feature By: Alan Liere | January, 21
I put away my shotgun on the last day of the upland bird season. It was a poor year for pheasants, but I shot eight wild roosters in eastern Washington, all but one over my Brittany’s point. I can vividly recall each one of them, as there was never more than one bird a trip. Remembering each bird, I guess, is the primary benefit of possessing an aging body during a poor pheasant year.
Indeed, this year’s single-digit harvest has meant a lot more to me than all those double-digit numbers of yesteryear. Had there been a better bird population this season, I would probably still have shot but a few; I can’t walk as many miles as I used to. Four hours afield is my maximum, and less than that if I must climb the rolling winter wheat hills in the Palouse Country south of Spokane. I have been disappointed in recent years to discover that even if you have taken care of your body and even if you have acquired a few metal replacements and kept them well lubricated with sweat, there is an unavoidable physical decline that accompanies the piling up of years.
I have enjoyed the company of a new hunting partner this year. Steve and I are of a similar vintage, and like myself, he is not fond of beginning his pheasant hunts at dawn. He has also introduced me to a novel concept — eating a good breakfast before departing. Rather than with my usual two jelly donuts and coffee in the truck on the way down the road, hunting trips now began with an hour in a local café, nutritious food and good conversation.
Steve and I both have dogs — he, a German pudelpointer named Princess; and I, a chocolate and white Brittany named Lucy. Sometimes, when we plan to hunt around water, I also take my 13-year-old Labrador, Jill, as neither of the other two is inclined to make water retrieves — or any retrieve for that matter.
Jill walks beside me until Lucy points and then goes in to make the flush. She’s become pretty dependent on Lucy for her birds, but once one is on the ground, I know a solid retrieve is imminent. Without these dogs, I wouldn’t hunt. With the dogs, the day is a success no matter how full or empty my game vest at the end. I derive unreasonable delight in seeing Lucy running at full speed then slamming into a point as she detects the scent of a pheasant buried in the cattails, curving her body into an almost perfect letter “C.” And I can barely describe the euphoric pride of seeing Jill emerge from the brush after trailing a winged pheasant for a quarter mile.
Carrying a new side-by-side 20-gauge, I shot poorly this year, but I also made a couple unbelievably long shots — one when a pheasant launched from a hawthorn thicket and powered out across the Palouse River. When it dropped at the shot, Jill didn’t see it, so she and I executed a tricky, wet crossing over slippery riverbed rocks in a cold knee-high current, and on my command, she “hunted dead” and dug it out of tall grass on the other side. That was the day I discovered I had mistakenly brought my heavy 12-gauge goose gun instead of my new, light 20. Thankfully, Steve had a box of 12-gauge steel loads in his truck. The day turned out fine, and I even shot a couple mallards, but I never brought the wrong gun again; the difference between a 5¾-pound 20-gauge and a 7½-pound 12-gauge is not all that noticeable until you have slogged four miles with the latter.
Today, as I stare out the window at a gray drizzle and relive the past season, I find that I can also remember many of the pheasants I didn’t shoot. My most memorable hunt, in fact, came on the last day on a farm near Rock Creek when a malfunction bedeviled me on each rooster the dogs pointed. On the first bird, I figured my finger had slipped off the safety of the new shotgun, because though I frantically pulled several times at the trigger, nothing happened. An hour later, there was another point, and the cackling rooster crashed into daylight through a stand of tall, dry water hemlock. Easy shot. Again, I pulled the trigger and nothing happened, but this time I knew I had pushed the gun off “safe” when Lucy went on point; there had to be a problem with the firing pin. I broke open the gun to learn, however, the problem had been operator error — both chambers were empty! Those two birds, though, will be forever stored in my memory bank, and on these soggy days of late winter, I can relive the glory of a pheasant season that ended, as do they all, much too soon.