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By Dan Magneson
From the September/October 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine
For a lot of hunters, there is one special time among all of your hunting trips that stands out as having been perfect, a day of pure bliss when all the stars line up just right and everything connects at just the right time and in just the right place.
During the 1976 pheasant hunting season, I first discovered and subsequently got permission to hunt a huge sprawling, swampy area bordering a small but very lengthy creek. It sure held a lot of pheasants. That mired and matted grass was heavily pocked with those telltale cozy, dropping-laden depressions that pheasants leave behind. While there were great numbers of birds, I had trouble connecting with the 20-gauge single-shot I received a few years hence. That gun must have fit me poorly, as it seemed for as much experience I was getting and for all the shots taken, more birds should have fallen than actually did.
The following spring marked my high school graduation, and based on a friend’s enthusiastic endorsement, I pooled together all of my cash gifts and bought a Remington Model 870 Wingmaster pump action shotgun, also in 20-gauge, with a modified choke and a ventilated rib that provided a nice flat sighting plane.
The way this sleek little gun was balanced and just generally handled—coupled with an action that was simultaneously slick, smooth and solid—can only be described as absolutely exquisite. And just like my friend had promised, this particular make and model turned out to be the “hittingest” shotgun I could imagine, a sort of magic wand that instantly transformed me into a far better shot than I probably was.
With it I leap-frogged right over my prior performance with the former single-shot 20-gauge.
Now I was finally ready for those pheasants!
There were flies in the ointment, however. Hunting trips throughout November 1977 yielded just a few birds here and there (but which I could thankfully now hit). Competition for hunting spots seemed especially fierce that autumn. Countless times I arrived at a favored location only to find someone already hunting (This was back when local restaurants were still jam-packed during the November portion of pheasant season, especially at breakfast time, and parking lots of local motels were chock-full of out-of-state license plates). And to top it all off, I didn’t have a bird dog either.
That aforementioned area I discovered during the 1976 pheasant season had an ocean of corn surrounding it, and frustratingly, it still stood unharvested well into the 1977 pheasant season. This made hunting extremely difficult as pheasants simply slipped into the cover of the still-standing corn and ran down the rows to elude pursuing hunters.
And it was just full of pheasants, too. All the surrounding farms had completed their harvest much earlier, and those particular pheasants had simply piled on over into this giant and still-untouched corn.
Early in the morning of Thursday, Dec. 8, 1977, I awoke to find about 3 inches of snow had fallen overnight, the season’s first.
It was also my day off, and reviewing my options, I decided what the heck, I’d go try that slough surrounded on either side by those gigantic cornfields anyway. Maybe the snow would help me because any pheasant tracks were certain to be fresh.
It was just getting light when I drove by that area, and to say I was ecstatic when I saw all that corn had finally been harvested was an understatement.
I was soon knocking at the door of the farmhouse where the owner resided. “I just finished up with that place yesterday,” he told me.
Apparently reading my mind, he next said, “I don’t think anyone else has been in there yet.” Then, with a generous grin, he added, “Go ahead!”
I drove back toward that favored cover. It was lighter outside now and the heavily-overcast sky matched the mushy and sloppy gravel road beneath, both being about the color of an old lead fishing sinker.
That enormous swampy slough beaconed like an oasis—a big mosaic of cane-like, rough-hewn and grayish-ivory-beige giant ragweed, with its texture like that of fine sandpaper. Interwoven were cinnamon hues of gnarly knotweed and the blond color of weather-worn foxtail grass. Little islands of cattails in marshy spots interspersed the scene, and the honey-amber glow of shattered cornstalks stuck out of the snow all around.
This sight stretched for hundreds of yards, but looking at it with my excited, youthful and thus magnifying eyes, it seemed like it stretched to the horizon.
I quietly eased the car door shut and walked in to begin my hunt, feeding those banana-yellow 20-gauge shells into the magazine.
It didn’t take long to find pheasants. Most of the roosters were young-of-the-year birds and having never experienced snow, seemed a bit flummoxed. As I was elbowing through a dense thicket of giant ragweed, whose resistant stalks rattled and snapped quite noisily as I forcefully bulldozed my way, a cackling and coppery streak burst skyward, and he crumpled at my shot.
But the pheasant season had been open for a little better than a month, and it showed; the great majority of birds were flushing wild. Still, as morning wore on, it was quite a spectacle; for an ardent and passionate young pheasant hunter just burning with fire and fervor, an odyssey seems to more accurately describe the experience.
In terms of sheer numbers, I’d never before witnessed anything like it. All told, flushing pheasants likely numbered far into the hundreds that day.
And it marked the only pheasant hunt I’ve been on—before or since—when roosters seemed to outnumber hens.
The hills above the northwesterly side of that slough were curvaceously lined with the weediest terraces imaginable; pheasants were periodically flushing from them that morning too. As those far-flying birds alternately beat their wings and then glided, the pumping wings made that characteristic squeaking-creaking-whistling sort of sound, like they had hinges in dire need of grease. Had it not been for that sound, I might not have seen as many birds, because most of them flushed without any vocal fanfare that a rooster so often exhibits when startled at close range.
Later on, during January and February, wind-whipped and drifting snow settling on the lower and sheltered leeward portions of those terraces developed great overhanging curls. They resembled something like whitened ocean surf from the sides and like goofy, leering and malformed grins when viewed from below.
My second shot dropped my second rooster as it flushed from the far side of a small pocket of cattails.
The action slowed down as the morning grew late, though I still witnessed plenty of far-flushing birds. Way off in the distance, I saw still others on open ground, probably feeding, seemingly oblivious to my approaching presence. With a head and neck shorter than their long tails, they looked like little checkmarks on a white piece of paper.
The “noon whistle” sounded in Clarinda—a short blast on a rotating siren—and I stopped for lunch, opening the action of and propping my shotgun against an old lichen-freckled wooden fence post holding up some ancient rust-encrusted barbed wire. I never ceased to be astonished by how far into surrounding countryside that siren penetrated. I positioned the bead into a crack in the post to keep the gun from sliding sideways, and the butt of the stock made a squishing-groaning sound as I pushed it down into the snow to better secure it.
Quite inadvertently, but nonetheless fittingly—given what was turning into this most special of special days—I had packed my favorite lunch: a pair of tuna sandwiches. And not your typical tuna sandwiches, either, with the little chunks of celery and pickle relish. I used water-packed tuna and mayonnaise per the standard practice, but then departed from the traditional recipe by instead substituting sliced black olives, sliced green olives and slivered almonds into the mix. When coupled with wheat bread, what a great-tasting sandwich.
And contained within a vacuum flask, my beverage of choice was just as yummy: rich, hot chocolate, so hot the marshmallows had melted and macerated their way throughout the liquid.
Evidently, I was the only hunter abroad that day. I had heard no shots at all save for my own.
When I landed my first post-high school job, I had looked at having only Thursdays off (instead of the usual weekend of Saturday and Sunday) as a true impediment to having fun. After all, you miss out on the camaraderie of the Saturday opening day and having a schedule that synchronizes with that of most of your regular hunting partners.
But it didn’t take long to realize there were benefits to my idiosyncratic work schedule. For one, by later in the week, the birds had had time to settle down a bit after the disrupting influence of the previous weekend’s hunters. While there were often some hunters afield on Fridays, not very many were out on Thursdays. This was especially true as the season wore on. And since my work schedule often left me hunting solo, I soon discovered that coupled with an area similar to that where I now found myself—far from roads and without livestock or buildings—the lack of hunting partners meant I could shoot at any time in any direction without danger, so long as it was a rooster during legal hunting hours.
The overcast day meant you could always tell roosters from hens, as there was no potential blinding effect caused by birds flying toward a low and horizon-hugging sun. And finally, the lack of combined tall and thick cover allowed for a shot so long as the bird flushed within shotgun range.
After my leisurely lunch, the afternoon wore on with most pheasants still flushing wild, far out of gun range. Winter solstice was just around the corner, and with daylight already short, I was worrying I might not get a chance at a third bird, a sort of feat dogless hunters don’t enjoy as often as their canine-accompanied counterparts. And it represented a feat I had yet to experience. I had never before bagged my limit of roosters and was hopeful I would get to experience it at least this once, if never again.
Finally, as with the first bird I bagged that day, a third rooster flushed at the edge of a thick patch of giant ragweed, and like both previous birds, dropped stone-dead into the snow beneath at the shot.
Three shots for the day and three rooster pheasants to show for it—quite a good feeling.
While hunting, I used to carry a pocketwatch secured to a belt loop via a shoestring. Glancing at it, I realized shooting hours were drawing to a close, although there was still a chance to pick up a bonus bobwhite quail.
I trudged back to where I had parked that morning—a long hike—and my feet and leg muscles already had that tired feeling. But it was a pleasant feeling too, with a gamebag that carried a satisfying heft and the gratifying sight of pheasant tail feathers protruding out the sides.
It was already dark by the time I arrived at home and finished cleaning the birds under a porch light still equipped with a yellow bug bulb from last summer.
The constant and powerful hum of distant grain dryers pleasantly permeated the air.
That day took place more than 38 years ago, but I knew then as surely as I know now that I’d never forget that singularly-perfect day. And while I have had many other great hunting trips since then, this one still stands as one of my very richest experiences and ranks among the most treasured memories of all my times spent in the great outdoors.
And for each and every yearning Iowa kid who, like I did, just lives for the hunt—you know, the type that can’t sleep the night before opening day—
I hope someday they will still have the opportunity to experience a very magical and magnificent day—just as I did way back when on Dec. 8, 1977.
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