Kena waiting for the hunt.

October. Every year. It’s a tradition that began with my old man and his buddy Bruce. They started the legacy my sons and I are carrying on sometime back in the 1990’s. They were already old men then, old men who still had vim and vigor to chase wild pheasants and ducks in the Dakotas. At first, they hunted South Dakota. But when that became too pricey, too uppity for Harry and Bruce, they moved north a bit. They found a little town not far from where Lawrence Welk was born. Ashley, ND has been the center of the Munger pheasant hunt now for twenty plus years. I’ve been part of this trip for going on fifteen years. My eldest son Matt joined us a few years back, followed by his brothers Chris and Jack. Reid, one of Matt’s buddies, rounds out our five-some. The old guys don’t come out anymore. Joints and heart issues and maladies and such. Time and age eventually catch up with even the most stubborn hunter. Oh, they’d both be making this trip if they could. But such is not to be. Sometime during this trip, we’ll tip a beer in tribute to Harry and Bruce. It’s not much but at least it’s something in honor of our hunt’s founders.

This year, Kena-“the greatest champion” in Celtic-Jack’s four-year old black Labrador is our “go to” dog. Matt’s yellow Lab Lexi is battling cancer, is over ten, and isn’t able to hunt anymore. In Lexi’s stead, I’m bringing my five-month old Brittany pup Leala-“faithful” in French. I’ve never had a pointer so I’ve been working Leala and Kena every day. They’re both eager to hunt. For the Mungers Plus One, expectations are low. Why? The five of us are poor shots when it comes to hitting rooster pheasants on the fly. Shooting trap, you suggest, might be of help. Not so much. We’ve tried that and it really didn’t improve our collective effort. And so we go into the field as we are.

It’s a seven hour drive to Ashley. Should be six but we’ve started a tradition of stopping partway to grill lunch. Last year, we pulled over at a city park in Fergus Falls. This year, with Matt and Reid in Matt’s Dodge pickup and Jack, me, and the two dogs in my Grand Cherokee we pull off in Pilager. Matt cooks lunch on  a portable LP grill. We munch on brats and chips, sip soda, and let the dogs run around. The sky is high and blue. The weather is warm. Unseasonably so for mid-October. Our bellies full, it’s back on the road.

Matt the chef.

We count rooster pheasants over the flat desolation of North Dakota farm and ranch country as we head south on No. 11. We pass through familiar towns, none of them bigger than a postage stamp, arriving in Ashley-the county seat of McIntosh County-near dark. Chris, who lives in St. Paul, is already at our rental house and has likely turned on the water and the heat. When Harry and Bruce first started coming to Ashley, they stayed at the one and only motel in town. Then they befriended a local rancher and rented his extra house, thereby gaining permission to hunt acres of private field and forest. This relationship soured shortly after I started coming along (maybe it was something I said?) and so for the last decade, we’ve stayed in town, limiting our hunting to PLOTS land and waterfowl production areas. I’m not keen on paying farmers to hunt their land or asking permission to walk their property and though such an attitude limits our opportunities, so far, no one in the crew has mutinied. 

Morning. It’s glorious working open fields beneath an endless sky, watching the dogs track birds. Kena is steady and strong and conserves energy: finding scent, following scent, her tail relatively calm until she hits on a bird in cover. Leala is a coiled spring of boundless energy, all youth and spunk. Jack never touches the remote controlling Kena’s eCollar. She’s so compliant and diligent to task, there’s no need. On the other hand, the pup needs constant mild reminders from my thumb on her eCollar not to roam too far or chase corn fed white tail bucks or scoot off after owls that slowly flap away from hidden nesting places as we hunt.

Leala waiting for her master.

We don’t know it at the time but the first flurry of the first morning, a passel of roosters rising as we push a fence line marking the edge of the CRP land we’re hunting is our best opportunity for multiple birds. Reid downs one, which the dogs have trouble locating but eventually find. The rest of us miss our shots. After finding Reid’s bird, I introduce Leala to her first pheasant. I toss it a few feet. She runs to the bird and struggles with a dead rooster that is about a quarter of Leala’s weight. Which is to say, having hunted over Labs and the occasional Golden Retriever and Springer, I am not used to considering a twenty pound dog a hunting companion. But over the course of days, the Brittany’s stamina and nose convince me of her worth. Unlike past years, where we’ve lost a half dozen or so downed birds, we don’t lose a single rooster this year. Granted, we don’t hit all that many. But still. It’s nice not to lose birds. After that first day-when we down three-it gets very, very tough. The wind roars in, gusting to over 50mph, making it impossible for the dogs to follow scent. In turns it rains and spits and blows harder, making our time in the field miserable. But when the weather calms we hunt long and we hunt hard. The health app on my phone says we average 8.5 miles per day. We walk over 10 miles on Sunday. So, if nothing else, we’re getting our exercise!

A pair of Dakota roosters.

I have to stop here to say this: Without the efforts of my eldest son, this hunt would never happen. Once the old guys stopped coming, Matt took it upon himself to become trip planner, quartermaster, and chef. He rents the house, buys the food, and cooks every meal (except breakfast which is cold cereal). He’s the guy. Period. For that, I thank him deeply.

And I don’t want you to form the conclusion that these trips are complete affirmations of familial love. Reid, who’s now tagged along with the Mungers for more than half a decade, will attest to the fact that we’re all stubborn bastards and that every year (this one included) one of us will march off in a huff, threatening to drive back to Duluth and “never come to Ashley again.” But it’s all bluster and nonsense and, as with the weather, eventually things calm down. That Reid Amborn is willing to put up with such drama is a testament to his good nature. Or maybe, he enjoys a little theater on the Plains. Whatever. He’s managed to figure out how to stay out of the fray, keep his head down, and have a pretty good time despite us.

My contribution to these annual trips? I’m the dishwasher. Chris and Jack clean and pack birds, with Chris being the teacher and Jack the student. Reid pitches in peeling potatoes, cutting carrots, grilling steaks, sweeping up; doing whatever he’s asked to do whenever he’s asked to do it. Despite my earlier proclamation of discord, for the vast majority of the time we spend together, we’re a jovial, happy crew. Especially when the cold beer comes out at the end of a long day…

Three days in, Kena has worked so many fields and marshes and swamps that she’s split open a pad on her right front paw. And both she and the little one are the very definition of dog-tired when we get back to the house after dark, hitting the couch as soon as they get in the door.

A hard day’s night…

I bandage the Lab’s foot and hope for the best. In the morning, she limps a bit but once her adrenaline starts pumping, she forgets her pain. Still, Jack’s careful not to overwork her. She, like Leala, are more than hunting dogs. They are family. That having been said, Kena doesn’t miss a beat, retrieving every bird we hit, poking her nose in every possible roost, never slowing down.

Matt, Reed, and Chris working the grass.

Still, I’m amazed at the little pup’s stamina. For a tiny bit of dog flesh-she’s mostly fur and sinew-she never backs down from a challenge. Cattails so thick that a man can barely bust his way through don’t stop her. Bramble and thistle don’t deter her. Whereas Kena will power through such obstacles, Leala simply ducks down and avoids the worst of it. After four days of watching the dogs, I’m pleased with how well they work together. By the end of the hunt, I’m reaching for Leala’s eCollar remote with less frequency.

“You want to try that CRP up north, where we saw those roosters driving in?”

It’s Wednesday morning. We’re cleaning the rental house, leaving it-since Reid, Jack and I are all Eagle Scouts-cleaner than we found it.

“Sure,” Jack replies.

I pack the Jeep. Chris packs up his Nissan. Matt and Reid close the tailgate on the Dodge. We lock up the little white house and garage and hit the road. A couple of hours later, Jack and I are walking another grassy section of CRP; a huge slice of acreage further north than we’ve ever hunted. The dogs get birdy. A rooster bursts from cover. We shoot. For a moment, I think I’ve clipped it. But if I did and it hit the ground running, the PLOTS land we are hunting is so vast, the dogs will run themselves to exhaustion trying to corner the bird. And truth be told, I think I am being overly optimistic. Chances are, the bird is unharmed. We hunt for another hour but no other roosters take wing. We’ve missed our last chance at a pheasant. With the dogs back in their kennels and our shotguns packed in their cases, we take one last look at the Plains, and climb into the Jeep for the long ride home.

Jack and two more birds.

Peace.

Mark

Home.

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