The end of the year provides unique opportunities to put a bow on hunting adventures and taking advantage of those chances to get outdoors, whenever they come and whatever the conditions are, gives one last look at an autumn gone by and excitement for next year’s time in the field. Christmas weekend provided one such opportunity for my visiting brother and me on a large chunk of public land just a few miles down the road.
The bone chilling cold of the past few weeks had frozen the swampy surface of a large Wildlife Management Area solid, giving us access to previously untouchable areas. Pheasant and deer tracks ran, parted and came back together like a small river winding through the waist-high reeds that were bent and broken, making the late-season trek much more manageable and the hip-high cover still provided a clear shot, should any birds flush in range.
Our old labs traced the four-toed paths of the fleeing pheasants through the bent brown blades and sent the occasional hen skyward into the gusty southwest winds. My dog, Gunnar, ambled along, nose to the ground where the birds had left fresh scent, winding with renewed purpose when it was apparent there were pheasants in the area. In seasons past, I’d often remark each December that these late-season hunts could be his last, but now, at twelve-and-a-half, I made no mention of that fact which I tried to push out of my mind, as his age showed in the field more than it ever had before. There was no sense stating the obvious that his retirement would begin in just a week or two.
Meanwhile, my brother’s ox of a lab, Jake, rambled on through the cattails, plowing through the dense vegetation as if it were field grass as we worked the northern portion of the WMA with the time we had. While he struggled with some hip issues nearing nine years of age, it was apparent there was still gas in the tank of this tank-like canine as he put up hen after hen after hen with surges of youthful energy. All around us fresh tracks scattered and led us west toward the far bank of the slough and we did our best to keep the wind in our face until we ran out of real estate and turned back to the north and our starting point.
As we did, a massive 10-point buck broke cover less than five yards in front of us. His thick, even antlers shattered the stand of cattails as he got up, and his wide shoulders parted an area of cane he dashed into and seemingly left a wake that shuddered through the tall grasses for several seconds sending two pheasants skyward from the distant cover. In an area where big deer are tough to come by, he was a monster. My heart raced with not only the adrenaline that comes with sighting such a beast, but also with the hope that he’d make it through the winter.
We pressed on in the direction the buck had headed toward a large copse of swamp willows where similar late-season hunts had produced birds in the past, including one we were on exactly one year to the day. I snuck around the back side of the swimming-pool sized stand of trees while my brother stayed on the slough side, and right away it was evident that this was where the birds had holed up against winter’s chill and our pursuit. Fresh tracks led into the trees and Gunnar headed in to where the birds had hunkered down in the grass-covered bases of the willows. It wasn’t long until their tops exploded with the first wingbeats of flushing birds.
One after another beige-brown hens began taking flight. One…two…seven…eight…thirteen…fourteen…twenty something. It was hard to keep count as they popped up and abandoned their cover. As I attempted to track them and visually jumped from bird to bird, I hoped for one rooster to make his way out with his harem, and finally, one did, taking wing in the opposite direction of the flock of fleeing pheasants. His colors were the deep and majestic blacks, blues and oranges of late season and his tail flopped in the air like an oversized CB antenna on a redneck’s lifted pickup truck. Smartened by the long autumn, he left only a split second for me to take aim before safely disappearing beyond the bare yellow tree tops. I heard three blasts from the far side of the cover, and a muffled curse from my brother which was carried away by the wind.
The same gusts would take us back to the truck with no other excitement beyond watching the dogs work the lesser trails that made their way up to the gravel road where we were parked. Content with the thrills we had generated on the challenging winter walk, we unloaded our guns, watered the dogs and headed home for holiday events with family, filling the short drive and the space between us with discussions about our next hunting opportunities in the season that was wrapping up and what might come with next year’s adventures…in our outdoors.