A twenty mile an hour wind is whipping through the foxtails and the switch grass as I lie on my belly in the snow. Propped up on my elbows, I hold a camera I scarcely know how to use, but offers me the best chance at getting a decent shot. About three feet in front of my nose a pheasant lies low in a tuft of weeds, trying to make himself invisible. Out of the corner of his eye Winchester, the dog, glances at me as he trembles and stares deep into the cover keeping a perfect point on the bird. Standing above me, Dr. Tom Mahl closes in with his 20 gauge semi-auto Franchi shotgun at the ready. Winchester must be wondering what on earth I’m doing. In all his years this seasoned bird dog has never seen a human join him creeping through the weeds.
Without warning the pheasant flushes and the weeds explode in a flurry of beating wings and lunging dog. I keep the camera’s viewfinder to my eye as I roll on my back, holding the shutter button down as the frames shoot off at a rate of eight per second. I’m trying to compose a photo keeping bird and hunter in frame as spent twenty gauge casings and German short-haired pointer rain down in me. Once that bird leaves the ground he’s flying in any one of 360 directions, and there’s no telling which one is more likely. It’s exhilarating taking photos like this. I feel a little bit like a combat correspondent with all the action going on around me, but it’s a regular thing for Tom.
Late season hunts are much colder than those fair weather days the first week in November. The son doesn’t shine, the wind howls through your bones, and if your boots aren’t waterproof it’s going to do worse than make you cold; it will end your hunt. Snow covers the ground but there’s mud many places beneath. Streams are high and partially frozen making them harder to cross. It’s no weather for sissies, that’s for sure. I feel bad for the guides as the wind burn reddens our cheeks and ears.
But for Tom, he’s in photographer’s paradise. The cloud cover takes all the blues from the sky, the snow knocks all the greens out of the grass and there is only the high contrast of these colorful birds in their beautiful plumage and their orange clad pursuers against nature’s backdrop. As a shooter, I had never considered it. The challenge puts your brain in an entirely different arena than the photographers. You’re trying to figure sight picture, how far to lead, you’re looking out for orange and the dogs, making sure your gun is flat to your eye and above all safe. The thought that it might make a good photo just doesn’t squeeze its way in on the hundreds of pheasants on which I’ve drawn a bead.
As much as Tom is relishing the event, taking shots of me from across the field with his telephoto and zoom lenses, I insist that he trade me out gear. Let me take the camera while he takes the gun. My efforts with the camera a feeble and pathetic compared to Tom’s. A nationally known freelancer, a beat and feature photographer for the Chronicle for decades with a wall of awards to his credit, he teaches me something new about the shutter arts every week. I’m a hack, a pretender, a holiday snapshot fudger at best. But with a few thousand dollars’ worth of professional equipment, Tom’s guiding voice speaking photographer-eze (“Turn it back to F2 and shut the auto-focus off.”) The real trick is to have an unlimited number of chances thanks to the genesis of digital photography. I’d have cost somebody a fortune if we were shooting film!
By four PM we are losing light and the hunt has gone as well as can be. We chased a few quick ones to distant fields and the dogs couldn’t find the scent, but that’s ok. There’s a pile of pheasants on the dog’s cage and a couple of sore legs and nagging late winter colds pull on our pride just enough to bring two smiling hunters back to the fireplace where they can warm up and spin yarns. I revel in hearing Tom’s tales of being a kid learning to hunt on the chaussee of Cedar Point in a day when there were more wild pheasants on the North Coast. Tom tells me something a little shocking to me, “In all my years of hunting, that’s the first time anyone’s ever taken my picture in the field.” It’s a shame, but I can see why. Hunting photography is a challenge, but give it a try. Get outdoors!