Dave Miller is sorting shotguns. This requires a lot of sorting because he is looking at a lot of shotguns.
The top of his customized dog trailer has a large compartment, and it is crammed with shotguns in cases, shotgun shells (boxes and boxes of Aguila ammunition), dog training collars, blaze orange bird hunting vests and anything else you can think of for a pheasant hunting expedition. Another large storage box in the back of Miller's truck also has a bunch of shotguns - a lot more than in the dog trailer.
We are on the windswept plains near Greensburg, Kan., and Miller, who is the shotgun product manager for CZ-USA firearms, is going full bore, though it's not even 9 in the morning. This guy lives, breathes, eats and sleeps shotguns - 12 and 28 gauges, bird dogs, shotgun shells and pheasant feathers are another day at the office for him.
Standing there watching the ritual, I want to help, but I know I should probably just stand back and stay out of the way. I am a stranger in a strange land.
I turn around and note I have never seen this much flat land in my young life. As far as I can see to the horizon, with not a tree in sight, can I make out the curvature of the earth? A huge field with waist-high dry grass and brush awaits our party of 10 to 12 hunters and six bird dogs.
After Miller assigns us CZ-USA shotguns, we will line up and take the field at a brisk pace. (I can't help but think about Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.) The bird dogs - a mixture of English pointers, German shorthaired pointers, springer spaniels, a wirehaired pointing griffon and a dynamo of a little English cocker spaniel - swarm around us. Dog whistles blow, owners yell, some of the dogs listen and others plunge into the day with the exuberance known only to a bird dog.
The excitement and anticipation fairly crackles in the air. The ring-necked pheasants are out there somewhere, hunkered down in the brush. Will I be able to hit one if it flushes in front of me?
It is not long into our advance before someone yells what I will hear dozens of times before this wing shooting party is over: "Rooster!" The male pheasant, known as a rooster, is the legal game here; the female of the species, the hen, is not. So every time a bird takes to the air, someone will cry "Rooster!" to confirm it is OK to shoot. If a drab-colored hen gets up, everyone yells "Hen!"
The roosters are much gaudier with multiple colors and long tail feathers, but in the excitement of the chase, it would be easy to make a mistake. I tell myself for the third time to be careful. The dogs, in truth, do not care if they are hens or roosters; they are working in front of us with a vengeance.
I soon learn that any pheasant that gets airborne in front of Miller is in serious trouble. I am not sure I saw him miss a bird the whole trip. It was much the same for two of his hunting buddies present on this outing. Mike Hyde (known as "Hammer" for his habit of hammering pheasants and clay targets) and Mike Brennaka (like Miller, both hail from Missouri) both showed off by dropping pheasants like hot rocks -and they did it with 28 gauge shotguns! Did you get that? A 28 gauge, smaller in size than a 20! I stuck with a 12 gauge, figuring to hedge my bets.
There was a group of wonderful people on this hunt, and as usual, I hope I do not forget anyone. Besides Miller and "the two Mikes," we had outdoors personality Anna Van Nostrand (annavoutdoors.com) and her wonderful German shorthaired pointers; Randy Lack, host of Outdoor Channel's "Gun Dog TV"; Randy's cousin, George; their friend Bobby Blackwood and his little English cocker spaniel, Pearl, who almost stole the show in the bird field; and Tom Nichols and Evan Pittman of Wolf Creek Productions, which films Lack's program (gundogtvshow.com).
The outfitter was Upland Inn Hunts (uplandinnhunts.com) in Greensburg. Jason Johnson, the owner, has spent years putting together a program of maintaining Conservation Reserve Program fields, raising birds and providing comfortable housing and good food for his hunters - and it shows. Everything you need for the pheasant hunt of a lifetime is here, including a lot of pheasants.
As for the shotguns, for this hunt I stayed with an over-and-under model. My second favorite was the CZ Wing Shooter Elite, which comes in 12 or 20 gauge with 28-inch barrels, selectable single trigger, select ejectors and drop dead beautiful walnut stocks.
So which gun was my favorite? I can't tell you! CZ-USA is going to unveil a new hunting shotgun very soon, and it is a dandy. (I can say it's an over-and-under model and you are going to like it.) Also in the field was the popular Upland Ultralite, a six-pound 12 gauge shotgun, and the old standby CZ Drake, among others. Just to show he could, Miller shot the CZ Swamp Magnum over-and-under, a shotgun that was conceived to be a waterfowl gun but is very utilitarian in its possibilities.
Shop around at cz-usa.com as well as aguilaammo.com, where they have so many varieties of shells, it would take a week to tell you about them.
So how did I shoot in this foreign setting? The first two pheasants that rose before me came up together, and I downed them like I had been doing it all my life. (I think the pheasants were more surprised than me.) After that, I thought I was going to give Miller some competition and even began giving those in line next to me shooting tips.
Pride goeth before a fall. After this, of course, for some time I could not have hit a flying elephant if he was flying toward me.
If you have never been pheasant hunting, go to Kansas, give Upland Inn Hunts a call and take a CZ-USA shotgun and your favorite bird dog. Leave your pride at home.
Thanks for another life lesson, Dave Miller.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.