Sometimes lost in the whitetail frenzy of the fall and early winter, small-game hunting is still alive and well in the Adirondacks. In fact, it's all I do, although I am toying with the idea of picking up a rifle for deer season next year.

For now, and through Feb. 28, it's pheasants for me. I'll hunt them regularly – not always bringing something home, but having fun nonetheless. It's been tough the past few years, since losing our best pheasant dog, Ben. He was, to put it bluntly, a machine, flushing and then retrieving the birds with precision. Steve once limited out on birds without even firing a shot – Ben managed to clean up all by himself running down a pair of cripples.

But this year, it's just me and Steve and Hailey and Maddie. Which means Steve and I are pretty much on our own. Maddie, at almost 13, has, maybe, an hour in her. Hailey, a youngster at seven-and-a-half, still has the "go" of a puppy, but she was out running around when hunting sense was distributed to her litter.

So we'll head off to Essex County's only pheasant stocking parcel, on state land in the town of Westport. Beginning at the corner of Clark Road and Lake Shore Road, DEC stocks both pre-season and during the season on the big tract. There are a core group of dedicated bird hunters who run the parcel early in the season, but we've hunted New Year's Eve day and had the place to ourselves. Either way, there is plenty of room.

Maddie and Hailey are enthusiastic early, with our old girl heading into the hedgerow at the "birdy, birdy, birdy" command. Hailey will follow for the first three feet or so, before hitting the open field in a flat-out run. She likes the wide open spaces and running s fast as she can. Maddie, on the other hand, will just hug the edges of the woods, sniffing here and there. I'm almost thinking she's hoping she won't come across anything that takes a lot of effort to chase.

That leaves Steve and me to beat the bushes and flush the birds. We'll take turns in the hedgerow, with the other stationed just outside on the off chance a rooster will flush. Back and forth, through the waist-high brush, wishing with all our hearts that Ben would bust out of the woods on the heels of a bird.

But we know that won't happen. We both vow the next pup will be a hunter.

There's nothing on the first pass through the thickets, but when we cross into the really heavy cover – both Maddie and Hailey at our sides, Steve kicks out a bird. As usual, it surprises me and I rush the shot. A clean miss. Not that the dogs didn't go for a look, sniffing and running in circles.

Ben would have just jumped up and grabbed it. 


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