The November drive home from the pheasant fields of South Dakota to Minneapolis is the longest and loneliest. Cruise control and a ruler-straight interstate make contemplation easy. I find myself reminiscing about the season past, painting mental pictures of the resplendent graces of nature and some of the people I met afield. I’m denying the calendar reality of the coming winter and the fact that, for me, this hunting season is over.
The season began in the heat, bugs and lush green of high summer in Minnesota. The Department of Natural Resources had extended one bird season the only direction possible here in the north — back into summer. To keep the burgeoning Canada goose population from grazing and soiling Twin City golf courses and schoolyards like winged Holsteins, we now have a bonus goose season starting before Labor Day. Mosquito repellant is often more important than shotgun shells on these hunts.
During the summer I got my neighbor’s permission to hunt his hayfield adjacent to our south property line. A tireless farmer, Marv is all for anything that will disrupt the geese from chomping his grain crops before his combine can. My family indulged me, and we returned a day early from our summer vacation so I could build a blind.
On opening day, September 1, the strangeness of pursuing my fall obsession in the summer struck me. All the sounds and smells were out of sync with hunting. Each stride through the alfalfa raised the scent of new-mown hay. Still, at the anointed hour, I was there in my blind accepting this early hunt like an overtime bonus on a bird hunter’s paycheck.
At 6:10 a.m. the mosquitoes had beat the sun up. A chipping sparrow eyed me from atop his corn tassel perch four feet above my head. His vocal exuberance for the coming day was contagious. But when I puckered and tried to mimic his notes he flitted off — a song with wings.
I dropped to my seat as shots echoed out of the hollow east of me. But from my hilltop vantage, I heard no alarmed geese and saw nothing but a few ducks circling a slough. I watched the mallards fly, then saw one cartwheel before another 12-gauge report reached my ears. Probably my neighbor’s son, Josh, hunting their wetland. I wondered out loud how he could be so bold to open the duck season a month early. I guessed he was using the shots of goose hunters to cover his premature duck hunt.
To my west, I heard evidence of the annual invasion of the poacher army on Roland’s farm. They warmed up their calls like an orchestra before the conductor walks on.
Cacophony. When the geese finally headed to the fields to eat, they were greeted by volleys of shots. Invisible clouds of BBs reached for the flocks but fell far short.
Flexing their primary feathers for more altitude, the geese didn’t know, on the first day of the season, they were safe at 150 yards. The wind was suddenly full of the sounds of opening day — screaming geese, barking retrievers, cursing men.
That evening, from my porch, I heard Roland’s milking machine go silent right on schedule. I stood and watched the 78-year-old bachelor dairy farmer walk wearily from his barn to another solitary supper. I imagined he was grumbling to himself as he watched two ATVs veer off the railroad right-of-way and across his posted hay field. Minutes later I knew he could hear the shots and the geese over the hum of his microwave. They were shooting geese in the dark. But Roland was alone and afraid. And the poachers knew it.
The next day I ask Roland why he doesn’t call the game warden when these hunters trespass and drive across the new-growth alfalfa he has planted “under” his oats. “Aw, I don’t want to get anybody in Dutch,” he said. What he meant was, I don’t want to get myself in Dutch with these armed men.
As the early goose season wore on, my neighbors’ patience wore thin with hunters who chose to drive rather than walk over their fields. Marv even called one night to ask if those were my truck tracks through his alfalfa. “Nope,” I said, “some red-headed guy. Said he had your permission.” Marv snorted at that. “You’re the only one with permission,” he said. “If you see him again, tell him to stay the hell off my hay.”
About the time the last bales of hay were stacked roof-high in my neighbors’ barns, it was early October, and I was headed for the duck sloughs of North Dakota. My partners and I hunted with awe amid a bumper crop of waterfowl. But an idyllic duck dinner on the prairie, planned with great anticipation, turned into duck dinner under the awning of the Super 8 motel in Edgeley. A cold rain dampened everything but our waterfowling spirits.
Hunters from several Midwest states were drawn by their noses to our small charcoal grill — sizzling with mallard, widgeon and gadwall breasts. The chatter among strangers was fraternal: shots made and missed, the evils of prairie pothole mud, heroic dog work. Kindred spirits all.
Almost all. When a 20-something-year-old from the KILNDUX license plate group approached, his tone was not social but competitive. “We murdered ’em,” he reported. Not satisfied with our reaction, he disappeared then reappeared and dumped two black garbage bags of over-limit proof at our feet. Mike, a lanky lineman for our local phone company back home, waited for him to leave. Then he gently rested his spatula on a tailgate, walked silently to his room and made a call.
The beer-amplified laughter from two doors down slammed to silence when the officer identified himself. But the evidence, by then, had been swallowed. Angry threats reverberated through the walls when the U. S. Fish & Wildlife car left the parking lot. The mood at the Super 8 turned suddenly sullen and gray, matching the Dakota sky.
Later in October I returned to my favorite Minnesota slough with my Labrador, Smoke, as my only companion. Patience was a necessary ally. I dozed between infrequent duck sightings and snippets of one-way conversation. Then Smoke’s whining awakened me. He was watching a flock of mallards that had landed well out of range. It featured an albino. He stood out like a cardinal in the snow. I was reminded of my long-past Kansas sighting of an albino pheasant. And the children’s fairy tale “The Ugly Duckling.”
That night the slough’s owner phoned me at home. Unusual for a farmer wary of the cost of long-distance calls. I thought he was calling about the white mallard. But the reason was more sinister. He found a small pile of dead ducks and geese while mowing his ditches. He wondered, under his words, if they might be mine.
I told him it had been a slow morning. “Never shouldered the Remington, Duane.” We concluded the waterfowl had probably been dumped by hunters returning from North Dakota, fearing a DNR road block. Or too tired from the long drive to face the cleaning chores.
By the first week in November, most shallow Minnesota sloughs were frozen. My thoughts turned to turkeys. With the hope that my third annual entry into the spring turkey license lottery would be charmed, I visited a neighbor with a 40-acre wood lot. I wanted to test my chances of getting permission to hunt the following April. The owner was new to our township, but I had what I thought was a convincing ice breaker — I had worked with his dad in the old Bell System.
A glint of sun off his pickup led me beyond the house to the edge of the woods. He was unloading what appeared to be bags of feed off the tailgate. But he tossed them back into the truck as he noticed my approach.
After several references to his dad I ask what the bags of corn and alfalfa pellets were feeding. “Oh, my wife enjoys watching the deer,” he said. “One of the joys of living in the country,” I responded. But I noted their house was well beyond view of his feeding station.
I got a noncommittal “check with me in the spring” on the turkeys, and we smiled our goodbyes. As I wound my way in first gear back toward the gravel road, through my rearview mirror I saw an old wooden extension ladder angled against an oak. I stopped and craned my neck out the window. The ladder led to a deer stand just beyond the food pile. A baiter masquerading as a feeder.
By November 11th, Veterans Day, the deer around my place had pretty much finished munching what was left of my sweet corn. I decided to check to see if the ground had frozen too hard to till. As I walked to my garden I noticed an imperfection in my recent pole barn paint job. What I found was no paint blister. The metal siding had been peeled open the size of a can of Alpo dog food. I raced inside the barn and saw the entry wound on the opposite wall. A perfect tracing of the end of a 12-gauge barrel.
Furious, I phoned the county sheriff. A deputy arrived before dark, looking and speaking like Barney Fife from the old Andy Griffith Show. While searching in vain for the spent slug, he fired off staccato bursts of police talk. “Reckless discharge of a firearm.” “Public endangerment.” I heard the dispatcher on his radio ask for a squad to investigate “possible trespassing by deer hunters.” He promised to return, but I never saw him again.
By mid-November, the cold and ice at home had turned my attention south. For the first time in 40 years, I made the decision not to buy an Iowa license. Their pheasant flock was in dismal shape because of a brutal winter last year and several really wet springs in a row.
I made arrangements for a three-day hunt in rooster mecca — South Dakota. This was a first for me. A friend farms three half sections on the bluffs above the Missouri River. During October his farm is filled with hunters who pay for the privilege. But by this deep into the season, their numbers had waned, which allowed friendship to outweigh money.
Breakfast for pheasant hunters at Al’s Oasis in Chamberlain is a leisurely meal owing to the 10 a.m. daily start time. A far cry from duck hunters back home, who attack their eggs trying to beat daylight to the swamp. These pheasant hunters wore $40 haircuts and $400 Upland outfits. Dayglo shirts, still creased. Executives smiled at one another over third cups of coffee, as in their board rooms. I learned that most were paying $250 a day for hunting privileges on ranches cultivated for pheasants. In the café parking lot, guides with no haircuts scurried to fill four-wheel-drive chuck wagons with box lunches.
Each mile of gravel road in the Chamberlain area was posted with permanent metal signs that warned “No Road Hunting.” Put there by the Lakota Sioux Indians, who, with the state, regulate hunting on their Crow Creek reservation.
I followed a rusty pickup on the way to my friend’s ranch. A young man wearing a rear-pointing baseball cap rode in back in the open bed. The deep-bass thrum of a rap song followed the truck like the plume of dust. They slowed to 20 mph. Honked the horn. A rooster flushed from the ditch. The bed rider dropped it and leapt to the retrieve like a Labrador.
I tried to calculate the geometric challenge of hitting a flying bird from a moving truck. Blind luck? Or the apex of youthful coordination? I thought it akin to NASA firing a rocket off the spinning earth and hitting the orbiting moon.
At the ranch my host explained the tricks of the trade for his ring-necked cash crop. Milo is preferred over corn — short enough even at maturity to shoot over. And every second pass through the fields during harvest, the combine head is lowered to five inches from the ground to create easier walking paths for the hunters. Herbicides are no longer sprayed. Pheasants like weeds in their row-crop coverts. Payment for hunting privileges is cash. In advance. Poor wing shots have put stop-payment orders on their checks in the past.
My friend wouldn’t let me pay for the pheasants I bagged. Still, driving home, I felt like I had been snitching apples from a commercial orchard. I was on my second loop through all the CDs in the truck when the sight of the distant Minneapolis skyline ended my behind-the-wheel reverie. I thought of my sons living in the suburbs beyond the skyscrapers. They’re adults now, with their own families. I wondered if they still hunted by the rules. Even when no one was watching. I wondered if they would be ambitious enough in their business lives to afford the future of hunting.
My English setter stirred in his travel pen for the first time in 200 miles. He thumped right back down again, exhausted from the three-day hunt. He had no idea just how long he could rest before next season.
Bill Klein lives in Stillwater, Minnesota, and recently retired after a career in advertising and sales promotion for AT&T.