Bernie Kuntz: Thoughts on pheasant hunting

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The plan was to meet Kyle, my second cousin's husband, and his family at Mott in October, and

for them to post me in my folding chair near the end of shelterbelts and in other strategic locations.

That way the young and sprightly might push a few roosters past this old, has-been pheasant hunter. But then I got a viral lung infection and was dragging around an oxygen hose for a month. Next, everyone learned that pheasant numbers in North Dakota were down by 60 percent. So Kyle cancelled the hunt.

So here I sit in glorious October, watching leaves fall and thinking of pheasant hunting, even

though I can no longer walk without a cane in each hand.

I have been a pheasant hunter for a long time. When I was nine years old, Jake let me walk with my uncles and him south of Mandan, and almost 60 years later I still remember pheasants boiling out of creek bottoms, roosters erupting out of heavy cover along the Cannonball River. My heart pounded with excitement, just as it did when I shot my last rooster a year ago.

The next year Jake allowed me to carry my own gun, a miserable bolt-action .410. Three years

later he bought me a Remington Model 870 Wingmaster in 16 gauge, a gun I still own. I wore the finish off the gun, had it restocked many years ago by E. C. Bishop & Sons, had the choke opened to modified and had the gun reblued.

Most hunting appealed to me, but pheasant hunting was my favorite. Put me in a creek bottom

or a stand of rushes behind a pair of Labradors, and I was a happy man. I have hunted pheasants in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, and have a thousand memories of bright-colored, noisy roosters cackling against a blue sky, excited Labradors bouncing in the thick cover, the pleasant heft of a shotgun, good boots, strong legs and the swish of grass against my legs in autumn. If there is a heaven and if I get there one day, it will have pheasants, creek bottoms and Labrador retrievers.

Bruno, my first Labrador, turned out to be a very good pheasant dog. We spent a lot of time

chasing roosters in the CRP fields of northeastern Montana, and I still smile when I remember the troubled look that Bruno got on his face when he'd get "birdy." His tail would be spinning like a rotor, his brow was furrowed as he frantically followed the scent before the flush. A few years later Josie entered the scene, and when she became a decent pheasant dog, the three of us became a pheasant-harvesting trio.

Old Bruno developed back problems and didn't hunt much after the age of seven. My next Labrador was Otis, and he hunted with Josie until she became too old. Otis had an infernal habit of following a rooster out of range and flushing it—a problem I attribute to my shortcomings as a dog-trainer—but we still shot a lot of roosters over the Otis-dog.

One time in southeast Montana Otis flushed a pair of roosters from a creek bottom on opening morning. I swung the Browning 16 gauge, hit one bird, then the other. The first bird hit the ground and ran like a jackrabbit; the second bird dropped dead. Otis, who could run like a greyhound, dashed 100 yards after the crippled rooster, tackled it and retrieved. I sent him back and he retrieved the second bird.

Twenty minutes later he flushed another rooster for me, which I clobbered and he retrieved—a quick limit on opening morning.

Poor Otis had to be put down at age 8-1/2 due to cancer. We had my beloved Lucy for more than eleven years and now we have Oscar, who is yellow, eight years old, has shown great promise the half dozen times I have been able to hunt him.

I am still watching leaves fall as I write this. Frost is on the grass most mornings, and the smell of autumn beckons me to fields and creek bottoms. The weather is perfect today. Load the guns and work the cover. Stay in range of the dogs and be ready for the unforgettable flush.

That's pheasant hunting and there is nothing else quite like it.