This is the first October in about 40 years my phone hasn’t been ringing daily to see if I am ready to go bird hunting. Got your gun ready? Got your shells? Got your licence? When are you coming down? (That referred to me leaving Calgary and travelling to southern Alberta).
This is upland game bird and more specifically pheasant season in Alberta. Pheasant season usually opens in mid-October and runs through until mid-November. And my long-time best friend Mike Lamb was an avid hunter and fisherman. He wasn’t always a successful hunter, but for him it was the excitement of getting ready and just heading out to the bush or the wheat fields that seemed to matter most. Some years we didn’t do much more than scare the birds, burn some gas, or nap in a stubble field on a warm, sunny October afternoon, but they were memorable days. Mike died in late January so the phone has been quiet and there have been no emails to harass me to prepare for the approaching season.
We started the pheasant season routine in the late 1970s. We were both working for the Lethbridge Herald newspaper in those days. Opening day we’d take at least part of the morning off work for early morning hunts along the irrigation canals around Barons and Picture Butte, just north of Lethbridge. Most of the canals had trees and shrubs growing along the banks in those days. It was excellent pheasant habitat — the canals were flanked by grain fields, there was water in the canal, and the grass and shrubs along the edge provided excellent cover for the birds.
You needed a dog for pheasant hunting and Mike had Brittany spaniels for the decades that I knew him. First dog was a bright, bird-smart Brittany named Willow. Later there was Lark, then Cutter and in the last couple years Mojo and Moxie. I don’t know if it was lack of training or weaker genetics but Mojo and Moxie just didn’t seem to have the inbred pointer passion as some of their predecessors.
When habitat and birds became scarce around the Lethbridge area, in later years we headed further south. We travelled as far as Manyberries in the southeast corner of the province. A couple years we just camped out in a farmer’s field and slept in the bed of my old pickup truck so we would be ready just at sun up to wade through acres of knee high rosehips in search of birds. Sometimes we’d lose the dog in the dense brush and grass. She’d find a bird, be holding it on point and we couldn’t find her. If we didn’t show, eventually she would yelp and flush the bird way ahead of us or way behind us, sometimes right in front of us. Often as not we weren’t quite ready with the guns and the bird would flutter off into the horizon, to live another day.
For several years we returned to Schneyder Farms near Magrath, south of Lethbridge to hunt birds. They were big grain farmers with seemingly miles of a grassy, shrubby, meandering creek bottom that always had pockets of birds. We would wander through this shrubby grassland for two or three early morning hours, fall a lot, and shoot at a few birds before we got tired out. Later in the day we’d check the grassy coulees along the nearby Jensen Reservoir for any cocks who sought refuge in this less travelled area.
Depending on the year, there were generally plenty of birds around, but in years of hard winters or a very wet spring bird populations would be down. One time near Magrath we weren’t finding many birds, so mid afternoon we took a nap in the truck before looking again in the evening. When we woke up and started moving around, wouldn’t you know it there was a cock pheasant right under the truck that spooked us as it made a hasty exit. Of course we weren’t ready with our guns, so he was another who lived another day.
A few years we also hunted in the Foremost area, then Purple Springs, and other points around Taber. The Taber-area trips were always productive one way or another. Mike was never one to pass up a deal. And there are lots of vegetable operations around Taber. At least a couple years we came across pumpkin fields still dotted with cull pumpkins. That was certainly something we couldn’t pass up — a person can never have too many misshapen pumpkins, so we picked up a few of those.
On at least one trip we came across frosted but still standing sweet corn — well wouldn’t a few stalks of those add to a decorative Halloween arrangement at the front door? And a few miles down the road, who knew that so many potatoes were left behind at harvest or fell off the trucks on the way to the processing plant. We couldn’t leave potatoes to go to waste. So along with our hunting gear, one or two dogs, and food coolers we managed to jam in an assortment of abandon vegetables which to Mike was as good if not better than finding birds. One year he was excited about finding a field recently harvested of navy beans, so we spent an hour or so filling our pockets with beans that had shelled out on the ground. It was an amazing find. Too bad they didn’t sell them in neat two-pound plastic bags at the grocery store.
We hunted around Patricia, Millicent and Brooks some years. One time we managed to follow the government bird truck out to a field as it was about to release hatchery birds to the wild. We gave them half an hour to take cover, but then managed to bag two or three of the dumb ones who thought hiding beside a fence post made them invisible. It didn’t. Maybe it wasn’t as exciting as flushing a bird out of rosehips or cattails, but hey, Mike and I were getting older. Why do all that tromping around when the birds were right there?
They were always interesting trips and most years we got some pheasants, a few Huns, and if we bought migratory bird license we’d jump-shoot unsuspecting ducks we found on waterholes or irrigation canals. In the early years we camped quite a bit on these trips, and also stayed in colorful local lodgings such as the Southern Ranchman’s Inn in Manyberries, the Foremost Hotel before it burned, and the Patricia Hotel, with it’s cook-your-own steak pit.
My 12-gauge shotgun hasn’t moved this year and I doubt it will. Mike loved to hunt and more than the hunting I just loved being out there with him for the experience. Much like I feel about fishing, it’s just nice to be out, and feel the anticipation and it’s a bonus if you actually catch or shoot something. Neither Mike nor I were really fussy about cleaning fish or birds.
I doubt I will be out looking for birds much more, but I will take some time to hunt through photo albums and shoeboxes to find pictures from those hunting trips over the years. Those memories will taste pretty good.