A mile down the snow-covered gravel road, I contemplated my sanity.
In the gray glow of a cloud-covered dawn, it was tough to tell where road ended and ditch began. Besides a few tractor tire tracks already becoming covered by the blowing, powdery snow, we were forced to blaze our own trail.
Behind me in a pickup truck of his own was Jeff Jalbert of Horace, N.D. Jalbert is the owner of Top Shelf Kennels, where I purchased my hunting dog, Remy, this summer. We had been trying to work out a pheasant hunt for a while, and finally decided there was no better time than Christmas morning to do it.
The miles gradually ticked off until the dash-riding GPS unit informed me we had arrived at our destination. It was a spot I'd hunted for pheasants earlier in the season. In fact, just a few weeks prior I had successfully shot the tail feathers off three roosters; roosters that either sailed or ran to the next county. Needless to say, Remy was not impressed.
Hopes were high as I let Remy out of the truck. Jalbert was doing the same, releasing all five of his hunting dogs from a tow-behind trailer stacked with kennels. The dogs busily got to work greeting each other. Remy, being new, was the star attraction, and he marked the occasion as only a dog can; by peeing on the ground.
At first, my 7-month-old pup was a bit timid. His ears folded back and tail hid between his legs in a sign of submission as the other dogs sniffed him one-by-one. Then Remy discovered two dogs his own age, siblings Jalbert kept from the same litter. It was like long-lost relatives finally meeting after years apart.
A shaggy, liver-colored female named Copper was Remy's favorite, and the two got to quick work roughhousing. As the duo took off for their um-teenth circle around the vehicle, I was busy affixing a pair of wooden snowshoes. If there was one thing I learned about hunting late-season pheasants, it was that walking through chest-high drifts could quickly put a damper on things.
Jalbert was like-minded, and with guns slung over shoulders, we got to work herding the eager canines toward a winding CRP-lined creek.
We only went a hundred yards before deciding there probably were no birds around. Jalbert reasoned the sparse grass and bushes wouldn't be enough cover for pheasants this late in the year. What we needed, he said, was some thick, dense cattails close to a food source, like corn.
We were in luck. The next spot on my list was just that: a quarter-acre of harvested corn, dissected by a winding, cattail-lined creek. It was perfect.
So we quickly corralled the hunting dogs, detached snowshoes, and packed up for the 10-mile drive east.
I slammed on the breaks as we crested a hill close to our destination. Two roosters were picking gravel on the road, and both flushed to close cover as I came sliding to a halt. Far out to the right, pheasants scratched through feet of snow to find their breakfast of corn. Jalbert pulled up alongside my truck, and we hatched a plan of attack.
I'd take my pup across the barren field until I reached the dense cattail cover. In the meantime, Jalbert would walk perpendicular with his troup, and meet me on the other side. The theory, was that we'd push any skidding roosters to the other. It seemed downright plausible.
Taking Remy, I hurried as best I could in lumbering snowshoes toward the cattails. My ears were keen to any sound, specifically the report of a shotgun blast, or Jalbert yelling "rooster!"
As Remy and I neared the creek, we found a myriad of tracks. With a few months of hunting under his belt, the young pointer instantly went into search mode. His nose hit the snow and his tail waged feverishly.
But no birds flushed. I made a few tentative steps out onto the seemingly solid creek, but a soft gurgling of water made me rethink crossing it. Instead, we decided to meander south on our side of the cattails and see where Jalbert had gone.
He was calmly containing his dogs, working them like a puppeteer with a set of marionettes. It astounded me how he could control so many at once, while I often struggled with just one.
Noticing me, Jalbert stopped and made a slow, waving motion toward the pickups. Like me, it seemed exhaustion and frustration had gotten the best of him. The soft, pillowey snow was like walking through knee-high wet concrete. And the skittish birds, or lack thereof, made any more cross-country trekking nearly futile.
We decided enough was enough. Sometimes there's just no sense beating yourself up, especially when the chance of success is slim.
Back on the road, we talked about the morning. The clouds parted an hour ago. Vibrant blue skies carried crystalline particles of ice on an invisible breeze.
The hunt was a bust. I apologized for the lack of birds, but thanked Jalbert for tagging along and letting me see his dogs in action. He just smiled and laughed.
"That's why they call it hunting and not shooting," he said.