Is it an omen of good hunting luck, or a dire portent of disaster when you start your first pheasant hunt of the season by winning $100?
I had just arrived in Brooks the second day of the season and was gassing up at Fas Gas before the run to a “business” lunch meeting at the Patricia Hotel with Neil Waugh, outdoors columnist for The Edmonton Sun. Fas Gas staff erupted in cheers as soon as I scratched the Spin-in-to-Win promotion card.
Neil arrived late and somewhat embarrassed: so he should have been. Considering some of the weird and obscure places Neil can find for his hunting and fishing, how can he be the only pheasant hunter in Alberta who does not know exactly how to get to the shrine, the Patricia Hotel and Licensed Bar-B-Q Pit?
Our business was what my late father always pronounced “stragedy,” especially when plots went awry, but always important in pheasant hunting. Neil’s beloved yellow Lab, Ginger, is 12 now and hunts slowly and mainly in a straight line. I am much younger, but can no longer negotiate the rough ground, fences and ditches of good pheasant country.
So the stragedy was to make advantages of afflictions and concentrate on places, such as weedy ditches, where Neil could hunt down with the dogs toward me blocking the end. Over the years I have sometimes referred to my pheasant hunting groups as “sick parades,” but this one was going to be sort of a symbiotic sick parade.
Where this plot went awry was that Beau, my Brittany, hunts only for me, and, if I am not around, he hunts only to find me.
Thus, after I’d left to drive to the end of the ditch and hide my rig and me, Neil would release the dogs to start hunting toward me, but Beau would arrive at my end of the ditch in 10 seconds, max, looking worried and asking “why aren’t we moving, dad?” Then we would hear, from far up the ditch, the half-grunt, half wheeze of Ginger, caused by laryngeal paralysis, a condition made worse by the warm weather.
Fortunately I know some good coverts with friendly enough terrain that I could get out there where Beau could see me and thus quarter and hoover the country enough to convince us that this is the second bust year in a row for wild pheasants and Huns.
A couple of lunches at the Patricia Hotel and two breakfasts at Smitty’s in Brooks confirmed that the dire diagnosis was not just ours.
The hunters of wild birds were grousing and moaning, while the haunters of the killing grounds were exulting at their bags of hatchery gun fodder and telling everyone who could overhear how much they knew about pheasant hunting and management.
One group had proudly flooded the small Long Pump release site with 10 dogs.
At one point the landowner arrived, wanting to show us where he had seen a huge rooster up on the short grass prairie.
Actually there were two true trophy birds up there that were off and running for a big, deep coulee as soon as we stopped and I let Beau out.
Actually there were three roosters: one that flushed in range just as Beau was about to find him was so much younger, smaller and less coloured than the others that I mistook it for a hen and held my fire.
One of the great things about wild pheasants is the egg they leave you wearing on your face.
We descended to pheasant heaven, or hell, depending on your point of view, in the thorny jungles along a creek running into the Red Deer.
Only one hen, flew out and by me as I blocked for Neil and Ginger where, three years ago, there would have been dozens of fleeing pheasants.
Back near where Neil had started I put Beau into my favourite sweet clover patch.
One rooster flushed, cackling profanely and unnecessarily, because we missed.
Four years ago Beau pointed in this patch, and then it erupted with at least three dozen wild birds.
Sunday morning was grey, cold and windy. But you don’t fight for Sunday hunting as long as I did without going out to enjoy some. So Neil led us on one of his long and convoluted trips to an oasis of ditches and grain stubble with water nearby.
There was also a huge sweet clover jungle out of which Neil and the dogs flushed a dozen white-tailed deer and one far-off silent and sexless pheasant.
On the long drive home Beau and I mused that the luck is still entirely in being able to get out there, and I’ve always said that if there were only one wild pheasant left, I’d hunt him, I love it that much. The way things are going I may get to try that . . .
Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.