By Tom Huggler
You walk for hours, sometimes miles, between gamebird flushes. Then, like a meteor shooting across the ink-black sky, it’s over the second you know it happened. Bird hunters live for the “flush rush”—that catch of breath, that endorphin sluice—triggered by “Bird up!” or the roar of wings.
Odd, though, how the order of such drama changes as we grow older. What used to be the climax—kill the bird or not—naturally followed the prologue, which was always the flush. But now the dog has become the prologue. And whether the dog forces the bird aloft or holds it at point, the flush is now the climax. Hit or miss doesn’t matter as much as it used to. But if you want an epilogue, then kill the bird and savor the dog’s retrieve.
After a stellar day afield, what is more satisfying than replaying in your mind those wonderful flushes? The sound of a flushing ruffed grouse reminds me of a motorcycle rumbling off; but if I don’t see the bird, I never know where it is. Sometimes woodcock launch noisily like that; other times they softly batter away as though on moth wings. A covey of bobwhites that explodes with a brrrrr is like a dozen tack hammers rapping away at once. Sharptails make that queer kuk-kuk-kuk as they beat wings and glide. Gray partridge squeak with chatter whenever they blow up in a group.
And pheasants? I’ll never forget the last one I encountered, late in the afternoon on a sun-drenched day. My friend Mike and I and our dogs were halfway across a large weedfield when Mike’s setter hit scent and began tracking. A quarter-mile later the dog trapped the bird next to a chisel-plowed field. With my setter backing, this bird’s number was up.
I don’t know how many times I have rerun that glorious flush in my mind. Rising as a gash of color from the sere weeds, he was the most beautiful ringneck I had ever seen. His cleric’s collar gleamed from the falling sun, and his tail was as long as a Louisville Slugger. Lining out, he beat his way past me, the thocka, thocka of wingbeats echoing in my head. The 12-gauge double came up when the bird was only 20 yards away—then 15—the classic sucker shot, right? But my Model 23 Winchester was silent, the safety tang stuck between choice of barrel.
Mike wondered why I was laughing aloud.
Tom Huggler’s Grouse of North America and A Fall of Woodcock won national acclaim and are now collectible. His Quail Hunting in America (Stackpole) is still in print. A Fall of Woodcock was reprinted recently by Skyhorse Publishing.