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Tradition warms the heart on a cold bird hunt

The hunters return to the old red farmhouse. They shuffle in and begin shedding layers.

Hunting December pheasants can be cold.

One of the hunters gathers newspaper and kindling and starts a fire in the Franklin stove, throwing on chunks of elm. The others unlace boots and plug in boot dryers. They hang stocking caps and gloves and shirts on the drying rack.

Someone preheats the oven for lasagna.

The dogs are fed, and they settle in on the rug in front of the stove. Three blacks. Two yellows. They have worked hard. They try to ignore the precocious yellow pup that now comes to hassle them, tugging ears, biting tails, pouncing at will.

All of this is a sweet part of the hunt. The coming home. The warming up. The aroma of dog and woodstove and gun oil. The banter about the afternoon hunt. Birds shot well. Birds missed. Good dog work duly noted.

You could come out here to western Minnesota and do this by yourself. Just you and the dog. I have done it. There is a time for that.

But this is good. Old friends, one more time at the farm. The familiar creak of the wooden floors. The crackling stove. A roomful of Labs.

Twenty-three, 24 years now we've been doing this together on this same patch of prairie. Octobers. Novembers. Decembers.

If you have been to deer camp, you understand. If you've stayed with a farm family in the Dakotas or Manitoba, you understand. Do it long enough, and you can't quite imagine it any other way. I know old men who have quit hunting when their partners died. As much as I love the hunt, I can understand that.

All of this friendship and ritual is woven through the hunt. The long johns hanging on the drying rack. Guns leaning in the corners. Crackers and cheese and pickled herring on the table.

On a shelf in the kitchen rests the journal going back at least a couple of decades. A three-hole notebook full of memories. Every hunting day at this farm. Weather. Dogs. Hunting success. All of the memorable days are in there. The day we stitched up Tobie. The day we stitched up Moxie. Wet years. Dry years. Years with plenty of birds. Years with almost none.

All the place names are in there, too. The east-west willows. The 200. The hay meadow. We carry them in our minds all year long, waiting to get back here.

To write another page in the journal.

The evening grows late, meaning 9 p.m. We step outside with the Labs to check the wind and the sky one more time. The wind is down. Somewhere out there, pheasants roost in the switchgrass and the willows.

Maybe we'll find them in the morning.

SAM COOK is a Duluth News Tribune outdoors writer and columnist. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or