Abbey shifts into overdrive when I take her bell out of the box. It’s impossible to buckle the collar while she is doing her happy-dog spin-and-twirl dance, so I give her a couple minutes to calm down and then order her to sit while I fasten it securely. We’ve lost two of these bell collars over the years, I do not have a spare, and on this opening day of pheasant season I really, really need the bell to keep track of her. She works close, but we are about to enter a quarter-section of restored native grass prairie in northwest Iowa.
Within minutes, we’ve lost contact anyway. Indiangrass grows three to five feet in height, according to my copy of the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Whoever wrote that encyclopedia entry has never hunted pheasants on this ground. One of a dozen prairie plant species seeded here, the four-year-old clumps of Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) were six feet high, maybe more. The intermixed big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) were higher yet.
From my five-foot, six-inch vantage point I could see nothing but the swaying stems and tossing heads of grasses. Acres and acres of thick stands, some of the best habitat for pheasants I have ever seen. Well, “heard” might be a better descriptor than “seen,” because I could clearly hear the constant song of the west wind through the towering grass and also occasionally hear the thrashing flurry of a pheasant taking wing somewhere nearby, but I could see nothing but grass, not even my boots.
I could intermittently hear Abbey’s bell, but for a half hour my only sightings of her were glimpses of her white-and-liver coat slashing through the tangles. Each time the bell stopped I went searching to locate her on point, but by the time I found her the pheasant had scurried away, and when she was released from point and started to track we would hear a rooster’s insulting squawk and the frantic beat of wings. In the first inning, the score was 3-0 in favor of the pheasants. But we had a lot of innings ahead to catch up — if we could play on a less grassy field.
This is not a protest or a complaint. I would not mow down a single strand of that grass. Without it, there would be few pheasants on this hidden section of steep, terraced hillsides amid thousands and thousands of acres of corn and bean fields and pastureland. Because of that grass – and the complementary forbs and the foxtail-weedy food plots of sorghum – this was a pheasant paradise and more than a dozen had taken wing all around me in the first 20 minutes of the hunt. Or so I was told by taller members of the party.
When we crested the topmost terrace we looked out across the south slope of the hillside where a dozen acres of brome and bluegrass are temporarily winning the botanical war with the native grass species. By good fortune a few pheasants had chosen that knee-high cover after fleeing their taller, and safer, morning hideout. Now in clear view, Abbey swept through the shorter cool season grasses and disappeared into a brush-studded swale. The bell went silent, and I followed her down to find her locked on point at the base of a small cottonwood tree. This was more like it.
After unnecessarily telling her to whoa, I took a few steps in front of her and a rooster clamored up. Opening day roosters are often young and stupid; this one for sure. It opted for altitude over distance in its escape flight, perhaps a good plan for evading a coyote but a bad decision for avoiding a one-ounce charge of No. 6 shot pellets.
The pheasant crashed down and I dismounted the gun to see Abbey still on point. “Get ready!” her eyes said. A second rooster leapt up and followed the same flight path as the first. It fell to the second barrel and Abbey broke point to retrieve. She was on the first bird in seconds, and I knelt to take it from her, laid my opened double gun on the ground, and took off my vest to put the bird in the game bag (I’m not as flexible as I used to be). “Hunt dead,” I ordered, again unnecessarily, and gestured toward the place where the second bird fell. She quickly found that one, too.
I spent a couple minutes looking over this beautiful pair of roosters before putting the vest back on and then – wondered exactly where I laid my shotgun. It was somewhere near the crash site of the first rooster, maybe over there, or there, or there. Forgetting to pick up my gun is one of those excitement-of-the-moment things that happen whenever I shoot a double. I hope that excitement never leaves me.
Abbey waited patiently, or as patiently as her own excitement would permit, for me to order her to “hie on,” but she heard instead a command that she has too frequently heard but does not understand: “Hunt gun,” I commanded. “Huuunt guuun.” I’m not sure but I think I detected a smirk on her face and a tilt of her head that said “Maybe you should put a bell on it!”
“Go hunt!” I snarled. “I’ll find the gun myself.” I was sure I could because it was in the brome. If I ever lose it in the prairie grass, I may never find it.
More essays and stories about bird dogs, bird hunting, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my five collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page