dog Abbey told me.
I packed our gear, Abbey jumped into the cab of the pickup, and we set off mid-morning on a fifty-mile drive to a five-hundred-acre public hunting area along a branch of the Wapsi. Ten years ago, when a hundred thousand acres of North Country farmland was enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program – nearly all of it prime pheasant habitat – who could have guessed that we would ever again drive more than five or ten miles to go bird hunting? These days we travel hundreds of miles to locate, scout and hunt marginal ground.
Near the end of our drive, I stopped on the bridge to watch the Wapsi’s winter flow. Abbey and I got out and walked the bank for a few hundred yards, discovering in the snow the tracks of raccoons, coyotes, a mink, dozens of crows of course, and along the very edge of the ice the huge prints of what had to be a bald eagle.
Sometimes the best moments of the hunt having nothing to do with hunting. But Abbey reminded me that finding pheasants was our primary purpose today.
Twenty minutes later we parked in the entrance to the wildlife management area and looked out over hundreds of acres of restored tall-grass prairie and wetlands. It seemed to be perfect pheasant habitat, but I learned many years ago the truth of a veteran hunter’s comment about public lands: “Great cover – no birds.” And never having hunted this piece of ground, my expectations were low.
As Abbey and I walked into the snow-dusted field I realized that the Department of Natural Resources field crew must have done a controlled burn here in the early spring. The clumps of native grasses, brush, and stands of forbs had come back thick and healthy over the summer and were now standing staunch and winter-brittle, but there was little undergrowth and almost no thatch on the ground, so the cover was more sparse than it appeared.
Marsh grass in the wetland sections was a dense carpet, however, and the two one-acre food plots were tangles of the stalks of corn and milo and button weed, so we concentrated on hunting those coverts first. Bad choice. No scent or sign of a pheasant did we find.
It was time, I decided, to regard this day less as a bird hunt and more as an adventuresome walk in the wild. We crept across hard frozen (we hoped) creeks, walked a hundred yards out of our way to explore willow thickets and bother the cottontail rabbits there, and sat on a downed tree trunk to watch a red-tailed hawk soar on the west wind, circling higher and higher, apparently for the pure joy of flying.
Unexpectedly, in the patches of foxtail grass in the southwest corner of the field, Abbey got birdy. She tracked, she circled, she back-tracked, she showed hot scent, cold scent, no scent, and suddenly took off at a dead run. Moments after she disappeared from sight a hen pheasant flushed from a sedge thicket at the edge of the marsh. Abbey leaped high to mark the flight of the bird and saw that she had left me far behind.
She came slinking back. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” she asked. “Nah,” I said. “I’d have done the same thing myself.”
I saw more and more pheasant tracks during the final mile-long trudge through the west side of the prairie back toward to the pickup, but Abbey did not discover any fresh scent until we were nearly at the northwest corner of the place, bordered on each side by a picked corn field. There she got birdy. Very birdy.
Checking back and waiting impatiently, tail wagging frantically, she led me through a stop-and-go maze of slants, loops and reverses that went on for two hundred yards, two-fifty, three hundred. She went on point. “It’s right here!” Her body language said.
But the rooster was still on the run, flushed thirty yards ahead, banked hard to the right, and caught the wind for speed. A shotgun boomed and the bird went down. I looked around. Since I was the only one there, I must have mounted the gun, swung through the flight of the bird, and fired. I remember none of that; it was all reflex.
Abbey was standing over the pheasant when I reached her, holding it down with her front paws. “We have to do more work on this retrieving business,” I told her. She ignored me. I took off my vest, laid it on the ground, and stuffed the rooster into the game pocket. When I turned to put on my gloves and pick up my shotgun, Abbey pulled the bird out the vest and again savored its olfactory delights.
We were about a hundred yards from the pickup.
“You know, Abbey,” I said, “if we had first gone west instead of south, we could have had this rooster three hours ago.”
“Yeah,” said Abbey, “but then we would have missed all the fun.”