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Cockbirds of the walk: Hunting the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area on opening day is the royal treatment

To hunt the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area on opening day was an experience worthy of royalty, a good example of one of the best programs of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

After a royal feast of Chicago delicacies, Steve Palmisano (left) discusses with Pete Lamar and Steve Komes the hunt on opening day at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area. Credit: Dale Bowman
After a royal feast of Chicago delicacies, Steve Palmisano (left) discusses with Pete Lamar and Steve Komes the hunt on opening day at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area.
Dale Bowman

LEE, Ill. — Maggie began acting birdy, as though following a running wild ring-necked pheasant. Oh, Steve Komes’ 8-year-old Springer was.

We lollygagged too much. When she flushed three roosters on the edge of cover and alfalfa, they burst forth barely in shooting range, then flew unscathed into other cover at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area in Lee County.

A few feet farther, Maggie flushed a fourth rooster that caught all four of us off-guard last Saturday on opening day of upland game hunting in Illinois.

With that, the hunt was truly underway.

I call Illinois’ Free Upland Game Hunting Permit program “King or Queen for a Day.”

For about 15 years, roughly six of us formed an ad-hoc group that applied for permits. The application period is in August annually.

Anyone drawing a permit (I haven’t drawn one for years) goes down the list seeing who can hunt that day. Permit holders may take three other hunters (five others at the bigger sites) for the day.

I have hunted a third of the sites, and this was the first time one of our group drew opening day. Pete Lamar drew the permit. Steve Palmisano and I were other regulars in the group who made this hunt. The fourth hunter was Komes, Palmisano’s friend from Milwaukee.

As important, Komes brought Maggie.

Maggie, Steve Komes’ 8-year-old Springer, works the edge of a strip of standing corn at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area. Credit: Dale Bowman
Maggie, Steve Komes’ 8-year-old Springer, works the edge of a strip of standing corn at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area.
Dale Bowman

She entered the field with diligence and joy that was palpable. She was our only dog (I highly advise bringing several dogs for PHA hunts, habitat is that good), yet she quartered between all of us, not just roaming near Komes.

Steward PHA is a checkerboard of strips of standing corn, patches of alfalfa, big chunks of a mix of cool season grasses and prairie restoration, a small lake and framing fencerows.

Pete Lamar (left) discusses the strategy for the hunt at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area with Steve Komes and Steve Palmisano. Credit: Dale Bowman
Pete Lamar (left) discusses the strategy for the hunt at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area with Steve Komes and Steve Palmisano.
Dale Bowman

The hunt started quietly. No birds flushed when we started at dawn, pushing out a strip of standing corn. On the next sweep, a small buck bounded from the fencerow. In a patch of phragmites, Palmisano jumped a coyote that galloped past me.

Finally, Komes flushed a hen he nearly stepped on. Then came the four roosters, and the hunt was truly on. After that, we paid close attention to following Maggie.

She flushed a rooster from thick cover around the lake that was my best chance of the day, but I was too slow. The rest of the roosters all came out of the corn.

The final rooster came when Maggie, followed closely by Lamar and Komes, ran it down in a corner. While Palmisano and I waited, we chatted. Suddenly, a hen flushed 10 feet away. Oh, when Maggie finally flushed the rooster, three of us missed it.

At that point, near noon, I think even the relentless Maggie was beginning to slow, and I was glad to see the gravel parking lot within easy walking distance.

Back at the parking lot, Palmisano showed how these hunts truly make you feel like royalty for a day. He pulled out canvas chairs and a folding table, then fired a propane grill. He reheated halved Italian beef and sausage combos with giardiniera from Portillo’s and slices of Lou Malnati’s sausage and cheese or green pepper, mushroom and onion pizza.

As we waited, Komes said, “That’s a hell of a parcel.”

“You never know how much 80 acres is until you walk it,” Lamar said.

We devoured the reheated food with savageness worthy of our effort.

It was time.

On the day, we bagged no birds, flushed 10 cockbirds and two hens, spotted a coyote and small buck and built memories to last.

Hunters are barely visible working the cover at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area. Credit: Dale Bowman
Hunters are barely visible working the cover at the Steward Pheasant Habitat Area.
Dale Bowman