Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Days of Weeds and Rises

Freckles hunting pheasant & quail with me in the '70s

         I drove into southern Iowa a day or so ago and a flood of memories came as I passed exits to Mt. Ayr and Creston.  Those are some of the places near where I have hunted quail and pheasant many years ago. I thought of the time when my cousin John McNew and I stopped and asked permission to hunt a tract of land, and the farmer advised us that there had been quite a few pheasants around an old hog lot which hadn’t been in use for years.

         John had a Brittany Spaniel that was surely the best bird dog I ever hunted over.  Her name was Troubles.  Just out of the kennel, Troubles ran up and down the muddy lane and then turned into the ditch by a small broken-down fence.  She instantly froze on point, her nose nearly into the hog wire.  I crossed the fence beside her, ready to shoot with my new used shotgun, a lightweight Model 12 Winchester I had bought from John’s brother the day before.  It is a rarely seen Model 12 which has two barrels and a slightly different mechanism at the end of the magazine tube that allow a quick change from one to the other.  I had removed the tighter-choked barrel and chose to hunt with the open-choke.

         Usually I wouldn’t have done that because often, pheasants flush wild and are long shots of 35 or 40 yards.  But that day the wind was blowing hard out of the north and something told me they might just hold tight. I knew Troubles would not bump any birds, getting too close.  She was that good.  I had seen her point birds holding tight forty yards away.

         Somehow, my cousin got hung up in the fence and he laid his shotgun on the ground.  From the weeds beside the little broken down hog-shelter before me, a big beautiful rooster pheasant came up cackling, as he rose straight into the air.  I snapped the little Model 12 featherweight to my shoulder and dropped him with one shot at a distance of about 20 yards.  As he dropped, a pair of roosters and a several hens came up ten or fifteen yards farther away in a commotion of fuss and feathers.  I pumped the shotgun and busted one rooster as he rose, then ejected that shell to push my last shell into the chamber.  The third rooster had leveled out, but he turned slightly as headed into that strong wind and I lead him just a little.  As I fired he plunged into neck-high weeds in a small creek bottom beyond the hog pen, and Troubles went in after him.  John was still trying to get across the fence!

         What a memory… something a pheasant hunter seldom experiences with those unpredictable big oriental birds that Iowa was known for back then.  We took photos and gave Troubles lots of attention.  Thinking back, I don’t ever remember killing my limit of pheasants with three shots, as I did that day.  Two years ago, Johnny died of throat cancer at the age of 59.  A year or so before, his brother Lonnie, a dedicated outdoorsman and Marine, veteran of the Viet NamWar, had died at the age of 59 from a lung disease.  The two of them lived to hunt and fish together and they had done so since boyhood.  Unfortunately they had also smoked cigarettes since boyhood.  I sincerely believe if they had not, they would be alive today and we would still be hunting pheasants and ducks together in Iowa.

Freckles on point at sunset
         I also remember a day with a brand new shotgun in southern Iowa, hunting with the publisher of Gun Dog magazine, Dave Meisner, one of the finest men I ever knew.  He brought his young wire-haired pointer, Max, and I had my little English setter, Freckles, both exceptional dogs.  The new shotgun was an expensive over-and-under which a gun company had given me for a time, wanting me to write good things about it, hoping to see a photo or two of the shotgun in some of my upland bird hunting or waterfowl articles in Gun Dog.  It had some gold engraving and was so pretty I was worried sick I might put a scratch in it.  I had never even fired it and if you have done much shooting you know that over-and-under doubles have a different drop in the stock than a pump gun has.

         We had been in the field twenty minutes when Max came down on point on a grassy slope above a wooded draw.  Dave waved me up behind her and watched as a big, long-tailed rooster came cackling into a clear blue sky.  My shotgun roared as the pheasant reached a distance of thirty yards and then just kept going much to my surprise. I had just flat missed it. No problem… at thirty-five yards that second barrel would solve the problem.  I squeezed the trigger, the blast echoed from the south Iowa hills and the pheasant just sailed away, all feathers untouched and intact.

Freckles hunting with Dave 
         Can you imagine the embarrassment?  Here I was, a writer who helped filled the pages of his magazine with stories written by a supposedly experienced hunter and gun dog man, and I had missed two of the easiest shots you have ever seen.  It was the gun, and I used that as an excuse as Meisner nodded, trying to hide a grin. His dog Max sat there and looked at me as if he had never seen a rooster fly away before.  I hot-footed it back to the pick up, placed that beautiful shotgun in its elaborate case and pulled the old pump gun out of its ragged cover.  It took me awhile to find Meisner and Max, whom I believe were trying to hide from me.  But I could hear Dave shooting and when I found them, they had a pair of nice rooster pheasants.  Freckles was with them and she looked at me as if to say, “Let me hunt with these guys for awhile.”

         Dave became perhaps the only close friend I ever made in this outdoor writing business.  Despite his business success, which was enormous, he was a down-to-earth plain old country boy like me and he knew the outdoors, as most people in this field today do not.  We hunted and fished together for two more years and laughed a time or two at memories of that embarrassing day… and the thousand-dollar shotgun in the hands of a two-dollar pheasant hunter like me.  I got a call one fall morning that Dave had been found dead from a massive stroke in a local workout gym at Adel Iowa, where he lived.  He was only 53 years old.

        Pheasant hunting in southern Iowa is only a shell of what it was then.  You can thank the new modern farming methods for much of that.  I looked at huge harvested, barren cornfields as I drove on toward Des Moines and remembered those times of dogs, and pheasants and men I will never forget.  Those days, those memories, are worth everything to me.

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