Opening Day, Saturday, October 29th
We were a little surprised to see a fellow pheasant hunter with a truck bed full of dog boxes joining us at the Bellevue Quik Trip to collect the morning coffee, as the forecast was foreboding for opening day. Hunting tradition in Nebraska doesn’t yield to any man’s dissent and even in the Omaha suburbs folks were up early to head out into the yonder fields.
Prior to our southbound journey, we first had to pick up our old friend, Marvin Brinkman. The annual opening hunt is always hosted by Marvin and his parents, Wilmer and Maude, on the family farm near Sterling, Nebraska. Due to the high price of corn and soybeans this year, the Brinkmans hold some of the last CRP in Johnson County. The Conservation Reserve Program provides the farmers a pittance in exchange for maintaining prairie in comparison to the going rate for corn and soybeans. Luckily, the elder Brinkmans are past tractor-driving age and are also conservation-minded people. In years past, large parties of pheasant hunters have traversed their fields with high hopes of bagging limits, and several were successful back in the 1990′s, but this year we simply hold the hope of seeing birds.
On our southbound journey in the dark, we entertained ourselves with tales from Charles and Marvin’s deer harvesting era, when they would obtain every tag they could and bag numerous deer a year. Our garage was a game cleaning station and the chest freezer frequently overflowed with venison. Yet I digress and should save the stories of yesteryear for summertime when there is no hunting to report.
Brian Koch of Ultimate Upland http://www.ultimateupland.com/ met us in Syracuse to experience and photograph the hunt. Brian has been on the road since September, camping and hunting in North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and now Nebraska.
We arrived to our first field prior to shooting hours, so we visited in the truck for awhile, then geared up with the hopes of pheasant or quail. The 40 or so acres of native prairie were surrounded by standing corn to the north, east and west, with a small waterway on the south bordered by trees and shrubs. Our path began on the southwest corner of the property, pushing east. The guys took to the field, while I weaved in and out of the thicket next to the waterway. About 15 minutes into our push, I heard slight and distant wingbeats, with the flush of three small bobwhite quail catching my eye from the field. Marvin and Charles elected not to shoot, hoping to allow the covey to grow in the future. Our hike continued and my 7-year old female griffon, Sue, joined me in the brush, acting birdy. Charles was hitting the whistle since he couldn’t see us, but Sue locked on a solid point, nose to the ground, not moving an inch, as if to say, “it’s right there, mom!!” Sure enough, I kicked my foot right in front of her nose and a single tiny quail alighted and weaved its agile flight back into the branches, evading my shots.
It doesn’t take very long for three primed up hunting dogs and four people to cover the field and cross the road to hit the 15 acres on the other side. Even though no further bird activity was detected, it was a beautiful morning now that the sun was fully awake and I couldn’t help but singing the state song in my head as I watched the golden leaves drift to the ground in the breeze and the seedheads of the big bluestem sparkle like delicate Swarovski crystal ornaments in the morning light (my favorite version of the Nebraska state song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g6ADhHMLgZk)
Next stop was the “sure thing”, 80-100 acres of prime habitat, dissected by a waterway and surrounded by standing corn. We pushed the first three quarters of the field, seeing nothing and becoming nervous that even the “sure thing” was going to be a bust. We ambled back towards the truck, southbound down a mowed swath bordered by trees to the west and some rocky, forb-covered dirt mounds to the east, walking together and chatting excessively as if we had given up. The dogs never quit hunting and they all locked up on a thick spot, which the hunters ran to surround. A rooster flushed with both Charles and I taking shots.
Convinced that I had shot the bird, Sam brought me the retrieve and the debate ensued as to who shot the bird. Following the official review, I was granted the bird.
The hunt took a serious tone now that the game was on, especially where Charles felt that his bird was stolen from him. We followed the curvature of the treeline towards the gravel road, when Sue got birdy in the thick and a rooster spooked by surprised. Brian had noticed that we might be getting into a shot, so he turned on the BlastCam and captured the moment of Charles taking down our second rooster of the day: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=2458542390300
After this bird was collected, we swept the corner of the field and decided to post Marvin up on the edge of the road at the end of the waterway, a spot where the guys had always put up birds. Charles, the dogs and I pushed the waterway into the thick of trees and weeds right by the road, but nothing popped out. It was getting up on lunch time, so we drove towards Sterling and quickly hit a waterway on some land that the Brinkmans rent out for farming, but nothing was to be found.
Scott’s Place, the watering hole of Sterling, was filled with the town’s usual suspects to view the Husker football game against Michigan State. Everyone was abuzz with Big Red on the board, greeting Marvin as one of their own and wanting to know how our hunt was going, “We’re on the board, too!” I exclaimed. We settled in for some iced tea and the special of the day, ending up taking a three hour lunch talking dream bird hunts, pheasant management practices in Nebraska and enjoying the raucousness of the football game.
Our final destination of the day was the “home place”, 120 acres of CRP in the middle of cornfields, with a fish pond in the middle. We had almost completed an hour long push of the property when the dogs got really birdy on our return trip to the truck. We had a rooster running, straight towards the corn, where despite our juking and jiving, he got away. The dogs put up a hen in the corn and we assumed that it was the bird we had been chasing. No longer than 15 feet from the truck, guns broken open, the dogs bust the rooster out of the standing corn to our chagrin, with nobody prepared to shoot.
It was time to pay our hosts, Wilmer and Maude, a visit and present them with a gift of authentic German ring bologna that we purchased for them in North Dakota. One must always go bearing gifts when given the special opportunity to hunt private land with permission.
Nobody came into this trip expecting a limit. The excitement of the hunt was seeing that there are still wild birds in southeastern Nebraska.
Sunday, October 30th
We awoke Sunday morning, grabbed the morning Omaha World-Herald from the yard, and drank our coffee with no intention of a hunt entering our minds. That was until we turned to the Sports section and read David Hendee’s account of opening weekend. He had traveled out to Broken Bow’s Pressey Wildlife Management Area, which was stocked with pheasants by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for the previous weekend’s youth hunt. The article took the tone that NGPC and Pheasants Forever were disappointed with the hunter turnout at the stocked WMA’s.
Game on. Charles quickly got his hunting clothes on, while I dressed our 7-year old son to follow Charles on a hunt at Twin Oaks Wildlife Management Area southeast of Tecumsah, which was also stocked for the youth hunt. My little guy would never have made it through a full day, wild bird pheasant hunt in Nebraska. The stocking of the wildlife management areas allowed Charles to go out and bag a couple of birds in a couple of hours; he hit the field at noon and was coming home by 2 PM. ”There were more birds to be had,” he said, “and the dogs would have found them, but I wanted to keep it fun for Conrad. Making it not fun would have defeated the purpose.”
Attention Nebraska pheasant hunters: there are still scratch birds to be had from the stockings for the youth hunt weekend. Please patronize Twin Oaks WMA southeast of Tecumsah, Branched Oak WMA northwest of Lincoln, Pressey WMA southwest of Broken Bow, Sherman WMA northeast of Loup City and Oak Valley WMA southwest of Norfolk on your hunts this weekend. Thank the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and Pheasants Forever upon your success in order to continue this opportunity for hunters in our state!