116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
As I write this at midday on the winter solstice, the cloud-hidden sun is 24 degrees above the southern horizon.
On its nine hour and seven minute journey across the southern sky, it provides little warmth, and its wan, low-trajectory light casts oddly elongated south-to-north shadows and only half-heartedly illuminates a mostly black and white landscape.
During a pheasant hunt two days before the solstice and two days before the onset of the storm that will be remembered as the Christmas blizzard of ’22, you couldn’t tell the snow-covered fields from the pallid sky except where a fence or brush line stitched them together at the horizon.
You could stare endlessly at the pale disk in the southern sky with no discomfort. It was too dim even to do justice to the brilliant plumage of a flushing rooster pheasant, which looked as dark as a crow in its unsuccessful bid to outfly a swarm of birdshot traveling at 1,400 feet per second.
The rooster was an early Christmas present for me and my friend Arthur Clark of Quasqueton. As we motored from one hunting spot to another, we saw it run across the gravel road in front of us — a rare sight in this era of fewer and smarter pheasants.
We parked the pickup over the next hill, out of the traveling rooster’s sight, loaded our shotguns and turned Willow loose. Arthur’s German shorthaired pointer immediately caught a pheasant’s scent and followed it up the south ditch. When she crossed to the north ditch precisely where our rooster had crossed, we knew she was on the right trail.
In our experience, most road-crossing roosters are hyper-vigilant and typically run or fly off beyond the range of our shotguns. This one flushed in range and fell with a broken wing onto a field of snow-covered corn stubble that stretched unbroken for half a mile.
“My money’s on Willow,” Arthur hollered as she bounded after the fleeing bird. With the gap between them narrowing, they disappeared behind a rise in the field, over which Willow soon reappeared with the bird in her mouth.
The gift bird made my day, just as the last smallmouth bass of the open water season highlighted my Dec. 14, the last nice day of 2022. Fifty-degree warmth had melted the thin ice that had covered the Wapsipinicon for most of the month, providing a last chance to present a lure to the lethargic bass sulking in the deep cold water.
For an hour I vainly tried one slow presentation after another, hoping for that one last addictive toink that would carry me closer to spring. Though that toink never came, additional weight burdened one of my last retrieves, and a 14-inch smallmouth, fighting like a waterlogged stick of equal weight, came to hand — another early Christmas gift.
Still another came my way earlier in the month as I combed a river’s edge rock bar for agates. If the low-angled December sun is good for anything, it’s spotlighting translucent stones. A cold wind cut my hunt short but not before I found a couple of dazzling honey agates, glowing like Christmas ornaments among millions of like-sized opaque leverites (leave her right where you found her).
As most of us learned in grade school with the aid of a flashlight and a world globe, the short, eerily lit December days occur because of the earth’s 23.5 degree tilt on its axis. On its annual orit, the planet’s northern hemisphere leans farthest from the sun’s most direct rays on the winter solstice.
Six months from now, at the summer solstice, the sun’s angle of elevation at high noon will be 71 degrees above the southern horizon, and noon shadows will be scrunched at our feet. Our longest day of the year will span 15 hours and 14 minutes.
As lavish and bountiful as June’s gifts will be — fish, fruit, flowers, birds and butterflies under a blue sky in a sea of green — they will be no more appreciated than December’s humble presents.
It’s the thought that counts.