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'COL Tweener' hunting at its best

The buck, a smallish 6-pointer, was nervous, but not overly so. He was hiding in a tangle of brush and trees in the middle of a waterway, and clearly he was reluctant to leave his "safe" spot. Understandably so, as his escape route would require a long trip across a picked corn field.

Gun in hand, I watched the deer for perhaps 20 seconds, creeping closer to him all the time as I waited for him to make his move.

Finally, he couldn't take it anymore -- I was within 30 yards when he darted into the open. I raised my gun and put the bead a foot or so in front of his bouncing shoulder, remembering to lead him as I'd been taught two years ago.

"Boom," I said, then lowered my gun and watched the deer slow to a trot, look back at me, then continue on its way.

Lucky for him I was after pheasants, not deer, on this particular Saturday in eastern Iowa.

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Unluckily for me, however, the birds weren't holding nearly as tight as that buck did.

We're at the "tweener" stage of pheasant season, and I'd argue that there's no harder bird to hunt than the mid-season rooster. The dumb birds are long since in someone's freezer or have become coyote food, and, at least prior to today, the weather hadn't gotten nasty enough to concentrate the surviving birds in thick cover. If daytime highs are hitting 40 degrees, pheasants are scattered and running. Every truck door that slams, every whistle that's blown, every shotgun that's pumped carelessly and every command that's shouted at a misbehaving dog simply makes the birds that much harder to pin down.

Such was the case Saturday as I and my hunting partner, Emmett, hunted his land north of Clinton, Iowa. We'd barely set foot in the chest-high CRP grass before I saw a half-dozen birds flush several hundred yards ahead of us.

"They hear us," Emmett said. No kidding. The switchgrass was tall, thick and brittle, and two hunters and two dogs must have sounded like a herd of elephants.

So, we switched to plan B. I beeped Penny's e-collar, then led her out of the tall grass on the downwind side. She trotted along the edge, sniffing the wind, and soon I was 75 yards ahead of Emmett and his chocolate Lab, Gus, who had stayed in the switchgrass.

Ten minutes later, as we neared the end of the field, Penny made a hard right and disappeared into the tall stuff. I followed, and a few seconds later a single rooster flushed.

At the sound of my gun, another half-dozen birds exploded out the end of the field and headed for timber a quarter-mile away.

At least, that's what Emmett told me. I didn't see them, as I was too busy marking the downed bird in case the dogs hadn't seen it fall.

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"That was perfect," Emmett said after Penny located the rooster. "You getting ahead like that let us pin that bird between us."

Of course, one could argue that the perfect plan would have put a blocker at the end of the grass. With only two hunters, however, driving pheasants is a tricky business, especially if the cover is more than 50 yards wide. For every bird I've killed during two-man drives, I've seen 50 sneak out the sides. Especially in "tweener" time.

Two hours later, with no more birds in the bag, Emmett and I parted company, and I embarked on some solitary hunts on several smaller pieces of cover. It was a tough but successful weekend of hunting, but I've always said it feels better to earn your roosters with four or five hours of hard walking. The memories are better, the birds taste better -- and the dogs sleep a lot better than they do if you shoot a limit in 45 minutes.

As for the six-pointer, I'm going back to Iowa in three weeks with a deer tag in my pocket. If that buck holds the way he did on Sunday, I'm afraid his days are numbered. I'll be party-hunting that waterway with more than a dozen guys, and if it's a deer, they'll shoot it.

But who knows. Maybe that young buck learned something from me, and he'll be around next year for Penny to roust from that same waterway.

Eric Atherton is the Post-Bulletin's outdoors editor. Contact him at eatherton@postbulletin.com

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