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November 12, 2005

Birds Shall Fear Me

We headed North on Highway 1804 out of Pierre, on the east side of the Oahe reservoir. The weather had changed significantly since yesterday. Temperature dropped down to about 50, and it started to rain. When we were out walking the fields, we saw where winds that were clocked at 97 or 117 mph had taken out 10 transmission line towers. It had ripped down barns, and silos. Wrapped sheets of tin around limbs on the cottonwood trees in the shelter belts.

Back in the dust bowl, they planted a lot of Chinese elms for shelter belts to stop the erosion, because they’re fast growing trees. But then they get diseased, and after about 15 years, they die. So they’re replacing them with other trees slowly.

The fields have a timeless feel to them. Aging houses built by the pioneers slowly decay. Farm equipment that breaks is left in the field and parted out over the ages. They just farm around it.

Cars are parked in rows, slowing becoming one with the ground. A stark surreal scene of suspended animation. Innumerable acres of abandoned houses, cars, tractors, and combines.

And us. Touring the country in a fantastic parade of lunacy. A fleet of trucks, with hunters packed in like sardines. Lurching across the milo fields, blasting birds into oblivion.

I was standing on a hill watch a line of ant-men in flourscent orange caps walking through brush so dense the dogs were lost and inconsequential when the weather turned. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped. The rain fell in sheets and the wind drove it straight into your teeth. It was hard to tell if it was actually ice or if it just stung like ice, but it made no difference really. Hundreds of thousands of square miles of gently rolling hills with no trees to stop the wind. It really rips into you when the wind pushes up the slopes driving the rain into your eyes. Gradually, my clothes got soaked, and the water ran into my boots. My clothes were technically weatherproof, but the wind-driven rain atomized, rendering the hunting clothes meaningless.

All the guys in our group have the six pound Browning Citori Featherweight over/under bird guns with 26? barrels. But I’m shooting a canon. It has a 28 inch barrel and weighs 2-3 times what theirs' weigh and I’m lugging it through the fields all day, from 10 – 5 every day. And you have to keep your gun barrel up so you don't kill anyone, and it gets heavy after you’ve been lugging it through the field all day, but you have to keep the tip up. Arrow up for safety. And you’re cold and wet and it’s raining down the barrel and the birds are dieing in waves.

The dogs are working the fields “Hunt ‘em up? and “Find the birds? and the dogs are all nose to the ground. This moisture holds the scent better and the dogs can smell the birds better, but it's too much for most dogs. There are so many birds and so much shooting that most dogs just go nuts. Plus, you're hunting with multiple dogs and multiple handlers, so the signals can get crossed, and so the dogs are really under a lot of stress. In the heat of the battle, they get confused and chase hens or rabbits until their owner pushes a button shocking them by remote control when they yelp and fall back in line.

And the birds are holding a little tighter today. Not running quite so much and they’re flushing like a mortar when they come out of the corn and there’s trails of corn everywhere where the trailer “got a leak. I got out here and saw it was leaking corn so I turned around and drove back home and fixed it.? Right. ;)

Kevin’s dog Stormy is cut and bleeding again, like a “white guy trying to box? Brian observes. Kevin couldn't figure out why his dog was freaking out in the kennel, but eventually he realized he was accidentally sitting on the remote control and shocking his dog in the kennel.

And then, as I stood watching the waving of rain beating into the grain, the birds began to fly. More birds than I ever knew there were. They’d rise into the wind and cross in front of you so fast you could only pull the trigger and scare them as they flew downwind to land in Iowa somewhere. Shooting pheasants on a clear day in ideal weather conditions is intimidating. When you’re hitting them, it’s fun, but when you’re missing them, you feel stupid. Like you’re wasting your time. Shooting blanks. It can destroy your confidence. You just have to psyche yourself up and convince yourself that the next one won’t get by you. Next time, I’ll drop him like a stone that bird.

Findley is practicing his “fake to the open guy and shoot? technique. Findley is funny, but a great shot. He's a blocker, and he never misses, even on those hard downwind crossing shots.

When the birds get up from the field, the roosters have tails that seem to stretch for miles. Their tails look like they’re about six feet long as they’re rising from the corn and there’s that explosion of noise…feathers thrashing the corn…that sound I hear that wakes me up from a dead sleep sweating. The birds are rising from the corn now in slow motion and he’s coming right for you…and you don’t have a shot cause he won’t get up so you can’t shoot straight at him because there’s a guy behind him and he won’t get up and you swear he’s going to fly right into you and you duck and pivot and spin and take the safety off and pop back up and point downwind at him and pull the trigger and he’s gone to Iowa where he’s safe. Safe for now, anyway.

My ammo pouch is full of water and my ammo is resting in a little pool inside my pouch and my hands are raw and my trigger finger is blistered and I have to take off my shooting glasses so I can see and I take out my ear plugs so I can hear. My cheekbone is sore and slightly bruised, and, in theory, I'm sure that I'm probably not holding the gun 100% right when I'm shooting, or it wouldn't bruise me, but the reality is that in the heat of the battle, it's not like target practice. It's harried and hectic and a little more crazy than shooting trap or sporting clays.

So, finally we break for lunch and go lick our wounds and warm up. I notice that everyone has a little dark patch on their right cheek bones. Findley lights a fuel-tank converted into a barrel stove with a flame thrower and we warm up and dry out and pound a cooler of beer before heading to the Outpost for a bacon cheeseburger and wedges. The graffiti in the men’s room says “birds shall fear me? and there’s a limousine out front painted like a Jersey dairy cow.

After lunch, there’s a schism as some of the ladies start to complain about the cold and the rain. But I don’t care. I want to keep hunting. I’m wet, but I’m not really cold. I came here to hunt, and damned the rain. I want to put some birds on the ground, so we all head back out into the field, and we start marching through the fields again. And by the end of the day, I’m dog tired. I’m dragging my right leg through a milo field. My cheek bone is bruised from shooting the gun and my right leg is killing me for reasons that aren’t clear to me. But we keep going.

When I shoot the gun, I never hear it go off If it makes a sound I couldn’t tell you what sound it makes. I never hear it. There’s way too much adrenaline going through your veins when you pull the trigger. You just see the birds rising from the corn and I always yell “Rooster!? and I yell it really loud and long to let everyone know that we’ve got a target cause you can’t tell which way he’ll head when he gets up. And sometimes there’s one shot and sometimes a volley.

We drive the birds into a circle when we hunt, so at the end, it’s like a Mexican standoff. And we’re all standing in a circle…10 of us now…and the birds are in there so thick you can feel the ground shaking and then they start coming out in waves and you’re just standing there, shooting in self defense, waiting for a shot because they have to go up or get where you can shoot them without hitting the guy behind them and you can’t even reload fast enough and you’re yelling “Rooster!? “Rooster!? and the birds are streaming out like starlings an heading down into the creekbed. And you back is as stiff as a new broom and, after a while, I’m hardly even aware I’ve fired my gun but I look around and there’s piles of empty 12 gauge shells all over the ground and the dogs are stacking the pheasants into a macabre little pyramid of avian death.

At the end of the day, we do a little “road hunting? to get the limit, which isn’t that easy. It involves jumping out of the truck, loading the gun, taking the safety off, and then shooting at a flying bird with an audience of about 9 other guys watching you. Lots of pressure. The first one I missed. I got the next two though, bringing my total for the day to 6. I wring their necks and toss them them the truck. And when I climb back into the truck, I feel like I could die. I’m more tired than I’ve been in a long time. Wind burned, wet, and cold. We’ve run ourselves ragged and when I climb back into the truck, someone hands me a cold beer and says "nice shooting, Mississippi. You just got our limit" and someone else says “what time do we go out in the morning??

Posted by Peenie Wallie on November 12, 2005 at 5:56 PM


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