Riverside, Iowa – An early Christmas gift from my wife came with a cynical remark. “Why you need to scratch your hunting itch with another trip this late in the year I’ll never understand,” she said, handing me a gift certificate for three days at Highland’s Lodge, in Riverside, Iowa. “How much pheasant hunting can one person do?”
Rhetorical questions deserve rhetorical answers, of course, and one of these days I may actually have that answer for her, and myself. But for now I’m perfectly content to just scratch the itch.
In fact, I had planned on it as early as last spring when I mentioned it to Maria Stein native, and San Diego Padres pitcher Cory Luebke, my intent to go pheasant hunting between Christmas and New Year’s, with an invitation for him to join me.
Well, the more the merrier as we rolled into Iowa City Monday night and checked into the welcome site of the Highland’s lodge in nearby Riverside.
Now if you haven’t previously read here, Highland’s is an annual destination for me for the week between Christmas and New Year’s. While others are doing whatever it is they do to make the new year memorable, I go pheasant hunting…in sub-zero temperatures, in blowing snow and ice, whatever. While others are roasting by the fire at home, I’m “scratching” that itch.
I have to admit. The fun of this particular hunt proved to be sharing “good” pheasant hunting to a pair of friends who had never had “good” pheasant hunting before.
Plus, sitting by the fire at the lodge and talking baseball had its charm, as well. Cory Luebke and I both pitched for Ohio State University, four decades apart, and had plenty to stories to swap.
In his first full season with the Padres last summer, Cory amassed a 6-10 record in 140 innings with a 3.29 earned run average and figures prominently enough in the club’s plans for 2012 for them to have recently traded #1 starter Mat Latos to the Cincinnati Reds for four highly-prized prospects.
But we weren’t talking about baseball Tuesday morning. It was strictly “roosters” as we joined long-time friend and guide Blake Boyer in a field of native Iowa switch grass dissected with sorghum cane food plots planted at quarter-mile intervals.
Like west-central Ohio, Iowa has thus far had an open winter…no snow, warm temperatures, and there’s always plenty of wind. Gusts up to 25 miles per hours made walking a challenge, but moments after stepping into the field one of Blake’s shorthair pointers pinned a raucous rooster and Cory and made a quick, accurate shot to record the first kill of the day.
Trust it, Highland Hideaway is a shooting preserve, but hunting at Highland is anything but preserve shooting. It’s classic Midwest Iowa hunting in the tradition of the state’s reputation for pheasants earned during the 50s and the 60s. You earn Iowa roosters, whether you’re hunting on private property or on the 2,000 managed acres that we were walking.
It took us an hour to get three birds. Two hours later we had three more. The longer we walked the harder the wind blew, presenting miserable scenting conditions for the dogs. Most of the flushes we got were wild and unpredictable.
“I think we might do better if we can get out of this wind,” said Blake. “Why don’t get the dogs down along the creek.”
His suggestion was dead-on. Out of the wind the dogs immediately began to pick up scent and were “birdy” within a matter of minutes. Cory and Troy kept the pair of shorthairs between them and then came a solid point…on a rabbit that bolted in the opposite direction with a pointer escort.
We all had a good laugh. But just as the dogs followed the bunny into a thicket on the opposite side of a winding stream, five cackling rooster rocketed airborne, flying in five different directions. Troy killed a straightaway, I picked out one that crossed in between Blake and Cory and killed it just at the edge of good shooting range as it tried to escape. Only Cory failed to collect one of the five, unable to shoot because of people standing in his way.
A quarter mile farther up the creek line he got his chance…on one of the remaining three that had settled in chest-high switch grass at the edge of a sorghum food plot. He dumped it easily with the top barrel of his Browning Citori.
“You know my dad would really enjoy this,” he said as we walked back to the truck, each with our daily limit of birds. “We need to make this a yearly tradition, starting next year.”
“Only if you invite me next time,” I laughed. “You know…I have this itch.”
He nodded in agreement, and I could tell. The itch…was highly contagious.
Sonny Fulks, Managing Editor, Press Pros Magazine