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.”

Pheasants on the Montana prairies

Flicka and I celebrating a successful pheasant hunt.

A rooster pheasant flew across the road leading to the Freezeout Lake Wildlife Management Area’s campground as if to greet or, more likely, to tease us. Was this a good omen for the week’s hunting?

As we set up camp after getting our trailer parked my wife asked if I wanted to take a break to find that pheasant. “He’ll wait,” I replied. “Besides, it’d be almost dark by the time I got my hunting stuff together and walked down to where we saw it land.”

As it turned out I never did go after that particular pheasant, as on following days I hunted on farms where I had permission to hunt and that was more than sufficient.

Pheasant hunting in that area, at least, was surprisingly good, especially considering that prior to the trip I had no positive expectations. As we all know, the winter of 2010-2011 was tough, and there was a cold, rainy spring: a combination that’s not conducive to good reproduction among upland birds.

The first farm I hunted was new to me, but the landowner said there were a lot of pheasants out there. On the opening day a party of hunters got their limit of pheasants in just two hours. It took me more than two hours to get three pheasants, though it wasn’t for lack of seeing birds. The pheasants that survived opening weekend some five days earlier acquired an education in a hurry, as they always do. Most of the birds I saw were getting up around 50 to 100 yards out, especially if they were in light cover, such as the barley stubble I walked across in our first walk.

The farm has a marshy draw going up a hillside, where springs create patches of cattails and tall cover. Flicka, my Labrador retriever, went on point at the edge of some tall grass. When the bird couldn’t stand it any longer it took to the air, giving me a quick chance to swing my shotgun on it and pull the trigger. The bird folded and Flicka quickly retrieved her first pheasant of the year.

The next rooster pheasant came just a couple minutes later, though it took several more hours before we got our third pheasant of the day, along with a bonus Hungarian partridge. Flicka and I did a lot of walking, but that was to be expected.  Pheasant hunting has always been synonymous with long walks across the prairie. Expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised by the day’s hunt.

Rick Northrup, the Game Bird Coordinator for Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks said, in a phone interview, there have been some surprisingly good early reports from Montana’s pheasant hunters, with some caveats. “This is one of those years that where birds had good cover, they did okay.” On the other hand, he said, “There are some marginal or poor areas that sometimes do okay when they have mild winters and optimal spring conditions that were pretty disappointing this year.”

There were some factors that, in Northrup’s opinion, mitigated the harsh winter. “Some ranches, where they were feeding cattle, had enough traffic to beat down the snow so pheasants were able to move around and find food, even if there was a hundred inches of snow.” Still, he conceded, “There were vast areas that weren’t too great.”

As so many Montana hunters have turned their attention to big game hunting, pheasant hunting will continue to provide a lot of opportunities. With most hunters concentrating on deer and elk, there’s a lot less pressure on upland birds as well as fewer hunters competing to get permission to hunt pheasants on private land.

There is a newer challenge in some areas, however. People hunting in some parts of eastern Montana might find good hunting, but in many oil patch communities, motel rooms are booked up indefinitely, so if you think you want to hunt there, you’d better bring your own accommodations.

This just underscores that whether you’re a pheasant or a pheasant hunter, it’s all about habitat and finding a place to get shelter.

An end to pheasant season and farewell to an angler

Flicka with pheasants from a more productive hunt

Flicka and I approached a clump on willows along a creek. A pheasant flushed from the other side of the willows, followed a second later by another pheasant. I raised my gun but held off from shooting as the willows screened my view of the birds. As the first pheasant got out of range I could finally see some colors on the bird. It was a rooster after all.

I suppose I might have thought a few nasty thoughts about that pheasant, but it would have been a waste of time. The pheasant, after all, was simply doing what it needed to do, and that was to stay alive until spring when it could finally pay attention to what he really needed to do: attend to the propagation of the species.

Earlier, another rooster pheasant flushed from a sagebrush patch. I raised my gun and, again, put it down without shooting. The bird got up just out of range and shooting would have been futile. Or would it? That question plagued me the rest of the day. Maybe if I’d been quicker I might have had a chance.

I made a point of getting out for my last pheasant outing of the 2010 season before a well-predicted winter storm hit western Montana last week. Certainly I’ve hunted pheasants in falling snow and frigid temps over the years but it seemed logical to get out on a relatively pleasant day.

The pheasant season closed at sundown on New Year’s Day.  Of the general hunting seasons all there’s left at this point is waterfowl and that season is shrinking rapidly.

In the Pacific Flyway areas of Montana, generally west of a line from Havre to Livingston, the duck and goose seasons will close on January 14. In the Central Flyway area of Montana, the duck season closes tomorrow, January 6, though goose hunting will continue until the 14th.  Then we enter that awkward time of the year between the end of the hunting season and the beginning of the serious flyfishing part of the year.

Fortunately in Montana, there are ways to fill that time, such as skiing, flytying, ice fishing, rabbit hunting, or bird watching.

Before going into that interim season I need to return to 2010 to note the passing of a prominent personality of the flyfishing world.

Tom Helegeson described flyfishing as “Standing in the water, waiting for something good to happen.”

Tom was a college classmate at St. Olaf College years ago. After 50 years I can remember only one class we had together but I’ll always remember how, for Tom, the process of putting words together for writing or speaking came both easily and naturally.

After graduating, Tom put in a three-year stint in the Marine Corps and then began a long career in journalism as a reporter and editor with the Minneapolis Star. Somewhere along the line he picked up a flyrod and as his wife, Julie, said, “From the moment he picked up his first flyrod, I never had his undivided attention.”

He left his newspaper career in the 1980s to open Bright Waters, a fly shop in Minneapolis. He used this base for teaching flyfishing classes and leading trips to Alaska and other flyfishing destinations. He even created a sportsman’s show, the Great Waters Fly Fishing Expo, to feature and promote flyfishing in the Midwest.

In 1994, Tom launched a magazine, Midwest Fly Fishing, to highlight the many flyfishing opportunities of the Midwest, as well as to promote conservation of fishing waters. In a newspaper interview he said anglers must be stewards and caretakers. “There needs to be a new spirit in this country about conservation. It’s bigger than trout streams. It involves how we live and how we treat each other.”

Tom Helgeson died of cancer on November 12, 2010. Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited, paid tribute to Tom as a generous, passionate and visionary person who understood the benefits of protecting and recovering the health of our lands and waters.

Rest in peace, Tom.


Merry Christmas from Montana

Flicka and I wish you a Merry Christmas from Montana

‘Twas a couple nights before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, except for the writer pacing the floor, disturbing even the mouse.

“Will you shut down that computer and call it a night?” asked—no, demanded, the writer’s wife. Staying up late, staring at the computer, didn’t seem normal. Now, if he had fallen asleep in the recliner while watching the Kumquat Bowl, or some other ridiculous football game, that would be more typical.

“I’m sorry, dear,” the writer responded, sipping stale coffee. “I’m having a terrible time with my Christmas column. My deadline is tomorrow—and you know how the editor is when my copy is late.”

“So why do you always wait until the last minute to get started? You’ve had all week.”

“I was hoping to have more to write about,” he responded sleepily.

“Write about your last hunting trip. Isn’t that what you usually do?”

“I guess, now that you mention it.” He sipped his coffee and added, “But it’s easier when I have something positive to tell about. It’s difficult when the trip is a failure.”

“This certainly wasn’t the first time you went hunting and didn’t come home with any game. What’s the big deal?”

The writer pondered her question as he poured himself another cup of coffee and mentally reviewed that last pheasant outing.

It was a mild morning when he left to hunt a ranch an hour’s drive away. It was a ranch he usually put off hunting until the late season because the pheasants generally hang out in this big, marshy creek bottom, with thick willows along the creek, with patches of cattails and marsh grass. There are springs that feed the marsh and he liked to wait until cold weather froze all the water and it would be easier to get around.

East of the Continental Divide the weather looked nice, with bright sunshine reflecting off the snow. The wind, however, was roaring down the eastern slopes. The snow was crusted from recent thaws; otherwise there would be a lot of drifting.

He trudged through sagebrush above the creek, noting pheasant tracks in the snow. The birds are around, he thought, and they’ve been out feeding. With the wind, he figured the pheasants would be in heavier cover. With his black Lab leading the way he wandered around in the tangled willows and other trees before coming out to the marshy area. He hadn’t gone far when he broke through the ice and water seeped in over his boot tops.

The treacherous ice didn’t bother the dog. She scampered across the marsh, plowing her way through the cattails, and then went into a big patch of tall grasses next to the creek. A whitetail buck scampered out, followed by a hen pheasant flying to safety, and then a doe and half-grown fawn.

He tried to work himself to where the dog was, but the brush was too thick to get through. The dog put up a few more pheasants from inside the willows. All he could do was think bad thoughts as he heard pheasants fly away. Finally, after slipping on some solid ice, making a hard landing on his hip and elbow, and following that with breaking through more ice, he decided that this trip wasn’t much fun. He and his puzzled dog limped back through the snow to the truck and went home.

Telling the story to his wife he concluded, “See? That’s not much to write about.”

The wife smiled consolingly, but reminded him, “So it wasn’t your best hunt. So what! Just think how lucky you are. You have good places to hunt. You put up some pheasants and you saw lots of other wildlife. It’s Christmas time and you’ve been hunting since the beginning of September. We have game in the freezer.

“Why don’t you just write that you’re having a good hunting season and wish everybody a Merry Christmas?  It can’t be that difficult.“

And so the house eventually grew quiet, though the mouse wondered, “So what was all that about?”

Pheasants in the North Dakota Oil Patch

Flicka bringing in a pheasant that didn’t get away.

“Those are industrial strength pheasants,” I told Flicka, as a rooster pheasant flushed from the edge of the shelterbelt—the wrong side of the shelterbelt—well screened from my view except for a fleeting glance as it flew off to safety. Another pheasant had given us the slip.

Flicka, my Labrador retriever and always-enthusiastic hunting partner, and I were hunting pheasants on Wildlife Management Areas along the shores of Lakes Sakakawea, the big Missouri River impoundment in western North Dakota. I’ve hunted that area off and on around 30 years, and we’ve been making trips there regularly in recent years so that Kevin, our son who lives in Minot, and I can hunt together.

The area has been undergoing rapid change in the last few years. Some of those changes are natural and others are industrial.

The area is smack dab in the middle of the Bakken Formation oil patch of western North Dakota and eastern Montana, and the pace of development is almost mind-boggling. Almost everywhere you look you can see derricks, indicating where new wells are being drilled, site preparation where wells are going to be drilled, oil wells that are pumping, and occasional flames indicating where natural gas is being flared off. The number of natural gas flares is less than a year or so ago, as the oil companies have built natural gas pipelines to capture the gas and send it to market.

Another indicator of change is the volume of heavy truck traffic, with tanker trucks, heavy equipment movers and gravel hauling trucks fanning out across the countryside. While farming operations continue next to the oil wells it’s easy to see that energy is the driving force in western North Dakota.

Energy creates other impacts. Schools in a couple communities have put up apartments and houses specifically to provide their teachers with subsidized housing. With the influx of oil workers, housing in many small towns is at a premium.

For better or worse, Mother Nature has drastically changed the lakeshore hunting areas. The drought cycle of a few years ago resulted in low lake levels. While that hurt fisheries and boating it also created vast expanses of wildlife habitat as weeds, brush patches and groves of trees took hold, creating a paradise full of white-tailed deer, pheasants and waterfowl.

After just a couple years with heavy runoff the big impoundment is virtually full, as is the Ft. Peck impoundment in Montana, and some pheasant hotspots of a few years ago are now under 40 feet of water. In fact, lake levels increased 13 feet over the course of this past summer, going from 1837 feet above sea level in March to 1850 feet in July. Right now, the Corps of Engineers is dumping water from the reservoir at the rate of 30,000 cubic feet per second to lower lake levels to make room for next year’s runoff. Water is still coming in at the rate of 20,000 cfs, so it takes awhile to reduce the lake level, which stood at 1845 feet on October 31.

On October 31, while other people were getting ready for Halloween, Kevin and I were out walking along the lakeshore into a bitterly cold south wind, watching the surf roll in. Lines of driftwood above the current shoreline mark this year’s high water mark, while offshore, drowned trees are still standing in deep water. On this Halloween, the pheasants played all the tricks and, except for the sandwiches we’d packed for the day, we got none of the treats.

A couple days earlier I’d hunted by myself and collected a three-bird limit in relatively short order. The pheasants seemed to be bunched up in sheltered areas following an early snowstorm that roared through a couple days earlier.

After a couple days of warm sunshine the pheasants, especially those big gaudy roosters, seemed to have scattered and were hard to find. Who knows, maybe some of them strolled over to that new oilrig operating just a few hundred yards from the wildlife management area and hired on as roughnecks.

Montana Pheasant and Antelope Seasons Open

A memory from the 2009 pheasant season.

The autumn season is progressing rapidly. While we had warm, sunny weather at the end of September, days keep getting shorter.

A sure sign of changing seasons is the colorful autumn foliage, both in cities and the mountains and river bottoms.

Quaking aspens, an icon of autumn in the Rocky Mountains, reached their peak last week, though there are still isolated clumps of aspens still holding on to their leaves, and some that are probably just changing colors. Aspens spread by cloning themselves and there’s no better indication of that than to look at a hillside this time of year and to see how clumps of aspen trees change colors. At any given time we might see aspens that are a bright yellow or orange, while other clumps of trees have shed their leaves and others are still green. Those clumps of aspens are made up of a number of trees but they’re still basically one big organism. They’re pretty amazing trees.

If you’re thinking of a fall color tour I’d do it this weekend as the colors are probably past their peak in the mountains, while the cottonwood groves in the river areas are just approaching their peak.

Either way, hopefully we’ll avoid that deep freeze cold front that robbed us of our fall colors last year when trees all over Montana froze their leaves before really changing color.

This weekend is a big weekend for Montana hunters.

The pheasant season opens on Saturday, October 9. Some people get excited about elk and deer. It’s pheasants that pop up in my dreams this time of the fall. There’s something about the sight of a pheasant exploding from a patch of brush that never fails to stir my senses, and I hope it never does.

While the pheasant isn’t native to North America, this import from China has certainly found a good home here in America’s heartland. They’re a bird at home in cornfields, wheat and barley stubble, wetlands, river bottoms and anywhere else they can find food and shelter.

Pheasant hunting is always a challenge. Pheasants may have no more brains than a barnyard chicken, but these birds develop an acute sense for what’s going on in their neighborhood. Pheasants are seldom caught by surprise. It’s figuring out what they are going to do that makes them so fascinating. Some birds are expert at hiding, hoping hunters and other predators will walk by without finding them. Then other birds will simply bug out, either on foot or on wing, as soon as they sense unwelcome company.

A good bird dog with a trained sense of smell is an invaluable partner when it comes to productive pheasant hunting. A good dog will find where birds are hiding and, almost more importantly, will find where a pheasant fell after a successful shot. A rooster pheasant is a gaudy, bright colored bird but it’s amazing how it can disappear into a little clump of grass or weeds.

The pheasant season runs through New Year’s Day, so there will be many opportunities in the next couple months to chase these wonderful birds.

The Montana pronghorn antelope season also opens on October 9 and runs through November 14.

According to Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Montana is second only to Wyoming in pronghorn populations, so if you needed another reason to be happy about living in Montana, there you are.

While pronghorn populations are thriving in most of southwestern Montana, hunters heading for southeast Montana, usually a mecca for pronghorns, may have a little more challenge this year. Pronghorn populations are down after tough winters the last couple years. In the Miles City area, FWP estimates populations are down 37 percent from a couple years ago.

Whether you’re looking for pheasants or pronghorn this weekend, keep in mind that it is always necessary to have permission to hunt private land in Montana. On the other hand, there are some 9 million acres of land open to hunters through the Block Management Program. Do your homework and you may find some hunting treasures in the Treasure State.