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Cold day brings hot finish to Iowa pheasant season

Pheasant season was pushed to the limit by Post Bulletin outdoors writer Eric Atherton. But it came to the perfect conclusion.

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Eric Atherton's hunting dog, Roxie, looks for pheasants along a creek near Riceville, Iowa., recently.
Eric Atherton / Special to the Post Bulletin
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On Jan. 2, I hunted until the sun literally set on Minnesota's pheasant season. I didn't shoot any birds, but it was a nice evening, and my trusted Lab, Roxie, pointed three hens.

Still, as I drove home, I wasn't quite satisfied. I'd started the season with a specific goal for the number of birds I'd shoot, and I was one short.

Fortunately, Iowa's season runs through Jan. 10, and it was on that date that I stepped out of my truck into -10 windchill near Riceville, Iowa.

A new friend had taken me to this farm in early December, and it had everything a bird and a bird hunter could want — tall grass, a big creek, pine groves and ponds. The birds had seen plenty of hunting pressure and were skittish, but that day we managed to pin down and shoot a couple roosters and probably should have had two more.

This time I was alone, and if I wanted to add any roosters to my season's tally, I'd need Roxie to be at her best.

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Given the bitter temperatures, the landowner suggested I focus on the creek, where the birds could get out of the wind. It was good advice, but Roxie and I had barely left the farm yard before I heard roosters cackling as they flushed out of a nearby swamp. I pressed on, but we were still 100 yards from the creek when several birds flushed out the other side toward parts unknown.

The word “skittish” was an understatement.

When we finally reached the frozen creek, Roxie immediately dashed across the ice and up the opposite bank. Pheasant tracks abounded, and I wasn't surprised when she froze, tail quivering, as she stared into a weedy brushpile.

“Get him!” I hissed as I stood on the frozen creek.

She circled the brush, then jumped at it, waiting for the expected flush. Nothing happened. She went back to where she'd started, reared back on her hind legs and thumped back down. Still nothing.

This process repeated itself several times, and I muttered, “Must be a rabbit.” Roxie never misses a chance to chase a bunny, and she's caught and killed a few.

But no rabbit appeared, and soon Roxie stopped pointing and began burrowing. All I could see was her tail when I heard the sound of wings beating, and within seconds she emerged with a rooster in her mouth.

I checked the bird over, and while it was warm and its wings appeared intact, it seemed thin. I suspected it had some sort of previous injury, but nevertheless, I put it in my vest.

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I know there's an ammo shortage, but I hadn't expected to get a bird without firing a shot.

Point and shoot

We turned into the wind and toward the swamp where I'd heard the roosters a few minutes earlier, but that effort quickly proved futile. At least a dozen birds flushed wildly 200 yards ahead of us, all of them flying toward land I couldn't hunt.

Roxie wanted to chase them, but I called her back and we reversed course. We had plenty of creek left to hunt, not to mention the best tall grass on the property.

Perhaps 20 minutes later, I was standing high above the creek when Roxie made a hard turn and stopped near a small tree that had been taken down by a beaver. The grass in this area was thin, and I wasn't terribly optimistic when Roxie crept toward the creek, then paused.

The rooster flushed in front of her with a raucous cackle. I overcame my surprise and knocked it onto the ice with my first shot. Roxie raced to it, skidded past it and slid almost to the opposite bank before reversing course and grabbing the flopping bird.

“Good dog!” I said as I added the big-spurred bird to my vest. “One more to go!”

A dose of humility

I felt absolutely glorious. The cold didn't matter, not with two birds in my vest, and all was right with the world. As I walked through the snow and weeds along the creek, in my mind I already was writing the story of a spectacular hunt.

Which meant, of course, that I wasn't paying close attention to Roxie when she flushed a bird from the other side of the creek. It flew directly into the sun, and I was fumbling for my gun's safety when a cackle boomed across the landscape.

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My two-shot salute didn't touch a feather. Good feeling gone.

“Sorry, Roxie,” I muttered as I reloaded. “We should be done.”

About 15 minutes later we reached the southern border of the property. The creek had been productive, but now a huge field of shoulder-high switchgrass awaited us, and I had every reason to believe we'd find our third bird there.

Roxie, however, had other ideas. Rather than following me toward the heavy cover, she lingered near the creek, then began exploring a large area of wispy grass that was almost entirely buried in snow.

And then she froze.

It was a moment made for an artist. The rooster burst from the snow just a few feet from Roxie's nose, and the bright sunshine made its colors even more brilliant. My first shot missed, naturally, but the second barrel found its mark, and the rooster tumbled into a willow thicket along the creek bank.

Roxie pounced on it within seconds, and a good pheasant season had reached a glorious conclusion.

Just nine months to wait until opening day.

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