If only I was able to do the rough-ground walking involved in hunting wild pheasants, I’d be sleepless at the prospects of a vintage pheasant season starting Oct. 15 in the best of Alberta’s upland bird country.
Rick Martin, wildlife projects manager for the Eastern Irrigation District at Brooks, tells me that brood counts on key upland species are the best since 2008: pheasants up 25 per cent from last year, Hungarian partridge, up 46 per cent, and sharp tail grouse up an amazing and unexplainable 145 per cent.
Pronghorn hunters are reporting huge coveys of sharp tails.
All that sounds so good that, even not being able to walk, if I still had a Brittany spaniel, I’d take him down to the Brooks area anyway, and turn him loose to hunt with the other guys and their dogs while I blocked ditches sitting in my walker waiting for the sound of silence, as in the Simon and Garfunkel lyrics.
For me, the sudden, brooding sound of silence that precedes and foretells a mass flush of wild pheasants is what I am missing most among my outdoors memories. It is akin to the sudden certainty that you are going to see your deer just before you do. The sound of silence is another one of the magic outdoors miracles that I have experienced maybe two dozen times in the 60 years I hunted the birds.
Many times it happens when you’re blocking a ditch down which hunters and dogs are driving running pheasants toward you. When the first dog arrived to where I was seated in my walker at a ditch end two seasons ago, there was an explosion of a dozen and a half pheasants rising high above the brush, then roaring off in all directions. That they were all protected hens did not detract from the excitement.
My first mass pheasant flush was more than 60 years ago when I was 15. There had been an early October storm and three vehicles of us and our dogs were cruising in convoy, listening to the World Series and mostly avoiding getting out. In the Antelope Creek area south west of Brooks, we arrived at an isolated tule (bulrush) patch of five acres or so. No noise, no talking, no slamming of vehicle doors, we got out in the falling snow and ice fog and surrounded the patch.
It was the densest, most portentous sound of silence I can recall. Our Labrador, Clancy of Avondale, aka Buster, tiptoed one step into the tules and the patch blew up with pheasants like a fireworks flower pot. The fog and snow white-out turned all the birds into black silhouettes, but we got half a dozen roosters or so from the ones that blew that cover and broke the silence with their defiant cackling.
Years after that, first thing on opening morning, I pulled up with my crew at my small farm near Brooks. There was already a rig-load of hunters and dogs there, preparing to set out. They claimed a neighbour had given them permission, but couldn’t remember either his name or precisely where he lived.
Despite their dismal performance, I still had to prove I was the owner with the County of Newell landowner map and my driver’s licence before I could flush the trespassers. Then the owner set out to hunt his own land on opening morning with his guests and their dogs.
Up ahead was a 50-by-50-foot morass of shoulder high reed canary grass on the north bank of an overgrown old stock pond. The low rising sun lit several dogs, all pointing the reed canary grass and the sudden sound of silence was heard. One of the owners stepped ahead of his dog to flush a bird or two and the thick grass erupted like a volcano spewing at least two dozen pheasants. I know we got nary a bird. I’m not even sure if anyone even got a shot off, so seriously were we all suffering sun burn to the roofs of our gaping mouths.
Just a few seasons ago, my best-ever Brittany, Red, pointed a 10-by-10-metre jungle of sweet clover on the bank of a creek flowing into the Red Deer River. Suddenly came the sound of silence as I crooned “steady … steady” and stepped ahead of the dog and into the clover. This was the largest mass flush of my experience: at least 50 pheasants flapping and cackling madly off in all directions, and again not a feather fell to many hasty, nervous shots.
Several seasons later, my longtime hunting buddy, Dr. Jake Reimer and I got a déjà vu when my last Brittany, Beau, pointed that same sweet clover patch. Jake stepped in to flush … just one bird, a rooster, Beau’s first, which we both shot. When the farm was sold, I did my last hunt on it with Don Hayden. Beau pointed that same reed canary grass morass and Don and I scratched down the one rooster that flushed — my last, ever.
There was no sound of silence either time.
Bob Scammell is an award-winning columnist who lives in Red Deer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.