Something about Pheasants and Pheasant Hunting

There is something about being afield with pheasants that changes us—that gives us a new sense of ourselves and the world around us.

Tomorrow, 19 October, is our pheasant opener.  I shall not partake in this one, but look forward to the opener the James Gang celebrated for too few years.  James 2 and I (James 3) will open our Washington pheasant season in a short few weeks in pheasant habitat in the Basin.  The late James 1—Jim Groseclose—gathered us there each year on a specific date which we continue to honor.

Still, the approach of this statewide opener floods my mind with rich memories of pheasants and the gift of time spent in pursuit of them.

When I was a kid in East Wenatchee, I don’t think the Old Man and I ever missed a pheasant and quail opener around various Wenatchee orchards.  Once permissions were gained, the anticipation built.  I could rarely sleep the night before, and we always had an opening day that ended with us delivering my mother enough cleaned birds for a few highly treasured family meals.

I grew up with opening day excitement.  In the mid-60s, Air Force Buddy Rick and I decided to open the Colorado pheasant season on a full section of public ground near Fort Collins.  We were pretty excited, and headed out in time for the 12:00 Noon starting gun.  By 11:30, there were easily 50 of us surrounding that square mile, counting the minutes.  By 12:30 we were surrounding a patch of cover in the middle of that big field.  Not a shot had yet been fired.  When all hope was lost, a few hens and one lone rooster blasted from the cover.  More than a dozen shots were fired.  As several people loudly argued over the carcass of the rooster, we took our leave.  Until grad school in Kansas, and after, I rarely hunted a pheasant opener.

In mid fall of 1971, I opened my first Kansas pheasant season with young Freebe the Wonder Dog.  At 9:05 a.m. he breathed in his first legal snootful of pheasant scent, and put a brilliantly colored rooster into the air 10 yards out.  At my shot, he smoothly retrieved the bird.  With an obvious pride in his Labrador heritage, he came to heel, sat down, and handed me the first of many birds we would find together.

In 2001, I drove to Spokane and caught a November flight to Watertown, South Dakota.  There, I hooked up with Brad Johnson.  Brad got me writing this Inside the Outdoors column in the Denver area 25 years ago, and remains one of my favorite people on the planet.  We would chase birds.

Over a couple days, we swept cornfields and other cover, and managed a few birds.  On my last day, we hooked up with several of Brad’s buddies and kids.  We had a big enough crew to adequately cover several miles of prime pheasant habitat—in a 30 mile-per-hour north wind.  After several hours of pheasants sailing off on that wind, we had no birds to show for our trouble.  No one whined, of course, since it was a perfect day afield in typical November weather in South Dakota.  I still smile over the pleasure of walking cornfields, fence rows and windbreaks with a small group of upland birders.  I can still hear the joyful shouts of “Hen!” or “Rooster!” at a flushing bird, and the laughter about parentage or shooting skill.

I mentioned that the Old Man and I never missed an opener.  That is not quite true

I was eleven.  It was a beautiful early November Saturday.

After work and on weekends, for something over a year, The Old Man had been building a small house.  Somehow, he and mom had managed to scratch together money to buy some ground with a burned‑out basement next to an orchard in East Wenatchee.  For that year or so, we had lived in the capped‑off basement.  Now, he’d pretty much finished the small house, and we were on the roof, nailing down shingles.

Pheasant season was open, but we hadn’t been out for our normal opener.  Watching him choose work and chores over hunting, I was thinking that maybe he wasn’t much of a hunter after all—and probably wouldn’t be much of a dad to me.

Sometime in the morning, a rooster pheasant started calling from the neighbor’s apple orchard.  Each time that old cock would crow his pheasant challenge, the Old Man would stop tacking down shingles for a moment.

Something very deep and far away was tugging at him.  He’d tack another shingle down, the bird would cackle, and he’d hang his head for a moment.  I could feel the struggle inside him.

Finally, he looked at me.  …Almost painfully.   He handed me his nail pouch and hammer.  “Wait here,” he said.  He slid over to the ladder and climbed down off the roof.  Moments later, I heard the front door close and watched him walk toward that orchard.  He was closing the bolt on his old Sears J.C. Higgins 12‑gauge.

I heard the cackle, the flush, and one shot.  My mother walked out into the back yard.  The Old Man said, “Thanks, Dorothy…” as he handed her the bird and the shotgun.  He climbed back onto the roof.  He tied on his nail pouch, asked for a shingle, and started tacking it down on our new roof.  He was smiling.

There is something about pheasants that changes us—that gives us a new sense of ourselves and the people around us…

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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