Memories from an early winter hunt

Wildside column: Pheasant hunt in 1991 brought snow, plenty of roosters

In subzero temperatures Tuesday morning, steam shrouds Canada geese gathering in a shrinking area of open water on the Wapsipinicon River near Quasqueton. This year’s relatively late arrival of winter weather contrasts with the winter of 1991, which began in earnest just days after Halloween. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
In subzero temperatures Tuesday morning, steam shrouds Canada geese gathering in a shrinking area of open water on the Wapsipinicon River near Quasqueton. This year’s relatively late arrival of winter weather contrasts with the winter of 1991, which began in earnest just days after Halloween. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

This year — after an exceptionally long, dry and mild autumn — we finally got winter, with snow and subzero wind chills, for Christmas.

For those of us who think every winter lasts too long, that late start beats the many winters that arrived around Thanksgiving and certainly the winter of 1991, which stormed in just after Halloween on blizzard gales.

Twenty-six years later, I and several friends who were together that weekend still recall it as our most memorable pheasant hunt.

Pheasants were abundant then on the second weekend of a season in which Iowa hunters harvested more than 1.1 million roosters — almost five times as many as the recent 10-year average.

We were on the warm side of the storm as it raced north on Oct. 31, dumping as much as three feet of snow in Minnesota before it blew itself out. The National Weather Service reported the Halloween blizzard of ’91 was set up, in part, by the same weather patterns that hammered the East Coast in the “Perfect Storm” depicted in a popular book and motion picture.

When we took to the fields on Nov. 2, a damp and overcast day, the weather still was conducive to pheasant hunting, though the birds, to judge by their restless behavior that afternoon, seemed to sense trouble coming.

By 4 p.m. that day, six of us had shot 13 roosters, and the five more we needed for limits seemed unlikely until pheasants started flying from all directions into the brome grass field we were hunting.

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Moments later, as we collected our 18th rooster, they were still coming in, which boded well for the following day’s hunt.

As we gathered the next morning at the same location, nickel-sized clumps of snow filled the air, falling at a rate of two inches per hour.

Undaunted, our six-man, three-dog skirmish line slogged into a slough choked with horse weeds, ringed with plum thickets and booby trapped with snow-cloaked hummocks — exactly where pheasants might seek shelter from a storm.

The wet, rapidly accumulating snow soon soaked our clothing, and the falling temperature and rising wind sent chills through our bodies, but we were, at first, having too much fun to notice.

Dan Smith, a retired surgeon from Kalispell, Mont., had joined us locals for the weekend hunt, bringing with him Zeke, his finely pedigreed and highly titled German shorthaired pointer, who strolled nonchalantly among the horseweeds, pointing here and there at roosters buried in the snow.

Arthur Clark’s legendary flush dog Woody and Terry Franck’s sweet half-Lab Sandy rooted the reluctant roosters from their lairs, and our snow-soaked vests began to sag with the weight of pheasants.

Having removed my snow-caked spectacles almost at the outset, I held my fire as a matter of safety and missed out on all the shooting, which ended shortly before noon, not because we accomplished our limits, which we would have in another half-hour, but because crashing thunder and flashing lightning frightened from the field hunters with highly conductive steel implements in their hands.

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Editor's note: Brandon Caswell has undergraduate degrees in biology, anthropology and geology. He enjoys bird-watching and nature photography. He helps instruct introductory and advanced courses in environmental science and geosci ...

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