A Morning Pheasant Hunt
by Joe Atkinson
The alarm went off at 4:30 am, which is early by my standards. For any other reason I would be reluctant to roll out of bed but, knowing that I was going hawking, I did not mind as much. And I didn’t even mind that I had a two hour drive ahead of me to meet my fellow falconers. I had put all that I would need into my truck the night before, made sure the dog collars were all charged up, had food in my hawking bag and fresh batteries in all the transmitters. All I had to do was load the falcons and dogs in the truck. I did not weigh the birds, both gyr-peregrine tercels, because I was leaving hours before their normal flight times and knew that their weight would be off anyway. Heck, I’d fly them regardless. Having flown them daily for the last week, I felt they would fly well no matter what their weight was. I loaded up the birds and dogs and, turning up the radio, drove off into the still dark early morning. The plan was to meet Art, Dale, and Andy at 7:00 am at road 29 up in Williams, a small town in Northern California roughly 130 miles from my house. With 130 miles to drive and it still being dark I found myself thinking about what the morning’s hunt would bring, reflecting on past flights and playing out in my mind’s eye how I hoped the flights would be this morning. They never go the way I imagine them€¦.
So, after a slight wrong turn by yours truly we all ended up on the same road and headed out to the fields. As we turned into the first hunting field pheasants were flying in and out of cover all over the place, with some landing out in the cut rice fields where there were just small amounts of cover. There were many birds running across the road, hiding in small ditches with cattails and a few small trees. It was decided that I would be first to fly because I’m the guest. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or bad thing? I chose to fly my 8-year-old black tercel, Blackie, first. I like to keep names simple and, seeing that he is a black bird, it was simple. Blackie is an accomplished duck hawk whose specialty is drake mallards. Being a duck hawk he would be out of his comfort zone here hunting pheasants. He is used to seeing a pond with ducks on it but he is a good game hawk and, I felt, would make the adjustment. It’s a funny thing when you’re flying in a different place, away from your normal hunting areas. I’m not quite sure why it is but slips always look better until someone says OK, it’s your turn€. Suddenly the wind is blowing harder, there are more fences, and eagles appear from out of thin air everything just looks worse. I unclipped the french snap from Blackie’s grommet, having already taken off his jesses and leash, and struck his hood. Blackie went through his normal pre-flight routine, looked around, rousted, muted and launched into the air. Despite my earlier assessment the conditions were perfect cool, 49’, clear sky and no wind.
Blackie flew due east from us and began to mount up, as is his normal routine. He is a good flying bird, not one of these 1,500 foot birds, but can be counted on to take a good respectable pitch. He was still climbing when, out at least ¼ mile, pheasants started flushing on their own and flying across the open field further out from where Blackie was mounting up. Well, needless to say, Blackie was off, stooping and chasing pheasants everywhere while, in the meantime, there we stood with a dog locked up on point! At one point I saw my falcon stoop and hit a pheasant, do a wingover and not come up. I went tearing over in that direction only to be called on the radio, that my bird was back near the rest of the group, on a post next to a small duck pond. So, that went well! Not exactly how I had imagined things on the drive over.
Dale’s turn next. The dog’s on point, strike the hood, and off goes Dale’s tercel gyr-peregrine, Dylan, who mounts up to a nice pitch and starts to come over. But another pheasant decides, on its own, to fly out across the open field. Dale’s bird catches it after doing some very clever flying to avoid two wire fences, which had us all wincing at the possible outcome.
We were all working the field with birds on our fists; that way, as each bird was flown, the next bird could be released quickly with no time lost. So, once Dale had his bird under control, Andy released his falcon. With another dog on point not more than four feet in front of us, Andy’s bird climbed steadily until she was at a nice pitch and came over. Andy and I rushed in to flush the pheasant but even in the very short cover the pheasant was impossible to see. From out of nothing exploded a rooster pheasant heading straight for the safety of deep cover. Andy’s falcon did a wingover and pumped straight down, only to level off and bind to the rooster just before it reached the ditch and certain safety, very nice flight.
Regrouping back at the trucks, fresh falcons were picked up and we headed out into the field again, this time entering the field from the back end hoping to get a point on a bird trying to sneak out of the field. We all entered the field and almost immediately a dog locked up on point. Dale released his second bird, Nimbus, another gyr-peregrine, who climbed up to another commanding pitch and came over Dale and the dog on point. Dale went to flush, only to see, not a pheasant, but a jack rabbit! With six dogs in the field, not moments later there was another call of dog on point! As the dogs worked the field they had been flushing short-eared owls out of the grass they were sleeping in. At least twenty owls were flying in the air so there was a lot of confusion going on. Just as Art called dog on point, Out exploded a hen pheasant heading straight for some ditches covered with trees! Dale’s bird stooped and had to swerve around a short-eared owl to strike the fleeing pheasant. The falcon delivered a solid hit with many feathers flying, but the hen made it to cover and was gone.
Art was up last, flying his female ¾ peregrine ¼ gyr, Dharma, who is a very high flying powerful falcon. With yet another dog on point Art struck Dharma’s hood and off she went, wasting little time to gain a tremendous amount of height. With his falcon over head Art ran in for the flush. Up came a hen pheasant, flying up high and fast, and Dharma in a teardrop stoop! Up and over the trees went the hen pheasant and out beyond the ditch, somewhat out of sight, we saw a big throw up from Art’s falcon and a wingover, but she came up empty, returning to the lure.