We were five-for-seven heading into the homeward turn of a slough on a year end pheasant hunt. Seemingly every rooster that got up in shooting range went down in shooting range. The couple that escaped did so by the very fibers of their long tailfeathers which waggled in the breeze after some amazing evasive maneuvers. It was a great afternoon patrolling the frozen doughnut sloughs with rings of cover around solid icy middles that seemed to hold a bird in every fifteen minutes or so of walking.
Despite the incredible and quick-coming late season success for our party of two guys and one dog, I found myself holding out hope that a sixth bird would end up in the bag on the last quarter mile or so of the trek, and stomped each reed-filled stride with purpose as my buddy Adam’s red lab ran back and forth through the cover between us. I had been on point, dropping two birds in two shots, and sharing a third bird with my friend who was visiting on his way home from the holidays, for a perfect three-for-three until a tough-to-identify rooster flushed low along the shimmering cattail tops into the waning gray glare of the afternoon sun, and my late shot sailed wide. Adam too had a pair in the bag and with the halvsie from our second walk conditions seemed perfect for a late-season limit.
Now, typically, that’s not the thing I focus on in the outdoors. I have long since moved on from a full livewell or a stuffed game pouch being the ultimate signal of success, but for some reason, that empty slot in the sixth space of our late-season quota weighed on me as I walked along. The anticipation of a final flush built and the slightest sense of pressure began to mount. I tried to push the surge of anticipation back down into my boots and kept stomping through the brown blades of one of the season’s last walks.
No sooner had my mind drifted from that desire than a wily rooster rattled the reeds between the two of us, with my buddy’s dog snapping wildly at the rising bird. I let it get out in front, rise and bank with the wind, covering 15 or 20 yards before I touched off the bottom barrel of my 20-gauge, sending brown tailfeather pieces flying. A shot to my right from my friend’s Winchester 101 rattled the bird, but he continued his panicked flight, weaving away from us, unfazed but a couple long feathers lighter.
“Well, that was it, dang it,” I remarked to my buddy, “a chance to limit out on the last weekend of the season,” I continued dejectedly.
I ran through a litany of excuses as we finished out the walk: fatigue from the several miles of tough but rewarding hikes, latent caffeine surging with adrenaline in my system, the angle of the flush or my cold fingers under my light gloves, but none of them stuck. What would be the final bird of the season stayed with me, despite disappearing over the horizon and the last stretch of cattails which led back to the truck on the north side of the WMA.
“Sometimes, not filling a limit is just as important, and certainly doesn’t take away from our success today,” my friend replied to my final lamentation, “it leaves that desire to do better next time, or in this case to look forward to next season,” he concluded.
It was sage advice from a relatively new hunter who doesn’t often get the chance to get in the field, and it resonated as I stomped through the crust of the snow on the slope up to the gravel road. He was right, of course. The missed bird was a small piece of the larger memory of a hard charging dog behind the powerful wingbeats of late season roosters and some great shooting that followed their exciting flushes in the chill of early winter. Like in life, the enjoyable moments of the afternoon began to overtake the missed opportunities and on the drive home we replayed the rush of those experiences until the final bird was all but forgotten and it was almost difficult to recall how it all played out as I set my fingers to the keyboard to record the memory and the lessons learned for the day.
Among the latter was the strengthened idea that success in the field is rarely defined by a full bag, but instead by the opportunities and shared adventures that give us the chance to just be there in the moment. And despite not closing out that six-bird limit, the late-season success we did find in our final opportunity to hunt familiar fields together provided a perfect reminder of what’s important…in our outdoors.