On Saturday, my wife and I ran our English setters on a prime piece of Palouse farmland that’s been a pheasant factory for decades.
Roosters once flourished like roaches at this farm. I’ve had to purposely pass up shots in the past to avoid ending the day’s hunt in the first 10 minutes.
After all, I go into every hunt with certain goals, not the least of which is to bring home a high-octane dog that will sleep for a day or two like a bear in winter.
My wife loves me even more when the dogs are bushed.
But despite the wonderful mix of water, brush, wheat stubble and CRP cover, even my Palouse pheasant mecca is bird-poor this year.
Pheasants and quail in many areas are suffering from poor production owing most likely to chilling wet weather badly timed during the spring nesting season.
Birds aren’t the only species lagging like our state’s economy.
White-tailed deer haven’t rebounded to the numbers they had reached three years ago before the first of two consecutive bad winters.
Of course, it’s not a lost cause out there. The General Store has a wall full of photos showing successful hunters with big smiles holding bucks and bulls with big racks.
Many of my hunting companions have filled their big-game tags, too. Persistent hunters will do that even in a down year.
I’ll toast them all if I end the seasons with unnotched tags, and I’ll welcome the invitations to bow heads in thanks and dine at their tables on this year’s game harvest.
I’ll bring the wine, of course, and relish their stories.
I won’t mind doing most of the listening, since my stories may not be as entertaining this year.
Some hunting seasons are geared to success, game meat for the freezer and perhaps trophies for the wall.
This fall seems more oriented toward conservation, an eye on the future and being philosophical.
Scout, my younger setter, had four finds and staunch points over pheasants on Saturday. All hens. Not a shot fired. Yet we came home more than fulfilled. It was not unlike a fine day of catch-and-release fishing.
On Sunday, I teamed with my buddy Steve Heaps to explore new terrain. A season like this is perfect for expanding horizons.
On a good year, we might have talked about all the limits we’d racked up thus far in the season and complained about our lack of freezer space.
Instead, Heaps read me poetry on the westward drive through the gloom.
I’m proud to hunt with men who climb into my 4-by-4 pickup and read me poetry. It’s good therapy in a year when the bird populations are performing worse than my 401(k).
Heaps especially liked the poem he’d written about his Lab and its brother rushing 200 yards to simultaneously retrieve the same rooster.
A sparse year for birds tends to focus attention on any moment resembling success.
You have to stretch every hunting experience, much as a pair of 100-pound retrievers did to the neck of that one pheasant during a concurrent competition to please their masters.
A farmer we met Sunday gave us his blessing to run our dogs on his land in search of birds.
“We used to have a lot of quail, but not this year,” he said. “And if you happen to see a pheasant, I’d ask you not to shoot it.”
Our pledge to honor his request was easy to keep. Heaps and I walked for miles through the Adams County scablands and our dogs romped many times that distance, yet we found no pheasants and just one small covey of quail, which we left intact for seed.
Scout had two good finds on Huns. I dropped one bird to maintain his interest in retrieving and left the rest of the covey unpursued, until another day perhaps.
The harvested bird’s skin went to a friend who relishes partridge hackle for tying flies. The flesh was paired last night in a stir-fry dinner with half a goose breast from a one-bird day on a previous waterfowl hunt.
I stretched the wild-fowl meal with wild rice and drew a smile from my wife by popping the cork on a bottle of red wine.
I knew I was getting somewhere when Scout curled up on his pillow and slept like the lap dog he isn’t.
Even in tough times, we can make the best with less.
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In November, my friend Walt called asking for advice on getting a bird dog. “I’m in the market for a hunting dog and I’m wondering,” he asked: “Has getting older changed your preference for big-running dogs?”
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