This is a story about the lengths we hunters will go to get our game. It is also a story about how tough Johnny Ringneck can be.
Saturday was the opening of pheasant season, and as we do every year, we go to a large rice farm off Highway 99 just north of Sacramento to hunt with our fellow members of the Golden Ram Sportsman’s Club. It is the only time the club actually plants pheasants, birds which have been raised in pens and are then released into the fields.
Planted pheasants are not nearly as smart as wild ones; we saw at least one, maybe two who’d succumbed to hawks. More on this later. The point of the opening hunt is for everyone to get out, get some shooting in, and generally have a great time. Is it hunting? Not normally, as the birds are generally pretty easy to chase down. We usually get several birds each time.
So it was with high expectations that Holly and I drove up the 99 to Sankey Road. “I really want to walk until we get our four birds,” I said. Hunters are allowed two rooster pheasants apiece on opening weekend, three apiece after that. Holly agreed.
When we arrived we found Brian and Riley the Dog. Holly hunted with Brian last season. Brian had brought his friend Pat and Pat brought Trump the Springer Spaniel. We decided to hunt as a group. Hot damn, two dogs! We’d get our eight birds no problem. Remember, these are mostly planted birds, although wild ones live on the ranch as well.
Off we went. The ranch manager said he’d planted the birds along ditches and the levee roads; pheasants are known as “ditch chickens,” after all. Once we started walking, we could see why: The rice fields had been disked, and the checks were devoid of cover. No cover, no birds. I felt a bad feeling creeping up the back of my neck.
Still, we expected to flush a rooster at every tuft of tules we approached. Now a cock pheasant flushing at close range is a thrilling, heart-stopping moment; sometimes they will hunker down and flush literally at your feet. Fat men have been known to drop dead on the spot from fright when this happens.
Soon Trump got birdy, his little spaniel butt shaking. “Get the bird! Go get ‘im!” Pat urged, and Trump dashed into a ditch. We all lifted our shotguns, but immediately saw that what rose was an annoyed red-tailed hawk, not a pheasant. The rooster, headless, was in the ditch. I thought about taking it. But at that point I was still proud.
So we walked on. And walked. And walked. “Where the hell are the birds?” we asked. This was nothing like the previous years, where everyone would have a bird in hand by 9 a.m. This was, well, hunting. Real pheasant hunting, like what I did in South Dakota years ago.
Finally we found a field where the checks were not defoliated. Surely there had to be pheasants here. So I walked through the brush on one check, Holly trudged through the soft plowed field on one side, Pat on another, and Brian was on the next check. A classic pheasant line.
Pheasants will run away in front of a line like this and will eventually flush when they reach the end of the cover. So to do it right, you need to go pretty fast or they will flush out of range. Pheasants are very, very fast runners. But we were halfway through the field when Trump flushed a pheasant. “Erk! Erk! Erk! Erk!” That cackle is unmistakable. I swung on the bird but couldn’t get a shot off in time before it flew out of range.
We watched as it sailed into the next field — and was immediately pounced on by a red-tailed hawk! The hawk was jumping all over the pheasant and was no doubt tearing it to shreds. Brian let out a sigh. I turned to everyone and said, “I’m going to get that bird. I’m bigger than that hawk and I’ll take my chances.”
So I rushed over to the next field. “Rushing” is a relative term, as the disked field was soft and wildly uneven. Even moving at a normal walking pace felt like running. I kept my eyes on the hawk and the pheasant as I slogged closer. I’d heard from our new friend Rebecca, who hunts ducks with falcons, that raptors tend to eat the head first. That’s OK. I don’t eat the head.
This’ll be a bit unseemly, I thought, letting the hawk do my killing for me, but fer chrissakes I’d been walking for three hours without so much as seeing a damn pheasant! But as I got closer the hawk spotted me and flew off. And then the pheasant got up and looked at me, its head still very much on top of its body. And then it began to run. Fast.
Shit! It was getting away! I ran — or did the closest thing I could to running — to the spot where I saw the rooster dash into the brush surrounding a rice check. I caught my breath as Riley the Dog arrived. “Get the bird, Riley!” I urged him. ”Get the bird!” Riley began sniffing for pheasants.
Holly had caught up with me by that time, and was marching with me to my right. Riley froze. There’s the bird! “Erk! Erk! Erk! Erk!” It flushed and I swung on it — BOOM! — Holly and I shot at precisely the same moment. I can still see that pheasant shuddering in mid-air, crashing down to the muddy field…and then flying right back up again, fleeing the mad Riley, who was snapping at his feet!
For the love of God, will this pheasant not die? He sailed down near the end of the field, definitely wounded. We resumed the chase, but when we got to the spot, no bird. Riley searched, then Trump joined the search. Holly and I looked in a ditch, Brian over on the next check. Finally, Pat came along just as Riley cornered the rooster. He grabbed it and helicoptered it, breaking the bird’s neck.
It was over. Finally. Or so we thought. We put the World’s Toughest Rooster into Holly’s game bag, and went off looking for another pheasant we had flushed during the chase. But a few minutes later, Holly noticed the bird had shifted in her bag. She opened it to check, and there was Johnny Ringneck, looking for a final avenue of escape. Not this time. Holly wrung Johnny’s neck. Examining the bird, Brian declared it a pen-raised pheasant. Dumb. But tough.
The Unkillable Pheasant was dead. It took the combined efforts of a hawk, two dogs and four hunters to kill him. But there’s an epilogue to this story…
I would be God-damned if I wasn’t going to eat every bit off this bird, given all the trouble we went through to get him. So when we got home I began to pluck him. (If you ever wanted to know how to pluck a pheasant, here’s a tutorial.) I was expecting a pretty shot-up bird. After all, Holly and I both hit him squarely, right?
Apparently not. This rooster had barely a mark on him. All I found was a single copper BB lodged in his back. We had literally chased down a pheasant — by hand.
How will we eat this pristine pheasant? He absolutely must be dry-aged, then brined, then roasted whole. I will drink my best Chateauneuf du Pape in his honor. More on that later.