Deep in the Heart of Roosterland by T. Edward Nickens It became my mantra, a chant inside my head. I said it when my ankles twisted in the prairie-dog burrows. I said it each time I bogged down in some kind of unidentifiable high-plains brush, or whenever I shouldered my way through head-high shelterbelts. And just now, I said it again to the rusted piece of old plow that nearly broke my shinbone as I jerked free from yet another Texas tangle. "I am not supposed to be here!" Where I'm supposed to be is 50 yards away, with my buddy Lee Davis, high-stepping through neatly shorn stubble like some baton-twirling majorette at a Friday night high-school football game. I'm supposed to be out there in the open - where the birds just burst from the cover, where six of my fellow drivers cruise through concentric bands of CRP strips and sunbaked millet. A half-dozen roosters and who knows how many hens explode out of the last 50 yards of the drive, and there is little I can do but listen to the fireworks and watch the feathers fly. Davis has no pity. He sidles up, patting twin bulges in the back of his bird vest. "These pheasants just wafted up in front of me," he says. "Would you like to pet them?" If I weren't so taken with this country - with its tiny ranching crossroads, endless skies, and the birds that I know are still out there - I might take offense. But as Davis and I are learning, there is more to this pheasant hunt than meets the shotgun bead. We are in Texas for a heart-and-soul kind of hunting, a commingling of community, camaraderie, and cackling pheasants quite unlike anything else I've ever experienced.\n\nIt Takes a Village: Each year during the opening weekend for Texas pheasants, small ranching crossroads across the Panhandle hold sprawling, open-to-the-public "community hunts." For a donation of $150 to $250, hunters gain access to thousands of acres of prime private pheasant land. In some areas, the community hunts are limited to opening weekend, but in others, the passes are good all season. For example, pony up $150 per gun for the hunt in Hart - a town with 1,000-plus Texans - and it's good across more than 30,000 acres for the entire four-week pheasant season. These hunts are the lifeblood for nonprofit and service organizations in the Panhandle's sparsely populated counties. They've poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into cash-strapped communities, helping to build volunteer firehouses, buy ambulances, support senior citizens' groups, and underwrite college scholarships for local ranch youth. The money goes to locals who've fallen on hard times. It goes to kids who can't afford to take their prize steers to the next round of Future Farmers of America (FFA) competitions. It buys band instruments for local high schools.\n\n"There is no way to exaggerate how critical these community hunts are to the towns of the Texas Panhandle," says Sue Hawkins of the Hart Lions Club. "We'll bring in more than $30,000 with these hunts. Our next biggest fund-raiser is the hot dog booth at the annual Hart Days festival. We might clear $1,500 at that." In Nazareth - population 365 - the hunts are just as important. "We survive on this all year long," says David Bounds, who runs the city's hunts for its Lions Club. "We make our money in December and give it away the rest of the year." And for the hunters who show up from across Texas and the surrounding states, the Panhandle hunts provide a payback that goes beyond the sight of a rooster cackling over cornstalks. "I'll hunt elsewhere later in the season," says Scott Stafford, who's taken part in the action for more than a decade. "But there's something different about opening weekend up here. It's important to support these communities."\n\nThe Gathering Place: Our first hunt starts early at the Hart Lions Club, a low, windowless building nearly hidden by a hundred heavy-duty farm pickups and mud-splattered SUVs. Each town works the fund-raiser in a slightly different way. In Hart, where volunteer firefighters post the donated land, groups are assigned a field to hunt at the opening bell. After that, any posted section is open. Some firefighters serve as hosts, but many parties strike out on their own. In Nazareth, an area with a denser cattle population, hunters typically hit the fields with the landowner playing the role of host to keep them in the birds and away from the cows. In Spearman, a weekend of pheasant chasing involves two days of guided hunting and full meals from Friday dinner through Sunday lunch.\n\nOne constant across the Panhandle hunts, however, is the hospitality. In the sprawling Hart Lions Club kitchen, 15 volunteers from the Golden Group, a local senior citizens' organization, have been on the job since 3 A.M. They've cooked 30 dozen eggs, 42 pounds of sausage, and 360 biscuits. "The FFA boys did it for a long time," says Sarah Hart, her forehead streaked with flour. "But they gave it up. Us young chicks had to take it over." The ladies range in age from 60 to 79. Out in the dining hall, about 150 hunters mingle with locals. You want Texas icons, you got 'em: handlebar mustaches, rodeo vests, giant belt buckles, and pressed denim shirts at five in the morning. I wander over to a tall, bearded Fort Worth hunter named Mike Adams, who tells me that he first discovered Panhandle pheasant hunting back in 1972. "I've got loads of big-game rifles - 6mms, '06s, you name it," Adams says. "Haven't fired a one since I found this place. I just laid them all down to go pheasant hunting."\n\nAt the end of another table, Taylor Martin, 11, nestles against her dad's shoulder. She has listened to her dad, Troy, talk about the community pheasant hunts for years. "She wanted to come so bad," Troy says. His son is at Disney World right now and "mad as all get-out that she got to come and not him." Watching the scene is Richard Entrekin, tall and stately. His blue jeans are braced with clip suspenders, and his purple-and-gold Lions Club vest is festooned with service buttons. He's the local Lions Club "boss," and he grins when he sees the breakfast line snaking out the door. "All this money stays purt-near local," he tells me. "It's rewarding to be a part of this, even if I don't hunt." Nearby, Cyril Mitzie nods. He's opened his farm to hunters for some 20 years. "It'd take a whole lot of hamburger flipping at ball games to do what we do with these hunts," he says.\n\nRoughing It in Hart: Philanthropy aside, we came here to put pheasants up - and hopefully down. On opening day in Hart, Davis and I hook up with a set of largely Dallas-area hunters, a crowd of 15, from teenagers to geezers. Their unofficial leader is Les Baumgardner - a 54-year-old teddy bear who's big, happy, and serious about roosters. At dawn our group lines up in a snaggletoothed arrangement along a red-clay road. Winds are already roaring at 40 mph, sending tumbleweeds across the playas. Found only in a southern swath of the Great Plains, the playas are funky, sunken wetlands. Dry most years, they fill with rainwater often enough to host ducks, geese and, for those willing to work hard enough to find them, ringneck pheasants. With a signal from Baumgardner, we start across the field in a formation straight out of the British redcoats' playbook. But within 50 yards, opening-day adrenaline has some hunters pushing too far ahead. I watch a pair of pheasants sneak out the sides of the corn stubble. Three more birds flush out of range of a driver too far in advance of the line. Baumgardner bogs down in a hellish tangle of 10-foot-tall shelterbelt. "This ain't GQ hunting," he grunts.\n\nBut this rough country lends the Panhandle community hunts a certain brand of authenticity. We are working over land that is unapologetically utilitarian. Massive center-pivot irrigators scribe the skyline in all directions. Each acre is spoken for - this section in corn, that one in cotton, field corners in CRP. There might be prettier places where a regular guy can chase roosters, but there can't be many that feel so thoroughly real. Which is exactly what these hunters are seeking. "We've been coming up here for 20 years," says Baumgardner. "We've gotten to know the land. That's one of the best things about these hunts. You can go to the Dakotas and hook up with a guide, hunt a different place every time. But with us, there's almost a sense of ownership. We can tell you stories about every one of these fields."\n\nFor the rest of the day we pound CRP plots, playa bottoms, and maize fields still pocked with hail craters from a recent storm. With daylight fading, we surround an old farmstead - a low, defiant patch of brambles and leaning walls cordoned off by a square of cedars. Worming through the thicket, the drivers curse in frustration and pain. But the birds are there. They pop from the overgrown quarter acre, bursting from the cedars, wings rattling in the boughs. The blockers shoot and howl. It's a perfect end to the day. "We see those TV shows where birds are blasting out of all that waist-high grass and we say, 'I want to hunt something like that!'" says Jeff Novak. "It's not all tough country here, but few of these birds come easy." Nothing worthwhile does.\n\nThe Last Minute in Nazareth: The next day, I'm scrambling over chest-high brambles of redroot and busted pieces of cattle trough when a rooster pops up 5 feet ahead, catches a 35-mph wind, and streaks away, cackling like a Halloween witch. I shoot until the action locks open, the final shot puffing black and amber feathers from the bird. Before I can congratulate myself, an enormous bird vaults from under Greg Hull's feet. This hombre is bigger than any I've yet seen, and he's only 20 yards away. Hull shoulders his gun, and I brace for the shot, but there is none. I can see Hull's barrel track the bird, and in my mind I am screaming Shoot him! But nothing happens. "What in the world?" I holler.\n\n"My bead was covering up the back glass of that tractor," Hull says, pointing to a parked hulk of metal 50 yards away. "I'd have blowed the rear window right out of it. I kept thinking, move over, move over! Then, bam, he's gone. These birds know how to play this game." And they have a decided home-field advantage around Nazareth. Unlike Hart's vast unbroken plains of row crops and pivot irrigators, Nazareth anchors a chunk of cattle range where there's as much pasture as corn and cotton. Sprawling playa bottoms are pocked with feedlots, mountains of hay bales, and farm machinery rusting in tangled shelterbelts. Curiously, Chinese fowl love the mix.\n\n"It's a little paradise around here," says Matt Kern, 26, a Nazareth native. "People don't realize that there are birds this far south. We have years where you walk 5 miles and never see a pheasant. But we have years with birds you wouldn't believe. Wild birds, and every one is crazy as hell." Kern always comes home for the pheasant opener to welcome a group of community hunters on the land where he was born and raised. "This is the place I love," he says. "If these folks don't have a good time while they're here, we take it personally."\n\nOn Kern's hunt, Tommy Roberts helps runs the show. A good-natured Texan with a quick smile beneath a dark mustache, Roberts has participated in the Nazareth community hunt for years, and he shows up with a plan. By the side of the road he gathers his hunters around a black pickup and sketches out the upcoming push on a dusty rear quarter-panel, drawing half-moons and hash marks with his fingertip. His son, Matt, leans over and laughs. "Yesterday, he let us have it because we didn't have enough line discipline," he says. "But he knows what he's doing. Walk slow, zigzag, and pause. It makes a big difference."\n\nWe gather on the rim of a large playa bottom, and Roberts orchestrates the plan: As we push toward the turn in the field, the inside walkers will slow down as the outside pushers speed up, swinging the line of drivers like a gate on a hinge to keep the birds in cover for as long as possible. During the drive, of course, there's no way to tell if such best-laid plans are working. We push through the bottom - drivers 20 yards apart, blockers little smudge marks of blaze orange 300 yards away. Rabbits squirt out of the field, but pheasants aren't in such a rush to show. They'd rather run a half mile, leaving me to wonder whether there are any birds in this field at all. I zigzag and pause, following orders, watching the line, but my eyes and mind start to wander.\n\nLast year, an ESPN.com story featured the Nazareth Swiftettes, the girls' high-school basketball team that, with 18 state championships, is the most decorated in the nation. The writer waxed poetic about the locals' devotion to the team, to the land, and to the community. But there was a darker side to the story. "That writer wrote that the town was in danger of drying up and blowing away," one Lions Club cook complained, as I scribbled notes for my own story. "Please don't do that to us again."\n\nI don't see such a fragile spirit in Nazareth or Hart. And I suspect you won't find it in Dimmitt, Easter, or Lazbuddie either. Not this weekend, anyway. Instead, I see a grinning Sarah Hart wipe the sweat from her brow as she pulls another platter of biscuits from the oven. I see Cyril Mitzie slap the backs of hunters he's known for 20-odd years, if only for a few glorious December days at a time. I see entire families throng the Nazareth volunteer fire department at the end of the day. They come to greet the hunters, locals and visitors alike, handing out sips of homemade schnapps as kids spray the cleaned pheasants with a garden hose.\n\nThe birds wait until the last possible moment to flush. It's hard to tell how many there are, and hard to imagine that we could miss them skulking in shin-high stubble, before they blast skyward in a rush of cackles and beating wings and frantic cries of Rooster! Rooster! Rooster! across the field. This time I can do more than watch. I swing and fire, and more pheasants flush. Suddenly there's one last bird in front and one last bird to fill a limit. I give it my best. Which seems to be the point of a Panhandle pheasant opener.