I had hoped to spend the last few days of 2012 hunting ruffed grouse in northern Michigan. I did not get to hunt grouse as much as I had hoped this past season (though I suppose the same can be said for the last 20 or so seasons, as well). And though I thoroughly enjoy the late December grouse season when there are a couple of inches of fresh snow on the ground, the weatherman had apparently decided that more was better and delivered in excess of a foot to the area I'd planned to hunt. I had no desire to fight that battle.
So I wound up finishing up the season in southern Michigan, chasing pheasants instead.
That is hardly a bad alternative. I grew up pheasant hunting (as did most southern Michigan hunters who are my age or older) and the late pheasant season has been a blessing, allowing us access to some properties that are otherwise occupied by deer hunters until — and, in some places, well into — December.
That was not the case the last Saturday of 2012, when I found myself with a handful of like-minded fellows on Tom Lounsbury's spread near Cass City, where many of the party had opened the season a little more than two months earlier. Lounsbury, who is roughly my age, is a life-long pheasant hunter and although he takes as much advantage of the now significant southern Michigan deer herd as anyone, he makes sure the pheasants on the old family homestead, where he now resides, get their share of attention, too.
Pheasant hunting has been good this year, Lounsbury said.
"This year was way better than last year," he said. "Last-year we had some young roosters and some old roosters and not many of them. This year we had a lot of first-hatch roosters; the numbers were definitely up."
But you'll note that Lounsbury said "pheasant hunting" was good. Not pheasant killing.
"Dry scenting conditions made it hard for the dogs this fall," he said. "And hunting without a dog is like climbing a ladder without rungs. It's a different bird we're hunting than it was when I was kid. They've evolved. They rarely cackle any more. And they rarely fly unless they get cornered."
Fortunately, our hunt coincided with an overnight snowfall that left about four inches of fresh, fluffy white stuff on the ground. Snow helps with pheasant hunting as the birds seem to hold better. Oh, they'll still flush well in advance of you, if they're wise, which they are by this time of year. But they don't run so doggone much in the snow.
Lounsbury's 100-plus acres are spread over three fields — two, separated by a county drain, on one side of his home, one on the other. Lounsbury divided the crew, made up of friends and relatives, into two parties and we attacked the two fields approaching from opposite sides, pinching toward the drain.
As we approached, I saw birds getting up in front of us, flying across the drain, but I didn't hear any shooting. As we neared the ditch, a rooster got up to one side of me and flew back behind us. I wheeled and shot and dropped the bird, though I could tell by the way it fell that it was only mostly dead. I walked to where it had fallen and Rub, my setter, bounced around frantically.
Isaiah Battel, the youngster in the crew, said he had a good mark on the rooster and he brought his Lab (Samson) over to the area. The rooster was nowhere to be found. And I was about to give up on it when I noticed Rub, a few yards away, frozen on point, head buried in the snow. As I stepped toward Rub, the pheasant moved and Samson was on it like a candidate on an undecided voter.
As we reached the drain, birds started getting up. There were shots fired on both sides of the ditch. But when we met up and reconstructed what had happened, only my game bag contained a bird. Several guys were cussin' themselves.
Never fear, Lounsbury advised. Many of the earliest flushees — as a well as a few of the last ones — had settled into the third field, he said. We'd get them there, for sure.
So we again divided into two parties and again attempted to pinch them between us, though a number of the birds — mostly roosters, from what I could see — managed to squirt out the sides. The hens got up near us, of course. But there was some shooting and Lounsbury killed a rooster. That was it.
As we kicked the ground and performed the post-mortem, Lounsbury announced that he'd counted 28 flushes, 18 of them roosters. So maybe we didn't shoot all that well. But we'd definitely had the birds to work with. It was the best bird numbers I've seen in Michigan in a long, long time.
"I've been hearing the demise-of-the-pheasants story ever since the 1960s," Lounsbury said, "And I've seen some pretty good times when other people were saying it was over.
"There's always that seed crop of birds and it's incredible how quickly they respond when they get more habitat," he continued. "The change is dramatic from one year to the next.
"Over all, it was an excellent year."
And really, aren't they all?