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Author: Frank Ross
An old man, a fat dog, a young boy and the youth pheasant opener.
Ok, I'm not that old, even though I've been getting AARP applications for several years. And the dog isn't what you'd call a wide load, but she is certainly like me in one aspect - past her prime. The boy in question is Jordan, my second son of 11 years. He is definitely young, with all of the bad habits incumbent upon boys of his age.
He likes to get up early, and wants to try everything. Fortunately, for now, everything includes all aspects of fishing and hunting. His biggest problem with the latter is simple math. Since I bought him his first shotgun, three years ago, he has wanted to try every season.
All of his burning ambition is currently limited by the unfathomable depths of 12. That's the magic number in Nebraska to apply for a big game license. His second problem with numbers is that he hasn't refined his shooting skills enough to consistently hit a dove with his .410 single shot. Pheasants, he reasoned, would be a lot easier to hit. So he marked his calendar for the youth opener and started counting the days until his "big game" season.
He has sat by waiting patiently, while his older brother Andrew has accompanied me on elk, deer, antelope and turkey hunts, bagging for himself all but the illusive red monarch. For the most part, he has been able to contain himself while his older brother posed for pictures with all of his accomplishments, only occasionally making snide remarks about shot placement. To add insult to injury, last year, Andrew shot a pheasant out from under Jordan's watchful eye. A decided shortage of birds and my time failed to produce another opportunity. While he has reminded me several times that next year he gets to take the hunter safety course, the subject of pheasant season has been skillfully woven into every available crack in our conversations over the past several months.
I've been blessed with these two energetic boys, later in life than the traditional American cycle. Keeping up at times has been a challenge for legs that have spent far too many hours poised beneath a keyboard. That's where Mousse fits into the equation. She's a chocolate lab named appropriately for the dessert, and serves the dual responsibility of family bird/lap dog. It's no curiosity that she loves to eat. Her once girlish figure bears ample evidence of her appetite. Still she does love to load up, and anytime a shotgun is uncased, her bulbouls frame quakes with excitement.
Once in the field, she presents a good front, quartering close (mostly because she can't run that far) and sniffing every likely looking spot. Naturally, I use these moments of aromatic evaluation to school Jordan on the fine points of hunting over such a diligent dog, and catch my breath in the process.
This year's youth pheasant season had the untimely coordination with his last Pop Warner football game, so at daylight the following morning, we both limped out to best a few birds. The intent of the youth weekend is to introduce youngsters to hunting with the advantage of less pressure and unmolested birds so that youngsters have a greater chance of success. Theoretically, the first crack at uneducated birds that haven't developed a sprinter's instinct, puts the odds in their favor.
Our hunt plan was to target CRP land in the western part of Cheyenne County, where I had reports of birds sighted the previous week. Fortune seemed to be smiling on him from the start. Andrew injured his shoulder the previous night and decided to pass, so Jordan got to upgrade his firepower with the loan of Andrew's 20-gauge Remington Wingmaster. During a practice session the previous week, he had broken 5 out of 6 clays in a row, missed twice and run off another string of 8 without a miss. This was definitely an upgrade for his expectations. Since only youths are allowed to carry firearms for this hunt, he would have no competition and more firepower.
Dawn came clear and cold, with only a slight breeze. I was relieved that he wouldn't have the added disadvantage of shooting roosters with a tail wind. After going over the safety rules one more time, he loaded his loaner, and we started out working into the slight breeze.
The cover was 5 feet tall in places and tough to work through, so we angled toward a rise, with thinner cover. Two roosters cackled in the distance, and my hopes for him mounted with each step. Suddenly a bird flushed 30 yards ahead and winged northward. By the time I had identified it as a prairie chicken it was out of range, and I told him to hold his fire. A few more yards and a hen pheasant rose in a fury of flapping wings. Once more his adrenaline pumped and declined with the disappointment.
We worked the full length of the section, jumping another hen and started to swing eastward. By now, Mousse was panting on my heels, and only forging ahead when prompted by numerous verbal prods. We covered the rest of the field, nearing a stand of sunflowers when a rooster kited over a ridge and settled down on the edge of the CRP. I quickly whispered a plan, and we moved in. Just as we topped the rise, the rooster rose with a loud cackle. I watched anxiously as Jordan shouldered his gun and released a round of pellets, jacked another into the chamber and fired again. As the rooster sailed away unmolested down into the deep cover, Jordan's face fell to his chest. It was a long walk back to the truck.
While he watered the dog, and picked burrs from his socks, I looked at the CRP map. Picking another red block of access land, we quickly loaded up and relocated our efforts. This spot had a treeline, and a large stand of 2-foot tall weeds that had been mowed around. It was a very likely looking spot, so we approached with Jordan downwind and Mousse in the middle. Several steps into the weeds and a hen rose, followed quickly by a rooster. I shouted "Rooster, take him," and Jordan blazed away to no avail. "Calm down, remember to lead them, the wind is getting up," I cautioned. "There might be more, reload and let's go." Two steps further and three more roosters got up, followed by the sound of Jordan emptying his magazine.
Mousse ran in the direction of the fleeing birds and stopped, with a confused expression that seemed to ask, "Aren't you going to shoot them?" I tried my hand at encouragement with, "Kind of hard to hit, aren't they?" "Where are we going now," was his undaunted reply. We watered the dog, unloaded the gun and headed back toward another spot. By now it was close to 10:30, and he was beginning to show the effects of the previous day's football game, an early morning and several miles of walking. Folding his jacket against the truck window he slumped down in the seat, smiling. "Ah, pheasant season," he said. "It's finally here."
I turned up the radio, to catch the Cornhusker's pre-game show, then turned it off again. I wanted to ponder the moment. Over the last few hours we had shared a sunrise, conversation, expectation, exhilaration and disappointment, yet Jordan was a happy youngster. It occurred to me, that what he needed most was my time and not a pheasant in the bag. That would have been nice, but in time that will happen as well. Eventually, aim and trajectory will come together at one point, given enough opportunity. I made a mental note to buy more shells and turned up the radio.
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