Friday, November 6, 2009

Small-game opener (So what's with the goose?)

As far as small-game openers go, today's model was all bright and shiny coming out of the showroom.

The morning sky was a brilliant turquoise and softened the brightest of the stars before they faded with the rising sunlight.

A chilling frost smothered the grass, offering a crunchy scale that crinkled with each foot fall.

I headed for the Club as I always do if I am in town for the small-game opener, which to me is better than the deer season - or even, turkey - opener.
Maybe that's because growing up I relished the small-game opener with our beagles. My dad, who never took a day off unless it was during his two-week vacation, always made an exception for the small-game opener. It was quite a crew, me, my dad and my two older brothers.

Now it is my turn and the Club in Ashtabula County is always my destination. Oh, I suspect I might find more stocked pheasants at the Grand River Wildlife Area but I'd also have a lot more company. I don't want to be peppered with shot. It's happened before. So I settle on the Club and hope there is still a leftover rooster pheasant from a field trial held periodically there.

Berry, my black Labrador retriever, joined me this morning. We left Jenny Lynn behind, though. She's almost 14 years old and her hips are uncomfortably stiff. I doubt she could handle two hours of rough going through neck-high corn and chest-high ragweed.

After about 15 minutes of hunting I needed to stoop down and retie the laces of my right boot. That's when a bunny jumped out only a few feet away. No way could I get off a quick-enough shot.

Several passes through standing corn didn't yield anything either. Berry never got excited and I didn't see any pheasant scat. I was rapidly becoming disappointed.

What I did see on my final west-to-east pass through the corn was the neck and head of one very much alive rooster pheasant. The bird was perhaps 60 or 70 yards distant and near the end of the corn.

Hoping the bird would stay put in the weed-infested corn patch, I kept walking forward with Berry cruising to my left. But when the pheasant reached the corn's terminal it became airborne and still at that 60 to 70 yard range; way, way, way too far for a shoot.

I tried to mark where the rooster came down and Berry and I searched for the better part of a quarter-hour but we found no bird. I figured it continued on to either adjacent private property or still further to another Club-maintained corn patch.

So I towed Berry through a large-size ragweed field and then turned west along a swale. This wet sink is a thick goo of brush that often holds a pheasant. Not this time, though.

Continuing on, Berry and I took our time going through the woods. Normally not a good place to find pheasants, the woods still serves as a bird thoroughfare. And sometimes you can pin one down beside a tree. Not this time, either.

Tired and starting to get played out, I ushered Berry to a 50-foot-wide strip of trees and brush that separates two fields. I've found many birds before hanging out in this strip that runs for perhaps 150 yards.

Getting to the end where a tractor path connects the two fields, I stopped to collect my thoughts as to what to do next. My shotgun was held at parade rest on my right hand and I hiked up my brush pants with my left hand.

Of course that is when the rooster decided to bolt, pushed out by the eager-beaver Berry. But the charmed bird used the brush to its advantage. Even though it erupted at less than 30 feet away there was too much natural screening for the shot from my 16-gauge Ithaca pump to worm its way to the rooster.

Bluntly, I missed as clean as a whistle.

Berry was none too happy that she couldn't fetch the pheasant and I was even less pleased. I had been bamboozled out of a rabbit and twice on a rooster.

After two hours of hunting I left in order to drop off a photograph of a young man to a mother who had requested it.

Fortunately for me the family also happens to own a farm pond that is often visited by Canada geese. And a small flock was there, too, lounging around on the grass between the barn and the house.

I parked by the barn and walked forward, not carefully or stealthy but normal like. The geese were puzzled and soon waddled into the pond. Flushing the flock I managed to drop two geese.

Maybe next year I'll take the plunge and go to Grand River and hope to find a pheasant or two. Then again, maybe not. For many years now the Club has been the place to begin my small-game hunting season and maybe I'm too old a bunny to make the switch.

Besides, a goose or two isn't a bad consolation prize.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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