Our Outdoors: Soft Landings
By Nick Simoson
Say what you want about the snow, it does provide some unique advantages when it comes to upland hunting. While tromping through cattail sloughs on some late season hunts this weekend, I learned that many of those swamps and their cover had prospered, thickened, and grown in the wet spring and early summer. For that reason, as the reeds conspired and constricted around my boots and legs in a seemingly supernatural effort reserved for a science fiction film, it was comforting that a layer of snow was below my boots. As I teetered, tripped, strode, and stamped, the soft layer of a foot or so resting on the ground was always a safe place to land a knee and regain my balance, without fear of smashing my patella against the rigidity of slough ice or frozen ground.
But the best advantage provided by last week’s quick dusting of a few additional inches was the knowledge that pheasants were in the areas we were walking, and in good numbers. While the highways of tracks wound their way around the edges of the cattails, along creek banks, and through the standing brown vegetation, my favorite signs of pheasant activity came in those places where it was obvious a bird had landed with a puff of snow, and their tails or wings made an imprint. Particularly the tail fans of those large, late-season roosters left sizeable impressions, and I’m certain a little extra drag of their rump made the mark in the snow seem a bit more exciting, as some of the points on the end of the sign suggested epically long feathers.
While it’s likely that they just happened to hit a bit harder, send up a bit more snow, and maybe pull their fans into the cattails with a longer drag, the impression made when they landed was not only left on the ground, but also on my psyche. As my dog followed trails of pointy fresh tracks and old rounded ones into the vegetation, I was even more ready for Birdzilla to break from cover, crowing and flapping with a sun-blocking silhouette that darkened the day and sent my heart into my throat and my scattergun to my shoulder. While their escapes most often were far earlier and farther off than in the early season, a few birds provided close-in shots and memorable moments standing chest deep in cover with boots and pants covered in an icy mix of the snow that shook loose from the reeds and kicked up from the ground below, to melt and refreeze into a sparkling armor of sorts.
Thanks to the snow, it was easy to tell where hunters had been before, and whether they had been in the same spot recently. Additionally, the fresh tracks and landing points were more apparent as the light dust scattered around the newer impressions, and the older ones were iced over, or only a tracing remained around where the birds had made their way in the days before. All the clues of what lay ahead in the deep cover that draws pheasants in December were on the ground, making for better hunting, even if it was a bit more challenging.
By the end of the day, with at least six miles under our belts, our group found as many roosters in our game pouches. We saw dozens more flush on the horizon and far fewer hunting rigs on the road in the late-season conditions. With a shimmer of sparkling white around our ankles and over our boot toes, we called it a day as the late afternoon sun began to sink behind a layer of clouds in the west. I followed one final trail of three-toed tracks to the road and watched them meander off over the ditch drift, across the road and into the cattails on the next property, knowing that at least one more pheasant had made its way to a safe haven under the snow-frosted cover…of our outdoors.
Our Outdoors: Soft Landings