Went hunting for pheasant twice last week. With a double-barreled, side-by-side, 1929 American-made (an L.C. Smith), 20-gauge shotgun that has art deco, large-leaf engravings. Five and a half hours walking in swamps, mud, cornfields, hayfields, woods, brooks and briars. Joyfully watching two friends’ dogs sniff and search for birds. There are now two pheasants and a quail in the freezer that I prepared for Thanksgiving dinner.

Ira, Blitz the German Shorthaired Pointer, and shotgun get the birds—11/10/09

Ira, Blitz the German Shorthaired Pointer, and shotgun get the birds—11/10/09


Pheasants and quail caught for Thanksgiving dinner—11/10/09

Pheasants and quail caught for Thanksgiving dinner—11/10/09

Non-hunters can never know the glorious hearts of canine breeds that find those still and silent birds. These pets track bird scent with the grace of ballerinas and have almost inexhaustible energy. When close, some dogs freeze, point and wait for the bird to bolt…or the hunter to prod the prey into the air, where it rockets suddenly at 40 to 60 miles per hour. Hopefully a retrieval follows.

Other dogs, like my English Springer Spaniel, Bella, are flushers. They track and do the bump as well. You just have to keep them relatively near by, because the shotgun only has an effective range of 35 or 40 yards. The pointers can wander all over, maybe a football field away. Some will stay motionless with nose aiming at the pheasant for 20 minutes. Then the hunter has plenty of time to close in for the shot. But a flusher out of range is a real frustration. You just watch the birds fly away, and curse, and yell at your dog.

As I mentioned in my bird stocking post (https://www.irasabs.com/?p=2430), the pheasants have a much better chance than chickens raised for supermarkets. In fact on the second day, during four hours of hunting, my friend and I fired at five pheasants and a woodcock, but only took one pheasant home.

My English Springer Bella after a swim—6/11/08

My English Springer Bella after a swim—6/11/08

Bella was lame for many months, so she hasn’t hunted for two years. She now seems healed. Hopefully we can search the fields together soon. She loves to romp and jump. She gets so excited when I take out the neck bell that helps me locate her as she scours the bushes and grasses. It is grown-up Hide and Seek.

For the birds the stakes are high. It is not a game. Yet they would probably not be alive in the first place if there weren’t hunting clubs eager to purchase them. Over 10 million pheasants are raised each year. It is an annual ritual anticipated by two million American hunters. These sportsmen welcome the challenge, the camaraderie, the preparation of the birds and the various recipes. My favorite way to cook pheasants is double-basted in raw eggs and flour, sauteed and topped with strawberry liqueur.

art deco shotgun engraving

art deco shotgun engraving

I only learned to hunt as an adult after I moved from Manhattan to Connecticut in 1990. Men of all backgrounds here have been in the woods and fields since they were children. They taught me how to walk quietly, to use a gun and aim a bow. I saw that each type of game demands a different kind of hunt. The woods became my spiritual church for many uplifting hours. I can be silent, listen more sharply than usual, and it is a miraculous meditation and communion.

Now there are scores of stories. I have stood stone-like, balancing over 10 minutes, while a turkey hen sentry waited to see if I was a threat. I have watched ticks crawl on me, while a snorting, stomping doe 10 feet away wondered if I was human. I have faced down coyotes at five yards and dodged a bobcat that crossed right before me. I have spent an hour calling to a tom turkey, trying to convince him to come closer. There have been bursts of quail covey that scattered like a box of exploding fireworks. Dozens of doves approached once with the wind, speeding at me like jets flying 70 miles per hour. I have enjoyed warming sunrises to the music of waking birds. I love the arcs formed by deer jumping and mooning white tails as they glide quietly away. I have retreated myself from a trail with bear prints in the snow. I am still looking for my first mountain lion.

Here is an amusing anecdote. I once had a Thanksgiving in which I personally harvested the meal: pheasant, turkey, dove, and squirrel. There were four well-researched recipes, of course, and everyone was looking forward to these new tastes. Except for one young man who arrived as a first-time guest and disclosed that he was the purest of vegetarians. He settled for sweet potatoes and salad. Later on he was my son-in-law. So it goes…