The sky was full of pheasants, barreling right at me at what seemed to be 100 miles an hour. Up went the shotgun. I fired once. Twice. I reloaded. Fired again. Fired again. And I missed them all!
Pheasant hunting in Regent, North Dakota is humbling. The four misses happened on the second day of our four-day hunt. Well, it was raining and my glasses were fogged up. And the pheasants are fast. The gray sky made it difficult to distinguish the roosters from the hens as they flew at me, and you can only shoot roosters. And I’m not very good on passing shots. Those are all the excuses I could come up with.
On the third day, in the very same spot along the lake, a big rooster (the male pheasant) rose in front of Nellie, our dog, and flew by me at supersonic speed. And I killed it! My best shot of the week.
Pheasant hunting in North Dakota is also fantastic!
These are wild, tough, wary pheasants, not the pheasants raised in Maine by fish and game clubs and put out in the fall to be hunted. And the pheasant population here is huge. Last year hunters shot a half million pheasants and that was a down year!
So you might think it would be easy to shoot your daily limit of 3 birds. You would be wrong.
These birds generally lift off 100 hundred yards or more in front of you. It’s uncanny. Even when they’re in deep grass, they know you’re coming.
This was my sixth year of pheasant hunting here, an annual trip I look forward to all year, taken with hunting friends from Maine and other states. On this trip Bill Martens, Larry Pauling, and Ken Bear from Pennsylvania joined three Mainers, Paul Edmonds, Kal Kotkas, and me.
We ate well, thanks to Kal’s exceptional cooking skills. We hunted well, thanks to Larry’s dog Nellie. The thick grass and tangled weeds make it very difficult to find a downed bird – particularly if it’s still mobile. A good dog is essential, not so much for pointing the birds but for retrieving the birds.
There’s a lot of strategy involved. Some hunters walk through the corn and wheat, while others stand at the end of the rows, as much as a mile ahead. We call them blockers. They get some shooting as the birds fly ahead of the walkers. But the walkers get most of the shooting.
Many of the pheasants run ahead of the walkers and pile up at the end of the rows, unwilling to run out into the open. When the walkers get to the end of the rows, pheasants take off in all directions. It’s wild!
Our outfitter, Jim Binstock, is a farmer and he puts us up in a house he owns in town (population 160). We spend most of our time hunting Jim’s square-mile farm, which he maintains mostly for the pheasants. He also leases other farms to grow both commercial crops and pheasants.
The first year I participated in this hunt, North Dakota was anchored in depression. This year, thanks to the shale oil and the fracking process, the state is booming, with the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.
We’re two hours from the oil fields but our favorite Regent house is no longer available. It’s full of oil workers. But Binstock puts us up in a very nice house, four bedrooms, eleven beds, a nice kitchen, two baths. We don’t rough it.
We always learn things on these trips. One member of our hunting group saved $4 by purchasing a crushed beat-up taped up-box of shotgun shells in Bismarck. Many of the shells misfired. We kidded the guy all week. He threw the shells away and bought new ones in Regent after a very frustrating first day of hunting.
I love the terrain here. Wide open plains. You can see for fifty miles. Very few trees. Nothing like Maine.
The first year I visited, I noticed that the targets at Binstock’s firing range were set at 500 yards. This is the distance they typically shoot deer! I’ve never shot a deer over 125 yards in Maine.
Another Lesson Learned.
Paul Edmonds shot a beautiful rooster, very colorful, light blue, golden yellow, deep reds. He carried it around for 10 minutes, then brought it over to us for a photo. He laid it at our feet and told us about how he’d found and shot it, for at least five minutes.
Then he handed me his camera and moved the bird slightly to set it up for the photo. That was when the bird raised its head and took off, running through the field with Paul in hot pursuit, with me following a short distance behind him, carrying his shotgun. I think there was quite a bit of shouting, probably mostly on my part.
I have learned in past years that you can’t catch a wounded pheasant that’s on the run. On one hunt, I knocked down a pheasant, walked up to him, reached down to pick him up, and he jumped up and took off running. I never saw him again.
So I was pretty pessimistic that we’d catch Paul’s pheasant. But Paul was determined and we lucked out when the pheasant stopped to hide about 30 yards away. I handed Paul his shotgun and he and shot the bird. For the second time. This time it was dead. And we got the photo.
Hunting trips feature extraordinary cuisine. And this trip to North Dakota is special, because Kal Kotkas is a superb cook. Kal planned the menu, featuring beef stew, pea soup, fresh salads, and his fabulous pheasant stroganoff, a dish we call Pheasant A La Kal. We also had a great spaghetti dinner featuring from-scratch venison tomato sauce made by Bill Martens. Wow!
For my part, I got my three birds on day one, shooting respectably well, thanks mostly to a shooting lesson I got before I left Maine from Brad Varney in Richmond. On Day Two, I shot poorly, ending the day with two birds. I could have shot a third bird right at dusk. But after walking more than 10 miles that day (a typical day), I just didn’t have it in me to shoot that bird.
On Day Three, except for one appalling miss, I shot well and made my best shot of the trip, the bird mentioned at the top of this column. Brad Varney would have been proud of me.
On our final day, we left the house at 7 am. It was still dark, 26 degrees, wind howling about 25 miles an hour. I was wearing all the hunting clothes I brought with me. In the first two corn and wheat fields we walk, I got no shots, although we put up a bunch of pheasants.
In the millet field along the river, I blocked while three of the guys and the dog walked up through the field. I was ducked down behind a small rise when a hen pheasant popped over the rise and nearly hit me in the head. It was flying at least 50 miles an hour, with the wind, and would have knocked me out for sure. It passed no more than 3 feet over my head. I was thrilled.
Just before lunch, I finally shot a bird. We took a long leisurely break at noon, warming up, enjoying a lunch of leftovers and sandwiches. At 1:30 pm, we got back after them, and on the first two pieces, I missed a couple of birds.
Then it’s on to the lake, where the birds pile up in the williwags. Sure enough, on the first hunt there, I made a fantastic passing shot, dropped a pheasant, but lost it. It apparently ran off after hitting the ground.
In the next hunt, along the north side of the lake, we put up hundreds of pheasants, and I shot two, completing my daily limit. On the final pheasant of our final day of hunting, I use my final shotgun shell. Good planning!
But this trip is not about the numbers of pheasants harvested. On Day Two, Paul Edmunds and I sat at the end of a road, waiting to be picked up, watched a Golden Eagle soar by, enjoyed a stunningly beautiful sunset across the plains, talked about (ok bragged about) our grandchildren, and watched two pheasants walk out onto the road, not far from us. Neither of us made a move to shoot them.