A hole in the window of a hole in the wall.
Gray’s Sporting Journal
There is a bullet hole in the front window of First State Bank in Enders, Nebraska. The converted one-story structure squats along Pioneer Street, wearing a spider web glass fracture next to the night deposit box. Perhaps this lone salvo has something to do with the pistol range being next door. But since the shot was fired the first night Dax Hayden spent in the old savings and loan building after remodeling it as a hunting camp, the bullet hole seems more of a suggestion that somewhere in this dusty silo town of 42 people, there may be someone who would just as soon make it 41.
Inside the Bank there is a leather sofa wrapping around a flat-screen TV, centerpiece for five offices refurbished as bunk rooms, along with two full baths and a stainless-steel commercial kitchen. The steel vault warehouses enough staples to get Dax and his pheasant posse through three seasons spanning the tri-state corner of Nebraska, Colorado, and Kansas. Or as Dax puts it, “Out where the hoot owls screw the chickens.” Thick-boned and square as his native Kansas, Dax hunts pheasants with the aggression of a Dust Bowl gangster. And as managing partner of Hayden Outdoors, a western farm and ranch real estate brokerage, he has access to more good dirt than anyone I know.
It’s dusk on the afternoon of our arrival, and inside the Bank Dax’s cousin Johnny is yammering about CrossFit training. We’ve never met, but he won’t shut up about burpees and kettlebells and reps, so I start sarcastically calling him Johnny CrossFit. Dax howls, and the name sticks. Then we start arguing about lagoons. “Kyle says they’re old buffalo wallows,” I tell the group lying around on the sofa. Earlier that evening we’d hunted a farm with guide Kyle Waggoner, who had driven down from Wyoming. The land was distinguished by several unplowed depressions overgrown with CRP grasses, isolated saucers of habitat that the local boys kept calling “lagoons.”
In fact, later research will corroborate Kyle’s assertion that these broad divots were likely created by eons of wallowing bison carting off the topsoil in their matted hides. But right now Dax is skeptical, and I keep saying the shallow holes are buffalo wallows until Johnny CrossFit finally cranes his head off the sofa, looks at me with unflinching prairie literalness, and says, “Or it might just be where there’s less dirt.”
On our first full day, Dax wants to hunt a farm in Colorado. So we drive about an hour west along the Republican River, into Yuma County, where we find a fall harvest returning to dust.
I knock down a pheasant at the first homestead, and Kyle’s shorthair bounds through the bluestem with a half-dead rooster in his mouth. He gives it up ruffled and wet, legs faintly pumping out an inverted stride to the beat of an unyielding heart. I wring the bird’s neck and stuff it in my vest as the dog stares up at me with a panting, feathery smile. His name is Happy.
Throughout a slow morning we kill four or five pheasants. But the driving gamble has not paid off by Hayden standards, which should have us all a limit by now. “Nothin’ but goat hills and dry brush,” Dax mutters as we cruise along looking for pivot corners to push. “We need hotter food.”
And with that we travel an hour to another ranch back in Nebraska, where I knock down a quail along a cedar row, and we get on a few more pheasants. But evening finds us lounging back at the Bank, road weary, debating alternative strategy.
“I’m gonna call Mason,” Dax says.
Shortly after dinner, Mason swings through the frosted-glass door. Dax has known Mason since he was a kid turning wrenches and throwing bales. Now he’s a farmer himself, who leases portions of the irrigated land across the street, a young man with some clout, though not enough to get anyone off the sofa. The Colorado game is on.
Plus, he’s wearing a hot-pink Browning hoodie with oil stains clear up to his sternum. Maybe he found it that way, or maybe he borrowed it one cold Nebraska morning from his wife, Dale Ann, and now she doesn’t want it back.
Regardless, Mason in the Pink Hoodie knows where the birds are, and though I never hear Dax ask permission, somehow the deed is done, like prairie smoke signals. Or maybe I missed the sound of a gate key turning because Johnny CrossFit has been rattling on about his gym’s 30-Day Burpee Challenge, where you do three modified squat thrusts the first day, six the next, and so forth until at the end of 30 days you are doing 90 burpees. To get him to shut up, I throw down three big ones right in front of the TV.
At daybreak Dax steps outside, wrangles the dogs into their truck boxes, and swings back through the door saying, “Morning’s broke out cold!”
Maybe this frost will hold the birds tighter, stop the dogs from popcorning through dry brush using their eyes instead of noses. But at the first stop—a tailwater pit on the corner of a sprawling wheat field—it’s quickly obvious we’re not going to need a lot of dog.
Dax is at the wheel. I ride shotgun with fellow editor Ben Romans in the backseat. “When I stop, you two get out and move in fast. J.C. and Kyle will push the other end.” What sounds like a plan turns into more of a raid, with five hunters and two dogs deploying from pickups on either side of the drainage pit. Scores of pheasants erupt from the brushy caldera, and when the shooting stops we are picking up four birds across three fields. With better coordination, we could have killed twice that, but there’s no time to second-guess, and our hit-and-run strategy soon finds us surveying a sloping stubble field bisected by a draw.
We park the vehicles at the head of the gully to hide our approach, then unload and quietly march uphill.
Dax parks at the bottom of the gully to block, while Kyle runs Happy and Roaney across-slope ahead of Ben, CrossFit, and me. When the first birds get up 100 yards in front of us, it triggers a chain reaction of pheasants busting by the dozen. Occasionally, one “sets” behind us in the stubble, tying drivers in knots. Then another dog points ahead, and we scramble to catch up as 10 more birds bust in another direction. Amazingly, of the 75 to 100 birds that flush, we don’t drop a single pheasant. They are simply too wild.
In another gully march, there are so many birds that the dogs start yo-yoing out and back. But the faster we move to catch up, the farther ahead the dogs work, sparking a footrace between CrossFit and me.
Dax, with his bum knee, limps along the farm road, knocking down birds as they flee our track meet. “Hunt smarter, not harder,” he says, and by lunchtime—Dagwoods and sodas back at the Bank—we have chipped away at a group limit.
We retake the field after lunch, kicking ditches and even hitting the first tailwater pit again. But Dax wants another crack at the long draw from that morning, where he’d noticed another pit above its upper end. We park the vehicles at the head of the gully to hide our approach, then unload and quietly march uphill. On the ragged stubble edge, Ben kicks out a hen every 50 feet, accelerating our pace as we close in. Both dogs work close until the last 40 yards, when pheasants start exploding like Roman candles. But it’s too late; we are on them. With shotguns still smoking, two dogs crash the pit, burrowing themselves in the thorny darkness, snuffling and snorting until each emerges with a bird flapping at one end and a tail wagging on the other.
That night, after a meal of saltine-crusted pheasant fingers, we lie about listening to a local guide named Clay who has unexpectedly swung through the glass door. We talk about hunting boots, and elk, and how he once killed a running badger with a rock. He talks coyote hunting with CrossFit, who avers that there are hazards in the pelt trade, particularly the skinning—being the only person I’ve ever heard begin a sentence with “I once had fleas. . . .”
Early the next morning we drive three hours back to the Denver airport, where Ben’s checked luggage is overweight. He takes a frozen pheasant out of his duffel and stuffs it into his carry-on. I have to wait for him at security, where his surplus bounty glows on the X-ray machine like a naked alien embryo.
A long flight south finds me home late that evening, straggling through the kitchen door with a cooler full of frozen roosters. I tell my wife about the Bank, and the birds, and the buffalo wallows, and the CrossFit Challenge. To further gauge her impression of my story, I knock out six burpees on the living room floor, then peel off my boots, and collapse on the sofa. ✦