The early, excited conversations about bird dogs and shotguns have died out.
Now there is little but the quiet jitters of a sleepless night and an oncoming hunt, the silence punctuated by conspiracy theorist postulations on AM radio.
It’s 365 miles from my driveway to the first decent patch of public pheasant hunting at the southwest corner of Kansas. That’s a little over 5 hours of hard driving, leaving at midnight, arriving in the cold well before sunrise.
The dog is sleeping, finally past the nervous whine that pierced the first hour of the trip. Now she’s settled in, conserving energy for the day she surely expects at dawn. I am positive that she believes the trip is for her sake and this time she’s right.
She has hunted almost every western specie of upland bird, but as a springer her calling is pheasants.
We blast through Boise City, Texas and I open the windows and let the sharp, cold air in to keep our eyelids pried open.
In the jet black of predawn Oklahoma, the rural world is stirring.
Old Ford pickups are idling in dirt driveways, creating little clouds of exhaust while their owners enjoy a few more minutes in a warm kitchen.
It’s late season and the early crowd at the cafe is mostly Stetsons and John Deere baseball caps, devoid of the hunter orange that litters the tables in November.
Back in the truck, Roxy starts the nervous whine again. We’re out of town, racing down dirt roads past cut grain and CRP looking for any sign of terrain in this vast expanse of ocean-flat prarie.
We bail out of the truck at a small draw with a thin strip of amaranth down the center. White, Walk in Hunting Access signs, the siren song for out-of-state pheasant hunters, border the edges.
The dog is booted. Last trip the sand spurs were prolific. She prances for a few steps then settles down to wait for us.
Barely 20 yards in Roxy makes an abrupt stop, miscalculates the boots and falls flat on her side. Her legs are sticking straight out and her nose is in a clump of switchgrass that erupts in a hen pheasant.
Before the hen is even out of sight, a rooster cackles out of heavy cover with Roxy tight to his tail feathers.
This dog chases quail and on occasion will refuse to make a retrieve on a bird she deems too big, but she was born to hunt pheasants.
A few years ago I heard there was a springer pup with a local rescue organization in the next town over. I called and asked about the pup, tempted to bring him home. A few questions into the conversation, the woman on the other end of the line changed her tone.
“Would you be using this dog as a hunting dog,” she asked.
After the obvious response, she told me that the pup wouldn’t be allowed to go to a home where it would be required to hunt.
“It’s not good for the dog,” she told me.
I imagine that pup ate every plant, chewed up all her left shoes and destroyed most of her furniture with its pent up energy. While the thought of all that sweet justice makes me smile, I feel sad for the pup that likely never discovered what he was hard wired to do.
My own dog quarters through thick CRP, hunting hard and barreling into and through the thickest cover. The deep grass sometimes covers her completely, but she reappears momentarily in vertical leaps that are her breed’s namesake.
A nose-to-the ground, brush-busting springer has no greater desire than the trail of a wile old rooster, staying afoot and trying to hunker down or run out of range.
This is her calling and it’s worth the drive.