In early November, each footstep crunches on the ground like walking in a gigantic bowl of corn chips.
We stand in a line, eight men abreast, the dogs and handlers pressing through the corn stubble, and brush in front of us. The alternating tones of the electronic dog collars give hint to which way the "runners" (pheasants that refuse to fly) might be pushed. We advance as a line at the half step, our guns held high, picking our footing through each furrow and chuck-hole. The jump of every little sparrow catches our eye as someone hollers out "Tweety bird!" to let us know not to draw down on it. The sun behind us, our frozen breath condenses in front of us. We have the blessing of a beautiful clear day, but not a man would leave if it were blowing and storming.
Then the pitch of the dog collars change and the husband and wife team of handlers calls out, "Point! On point!" Blitz, a short wire haired terrier stands absolutely still, mortified except for the occasional nervous tremor. Only his eyes move to see if his handler or a hunter is approaching. The younger dog, Dash, creeps in behind Blitz, but he doesn’t really see the bird, he’s just backing his partner’s play. All the hunters on the end of the line have brought their guns up to the ready as the handler calls for one shooter to approach. Nobody can see the bird, but we trust Blitz; we've hunted with him before and we know there IS a pheasant in there somewhere.
A flurry of wingtips erupts like a geyser of wildlife from the prairie grass. Reflexively, almost instinctively three guns come to the shoulder and track the fleeing rooster, but only one fires. Down comes the bird with Dash hot on its trail and several of us "spotting" where it landed. Dinner is on the way!
Like other hunting pursuits, hunting the ringneck pheasant is only partially about the pursuit of the bird. Don't get me wrong, I adore the hunting part. Working hand in paw with the dogs does my soul good, especially when I see the dogs enjoying themselves so much. Blitz and Dash are like the other old friends of our hunting party we get to see but once a year.The pheasant season begins for me each year with a charity hunt for the Muskingham Area Council Boy Scouts. Tom Mahl and I endure the 90 minute drive through the crude roads of Amish Guernsey county to gather with buddies around a hand-warming fire and a coffee pot. We shoot some trap for practice and bragging rights, sit down to a terrific barbecue, and then make our way to the field for the hunt. Most of us are former Scoutmasters or Eagle Scouts, so it’s a way to keep in touch with the Scouting organization. It keeps us focused on youth, on the future of hunting, and the future of conservation. Passing on a tradition is rewarding to us, but not half as rewarding as seeing kids enjoy the outdoor sports.
Recently I was fortunate to have been invited to another hunt; the Lorain County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League's annual Youth Pheasant Hunt. Chapter President Rob Woods says he grew up in Cleveland, but his dad would take his brother and himself out of school on Fridays so they could hunt and camp on the property just across the road from the club grounds. In a way you could say he grew up in the area, and he keeps the organization focused on the enjoyment and education of youth.
About 30 kids with parents in tow spent a Saturday at the Pennfield Township grounds, busting clays, practicing gun safety, forming life-long friendships and learning how to hunt pheasant under the close supervision of skilled club members, and the keen noses of veteran hunting dogs.
For an extra measure of safety, the pheasants were held in soft traps until the dogs had approached and were on point. Then, only when the dogs were secured and the young hunter placed facing a safe direction, the gun was loaded and the bird released from cover. In my considerable experience, this was the safest and most instructional hunt for newcomers I have ever seen. The Izaak Walton League is truly a credit to conservation, and an asset to Lorain County youth outdoors.