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November 11, 2005

Day 2

Day 2

We buy hunting licenses, ibuprofien, and ammo at Dakotamart, and we’re off to the races. $115 for an out of state license. And we’re rolling across the gentle slopes of central South Dakota. We park all the trucks, unload the dogs from the kennels, and the guides explain the game plan to us.

You three walk abreast. Two wing men on each side at forty degree angles, 60-70 yards out. We’ll have four blockers on the other end.

So the guys with the dogs work the brush. The thick cover, and the wingmen walk the fields on the sides of the cover, slightly ahead of the main group. So, you’re basically forming this funnel and driving the birds toward the blockers on the other end. Any bird that jumps up will meet a withering crossfire, leaving the shooters arguing for generations over who hit it firstest, hardest, and most severely.

Because it was warm, the birds were running like crazy. It didn’t take long to figure out that, because there was no snow on the ground, the birds were running like mad, way ahead of the dogs, and flushing toward the blockers. So, if you were the blocker, all you had to do was shoot in self defense when they came across you.

The dogs were working the birds, crawling through the dense cedar trees, across the fields of stubble. Milo, millet, sorghum, winter wheat, and Sudan that didn’t survive the drought. The dogs worked at a frenzied pace, circling and criss-crossing the terrain, flushing pheasants, rabbits, and grouse.

Occasionally, a dog would chase a rabbit, and the owner would push a button, shocking him by remote control. The dog would yelp and get back in line. The dogs worked with their noses to the ground, searching for pheasants, and getting “birdy? whenever they got hot on the fresh scent of a bird.

As each bird flew, the other shooters would yell “HEN!? or “ROOSTER!?, as you can only shoot the roosters. Shooting hens is illegal, and shooting over the limit of 3 roosters is a $100 fine per bird for every bird over the limit. We had 11 people - 9 hunters plus 2 guides, so our limit was 33 birds.

Lee plants rows of cedar to give the pheasants cover, but you can’t plant too much cedar too close together, or it doesn’t work. You’d never find the birds. So, you plant rows of cedar at certain intervals, so the birds find them and use them for cover. They plant strips of milo for the same reason. Spacing them apart just so.

They also plant rows of trees on the north and west sides of their houses, as natural snow fences.

At some point, the guide told me to get in a truck and follow him. I was like “which truck?? “It doesn’t matter.They all have the keys in them? “Where are we going?? “Just follow me? And, suddenly it dawned on me that we needed to move this fleet of Ford F250 trucks and Chevy Suburbans. And, it didn’t much matter who drove what. And I thought about how much simpler life was out here than in the city. No one was stealing anything. No one was robbing or doing drugs. No doors were locked. It was all just white males, living out their lives in this little panacea of country living.

So, we spent the day hop-scotching across the fields of central South Dakota that way. Men, armed to the teeth, with pheasant hunting gear. Wearing pheasant hunting pants, shirts, game pouches, Citori Featherweights, Benellis, Rugers, and of course my Remington 1187.

I shot every bird that came my way except for two. So, at the end of the day, I had shot 6 out of 8 that came my way. So, no one was giving me any lip about my shooting skills, and, I can tell you, shooting at flying birds can be very intimidating.

It’s not an easy sport. It’s not easy for anyone involved. The dogs are working like rented mules, doggedly chasing the birds. They’re getting tangled in barbed wire, drooling, sweating, cutting their feet.

After every field, we rest the dogs and water them, as it’s unseasonably hot. But, the dogs love it. Love it more than words can express, so that they don’t talk is no great loss. You don’t look at a black lab, standing on a pile of pheasants in the bed of a truck, nose to the wind, drooling and bleeding, and wonder if he’s happy. You know he’s happy. It transcends words. This is what they live for. It’s what they’re bred for. Trained for.

As for us, we’re all hoping we limit out. Apologizing for the roosters that got by on “our side? of the melee. Talking about things that white males talk about. Guns, dogs, trucks, crops, and how many cows died from Anthrax this year. All just nervous chatter about the central unspoken question. The question that's on everyone's mind, but no one dares to give voice to. Will we limit out? Will we ever really find the birds?

But our guide is a good one, and by the end of the day, we’ve cornered an obscene number of pheasants in a patch of milo. You can hear them in the dried out stubble of a ruined crop. It sounds like a bunch of wild boars in there stomping around, but you can’t see them. God painted them in a camouflage pattern that makes them invisible. You can hear them in there, thick as thieves, but you can’t see them. And, you’re the blocker, and the other hunters are marching slowly toward you, drawing the noose ever tighter. The adrenaline is coursing through your body as the dogs agitate the birds, building the tension to a crescendo.

Your thumb knows where the safety is. Your thumb gently caresses the safety, ready to push it through to the fire position if a rooster flies up from the field. And you’re watching the other hunters walk toward you, mentally keeping careful track of 10 other hunters and five dogs, so you won’t shoot in the wrong direction. And your mind is thinking make sure it's a rooster before you shoot and you’re standing there, riding an adrenaline rollercoaster, cause you know when that rooster fluses it's like a freight train exploding from the fields. An unmitigated acoustic explosion where the bird is suddenly arising from the stubble, as though incarnated from another world, and he’s suddenly flying right toward you. You shout out “ROOSTER!? and drop him with a single shot. And now there’s another. And another. And they’re flying from the field faster than you can reload. And people are yelling “HEN!? “ROOSTER!? “HEN!? “ROOSTER!? faster than you can process the data and the skies are filled with birds, and the birds are dropping like stones. It’s raining pheasants and the dog handlers are barking orders to the dogs “Dead Bird? and “HUNT ‘EM UP? and the dogs can’t even process the commands fast enough and then, suddenly, the guide is yelling “NO MORE? and “STOP SHOOTING? and “THAT’S THE LIMIT!? and the day is over.

The birds are stacked into an obscene pile of carnage. Beautiful birds, blasted into oblivion by shotguns, stacked in piles of avian corpses, leaking feathers in the gentle November winds. The coolers are opened, exposing chilled beers to the hunters, and we coalesce into little groups and secretly admit that we knew we’d limit out the whole time and the guides laugh and the dogs drink spring water and rest, panting, in the shade of the armada of trucks.

The men curse the democrats and chastise the tree-huggers, but there's none here, so they may as well be talking abou the Loch Ness Monster or Big Foot. And I admire how simple life is. How easy things are. In the city, there are homeless people and minorities and immigrants and liberals. But out here, the fields are a timeless stage for white males to sip light beer and kill birds with shotguns and wonder what on earth is really wrong with the world.

We take the pheasant to be cleaned by people who clean pheasant for a living and they give us little stickers that say "Just Shoot It". I ended up shooting six pheasant. The limit is 3, but as a group of 11, we shot 33 birds which is the limit. So, someone wasn’t carrying their weight, but I’m not clear who.

Posted by Peenie Wallie on November 11, 2005 at 5:49 PM


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