SPORTS

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November 1, 2002

Hunting for pheasants: A sport for the aspiring outdoorsman

I had originally intended to write a column about the upcoming elections and what hunters and anglers needed to know in order to cast an informed vote this November 5. But there just isn't that much going on right now in Illinois or at the national level, unlike in past years with referenda about cougar hunting in California and amending the Wisconsin state constitution to protect that state's hunting and fishing heritage. Since things are fairly quiet, I will give y'all a few useful websites and then move on to the topic of pheasants. Outdoor Life magazine has a voter's guide at www.outdoorlife.com/outdoor/newsandfacts/article/0,13285,386040,00.html. The Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus, which is actually the largest caucus in Congress, with 280 members in the House and 50 in the Senate, can be found at www.house.gov/pickering/Sportsman.htm. With liberty comes responsibility; I encourage everyone, regardless of your thoughts about outdoor sports, to go to the polls and cast your vote on Tuesday.

OK, back to the field. Pheasant season in Illinois starts this weekend! While hunting for squirrel and deer can be solitary and passive, hunting for pheasants is social and active. Pheasant hunting typically involves a group of hunters, from two to ten, plus one or more dogs. The hunters line up and work their way through a field or forest with the dogs out front sniffing around trying to find the birds. In an ideal scenario, the dog flushes a bird, it bursts into the air and the nearest hunter aims his shotgun, shoots the pheasant, and puts it in his game pouch for dinner. As for less-than-ideal scenarios, I could fill up several columns with misadventures involving dogs that get a half-mile ahead of us, birds that quickly duck behind trees or make themselves comfortable on a farmer's lawn where they can't be shot, etc. I'll spare you the details.

Pheasants, also called ringnecks, are wonderful birds. They are native to Asia and were introduced to North America in the 18th century. Pheasants are actually distantly related to the plain vanilla domestic chicken, something you'll notice when one is cooked and put in front of you. It tastes a lot like chicken, only leaner and a bit gamier. Roast pheasant with wild rice on a cold November day is a magnificent autumn meal.

So you don't know what a pheasant looks like? I can understand that; pheasants like grasslands and crop fields, something we don't have much of in Hyde Park. So, I'll tell you what to look for. Imagine holding a chicken by the head and the tail and stretching it out quite a bit (just imagine it, don't ever do it). Same mass as a chicken, longer frame. Now the females are just a dusty brownish color. Like most types of birds, the females look kind of boring.

The males look like something you'd get if you asked a two-year-old with a whole box of crayons to color in a bird: green head like a mallard duck with a bit of red skin around the eye and bill; white ring around the neck, hence the name; shiny royal blue breast; spots all over his back and upper wings and beautiful long tail feathers. Like chickens, they are ground birds, they really don't much like flying. Pheasants will run and hide as much as possible. When the weather is warm, they can stay down a long time; I've chased a single bird over several hundred yards while he was scurrying around in the weeds, only to watch him fly across the river. These are the frustrating days, because they'll run and run ahead of the dog and then flush far away from us and we never get a shot. On cold days, the pheasants will hold tight in a little patch of brush until the dog is on their doorstep and then they launch into the air ten yards away.

Pheasant hunting is an excellent introduction to hunting, since you go out with a group of people who can tell you what to do, instead of sitting alone in a tree stand wondering what you're doing wrong. And you don't need a lot of fancy equipment, no stands, calls, or quiet clothing. I got started with just a good pair of boots, a blaze orange vest, and my shotgun. My hunting buddy provided the dog and the expertise. If you have any interest in hunting, this is as good a place as any to start.