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Take it to the limit

A sports fan’s friendly wager leads to a sportsman’s dream hunt



Though the words differ only by a space and a letter, the worlds of the sportsman and the sports fan are leagues apart. The sportsman is by nature a supreme engager, a nurturer of the wildness within himself, an allegiant to the animals he chases and the places they live. The sports fan is by nature a supreme observer, a nurturer of the often-failed competitor within himself, an allegiant to entities with whom he has no direct contact.

Thankfully, we live in a country that offers not only an embarrassment of riches for each type, but also the freedom to fully embrace both approaches, should your personality accommodate such variance. Mine certainly does—though outside of sharing a boat or a hunting blind with a like-minded sports fan, those split personalities have never intersected. Never, that is, until last year, when the two worlds collided with a glorious result.

The deal came about when the Green Bay Packers met the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in February 2011. My colleague Stacy Ratliff, an avid Steelers fan, proposed a bet that would have had me playing fishing guide for a day to Stacy and his brother, Jay, in the event of a Steelers win, or Stacy and Jay playing host to my hunt on their family farm in central Montana should my Packers prevail. To me, each of Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ three touchdown passes that day looked like the flight path of a wild pheasant, and his right arm earned him an MVP trip to Disney World while simultaneously punching my ticket to pheasant-hunting nirvana.

Any day of hunting pheasant is an exceptional one, but this had the makings of an epic. To begin with, I had never before hunted over a pointing dog, and Stacy’s reports on Slick, Jay’s 9-year-old German shorthaired pointer, were glowing. The kicker, though, was that Jay presides over nearly 500 acres of prime pheasant habitat, and had vowed to keep a section free of hunters for the first three days of the season so that we, on the fourth day, would be chasing birds that had not been shot at for the better part of a year—if ever.

Getting an early start from Missoula, I met the brothers Ratliff shortly after daybreak at a crossroads near the farm. Time spent around Stacy and his immediate family had convinced me that the Ratliff clan is constructed of exceptional moral fiber, and Jay added further proof when he confessed, at our introduction, that he himself was not a Steelers fan and that he was carrying his brother’s load because, well, that’s what brothers do.

From the rendezvous we headed for our destination, the roads progressing from smooth pavement to frost-heaved asphalt and then to washboard dirt. We pulled into the corner of a large field devoted to CRP—short for Conservation Reserve Program, a highly effective piece of federal legislation that pays farmers to plant erosion-preventing and wildlife-friendly cover on portions of their land—and I’m pretty sure Slick and I quivered on the same white-hot wavelength as we exited the vehicles.

Stacy and I grinned as we each slid a Browning Auto 5 shotgun—his a beautiful Belgian-made 16-gauge, mine a later-model, Japanese-made 12-gauge—out of their respective cases. The Auto 5 is unmistakable, nicknamed “Humpback” due to an abnormally squared-off receiver. Its aficionados are an intimate group because most shotgun shooters find its unique sightline and sturdy nature (read: heavy) a bit anachronistic. Though it was designed and functions best as a waterfowl gun, I shoot mine for upland birds as well. Once you get used to heaving the Auto 5 to your shoulder and squaring your eye behind that magnificent hump, it can be tough to adjust to the low profile of a sweet-shooting double-barrel, the classic upland gun. At least, that’s what I’ll keep telling myself until my wife and our bank account agree to test the theory.

I don’t really know what I expect in these situations—a strategy session? the primal tones of an English-style hunting horn?—but upland hunts always seem to begin quite abruptly, and this one was no exception. A mere minute or two after arrival the three of us entered the field, moving quickly behind a joyously focused Slick. Slick is Jay’s third consecutive German shorthair, and as with the first two he trained her himself. After 100 yards or so she stopped ranging and began moving in ever smaller concentric circles, zeroing in on the bull’s-eye her nose promised was there.

Jay motioned frantically for us to move up behind Slick, and as we crashed through the thick mix of alfalfa, flax and wild grasses behind her she stopped, rigid, her nose and tail stretched in opposite directions. I’ve shot upland behind plenty of retrievers—mostly Labs, and some damn good ones—and the electric moment when the dog gets birdy (tail circling furiously, nose hyperventilating scent) is followed by an often frantic effort to remain within gun range of the crazed beast. Retrievers, by genetic rule, cannot stop until the bird is in the air, and sometimes not even then. It’s often joked that “Goddammitgetyerassbackherenow!” (or some close variant) is the most common name for an upland retriever.

Walking up behind a locked-up pointer is, by contrast, a lesson in deranged physics. As you approach the dog your steps become slow and deliberate, all noise and peripheral vision disappear, and time expands like it does in a good suspense movie when all hell is about to break loose. Your eyes follow a line from the dog’s nose into the thick tangle, searching for any hint of the explosion to come. And when it does come, when a careful step pushes the edge of the bird’s personal space and it rockets out of the grass as loudly as a flat tire at high speed, time compresses in black-hole fashion.

In the seconds that follow, out of pure reflex you bring the gun to shoulder while simultaneously swinging its barrel along the bird’s flight path. Your brain scrambles to identify the bird’s gender (ears straining for the telltale rooster cluck, eyes for long tail feathers, that impossible color palette), and if it is indeed the vainer of the sexes you pull the end of the barrel through the bird’s body and squeeze the trigger at a point, determined by flight trajectory, speed, distance and wind, in front of the bird’s head. Perspective returns only after the bird falls or flies away, and the flavor of that perspective is tied quite tightly to the result.

Slick’s first point followed the script until the gender-identification part, and with heart firmly lodged in throat I watched the hen fly away unmolested. The next several clean points were hens as well, and in the interims a few roosters busted ahead of us, well out of gun range. The fact that these unpressured birds still possessed such a hypersensitive danger threshold pretty much defines why pheasants are so highly regarded among wingshooters.

Stacy was flanked to Jay’s left and I to his right, and when Slick ranged off to my right and went from 0 to 60 on the scent-o-meter in no time flat, Jay shouted through the wind for me to get ready. The rooster erupted out of the grass just before Slick came to point, but I was close enough to swing on the big bird as it hit the jetstream and I knocked it down with one shot. I turned around just as Jay came sprinting by on a beeline for the spot where the bird went down. I felt confident in the shot and the way the bird had folded but Jay would later tell me that he’s lost too many apparently dead birds in the thick stuff to chance it. As he handed me the gorgeous bird Jay complimented the shot, confessing he had harbored little hope of a Missoula writer being any kind of a wingshooter.

What happened next constitutes one of the most indelible scenes of my sporting life. We had worked one side of the field, and as we approached its end Jay informed us that he had earlier seen quite a few birds in the vicinity of a field separated from us by a short patch of plowed-up dirt. As we turned along the field’s edge, birds began spilling into the plowed section, hens and roosters scuttling quickly along the troughs with their heads down. Out in front of us, more birds began to get up outside of shooting range, first a single or two, then in groups of two to six. Slick was jumping out of her skin, darting crazily back and forth as she tried to isolate a single bird in the middle of what must have smelled like a pheasant factory.

Slick finally came to point in front of me and Stacy, and as we moved up behind her a whitetail doe with three fawns materialized out of the thicket a mere 20 yards downfield. A moment later, the bird—a rooster—flushed, and I took one flustered shot that missed cleanly. My second shot echoed with Stacy’s first, and the bird went down like it was wearing lead shoes. At the sound of the shots the deer fled through the field in front of us and birds began busting everywhere—singles, doubles, groups of three, five, eight—and we stood dumbstruck. Over the next 90 seconds, there must have been upwards of 150 pheasants in the air. Most of them were well out of range, and the weight and chaos of the moment prevented us from shooting at those close by.

We gathered our wits and headed back downfield—Slick working like a champ, Stacy and I both shooting well—and 90 minutes after we were back at the vehicles with two limits in hand.

Stacy and I swapped seats for the ride back to the farmhouse so I could ask Jay some questions about the place. As we drove past neighboring fields displaying significant pheasant activity, Jay estimated that one section of CRP, like the one we had just hunted, provided enough pheasant food and habitat for a 5-mile radius. I asked him about other upland species and he replied that he often saw coveys of Hungarian partridges in the grass along the road, and that when he had a shotgun in the truck he would stop and honk, flushing the birds out into a bordering field. He would then walk into the field (as long it was his, or a friendly neighbor’s) and try his luck on the smaller, quicker Huns.

On cue, a covey of a dozen Huns scurried across the road in front of us. Jay looked at me with raised eyebrows, and I replied emphatically. He stopped and honked, and the birds flushed about 50 yards into a nearby field of 8-inch barley stubble. Stacy and I grabbed our shotguns and the three of us (Slick stayed in the truck, since we knew exactly where the birds were) approached the landing area. Though smaller than pheasants, Huns aren’t exactly sparrow-sized, but these birds disappeared into the sparse stubble like ghosts. A few steps later they exploded from under our feet in a whirring rush and rocketed through the air in every direction. I shot two clean holes in the sky before taking a breath and dispatching a late-rising bird with my third shot. Stacy went one for two, and we headed back to the rigs two Huns richer.

We got back to Jay’s farmhouse with plenty of time to clean the birds before lunch. One of the six roosters carried a mixed load of 12- and 16-gauge shot, and Stacy graciously donated the bird to my freezer. I mentioned earlier the Ratliff moral fiber; it turned out to be matched by their warmth and grace. Inside the farmhouse we found an idyllic scene, a combination of Jay and Stacy’s angelic families ripped straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We all sat down for a meal of Taco Joes—yep, Sloppy Joes imbued with the spices and toppings of the American taco—capped by a dessert of warm apple turnovers and ice cream.

After a digestive respite aided by tales of family, farming and hunting in central Montana, I left the Ratliff cocoon in mid-afternoon and headed back home, knowing full well that I was unlikely to experience such a hunt ever again. For a single-minded sportsman, the realization of such an early peak to the season could reasonably be followed by a major letdown, the hollowness that accompanies dissolving magic. But me? No such problem. Hell, I had another Packer game to look forward to, that very weekend. And who knows? If the Packers and Steelers meet in a future Super Bowl, perhaps the sportsman/fan will rise again.

Want more pheasants? Check out an online slideshow for more shots from this Head Trip.

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