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Depths of Cold

Dead Deere
There seems no bottom to the depths of cold. It’s one of the few solace for hunting in frigid condition: could be colder, windier, at least it’s not…more miserable.

I’m assured by medical science that freezing does have a lower limit in terms of the human body. Paradoxical undressing: the point at which humans experiencing lethal hypothermia begin stripping off clothes due to a sensation of burning up, when in fact they are freezing. Seems it’s the mind’s one final, futile attempt to avoid a bitter end.

When you grow up hunting in the Midwest, cold burrows deep into your predacious psyche. The first cool breeze of fall conjures thoughts of wandering afield. And when it’s too warm shouldering shotguns just feels unnatural. But on this day there are doubts of the wisdom of leaving the truck. Mustering the courage to crack the door begins the extraction of feeling from fingertips one frosty needle at a time. It’s quiet, six inches of fresh powder blew in under darkness and hushed the landscape.

The body objects to these conditions and begins firing distress signals to the brain to dissuade progress that will further the frigid encounter. Everything contracts: balled-up shoulders, rigid muscles producing choppy steps, leather chap lips pursed to impede the flow of cold air. It takes a couple long hits of the freeze to clear the mind, erase doubts, fire neurons to memories cached in the soul’s cellar of past frigid hunts.

The dogs have been hunting hard for a number of days now and have the same reaction. Coaxed off the bumper they churn tight circles close to the truck until witnessing shotguns emerge from cases. Tails untuck and begin rotating in a cadence that pairs with lengthening strides.

Our group drops-in the south facing, snow-covered shelter belt to an expanse of blanketed cover. All evidence that this area has ever been explored is hidden. Easy walks with dogs, short sleeves and aimless meandering of the early season is replaced by new gravity. No longer can you spend an entire day in this, or idle under a tree to take a nap.

Winter is the great equalizer testing mettle, knowledge, strength — all others leading up to this season were practice sessions. The struggle for survival is pronounced this time of year. Exposure to frigid conditions wakes you to vulnerability. Bodily objections to cold so engrained must be manifestation of protest to the permanent chill.

We point into the breeze and move silently across this bottom, the language of longtime hunting buddies and dogs who know what lies before us. This is an opportunity to seize a moment and be free of all others. Every sharp inhale finds worry, wandering, irrelevant thoughts and carves them to frosty exhale that settles to the boot prints being filled and forgotten to the wind just yards behind.

After constant pursuit for months, the birds’ senses are finely tuned. The first rooster feels the roil of energy headed his direction and has no interest in close proximity. He jumps wild and cackles, the crack of shells is muted along with any effect. But our intent is announced to this valley, there will be no surprise or happy accidents.

The labor of keeping pace with dogs impervious to drifts and fully engaged in the effort overrules the weather. We shed layers of clothing in our own acts of paradoxical undressing. Hopefully the ensuing lethality will fall to these late season birds.

Outlast. Outsmart. Outrun. This is why we are here, to feel this life, to be a part of struggle to exist.

Hunting in the Shadow of Roosevelt

Elkhorn Ranch North Dakota

When I hunt in North Dakota, my thoughts often drift to Teddy Roosevelt’s days at Elkhorn Ranch — He named his Dakota home for a pair of locked elk skulls he found at the site. Today, centrally located within the million acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Elkhorn is a great place to visit while upland hunting within this expanse. Sharptail still congregate on the bluffs and Ring-necked Pheasant and Hungarian Partridge have invaded the territory.

You’re confronted with a landscape of stark contrast. Fractured buttes and rolling bluestem, cottonwood culverts and the hellish infrastructure of fossil fuel harvesting which I imagine has Teddy’s grave in Oyster Bay sufficiently churned .

In the winter of 1884 after suffering the loss of both his wife and his mother within the span of 24 hours, Roosevelt retreated to the torn beauty of the Badlands for solace. The solitude, and toil of a new cattle business and pursuit of plains game provided the healing or at least sufficient distraction from depths of darkness.

Even the name badlands casts doubt on the therapeutic essence of this territory. Until you step into it. Unique views stretch to the horizon at the top of each new hill drawing you further into the folds, farther away from anything recognizable. The one benefit to the oil wells, they are unsightly beacons that can lead you back to “civilization”. At times I think I prefer the prospect of being lost. And when the setter and lab steer into the cuts where grouse gather out of the wind to dine on juniper berry, the possibility of becoming a permanent fixture of this forgotten landscape is at hand.

For most Americans lost is no longer a part of the lexicon. We’re digitally connected, plugged-in to one another and the safety and warmth of a glowing screen. And I can see the benefits. But a shrinking world needs the counter-balance of Badlands, of vast spaces unspoiled by humans. Fear of your surroundings, the inconsequence of your being, the brilliance of unyielding harsh landscapes offer perspective. Roosevelt knew the value of this much like I do. Rambling over stratified buttes and fractured limestone for hours, aware that the distances covered on foot are nothing but burnt legs and bootprints to be erased in the first strong wind. Watching late season birds flush wild at the hint we’ve chosen their direction and disappear on the horizon or so deeply into ravines the prospect they can be rousted or the energy to undertake it are in doubt.

Prairie fowl were so thick in this area at the end of the 19th century that Roosevelt could walk out his front door and shoot the heads off a few “chickens” roosting in the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri River with his lever action Winchester Model 1876 — a roast bird breakfast. Though Teddy was a notorious bad shot, peruse his auto-biographies and you get the sense that what he lacked in accuracy he made up for in frequency.

Despite gunning, game hogging and an awkward spectacled appearance that prompted many in the Dakota territories to label him a “dude”,  Roosevelt still rose to iconic status as a conservationist. His determination and ethic created the National Park system in this country and his role in crafting the North American Conservation Model is well documented. He was the first politician to raise wildlife to a national stage. It’s a legacy for all Americans that extends well beyond just sportsmen. Annually, hundreds of millions of visitors frequent the National Parks, National Forests, Wildlife Refuges and public lands that Roosevelt instigated. For all his other accomplishments, Rough Riders to the Square Deal among them, there’s little doubt that the legacy of wildlife and wild places has touched the most people.

Roosevelt, a lifelong adventurer, likely left few canyons untouched within the boundaries of the Grassland south to the town of Medora. While our pack of dogs disappears in the sage and brambles of the flats around Elkhorn, It’s seems safe to assume few areas within these million acres remained hidden from Teddy, either herding cattle or pursuing plains game. Those are certainly big footsteps. As we’re faced with the prospects of rising costs of continuing the North American Conservation Model and the pressures of human encroachment and consumption, truly wild places and wildlife seem more and more finite.

The ability to wander, chase birds and get lost with friends and rowdy running dogs in the same expanse that TR did 120 years ago is pretty amazing. Thankfully not all things have disappeared in the name of progress.

Shooting one of Roosevelt’s birds gives me a glimmer of hope that a legacy that was so hard fought may still survive the hair-brained, misguided ideas of lesser men. I believe I’ll side with the likes of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Roosevelt holding wildlife and wild places in the public trust, until someone more enlightened appears — doubtful that happens in my lifetime.

Bird Hunting Amid Spun Tales

Kansas Pheasant Hunting

Every year in Kansas we hear funny stories about birds and hunting. Maybe it was the full moon, the start of the whitetail rut or the dismal bird forecasts that contributed to tales of the extra nutty variety this season. We hunt from a small town that resides in a county with a population just over 3,000. If one person shares a story it is guaranteed to be known in all corners by the end of day.

On the third day of the season in Kansas this year we were informed by one of our local friends that he had spoken to a group of out of state hunters while driving home on back roads. He inquired how the hunting was going with a response of “not so good”. This group of hunters then proceeded to share their theory for the ringneck population decline: the deer have been eating all the pheasant eggs………… That likely bears repeating because this might be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard about declining bird populations. The deer are eating all the pheasant eggs according to this group of non-resident hunters.

While at the local gas station the attendant let us know that she spoke with a hunter who had witnessed a marauding band of killer turkeys that rounded up a group of juvenile pheasant into a circle and proceeded to kill and eat them. The gobblers then headed off in apparent search of their next victims.

Complaining over the loss of 95% of their birds, the owner of a local restaurant informed me that his adult son had gone out last week and killed three roosters (this would have been a week before the season started). Upon cleaning the birds he found there was little to no meat on them and they were unfit for eating. He concluded, the entire pheasant population has contracted a disease and the Kansas DNR is covering it up.

A hunter staying in the same motel was happy to inform us if we get in a situation where we need to buy birds, there’s a great guy just west of town who charges $175 for a four bird limit. And If we call ahead he’ll put them out and show us exactly where to hunt.

I’ve hunted in Kansas for the last 20 years. For the last decade my dad has joined this adventure. Over that time we’ve developed lots of great friendships with residents we see year-over-year. We tend to hunt the same general vicinity which gives us a pretty decent annual view of what’s happening in the broader ecosystem when assessing bird populations.

Ringneck numbers in Kansas have been on the decline for the last few seasons. The hard winter of 2010-2011 accompanied by the extremely wet spring seemed to be the initial blow. This was followed by a severe drought the summer of 2012 and drought conditions throughout the bulk of spring and summer this year. These dry conditions seized a large portion of the center of the country prompting the USDA to allow a massive swath of emergency haying of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) — see the map below.

The pheasant numbers in Kansas were lower than I have ever seen. But let me assure you this isn’t a mysterious disease or egg-eating deer. Everything is being bailed: milo stalks, wheat stubble, CRP grass. In the area where we hunt many of those bails are being sold and trucked to other areas of the country even harder hit by drought. Combine this rampant bailing with the generally high prices of grain. We’re seeing more and more areas that were previously enrolled in CRP now being planted. And we’re also seeing fence lines and trees being bulldozed to gain even more area to plant.

As much as we enjoy a good story, the tale of pheasant decline across the midwest is pretty simple: lack of cover.

So we’ll be hoping for a mild winter across the center of the country this year. And then we’d like Mother Nature to serve up decent moisture that allows the prairies, pastures and crops to thrive. We don’t chase bird forecasts so we’ll be back in Kansas next season to visit our friends. We’re in search of memories afield that have very little to do with bird numbers. And if I’m ever in a situation where I need to buy birds, I’ll go to the grocery and pay $2.99 per pound.


CRP Haying Map

Kansas Bird Hunting in Perspective

I make the annual pilgrimage to Kansas to reunite with old friends and family.  It reminds me of where my passion for bird hunting was first kindled.  Because this year was no exception to the rule, Kansas seemed like the right place to bring together our young Jornada Llewellin Rio with our veteran flusher Wyatt for their first joint hunt.

An inexperienced puppy afield is a great mirror into a hunters reality. Rio reflects how much my hunting style and perspective has developed. We typically bring a new pup into the family every five years and because so many things change unnoticed during hunting seasons over time, Rio is a breath of fresh air. While older accomplished dogs tend to blend in, covering for mistakes and making you better on days when you’re just average, Rio shows how much older I’ve gotten. She tests my patience. One minute, she hangs on my every word acting as if she understands verbatim while the next she feigns deafness to any coaching. This pup runs wild and acts crazy when I feel anything but. She looks for birds in places I know they are not, and then finds birds there to spite any wisdom I presume to possess. 
Rio poses even more of a challenge because she’s a pointer, and Wyatt is a flushing lab. When this season started my first inclination was to hunt them separately to establish a different set of rules for Rio. However, she has proven to be focused and steady on point, earning her stripes during my Nebraska trip and a subsequent North Woods hunt with other dogs. As a result, I’m upping the ante by turning her loose with my dozer Wyatt. I know fully what to expect of him and he’s hunted with pointers before. The whole prospect still causes some butterflies. I’ve gotten far too accustomed to running a single dog. 

The conditions in Kansas are bit discouraging this season and I’ve prepared myself for the worst. The drought has decimated the cover. Most landowners have been forced to cut and bail the land enrolled in the CRP programs. Though it is still designated public walk-in for hunting, lack of cover makes most plots unfit to shelter birds. Early bird forecasts were up from 2011 when the hatch was drowned with record spring rainfall totals. But now it has swung to the opposite extreme. This year grains underperformed and were harvested early along with the cropped native grasses leaving few areas for pheasant to hide from aerial predators. The normal steep learning curve for the young birds has become even more treacherous. However, this is what hunting public land is all about; take the conditions we’re given and try to make lemonade. 

It is the 10th season dad has joined us in Kansas. This spring he saw Rio train and has an idea of just how much ground she can effortlessly cover. In contrast when you’re over 70 years old I’m not sure anything is physically effortless anymore. I know he’s nervous that the pack might outrun him and his titanium knee replacement. So this hunt I’m putting dad in charge of tracking Rio. He’s going to carry the SportDog Tek GPS transmitter so he can see when she’s on point. Really he’ll be able to see where she is at any time because of the collar’s seven mile range. This eliminates any fear of losing her. She’s free to range too long, get lost and then find her way back to us. It is the best way for young dogs to gain confidence and begin understanding the value of proximity to the gun. Pairing the old man and the young dog should be great for everyone.

Decades of Kansas experience and learning from mistakes have shown us the light. Gone are the days of running on tilt across fields, yelling at dogs, hoping to close distances on roosters bolting out the other end of the field. Now we hunt small and smart: We still cover lots of ground but try to focus on the smaller areas within fields that we determine most productive. I like to pit our dogs and skills against the smartest wild birds we can find. The birds will win their share of these battles, but we will win our share as well. Many hunters get caught up in the heft of the game bag which is a losing proposition. Inevitably there will be days you don’t shoot a limit. Instead we strive for memories that we’ll recall for years to come and they rarely have anything to do with limits.

 On the third morning of this 10-day hunt the phone rings. My Aunt Pat, dad’s sister, suffered a heart attack and was undergoing a cardiac cath which would reveal the severity and next steps. We were 1,000 miles away. There’s not much to do but prepare to make the drive to Ohio. But until we get the results of the procedure we’re in limbo. Depending on what they find this may be our last hunt of the year. 

Cardiac issues hit very close to home in our family; Dad has survived quadruple bypass, multiple procedures and complications over the years. We’ve become good friends and are on a first name basis with his cardiologist — which is both reassuring and disconcerting at the same time. So when his sister has a heart attack it immediately brings a massive weight to bear and I could see it on his face. But I convince dad we should take our phones and hunt one last field while waiting for Aunt Pat’s results. A walk on a brisk morning can help clear heads. 

The dogs seem to sense the gravity. They hunt with purpose from the moment I drop the tailgate. We’re walking into the wind with the sun still low on the horizon at our backs.  It’s the golden hour and everything has that amber glow. Birds have been hard to come by to this point in the hunt. I know dad really isn’t even thinking about hunting. But Wyatt and Rio are intent on bringing him back to the moment. A couple of hundred yards into this cover Rio begins creeping and pointing.  Wyatt runs in and flushes a rooster in front of me and I snap off a shot and fold it. At the report pheasant begin boiling everywhere. I’m standing in the middle of a rooster eruption. I can see dad from the corner of my eye soaking it in as more birds rise and I break open the action, reload and continue to shoot. 

The points and flushes extend the length of this new field forcing smiles to return to our faces. Just as we make the turn to head back with the wind the text comes in that Aunt Pat has had a successful procedure with minimal damage to her heart. The fears fully retreat to the dark recesses. When we return to the vehicle dad makes a call to confirm the good news as I begin to clean the birds. 

Some memories are sneaky and weasel their way into stories recounted year over year. But this is a memory that I know immediately will become a part of our hunting legend. These roosters, this hunt will be remembered as part of a miraculous bountiful field in a year of depressed numbers. A hunt where distraction was desperately needed and nature heeded the call. We often give nicknames to locations where we hunt and this new spot has become Aunt Pat’s Place.

The rest of the week is a true bonus since our hunt could have been over. We add plenty of other tales to recount. Rio ended up pointing her first covey of wild quail this year in Kansas. Hunting with Wyatt has given her new confidence and she stops pointing songbirds. And Wyatt sees how keen Rio’s nose is and begins keying in on some of her points giving hope that one day this contrasting duo will attain my vision. In a year when all our local friends said there wasn’t a pheasant in the county, we never went a day in Kansas without seeing a bird.   

More importantly this hunt reminds me that all our days afield are a gift that lend perspective to the other events of life. There’s not a day in the field where I want to take this for granted. Cherish the moments chasing birds with family, friends and dogs.

And we’re so blessed and thankful to have sponsors like Blackwood Pet Foods who recognize our goals and support our vision for upland hunting’s significance. 

The Longest Rooster Tournament Returns for 2012

Rooster Ruler

Last season was the inaugural year for the Ultimate Upland Longest Rooster Tournament. Ultimate Uplanders across the country took to the field with their Rooster Rulers® in search of the longest pheasant in the country. It was a great battle that lasted until the closing day of pheasant season. A number of 38″+ birds were harvested but in the end the winning bird was taken by Luke Wendorff (aka Sparks on UUL).

Luke is fairly new to bird hunting, but this lucky teen put down a monster 41.25″ bird on December 3, 2011 in Pine County Minnesota to take the lead and hold it until the tournament wrapped up on February 20th. This was Luke’s only bird last season and the third bird he’s ever harvested in just his second season of hunting.

The tournament was such a fun time last year and great source for friendly competition, camaraderie and sportsmanship — which is why we’ve brought it back again with just a couple tweaks.

This is a nationwide tournament that encompasses 38 states’ with pheasant seasons. To enter, all you have to do is purchase the official 2012-2013 Rooster Ruler® decal and apply it to your vehicle window, bumper, tailgate or wherever is most convenient. You could even apply it to  scrap wood but it won’t look nearly as cool as your car would. When you harvest a longtailed pheasant take a photo measuring the bird tip-to-tip using the Rooster Ruler® and post it to Ultimate Upland Lodge’s online Longest Pheasant Tournament Forum or to the Ultimate Upland Facebook album. The hunter who harvests the longest bird of the season will win a prize package including an Ultimate Upland shirt, Ultimate Upland hat,  100 rounds of our favorite pheasant shells*, a custom trophy from our friends at Heritage Game Mounts and will have their name and rooster’s stats posted on the pheasant page of ultimateupland.com for all eternity.

New this season, the hunter who scores the most birds over 35″ will also win an Ultimate Upland shirt, Ultimate Upland hat and 50 rounds of our favorite pheasant shells*. So even if someone posts a 44″ monster early in the year you still have a chance to win by posting more big birds than anyone else.Also new this season, the bad beat: the Rooster Ruler® can spark competition between the hunters in your own group. We encourage friendly wagers between hunting buddies (ie, person with the shortest bird of the day buys dinner). So we’ll select the best story and photo of the worst beat — losing by a beak — and whoever submits this will receive an Ultimate Upland shirt and hat.

You may be wondering “why can’t I just use any old measuring stick and post that picture, instead of buying the Rooster Ruler®?” Or “why can’t I just use my Rooster Ruler® from last year.” Well, the simple answer is everyone has to have skin in the game. And with our ruler we’ll have a static and consistent known scale that will help us better compare photographs. Also, our ruler is dated, so these measurements will only be good for this hunting season. Next season the tournament starts over.
We’ve kept the prize package modest because this competition is primarily about bragging rights. And there is only so much verification we can do since we can’t be in 38 states at once. There is a level of Sportsmen’s/ Sportswomen’s honor involved. And the price of entry, although low, should still help keep the neerdowells away.
In the event of a tie: If per chance two hunters harvest birds that are indistinguishable in their overall length we’ll refer to the next longest entry by each to determine the winner (so it behooves hunters to post multiple entries). If a clear winner can still not be determined, extra points will be awarded to hunters with Ultimate Upland decals or tshirts included in their photos. The easiest way to win is shoot a rooster so large that it cannot be contested.

So purchase your Rooster Ruler® at the gear store today and get entered into the 2012-2013 Ultimate Upland Longest Rooster Tournament. The tournament will end on the final day of pheasant season February 18, 2013.*Our favorite shell will be determined by the end of the season, so if any manufacturers would like us to test their rounds in the field for a chance at this favorite shell title, feel free to let us know.

Tournament Disclosure (the fun legal stuff)
• ELIGIBILITY: Sweepstakes is open only to U.S. residents 18 years or older and minors accompanied by a legal guardian or responsible adult. Void where prohibited by law. Ultimate Upland, LLC (UU) and their respective affiliates, as well as all others involved in this promotion and their immediate families (defined for the purposes of this Tournament as parents, spouses, children, siblings and household members) are not eligible. Only the Ringed-neck pheasant will be considered as valid species.
• PRIZE: Prize will be awarded at the conclusion of the Tournament to one (1) winner, selected by UU from among all eligible entries received throughout the Promotional Period. The odds of winning depend on the number of eligible entries received throughout the entire Tournament
• WINNERS: Prize will be awarded by Ultimate Upland, LLC, whose decisions on all matters relating to the Tournament will be binding and final. Winners will be notified on or about two (2) days following winner selection. The winning name can be obtained by writing to info@ultimateupland.com.
• ADDITIONAL TERMS: Tournament is valid in the United States only. If you do not live in the United States, do not enter the Tournament. If for any reason the Tournament including, but not limited to, the online portion, does not function as planned, its integrity or feasibility is undermined, or anything compromises the administration, security, fairness, proper conduct or intended play of the Tournament, Ultimate Upland, LLC reserves the right at its sole discretion to disqualify any individual the Sponsor deems responsible, and/or to abbreviate, cancel, terminate, modify, or suspend the Tournament. UU assumes no responsibility for any defect or delay in operation or transmission, communications failure, theft, destruction or unauthorized access to, or alteration of, entries, including any erroneous appearance of qualification for a prize. If the Sponsor, in its discretion, elects to abbreviate the Tournament, the Sponsor reserves the right, but shall have no obligation, to award the prize(s) from among all valid and eligible entries received up to that time. All entries are the property of the Sponsor and are not returnable.
• RELEASE OF LIABILITY: By entering, entrant agrees to accept and abide by the rules of this Tournament and agrees that any dispute with regard to the conduct of this Tournament, rule interpretation, or award of prize, shall be resolved by UU in its sole discretion, whose decision shall be binding and final. By participating, entrant agrees to release and hold harmless the Sponsor and any respective parent companies, affiliates, subsidiaries, and the officers, directors, employees, agents and representatives of each from any injury, loss or damage to person or property due in-whole or in-part, directly or indirectly to the acceptance, use, or misuse of a prize, participation in any Tournaement-related activity, or participation in the Tournament. Sponsor is not responsible for any typographical or other error in the printing of this offer, administration of the Tournament or in the announcement of prizes, including such error as may give an erroneous indication that a prize has been won.

Making Kansas Memories

Opening day in Kansas occupies a sacred  place for me since this is the territory  where my upland obsession really took hold years ago. The bulk of the state has a dismal bird forecast like much of the rest of the Midwest this year. There are some bright spots which have been deemed the north central and northwest portions of the state.

My dad has joined this leg of the hunt which centers around a small town where the residents and the public hunting grounds have become familiar friends. For the last five years this has been where dad and I reunite and share the love of the outdoors and hunting which he sparked in me as a youngster.  I have hunted in this part of the state for over 15 years either solo and with other hunting buddies.

We are in the north central part of the state and contrary to the predictions, pheasant numbers are low this year. So hunters chasing forecasts who selected this area will likely be sorely disappointed.

The locals have been convinced that pheasant numbers are down due to the  thriving coon population. Last year the pheasant numbers were low due to the “damn redtail hawks” if you buy the area gossip. But if you ask a few questions of  local farmers a much more likely scenario becomes obvious. There was an extremely wet Spring . The rains started the beginning of May and according to most National Weather Service reporting stations in the area they received nine or more inches of precipitation for the month.  So declare war on raccoons if you must, but the truth is the nests were flooded, abandoned or just generally soaked.

A bright spot is that the Bobwhite have made a small comeback from previous years. Why did quail nests not get sogged? I believe they choose to lay in areas less susceptible to the rain, under trees and in better shelter.

The bulk of the Roosters in the area are the educated two-year olds.  Hunting has been challenging but we’ve seen our share of birds. Our black lab Wyatt continues to work really well and give us opportunities, albeit less frequent than years past.

The cooler won’t be full when we leave the state, but the memory bank certainly will be:  we’ve gotten an assist from hawk, dad has gone ass over elbows in a hole with his untested knee replacement, he had safety “issues” and missed a gimme rooster at 10 yards,  we located and patterned a big new covey of Prairie Chicken, more safety fumbling when he stumbled into a covey of quail, nearly crapped his pants when stepping on a hen this morning,   AND there still are six days left to hunt.

It’s gonna be a great week and no amount of coons or rain can change that.


Why We Hunt With Dogs

This morning I took my lab Wyatt out for a weekend stomp on public ground. Yesterday while in the field at first light I saw several other trucks with hunters trying to hunt the same field which we beat them to that day.

Needless to say, the public options close to population centers here in Nebraska gets lots of attention. And I think that can get a bit discouraging for some.

But I find it helps to look at this concentration of hunters as a challenge. There are smart birds in these fields that hunters and dogs walk past. I’ve always believed that for every bird you see there are at least two that you never lay eyes on.

We got up and out at first light again because the only public field you can guarantee that has not been hunted in a day is the first one.

Wyatt worked well all morning and we finally were coming to the area I suspected would be holding the birds. Of course one rooster got up long and cackled as it made a safe escape. But out of the corner of my eye, in the opposite direction, I saw another bird flying low and silent. This was the old bird we look for. Smart birds don’t cackle when they take off. This one  flew about 100 yards upwind of us into a hillside with light cover. Now that is strange and something I hadn’t seen from many roosters. Normally their policy is the thicker the better.

I got Wyatt headed in the right direction and I figured we had this old bird dead to rights. It was strange that when we made it to the area that I had marked him down, Wyatt picked up some trace but not the typical hot scent of a recent bird. And now I know, that bird flew to light cover because 1) in light cover he wouldn’t drag across nearly the amount of grass and weeds thereby leaving a smaller scent trail and 2) he could run more freely in the light stuff.

We circled around a couple times and though Wyatt was acting birdy, he never indicated that a flush was imminent.

We turned back toward the heavy cover and I wrote off this rooster as smarter than us. I stopped to look around  just to speculate exactly to where he had disappeared. And with this pause, five feet to my left the old bird jumped skyward from a small tuft of weeds amongst a hill of ankle-high prairie grass.

A bit startled, I fumbled with the safety and the mount but the shot was true and the bird crashed. Wyatt was only a couple seconds behind for a routine retrieve. But the bird was gone.

I had crushed this pheasant. There was no doubt in my mind that I had hit him with nearly every pellet of the ounce-and-quarter 6s.  And yet somehow he had managed to shake it off and strap on his running shoes.  Wyatt was on the trail but that bird headed right into some of the thickest, nastiest cover and dry creek bed that we’ve hunted in this state. I put a glove on one of the weeds where the bird hit the ground to mark the spot, then just stood there and listened as Wyatt thrashed through the rough stuff. After about five minutes, the brush busting ceased around 75 yards from my marker glove.

I suspected my little buddy had found the bird and was now just adding a bit of drama. So I shouted for him to bring it up and I beeped his collar a couple times to break the silence. Lo and behold he pushed his way from a brush filled creek bottom with that old super bird in his jaws. I was smiling ear to ear and the folks in the neighboring county could probably hear my praises. A bird that was lost is now destined for pheasant alfredo.

And that’s why I hunt with dogs.


The Top 3 Wild Pheasant Hunting Tips

There are tons of variables involved when pheasant hunting: weather, dogs, number of hunters, blockers, terrain, time of day….. the list is almost endless. But regardless of these elements, there are 3 things you can always use that will improve your success against the wily wild rooster.

The bird hunters’ opening day is also most pheasants’ first day of school. According to some USGS studies, the annual mortality rates for pheasant can exceed 70%, this includes hunting, natural predation, and carrying capacity of the land. As a result, the bulk of the birds in the field will be seeing their first hunter at the beginning of the season, and even though their brain is roughly the size of a pea, the ringneck is a fast learner. This enables hunters to get away with a lot of blunders on the first day that no longer fly as the season progresses.

#1) Shhhhhhhhhh

The single most overlooked aspect of pheasant hunting is probably noise. When big game hunters pursue animals, they strive for silence. Fox, coyote and bobcat don’t scream like Braveheart prior to pouncing on a pheasant. Nature’s pheasant hunters employ noiseless tactics that have been refined over centuries of the chase for a reason.

The element of surprise seems counter-intuitive to upland bird hunting because the concept of simultaneously sneaking up on a bird and busting through cover are contradictory. However, this misinterpretation of stalking is the very problem that leads to your hunting partners slamming car doors, hollering jabs back and forth in the field, whistling directions to dogs, and rumbling like a herd of buffalo across the plains.

While it’s unlikely you’ll manage launching a perfect sneak on a pheasant in cover, you or your dog do have a better chance at getting within range before he’s shifted to high alert and runs out of the county if you’re more conscientious of your decibel level.

Just test this theory out hunting late in the season and at your first field of the morning (and remember to bring your binoculars ): Climb out of your vehicle, slam your car door and give the birds a big “Good Morning Ringnecks!”. The educated birds who’ve navigated the gauntlet throughout the season will be flying, or more likely running, out the opposite end of the field.

Stealth is a weapon at your disposal. Use it and you will get more shooting opportunities.

#2) Slow-down

After years of sprinting across all sorts of terrain and cover chasing wild roosters, it finally sunk in. The pheasant can do more than outrun me, he can also triumphantly outspeed my best shot and, in most cases, my dog.  Wild pheasants will fly as a last resort of escape and it’s much tougher to learn this axiom while hunting with large groups or blockers who invariably give roosters few options. However, if you attempt to hunt solo or with limited boots on the ground the pheasant’s affinity for running will quickly become clear. Regardless of your group size, these birds do not want to take flight if they don’t have to. I’ve seen hoards of hunters on coordinated drives with 40-yard separations, and birds still manage to back flush on them.

Chasing after a bird or your dog in hot pursuit of a runner rarely accomplishes a flush within gun range. In fact, the alerted bird can maintain a steady lead on both you and your dogs. While it’s possible you may get that pheasant to eventually hold for a point, it is more likely that the rooster will flush wild. In the process of running down just one bird, you’ve now alerted every bird in the field, run past the bulk of them and gassed yourself and your dog.

Pheasant were built to run. Barring miserable weather conditions or terrain and cover that stand in their way, they will outpace you regardless of your hunting party’s actions and the faster you work, the more likely you are to pass by the pheasants which are holding.

The trump card the hunter holds is unpredictability. Slow your pace, take random strides. Stop. Listen. Change direction. Stride some more. Think of it from the rooster’s perspective.  If you pass by one of these birds while sprinting to some imaginary finish line, he’s breathing a sigh of relief. But, if you happen to pass one, stop, change directions, stop again……… he thinks the jig is up. Better still is when you coordinate this random movement with your dogs who invariably will pin down and point or flush more birds well within gun range.

In this way, pheasant hunting is like chess: the more erratic and deceptive your movements, the more likely you are to win.

#3) Cover all cover

It is shocking how little vegetation pheasant really need to conceal themselves. When in hand, the size and garish coloring create an illusion of colossus. But give them two blades of grass and they become magicians capable of invisibility.

Hunters are lulled into thinking that sparse cover can’t hold a bird. However, I assure you that it can and will. Convinced my dog was crazy, I witnessed pheasants erupt out of wheat stubble 4″ tall, so dumbstruck by the location that I had no hope of shouldering my gun. Dozens of times I’ve been within a few paces of the vehicle, within feet of exiting a field, unloading and securing the shotgun, only to have a rooster light from under my boot.

Pheasants don’t want to fly, and when there’s nowhere left to run, they resort to an amazing camouflage pattern that can fuse with a milo stalk or a sprig of buffalo grass equally well. The only answer to the camouflage conundrum is to maintain discipline and expect the unexpected. Keep your gun at the ready until you fully exit the field.

Once you lower the decibels, take your time and work the entire field your chances to outsmart even the wildest rooster will increase exponentially.

Though I said this was going to be 3 tips, always remember the next best advice is Trust Your Dog; a topic that would require and entire novel to cover.