Pheasant Opener; it’s Christmas, the Super Bowl and one of those Big Money whirlwind machines you sometimes see at casinos all rolled into one, except instead of dollar bills, confetti and wrapping paper, it’s feathers, lead and ejected shell casings that fill the air.
Whether the weekend is spent “at home” with friends, or “back home” on the farm with family, opener is always good for some new stories, some new ways to cook up our quarry, and some new looks at old tales that we all just get better at telling as the years go by.
It’s poker around the kitchen table until midnight on Friday, and caramel rolls and coffee on opening morning as the first light of sun peaks out from the horizon. We twitch the anticipation for the opening minute, like a student watches the afternoon clock waiting for the final bell to sound at 3:30. Fueled by a rush of caffeine and mounting adrenaline, we gear up, load up the trucks and hit the blacktop and gravel, or step out into the back forty.
The chaos of that first walk – of a bunch of birds busting cover at the end of a slough or finger of grass or a young pup taking off a quarter mile ahead – means you never know what you’re going to get beyond the excitement and the adrenaline rush. It might be two in the bag on the first two shots, or just a lot of walking. I’ve plowed through fields flushing fourteen hens, and sent seemingly endless numbers of roosters up at the end of a stretch of golden-brown brome grass, but most often it’s a mid-flight mix of buff versus color that makes picking out a legal target a very difficult task.
The dogs we use in pursuit of the wily ringneck are equally varied from year-to-year. But inevitably labs of all kinds – brown, black and yellow – are well represented in my photo album. Still others – like springers, pointers and vislas – make appearances as new friends and visiting hunters join in the fun. Inevitably, the post-hunt picture session showcases a large group of hunters looking forward with big smiles, and a number of dogs seemingly staring off goofily in five different directions at who-knows-what.
I’ve had opening days where we’ve had to quit because it got so hot that even the dogs were sweating and I’ve had starts to the season where I’ve trudged through six inches of snow with barely a bird in the bag. Some years we’re done in an hour, and some years the party can’t scratch out even one bird apiece. Some openers I’ve been dead on, and others felt more like my first day afield, where I spent 27 shells in pursuit of my first rooster. For getting my first bird, that was my best opener, and for what it took to get it, that was my worst too, at least in terms of shooting.
Whatever opener brings – fast action or slow, good shooting or bad – it’s always a great time. Taking in the crispness of autumn, recapping the morning hunt over lunch back at the farmhouse or a small town café, and finding a secret, untouched piece of public land for the afternoon hunt, tucked way back off the main road somewhere, are all little moments that help celebrate the newly-minted season. The memories are as colorful as the birds, and as season after season goes into the memory banks and photo books, they come together as a complete tradition. Comparing any one year against a collection of 10, 20 or even 30 years worth of openers are a lot like the bird itself – an amalgamation of feathers that, if plucked and looked at individually, might seem like they each were from a different species – but when viewed all together, those first-weekend memories complete a bigger picture of a tradition that is greater and more stunning than any one memory, and serve once again as a starting point for the enjoyment that is to come in this season and future ones…in our outdoors.