January 14, 2003

A few lucky breaks on a pheasant hunt

A few columns back, I wrote an article entitled "A Bad Day Hunting," to the effect that a bad day of hunting can actually be quite nice. In today's column I will celebrate a little bit. I had a wonderful day of hunting. What made this day so good? Several things: friends, success, and surprises.

Of course, hunting buddies are probably one of the best things about hunting. And today, in addition to my usual hunting partner and his brother-in-law, we had another friend with us who was out for the first time. He had never been hunting before, but I guess he enjoyed our tall tales told over a nice glass of whiskey on a winter's night. Maybe he just wanted to make sure we weren't making the whole thing up. Either way, Greg went through the trouble of getting a hunting license and a Firearm Owners ID card and he showed up for pheasant hunting. We set him up with a blaze orange vest and cap and a one-pop shotgun. He told us he wasn't really interested in shooting anything; he just wanted to tag along. Whatever.

We dragged Greg through several miles of fields and forests, and in the end he saw about a dozen pheasants, one of them up close and personal (more about that later). He saw us kill five pheasants. He also saw more nature than he would have seen in ten years of living in Rogers Park. Hunting is a joy that is hard for many people to understand, and it is always rewarding to share that experience with someone for the first time.

Of course, as much as I like just walking around in the fields, or sitting on a log or in a tree stand, I can't deny that it's better to come home with a full game bag than with an empty one. That day I got two pheasants: a hen and a nice big rooster. I brought them down with particularly nice shots, including one that was about 30 yards straight up and right on the money. All that chasing resulted in meat for the table. My in-laws were in town and I served them dinner of bacon-roasted pheasant marinated in Jim Beam and honey. They had never tasted pheasant before, much less "free-range" pheasant fresh from the hunt. (Ted Nugent has an excellent point: it ain't really "free-range" unless it has a chance to escape). That was my way of saying "I'll make sure your daughter always has food on the table." Of course, I must, in all fairness, point out at this time that my wife has a real job and does the vast majority of "bringing home the bacon." Nonetheless, this dinner was my contribution to the family commonwealth.

Then, of course, there are surprises. That's what keeps it interesting. My friend Greg was walking through a wooded gully and found himself just a few feet away from a big rooster on a fallen tree. The rooster just stared at him; Greg said it didn't even occur to him to shoot. He was stunned just to see one that close, so he called out to me and I came running, but the bird was long gone. We were all a bit amazed that he got so close to it. Pheasants almost never let that happen. We chased the bird for a while, and then lost it.

Our chase led us down to a nice little hollow near the river, someplace I had never seen before. It looked like a great place to hunt for deer, so we made a mental note to scout this place out some more. As we were coming back, I saw a bit of movement along the river and raced towards it. Then I stopped, looked down, and saw a pheasant two feet in front of me under some weeds. Lightning struck twice. Of course, this dang bird was way too close for me to shoot. It would have been completely unsportsmanlike to do so, not to mention that at that range, the blast would have turned the bird into dust, so I told my friend's brother-in-law "I'll flush him, you shoot." We tried to do just that, but he missed, so I shot the bird at about 20 yards just as he was heading for the river.

What happened next was a shock. The pheasant went down in the water and swam to shore,where the dog tackled him and finished him off. I had no idea pheasant could swim, and the sight of a big gaudy rooster pheasant paddling towards the ice shelf was quite an odd one. Never a dull moment. As a last little surprise, when we were leaving the field and driving away, on the side of the road, on private land, we saw six big pheasant roosters lazily strolling around. They knew they were safe there. I swear those birds read the hunting regulations.