MADISON, Minn. -- I have come west again, to kill a pheasant. Maybe several pheasants, should our fortune be so good.
Gone now, the too-warm early-season days of October. Gone, too, the massive tracts of standing corn where the birds had too much room to hide.
This is the early December hunt. The corn is harvested. Three of us have come, as we have for more than 30 years, to hole up in the red farmhouse. That's three dog lives for some of us, four for others.
It's the pheasants that have drawn us over the decades, and the birds still matter to us. We drive for five hours for this privilege. When one of my companions finally turns off the asphalt and onto the gravel, his Lab senses the rumble beneath the tires and begins to whimper with anticipation. That's how we all feel.
We say it's the pheasants, but we all know this hunt is more than that. It's blood-red December sunrises through the branches of the old cottonwood. It's the sere texture of the land. It's cold fingers, ice-covered sloughs and stingy daylight.
It's personal history, too. We cover a lot of ground in our conversations around the kitchen table. Almost no topic is off-limits -- life, death, hopes, fears, kids, regrets, politics, health. That old kitchen has been a crucible of friendship.
On the land
But when it's time to hunt, we hunt. We walk all the familiar covers -- the switchgrass, Lake Marge, "the 200," the willow run, Bruce's cattails, the north-south tree row. We may start out together, but our dogs invariably lead us in different directions. We follow them. We understand they know a lot more about this than we do.
Each of us long ago realized this is the purest form of pheasant hunting -- one hunter, one dog. So free and easy. The object is simply to cover ground until suddenly you notice an intensity in the dog that wasn't there a moment ago. Scent. Everything about the dog -- the squared-up ears, the nose pulled along the ground, the quick, sharp turns. If you're following a Lab, your pace increases dramatically. On the longest and fastest chases, you get the same feeling deep in your throat that you knew running the half-mile in high school track.
If you're following a pointer, as one of my buddies does, the pace decreases as the scent increases. Finally, the dog becomes a statue, and the hunter knows the sky could be full of rooster at any second.