A rooster pheasant flushed from a clump of grass. My shotgun was at the ready, but that clump of grass was about 50 yards away, well out of range, so that pheasant lived for another day.
I lived for another day, as well, but as far as pheasants are concerned, that next day of pheasant hunting will most likely be next October, as Montana’s 2020 pheasant season closed at sunset on New Year’s Day.
My record on end-of-season pheasant hunts is pretty dismal. To be sure, I have brought pheasants home from December hunts, but it’s not often. Wild pheasants, at the end of the hunting season, are seasoned survivors. They managed to survive the summer, a time when pheasant chicks are fair game for a whole variety of predators, from snakes, to skunks and foxes, to hawks and owls. Life is a challenge when you’re at the bottom of the food chain.
Pheasants that survive to adulthood soon learn about other predators—the ones carrying shotguns, following bird dogs of one kind or another that follow their noses through thick grass, weed patches and brush in search of pheasant scent. The pheasants that stick around to be sniffed out by dogs are, by late December, considerably thinned out.
Pheasant hunting is in my blood. I grew up on a farm at a time when pheasants were plentiful in southern Minnesota. My first hunting, as an innocent teenager (assuming there is such a thing) was for pheasants. I’ve lived my entire life in states that offer pheasant hunting. I’ve hunted pheasants on bluebird days in early October, in snowstorms, and in subzero temperatures. Even when the odds are stacked against us, I enjoy being out there.
I couldn’t blame the weather for my lack of success on that last hunt of the 2020 season. The temperature in the early morning was below zero but by late morning it was in the mid-20s when I started walking. The sunshine felt warm and, unusually, there wasn’t any wind to speak of.
The first pheasant my Lab, Kiri, flushed was clearly a protected hen pheasant. I watched it fly off, keeping an eye on Kiri’s whereabouts, hoping she’d also sniff out a rooster.
A little while later, Kiri flushed another pheasant. I couldn’t tell, for sure, whether it was a hen or rooster, though as it sailed out of sight I couldn’t help but think it might have been a rooster.
A handsome whitetail buck bounded out of one brush patch. He seemed pretty casual about it, however. He evidently understood he was out of season and didn’t have to worry about me.
I watched Kiri work a weed patch and finally give up on it—a moment too soon, as a rooster flushed from a distant corner of the patch, safely out of range.
A little bunch of mule deer sensed danger and moved out of the sagebrush where Kiri and I were walking, bouncing their distinctive way to a hillside a couple hundred yards away. Then they stopped and looked back, as mule deer often do, a behavioral trait that has turned many mule deer into packages of steak and hamburger in hunters’ freezers. They had no reason to fear me on this day.
Finally, as the sun was starting to drop, and the air was starting to feel chilly, Kiri and I finished our walk, empty-handed.
I made a stop at the landowner’s house to say thanks for letting me hunt, once again, and then we drove home in the setting sun.
It seemed like a long time since Kiri and I made our first walks of the season on some high mountainsides in search of blue grouse. Since then, we’ve walked golden aspens for ruffed grouse, and prairies and grain fields for pheasants.
While I was disappointed at not bringing home any birds, I have pheasants in the freezer and in coming months we’ll be enjoying some gourmet pheasant dinners, as well as fly-fishing with some pheasant tail nymphs made from bits of pheasant tail feathers.