“To put it in perspective, we’ve harvested 10 birds in the first two days of the season,” I said in response to the truck-cab recap of the first weekend of pheasant hunting, “last year, in our only walk on day four, we bagged 11.”
Our group’s total was indicative of what the North Dakota summer brood reports laid out there many weeks ago: bird numbers were down, significantly. What’s more, nine of the 10 roosters bagged in those first two days were long-spurred, fully feathered adults that had not only survived their first season, but managed to make it through the cold, snowy winter and the hot dry summer that hindered this year’s hatch. The lone juvenile bird in our two handfuls was a partially colored rooster taken off a strong point on grassy field edge, that I would have felt bad for shooting at, except the dogs had worked so hard in the first two hours of the morning to provide such an ideal point-flush-retrieve combination, which the group quickly realized will be a tougher experience to repeat this season.
Where fields rained upside down with dozens — even hundreds — of cackling birds at their ends last opener, a few hearty hens made hasty exits as bird dogs quartered disinterestedly at the lack of scent in the last 50 yards. Pinch points and draws filled with buffaloberries and buckbrush that once burned with the flashing reds and oranges of flushing roosters flickered their standard green and gray as the strong west winds blew through them, and the dogs quickly climbed out of the rill with no scent trail to follow.
Where the old roosters did run, they provided a challenge for the two old labs in our group, which together had seen a combined 22 seasons and the toll of time resulted in the running birds making easy escapes and long-distance flushes from their time-slowed pursuit. Even the few that allowed for the old dogs to point them in cover were at this point in their lives wily enough to make their escape just beyond a screen of caragana bushes or the tangled deadfalls and branches of old shelterbelts, preventing any sporting shot. The pair of young pups in our party began to find and figure out the winding scent trails of these veteran birds, and would run off, pell-mell into the breezes that carried the hints of what once was to their noses. Somewhere in the distance, up a grassy rise or from the bottom of a draw, the form of a far-off rooster would take flight, serving at least as proof that the pups were on the right track, but they would not have the start that the white-muzzled dogs in our group were so lucky to have a decade ago.
This year’s opener serves as an inflection point, whether the new line stays low or bounces back up rests with us. We’ve had it good (or just good enough) for too long, and perhaps that has bred a sense of complacency in the hunting populace. We’ve passed laws to make the season longer, but done little to make it better. We rode the tolerable bottom of a downward sloping curve of vanishing grasslands and other upland habitat until it fell out from underneath us after a bad winter and even worse summer for wildlife. Only two things can prevent future openers, and season statistics like the ones we’ll experience this year: better habitat and kinder weather. We only have control over one of those factors, and by pushing for better habitat, we lessen the impact of the uncontrollable variable.
Whether this inflection point signals a new normal of long walks, limited flushes, and low-ranging dots on a Game & Fish graph in September, or is the new beginning of an upward bend in statistical success remains to be seen. But I’m not going to sit around and wait to see what happens, and if you love to hunt, neither should you. These days should serve as a rallying cry to all sportsmen to work together to find a way to preserve the habitat we have and expand and improve upon it. This season’s start should be a wake up call for us to work with landowners to find conservation options on their acres through partner groups like Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and various state agencies and soil and water districts. It gives us the rare opportunity to build up our collective might with like-minded individuals and hold our votes over the heads of our state and federal elected officials and make them do the right thing, not only for what remains of our pheasant population, but for the next generation of hunters entering the field in hard times. By doing so, we work toward a future where tales of the 2017 opener are overshadowed by the great years that come after it.
I once amazed my father by bringing home an after-work three bird limit from the abundant CRP on marginal lands just minutes south of Valley City in 2005, an area on the edge of the state’s pheasant range at the time. His remark that he had to drive over 90 minutes just to see a hen in the late ’80s and early ’90s has remained with me, and made me realize how special that accomplishment was. We had it good, and now, after this opener I realize even more just how good it was. But with that memory and this particular opener fresh in my mind, I realize how good we can make it again. My hope and my goal is to tell my boys, now 3 and 1, when they both take to the field with me on some distant pheasant opener a decade from now, about the 2017 pheasant season and how after that autumn everything changed for the better…in our outdoors.