“I've only known two sets of smiles and shimmies that can seduce me from my home and my money: Springer Spaniels in heavy cover and table dancers in light cover. I manage to live without the evening entertainment but suffer greatly without Critter and pheasant season.”
THE Forecast was for heavy snow and wind, and I needed to get my two wheel drive rig headed for home before it got white. And I wanted three more South Dakota pheasants for ballast.
I dropped a handful of replacement 6’s into my coat and half trotted into the CRP behind Critter. She knows it’s okay for her to hunt but she hustles back and forth between head pats and false starts as if she wants me to run with her on all fours, to hunt with keener senses. I’m sure she has visions and sensations to share unlike my upright experiences….and I’d run with her too…. but… I love to shoot.
The only difference between Critter’s love to hunt and mine is simply a matter of laws and restraint. I have a respect for both and she has none. Our differences are summed up in the pulling of the trigger. She would do it more. A lot more. Hen pheasants, meadow larks, even grass hoppers. I’m afraid she’d kill them all.
This was new cover for me, a three-quarter section of rolling CRP surrounded by miles of the same and a little pasture. There were no grain fields for miles and there weren’t a lot of pheasants here, but those that were here were pretty easy to find.
We started in a shallow draw with a couple of dark patches. In a sea of grass, pheasants live in the dark patches. Dark patches are weeds, and weed seeds are what these pheasants eat. Weeds usually grow best in the low areas with the most moisture. There and in fence lines, are where you also find the occasional plum thicket. Pheasants love to loaf in plum thickets for the shade and the ease of movement.
The draw "V-ed" a hundred yards up with some scrub on the left and then heavier patches of weeds in the right branch. Critter got birdy in the first patch and I worked my way higher up the slope for a better view. I tend to surge ahead and to the side I think the pheasant is running towards, or will escape towards, for the little advantage it provides. If he’s a runner, even a small jump on Critter can be the difference between a harsh scolding and an “atta girl!”
(I’ve always preferred 35 to 40 yard shots at pheasants. Just the right distance for a clean kill and a respectable retrieve for a dog that hunts at 25 yards. But Critter was Hell on Wheels and for most of the day it was all I could do to hope for less than 30 yard flushes and 45 yard shots. I carry an old Browning Superposed choked improved cylinder and improved modified. A real prairie bird gun. Both barrels were tighter than the manufacturer’s indication and with premium shells, and a little skill, it killed with authority.)
It was a runner and he was headed up the right draw. The wind was really whipping the grass and I was falling behind in the uphill race. But Critter’s legs and lungs were more aggressive than her nose and she often times over ran her birds. When she started bouncing above the cover, swinging her head back and forth, I knew that she had lost scent and the rooster was between the two of us. This happened often enough that I sometimes wondered if she did it on purpose. If it was her way of circling ahead of runners without the extra arc. I planted my feet and inhaled deeply as Critter pressed the bird. I would often find myself questioning if she could really sort through scent that quickly, but I couldn’t recall her ever not putting up the bird in this scenario. My chest was heaving and my legs were wobbly when he flushed at 25 yards. That excuses the first barrel but the second shot hit him well. Critter didn’t linger long with this retrieve. She usually likes to do a little end zone strut, but today Critter was in a hurry for more dead birds.
I topped the hill shortly after she did and headed for a small patch of plums on the hill top fence line. There weren’t any birds at home here so we swung back toward the two-track and lower ground on the other side.
I knew we would limit out in the bottom. There was a pond with heavy trees and a series of dirt tanks and plum thickets winding for a quarter mile.
I swung wide around the affair to work the birds from the middle of the section toward the lane. That’s usually all it takes to get roosters to sit tight. I knew that everyone hunted this the other way, easy from the road, but these pressured birds would run into the hills before I got 100 yards from the cover. It’s not that I minded hunting them after they broke up, but sometimes it feels good to out maneuver them.
We made this a longer hunt and walk then it had to be. We bumped into a rogue rooster in our wide loop that Critter only worked for a short distance before she had him in the air. A thump on the shoulder, puff of feathers and cart wheeling plunge. In typical tall grass style, Critter charged to her mark and then jumped high in the air expecting to pounce on the bird from above.
She was a sight. Stocky as a linebacker, all dressed up in her glowing white coat, polished by the heavy grass. And her liver colored ears, floating around her head when she was hunting but trailing like a wake when she got serious. I wish she could have hunted with me forever.
This bird was dead, high up in the stiff grass and she had him in her mouth before her feet hit the ground.
I carried the bird until we reached some short grass, then called her in and gave the rooster back to her for awhile. She loved carrying them whenever I would let her. I wasn’t worried about her getting too tired because we would be finished soon, with the low drainage just ahead. These pheasants were in for a surprise.
I reached for the rooster, so she could hunt ‘em up, but she would only gradually let go. Then grip it again, like you would handing something precious to a small child. I got the feeling she didn’t totally trust me with her birds.
When she was certain it was in my coat to stay, she was on hot scent right away. A hen flushed to my right just as I saw her dive over a low dirt tank and two roosters burst from the weeds on the other side. On my second shot a rooster started the slow decent that we all hate. Another shell would have been nice but Critter was a relentless cripple hunter. I reloaded as she charged after the bird and then a third rooster flushed from behind the bank. The temptation to shoot this bird hard, in case Critter lost the lightly hit one is always there, but after a limit bird, is never, ever, allowed.
The reload was in case the bird was healthy enough to gain air. I’ve regretted not shooting a flutter, flushing cripple before that turns into a marathon retrieve and sometimes lost bird. Most bird dogs will hunt like hell for the retrieve but if the bird escapes again they are less persistent the second time. Which leads to the dark side of pheasant hunting.
In all of pheasant hunting, there is only one sight more gratifying than a long, one shot, clean kill, after good dog work. It’s searching the horizon for signs of your cripple trailing dog and then realizing she’s already on her way back, just feet in front of you, pushing grass, with a mouthful of feathers.
Critter 1991 -2004