As I’ve mentioned, fall is one of my very favorite seasons, in part because beginning in late October and running through Christmas, Connecticut hosts a hunting season for pheasant. Throughout the state there are controlled releases of birds on state land at irregular times during the week. These are then hunted by upland bird hunters, usually with dogs to help them find, or flush, the birds. Peasant is by far my all-time favorite animal to hunt, and I look forward to the beginning of the season all year. They not only are a blast to hunt, but they make a delicious addition to the November menu!
I first hunted pheasant, as well as chukar and grouse, with my dad. I was perhaps in my twenties (I can’t remember because it was SO very long ago!) when he invited me along on a private hunt. At a private club, the way it works is that when you arrive you determine how many birds you want to hunt, usually 2-4 per person, and the guides will set them out for you in the hunting area. The birds are raised in huge pens nearby. You relax for a while and then off you go to find the birds. We didn’t have our own dogs then, so we used the dogs that came with the guide service. This may seem to some like an unfair advantage over the birds, but let me assure you it is not. Pheasant are not like wild chickens. They are crafty and very fast and can often outsmart a dog by leaving a confusing scent trail, running in circles, or just generally blending into their environment the way God made them. It is neither easy to find the wily creatures after they are freed nor is it easy to fell them, although I must say that pheasant are slower in the air then the average game bird. That’s one of the reasons I like to hunt them! I need all the advantage I can get.
Back then with my dad I was an average shot. I remember missing the first bird, but I got some that day. Over the years when I lived in Colorado, my husband and I would often head south and east to Blanca in the fall and hunt birds there. I was never a crack shot, like he was, but I hit most of what I aimed at. Recently, when we were back in Connecticut, he and I decided to tune up our game by going over to Millbrook New York and spending the day at the Orvis shooting grounds called Sandanona. http://www.orvis.com/sandanona They have a world class sporting clay course for wing shooters. This was a real treat for us, and not something we could do very often. 100 clays at 20 stations each to practice on. By the end of the day we had sore shoulders and tired arms, but we were smiling. He was smiling somewhat more than me, as he had schooled me at each station, hitting approximately 70% of his targets to my somewhat less then 50%. Needless to say I was a bit discouraged. So the following Christmas, after a whole bird season of listening to me gripe about what a bad shot I was, my darling husband gifted me a trip to the Sandanona shooting school, where I would be taught the proper techniques and principles of wing shooting in a half day class with an expert. I couldn’t wait.
The class was super fun, and I learned a ton about how to shoot. I learned that my gun doesn’t really fit my body. It’s too short, and canted too little to line up with my eye when I draw it up. But I love my gun. My dad gave it to me and I’ll never get rid of it. I learned that even though I am right handed, I am “left eye dominant”, which means that my left eye leads and my right eye follows. I learned that because of this I should be shooting left handed. So I tried that. It’s like walking with shoes on the wrong feet tied together. Not even safe. I learned that I could compensate by using a patch over my left eye, to force my right eye to work. I tried that and actually fell down. With a loaded gun. My shooting went below 30%. I spent the next season practicing closing my left eye instead of my right while I draw. Draw, close, aim, fire. I hit a few birds, but didn’t even make my bag limit for the season.
What now? I’m trying to get back to a place where I can forget my limitations and just shoot. Where I can let instinct take over for ability. I need to un-think shooting. I’m trying to be OK with the fact that, for whatever reason, I’m just not a very good shot, and I’m trying to remember that even though I love to shoot, what I really love is to walk in the woods on crisp fall days with my husband and my son and my dog.
Here is a recipe for one of our very favorite fall meals. If you want leftovers, you had better make 2. It takes a bit of work, but is well worth the effort. FYI the easiest way to get the meat off a pheasant is to cut the skin of the breast and peel it back, and then filet the breasts off the bone. Then continue to pull the skin down over the thighs, exposing the legs. Break the leg joints at the end of the ‘drumstick’ and again at the hip. Use a knife to separate the legs from the body.
Pheasant Pot Pie
6 cups water
1 pheasant, breasted, and legs skinned
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp parsley
1 tsp. thyme
1 bay leaf
1 cup diced potatoes
1 cup diced turnips
1 cup diced carrots
1 cup diced leeks
1/2 cup frozen peas
1/2 cup chopped onion
4 tbs butter
3 tbs flour
1-2 bullion cubes
1 pie crust.
In a stock pot, bring the water to boil and add the pheasant and the spices. Reduce heat to low and simmer the pheasant for 20 minutes or until cooked through. Allow to cool, reserving the liquid. Meanwhile, chop the vegetables and mix in a large bowl. In a heavy cast iron pan over medium heat melt the butter and then add the flour, stirring constantly until the roux begins to darken. Stir in the bullion. Add about 1 1/2 to 2 cups of the reserved liquid broth to the roux and stir until you have a smooth gravy. Freeze the remainder of the broth for future use. Mix the gravy into the vegetables. Cut the pheasant into bite sized pieces and mix into the vegetables. Put all of it into a pie plate or a 9″ round cake pan,mounding to fit. Cover it all with the pie crust, sealing the edges to the pan. Bake in a 350 oven for 1 hour. Serve warm with a nice salad.