Some Pheasants Win

The deck is stacked against our ring-necked pheasants these days, when hunting for them has, unfortunately, become strictly a put and take game.

The beautiful, pen-raised gamebirds arrive at selected coverts open to hunting – mostly state-owned Wildlife-Management Areas – crated four to a box in racks on the back of stocking trucks driven by MassWildlife personnel. These men and women follow weekly routes to release birds bought from private vendors into habitats that can support them. Few of them survive the six-week season. Those that do have little chance of seeing spring, even if they find their way to neighborhood birdfeeders bordering swamps, meadows and cropland.

The biggest problem pheasants face, other than shrinking habitats brought by development, is predators, which – with leghold trapping outlawed since 1996 and birds of prey under federal protection decades longer – have multiplied greatly since I was a South Deerfield boy. Back then, in the late 50s and early 60s, we had no coyotes or eagles and far fewer hawks, falcons, foxes, fishers and bobcats. I vividly recall spring pheasant broods feeding like barnyard fowl under our cherry tree fronting three tidy rows of peonies.

We looked forward to the annual visits of such adults and their broods before the field and wetland in the backyard became Frontier Regional School athletic fields and the agricultural fields to the south and west became South Deerfield Elementary School grounds, bordered on the south by cattail marsh and Bloody Brook. Of course, that was also before hens became fair game in the 1980s, before Route 5 & 10 was rerouted away from the center of town, and before Interstate 91 was built, cutting off a continuous mix of open farmland, fields, marsh, and woods extending uninterrupted to the base of the western hills. It was all great pheasant habitat that produced an annual crop of “native” birds.

The reason for the quotation marks around the word “native” is that, in fact, pheasants are not native to New England, or North America for that matter. The Asian gamebirds were instead “introduced” here in the late 19th century for hunters. Even the broods I remember were produced by holdover birds that had survived the hunting season and mated with protected surplus hens stocked annually by state-owned game farms to encourage “wild” brood production.

When pheasants came to Massachusetts during the Gilded Age, it was fashionable for men of status to hunt, own gundogs, hire trainers and game-keepers, and start and/or join trendy hunt and sporting clubs, where top-shelf bourbon and heroic sporting tales flowed freely over toasty fieldstone fireplaces.

Even that has changed dramatically today. Yes, there are still hunters and sportsmen’s clubs, but today hunting, and especially put-and-take hunting, is largely viewed as barbaric and immoral, not at all cool, especially in effete academic communities like our Happy Valley, once the state’s finest pheasant country. Development and 21st-century public perception has changed all that, not to mention the focus of outdoor writing.

Yeah, sure, hunting and fishing tales from the Field & Stream and Outdoor Life genre still sell in Alabama, Texas, and the Dakotas, but not here, and not in urban and suburban markets. The best outdoor writing these days is about nature and conservation and maybe even the hunter/gatherer cosmos of primitive man. Orion magazine is the gold standard, supplanting literary Gray’s Sporting Journal. What it peddles is relevant and sells, not blow-by-blow accounts of gunners and archers downing a big buck or bear, or wing-shooters executing impossible shots on cackling pheasants flushed and retrieved from wet, thorny cover by gundogs of aristocratic pedigree. Once public-square fodder, those tales are no longer suit the mainstream.

Something I learned many years ago, primarily from email interaction, itself relatively “new,” is that the reading public prefers tales about the one that got away through guile, instinct, or pure coincidence. Readers are not interested, more likely disgusted, by accounts of hunting kills, such as a big buck shot through the heart and lungs and quickly bled out by a lethal, state-of-the-art broadhead.

 

The story I am about to share fits this preferred mold. It’s about a cock pheasant that had over a few short weeks learned to survive hunters against stiff odds in the mixed wetland into which he was stocked. Far more likely to occur late in the season, this long-tailed rooster had learned to elude gundogs and hunters. It can happen.

Most of the pheasant-hunting pressure in the Valley has been intentionally redirected over the past 20 or 30 years from private land to the aforementioned Wildlife-Management Areas, places like Bennett Meadow and Pauchaug Brook in Northfield, Poland Brook in Conway, Montague Plains, and Leyden. Most of these coverts are stocked at least twice a week, with some getting a daily dose that draw overflow crowds – not my cup of tea.

The thorny, viny covert I most often hunt, a mix of alder swamp and overgrown dairy pasture and hayfield, is deeply stained with my family DNA. I have hunted it for nearly 50 years and know it top to bottom. Since the state bought it some 20 years ago – setting off a flurry of subsequent purchases bringing the total to nearly 500 acres today – the surrounding hayfields have grown in, doubling or maybe even tripling the prime pheasant habitat. So, yes, stocked birds have a chance and can offer challenging hunts in difficult cover that presents many screens and obstacles obstructing sight lines.

When young, I could pick my way through the deep, dense alder swamp along the southern perimeter. Today, that swamp is impenetrable due to ever-increasing beaver activity that brings pockets of deep water and thick, thorny undergrowth. For birds and beasts, however, this alder jungle that once lured many a migratory woodcock flock is a place of refuge, where they can escape from humans but not furry predators. That even goes for farm-raised pheasants that soon discover escape routes to and feeding zones within the safe haven. Once they’re acclimated to the habitat, the stocked birds flush into the swamp to escape hunters and fly in and out of it to feed on seeds, berries, and grasses. The longer they survive, learning to flee the sounds of human voices and whistles and dog bells, the better at escaping they become.

So, there we were, two of us, hunting over Sunrise Rex, a 15-month-old dynamo of a springer spaniel owned by a field-trialer friend who allows me to hunt the dog when he’s working. After my gundog, Chubby, died suddenly and tragically on the final day of the 2019 pheasant season, I figured I was in for a couple of lean years. Not so. As it turns out, I now had young Rex at my disposal and, miraculously, my fall routine didn’t seem to skip a beat. Incredible… unexpected

Young Rex was there, tagging along as a three-month-old pup on Chubby’s final few hunts last year, displaying great desire and athleticism. Now he has grown tall and lean to rapidly and admirably fill the void left by Chub-Chub, which is saying something. Replacing that veteran gundog, who, by the way, carried not an ounce of fat despite his name, was no mean feat. Chubby was essentially a flawless flush-and-retrieve gun dog with indomitable spirit, a superior nose, and extraordinary agility and stamina. He went through tough covers aggressively and effortlessly, never seeming to tire. Rexxie, a big, athletic dynamo, is cut from similar Sunrise Kennels cloth, and shows the same attributes, right down to impossible blind retrieves that can be quite shocking.

On this particular late-afternoon hunt, we had pounded about half the covert without a flush and it was beginning to feel like one of those rare outings without so much as a wild flush. Yeah, yeah, Rexxie lit up a few times and went into his telltale hops through high cover that often portends a loud flush. But he had flushed nothing in productive cover he knew well.

Then, from afar, I heard the familiar call of a cock pheasant emanating from the direction of the impenetrable alder swamp. Unable to pinpoint more than the general direction from which it came, I decided to give it a whirl and cut across high cover to get closer. There, I thought, Rexxie may get enticed into an enthusiastic search mission that’s always fun to watch.

But no, despite hunting aggressively and penetrating some 40 yards back into the swamp’s edge, the pheasant went silent and Rexxie flushed nothing. The bird must have heard us approaching and wisely shut up.

Oh well, time to circle back to the truck and call it a day. Who knew? Maybe we’d bump into a bird on the way out.

After walking maybe 50 yards in the direction of my buddy, I heard a flushing cackle from deep in the swamp that caught my attention. I turned to look and soon caught a cock pheasant angling away from us across the field toward my truck. Hmmmm? How about that?

I marked the landing near a young oak wearing its rust-colored leaves and told my buddy to circle into position before I worked Rex toward him. He did so, taking maybe five minutes to get into a familiar spot with many shooting lanes where he’d stood many times before. It helps to know a covert.

When I got to within 50 or 60 yards of my buddy, Rexxie hunting between us, the dog caught fresh scent, came to a screeching halt, changed direction, and went into what I call his high-RPM mode: red hot. He thought the wind-washed rooster was near, and it’s never wise to doubt him. He circled the same spot two or three times, hopping several times and widening the arc as he searched. Finally, he lit up on a path created by hunters and raced down it toward the back corner of the small alder patch we were hunting.

Uh-oh, I thought, a runner.

I quickly backtracked 35 yards to the northeast corner of the alders and took a stand in a familiar spot from which I could see out over dense cattails bordering the big, impenetrable alder swamp. I would have liked to position myself closer to the cattails about 40 yards south but didn’t think I had time. So, I got into position where many shooting lanes were available and rolled the dice. Rexxie’s animation told me that a flushing cackle was near. I liked my chances where I stood.

I soon heard the flush, shouldered my shotgun, and never had a freakin’ chance. The rooster flushed straightaway over the cattails and into the alder refuge. Maybe dumb luck, the bird took its only escape route. Neither of us had a shot.

The rooster had won the game. Acclimated to the covert and the sounds of pursuing hunters, he’d recognized danger, fled afoot, flushed and escaped to see another day.

“How many times do you think that bird’s been flushed?” I asked my buddy after reuniting and hunting back to the truck.

“Plenty,” he answered, “and we may yet flush him again.”

Very true.

To be honest, I don’t often give stocked pheasants much credit for intelligence. This was an exception. That rooster had outmaneuvered a great young gundog and two experienced wing-shooters who knew the escape routes and shooting lanes.

Within sight of my truck, I heard a distant squawk, turned, and noticed a red-tailed or sharp-shinned hawk perched high in an old, deeply furrowed poplar tree overlooking the impenetrable alder swamp to which our pheasant had escaped. That can be a problem. Both hawks prey on pheasants when the find them out in the open. So, even when they learn to human hunters, pheasants are never safe from furry and feathery predators.

Thus, the chances that the pheasant which escaped us will see spring is slim indeed. Like I said before: the cards are stacked against them in what has become strictly a put-and-take game.

 

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