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Atherton: Tales of a rooster and redemption

Post Bulletin outdoors columnist Eric Atherton credits his dog Roxie for his success on a recent hunting trip.

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Eric Atherton shot this rooster near Dodge Center, but the real credit goes to his yellow Lab, Roxie.
Eric Atherton / contributed

I have the privilege of hunting pheasants in South Dakota every year with a group of guys from Texas. At some point during that three-day hunt, one of the Texans will ask me how hunting in Minnesota compares to what we enjoy in SD.

I respond the same way I respond to everyone who asks me how the hunting is near Rochester: “If you spend two or three hours working hard with a good dog in great habitat, you can reasonably expect to see a half-dozen birds. Hopefully, one will be a rooster, and you'll get just one chance, so don't miss.”

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That's our reality, and I accept it. Heck, I embrace the challenge.

So, having just enjoyed a five-day late-October hunt near Aberdeen, I returned to reality last week. I drove over to a slough I've hunted for years near Dodge Center, checked in with the landowner and in short order was up to my waist in swamp grass.

It's a tough area to hunt, especially solo. A branch of the Zumbro River runs through it, and the brushy thickets that surround the river are almost impenetrable — and the roosters seem to know that.

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Years of experience, however, have taught me how to boost my odds.

On this particular day, with a strong west wind, I and Roxie, my yellow lab, took a circuitous route that deliberately avoided the spot where I expected to find birds. I wanted the dog to tire herself a bit, and I also knew that the only way we stood a chance of getting a shot was to circle around behind the biggest thicket on the property, then put Roxie's nose into the wind.

The process of getting into position took the better part of an hour, and in that time Roxie put up a couple hens but no roosters.

Finally, it was game time. Roxie knows the hot spot as well as I do, so she needed no encouragement to plunge into the muddy thicket. Within 10 seconds she froze about 15 yards from me.

I took one step toward her and a rooster erupted from the willows. My 20-gauge over-and-under popped to my shoulder, and a half-second later both barrels were empty as I watched the bird fly unscathed, wind at its back, as it sailed toward the river.

How did I miss that rooster twice at less than 15 yards?

Well, given that the exact same thing had happened to me on the last day of my South Dakota hunt, I knew what I'd done wrong – I'd shot too quickly. At that range my pattern is about the size of a cantaloupe, and the bird was flying from my left to right. Swinging against my body, I'd never caught up with the rooster.

I now faced a decision: Should I hunt my way back to the truck and go home, or go after the bird that had humiliated me?

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It wasn't an easy call. I had a pretty good idea where the bird had gone, and chasing it would require me to circle behind it to get the wind in my favor. That was a half-hour hike away from my truck and over ground I'd already hunted, at the end of which I'd have to wade the river.

But the river was low, and I was mad. I opted for a shot at redemption.

So, nearly 40 minutes after I'd blown two holes in the sky, I found myself ankle-deep in the river, trying to climb a steep bank. Roxie had already crossed and disappeared into the brush, so I had no time to lose. I set my gun atop the bank and used tree roots to pull myself up.

I regained my footing and picked up my gun just a second or two before a cackling rooster flushed from the far end of a thicket some 30 yards away.

One shot dumped it into the brush, and I immediately shouted “Roxie, fetch!”

Instead, she disappeared. I raced to the spot the bird had fallen, but neither it nor Roxie were anywhere to be found. I called and called as I searched for the bird, but to no avail.

Finally, I hit the beeper on Roxie's e-collar. Two or three minutes later, I heard her panting as she charged toward me. “Dead bird!” I told her, and I pointed into the thicket where the bird had fallen.

She stuck her nose into the air, then turned and ran the other way.

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I had no choice but to follow her, and for the next several minutes I caught glimpses of her tail and her orange vest as she raced through swamp grass, thickets and muddy hollows.

And then she stopped, tail quivering, and stared into a tangle of grass and brush.

I caught up to her and said “Get it!”

She plunged in, retreated, then circled to the other side of the brush before diving in again. Suddenly I heard wings beating against the ground, and Roxie emerged with a very lively rooster in her jaws.

It's tough for a dog to grin with a pheasant in its mouth, but I have a feeling that redemption – and our first Minnesota rooster of the season – tasted pretty sweet to Roxie. I know it did for me, and the long walk back to the truck felt like a victory lap.

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