Outdoors

Solo hunts offer success and exercise

Wildside column: Author was forced out alone on pheasant hunt

Horse weed and foxtail grass along a fence row between two harvested cornfields provide suitable habitat for pheasants, and the narrow, linear nature of the fence row enables a solo hunter to cover it thoroughly. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
Horse weed and foxtail grass along a fence row between two harvested cornfields provide suitable habitat for pheasants, and the narrow, linear nature of the fence row enables a solo hunter to cover it thoroughly. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
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Winter exercise has always been a challenge for me — so much so, in fact, that I have a drawer filled with winter pants, which are two inches larger around the waist than those I wear the rest of the year.

While I have seen many people exercise for its own sake with smiles on their faces, to me jogging, calisthenics and weight lifting seem like boring and painful work.

Exercise, for me to appreciate it, must be fun per se, such as hiking in a spring woods to pick morels; or it must lead to fun, such as wading a stream to reach a secluded fishing hole; or it must yield satisfaction, such as a weed-free garden.

From March through October, when the streams are flowing and the lawns and gardens need attention, I have more outlets for enjoyable and productive exercise than I can indulge.

From late October through early January, my main outlet is the hunting of the ringneck pheasant, which suffered a major setback this year on opening day when my longtime hunting partner, Arthur Clark of Quasqueton, blew out his knee.

For 55 years Arthur and I have hunted together, mostly with the invaluable assistance of dogs named Mickey, Woody, Gus and Gunny.

The two of us together, with a savvy and aggressive dog between us, have been hard to skunk. Without them, I had to decide whether solo hunting was even an option.

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Bagging a wild, 21st-century pheasant, with its highly evolved survival skills, is challenging enough in the company of other hunters and good dogs.

Hunting them solo tilts the definition of fair chase decidedly in the rooster’s favor.

Pheasants that fly in response to danger die sooner than those that run or hide. While a good dog, with its heightened senses and intensity, can often defeat a running or hiding rooster, I knew to succeed I must somehow induce one to fly.

To reduce my underdog status, I skipped larger tracts of cover, concentrating instead on linear strips such as fence rows, creek buffers, grass waterways and roadside ditches, where a pheasant could not so easily skulk out of my narrow path.

Through such coverts I stomped erratically, zigging and zagging, stopping and starting, reversing course and doing whatever else I could think of to maximize and strengthen my emission of danger vibes.

On my first solo outing, I felt like a .180 hitter facing Roger Clemens, certain I was going to strike out and look bad doing it.

I was prepared to give up easily, but to my surprise and delight, I bagged a rooster on each of my first two solo hunts, and I was hooked.

I have since been shut out at least half the time, and in a few forays I have failed to even see a pheasant at any distance.

But in a December that has seemed more like late October, I have bagged five roosters in a dozen solo hunts, I feel great, and I still haven’t opened my winter pants drawer.

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After 55 years of pursuit, in which untold thousands, both seen and unseen, have eluded me, could it be that I had overestimated their wiles?

Either that, or I had underestimated my own prowess as a hunter.

My regular hunting buddies, who better than anyone know the gaps in my skill set, doubt that’s the case.

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