column By: Ben East | October, 21
You start thinking about it, running back over the years in your mind, and memories come crowding. You recall birds you killed and birds you missed, frosty mornings and hot afternoons, cold autumn rains and blazing sunsets, thrills and laughs and good companions, the dogs you worked and the guns you used – and it’s hard to say which day was the best. But if I were to name one and only one, I’d choose a day we hunted over a certain young springer. It was her first fall and we didn’t expect too much of her.
We stood in the gray October dawn that morning, Mac and I, and listened to young roosters crowing in a distant farmyard and half dreaded that first plunge into the wet weeds. We had watched the big, round, hunter’s moon the night before and smelling the smoke of leaf fires at the curb, and hoped for a clear cool morning. But it had turned cloudy in the night and just before daybreak, a drizzle of cold rain had fallen. We’d be drenched to the belts in ten minutes and we knew it. But it was the first morning of the season and a little water on the grass and goldenrod can’t stop you at a time like that.
We waited while shooting light brightened across the level fields and finally a gun blared away off to the west, dull and heavy in the morning stillness. A half minute later the same gun spoke again, twice in quick succession. Mac opened the door to the car and let the springer down and we swung into the lane, toward a weedy cornfield at the back of the farm.
We were halfway to the corn, with the dog romping ahead of us, when she ran into something that checked her like a tight leash. Beyond the lane fence, thirty yards to the left, a dry swale no bigger than your living room rug made a patch of cover in an open field. The light, uneven morning wind flowed like a broken ribbon from the swale to the lane and midway of that ribbon a thread of bird scent suddenly had filled the springer’s nose.
She swung around and stood sniffing while you could have counted three. Then her tail commenced to make pheasant talk and she went through the fence like an eel, streaking straight for the tall grass.
Mac and I hit the fence together. He was over and I was still on it when three pheasants clattered up. The last to leave the weeds was a big cock, cackling his alarm. Mac opened on him while he was still in a steep climb and he fell between two bean rows with a heavy thud. The dog brought back the first ringneck she had ever retrieved, and I knew we were going to have a whale of a pheasant season!
We decided to save the corn until later. We went on across the beanfield in a stubble where the cover seemed too short for ringnecks but where experience told us a bird was likely to lumber up any second. The hunch was good. Midway on the field the dog made game, scurried around in a frenzy of excitement for half a minute, and busted two hens out literally from under our feet. But she didn’t seem satisfied with that achievement. She went on working and fifty yards ahead she found and flushed a third.
“There’ll be a cock in here somewhere,” Mac warned, and even as he said it Sir John took off, no more than a tail length in front of the frantic springer. He swung my way and I laid the gun on him as he leveled off and made a clean kill.
Mac looked at this watch. We’d been out twenty minutes. We went on across the stubble to a willow-grown ditch bank and the dog put her nose to the wet ground and went suddenly into overdrive.
That was close to a sight chase. The bird was hightailing down the ditch bank, through the short grass and open willows. His tracks were smoking in the springer’s nose and both of ’em meant business. Mac and I lumbered along behind ’em, one on each side of the ditch, but we never had a chance. At the end of the strip of cover the pheasant flushed a good hundred yards ahead of us. He sailed derisively off for the next township and we called the dog in and started for the cornfield.
So far we had stayed almost dry, but that was too good to last. The ragweed in the corn rows was waist high and dripping with cold water. Before we had gone fifty feet we were as wet as the dog was. And then we came into one of those lulls that happen every so often in pheasant country after a brisk beginning.
We combed the corn and found it empty of birds. We tried an alfalfa field beyond it, and after that a couple of brushy fencerows and a big swale where the goldenrod was as tall as our heads. We got wetter and wetter but we put up no more pheasants.
“They’ve holed up,” Mac decided finally, “and I can’t say I blame ’em much.” He looked at his watch. “I’ve got to be back by 9,” he remarked. “Whatever we do we’ll have to do in the next half hour.”
We turned back toward the house, drenched and chilled and not too happy. At the end of the cornfield the dog made game along the fence with sudden violence. There was a clump of wild grapevine there, festooned on the wire for twenty feet, and a little strip of tall grass among the tangled vines. It was a thumbnail patch of cover, the kind of hideout an old cock ringneck loves when the gunning is heavy or the weather bad.
I called a word of warning to Mac and braced myself. The springer dived headlong into the vines at one end and at the other end there was a clatter of wings and an angry, alarmed squawk, and two pheasants with white collars went thundering up. One swung over the open pasture on my side of the fence and I scored. I heard the sharp crash of Mac’s gun as he took the other and I turned in time to see the bird spin down into the corn. But from the way it fell we knew we had a cripple on our hands.
We went through the cornfield with a fine-tooth comb, the dog and the two of us, but it wasn’t any use. We lost the springer in the weeds finally and kept on crisscrossing ourselves, searching the field row by row. I have pretty strong feelings on losing a wounded bird and Mac shares ’em. We hunted long after we knew it wasn’t any use. When we came out of the corn we were just a little downhearted. Mac stopped to lay a match to his pipe.
“Guess I’m one short for the day,” he said thoughtfully. “Serves me right for not doing a clean job. I thought the springer would find him sure but maybe it was too much to expect in that cover.”
We turned to call the dog – and then we saw her coming between two weedy corn rows. Her head was high and she had the pheasant in a grip so soft and sure it wouldn’t have cracked a robin’s egg. His long tail was brushing the wet ragweeds at one side. She didn’t look like a springer registered in the files of the AKC. She was full of burrs from ears to tail and she looked like a little, wet, black and white rag. But she brought the bird up to Mac prouder than any queen and her brown eyes were fairly shining when she gave it over.
It wasn’t the shooting we did that morning. It wasn’t the fact we were home by 9:30 with our legal limit of four pheasants. It wasn’t because the weather was good or bad and it wasn’t the way the dry clothes felt when we finally got into ’em.
It wasn’t anything but the great work of a young dog, making her beginning in the business she was born for, meeting Johnny Ringneck on his own terms, outsmarting him, knowing her job and doing it a little better than the boss expected. That was what made that day the best I have had in almost twenty years of pheasant hunting.
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