It started with a text. Patrick “Poncho” Scott texted me sometime after out annual Whiteface Fishing Opener, an event the Munger and Scott families have shared for more than fifty years. The gist of the message was “We should do a Munger/Scott pheasant hunting trip.” I replied that his suggestion had merit but didn’t do anything immediately to put Poncho’s plan into action.
Sometime in late summer, I sent my sons and Poncho and his older brother Tim a text asking if there was any interest in trying southwestern Minnesota as a locale for a Munger/Scott outing. With COVID raging and work obligations, none of the three Munger sons who are hunters committed to a trip in the fall. Poncho and Tim were both “in” and the planning began.
“What about Marshall?” Tim texted sometime in August. “Sounds good,” was my curt reply. See, the thing is, we never, until the day to leave for hunting dawned close, actually chatted the old fashioned way, on the telephone. No, despite all three of us being over sixty, we communicated the 21st century way-via text. Be that as it may, Tim did some preliminary map scouting and I arranged for a hotel stay for two nights, Sunday through Tuesday morning, at the Marshall AmericInn. Poncho’s son Christopher, who is newly married, Poncho’s Labrador Bailey, Tim’s Lab Ruby, and my Brittany Callie were slated to make the trip so I reserved two rooms through Expedia and the gig was on.
Given our schedules, we picked early December, Saturday the 4th through Tuesday the 7th to hunt public land, which Tim assured me there was plenty of around Marshall. We knew the roosters would be flighty, having escaped numerous brushes with death over the course of the Minnesota pheasant season. On the plus side, most bird hunters had cleaned their shotguns for the final time, tucked away their upland hunting garb, and ended their quest to put a rooster in the crock pot. We expected, rightly or wrongly, to be virtually alone in the field.
We were right.
Behind all the planning and texting and thinking through the short trip to Minnesota pheasant country was this truth: I’ve never, in fifty-five years since completing gun safety through the Boy Scouts, shot a Minnesota pheasant. I came late in life to the sport, having hunted ringnecks only once as a youngster with my father and godfather, Jim Liston, back when I was newly married and attending law school. I drove from the Inver Grove apartment I shared with René to the little farming community of Benson, MN where my uncle Paul lived. Paul, who’d had a heart attack and bested kidney cancer, no longer hunted but drove us to various locales in hopes of bagging roosters. If memory serves me right, my dad hit a hen by mistake and I believe that was the only bird we shot. Then, in my late fifties, my old man invited me to join him hunting pheasants in North Dakota, which is how I fell in love with the sport. That said, when I arrived at Tim and Sandi’s home outside the Twin Cities to stay the night, having never shot a pheasant in my native state, I was nervous that, despite the planning we’d done, our trip would be a bust.
I was wrong.
With Tim acting as my co-pilot, our two dogs crated, and the cargo area of my Jeep filled with guns, ammo, and our gear, we met up with Poncho in Marshall and proceeded to find Walk in Hunting, Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs), and other places to chase roosters. Conditions were relatively mild; it was overcast and in the twenties when we exited the vehicles (Poncho and Bailey were in Poncho’s pick-up truck) and started our quest.
Not minutes into our first romp, Bailey rousted a big fat rooster in front of Poncho.
Boom. Boom. Boom.
The only rooster we put up on that piece of land flew away unharmed.
The second location we hunted turned out to be a dandy, at least for Tim. While I skirted a creek, Tim and Poncho and their dogs worked a frozen marsh.
Tim had the first Minnesota rooster of our trip in the bag. But that, other than Callie and Ruby chasing up a few hens, was it for that slice of pheasant heaven.
Working a dry slough the dogs kicked up a rooster. Tim shot. I shot. The bird flew on. I pulled the trigger a second time on my Stevens 555 twelve over/under and the bird went down. Callie, who’d pointed the pheasant like a champ, is only a year and a half old and still learning to retrieve so I called Ruby over to find the bird. Nothing. Tim was convinced the bird, hit but not dead, had run into thicker cattails. We sent the dogs in, with Poncho and Bailey working the far side of the rushes. Nothing. After a good half-hour of searching for the downed bird, we pushed on. I counted the missing pheasant as a bird in the bag despite my game pouch being empty. Tim agreed as his pup was the one unable to come up with the retrieve. But to be fair, Ruby was distracted from task when Callie flushed two hen pheasants from where we thought the wounded rooster was hiding.
“Look at that,” I said over a brutal wind, pointing across the mud flats of the dry pond. Not more than fifty yards away, a huge raccoon waddled, completely ignorant that it was being watched by men with guns. “Hope the dogs don’t see it.” They didn’t and within a few steps, Callie was back on point. Out of a small cluster of grass, a rooster exploded. I took aim and this time, there was no doubt.
We ate lunch in the field. I’d brought bread and cheese and ham and mustard for sandwiches, making them the night before at Tim’s, so we gobbled sandwiches and jerky and oranges, topping off our thirst with GatorAid. Back at it, we hunted a big Walk In area abutting a harvested field, the tall grass and marshes prime pheasant cover. That was the thing about the maps Tim printed out from the Minnesota DNR: nearly every spot listed as open to public hunting was a good one. Unlike some of the PLOTS land I’ve hunted in North Dakota, where private farmland is open for public hunting but farmers or ranchers till or graze the acreage (making it useless as bird cover) every piece of public land we hunted in Minnesota boasted excellent pheasant cover.
The three of us spread out to work the big Walk In area. The dogs kept their noses to the ground as we moved forward. Callie locked up hard on a tuft of grass just along the edge of the harvested field. A rooster cackled, took flight and, with one shot, was down. There was no need for a dog to retrieve the bird as it landed a few feet away but Callie seemed intent on bringing me the rooster. Except. She learned first hand about spurs. The rooster was on its back, feet and spurs clawing the air. I picked up the bird, snapped its neck, and slid the bird into my game vest. “Good girl, Callie,” I said, happy, if I included the lost bird, to have shot a Minnesota pheasant limit.
We ordered Pizza Hut pizza, sipped cold beer, and watched television in the room Tim and I were sharing as we nursed sore feet and muscles. The dogs snoozed on the queen beds in their respective hotel rooms. Oh. There was one small glitch with the hotel. Not with Expedia but with Poncho. First, a few days before our trip, Poncho let me know Christopher couldn’t come. I still figured we’d need two rooms anyway for three guys and three dogs. Second, as we checked into the hotel, Poncho let us know he had to work Tuesday. Which meant we only needed the second room for one night. I canceled the second night at the desk, but, because I’d prepaid, no refund. Even so, the trip was relatively inexpensive as hunting expeditions go.
Monday morning. The wind howled. A cold front dropped the temperature into the single digits. We bundled up, drove south of town, and worked the same Walk In area where we’d ended our Monday hunt. Despite seeing oodles of hens and roosters get up out of gun range the previous day, nothing flushed. We decided to try a WPA that, from the road, looked promising. There was iced-over water on a big pond surrounded by cattails and what looked to be very walkable bulrushes and grass. But soon into the hunt, our mistake became evident: there was no grass alongside the cattails; only thick, nearly impenetrable cattails lined the frozen water. It was a hard go. A few hens got up in front of the dogs before Callie went on point. A rooster flushed and cruised right over the spot where Tim should have been.
Except he wasn’t there. Tim had had enough but didn’t communicate his departure to Poncho or me.
“Where the hell are you?” I asked after calling Tim on my cell phone.
“Too thick. I gave up. I’ll meet you on the far side of the lake.”
Good to know, old buddy.
Poncho and I waded through the crap, chasing up another five hens, birds that Callie pointed and Bailey flushed. Nary a rooster was found. After our arduous trek, we met up with Tim. “That was a mistake,” was the common consensus, especially from me because, in trying to crash through jungle, I’d pulled my right hamstring and was limping. After our dubious exercise in poor judgment, Poncho and Bailey said farewell and Tim and I stayed at it.
The wind died a bit and we found another lovely piece of ground to hunt. In a plot of waist-high cattails, Callie went on point. I stepped forward. Callie moved slightly. I stepped again. Beneath the cattails, a rooster was running, its head ducked, a wing dragging behind it. “Wounded bird!” I yelled so Tim could hear me. Tim sent Ruby over to assist but the dogs were unable to pin the rooster.
We moved on.
We worked a drainage ditch and again, Callie went on point. A rooster flushed and scared the bejeebers out of me. I shot, thought I’d hit the bird but it was Tim who hit the pheasant broadside. With a fine retrieve by Ruby, Tim had his second rooster of the trip. We continued to work the Walk In area, pushing through dried swales and waterless ponds, flushing a few hens but no roosters. As the sun set on our second day in the field, we headed back to the Jeep. We came to the area where Callie had chased the wounded rooster and she became excited again. Then, she went on point. Then she moved. Went on another solid point. And moved. Her incremental pointing and creeping went on for ten minutes with the Brittany covering every square inch of cover in the half-acre plot we were working. Tim watched, thinking we were searching for the wounded pheasant again. I had no idea what was going on. When Callie finally locked solid and did not move a muscle, I took one step and a healthy rooster exploded from beneath my boot. One shot and the bird was down. Ruby ran across the prairie, found the dead bird, and brought it to Tim.
“Nice shot. I thought you guys were looking for that mythical wounded bird.”
“Always trust the dog,” was my patented, tongue-in-cheek reply.
“Two birds,” Tim said as we drove back to town in twilight. “Poncho should have stayed.”
That evening, I nursed my strained calf in the hotel hot tub as Tim took a shower and the dogs fell into the sort of deep sleep that comes from long, hard days afield. After getting dressed, we drove to Applebees for dinner and adult beverages, satisfied we’d hunted as hard as two old farts can hunt.
Tuesday morning. The temperature on the Jeep’s thermometer registered one above. We dressed, packed our lunches and our gear, and checked out of the motel. Marshall was covered in a soft, white blanket. More snow fell as we drove west. The first piece of land we found to hunt looked like a pheasant factory. But after working cattails (walkable and not a jungle), a big slough, and tall prairie grass, with Callie pointing her little heart out and Ruby working the edges of cover, the plot only revealed hens. “That was disappointing,” Tim said. Despite the two of us being retired and of social security age, we felt good enough to tackle another big plot of Walk In land that, on paper and from the road, looked to be great pheasant country.
“That was godawful,” I said when we got back to the truck, Callie having dragged me into yet another cattail marsh from hell. We’d managed to kick out a few hens from very thick cover but no cacklers rose before us. Though the setting seemed ideal, apparently the birds thought otherwise.
It then became a bit of a hide-and-seek exercise to find a place to hunt. We drove and drove and drove in search of another site but kept coming up empty. Much of our flailing around had to do with the fact that the DNR map Tim had printed out didn’t correspond with the reality of the landscape or my Jeep’s GPS map. After an hour or so of aimless wandering, just before dusk, we discovered one of the best, if not the best, pieces of hunting land available to the public in southwestern Minnesota. With the sun out and the wind down, we exited the Jeep for one last walk.
“You know,” Tim said as we loaded our shotguns for the final push, “we’ve put in nearly thirty miles on foot.”
“How many miles do you think Ruby and Callie have put in?
The interesting thing about our last hunt was that, until Tuesday, we’d seen only one or two other hunters out and about. We never had to forgo a spot we wanted to hunt because someone else was already there. The last piece of grass and marsh and ditch we hunted was an exception to this observation. As daylight grew scarce, as we grew more desperate for a place to end our hunt, we saw, as we pulled off the side of the road abutting the parcel we completed our journey on, that others had already worked the plot. From prints in the snow, it looked like two hunters and one dog had been in ahead of us. But, given the late hour of the day, and given we’d seen roosters moving in the fields now that the sun was out, we made the decision to forge ahead.
“Shit! Fuck! Good girl Callie,” was my uncensored cry after missing a big, fat Minnesota rooster my beloved Brittany pointed not ten feet in front of me.
“Nice language, Munger,” Tim quipped as he watched the pheasant fly off. Not long after that, Tim missed his own chance and repeated my mantra word for word, causing me to double over with laughter.
Working our way back to the Jeep, covering the last bit of dry cattail swale on the parcel, Callie and Ruby started going nuts, getting “birdy” as we hunters say. Then, the little Brittany locked up, her tail rigid, her eyes staring straight ahead. After a few seconds, a gorgeous rooster burst from cover. Tim shot. Once. Twice. The big bird flew on. I drew a bead, pulled the trigger, and hit the bird about thirty yards out. Ruby tore through the bullrushes, found the dead rooster, and brought it to Tim.
With that, our epic hunt was over.
Callie on Point
“I was pleasantly surprised,” was the common theme in the Jeep as we drove through darkness towards the Twin Cities. Tim had convinced me that Callie and I should spend the night at his house. Given my aching body, I yielded to Tim’s common sense. Sandi greeted us at the door, the smell of pizza wafting from the kitchen.
“There was better cover and more birds than I’d expected,” Tim said at various times during the three hour drive to his house. Our first pheasant hunt together was a scouting expedition, a learning experience, and an exploration of Minnesota pheasant country. The first ever Munger/Scott bird hunt wasn’t about how many birds we shot. It was about hunting an elusive and wily prey with old friends over great dogs in our home state.
How do you put a price on that?
The Weary Hunter