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Driving birds: Hunting pheasants in the Midwest

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By Dave McCune Explore Big Sky Contributor

My dad isn’t much for hunting pheasants. I’ve always been curious why.

For me, nothing beats stomping around southwest Montana with my pup, Vadasz. I find a specific kind of peace when looking for birds, exploring new ranges, and hoping for a chance or two at an upland dinner.

Still, my dad isn’t much for hunting pheasants.

See, for years my father has admired pheasants from an aesthetic standpoint. He loves watching roosters peck and posture around the young Kansas wheat fields of his home state, and though he doesn’t particularly dislike the taste of the game bird, he doesn’t especially like it either. Now in his early 60s, the cold early morning hunting weather hits his bones with callous disregard.

But I’ve always thought these were weak reasons, and that he was being a wuss. But none of that truly matters to Dad. To him, the hunt itself is, well, skewed. Sitting in Eva’s, the community café in small-town Montezuma, Kan., I’m starting to understand why.

Let me catch you up…

During a recent opening weekend, my father and I spent the morning field-working my young pointer and chasing birds around the land my ancestors homesteaded in southwest Kansas in the mid-1800s. That land is in our blood, and so, in a way, are the birds we chased that morning across frosted CRP ground, into musty cedar shelter belts, out of harvested corn rows, and around collapsed buildings.

We often got points from Vadasz, sometimes getting shots, and always getting chided. Me, my dad, my dog, and my grandfather’s shotgun scared a few birds up and knocked a few down. Sitting in the café, having just ordered the county’s best chicken fried steak and egg breakfast, surrounded by the smell of coffee and country air, I felt content.

Over the next five minutes, Eva’s filled with throngs of new customers from another hunting party. Like I said, the chicken fried plate is famous.

They surged through the door like the gravy flowing off my plate. Chairs rattled across the wooden floor, silverware clanked onto tabletops, and coffee poured into mugs like a gurgling stream. Patrons who moments ago were quietly chatting on full bellies hastily headed for the door – but it was not a polite exit, it was an escape. More than 30 hunters made their way into Eva’s, discussing the morning hunt.

“How’d you fellas do?” from across the room.

“96 so far!”

“Gonna try to get the rest of the limit after the feed!”

“Shouldn’t take this group too long.”

It wasn’t even noon.

I looked at my father. Until now, our morning had been perfect, filled with hunting, but also about something more: time together, patience, stealth, the outdoors, challenge, camaraderie, nature, beauty. Faintly, I saw something reflected in his eyes.

In his youth, my dad went on several rabbit drives. Back then, rabbits were deemed a nuisance (some would say a plague) and they were shown no mercy. Large groups would walk slowly through a field beating the brush with poles and clubs, rakes or brooms, driving the critters toward the opposite end.

There, behind a temporary snow fence, death silently waited. As the rabbits massed into the waiting nets, the clubs relented on the brush and turned their force on another target with swift and fierce efficiency. Rabbits, when mortally threatened, cry out. More like a small child than a cute little bunny, they wail.

When the deed was done and the last rabbit was killed, the remains were gathered. Pelts were harvested, and the rest went to the mink farms to serve as feed for another type of slaughter. If this doesn’t sound much like a sporting field hunt… it wasn’t.

Neither was the other party’s morning pheasant hunt. The similarities are striking. Most of the party marches through a field, flushing all birds and shooting as many as possible. Those pheasants that do avoid the walking guns are left with no escape other than to fly directly into the waiting guns of the “blockers,” those who drove around to the end of the field to block any escape. No bird left behind. Well, no male bird anyway. Clear a field, move on to the next one.

What makes rabbit drives of the ‘50s different from many pheasant hunts in the Midwest today? Not much for Dad.

I’m not condoning or condemning this style of hunting. I’m not saying my morning hunt was any more fair or pure; in fact, some would argue that my dog gave me an unfair advantage. This is just how it is done in the heartland.

As the other hunters devour their breakfasts, Dad and I walk back outside to the warming sunshine. On our way, we shake hands and offer good luck. Dad has grown up with some of these men, and most have known me all my life. We don’t begrudge them, and secretly, we may even wish we had a few more birds in our bags. Not 96, but maybe my limit of four.

We ride back to the farmhouse to clean the roosters for dinner, soft country music playing on the radio and dust settling on winter wheat behind us. I’m already looking forward to my return to Big Sky and an upcoming trip to eastern Montana.

I glance at my dad. He seems content, and the front seat is peaceful. Suddenly, a rooster stands up in the ditch and blusters. Dad antagonizes the bird with the car’s horn, and then smiles as he watches it take flight across the country through the rearview mirror.

I’m no great hunter. I learn more and more with each passing season. But I do know this:

I will never again ask Dad why he isn’t much for hunting pheasants.

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