This year's pheasant opener was unique in a number of ways. It was the first time I had opened the season somewhere other than North Dakota, with kickoff usually held at my grandmother's farm near Watford City, N.D. in the company of my dad, brother, uncle and cousins. The hunting report from out west that my brother relayed was one of an excellent experience, not due to a limit easily had under the nose of his maturing yellow lab, Jake, but because I wasn't there to rally the troops at 6 a.m. each day and he could sleep off the night before in peace and quiet.
Instead, my season began near the small town of Tyler, Minn., hunting with a friend and his buddies in new environs, surrounded by standing corn and soybeans resulting from this spring's late planting. Also new to my season-opening itinerary was the start time of 9 a.m. Designed to give birds a chance to make it from the roadside ditch and into huntable cover, and maybe to give people like my brother time to wake up, the late start allowed for coffee talk, breakfast and planning among new hunting buddies.
Second, it was my first opener in five years where I didn't look up and see the gold and white coat of my yellow lab, Gunnar, blurring in front of me through the CRP grasses and cattails. But it's not as bad as you're thinking. While hunting ruffed grouse in northeastern Minnesota the week before, he managed to cut the skin behind one of his paw pads, and every time he ran after the injury, the cut would reopen and bleed. So upon the recommendation of the vet, and to preserve him for the remainder of the fall seasons, I benched him.
Attempting to sneak out for opener without his knowledge was impossible. As I cranked the doorknob to leave, I turned and met his "just-where-do-you-think-you're-going!?!" gaze. The rustling of bags, the scent of my game vest, and the telltale sign of the cased shotgun were clues enough that something was amiss as he jumped to his feet and began an end-around to the door and toward the truck. It took all I had to hold him back, knowing that no explanation would suffice. As I drove off, I saw him standing on his back paws looking out the front window. He still hasn't spoken to me since.
What made the opener the most unique is that something happened for the first time since I began my yearly pursuit of the ringneck. While working a finger of grass abutting a cornfield on our first walk of the day, my friend Tory's dog, a grizzly-bear of a chocolate lab named Bernie, began the slash pattern that signaled birds were nearby. As we closed in to the tip of the grass leading into the cornfield, hens and roosters sprang up just inches out of Bernie's reach.
Two roosters in the group beelined to the right, directly in front of me. Instinctively, I raised my trusty Wingmaster to my shoulder and fired, sending the first bird tumbling. I pumped and reloaded the second shell and drew a bead on the next bird. With a squeeze of the trigger, the shot rang out and the second rooster crash-landed into the grass.
It was my first pheasant double. In all five years of hunting, while I had opportunities for such a feat, I had never pulled it off before. It was exciting to say the least, but as the rush began to wane, I almost felt regret for filling my two-bird limit so soon. It was like getting the biggest scoop of ice cream on a cone from the local soda shop, only to walk out the door and have it fall and melt on the summer sidewalk after the first lick.
As I bagged the birds, I came to grips with my hunt being done for the day, just a few minutes into the outing, and smiled knowing that the unique experience of this opener was worth more than the two birds in the hand, and all of the others in the cornfields, beans and CRP...in our outdoors.