4562.7 Miles, Montana, North Dakota and Other Things In Installments

Following is the developing story of a 4,562.7 mile round-trip from San Diego to Montana and North Dakota is search of the wily Chinese ringneck pheasant – a gamebird that has held mystical powers over me for half-a-century.

On Monday, October 28, our son Ryan and I along with springer spaniels Gus and Jackass hit the road for a pheasant hunting excursion, first to Montana and then to North Dakota where we were joined by two friends with our shared purpose of eating, drinking, hunting and being merry.  Moderation in all things of course, yep, that’s me.

Despite plenty of preparation and planning, the trip got off to something of a slow start.  As we departed the driveway we observed that the front left tire was a tad low.  Closer inspection revealed a screw and the sense that we were screwed before we even hit the highway.  We stopped at a nearby Firestone where a listless Service Writer offered to fleece us for “thirty to forty bucks for labor” and a 45 minute wait despite the fact most of the service bays were open.

A few blocks away we found a Discount Tire Outlet where the Manager told us tire repair service is free despite the fact I’m not a customer and that he’d have his crew get right on it.  The company will soon receive my letter of thanks for the help of their Manager and crew along with a new customer.

Less than thirty minutes after arriving, the tire was patched, all tires inflated to the proper level and we were on our way with high enthusiasm that lasted for less time than it took to repair the tire.  A big rig had overturned on the I-15 at the Rancho Bernardo Drive exit, blocking all northbound lanes except the HOV lane we were in, but was packed tight with cars re-routed from the blocked lanes.  Except for a brief delay to observe some moose outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, it was the last traffic slowdown we’d see for the next 4,562 miles and 16 days.

With Ryan insisting on doing all of the driving, our first stop was in Beaver, Utah.  We landed the next night in Jackson Hole followed by a day of touring Yellowstone that led to a forgettable night’s stay in Billings, Montana.  From there, it was on to our first hunting stop in Plentywood, about as far as you can go into the Big Sky state’s northeast corner.

For Gus and I, it was a return to the comfortable home of a friend of a friend who is now a friend and showed us more genuine and generous hospitality than we could have hoped for, and we will forever be grateful.

After a good night’s sleep where I didn’t think once of bed bugs (the place Ryan insisted upon in Billings was a dump), we were up early the next morning to meet for coffee and breakfast with our host’s father at a locals’ coffee shop.  We were the only outsiders in the place, but the fact that we were sitting with one of the town’s most recognizable characters who would serve as our gratis guide provided a degree of acceptance and more importantly – access to most of the land in the county.

Born in Sweden, his name is Bernt, and despite his 86 years he could read the fine print on the menu and spot wildlife like a predator without the aid of glasses.  He’d served as a County Commissioner for over 40 years and more often than not had run for re-election without opposition.  He actively farmed until the age of 80 when he decided to lease his thousands of acres of land to others.

Trading his seat on a tractor for one at his favorite table at Randy’s Restaurant, he arrives six days a week at 5:45 a.m., 15 minutes before the doors officially open for business.  Most days he is joined by the same cronies for coffee, breakfast and stories, with Bernt holding forth for the most and best of them.  By the time we arrived at 7 a.m., he’d finished breakfast and his first few cups of coffee and his buddies had been shunned to another table to make room for the Californians crazy enough to drive over 1,700 miles just to hunt gamebirds – pheasants mostly – but also sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge if they so obliged.

Crazy we are I suppose, but not just about pheasants.  Crazy too, for the opportunity to travel the country, to enjoy the landscapes and wildlife and enjoy the company of our host and his father.  Crazy for the time that Ryan and I could spend working the dogs, hunting the birds and simply being together.  Crazy.

With one last gulp of coffee, we headed for the door before our waitress who refused to take “no” for an answer could again refill our cups, a task she viewed as if it were her mission in life.

With our truck already loaded with the dogs, their crates, guns and other gear, we managed to convince Bernt to drive our truck rather than his own and he seemed quite happy to trade his seasoned GMC for our more recent King Ranch version of a Ford F-150.

Soon, we were bouncing along a gravel road that led east out of town in the direction of North Dakota.  One of his buddies had told Bernt he’d seen a few pheasants on the land he tilled for wheat, and we were headed there.  The road dipped steeply to accommodate the mostly dry streambed that bisected the property, and it was there that he brought the truck to a stop.

Bernt suggested that Ryan, Gus, Jack and I work our way up, and he would meet us with the truck near some trees we could see a half-mile away.  Ryan and I were dressed about as warmly as we could be and still manage to raise our guns to our shoulders as we stepped out of the warm truck.  The outside temperature was well below freezing and a steady wind of about 25 knots gave harsh meaning to the term “wind chill factor.”

Gus and Jack were joyful as they burst from their shared kennel – happy to be out and running in the brisk air and even happier to find a suitable spot for their first pee and dump of the morning.  With those needs out of the way, Gus forged ahead trying to find some fresh pheasant scent, a pretty much hopeless endeavor given the roaring wind.  Jack the pup on his first pheasant hunt, simply followed Gus as he does when we visit the dog park near home.

As we worked our way up the bottomland, Ryan took the sloping right side of the creek while I veered to the left.  A short ways in, we saw four pheasants likely spooked by Bernt and the truck relocate from above us to some thick thigh high grass 100 yards ahead.  They were the first pheasants we’d seen since leaving San Diego.

As we forged ahead, Gus fruitlessly continued to try to find scent in the deep grass.  Jack followed and simply looked bewildered – but seemed energized by the most brisk conditions of his young life.  Eventually we were in the area where we thought the birds had landed, but if they had, they had moved on or we simply could not find them.  Ryan walked slowly up the embankment toward an edge in the direction the birds had first come from.  Suddenly, a rooster burst from just in front of him and with the aid of the wind was quickly behind him.  Ryan spun, fired and the bird dropped quickly into the deep grass with his feet down – a sign that he had plenty of strength to run or dig into a place where he could hide.

Gus had not seen the bird fall and Jack was just being introduced to lessons he’d begin to understand by the end of the trip.  Wild roosters are tough and unsympatheitic teachers.  Ryan gave me a “line” from where he’d fired and I was soon on the spot.  Gus followed, picked up a whiff of scent and frantically fought the wind to try to find where it led.  Ryan came off the hill to join us and finally, Gus was able to locate and dig out the injured and very pissed off rooster.  He released the bird grudgingly and I quickly dealt with it in the manner my farm-raised mother dispatched of chickens when it was time for one to make its fateful transition to the stew pot.  Stuffing the brightly colored rooster into his vest, I told Ryan that as far as I was concerned, the long drive had been worth this moment.  Many more would follow.

Slowly, we walked a further, spreading out to explore the heaviest areas of cover that seemed most likely to harbor birds and then came back together for a strategy session.  As we talked, Gus was next to us and relentlessly burrowing into tall grass that had rolled over in the wind.  It is a scene we have seen with our dogs many times over the years.  Sometimes they flush a cottontail, find a mouse or pick up a previously injured pheasant unable to fly.  Although I know to always trust your dog, I’d pretty much discounted Gus’ efforts until a rooster took flight just before he could grab him.  We both fired and hit the fleeing bird, my shot coming an instant after Ryan’s.  Gus was quickly on the downed rooster and was not pleased as Jack tried to take it from him during the retrieve.  Neither seemed happy as I took the bird from both of them and shoved it into Ryan’s vest, providing him with two very satisfying bulges.

Minutes later, Gus became “birdy” near a patch of brush and dove in.  Keeping the brush between themselves and the guns, a hen and rooster made an effective escape.  Several seconds later, another rooster headed in the opposite direction, a mistake that made it Ryan’s third bird and completed his limit.  It all came within an hour of the time we’d left the truck.  Though unspoken, the thought again came as to how meaningful this trip had already become for me.  It was not because of the fact that Ryan shot so well or that he had three beautiful cock birds in the bag, one of which I could share some credit for.  It was much more than that and less tangible.  It was about the dogs, a new friend, a cold Montana morning and the fact that Ryan and I were together and doing what I love for us to do.  My eyes watered a bit.  It must have been the cold. dry wind.

I put my arm on Ryan’s shoulder as we walked to a spot where Bernt had driven the truck to wait for us.  After loading Gus and Jack into their kennel, I climbed in and could see the smile of satisfaction on Bernt’s face.  He was happy to have done such a fine job as our guide, but he’d also been fiddling while while we were chasing roosters.  He’d adjusted the temperature in the truck and explored the options of the leather seat, raising it up and adding heat.  Bernt liked the truck.

Since I’d also hit the second rooster, I added it to my bag, leaving me with two to go and Ryan one.  Bernt drove to some abandoned homesteads I’d hunted with his grandson the season before.  The structures that once supported hardworking farm families had become ramshackle shadows of their once proud and productive pasts.  Doors askew, windows broken, the worn wooden structures were surrounded by old cars and rusting farm equipment as remnants from a better time.  For the most part, these places are obscured by surrounding lines of shrubs and trees planted as shelter belts to protect the homes and their now long gone inhabitants.

With the people gone, the pheasants have moved in, not in the houses which have been claimed by owls, but in the tall grass that is no longer cut and the shelter belts that give them some degree of protection from predators and prairie winters.  As we approached them, Bernt told us stories of the people he knew well who had lived there, of their families, their failings and in some cases their peculiarities.  In short, he had survived life as a dirt farmer dependent on rain at the right time and harvests that would pay more than his expenses.  They had not.

The shot was nearby, loud and for Ryan, a rare miss, though he said he thought he’d “gotten a piece of it.”  Bernt had taken up a position next to the truck near the end of the shelter belt as we worked our way toward him.  With Gus and Jack working the brush and trees, pheasants fled in every direction.  A big rooster flushed from the cover, but when it spotted Bernt turned back in my direction moving right to left and riding a tailwind.  My first barrel provided a clean miss, but I caught up with the bird and the second resulted in a square hit.  The rooster crashed into wheat stubble on the hill that rose to my left and Gus had been on it from the start.  He raced up the hill and picked up the bird just seconds after it hit.  He held it high as he began the retrieve, but not high enough to prevent Jack from “helping.”

Gus spun in circles to keep the bird away from the late arriving Jack, but to no avail.  With the pheasant squarely in Gus’ jaws, Jack managed to hang onto its tail and share in the retrieve and was visibly quite pleased with himself.  Gus was not so pleased, but quickly returned to the hunt as I pushed the bird into my vest.  Soon, he was on the trail of the rooster Ryan had ticked earlier.  It could not fly, but it certainly could run.  From time to time, we could see flashes of the rooster, then Gus, then the rooster and again Gus as they thrashed through shrubs and deadfalls from the trees that obscured most of the chase.  This went on for a minute or so until the ruckus stopped, and Gus happily emerged with Ryan’s bird in tow – and Jack nowhere in sight.

With Ryan’s limit complete, I needed one more pheasant and Bern was happy to oblige my request to return to the farm junkyard that the season before provided me with frustration and a favorite story – The Junkyard Cock of Plentywood.  Sitting on a hillside, it is a graveyard for old cars and farm equipment, some of it dating to a time when livestock rather than internal combustion engines provided the power.

Ryan waited in the truck and chatted with Bernt and I left the dogs in their kennel to prevent possible injury from the rusting shards of equipment.  Just a few steps in, I was startled by a great horned own that expressed its displeasure as it left its roost among the limbs of a tree.  I picked my way slowly through the equipment and headed toward the antique harvester the Junkyard Cock had flushed from a year earlier.  When I got within ten yards of it, there was a sudden crash of metal as a whitetail doe and large fawn jumped from their sheltered beds under the harvester.  I was caught by surprise, but smiling as they bounded away.

Another 40 yards up the hill, and I arrived at a shed next to the one the Junkyard Cock had used to elude me.  Just inside the open door, I spotted a treasure that comes from tromping around in this country, a pair of “sheds” from whitetail deer.  Both were from the left side and either came from two different deer or the same deer in successive years.  The largest of the two sported six points, the other five.

As I returned to the truck, I held them above my head, waved them for Ryan and Bernt to see and could hardly conceal my amusement over the irony that I’d found the the treasured sheds that now sit in my den and are on their way to becoming hat racks…..in a shed.

As we drove back to town, our new, but 86 year old BFF shared a wealth of stories and observations about the land, its people and wildlife.  Once back to our host’s home, I went to the alley at the back of the house, laid the six roosters on a flatbed trailer and began the process of cleaning them.  I first peeled the skin from the breasts and continued working it free of the flesh until I could use my game shears to cleanly remove the breast, thighs and legs from the rest of the carcass.  They were divided into piles, one for the breast filets and the other to the thighs and legs that remained intact.

An elderly man walked unsteadily down the alley toward me.  His left hand held a leash attached to the collar of a small dog that barked at me.  His right hand clutched the handle of a small dolly that held an oxygen bottle connected by a clear plastic tube to his nose.

The old man smiled and nodded at the results of my labor, but declined my offer to provide some pieces for his dinner.  “Legs and thighs,” he said, “lots of bones, but best flavor.”  I agreed and told him I like to simmer them in wine and stock until the dark meat can easily be separated from the bones and many tendons.  Shaking his head in approval, he turned and continued down the alley.  As the dog pulled ahead, it quit barking and the oxygen bottle and its dolly trailed behind.


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