NEIL WAUGH OUTDOORS: Snow-day pheasants

By NEIL WAUGH

It’s the second week of September and I’m wearing long johns.

That’s right, a classy pair of classic Stanfields.

It’s snowing out there in pheasant country and I’m tackling the elements head on.

I waited for the first-snow carnage on the Anthony Henday to clear before venturing out but every time a City of Edmonton garbage truck returning from the big Riley landfill passes on Highway 14 the Jeep’s wipers can’t keep up with the road spray.

This is pheasant country. Or at least it used to be.

There are still a few misty-eyed old guys around who tell tall tales about the great pheasant hunting east of town in the late 1940s when the Chinese ring-neck was king in Alberta.

Now the remnant wild bird populations are confined to the southern tier of the province.

And the prognosis for this year’s hunt isn’t good.

In late summer Alberta Conservation Association volunteers and their dogs fanned out in “some of the best habitat the south has to offer” the ACA news release states.

“The flush rate is down from last year,” the gloomy dog-men report back.

“In many locations, this past winter was the worst seen in over 30 years,” the document adds.

“After a severe winter and late, wet spring, it’s no surprise that the counts were lower.”

Although the report ends on a upbeat note.

“Wild birds can still be found,” the ACA concludes, “with some hard work and dedication.”

Neil and Penny in the field. Neil Waugh/Edmonton Sun

Even though the dogs were flushing an average of just 1.5 pheasants per hour. Or 1.9 pheasants for each kilometer walked. Not good.

But there is another way. The ACA’s pheasant release program isn’t perfect but it’s sure better than the alternative.

When the provincial government ran it, the despised pheasant program was kicked around from department to department like a kid in a Charles Dickens novel, despite former premier Peter Lougheed carving money out of the Alberta Heritage Fund to build a high capacity, state-of-the-art pheasant hatchery at Brooks back in the 1970s. Now sadly abandoned.

Since the ACA – which operates largely from conservation check-off funds on fishing and hunting licenses – has taken over the release program from the failing Alberta Environment and Parks bureaucrats things have improved exponentially.

Abandoned homesteaders truck on the Daysland property. Neil Waugh/Edmonton Sun

There are now over 40 sites stretching from the Peace River Country to the border where roosters are being released this fall.

Including six quarters of Ducks Unlimited Canada land along Secondary Highway 855 that the ACA calls Daysland. But it’s actually closer to Holden.

When hunting wild birds in the south food sources such as snow berry patches and resting areas like overgrown irrigation ditches are habitat to key on.

But release birds, which only a day or so ago were living happily in a Wisconsin pen, are random.

Somewhere out there in nearly 1000 acres of matted brome grass and aspen bluffs there’s a green-headed bird with a long tail.

Go find it, Penny.

My fox red Lab heads out along the trail into the snowfall which is coming at us horizontally.

I drop two 5-shot Imperials into the Ruger and follow.

We hunt along a ditch that Ducks dug long ago for moving water to some ponds.

Then around a poplar stand.

And when we are coming back through the trees to the ditch a pheasant flushes. Just like a southern bird.

The first string hits the ring-neck and the second barrel anchors it.

After that comes a long hunt along some edges. Primo habitat but nothing flies.

The light is fading and the blizzard isn’t letting up.

We’re heading back when I hear a rooster crow.

There’s a mound covered with snow berries around where the cackle came from.

Surely he’s in there.

When we arrive at the berries Penny picks up the scent.

And when the rooster rises from the cover I miss with both barrels.

By then I’ve pretty well run out of dog.

Although Penny would likely say she’s run out of hunter.

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