© 2014 Aaron Atkinson

Sweet Sixteen

Pheasant populations are a bit like the stock market. It feels like it takes a lot of things to go just right over a long period of time in order for numbers to climb, and then in the matter of one bad week the bottom can fall out. When it comes to the pheasants that I spend my fall and winter weekends chasing, the bottom has fallen out the last two summers as record-breaking droughts have led to a record-breaking absence of pheasants. During the season of ’10/’11 I harvested a whopping 75 birds. The season after, 45. And last season only 15 birds fell to my shotgun. While hunting is about a whole lot more than shooting birds, in the end, it can be a little disappointing to not shoot or even see anything.

Going into this season, my goal was simple – shoot more birds that last year. And while we had our setbacks including injuries, a two-weekend trip to Hawaii (not really a setback, but you get the picture) and a nagging cold that lasted for almost three weeks, last weekend I managed to knock down pheasant number sixteen for the season.

It was 2 p.m. The four of us had seen two roosters in range all day – and we missed them both. We decided to try a field that’s been a gem for us in the past, but has dried up of late, due in equal parts to the weather and the hayer. But there are still little patches and pockets that look ‘birdy’ enough to warrant a walk. After a quick strategy chat – pheasant hunting can often become a near militaristic pursuit – my three companions set out to walk this 200-yard stretch of grass and trees from east to west. I snuck down to the west end and hid next to a clump of cedars. I was to block the end of the row in the event that the skittish birds decided to bail out early.

When the guys were just over half way through their push, a hen pheasant bolted from the grass some 60 yards from me, caught the 35 mile an hour gusting wind and rocketed to safety. Moments later a second hen made an identical getaway. At this time of year, pheasants follow the adage ‘birds of a feather flock together’ and sometimes an early-to-flush hen acts as a preview of what’s the come. I’d taken a half dozen steps towards where the birds had flushed when a big, bright rooster exploded from the brush. At more than 50 yards, he flushed out of range, but in a prime example of lucky being better than good, he caught the wind, set his wings and sailed right toward me.

The first shot slowed him down and the second shot turned out the lights, sending him falling to the earth. I walked over, picked up his warm body, took a moment to admire his dazzling plumage and felt the all too familiar blend of elation and remorse. As I slid him into my vest, his weight felt substantial, it felt like the good old days. As my buddies patted me on the back and remarked on the nice shot, I smiled and thanked them.

The fact is that every bird we take is special, but in a year and a season like this, there’s something extra special about sweet sixteen.

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