Recently my friend Jim, my yellow lab Santo and I had one of our better days pheasant hunting in Nebraska in years.
We drove out, with a light snow falling but a forecast of a cold but sunny weekend, perfect conditions for a good hunt. We woke up to a cold Saturday morning, but with fresh snow covering the fields as well as all the back roads we'd be driving to hunting spots.
Cold weather and a good snow huddles up the pheasants, and with all of Nebraska's corn crop finally in, we expected a pretty good day.
We drove carefully all day, staying in 4-wheel drive and usually making our own tracks on gravel roads where even the local farmers had not yet ventured. We navigated around a few big hills that looked like a good way to get stuck, and in a full day of hunting, we saw a total of one other group of hunters, who probably were scouting for the black-powder deer season.
What's happened to the bird hunters? We hunted just east of McCook, a town that years ago attracted pheasant hunters in droves. But these days, just about any time past opening weekend and you've got nearly everywhere to yourself.
A few reasons seem obvious. First, younger people just aren't hunting much anymore. The only hunters I know these days are us gray-beards, still longing for those crisp mornings and the thrill of watching your dog flush a rooster for an easy shot.
Access, yes, is more difficult. A lot more land is privately leased, so you've got to work to get permission to hunt. We've been lucky the past few years, paying some Nebraska land owners a small daily fee to hunt several of their properties. We'd knock on doors if we had to, but this arrangement has been easier.
Training a good bird dog is a lot of work, too, not something most of your city dwellers really seem to give a big hoot about. My lab is now almost eight, and it's only in the past two seasons that he's settled down into a mature bird dog. Unlike nearly every hunter I know, I refused to use any kind of electronic shock to train him. When he was younger, and ran too far out ahead, he just got a stern shout and maybe a slap on his haunts. I understand the idea of shock collars, which trainers will tell you really don't hurt the animal. But if someone was buzzing my neck every time I missed a shot, I wouldn't love the sport very much would I?
Upland bird hunting is a lot of walking -- and while I can seldom drag myself into a gym, taking good long walks with my lab and then hunting slowly, preferably in a small group of just two to three other hunters, is exercise I enjoy. I carry a small digital camera, pausing now and then for photos of old windmills, deserted barns and, of course, the desired retrieve of your dog running back with a bird in his mouth.
Once home, a grilled pheasant breast -- or maybe a bird stuffed with oranges and wrapped in bacon, then baked slowly to keep it juicey -- is a treat few people except us hunters get to savor.
I haven't had any time the past few years for waterfowl hunting for ducks and geese, but sitting in cold blinds has lost its appeal a bit. Maybe next year.
Give me the wide open spaces of Nebraska or Kansas, the good company of a few friends, the excitement of an unexpected flush of quail in a wooded area and the pride when your lab finds the downed bird buried deep in some heavy cover no man could ever reach into.
Walking into the hunting department of a Cabella's or other sports store, and you'd think hunting is a crowded sport. But head out in late December or early January, and you'll count the number of trucks you see with dog carriers on one hand.
Fewer hunters actually isn't a bad thing -- it just means a few more pheasants for me and my lab.