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To introduce my story, I have been pheasant and sharptail hunting for over 35 years. The shooting of a bird is of course the end goal but the enjoyment for me comes from the hunting experience. I am passionate about bird hunting for many reasons, the first being how I love a long walk on a fall day across the wide-open prairie and coulees of southern Alberta. I love the camaraderie and conversation that bonds hunters and dogs together as lifelong friends. I love the rituals and preparation that lead up to the first day of hunting, and most of all, I love to watch hunting dogs as they perform what they are genetically bred to do, which is to find birds. I strongly believe that “if your dog hasn’t found birds, you just haven’t walked far enough.”

I enjoy the ‘game’ between the birds and the hunting team where most often the birds come out on top. In my experience, the survival instinct of upland game birds is to run when danger approaches, then to hide—head and belly flat on the ground—and lastly, flush and fly away to safety. The ‘game’ begins when the dog is running downwind of the bird and catches its scent. He follows its scent until it becomes overpowering, and he instinctively stops and goes on point. Now the hunter approaches from behind. He slowly walks ahead unaware of the exact location of the bird, while reassuring his dog. The bird flushes followed by the aim and shot. 

This perfect ‘game’ described between birds and hunters sounds great but, there are many unexpected situations that can change our best made plans.

Our dog Sniper is my daughter Jesseca’s two-year-old Weimaraner. He roams around on a ranch, chasing coyotes, muskrats, and ducks. He has had no hunting training and doesn’t know much about my rules for pointing dogs. However, he does have great natural instincts and loads of enthusiasm. My son James, who has been hunting with me for 15 years, and this young rookie Weimaraner make up our team.  

Over the many years of field trialing with my shorthaired pointers, I developed my own standards for hunting. For example, “No point, no shot”. If the dog does not locate the bird and hold the point staunchly, we don’t shoot when the bird flies away. Because the dog must hold the point, it allows us time as we walk to analyze and work the situation.

Our fall routine, when the game bird season opens has been the same for the past 35 years. Drive the four-hour trip south and east to the Red Deer River and set up camp. My friends Ken and Bruce from Bonnyville arrive followed by James. We tell stories in anticipation of the following morning and season opener.
In southern Alberta, the season for pheasants opens on October 15. This year, the Alberta Conservation Association released 1000 unique melanistic ring-necked pheasants. Melanistic pheasants are the same as normal ring-necked pheasants but have a natural genetic mutation, which gives them a striking, dark iridescent plumage. The chances of actually seeing one during our hunt were low.

The temperature was -8 Celsius with a strong wind our first morning out. James, Sniper and I left camp at 8:30 am and drove to one of our favourite pastures. An hour into the hunt, two pheasant roosters flushed about 100 feet ahead of the dog and there was no opportunity to shoot. No Point, no Shot. So, we changed our strategy and entered some larger coulees where we have had success in past years.

We continued for a couple of kilometres with no luck, and then headed back to camp ‘birdless’. Not all was lost, as we had a great long walk and many conversations while watching the dog run ahead of us searching for scent. Once at camp, we decided to move to the Brooks area.  

The following morning, we began our day at the Aqueduct and surrounding pastures. It was a beautiful cool day with a light breeze from the northwest, perfect scenting conditions. We left the truck and walked to a long row of trees at the bottom of a hill. It was a good trek with the usual chatter while Sniper was out front searching for scent. We heard several shots from other hunters. When we finally reached our destination, we located Sniper on a solid point, nose into the wind, next to the trees. James approached on the right side where the dog was standing and I took the left side. James slowly inched past Sniper when suddenly a rooster flushed! He shouldered the 20 gauge and shot the pheasant. A classic situation, rewarding both hunter and dog. After congratulating each other and praising the dog for his fine work, we continued up the hill excitedly revisiting the last 10 minutes. 

After Sniper has his first pheasant encounter of the day, he is exuberant (to say the least) and charges ahead at top speed sweeping back and forth looking for bird scent. Less than 10 minutes later, on the flat side of the hill, we found him standing on point again. Now it’s my turn to shoot and I walk slowly alongside Sniper, calmly settling him with repeated “atta’ boys”. As I prepare for the flush, I see the bird, four feet ahead. At the same moment, Sniper cannot contain his excitement; the bird was just too much temptation for the rookie dog and he leapt ahead nearly grabbing its tail feathers as the pheasant flew away to safety. Naturally, I made no attempt to shoot, as this situation did not fall into my hunting standards. The hunting team had a chat to remind Sniper that his job is to locate the birds, and the hunters to flush and shoot. He is always eager to please but I think we may need more work on this request.

James with his melanistic pheasant.
We were chuckling over the episode when half a kilometre out we see Sniper on another find and on point. We approach at a quick pace, sizing up the situation. James moved slowly alongside Sniper, cautiously preparing for the anticipated flush and shot. Seconds later, a rooster lifts and cackles on his left and as he readies for the shot, to our great surprise, a second bird rises on his right. This bird was not the typical colouring of a male pheasant but was dark, almost black and blue iridescent. James at first thought it was a crow, but the cackling and long tail revealed it to be a melanistic rooster. As the first bird was flying away to safety, James swung to the right and shot the second and much darker trophy pheasant. Sniper remained on point.

We were all excited and full of disbelief. Lots of hugs and praise to Sniper followed. The celebration continued during the entire three-kilometre walk back to the truck.
It was an unforgettable and unbelievable memory. What a perfect ending to a perfect day. 

The next morning, we woke up to snow and -10 Celsius with a wind chill, so we packed up and headed home. ■

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