Boxing Day Pheasants

Boxing Day, or December 26 as it’s shown on U.S. calendars, is a holiday in Canada and the U.K. There are various theories as to what the holiday is all about, including it being the day when the wealthy would give Christmas packages to their servants.

A Boxing Day tradition in the U.K. is to go fox hunting. Hunting, of course, means groups of people dressing up, getting on horses and chasing after a pack of hounds in pursuit of a fox, or as someone said during a campaign to ban the custom, “The unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” While fox hunting was banned by Parliament in 2004, hunting continues, with hounds now chasing an artificial scent trail.

I have no inclination to chase after hounds. Those occasions when I’ve ridden horses convinced me that I wasn’t meant to be a cowboy. On the other hand, on Christmas Day one thought dominated my mind: I need a pheasant fix.

My wife, anxious to get the most out of her Boxing Day holiday, i.e., sleeping late and having a leisurely day, without husband and dog getting in the way of those plans, gave her blessings. I made a phone call to landowner friends on the northern prairies and, as expected, got a friendly invitation.

If here in mountain country we barely had a white Christmas, on the prairies there was no snow at all. Aside from bare trees and freeze-dried vegetation, it didn’t look much different at year’s end than it did in October. The big question was whether the pheasants were still approachable.

Flicka, my black Lab, and I found a bird soon in our first walk. I was helping Flicka through a gap in a woven wire fence when a rooster pheasant flushed from farther up the fenceline. I swung my gun and got off two shots. The bird kept going, however. It was a shot I should have made, though it certainly wasn’t a gimme.

We’d made a circle of the farm before we ran into more pheasants in a corner with a cattail slough, tall grasses, cottonwoods and dense willows. Flicka put up two pheasants in the willows, with one of them a scolding rooster. I wasn’t able to see either of them, as they were totally screened by the willows, something that has happened numerous times in that exact spot.

Next to some cottonwoods Flicka put up another rooster, giving me an easy shot. At least it should have been easy. I emptied both barrels at the rocketing pheasant and stood there in disbelief as the pheasant kept on flying. It reminded me of the old joke of a hunter telling a younger companion, “Son, you’ve just witnessed a miracle: a dead pheasant that’s still flying.”

We reworked cover we’d walked before, seeing nothing, so I decided we should walk a long grassy strip going through the center of the farm, leading back to where I’d parked a couple hours earlier. As we approached the farmstead, I could see dozens of pheasants flushing from the grass 200-300 yards ahead of us, flying and running off into adjoining barley stubble, and then disappearing into seemingly thin air. The birds weren’t in the grass or the barley stubble, or in the tall cover along the fenceline at the end of the field. The birds were just gone, presumably spending the afternoon on a neighboring farm.

After a sandwich break, Flicka and I made another circle of the farm, this time not seeing anything, and we reluctantly declared the hunt over.

I’d made a three-hour drive for a pheasant fix. I won’t say the trip wasn’t a success, though. It depends on how you define a fix. Sometimes that means birds in the freezer. This time the pheasants fixed me.

Before returning home, I spent a pleasant hour at the house, catching up on friends and family, with everybody enjoying a good laugh about my disappearing pheasants.

The pheasant season ended on New Years Day, so there’s a long 10-month wait for the next pheasant hunt. But as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s movie character used to say, “I’ll be back.”