A day on the prairie: A pheasant hunting trip
MCCLUSKY, N.D. -- We had hardly left the truck on this October afternoon when Chance, a 19-month-old Brittany, congealed into a rigid point in the ditch along the road. There was no doubt that a pheasant was hunkered in the immediate vicinity.
That was a problem. Chance and the bird were on the wrong side of the road.
"We don't have permission to hunt on that side," said Mike Marturano of Duluth, who owns Chance.
It would have been easy for Marturano, 59, to flush the bird and take a quick shot. It's likely nobody would have ever known. But that isn't how Marturano and his hunting partner, Bill Millar of Duluth, operate. That isn't how they've established long and valued relationships with the farmers whose land they've hunted here since Marturano first came to McClusky nearly 35 years ago.
Marturano took a couple of more steps, and a young rooster, still getting its adult plumage, flushed off Chance's nose. Marturano watched it fly away.
They crossed the road, joined Millar, and walked onto land where they had permission to hunt. Chance gamboled along, 45 pounds of orange-and-white energy still learning the pheasant game. Millar, 64, followed his 107-pound black Lab, Ruger, who hunted a little closer and a lot more deliberately.
Marturano discovered McClusky, a town of 380 in the wheat, soybean and corn country of central North Dakota, when he joined a friend on a hunt here in 1979. Like hundreds of other Minnesota hunters who have forged friendships with farmers in North and South Dakota, Marturano began engaging the local community.
"That's what brings us back year after year," he said. "It's become more getting to know the people in the restaurant. As far as being in the main pheasant area, it's not."
A person can hunt pheasants half an hour before sunrise in North Dakota, but that isn't Marturano and Millar's style. They mosey to the Union Grill and Bar for breakfast about 8 a.m. That's where they met and became friends with a lot of McClusky farmers.
"Once we got to know the people in the restaurant, we got invited to hunt on land," Marturano said.
One day, a farmer named Myron came over to visit with them.
"He came over and threw a key on the table," Millar said.
Myron gave them directions to his land south of Pickardville, N.D.
"There's a locked gate there," Myron said. "Just bring my key back when you're done."
Over the years, the friendships with local residents have deepened.
"We've been invited to weddings, to birthday parties," Marturano said. "They have a Deutschfest every year. They kept telling us we had to come. One year, it was on a Friday, and we went. I think they had more pictures of us in the paper than them."
Once in the field, Marturano and Millar followed their dogs and waited for roosters to flush. North Dakota's pheasant numbers are down this year, but the drop wasn't as sharp as those in South Dakota and Minnesota.
Even in the good years, the two hunters don't typically take their three-bird limits of roosters every day, Marturano said.
But they put in their time, and they hunt hard. They're the leave-no-cover-untouched kind of hunters who don't mind going out of their way to hit a good-looking slough or drainage ditch. This is one of three trips Marturano will make to McClusky this fall.
On this sunny October afternoon, they worked across private land into a federal Waterfowl Production Area. Along the hilly edge of a pothole, they approached a thicket of brush on a slanted hillside.
"We've shot birds here before," Millar said.
Marturano and Chance took the low side of the thicket, along the water. Millar and Ruger patrolled the upper edge. Both dogs plowed into the thicket, and pheasants erupted. It was a rooster uprising. Birds just kept flushing, fighting their way up through the thick brush and into the open.
Millar dropped one rooster. Marturano took another one. As they reloaded, more roosters flushed.
"There were easily more than six roosters in there," Millar said after the shooting stopped and the smell of gunpowder drifted on the breeze.
Ruger picked up one rooster and took it to Marturano. Millar saw the second rooster running for the pothole, where it tried swimming for a few yards. Deciding that wasn't going to work out, it swam back to shore and raced to a clump of reed canary grass. Millar called Ruger over. He lunged into the grass and came out with a lively rooster.
Doubling back along the pond, a rooster flushed wild on the hillside. Both men shot once, and the bird fell.
Eager to get some work for Chance, Marturano hustled to the spot with his young Brit.
"Find the bird, Chance. Find the bird," he said.
Chance vacuumed the area and soon locked up on a point.
"Fetch him up!" Marturano said.
Chance, seeking his first retrieve of a wild pheasant, bore into the cover and came out with the bird. Marturano met him to claim the prize.
"Good boy, Chance!" he said. "Good boy!"
Chance was clearly excited about all of this, jumping up to get another whiff of the mature rooster as Marturano lifted it.
Marturano was ecstatic. Chance had come of age.
"Thattaboy, Chance," he said. "You're going to be a hunting dog."
Then, as if speaking to himself out loud, Marturano said, "That makes the whole trip. We can go home now."
The men would finish the day with those three birds. Earlier in the day, hunting a WPA with Marturano's brother-in-law, Mark Norling of Bloomington, Minn., and his wife, Linda, they had flushed a half-dozen hens. And one skunk.
The skunk had adorned Marturano's chaps and vest with its essence, which added a little atmosphere to the Suburban when they traveled between spots.
On a brisk northwest wind, we had watched ribbons of Canada geese, ducks trading from one pothole to another, a batch of trumpeter swans moving southeast and a swirl of sandhill cranes over a marsh. Not all of pheasant hunting is about what's happening on the ground.
Marturano and Millar appreciate that.
"I like being out on the prairie, the smell of grass, hearing the roosters, watching ducks fly," Marturano said.
One year, Marturano had taken an older gentleman out to McClusky with him. They hunted ducks, too, in those days.
"We sat there one morning in the duck blind," Marturano said. "I don't know if we shot a duck. We saw thousands of sandhill cranes and geese and ducks. 'You made an old man's day,' the guy said. 'I thought I'd never see anything like that again.'"
Marturano and Millar, along with the Norlings, stopped at Chester's in Mercer, N.D., for pizza on the way home that evening. The sun was rolling down to meet the horizon beyond the bean fields when they emerged.
In the morning, the hunters would be back at the Union Grill and Bar for eggs and pancakes. The retired farmers who Millar and Marturano know would be there, too, at the table in the back.
You can bet the two hunters would swing by and file a report on their hunting before they ventured out for another day on the land.