You can tell autumn is here. The days are growing shorter, the nights are markedly cooler, and the trees are putting on their annual strip show.
 Aside from the newly naked trees, another sure sign of fall is the army of strangely dressed people who are fanning out across the countryside, tromping through the boonies, hoping to flush out their elusive quarry.      
No, I’m not talking about vote-seeking politicians. I’m talking about pheasant hunters, those Blaze Orange-adorned men and women whose main objective is to scare up and shoot down what is essentially a fast-flying multicolored mutant chicken.      
 Truth be told, those folks aren’t actually looking for pheasants. What they are pursuing is even more elusive, more fleeting. What they are searching for is an Ultimate Hunting Experience.      
 Once you’ve had an Ultimate Hunting Experience, nothing else measures up. I know this is true because nothing could ever be as thrilling or fulfilling as the Ultimate Hunting Experience I shared with our erstwhile farm dog, Smokey.      
 I was in my early teens when a pup named Smokey came to live with us on our dairy farm. She was a mixed-breed mutt that my sister procured via the giveaway section of the classifieds. Smokey was part Black Lab and part German Shepherd; it was thus reasoned that she would be an all-around farm dog, good for both herding and hunting. Smokey had her own ideas regarding one of those expectations.      
 Cattle, Smokey decided, were these big, oafish quadrupeds that were worthy of nothing more than idle curiosity. No amount of pleading or cajoling could induce Smokey to so much as “woof” at a Holstein who needed herding.      
 But birds were a whole other matter. We discovered that Smokey possessed a powerful passion for birding when she began to bring home our neighbor’s domesticated ducks. We would return the dazed and disheveled duck after dark and serve Smokey a severe scolding. A few days later Smokey would simply abduct another duck.      
 I decided there was only one thing to do, namely, put Smokey’s hunting instincts to their best and highest use. When I turned 14, I was finally able to convince Dad that I really needed a shotgun. All I had was a half-breed mutt and a single-shot .410, but I felt like a genuine hunter.      
 My first pheasant season was a total bust. I bagged exactly zero birds. None. El zippo. Oh, sure, I saw plenty of pheasants, but most of them were approximately a mile off and flying away at speeds that posed a serious challenge to the sound barrier.      
The problem was Smokey. She had a keen nose and could probably track a bumblebee through a blizzard. But she also had an overabundance of energetic enthusiasm. She would bolt off at a dead run whenever her nose detected a single molecule of pheasant scent. I often yelled myself hoarse in a futile effort to get her to stop.      
The few times when a pheasant did flush within shotgun range, I would be so flustered that I only managed to blast holes in the sky. Smokey would sprint enthusiastically after the fleeing fowl, not giving up until she was well into the next county.      
 The following autumn saw a change in both Smokey and me. Smokey had settled down and would sometimes point at birds that were trying to hide. There was also a small glimmer of progress in my hunting skills. Instead of panic-and-fire, I learned to actually aim before pulling the trigger. Smokey and I began to bring home an occasional pheasant.      
I preferred hunting with Smokey over any other autumn pastime. While my siblings crowded around the TV on Sunday afternoons to watch the football game, Smokey and I would tromp around on the prairie in search of befeathered upland game.      
 One snowy Sunday afternoon, Smokey and I were hunting some grassland when she stopped at the edge of a slough and froze in a picture-perfect point. I readied myself, knowing she was onto something. “Go get ‘em Smokey!” I urged quietly.  
 Smokey pounced into a thicket of tall grass and every corner of the slough erupted.
 I watched, slack-jawed, as dozens of magnificent, iridescent ringneck pheasants burst from the jungle of slough grass, their cackling laughs echoing through the brittle air as they rocketed away.
After the last bird had departed, Smokey glanced back at me with a look that said, “What’s the matter with you?” Only then did I realize that I had forgotten to shoot.      
“Let’s go home, Smokey,” I said. “It just doesn’t get any better than that!”   
    Jerry is a recovering dairy farmer from Volga, South Dakota. He and his wife, Julie, have two grown sons and live on the farm where Jerry’s great-grandfather homesteaded over 110 years ago. Jerry currently works full time for the Dairy Star as a staff writer/ad salesman. Feel free to E-mail him at: jerry.n@dairystar.com.