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The Pheasant Fen


Tom Huggler's -- Michigan Meanders...


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A long-tailed ringneck pheasant taken from the fen. Tom Huggler photo

November 01, 2011
Editor's Note: Tom Huggler's first "Michigan Meanders" column appeared in the March, 1978, issue of Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine, which carried the popular column for more than 33 years. Beginning with this issue, Woods-N-Water News readers, many of whom are familiar with Tom's work, can enjoy "Michigan Meanders" exclusively here. We are honored to feature one of Michigan's longest-running outdoors columns from one of the state's best-known writers.

When I want to hunt pheasants close to home, I often go to The Pheasant Fen. The dogs always find a bird or two there, and sometimes I kill one, but this special place I chanced upon nearly 20 years ago brings joy for other reasons. One can only take so much of hate radio and cable-network vitriol. The Pheasant Fen restores a sense of balance to a world gone wobbly.

A friend I took there once said it was the perfect antidote to call waiting.

You can fall in love with a puppy there.

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It never fails: A ringneck in the game bag tugs at the shoulders, and that helps me walk a little straighter.

Got a favorite spot like that? If not, you should find one. Years ago a friend of mine from North Dakota shared a place he called Contemplation Rock, which overlooks sprawling Lake Sakakawea. One afternoon we paused to clean sharp-tailed grouse we had killed from bullberry thickets that fold into the buckled hills here. It was late September and I remember how the wind stirred the copper-colored bluestem grass like an invisible comb, how it sent wrinkles that chased each other across Lake Sak far below.

My friend said he used to sit here for hours, alone, and think about history and Lewis and Clark who camped nearby.

"Lately," he added, "I've been working through a divorce. So far, Contemplation Rock has kept me off a therapist's couch."

The Pheasant Fen is like that place. My special spot is not big, maybe forty acres, but they are forty untilled acres on a working farm that has been plowed to death since before the Civil War. It's a true fen, a peat-covered grassy wetland that is springy when you walk across it, and is a bit rare for southern Michigan.

Fed by calcium-rich groundwater, the fen is always wet and never freezes. Native prairie grasses and wildflowers grow there along with reed canary grass-an invasive grass that pheasants like to roost in.

Pheasants love this fen. Roosters crow around the edges and hens nest in the new grass. Chicks find plenty of insects to eat. The cover does not easily break down in winter, giving birds the security they need.

Although I've hunted the fen more than 50 times, I always ask permission from the widow who owns the farm. She also lets people deer hunt, which can make for conflict when the December pheasant-hunting season collides with muzzleloader hunting for deer. One December afternoon, a young man, about twenty, was uncasing his gun as I drove up.

"Deer hunting?" I asked through the open window. "I'll go somewhere else."

"You must be the guy who hunts pheasants," he said. "I'm Jay. Go ahead and hunt. I've got another place to go."

"Why don't you hunt with me?" I offered. "I've got an extra gun and shells. A spare blaze orange vest, too."

It was bitter cold that day, and I think Jay was glad to be walking instead of freezing in a treestand. He wore a black facemask and his camouflaged coat was so bulky he could barely add the orange vest over it. He looked like a bank robber. Or maybe an armed school-crossing guard.

My setter, Sherlock, was all business. His first two points produced hens that blew up and away on frantic wings. Moments later, down in the thick reed canary grass where Jay was walking, the dog locked up again; and before I could reach him, a minor explosion occurred. On each side of Jay, a big red-cheeked ringneck ignited from the grass. They were so close he could have cuffed them.

Jay swung to take the left-side bird, and then-for some reason-swung to the right. Not only did he blow the chance for a perfect double, he never fired the gun.

"Safety hang up?" I wondered, amazed at what I had just witnessed and envious that it had not happened to me.

"No. The facemask got in the way. I couldn't see!"

Over the years, I've introduced a dozen friends to The Pheasant Fen. Although some have gotten wet or cold and others have spent hours picking burdock from the coats of their setters and golden retrievers, no one has ever said they wouldn't go back. We ALWAYS put out at least one rooster, and that makes it all worth the while. One of my neighbors, a retired 80-year-old farmer, had not shot a pheasant since the Soil Bank days of the 1960s-until I took him here, that is.

The Pheasant Fen takes me back to the 1940 and 50s when farms were small and farmers and hunters had time for small talk. I was a kid pheasant hunter then and if I had a dollar for every time my dad got into a conversation about the war or the Eisenhower administration or the price of beef with some landowner…well, you know what I mean.

A few years ago, a new puppy I owned pointed her first pheasant there. When you're a bird hunter, you remember first points in the way that new fathers recall baby's first steps. Anyway, I was ambling along, my mind on something else, and walked right by the dog, stick-pinned there in the tall grass. When the bird went up, I missed him with both barrels.

That day I was trying to decide something that had been on my mind a long time. I was trying to imagine what my life would be like if my wife and I-a grandfather-adopted a child. I wondered what this fen would look like to a little girl from the vantage point of her dad's shoulders.

We named her Marisa.

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