Abbey must have thought we had died and gone to heaven. Six weeks into a sparse bird season we blundered into a pheasant paradise where she found, tracked, and pointed nine birds in less than two hours – six hens and three roosters. Three more flushed wild ahead of us when we first walked into the 200-acre tract of beautiful habitat. All told, that was more pheasants than we had seen since opening weekend.
No, I will not tell you exactly where this weedy patch of paradise is located. We drove seven or eight miles from our North Country farm to a part of the adjacent county that has never been known for producing good numbers of pheasants. I knew of a piece of hilly public land that is a half mile from the road, a hike most bird hunters are not willing to make for the slim chance of finding a bird or two on that marginal ground.
Once you reach this place you see the wildlife cover is magnificent: native grass battling with brome and bluegrass and weeds for ownership of long-abused farmland, with a three-acre food plot of standing corn in the center. But this has been a frustrating year. We have had many hunts in excellent cover that has held few pheasants, often none, so my hopes were modest as we entered this plot. Maybe Abbey could find a couple hens and I would get a morning’s walk in the wild far from the madding crowd. That was all I expected. With my 90-year-old, recently repaired 16-gauge double gun over my shoulder I stepped over the fence into the wildlife area, and a rooster cackled and took wing more than a hundred yards ahead.
“That,” I told Abbey, “is probably the only pheasant we will see today.” She refused to be pessimistic and plunged into the cover. A recent snowstorm had flattened the grass just enough that I could keep her in sight and did not have to depend on hearing her collar bell to keep track of her. Good thing, because within ten minutes her tail was wagging frantically and she was nose-to-ground, trailing fresh scent.
As I followed, her hunting pattern and body language told me that we chased after a running bird almost a hundred yards before it decided to hide in a thick clump. Abbey pointed, I stomped around in front of her, and up came a pheasant pretty as you please for an easy shot. Except it was a hen. No matter, this was a great start to the day.
We repeated this scent-track-pin-point and flush routine eight more times. The fourth time, the bird was a rooster and I knocked it down. As Abbey grabbed the bird, I reloaded and then lay the opened gun down on a clump of grass, took the pheasant from her, and put it in the game pouch of my vest. We walked on and as I closed the gun I realized that I had clumsily spilled the shotshells from the chambers into the snow-covered grass. Backtrack twenty yards and search for them? Forget it; Abbey was already showing “birdy” on another scent trail.
On all previous hunts this season I had fired a total of eight shotshells, so when I left the clubhouse on this morning I reasoned that the seven in the pocket of my vest were plenty enough for the day. I would no doubt come home with all seven. Now, miles from home, with one rooster killed and two shotshells lost, I was down to four. No problem. Bag limit is three roosters, and for a skilled shooter like me knocking down two more with four shots was a cinch.
Do I have to go on with this story? A half hour later an antsy rooster flushed twenty yards ahead of Abbey’s point and thirty yards ahead of a huffing and puffing old hunter trying to hurry into shooting range. Right barrel miss. Left barrel miss. Damn!
Well, even a pair of birds would be a great bag for a hunt in this year of scant pheasant numbers, so I was feeling smug and confident at morning’s end when a rooster cackled as it launched itself from the weeds under Abbey’s staunch point within easy range. Trigger is jammed! No! The safety is still on. Push it forward, get the barrels back on the fast flying bird, not so close now. Right barrel miss. Left barrel miss.
Damn! Just… DAMN! I groped into the depths of every pocket of my vest and pants. Nope, no more shotshells. I called Abbey in with three pips of the whistle.
“Heel!” I ordered. She looked at me as if I were crazy.
“There is pheasant scent all over this place!” she said.
“Yes, and we are walking directly back to the truck, because if you track and point another rooster or two, it’s not going to improve my mood.”
After a cup of coffee and a couple chocolate cookies on the tailgate of the pickup I consoled myself that even a one-rooster day was good. “Especially since this dragon is a long-spurred, year-old bird that we out-smarted,” I told Abbey as I looked over the pheasant.
“Strictly speaking,” she said, “I out-smarted it. You only shot it. And two others I out-smarted, you missed both of them. Bad.”
“That’s your last cookie,” I snarled. “Get in the cab. We’re driving home.”
More essays and stories about bird dogs, bird hunting, bird guns, and life in the North Country are published in my six collections of essays, available through Amazon.com at Jerry Johnson Author Page