Snowbirds

The wind had picked up steadily all day and now, late in the
afternoon, it was really howling out of the northwest. It was
bitter cold even without the wind, but hunting into the teeth of
that winter gale, it was cold enough to freeze your eyelids shut,
which should be cold enough for a 50-something adult to come to his
senses, call in the dog, and head for the warmth of a cozy
fire.

But Meg, despite the long day, was still hunting hard, and I’ve
never been much on giving up, so the two of us kept on trudging
through the snow, checking out every patch of bramble and briar
along the banks of the frozen stream.

Meg got birdy around a tight bend in the creek, where a tree had
fallen over and its toppled branches had grown through with briar
and grasses, providing excellent cover for pheasants and other
critters. Meg hesitated, almost came to a point and then moved
forward into the maze of branches and bramble. A rooster, the sound
of its flush muffled by the wind, shot out the other end.

Quickly I hustled around the far side of the tangle, hoping to
be in position if another bird exited. I was just about there when
that toppled tree began ejecting pheasants like exploding kernels
in a popcorn popper. Somewhere underneath that mess, my little dog
was busy. I was so flustered that I rushed my first shot and
missed, but then I settled down and doubled on a pair of roosters
that tried to climb straight up instead of catching the wind and
riding it low and fast.

A few minutes later, satisfied that she had rousted its
inhabitants, Meg emerged from the branches of the toppled tree. I
snapped a leash on her collar, told her she was the best darn
pheasant dog in Dodge County, (and maybe the whole darn state!) and
we hiked back to the truck and drove home.

We had only been hunting a few miles from home, so when we
walked in the door, Meg was still coated with snow and ice. Nancy
took one look at that sorry-looking dog and my wind-blasted face,
shook her head and said, “You two old fools deserve each other!
Neither one of you has enough sense to quit.” I hold that as a fine
compliment.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really all that fond of sub-zero
temperatures and howling northwest winds. But I am mighty fond of
pheasant hunting and it’s late season hunting I enjoy more than any
other. I’m not really sure why. I suspect it has to do with the
fact that Meg and I hardly ever see another hunter when we hunt the
late season. I’m not anti-social really, I just don’t like sharing
a slough or a ditch with other hunters. And I’m sure that my
penchant for the late season has something to do with the
challenge.

Late season birds are as tough as it gets. They’re not pushovers
during the early weeks and middle of the season, but they are not
as smart, cagey, or spooky as in late season. You can get away with
things earlier in the season that you can’t get away with now. Slam
a car door? Might as well go somewhere else. If you need to holler
at your dog to control it in the field, do yourself a favor and
leave it in the truck. And if you don’t have a hunting partner with
whom you have hunted long enough that you can communicate without
hollering at each other, then hunt alone. Late season roosters are
paranoid. They don’t hold in cover at the sound of your voice and
hope that you walk past. They make tracks, right now.

Earlier in the season, there are a lot of places a rooster might
hide. He has fewer choices now. The skimpy cover is worthless. When
the snow falls and the wind howls, pheasants need the best cover
possible if they hope to survive. Concentrate your efforts
there.

Cattail sloughs are great. So are conifers. Old groves and
tangled woodlots will hold some birds. Willow clumps along creeks
and drainage ditches always are worth checking out.

If the snow falls before the season ends, you can quickly locate
the pheasants. I love to hunt after a fresh snow, following tracks
in the snow, anticipating the flush. The first snow of the season
is best. After that, the longer there is snow, the spookier the
birds become.

Some hunters switch to tighter chokes and bigger shot as the
season progresses. I probably would, too, if I had the option, but
my old 20 gauge Model 12 Winchester does not have interchangeable
chokes, so I just feed her copper-plated sixes from the opening
bell to the last day. I will say this: If you are accustomed to
hunting pheasants only on the opener or maybe have done most of
your pheasant shooting on hunting preserves, you are not going to
believe the speed of a late season rooster. These are strong fliers
which leave the ground in a heartbeat and then turn on the
afterburners. Shoot fast and shoot straight if you hope to put late
season roosters in the bag.

Sometimes, during the rest of the pheasant season, I get in a
rush and don’t take time to admire each bird before I tuck it into
my vest. But when hunting the late season, I tend to spend some
time admiring each rooster. These are trophy birds worthy of
respect and admiration.

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