John Cross

It’s been generations since the Cross family has been able to lay claim to any significant amount of acreage on this good earth.

Our family’s direct connection with the land was severed more than a half-century ago when grandpa and grandma sold their Rock County farm and moved to town.

So given the escalated (and escalating) land values over 50 years, unless I win the lottery or some other unlikely stroke of luck, it’s doubtful any county plat book will list John Cross as a property owner.

Like many hunters whose land holdings are measured in square feet rather than acres, it is the hospitality and generosity of my rural friends that permits me to pursue my outdoor passions.

It is a privilege that I value far more than my ability to pay and one that I assiduously protect. And one for which I do not wish to wear out my welcome; I limit my incursions to my rural friends’ property to a few visits each fall.

The bulk of my hunting time is spent on public land — Waterfowl Production Areas, Wildlife Management Areas, and the like.

Such areas invariably are worn threadbare from the multitudes of hunters just like me who carve paths through the cattails and willow thickets throughout the season.

But fortunately, by now, the most casual hunters have exchanged their guns for ice fishing gear or turned their attention to the weekend football games.

I don’t mind sharing and competing with the other bird hunters who hold the same degree of passion for late season pheasant hunting, willing to forsake the warmth of the fireplace for thick cattails and frigid temperatures all to bag a December ringneck.

By now, any surviving populations of public property roosters have been whittled down to the cagiest birds. Frequently sporting the longest tail feathers and most mature plumage, December birds are the ones that sometimes are carefully set aside for a trip to the taxidermist.

I was scouting a couple of public areas that bore evidence in the snow of recent hunter activity. Indeed, at one, another hunter worked the same gnarly stand of cattails I had hoped to hunt.

Continuing southward, I motored to a small Faribault County WPA. The lack of vehicle tracks in the light coating of fresh snow in the parking area was encouraging.

And so were the slashing pheasant tracks as I slipped a couple of shells into my gun and trailed my springer spaniel into a strip of cattails that grew along a meandering creek.

A few minutes into the hunt and Samson went on point. Easing behind him, I ordered “get ’em!”

As he disappeared beneath the cattails, there was the eruption of wing beats as a hen struggled to break through the heavy cover and then vanished over the hill.

A few yards further the dog once again went on point. For a bird to sit so tight, I assumed it was yet another hen. I urged the dog into the cover. More wing beats and a rooster — his golden eye contrasting with red wattles and green head — squirted out like a rocket, straight away. An easy shot.

As I squeezed the trigger and the bird collapsed in a flurry of feathers, a second rooster erupted a few yards to my left and crossed to my right.

I swung and as the bead passed the bird’s beak, I touched off the second barrel. My hunt was done.

A two-bird limit, an honest double, and on public hunting ground in December, no less. The brace of roosters felt good in the game bag as I made my way back to the truck.

Just about as good as winning the lottery.

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John Cross is a Mankato Free Press staff writer. Contact him at (507) 344-6376 or jcross@mankatofreepress.com.