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Getting a Bead on Pheasants

Hunting these game birds is only half the fun

A mature ring-neck pheasant is often over three feet long from beak to tail, with the rear two-thirds of that length plumage.

The pheasant erupted through the standing corn like a Poseidon missile. This rocket was sheathed in psychedelic feathers of blue, green, red, white and ochre. Announcing itself with a raucous, crowing scream, it forced itself up on thundering wings through the seven-foot-tall stalks and into a clear blue South Dakota sky.
    Even suspecting the bird is there after countless explosive flushes, a hunter is never quite prepared when the real thing happens, so it can be unnerving. This one was a particularly big fellow, probably three, maybe four years old.
    As it cleared the tassels and I raised my shotgun and began to track its flight, a major marksmanship error unfolded, and I (of course) was right in the middle of it. A critical rule of gunning for these magnificent birds is to concentrate your vision on the bird’s noggin. But this guy was sporting a noticeably long tail.
    The bright red cheek patches and iridescent green feathers that cap its head are set off by a brilliant white collar. If a hunter simply keeps his focus on that distinctive part of the bird as he swings his gun, there is at least a decent chance of getting a proper lead and bagging it.
    The caveat is to never, ever look at the bird’s tail. But I couldn’t help it. This old rooster was trailing quite a grand affair. A mature cockbird is often over three feet long from its beak to the end of its tail feathers, with the rear two-thirds of that length only plumage.
    I could not tear my focus from the sight of those trailing feathers. Firing my first barrel did not even startle the bird, the shot was that far behind. Recovering from recoil, I swung to the bird again. And again I could not force my vision, nor my gun, past that imperial train. Finally letting off my second shot, I saw a puff of dust as the pellets passed harmlessly through the trailing feathers, and the bird sailed off, otherwise untouched, into the distance.
    Reloading, I took a deep breath to regain my composure. After all, I’ve missed these birds before, and we were in South Dakota where there is always another pheasant. They’ve been in that state and usually in fantastic numbers for well over a century, prospering like few other game birds.
    I did eventually manage to score a few, and when we arrived back in Maryland last week the only thing that remained to do was to prepare a meal commensurate with their regal qualities. Over the years I have devised a simple yet elegant recipe that is consistently delicious: Pheasant with Mushrooms and Wild Rice.

Cooking Your Pheasant
    First, of course, you need pheasants, at least one for every two dinner guests. The bird is boned and the meat cut up into fork-sized pieces, dusted with poultry seasoning, salt, pepper and quickly browned in half butter and half olive oil, then removed to a dish and kept warm (170 degrees). The same pan is then used with the addition of two to three more tablespoons of butter and two cups of sliced mushrooms per bird.
    When the mushrooms are well along, add a cup of chopped, sweet onions and continue cooking until they are softened as well. Add in enough chicken broth to provide for some gravy, a dash of Worcestershire sauce then return the browned pheasant pieces and simmer until the pheasant is tender.
    This particular aspect is important. Game birds can be of any age from yearlings, which will become tender almost immediately, to the older fellows that can take up to an hour or more. It’s best to plan on an at least an hour because you will also need that time to prepare the wild rice.
    There are a number of recipes for cooking wild rice; my own no-fail method is to rinse the rice well then cover it with cold water, bring it to a boil, simmer for 20 minutes, drain, repeat, then drain again and finally steam it for 20 more minutes. This results in a fluffy pot of delicious rice that can then be tossed lightly in a little butter with just a touch of lemon juice.
    Additional features such as a nice garden salad, steamed carrots and fresh green beans or Brussels sprouts can be included. A bottle of chilled champagne is not out of place, nor is a good cold white wine or a light lager.