Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Opening Day

November 7th was opening day for Wyoming's pheasant season - not exactly the Glorious Twelfth, but quite good enough for who it's for. The dawn comes up with a distant cackle, "kek-kek-kek" from the cornfields as the roosters feel their oats, so to speak. In this wet year, the corn is still standing, which gives the birds plenty of food and place to hide from dogs and hunters. We were listening to Prairie Home Companion that evening, broadcasting from Des Moines, where they have the same problem: "We're in Iowa, where the major industry is gambling. Some call it farming. The corn harvest is a couple weeks behind, the corn is still wet — do you harvest it now and have to pay to dry it out or do you leave it in the field to dry and maybe lose it to a hard freeze ?" 

The road that's dimly visible on the L of that photo runs up past the pea field and sorghum patch, to the neighbour's corn. Often at lunchtime while sitting in front of the barn recuperating, we'll see birds come out of the field, look left and right then scuttle quickly over into the scrub on the other side. For some reason we can never find these birds even with the dogs Spot and Artie. I did notice today that a wing-shot bird can outrun the dogs, so it's possible they just run very fast and far. 

The sunflower picture is from earlier this year, now they are brown stubble. My excuse for posting is that it's pheasant food, also I like the picture. Even after harvest there are seeds scattered around, good for giving the feathers that final gloss to just bowl over the hens. 

In the field everything is grey and brown except for the hunters in blaze orange. I used to be quite snotty about US hunters and their brilliant garments (the hunters I knew in SA didn't often kill each other by mistake), especially after a deer hunter shot our grey backpacking tent in the Three Sisters wilderness. That was twenty years ago. I still have the two orange ball caps we bought at the first gas station we saw on the way out of Three Sisters. Now I find with any more than two people in the field, the orange is downright necessary. A shotgun blast is dangerous up to at least a quarter of a mile; in the tall grasses it's easy to lose track of where everyone is, especially when tracking a bird moving high and fast on a curve to the next county. 

We trudged around for some time, scaring up a number of hens but nothing shootable. Artie got away to do some independent hunting and flushed a handsome rooster at sixty yards, which made me think of getting him back in the shock collar. It has a vibrate mode, a shock mode, then a "bowl 'em over yelping" mode for when they're in full overexcited pursuit. 

Further down in the beautiful blonde wheatgrass, a rooster broke out near my feet and hurried down the wind past Ian. He shot it dead center. I shot a second after him, but the bird was already dropping when I pulled. Artie dashed off but did not find it. We found a wing feather so we knew he was down somewhere, but quartering with two dogs did not reveal anything. Apparently the problem is after the flight, the bird is air-flushed so there's not much scent, and it's difficult for the dogs to track it across the dry windy Wyoming plain. A couple of hours later we came back and Spot proudly trotted out of the grass with a mouthful of pheasant. 
That's not in fact the gun which did the damage - it's a Remington 1100 automatic, rather looked down upon as inferior to the break-action shotguns. Ian was shooting a borrowed Beretta Silver Pigeon with a cut-down stock when he got the bird. For my sins in not buying myself a shotgun over the off season, Ken made me carry the 12 ga Browning Citori, about eight or nine pounds. That doesn't sound like much, but after keeping it at the ready for five or six hours and ten to fifteen miles, it's a bit of a lump. 

Ken was shooting a new-to-him vintage gun, a ninety-five year old side-by-side, with double triggers and an unusual safety. A bird got up out of the cattails while we were searching for Ian's, presenting an easy shot. First the safety was on, then the wrong trigger, so the shot came late and far. Spot was on the case though and pinned the bird as soon as it came down. 

By lunchtime my other urchin had arrived. For a cruel and unusual punishment of Artie's independent hunting, we put him in his crate with the urchin. 

The sentence for a shot pheasant is to hang by the neck while dead. These are all Ken's birds, though Ian had a beautiful shot at one of them. Artie dug it out of the cattails in a ditch and it hung there in the Wyoming breezes, glaring at us while trying to pick up speed into the wind: but there was a regrettable misunderstanding about the safety on the Remington, so Ken had to shoot it. I'd told Ian the red band on the safety button meant the gun was on and ready to shoot, but he'd understood me to say the red band meant the safety was on. Dagnabbit. By late evening the score was three for Ken, one for the whole Kretzmann tribe, a disgraceful exhibition. Do the birds your sons shoot count for you as well ? I'm demanding credit for taking him hunting anyway. 

Early evening, and there's a rooster in that tangle somewhere. Artie knows about it as evidenced by his alert stance, but I wasn't paying enough attention. The bird flushed out from behind my right shoulder as we passed the puddle and headed for the corn. I was slow to respond then didn't lead him by enough and missed clean. No beer for me tonight. 

John Buchan wrote, "The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope." This of course doesn't apply to fishing a popular hatch on one of our Western tailwaters, which is rather a series of opportunities for public humiliation and to be comprehensively ignored by the fish. Still the point holds good for most fishing, and indeed applies to pheasant hunting as well. There's an awful lot of walking through empty fields: but at any moment anything may happen: and at worst there's been a fine long walk in the sun and wind, which is very nearly enough. 

A well-hunted dog. That's either bliss or extreme fatigue. 

What with all the hurry and scurry of preparing the old house for sale, packing up the old (Helen) and panicking about the cost and debt of the new house (me), somehow two sleeping bags got left behind. Since we're doting parents the boys got the bags and we slept fully-dressed under coats. Luckily it wasn't particularly cold, unluckily my sleeping mat had a slow leak so I'd descend gradually onto a concrete heat sink and wake up shivering. Then it would be time to shove another big chunk of cottonwood into the wood stove and wait for the warmth to permeate my old cold bones. With the air flow turned down in the stove, the flames come up and fold around the new wood slowly and waveringly. This makes for phantasmagorical images in the fire, good for poetical midnight musings but not so grand for a steady eye and hand in the morning. 

Next day the mighty mighty hunters went off early to check neighbour Casey's cornfields. Tea and toast for breakfast, made with spray-on olive oil in an electric frypan, an abomination to my Greek-by-marriage sensibilities. We couldn't wake Ian up to go with us, another well-hunted creature. The birds were mostly all very happy where they were, deep in the corn, thank you very much. We did kick up a pair of roosters in a small field that had been left to go to weed for the year. A good shot would have bagged the double here but I'm not a good shot - missed with the first barrel, regrouped myself and re-acquired the target as it built up speed, then brought him down. Artie plunged swiftly into the ditch and brought it back to me grinning through the feathers. We were both very happy. 

After brunch we went out on Ken's fields again. Ian preferred to loaf in the sun with a book, fair enough after walking his feet to nubbins the previous day. In the sorghum field, Artie ran his usual enthusiastic circles, wagging like an animal possessed. The rooster was trapped between me and him, panicked and blew up practically in my face. This is hard on the heart, but at such close range even I couldn't miss. 

Last weekend we'd taken the dog to Cherry Creek for a walk in the mud snow and slush. Afterwards to Petco, to wash the dog ($11) in their self-dog-wash facility (the new house has a utility sink in the mud room, so we'll save $11 there). A Russian guy working at Petco told me Artie looked just like his Russian spaniel in the old country. He also used to own borzoi for coursing. I asked him what they hunted on the steppes, he didn't have the English names but said "the small wild chicken, and the big wild chickens".  We'll eat our wild chickens in a leek soup with wild rice, I think. 

In the late afternoon Ian had another shot at it. C got into an orange vest and walked with us. Only hens, and one indeterminate bird which Artie rooted out on an independent foray, far off into the setting sun. 

The first time I saw a marsh hawk was near San Francisco, in Tomales Bay. Here again over the wetlands marsh hawks flew low and quartering, snipe gave their alarm calls, and a great blue heron flapped slowly up.  That's all, he wrote.