Below Zero Roosters

People ask me all the time, how can I live in the most desolate corner of America, closer to Canada than civilization, a lonely 5-hour drive to the nearest airport?

It's nights like this that I want to show them, clear and eerie calm, under a purple December sky, three warm rooster pheasants heavy in my game bag.

It turned unseasonably cold the other night, and today's high temperature flirted with zero but couldn't quite muster the strength to make it, stalling out at 11-below. I put in a long day at the computer, and something about the windless, perfect blue sky (and my sudden awareness that only two days remained in the upland bird season) sent me to the gun safe and put a lively 20 gauge Ruger Red Label in my hands.

My Lab, Willow, didn't need the invitation. She was waiting at the door as I piled on warm clothes, and when I opened it, she bounded out, jumping like a coyote mousing in a hay field.

I'm fortunate that I don't have to start an engine to be in pheasants. The first rooster rocketed out of cattails behind the hay shed, and crumpled on the frozen ground. Two hens squirted out of a fencerow just beyond my machine shed.

Here in northeastern Montana, November doesn't really belong to the residents. We are square in the sights of destination deer hunters eager to tag a Milk River whitetail or a Missouri Breaks mule deer. Locals will hunt a day or two in the middle of the week to avoid the crowds, or find secluded parcels of private land.

But now that winter--real old-fashioned winter--is here, we have our landscape, and our solitude, back. The only sound is the winding thrum of a loaded grain train headed west on the old Great Northern line, bound for Portland and the Asian markets.

My hands are feeling the cold, so I tuck my fingers into a fist inside my glove, and can't get them straight again when the next rooster flushes. But two minutes later, just as I'm wondering why I'm outside in such savage cold, a bright rooster busts out of cured grass, suddenly orange and red and cackling like the spark of a campfire in the evening air. I fold it beneath the rising full moon and Willow brings it back to me, her breath freezing into hoarfrost on her whiskers.

I bet no one else is hunting within a hundred miles of me. This is the sort of night just to survive, and dozens of whitetails feed out of cover to fill up on alfalfa in the open fields all around me. The zodiacal glow of twilight rises over the prairie, I push one more patch of brush, and a rooster cackles toward the moon.

I don't remember pushing the safety off or even mounting the gun. On a night like this, when cold consumes everything, any action is the result of elemental instinct. All I know is that a third rooster crumples in the sky and Willow delivers it to me. I don't even eject the spent shotshell. It's time to walk back to the house, warm my toes and fingers and strip these remarkable birds of their colorful feathers.

We'll have a savory pheasant stew for New Year's Eve dinner tomorrow, one of those old-fashioned meals that warms from the inside, and reminds me exactly why I live in such a frigid, lonely, and altogether magical, corner of the country.