The 2020 general deer and elk season is over. The end of these five weeks means a lot of Montana households have venison in the freezer. Of course, a lot of households have also learned that venison in the freezer isn’t a sure thing.
I’m actually starting this column the night before going out in search for a whitetail deer. I’ve been pretty lucky in recent years. We’ll see if the luck holds, and I’ll report on the hunt later.
For now, my mind is on pheasants and, particularly, on my last hunt, with a connection to a long ago hunt.
I made a one-day trip up to my pheasant haunts on the Rocky Mountain Front a week ago to hunt a ranch I’d planned to hunt back in October. However, we cut that last camping trip of the season short, when a winter storm warning threatened to make us snowbound at Freezout Lake.
Since then, several winter storms have swept across Montana. We’ve had subzero temperatures, and then we’ve had mild weather and most of those snows have melted. So I took advantage of relatively mild weather for a fast trip to the prairies.
We had mild autumnal-like temperatures, but with a major wind chill, it was more like an expedition on the arctic tundra. But, that’s why we have jackets and gloves.
About five hours later, I concluded the hunt when my Labrador retriever, Kiri, flushed a rooster pheasant from a weedpatch next to a wheat stubble field. It was kind of a long shot, but the bird dropped to the ground. It got up running, but Kiri was on the job and put an end to that nonsense. We’d gotten our limit of three pheasants for the day.
It wasn’t that pheasant that gave me a thrill, though it was a beautiful, long-tailed rooster in all the gaudy colors of those Asian immigrants.
A couple hours earlier, Kiri and I were poking around in a grassy draw and she put up a rooster. The bird first flew directly at me, then swerved to fly behind a tree. When it reappeared on the other side of the tree I had time for a couple fast shots and the pheasant went down, and Kiri was there right away to make sure it wasn’t going anywhere.
When I got up to it, I gasped at the bird’s tailfeathers. These were seriously long tailfeathers. We were about ready for a lunch break so when we got back to the truck, I laid the bird out on the tailgate and got out a tape measure. The feathers measured out to 26 and a half inches.
My first thought was, “This is one for the taxidermist.”
Now, let’s time-travel back to November 1972. On a mild, overcast Sunday afternoon, I went for a hunt on a favorite ranch with Sam, our black Lab of the day. We flushed a pheasant from a clump of willows and I managed to hit the bird. When we found the bird, I had a similar gasp of wonder. That pheasant had tailfeathers that I later measured as an even 26 inches.
I considered taking it to a taxidermist, but I concluded that a pheasant dinner was worth more than the cost of taxidermy.
For 48 years, I’ve been regretting that decision. We do have a beautiful North Dakota pheasant mount from the late 1970s, but that bird had just 18-inch tailfeathers. A nice bird, but not a trophy.
Since then I’ve taken many pheasants. Some of them have had long tailfeathers, but none as long as that long ago Tongue River rooster—until now.
I took the pheasant to the taxidermist this afternoon and told him my story and, while he’s a lot more used to monster bull elk and mule deer, he appreciated the rarity of the pheasant. “Heck, that’s the equivalent of an 8-point elk.”
Of course, after he quoted an estimate for the job, I regretted even more not having that 1972 bird mounted! Prices for everything have gone up and taxidermy isn’t exempt.