Ring-necked pheasant roosters round out the season

Alan Charles
Friday, December 28, 2018
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PHOTO BY Alan Charles
Alan Charles’ dog Teal displays a pheasant killed on a recent hunt.

When the dog’s nose first hit the trail of fresh pheasant scent, he acted like he had been goosed with a cattle prod, and things kicked into high gear. Tail wagging furiously, he tore through the brush and high grass, ziz-zagging with the scent as I tried to keep up with him. “Find that bird,” I told him as we came to the end of the coulee.

I knew it had to be there, and when Teal thrust his nose into that last clump of grass, up came the rooster, three feet of cackling kaleidoscope of color, so big and so close and so expected that I could not miss. Except that I did. Not once, but twice. Missed with both barrels.

I looked at the dog. The dog looked at me. We both looked at the rooster that was fast disappearing into the distance. It was late December, and upland bird season ended Jan. 1. This might have been our last chance for the season. How could I have missed such an easy shot? Truth is, rooster pheasants can do that to a person.

These big, colorful game birds are popular with hunters throughout the United States. Part of the attraction is their size and color, while their natural elusiveness makes them a challenging bird to hunt. They skulk and run, flush wild and stick tight as a wily old whitetailed buck deer. They taste good on the dinner table, although I think grouse are more flavorful.

Some people don’t know that ring-necked pheasants are not native to North America. In fact, they were first successfully introduced in 1881 when a U.S. diplomat sent several dozen home to the Willamette Valley in Oregon from his post in Shanghai. By 1907, all but nine states had established wild pheasant populations through stocking efforts.

Pheasants have a way of making profound impressions on hunters. I can remember taking my first rooster pheasant as if it were yesterday. was 12 years old, hunting with my father, two older brothers, and our old golden retriever. It was a cold, crisp October morning, and we were hunting in a cornfield surrounded by trees that glowed orange, yellow and red.

The dog flushed the rooster in front of me, and it flared up and off to my left. I cocked the hammer on my single-shot Model 37 Winchester 20-gauge shotgun and stood there simply amazed when the bird fell at my shot, looking as big as one of those huge B-17 Flying Fortress bombers we’d see on our little black-and-white television screen. To be honest, I beat the old dog to the retrieve, and I remember just how thrilled I was to heft that great gaudy bird.

I also remember very vividly the last pheasant I harvested before I reported for duty to my Army boot camp. I had enlisted in the fall after I graduated from high school under what was called a “delayed enlistment option.” I signed the papers in August, but did not have to report for duty until January, right after the end of the upland bird season.

That was a troubled time in this country, a time of assassinations and riots, racial and civil unrest, with citizens deeply divided over the war in Vietnam. As a young man, I, too, was deeply troubled and unsure about the future. But I knew that what I loved best, and what gave me the greatest comfort, was hiking with my gun and golden retriever, chasing the clouds and flushing wild birds, and sometimes, just lying in a grassy field and watching a sunset.

The last day of the season, in January, 1972, I harvested three rooster pheasants on a cold, snowy day. I took the last bird I harvested to a lady biologist at the university who did some taxidermy work, and asked her to mount the pheasant for me. I had no idea whether or not I’d ever see that bird again, but I wanted to preserve the memory.

As I write this now, some 46 years later, I am looking at that tattered old pheasant, and savoring just how special it can be, to hike grassy fields with a good dog, and flush one of those big, colorful, cackling roosters. Even if you miss the shot, the memory can be priceless.

( Alan Charles lives and writes in the Pine Hills.)