Late season hunting is always hard, or at least harder than those magic days in October. The birds are educated and the dogs have to work through thinner, drier cover. You walk the same coverts, but the results are not the same.
My partner for this hunt was Charity. She’s my wife and one of the most dedicated “field agents” out there. One has fewer friends when the days get shorter and the walks get longer. You need these people if serious bird hunting is your game.
We set out on Christmas Eve with the Yule-tide hope of Sandhills pheasants. These are a different flock of bird. They are miles away of any cornfield. In fact, they have never seen a plowed acre. Nor have they ever dined on any plot of land disturbed by man. Food plots are foreign to them. These birds eke out a living on the edges of wetlands and fill their crops on the particulate matter of swamps, bugs and wild-sunflower seeds. While these birds are not robust by pheasant standards, they are wild. Very wild. They survive in a niche no sharp-tail would tolerate and no prairie chicken would accept. If one were to transverse the wilds of Eurasia their cousins would be waiting, but only briefly.
Our first push circumnavigated a popular duck hunting marsh in north-central Nebraska. I’ve sat in a duck blind here, only to have a rooster stalk me and cackle “good-morning”.
However, today they were sparse to the point of nonexistent. With Sam and Mae we covered every likely haunt with no results. Aside from some good dog work and a flush from a hen that was impressive in her strength and speed out of cattails that were thick as any mess you’ve ever seen or waded through, we got nothing but a good workout from this endeavor.
We moved on to another spot after crossing a frozen lake that, while populated by ice fishermen, was eerie. Moaning, popping ice is not fun to cross. But after walking 3 miles through semi-marsh, you take the most direct path to the truck if the opportunity presents itself.
Our next push was easy at first and very obvious. A strip of willows through a frozen marsh, with hawks cruising the area, can only mean birds. We dropped all four dogs. They pushed to the west and as we approached the edge of the frozen lake this slough fed, birds began to break. At first it was two hens, but then a rooster broke cover. He cleared us, but his friend wasn’t so lucky. Rooster #1 sailed a quarter mile away. His partner was stopped cold by a load of steel 4’s. After the retrieve, Charity and I swung the line by 180 degrees and followed the first legal bird of the day. This time the wind was at our backs, so the dogs had to shift their game. The ranged out and worked back to us through the thigh high sedges and cattails. We pushed a half mile, but this bird was not to be shot. He broke and sailed onto a private piece of ground.
Christmas afternoon we returned to the same spot, but decided to hit the dunes for grouse.
Over two hours we covered four miles, saw deer and a coyote, but no birds presented themselves. It was a beautiful afternoon. Clear skies and 50 degrees days in late December can’t be ignored.
Hard hunting is what it is.