Confessions of a Pennsylvania bird hunter
My hybrid bird dog, Cali, cries with excitement the moment she hears me slip the bell on her hunting collar. Half spaniel-half setter, her instincts kick in as she buries her nose in my game pouch lying on the floor. As I lace up my boots, her eyes gleam with an impatient longing. She full well knows the drill.
We head to nearby public land for the first pheasant hunt of the year. The parking lot is loaded with vehicles. Two- and four-legged hunters scour the landscape for stocked birds. I know the hunt won’t be easy, but we head out anyway.
Forty minutes into our brush busting, Cali freezes near a nasty pile of briars and old treetops. Her rapidly wagging tail sweeps low, indicating the scent of a bird. I take a step toward the jungle, and a vibrant rooster erupts from within. He crumbles at the crack of my 12-gauge and Cali is on him. Dog praising and photo time ensues.
My brother, Travis, delayed by a morning bow hunt, calls to join us while I scold Cali for repeatedly wandering beyond sight. Seconds later, she makes me eat my words, as she sends a woodcock careening my way. I drop it and reload just in time to hear her anxious bark and the peet-peet-peet of another timber-doodle taking flight.
The second flushed migrator zips through the immature woodlot, and I haplessly empty my gun as it passes. My brother hears the shots in the distance and quietly chuckles as he approaches our location.
In short order, Cali finds even more pheasants. I call her off two because they veer toward the highway. She puts up two more. Travis misses one and kills the other. It’s an incredible day of hunting. Bacon-wrapped woodcock sliders and pheasant parmesan grace our Sunday menu.
Eager to give it another whirl, Cali and I head to the local game lands after work on Monday, where we again find lots of hunters, but fewer birds. Most of the brush is already trampled, and we hear an occasional shot or two in the distance. The only pheasant Cali unearths in our widespread travels are the spoils of a predator kill in high grass.
With a full moon rising as the sun slips away, the splendor of nature’s painted canvas halts our slow walk back to the truck. “Gosh that’s pretty!” I think to myself as I absorb the colors of fall. Then Cali and I admit defeat for the night and retire – the scenery a fair consolation for our efforts.
I won’t complain about not shooting my limit, because that’s not the type of hunter I am. Coming up short is all part of the game, and I’m satisfied just watching my dog work the cover.
It is sad, however, to acknowledge that we barely have any wild pheasants left to hunt. Bobwhite quail are virtually extirpated and even grouse numbers are sharply on the decline.
As a Pennsylvania bird hunter, I’m thankful for the roosters raised and stocked by the Game Commission. If it weren’t for them, as well as the migrating species that pass through our state, it’d be a long, disappointing season for Cali.
We’re always thrilled to get out there, but it definitely adds some extra excitement when we actually get into birds. After all, that’s why we hunt in the first place, right? Perhaps it’s something greater.