At the shot, the flushing pheasant crumpled in midair and hit the ground with a thump. But a wise hunter never assumes the bird is dead until it is in hand. “Dead bird! Dead bird!” the two yellow Labs were told as they bounded toward the place where the bird had fallen. With my eye fixed to that very spot (another habit of wise hunters), I was right behind them.
I reached the spot to see Rainy, the pup, tense up, nose to the grass, and pounce to catch the rooster hidden there– his first. It was a proud moment for both of us. Judging from his exuberant body language, Rainy is now on his way to becoming a bird dog.
Provided they behave (at least well enough), young dogs are fun to have along on a pheasant hunt. You get to watch them discover the sneaky, quick-footed ways of ringnecks and what being a bird dog is really all about. It sure beats fetching dummies from the neighborhood pond, although retrievers think that is a great time, too.
In the pheasant-rich Dakotas, a pup gains plenty of real-time experience in a hurry. Rainy mimicked the moves of 12-year-old Tanner, a dog that has flushed and fetched his share of Dakota and Minnesota roosters. But the pup took frequent, brief breaks from the action to check in with his human hunting partners, Alan Lutkevich of Duluth and me. At nearly nine months, he’s a cannonball of enthusiasm and energy. In the field, he’s got the right moves, working close and quartering through the cover. On this trip he put in some quality hunting time, although somewhat less than we had planned. A couple of mishaps shortstopped our hunt.
First was the weather. We spent most of the second day crawling along mud-slick side roads after nearly an inch of rain soaked the region. Between the rain and the mud, we only spent a couple of hours of hunting. We made the most of it, killing three roosters. The next day we stuck to paved roads, happening upon a lightly hunted walk-in area just as the combine finished harvesting an adjacent corn field. Of course the massive flock of displaced pheasants flushed en masse just out of range, but we managed to find wayward roosters during a walk through the grass. Some got away, so we finished the hunt two short of our six-bird daily limit.
It was a great day until the alternator light came on in my pickup. A battery test at a small town farm supply store revealed a defective battery. The store was closing for the evening, so we decided to drive 25 miles to the next town and get a room for the night. We figured we could buy a battery there in the morning. Bad plan. Nothing in town was open on a Sunday. Getting a jump start from someone, we made an epic 25-mile journey back to the farm supply store. While it wasn’t quite the same as crossing the plains in a covered wagon, it was a primitive trip. We weren’t far out of town when the dashboard instruments went dead. My truck seemed to be going into shock as the battery power faded, shutting down everything that wasn’t necessary to continue forward progress. Our pace slowed way down, likely because the fuel pump was barely functioning. As we crested the final hill into the next town, the electronic check-your-speed sign on the roadside flashed 8 m.p.h. The truck died in the farm supply’s parking lot 10 minutes before the store opened.
I bought a new battery and a battery charger. Then we discovered the alternator was also dead. No auto parts stores or repair shops were open on Sunday. We figured the new battery had enough juice to get us the 40 miles back to the campground where we usually stay. There we could charge it overnight. As long as we confined our driving to daylight, we’d be fine until we could buy an alternator the next day.
We salvaged what time remained that afternoon with a long walk through a heavily hunted public area not far from the campground. Walking the perimeter of a standing cornfield, we made clean kills on three roosters. Rainy retrieved two of them. Tanner got the other. As it turned out, that was our grand finale.
Sometimes you just don’t push your luck. We still had a day remaining on our nonresident hunting licenses and the dogs were in good shape. Still, we decided to head for home after replacing the alternator Monday morning. Aside from roadside deer after dark (Minnesota’s whitetail population appears to be on the rise) the ride was uneventful. I rolled into my driveway just before 2 a.m.
We lost about a third of our hoped-for hunting time to muddy roads and truck troubles. I had the unplanned expenses of a battery, charger and alternator. We still had fun with the dogs and pheasant and, all things considered, a great trip. Hunting excursions don’t always go as planned. When stuff happens, a wise hunter just rolls with it. Misadventures are what you make of them.