CASS CITY — Tom Lounsbury owns a nice little chunk of land here that looks out of place. It is tall grass prairie, but compared to the endless acres of corn and sugar beets surrounding it, it sees almost as though a small chunk of Dakota got picked up by a whirlwind and deposited in the Thumb. And this year it is even more so; the big blue stem and switch grass, as well as the sweet clover and some of the wild flowers, are tall (and thick) enough that if Bob Lanier were standing 10 yards away you still wouldn’t be able to see him.
I suppose a lot of that had to do with the almost nonstop rainfall we had this spring and the lack of frost so far this fall to knock it back, but we were in some of the best pheasant habitat I you could ask for. And that, of course, is a double-edged sword; there was no doubt there would be birds in the fields. The problem would be getting them out of there.
I was on the east flank as six guys and three dogs worked our way south, slowly, through the grass and a half hour into I’d seen one bird, a hen pheasant that got up even farther east and left the field. And then as we neared the end of our trek — actually there was still about 50 yards to go, but Lounsbury had mowed a firebreak there halfway between where we were and the drain that bordered the field — I heard a shot ring out to my right. As I looked, I saw Steve Griffin shoot a second shell, and I watched a rooster fold up like a cloth dinner napkin.
I kept my eye on the spot where I thought I’d seen it fall, hollered for Elvis, and marched directly to where I’d marked it. Griffin was already there — though he was about 15 yards away from where I thought the bird was, which tells you a little about differing perspectives I guess — with his Brittany Beanbag (cool name, eh?) looking in the tall grass.
Both Beanbag and Elvis are young dogs; I don’t know how much experience Griffin’s dog has, but Elvis chased down a broken-winged ruffed grouse out of waist-high bracken ferns for us a couple of days earlier, so I was hopeful. (Though grouse are not pheasants.) Bill Parker arrived with Brady, his mature German shorthair, and we fine-tooth combed the area without results.
The original plan had been to cross the drain and meet us with the half dozen guys who had started on the south end of the property but a couple of our guys said they saw roosters get up behind us and they were still in our field, so we did a 180, hunted back to the north (uneventfully), reversed course again, and third time through the field, put up another rooster that I knocked down, but apparently did not hit hard enough — it went down hard, but not as hard as Griffin’s did. We couldn’t find it.
By the time we gave up, our partners had caught up to our field; they had two birds among them. We decided to give the field one more push and we put up two more roosters, both of which died. Josh Lounsbury — Tom’s son, who lives out of state and was hunting opening day of pheasant season with the old man for the first time in 20 years — killed one of them, his second (and ergo, limit) bird and the other fell to 13-year-old Zach Burnette.
It was the eighth grader’s first wild bird — he’d shot game farm birds before, he said. The bird got up nearly at his feet, swung to his left and so did Burnette.
“I’ve been trying for three years to get a wild pheasant,” he said. “When I saw it go down, it was a relief. The pressure is off.”
By this time some of the older guys had had enough and dropped out. We hunted one more patch of field that had only been lightly covered earlier, and put up one rooster that got up well in front of us. That was it.
We broke for lunch and discussed our options. It was generally agreed upon that there was no sense going pack through the same fields until evening — scenting conditions were dreadful; it was bone dry and we really didn’t see much out of our dogs even first thing in the morning — and I didn’t want to hang around for four hours (what was I going to do, watch the Lions?) to get another hour or so in. So I left.
And you know what happened, right? The guys who stayed killed two more.
So we killed six among 12 guys, which is precisely what the long-term average is for Michigan pheasant hunting (though it seems to be slowly decreasing these days) going all the way back to the glory days. All those stories about stepping into the field and killing your two birds and being back home in time for breakfast were anomalies. Even in the ‘50s, Michigan hunters only averaged a half a bird per hunter day.
Of course those numbers may change this year as there is an ongoing release program on a dozen state game areas. But that, as, they say, is comparing apples to oranges.