Ever had one of those pheasant-hunting days where one rooster was plenty?
That’s the way New Year’s Day was for me.
I’m tempted to say that’s the way it was for Rosie, too. But I hesitate to speak for a bird-brained springer spaniel on the subject of rooster satisfaction. She rarely seems to get enough.
And she clearly wanted more as I trudging up to one of the grass parking lots at LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge near Martin, after an hour and a half or so of slogging through the snow.
To avoid confusion, let’s be clear: The refuge is indeed a “refuge” in every sense to waterfowl. It is closed entirely to waterfowl hunting. And a sizable portion is closed to all hunting. But some parts are open to other hunting, especially pheasant and grouse hunting during the regular state season, which closed recently.
I try to go there with Rosie and my Benelli eight or 10 times each pheasant season. This year we celebrated the New Year by trundling through crusty, wind-sculpted snow that had filled in much of the upland cover we enjoyed hunting earlier in the season. Most pheasants had retreated to thick cattails along one of the refuge lakes.
That’s where Rosie finally flushed the rooster we would bag, after I had broken through the thin ice in the cattails a dozen times or so, soaking my legs up above the knees.
Fortunately, the temperature was 38 degrees rather than 18 degrees. So the soggy pant legs and flooded boots were a relatively tolerable discomfort, as long as we kept moving. Which we did, finally flushing a couple of hens and that one rooster.
The rooster flushed 60 or 70 yards away but held my attention as it pounded its way low across the slough grass for a couple of hundred yards, finally flaring up and dropping down for a landing on a finger of cattails reaching out into the mostly frozen lake.
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We hunted toward that landing spot, with Rosie working deeper into the cattails and me trying to stay closer to the inside edge. For a time, I followed the tracks of someone — probably a hunter — who had been through earlier, on snowshoes.
At that point, snowshoes seemed like a pretty good idea. So did a change of clothes and a cup of hot tea, which would come later in the heated lobby of the otherwise-closed refuge office, where a hot-water dispenser always seems like a mid-winter luxury.
But back in the cattails, we eventually reached the point where the rooster had seemed to disappear. The wind was perfect for our approach. And almost immediately Rosie got birds, snuffling her way in a familiar S pattern through the cattails, leaving a trail of cattail fuzz hanging in the air.
Half a minute later the rooster flushed 10 yards ahead of Rosie and about 30 yards ahead of me and off to my right. My first shot was wasted in the emotions of the moment. A clean miss. But the second shot was serious. The bird folded in the air and fell hard into an immobile pile of feathers in the snow.
As Rosie bounded through drifts to make the retrieve, I fumbled in my pants pocket for my smart phone to catch a snapshot of her coming back with the bird. Then I praised her thoroughly as we celebrated the taking of a New Year’s Day trophy, as any public-lands rooster that survives to the near end of the season surely is.
The big rooster put us one-third of the way to a limit. But it felt like much more than that, lying heavy and warm against my back in the game pouch as we hunted our way back toward the vehicle.
We didn’t flush another bird on the return. And by the time we reached the vehicle, even the 38-degree wind was feeling a bit icy. So I loaded Rosie and we drove to the refuge office, where I changed pants and socks and boots and poured hot water into a cup for tea.
Standing at the window of the lobby with my binoculars, I munched a sandwich, sipped some tea and watched ducks and geese and a scattering of trumpeter swans through my binoculars. I also decided I liked the feeling of those dry pants, socks and boots better than the idea of heading back into the cattails in hopes of another rooster.
So I put the shotgun in its case, called it a hunt and Rosie and I did some bird watching.
Why mess with perfection?