Abbey and I carried on a lengthy discussion about our respective duties. She was adamant that crunching through shelf ice was not part of her job description.
Bad day at Crane Creek
One rooster pheasant looks exactly like another rooster pheasant. At least near enough alike that you wouldn’t notice the difference until you have the look-alike rooster in hand. Or almost in hand.
Then certain disparities become evident.
A lesson in rooster mortality identification makes a much greater impression if it is followed by a half-mile walk back to the pickup truck on a 20 degree day, through marsh grass and willow thickets, with your boots full of cold water, while your dog tags along sulkily at heel and tells you over and over “It wasn’t my fault.”
When it damn well was her fault, because I was clearly not to blame. Clearly.
The real problem was the shelf of ice jutting out from the south bank of Crane Creek, a small stream that flows through a hundred-acre wildlife area of prairie, marsh, pond, and woodland, tucked away in a hidden corner of the North Country. There are some pheasants there. Not a lot of them, but a few. And in these days of minimal pheasant populations, any cover with a few birds is worth a morning’s hunt.
During the first hour I was pleased to see that Abbey, my French spaniel who is in her second season of bird hunting, was fast learning to outwit those horrid little ring-necked dragons that run and flush wild and play other nasty tricks on pointing dogs and hunters. She tracked three birds, all hens, one of them for more than 200 yards, cornered them, pointed them, and held steady until I came to kick them out of the heavy cover.
On a late season hunt, when the birds are wily and wild after seven weeks of being hunted and shot at, that is some impressive dog work.
But the day became less fun as the wind picked up, and we found not a trace of bird scent for half an hour. We stumbled down into a marshy flood plain and came to the south bank of Crane Creek. It was flowing fast and open beyond a shelf of ice, too wide and deep for us to cross. My thoughts turned to the thermos of hot coffee and the bag of molasses cookies in the pickup.
That’s when Abbey went on point at the base of a winter-bare oak tree right at the creek’s edge, an unlikely spot for a pheasant to be lurking. So of course as I walked toward her a rooster came squawking up from a tangle of blown-down branches and sedge.
I shot it, and it tumbled onto the ice shelf and then into the moving water. Abbey chased onto the ice but began to slip and slide. The ice broke under her weight; she plunged into the cold water and quickly scrambled back out. The rooster, illegitimate spawn of a mallard, swam to the far bank and scrambled into the weeds. Its left wing was broken, but there was nothing wrong with its legs.
“Fetch him up!” I told Abbey, gesturing across the creek.
“You go first,” Abbey suggested.
We carried on a lengthy discussion about our respective duties. She was adamant that crunching through shelf ice was not part of her job description.
We walked downstream until I found a place that seemed a shallow ford. Three steps in, I discovered it was a few inches deeper than the tops of my boots, which quickly filled with near-freezing water. I sloshed across. Assured that it was safe, Abbey followed.
My boots proved to be water proof. Not a drop leaked out.
We squished back upstream where the wounded pheasant had disappeared and I ordered “Hunt dead!” Abbey got right to work, zoomed downstream, and over the next twenty minutes found a rabbit, a whitetail doe, a hen pheasant, and a wool mitten. Despite a merry chase through a picked cornfield on the trail of fresh-hot pheasant scent (the hen) we did not find the rooster.
We returned to the scene of the crime and headed upstream. I held slim hope of finding the broken-winged rooster after he had had this much time to run to town and catch a bus to Kansas, but I never say die until all options are exhausted.
We quartered back and forth through the ragged cover along the creek bank, and lo-and-behold Abbey got birdy, really birdy, crazily birdy, and went on point over a small but thick clump of marsh grass. Looking down under her nose into the tangle of grass I could see a glint of red and copper and green, that white ring around the neck, that evil black eye staring at me in pure hatred. Here was our wounded rooster.
I opened my shotgun, switched it to my left hand, and plunged my right hand into the grass to grab the bird. That was the moment I discovered this cruel truth: A healthy and vivacious rooster pheasant can look exactly like a wounded and exhausted rooster pheasant.
The difference will become apparent, however, when the healthy rooster leaps up into your face, swears nastily in pheasant-ese, and takes flight across the creek.
Reacting instantly… well, quickly… okay, belatedly… I snapped the gun shut and fired the right barrel at the fast departing rooster. And the left barrel. The bird was not killed. Or injured. Or even much frightened, apparently.
In good humor, with grace and maturity, I took it all in stride.
No, I didn’t.
“This is all your fault!” I yelled at Abbey. “I wouldn’t be trying to bare-hand-grab some flimflammed rooster if you had made the retrieve like you were supposed to a half hour ago!”
Abbey noted that if I had killed the first bird stone dead, rather than shooting so poorly that only a wing was broken, there would have been no need to attempt a difficult retrieve. She also said it was pretty funny watching me try to catch the live pheasant.
I ordered her to walk at heel and marched her back to the truck where I drained my boots, put on dry socks, and drank a pint of coffee. I made her sit in the box of the pickup and gave her only half of one molasses cookie.
Over the course of the next two hours I missed shots at three more roosters. Three. One of them was an easy shot. The other two were very easy shots. Abbey said nothing, but each time she went on point she rolled her eyes and gave me that “Are we ready now?”
Finally, in the middle of a section of native grass prairie, she snapped unexpectedly on point, a rooster helicoptered straight up, and I shot it. Abbey was on it in a second but would not pick it up. I waded through the grass and stood over her and the bird. She pushed it with her nose.
“You see how this one is lying on its back with its feet sticking up in the air?” she asked. “That’s how you can tell it’s dead. So you can go ahead and pick this one up.”