Montana Pheasants… just stay on the porch
I know that if you want to hunt wild and hard to find pheasants in Montana you have one of two choices, either cold weather or very cold weather, and lots of hard hunting which means a bunch of miles on foot.
So when my hunting partner, Mark, asked me to join him and his friend Mike to hunt for a couple of days in Northern Montana, I thought about what I knew the conditions would be like, and in spite of that knowledge I jumped at the chance.
Mark described the place we would be hunting as a private ranch of some 70,000 acres that Mike had permission to hunt on and we would also have the ranch bunkhouse to ourselves for accommodations. On top of all of this I would be hunting with Mark’s amazing Black Lab, Puck, which was enough reason to go by itself.
The following weekend we loaded all of our gear into Mark’s 4×4 Dodge and headed east on I-90 with Puck in the back in his crate very content knowing birds were in his future. When packing my gear I was careful to make sure I had enough cold weather gear to get me through the weekend without frostbite, and more than one change of outerwear as the chances of getting wet were pretty good this time of year.
The list always includes the long johns, bibs and plenty of socks. My camo duck hunting cold weather coat has a liner along with gloves that go well past the wrist for reaching into cold water and being able to use your hands afterwards. I figured I had better take it all with me just in case.
Fortunately, having bird hunted the southern plantations of the USA I own a couple different size vests and these days the 2X does fit over my outerwear so I grabbed it as well. When Mark came to pick me up he accused me of packing for two weeks instead of two days. I hate being cold was all I could say.
The trip was pretty normal until we reached a small town in Montana (name escapes me) where the highway to our destination turns north. As we came around the bend we were staring at a vertical mountain face within a few feet from the road. Right up tight against the face stood seven Big Horn sheep, a very nice ram and his harem. As we approached Mark pulled over so we could get a good look and it became clear they were no strangers to traffic as they just looked at us while we looked at them and were not the least bit concerned.
Their demeanor didn’t matter to us as the opportunity to see these magnificent creatures up close was a bonus to the trip. I have seen them before through binoculars but never six feet away. Since we were starting to tie up traffic, we needed to move on and as we did I thought to myself that in the future I most likely would have no interest in hunting sheep, except with my camera. It was precisely at that moment I realized my camera gear was in the back of the rig.
As we headed north into Montana we were pleasantly surprised at the weather being so unusually warm and the discussion turned to how this weather would affect the bird behavior. I had my suspicions that if it didn’t cool off we would be hard put to find any birds in the usual places and exhibiting the normal behavior.
We arrived at the ranch on schedule and met up with Mike. It had been a long day so we got comfortable and discussed the plan for the next day of bird hunting. Mike’s plan was to go to an area a couple of miles from the ranch house and work some high grass draws which also had timber and some heavy cover. He had hunted this area before with good success and believed it would be a good first day. This ranch offers all the ingredients for good bird hunting, plenty of cover, good feed plus fresh and accessible water. Pheasants prefer all three within a short distance and the PN, as this land was called, provided it all everywhere.
No one could tell me what PN stood for but in Montana land parcels have some strange names. Normally I would share where we were but in this case we were on private land. I can tell you we were north of Great Falls and without Mike I could never find it again.
The next morning we were surprised the weather had turned even warmer, in the sixties. We were all in heavy camo and vests with winter boots and that was not going to work. Clearly, by noon it would be in the seventies and this was pretty much unheard of in November in Montana.
Nevertheless, we headed to the trucks to make our way to the area Mike wanted to start in. The first hour was tough going, climbing up and over rocky draws and hills, through heavy brush trying to push up some birds. The dogs were working hard but nothing was happening. We stopped often to water the dogs and ourselves. Layer by layer as the sweat was soaking our clothes we shed our gear. I asked Mark if we made a wrong turn in Idaho and went south to the desert. This is just plain strange.
Somewhere around ten o’clock I was dripping wet and was down to a tee shirt and vest. I had never bird hunted in these conditions before and the terrain along with the hot weather was making this trip a tough go. Here we are sweating profusely, climbing over downed trees, swampy creek bottoms and still no birds and you have some pretty unhappy hunters.
This is certainly not like hunting the nice flat straight rows of milo and sorgum of South Dakota or Kansas or even Georgia. This is tough bird hunting and by now we are stubbornly determined to keep going until we found some success.
Around eleven o’clock our stomachs told us we need to refuel, and the dogs were looking pretty beat as well. The way back to the truck was through some deep and heavy brush along a full creek bed, which under any normal circumstances would have held many birds, except of course today. I sent Puck into the brush along the creek and as always he was up to the task. Still nothing! I even thought he gave me a sideways look, but I am sure it was my imagination.
It was unanimously decided that it was time to head back for lunch, and for the afternoon hunt we would head up to high country and find some sharpies and if lucky maybe a few Hungarian Partridge.
As we turned the last corner taking us back to the house, Mike’s truck in front of us came to a screeching halt. Mike jumped out of his truck, gun in hand and started shooting at the huge hay rounders stacked near the back barn.
Mark and I could not figure out what he was doing until we saw a bunch of pheasants taking flight in all directions. Not only were they flying but they were running between the hay rounders (A rounder for you easterners is a huge hay bale in a round wheel shape about eight feet high in all directions.
The dogs were still in their kennels in the truck beds making a racket as they could hear the roosters and the gunshots of course. We are all trying to reload and bring down a few. If anyone saw what was going on I can only imagine that it must have looked like a well-staged Keystone Cops movie.
Remember, we were on our way back to lunch so vests were gone which meant no shells, no hats, boots untied to relieve sweaty feet .Once we realized what was going on and none of us had more than a couple of shells in our pockets we all had to scramble back to the trucks for more.
We let the dogs out of their kennels, but to their dismay and ours most of the birds were gone. The ranch must have sounded like WW III had started. Finally, when our guns were empty and the smoke had cleared we took count and had harvested several nice big birds. In retrospect the challenge had been to make sure we were shooting in the right direction away from the house and each other. Fortunately all of us are experienced and in spite of the chaos we did not put any holes in the barn, the house or each other.
After all of that tough going, sweat and no results it was clear we would have done better had we stayed on the porch. The birds would have come to us, but then it wouldn’t have felt like we earned them I guess. .
The next day, we found another spot for morning pheasants and got a few birds and all in all it was a great hunt. For me three things really stood out on this hunt. The crazy weather of course and a white tail that jumped up a few feet in front of me that took a few years off my life. I have jumped a lot of deer in the woods in years past but never one so close I could almost give her a kiss as she went by me. Last the gunfight at the hay bale corral. Hunters 5 pheasants 0.
Montana is big country and it’s great hunting for all sorts of game. If it wasn’t so far I would go more often, but always go prepared for some tough weather and it can change very quickly to bad just as fast as to good. I am looking forward to my next trip and perhaps it will be a bit more normal but then…maybe not.
The trip home was not as planned. We hit a sudden snowstorm in Idaho and it was at that moment the front 4×4 differential in Mark’s truck went south on us.
We limped over the passes and down I 90 at a snail’s pace and well, suffice it to say it was an appropriate ending for a very strange hunting trip.
Fortunately time takes away some of the sting and we can look back at that trip fondly and even jokingly as Mark still has the Dodge even though he hates it, He calls it his money pit. I told Mark that next time at the PN maybe I will stay on the porch.
Al Hague is an avid outdoorsman and published author as well as outdoor photographer. Al resides and hunts mostly in the western half of the US and Canada. His photos can also be seen on http://www.shutterpoint.com and http://www.theartshop.com.