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A tale of white whales and black roosters

The task of bagging a black rooster is not done yet for contributing Post Bulletin columnist Eric Atherton. But there is no giving up here.

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Outdoors writer Eric Atherton spotted these two rooster pheasants west of Rochester. Special to the Post Bulletin / Eric Atherton

Thirty years ago, as a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, I read Herman Melville's “Moby-Dick” for the first time.

While I'd place it among the top five in a list of America's greatest novels, it's a tough read. “Moby-Dick” would have improved considerably with an aggressive editor and the subtraction of 100 pages.

But distilled to its essence, Melville tells a remarkable story of one man's all-consuming quest for vengeance – and of humankind's never-ending, ill-fated struggle to know the unknowable, to strike through the veil of mortality and see what lies on the other side.

The story I'm about to tell isn't as epic as all that, but it has its parallels.

Two years ago, a buddy told me that he'd seen a black rooster pheasant about a mile from his house, near a Wildlife Management Area that borders some private land I've hunted for 15 years. A week later, a landowner mentioned that while harvesting corn in that area, he also saw a black rooster.

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I hunted that area a lot in 2019 and shot quite a few roosters, but I never saw a black one.

Then last year, while driving home after an unsuccessful hunt at that same WMA, I spotted a black rooster near a grove of trees that bordered a picked cornfield. He was with a normal rooster, and the difference was amazing.

Such birds, known as melanistic pheasants, aren't as rare as white whales, but they are very uncommon. I've chased roosters for 25 years across Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin and South Dakota, and this was the first time I'd seen one.

I wanted it.

My first chance came in early December last year. I'd hunted hard for an hour in a particularly nasty swamp, and my yellow Lab, Roxie, had put up nary a bird. It was dreary, cloudy afternoon, and with sunset just minutes away, Roxie suddenly made a hard stop, then took off.

I struggled to keep up through a maze of thickets, hummocks and swamp grass, and Roxie was at least 30 yards away when she suddenly stopped, her tail quivering, then jumped.

The black rooster flushed against a dark backdrop of trees that bordered the swamp, flying from my left to my right. My two-shot salute didn't touch a feather, and try as I might, I never saw that bird again in 2020.

Another failed effort

Two weeks ago, I returned to that swamp for the first time this year, and while Roxie put up a dozen birds, none were black.

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I went back three days later, this time opting to hunt the neighboring public land. A heavy rain had fallen the day before, so the creek that bisected the WMA was running high and fast.

An hour of hard work flushed a couple hens, and I was ready to call it a day when I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. About 200 yards away, on the other side of the creek, a black rooster glided toward me, then landed near a thicket in the heart of the swamp.

Crossing the creek wasn't an option, so I faced a decision: Go home (the smart move) or hike out of the swamp to the road, cross a bridge, then hike back into the swamp to find that bird.

Like Ahab, I ignored my better judgment.

A good hour later, with my boots wet and lungs burning, Roxie and I were in the area where the bird had landed. Things looked different from this side of the creek, and I wasn't sure which thicket to target, so I let Roxie roam.

It was a needle-in-a-haystack search, and with each passing minute, I became even more convinced of my folly in attempting it.

Then Roxie stiffened, nose high in the air, and sprinted toward a clump of willows. I tried to race after her, stumbling in the uneven, muddy ground.

She circled behind the trees, and the black rooster erupted in front of her.

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It was the moment I'd sought for two years – and I flubbed it.

My first shot knocked out a couple tail feathers, and when the bird didn't fall, I rushed the second shot and missed by mile.

The rooster caught the wind and sailed deeper into the heart of the swamp, where of course I felt compelled to follow. More than an hour later, Roxie and I began the long trudge back to the truck. My vest was empty, my feet were wet, and I was furious with myself.

An obsession

Sleep didn't come easily that night.

The following afternoon, I could have hunted a half-dozen other properties near Rochester, but the black rooster beckoned. I parked on the other side of the WMA, taking a new route into the swamp. Roxie had several good chases on roosters that flushed out of range, but none of them were my black-feathered foe.

As the sun was about to set, I took a shortcut through an area that, in a normal year, would have been impossibly wet. With this year's drought, however, I found it merely mushy, with some occasional spots of ankle-deep water.

Roxie was off to my left, and she looked like she might be trailing a bird. My eyes were focused on her, rather than on the ground before me, as I hoped for one more flush from my nemesis.

Suddenly, I was up to my waist in freezing water that looked like a mocha latte but smelled far worse.

My first effort to rescue myself made matters worse, as I lost my balance and totally submerged my shotgun. Not knowing what might lie before me, I instead retreated, climbing out on my hands and knees as Roxie came bounding over to investigate.

Two hours and a long shower later, I was still chilled – and still thinking about the black rooster.

A smarter fellow would tip his cap and walk away. Ahab didn't, and I won't, either. When winter arrives and the swamps freeze up, I'll go back for another try.

And if someone out there has already bagged a black rooster on public land west of Rochester, don't tell me. I don't want to know.

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