When I started researching the area my wife and I were moving to in rural mid-western Minnesota, I kept hearing that I was moving to an area that was good pheasant country. This slightly frightened me, as I know pheasants and how to hunt them about as well as I know how the female brain works. Throughout my childhood and young adult life I conjured up this idea that pheasant hunters are rich millionaires who smoke large stogies and drink scotch in their “log cabins” after a “long days hunt”. Granted this only took place after their hired out guides and dogs found the birds for them out on the thousands of acres of prime managed land they paid to hunt. This is something I am not, and refused to even think about pheasant hunting. I continued doing what I know and duck hunted and deer hunted until December.
After Christmas I started getting the itch to hunt some upland birds and I really wanted to get my 9 1/2 month old pup Zeus out into the field to get some exposure to live birds. Although Zeus has been along on some grouse hunts, he was still a novice with authentic bird-hunting. I also needed to get some exercise after the Christmas feasts in which I had recently partook. Having my old grouse hunting stomping grounds more than 2 1/2 hours away, I only had one other bird to hunt. Knowing absolutely nothing about these seemingly mystical birds that people had been raving about, I bought a pheasant stamp and a box of Federal Steel Waterfowl 4 shot (I was too cheap to purchase the 20 dollar pheasant loads). I loaded up the old grouse vest and gear into the truck along with the mildly lethargic Zeus and headed to an area where I had observed two pheasants fly into a waterfowl production area. I figured I might as well work with what I’ve got in my locale and try something new.
Only having a few hours to hunt the first day I decided to keep an open mind and start working cattails, as this was what I was told by a good friend Ryan Wahlund. Ryan is a very knowledgeable well rounded hunter but is a specialist when it comes to pheasants and loves to hunt these birds. I got a quick rundown on their behavior during late season and I was ready. With a nice crust on the snow, I was lucky enough to break through on every step I took, which made for some fun tramping. I started heading to the area I saw the birds fly to a few days prior, and took my first step onto the slough that the cattails surrounded. My foot immediately plummeted into the icy water below up to the knee. “This is so much fun”, I thought to myself as Zeus stared at me like I was an idiot for bringing him out into this snowy wasteland. I decided I would skirt the outside of the cattails so I would not fall through again as I tend to learn quickly. I trekked 20 feet further, and that is when I heard the first bird flush. It was behind some heavy brush that was between me and the cattails where I should have been, and then all hell broke loose. Bird after bird got up out of the same area and I kept looking for that glint of color through the brush but it was just too thick.
When I arrived at the next section of WPA, pheasants started flying more than 200 yards away. This is what Ryan warned me about with late season pheasants. Although easier to find with less cover, they have been bombarded for months and will fly at the sound of a mouse-fart. Not forgetting about the cold plummet my foot took not more than an hour ago, I slowly crept out onto a new slough, and checked ice thickness the whole way around. Continuing to creep forward, something blew up not more than three feet in front of me. Two hen pheasants that were nestled in the cattails (before I disturbed them) ascended towards the skies. Zeus looked at me, then back to the birds as I pulled up and identified my target. I could almost hear him ask me why I wasn’t shooting. I told him they were hens and we headed to a new area to explore before dark. This new section looked favorable, as pheasant tracks coursed all along a row of Cedars next to the road and on the other side were two large sloughs with cattails all around. This would be my spot to start on tomorrow.
After waking up the next morning, I quickly realized that pheasant hunting may be a little more exhausting than I imagined, as my calves ached from the constant breaking through the crust of the snow. With coffee in hand and a renewed energy, Zeus and I headed to our hopeful honey hole. Zeus seemed to be more ambitious today, and was whimpering to get going as I loaded my Franchi Semi Auto. After only taking a few steps into the crusty prairie I began to see birds lifting from the cattails, flying every direction just like the day before. I picked out where most of the birds were landing and began traversing downwind of their terminus. As Zeus and I started getting closer to the area they had landed in a beautiful sound took over, the sound of nothing. No birds were flying out of my range. As we continued our assault on the slough a hen emerged from the cattails around 20 yards out. I took another step through the cattails, and that’s when I saw what we had been after the past two days. Not more than 15 yards out a gorgeous rooster arose from the undergrowth into my sight. I rose up on the cock and fired. I watched the bird fold and skip across the ice. I yelled with excitement “dead bird!” and called for Zeus to find it. Zeus found the shell wad and continued to follow the scent of the bird and that’s when I was most proud of him. Zeus hurdled into the cattails and popped back out with a gorgeous rooster in his mouth. He carried the bird to me and released to my hand. Our first bird was down and in the bag.
I sat and admired the bird. Amazed at the colors, I couldn’t stop staring at it. “So this is what all the fuss is about”, I thought to myself as Zeus stared at the bird with equal passion wanting so badly to take it from me. Luckily, he managed to contain his temperament. I gave him a thorough praise and was able to get a few pictures with him and the rooster. This moment will forever live in my memory as our first rooster together and the start of a new passion. There is no better feeling then seeing your pup work with you to find the game you’re after and then have a successful retrieve.