col Benched in mid-season?That hurts

Pheasant season is, in many ways, like baseball season. There's training camp, which for me and my yellow Lab, Penny, commences in early September with gunless jaunts through moderate cover during the cool hour just before sunset.

Then there's Opening Day, which comes with sky-high hopes that the "experts" who say the season's going to be lousy will be wrong. There are no pessimists in the fields at 9 a.m. on the opener -- but that can change by noon, of course.

Then there are the hot streaks and slumps that come during 10 weeks of chasing roosters. I started this year 7-for-8, and was feeling pretty smug -- only to see the next four birds fly away, laughing at my futile attempts to bring them to earth. It felt like every time a rooster flushed I was off-balance, behind a tree or fumbling with the safety for a fateful split-second.

In baseball terms, when I came to the plate with a couple runners aboard, I always was facing Randy Johnson on one of his grumpy days. Not good.

I shook off that slump, however, and was making good contact again last week as I planned a big hunting weekend down in Iowa, where I would hunt some of the best private land I'll have access to all season. We were leaving Saturday, but on Friday I couldn't resist the urge to take Penny out for a quick run at a WMA just outside of Rochester. I didn't expect to shoot any birds, but dog and master needed a workout.


A few miles from my destination, I had to slam on the brakes to avoid a flock of about 30 suicidal pheasants that flew across the road and landed in a small cornfield. I don't enjoy hunting standing corn, but this was too much to resist. I drove to the nearest house to ask permission to walk that field.

"I don't see why not," the landowner told me, and two hours later I'd fired two shots and bagged two birds.

The weekend was starting well indeed, but the game was far from over. When I got home from work Friday at about midnight, I checked Penny, as I always do a few hours after a hunt, and discovered her left eye was swollen nearly shut. She kept rubbing her paw across it and whining, and I knew a seed or thorn had found a new home in a bad spot.

Saturday morning became a frantic search for a veterinarian who could relieve Penny's discomfort and rescue the hunting trip. I ended up in Kasson, where the vet removed a piece of grass from behind her third eyelid.

I breathed many sighs of relief as we began one of the season's most crucial road trips, and we arrived at my wife's folks with less than an hour of shooting time remaining. A quick stroll with Penny down a fenceline produced my biggest rooster of the year, and my good mood got even better.

The next morning, before heading off to my prime hunting spot, I chose to hit another 80-acre piece of ground I'd never hunted before. It was a picked soybean field with numerous grass strips running through it, and although the cover wasn't great, it was on the way, and I figured it was worth a quick look.

I was wrong. We saw no birds, and after a half hour we headed back to the truck.

Only then did I discover that Penny, for the second time in her eight hunting seasons, had come out on the losing end of an encounter with a sharp piece of metal. I took one look at the long, jagged gash on her left shoulder, and suddenly, instead of looking forward to a great afternoon in the fields, I found myself hoping she'd be able to hunt again by Thanksgiving.


Penny, of course, is perfectly willing to go back into the game, stitches and all, but I'm not quite ready to let her do a Curt Schilling impression. After all, the World Series of pheasant season doesn't start until the corn's all out, the swamps are all frozen and the roosters all have 22-inch tails.

But it's going to be a long 10 days on the disabled list. For both of us.

Eric Atherton is the Post-Bulletin's outdoors editor. Contact him at

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