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What's all the fuss about pheasants?

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I have a confession: I'm not the biggest fan of pheasants.

There, I said it. All you North Dakotans out there please don't hate me. If you would be so kind as to not slash my tires after reading this column, I would appreciate it.

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In all honesty, pheasants and the subsequent pursuit of them aren't all bad. Let's face it, I'm an opportunistic guy plain and simple. If there's a season, I probably hunt it.

The same can be said for pheasants.

But there's something about ol' longtail that irks me. Maybe it's because I like to go against the mainstream favoritism of an exotic species introduced to the United States hundreds of years ago. Maybe I feel that the millions of dollars used to help increase pheasant populations would be better spent on threatened native species such as sage grouse or prairie chickens.

Or maybe you could blame it on ruffed grouse. They tainted me.

As a wee lad, my small-game hunting experience began with ruffs - or "partridge" as Iron-rangers refer to them - on my grandfather's land near Chisholm, Minn. It took years to finally bag my first grouse, mainly because I hardly ever saw any, or at the very least any in range.

Ruffed grouse populations tend to fluctuate, rising and falling on a seven-year cycle. It just so happened that during my younger years, grouse numbers were on the downfall after coming off a recent high mark. During the past few years their numbers have neared the peak once more.

Challenging? You better believe it, which makes harvesting one that much more rewarding.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure I bagged a pheasant the first time out. I'll sum up the hunt in one word: easy.

Woah! Who threw that rotten sugar beet at my head?! Simmer down for a second and hear me out.

Sheesh...

So maybe "easy" isn't the most accurate word, but pheasant hunting sure isn't like hunting ruffs. Pheasants require taking a leisurely stroll through sections of wide open land, waiting to bump a rooster into a generally straight flight path similar, in most respects, to a clay pigeon thrown at the local gun club.

No rocket science there.

On the other hand, ruffs like thick, wooded areas. Without warning, they explode in a myriad of directions, and almost always straight into the aspens. More often than not, a shot results in no bird and splintered, smoldering tree stumps instead.

But, being the opportunistic guy I am, I made plans to pursue the wily ring-neck during North Dakota's pheasant hunting opener Oct. 10.

Pheasants actually were third on my priority list. First were ducks and geese, which I hunted with my Minnesota friends Erik Marquette and Dustin Johnson while staying at the latter's family hunting shack in Crete, N.D.

After our Saturday morning waterfowl excursion turned out to be a bit lackluster, I decided a change of pace would suit me well and headed out in search of ditch chickens. Along for the ride was Erik's nine-month-old yellow lab, Lakota, eager for his first taste of pheasant feathers - or so I had hoped.

The boys stayed home to rest up for an evening waterfowl shoot that I planned to join once my pheasant-hunting urge was satisfied.

Off we went, the pup and I, aiming for a section of PLOTS close to base camp. It certainly was a birdy-looking area: lots of knee-high prairie grass, swaths of tall cattails and large, bushy clumps of weeds.

Light snow began to fall as we exited my car. A frigid north breeze carried mile-high flocks of migrating waterfowl southward. (Where in the heck were they this morning?) I inhaled, breathing deep the rich aromas of harvest and earth and the fast-approaching winter.

Lakota began sniffing the air, too, testing it for scent. He suddenly raced to the nearest clump of weeds and I readied my gun for the rooster I was certain would flush.

But the pup instead engrossed himself in another pooch's landmine, intent on deciphering his cousin's leftovers.

This is going to be a long hunt, I thought.

Long it was, but enjoyable nonetheless. Any day in the field is a good day in my book. We saw pheasants, but not many. It would seem that the North Dakota Game and Fish Department reports of low bird numbers were true. Lakota did manage to flush his first bird, though, a hen that held tight until he bumped it with his nose.

But roosters eluded us. A gun roared after a group comprised of a half dozen orange-clad hunters pushed passed us through the same PLOTS section, and I saw a rooster flush a quarter mile away as another man and his dogs worked a tree line to the north.

Though the day was fruitless as far as pheasants, my friends and I had an excellent duck shoot later that evening, bagging a plethora of puddlers and diving ducks.

What did you say? Did I shoot any pheasants? Well, not exactly. That is, I had a shot - actually more like a couple.

Sunday morning after another field hunt for ducks and geese left us wanting, the cackles of nearby roosters finally got the best of me. I sauntered down to a dry cattail slough and combed the edges. As I paused near a waist-high bush, a rooster burst skyward, nearly taking off my nose. He swung to my left and I followed with the bead of my barrel.

And as far as I know, he's still flying. But don't get any false ideas; that's doesn't prove pheasant hunting is hard.

It just means I'm a poor shot.

Tyler Shoberg is Sports Editor at the Pioneer as well as an avid hunter and fisherman. He can be reached at 701-451-5717 or tshoberg@westfargopioneer.com.

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