I was stranded in Scribner, forced off the road by rain, hail and fog.
The only thing that kept me on the blacktop to that point were the constant flashes of lightning giving definition to the pitch black early morning.
I looked at my cell phone — 6 a.m. — a little early for phone calls. Throwing social protocol to the wind, I dialed Nebraska Game and Parks Commission wildlife biologist Scott Wessel to see if the hunt was still on.
“We're still planning to hunt,” Wessel said.
I pushed on. The chance to join Pheasants Forever's Rooster Road Trip was too enticing.
The weather changed just as I got to Norfolk, and I stopped worrying about the weather and started wondering if we'd see birds.
We were meeting in rural Antelope County, near a few public access fields enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program.
Three Pheasants Forever employees, Rehan Nana, Anthony Hauck and Andrew Vavra, were coming from the other direction. They had started their five-day, 2,000-mile road trip through North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota on Monday. Wednesday was our turn.
The Rooster Road Trip rolled into our meeting spot in a convoy of mud-covered SUVs, followed by state trucks.
Along on the trip were Wessel, Mick Jensen and Lynn Berggren, Game and Parks commissioners from Norfolk and Broken Bow; Dick Bell, a Pheasants Forever director from Omaha; Game and Parks wildlife biologist Josh Kounovsky; and Pheasants Forever Farm Bill wildlife biologists Ryan Lodge and Jake Holt.
Their positions are made possible by partnerships between the Game and Parks, Pheasants Forever and the U.S. government.
“We're all working for the common goal — conservation of the landscape,” Holt said.
They already had birds in the truck. I had missed the sunrise hunt near O'Neill, thanks to the severe weather, but was encouraged by the sight of the harvested birds.
After Wessel said a few words covering logistics and safety, I joined the convoy for another 20-minute drive ending on a nearly impassable rain-soaked dirt road. On the barbed wire fence adjacent to my parking spot was a welcoming sign of hope. It read: “Hunting Permitted.”
It wasn't long before bird dogs dodged between hunters as they donned their blaze orange and loaded their shotguns.
The hunt was on. Birds were flushing and expertly trained dogs were retrieving. Sprig, an English cocker spaniel pup, wore a silver bell and owners blew whistles to guide their flushers, giving a festive carnival feel to the morning hunt.
A mature male pheasant flushed and Bell downed the bird with a perfect shot. Smiles flashed with each successful shot.
Just watching the five dogs work was enough to make the journey worthwhile. Annie, Nana's red setter, was a favorite. She had endurance, grace and an attitude as she worked the fields.
Shots rang out again as a covey of bobwhite quail exploded from their cover. More smiles, some in embarrassment about their accuracy — or lack thereof.
Before heading to the next CRP hunt, Wessel informed us that we weren't the first hunting party in the field. An area farmer told him that a group had hit the same field just before we arrived.
By day's end, 10 pheasant and seven quail were harvested. Everyone had shots.
“We were pleasantly surprised to find such good hunting in northeast Nebraska, an area not known these days for great upland hunting,” Hauck said. “In fact, the 17 birds bagged is a Rooster Road Trip record for one day.”
As dog owners groomed stubborn burrs from fur, Kounovsky and Lodge lined up the harvested birds in the grass by the side of the road.
“It was a great hunt on public land no matter where you're hunting,” Vavra said.
I was taking notes on the locations of the CRPs for future reference, since many are disappearing.
More than 440,000 acres of Nebraska CRP — about 25 percent — have been plowed under for row crops between 2007 and 2012.
In Iowa, the numbers are more shocking. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation predicts 2.5 million acres will have been transferred from CRP to crops by the end of the year. Also lost are many grassy ditches and wetlands.
Complicating the matter is the lack of a Farm Bill, Lodge said.
“It makes it challenging while landowners are waiting to get into the Conservation Reserve Program,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers CRP enrollment, but without a Farm Bill they are unable to enroll landowners on the waiting list.
Bell said there's hope. The Rooster Road Trip is proof that there are people doing everything possible to preserve habitat.
“We call it habitat.org,” Bell said. “If you have the right habitat, they — both upland game birds and hunters — will come,” Bell said.
While the number of pheasants was down in all five states on the road trip, every group participating in the hunt was working to continue offering accessible land to hunters.
“We all have a common goal of conserving the landscape. And it shows that where we have good habitat, pheasant, quail and grouse will respond,” Holt said.
“We can never rest,” Bell said.