Most of the upland birds around here vanished during the Storm of the Century that dumped 30 inches of snow atop a base of frozen rain accompanied by -60° wind chill. Though game birds were on a downward trajectory long before that fateful day, the 43 years since have shown there’s little hope for any kind of upland renaissance across much of the Midwest.
As one of the dwindling upland hunters in this state, it feels as though any wild bird we shoot could literally be the last. That casts a long shadow over days afield that is tough to outrun. It also causes most upland fans in these parts to become travel hunters. We take dogs, guns and hopes to places where the birds still have enough space and habitat to carve out a living. lt’s where thoughts of the dark days of the end of wild game birds are left behind and the joys of following bird dogs are uninhibited.
But once a season, late when the weather is bitter and soft hunters have abandoned the pursuit, we head to hidden corners of this state’s public lands to validate our hunting license. For bird hunters buying a license here it’s a lot like buying a lottery ticket: spend a few dollars to dream of what could be even when the odds are stacked infinitely against us.
I guess we should focus on the positive — there’s a chance we’ll eradicate an invasive species. If upland birds are no longer going to be a part of our landscape, let’s put an end to pheasant first and leave what little energy and cover still exist to the native Bobwhite and Ruffed.
We drop the tailgates and unleash hounds born to pursue birds now forced to boredom for the bulk of the year. These dogs have become so accustomed to multi-hour work commutes that an in-state drive is perplexing. But the flash of the shotgun sliding from the case informs everyone we are here for business.
Once we dive into the cover and the heart gets pumping, it lifts us from the pessimism. But it also leaves me wondering: how has this become such a small slice of life for the people around here? Wild places with wild birds unmask the possible — they are the essence of hope that persists regardless the chaos and calamity of our broader surroundings. The outdoors holds a unique ability to inspire. And when pieces of that erode to disinterest and “progress” nothing can fill the void.
We shuffle to the back corner of a semi-frozen marsh where the birds are insulated. And with the knowledge and experience of battle-tested dogs we manage to bring the last bird to hand — a monster rooster to make a fitting end. I doubt it’s truly the last bird, but how will we know until we are no longer able to find any?
On the return walk to the vehicles the bog becomes temperamental and steps deepen. Each stride breaks new ice. Before long we have sunk to our thighs and are unable to feel our feet. The old shorthair is near hypothermic and requires a carried assist — she doesn’t resist as we pass her back and forth sharing the burden while pushing onward. There’s a brief moment where I think this is miserable. But down deep I know how fortunate I am to experience this place and this time, especially in these conditions.
We will laugh and talk about this hunt for years, likely after the birds are long gone.