Woodland Trails: Hot on the pheasant trailWhen the Labrador is hot on a pheasant’s trail, it’s easy to tell. The excitement grows with every step the dog takes. It’s the tail that is the most telling. You know there’s a bird close!
By: Jim Bennett, Hudson Star-Observer
When the Labrador is hot on a pheasant’s trail, it’s easy to tell. The excitement grows with every step the dog takes. You can see it in the dog’s body language as your four-legged friend picks up speed. As the scent gets hotter, the dog’s ears rise up and its alertness and excitement grows. But it’s the tail that is the most telling. You know there’s a bird close!
When the dog hits fresh scent, the tail begins to wag back and forth quicker. As the scent gets hotter, the tail wagging goes up to warp speed. The tail movement looks more like a hummingbird wing. As the dog moves in on the bird, the tail smashes through grass, weeds and into wood. As the dog closes the gap on the bird, the tail will finally begin to revolve in a circle. That means the bird is about to go up. Bring up your gun and get ready to take the safety off because you are about to see the rooster fly.
Saturday was Wisconsin’s opening day of the pheasant season. Reports from neighboring states were all saying that bird numbers would be down. A cold, wet spring that hit around nesting time was said to hurt nesting, so recruitment for this year’s hatch was to be down. I thought those predictions would probably be the same for our area. I heard a lot more cocks crowing last spring as compared to this year. But my son, Josh, disagreed. He claims to have heard good “crowing” counts through the year, so he thinks numbers should be OK.
Living in the heart of prime pheasant habitat in St. Croix County, I didn’t drive very far for the noon opener Saturday. When I got there, I noticed three trucks parked on both sides of the road where I wanted to hunt and another group of neighbors were walking in. I chose two dogs to hunt with.
Aliya, my 6-year-old black Lab, is a pheasant hunting machine. Her nose can suck in a rooster from 20 yards out. Any pheasant within a quarter mile would be in trouble with her in the field.
I also took Nala, the smallest and most athletic of my 1-year-old hunting dockers. She has lots of natural talent, but she is a bit hyper and very excitable. My hopes were that if Aliya could find a bird, Nala could focus all her energy into it and my favorite sport — chasing rooster pheasants.
As we worked through the CRP, the guys hunting on the other side of my field with two dogs failed to put up a bird. Doug, from Hudson, and his Springer, rousted a couple of hens. And my neighbors and his friends never shot their guns!
It was the same for me. Nothing in the field. As we approached the small creek and swamp, I expected Aliya to find a bird. But no such luck. She did put up a woodcock, but I had no shot. I wanted a cock pheasant, not a timberdoodle! But no matter how hard we worked, we just couldn’t find a rooster or a hen.
But I had an ace up my sleeve. I had been out deer hunting the day before for doe during Wisconsin’s early doe season. There I had flushed a couple of pheasants from some CRP next to some standing corn. Standing corn is always a good place to find early-season roosters. But when I got to my ace spot, I found three trucks parked in the parking area and one jeep down the road. My hope was that they had gone down the other road and not into my little ace spot.
As we walked past the parked jeep, Nala found an open can of energy drink. She is one of those dogs that will pick up and retrieve anything that she finds. Nala spilled it all. Then she spotted a plastic bottle of Powerade. She took off with that down a corn row. A moment later, I noticed Aliya ripping through a small willow thicket loaded with thick blackberry vines. The place looked birdy. I could almost smell the rooster.
Aliya put on the pressure and the big rooster pheasant took wing with lots of angry cackling directed back at us for being pushed out of its home. I raised the gun and put the bird down with a single shot. But I had only broken a wing. As Aliya and Nala closed in on the downed bird, it took off running, with the dogs in hot pursuit. They closed the gap and were about to make the shoestring tackle, but the bird flapped into the air just out of the dogs’ reach in the nick of time. For 50 yards, they played this game until the dogs finally pinned the bird down.
Nala won the tug-of-war and brought the big rooster to hand. Off in the distance, I heard a couple shots. I had my one-bird limit in hand and a pair of happy dogs that couldn’t understand why the opening weekend limit is just one bird a day. I had to agree with them. The one-bird limit on the opener made little sense to me, too, when I have two dogs. It just didn’t seem fair to them.