Fall has set.
Come to pass are the barren branches of winter trimmed in frost and the gray light of a shallow sun.
The best days are gone – though with fortune some remain far ahead.
We are threadbare. The months and years have been hard. The cold is less inviting and the wanderlust, while not subdued, is somewhat satiated.
Beneath the sage and the basalt, the earth itself seems to slumber.
The lean time of the year has come and the urgency is gone out of us.
For the first time in a while, the end is not only a thing to be looked on with sadness.
Maybe part of what makes the thing so special is the long break in which we cannot participate in the chase, but are relegated to yearn.
In the sparseness of the final weeks, like the leaves of the coverts, we have been slowly stripped the of need to stretch.
Let it snow. Let the wind howl and the cold deepen.
The land rests, and so shall we.
Fall has set.
The truck door closes and cold, crisp sage hits the nose.
The shotgun slides out of its case, warm and familiar.
The tailgate drops and an explosion of black and white and various shades of brown erupts, bursting with yelps of excitement and unbridled instinct. For a moment, it all borders on chaos until direction is given. You watch all that energy channeled into a force that shoots across the landscape, bending vegetation in its path like the winds that continually pummel this place.
Boots break thin surface ice is as you leave the road and start heading up the hill. You look up to see the top of the mountain shrouded in falling snow. You aim for it, even as it descends to meet you halfway.
This moment, full of anticipation and possibility, defines it all. Does it really matter what else the day brings? Have you ever felt more in-the-moment alive than now?
I wanted poetry. But that’s not the way it happened.
I wanted one last spin through stem and stubble, one last sudden pivot on wobbly legs. One last point.
One last rooster.
A burst of feather and wing to slate sky. A swing of double gun, a pull and a puff and the old boy on it, smelling it, mouthing it. His last rooster.
But that’s not the way it happened.
His ass-end gave out two hundred yards from the truck before we were in the really good stuff. We had to turn back, the old man pulling himself on his front legs, fickle back legs making drag marks in the snow. I offered to carry him, but he had none of it.
One last point, one last rooster. One last shot. I wanted that for him. I wanted that for me. But that’s not the way it happened and it occurs to me that poetry is a precious thing, a whisper on the wind, a blink.
A friend’s beautiful wife dies of leukemia before she turns thirty. There is no seventy-five years of shared life, no watching children and grandchildren grow and laugh. No poetry.
Another friend whose law enforcement career had spanned two decades spangled with accolades and decorations spent his last day investigating the disappearance of a woman while standing within feet of where her corpse lay hidden beneath a pile of trash. Days after the laughter had faded from his retirement party, his former colleagues discovered her body and arrested the boyfriend. No last day heroics, no “one last bust,” no poetry.
An Olympic miler steps off a city sidewalk and shatters her tibia. No poetry.
And so. An old bird dog on his last hunt ends up pulling himself home by his front legs. Two months shy of his thirteenth birthday and there will be no final pheasant. There was, but it was placed in the game bag months before without thought that there would never be another. Forgotten. Not even realized.
He sleeps now on his bed downstairs and I know that someday soon, he won’t be able to get up and walk from it, that he will have to drag himself and then I will know it is time. And I think about moments that have passed for him and I on our journey together.
And I think about the look of him then, all tri-colored and feathered, pivoting out in brambles, pointing and casting and moving in rhythmic upland music and I realize that in fact this is why I love bird hunting. For in that motion of dog into wind, in that movement of fur and nostril, it is there: Poetry. When all else in life lacks, upland behind a setter provides.
Sometimes life is just life. Sometimes it sings and the melody is bird dog.
So tired, I could easily blow it off.
But the birds have been hanging in the cool crawlspace plenty long enough and it is time. “I’ll have a beer first…” and I do. And it’s so good, I have another. It is already late fall and the sun is long gone and it feels later than it is, even though it’s barely dinner time. The birds are laid out on the cutting board, waiting. Although they really aren’t waiting, because they are dead; if they ever actually “waited” for anything while alive.
I often seem to procrastinate when it comes to cleaning birds, and then I hurry through it mechanically. But tonight, I’m in a different mood. Almost as tired as the shorthair curled up in the corner of the living room by the stove. The good kind of tired, where whatever you’re going to do you’re going to take your time doing.
I lay the bird spread out on its back. Game shears remove wings and head and legs. Feel through the deep mahogany and purple-tinged belly feathers for something more tangible. The knife slides in easily, and the thin skin parts up the length of the cavity. The pungent odor of pheasant hits the nostrils. Rich pink flesh exposed. A pile of technicolor feathers accumulates. A few crimson spots where #6 did its thing.
Flushed under cold water, thoroughly.
And then its time to ponder a recipe. Maybe a sautè in sage, bacon and port. They deserve nothing less.
A project we’ve been kicking around for some time is finally happening, and frankly, we’re damn excited about it. In early December of 2013, Mouthful of Feathers: Upland Hunting in the West will be released, featuring a collection of original, full-length essays by:
- Tosh Brown
- Reid Bryant
- Michael Gracie
- Chad Love
- Greg McReynolds
- Tom Reed
- Bruce Smithhammer
- Bob White
With an introduction by Miles Nolte.
The book will be published by Pulp Fly, Ltd. and available on Amazon, iTunes and Barnes & Noble for Kindle, Nook and iPad platforms.
More to come soon – please stay tuned. And if you haven’t done so already, the best way to stay tuned is by signing up as a follower of this blog, which you can do on the menu on the right side of this page, and by “liking” our Facebook page. Thanks.
We had completed a fairly thorough loop for one guy and one big running dog to do through the field, and were on our way back to the truck. Downwind. The dog absolutely hates hunting downwind, and will do everything he can to veer from it, since for him, hunting downwind is dumb, and because for him, the hunting doesn’t end when you’ve made the decision to head back to the truck and are returning via ground that you already covered on the way out. No, it doesn’t end for him until we’re at the tailgate. He’s taught me the value of this lesson many times before, but my hard-headed human brain tends to forget.
So when he veers off at a 90 degree angle to the wind, and the direction to the truck, I don’t think much of it, but then I forget how quickly he can cover ground when he wants to. I let him range because I tell myself that we’ve already covered this, and the day is done and truth be told, I’m fantasizing about dinner. I probably should have noted that he wasn’t just meandering, but heading in a pretty specific direction.
There is a common adage in the bird dog world that, “you must teach the dog to hunt for you.” I used to firmly believe this was the case, with no room for interpretation. After all, the only other option is an out-of-control dog, right? In some cases, that’s certainly true. But I’d like to think I’m growing and learning as a bird hunter (and hopefully always will be), and have come to realize that too much stubborn control over everything your dog does can betray a lack of trust in your dogs’ inherent, amazing abilities, not to mention impacting what ends up in the game bag.
The reality of the relationship – if it’s a good one – is a far more nuanced, “give and take” than that; an interdependent push-and-pull across the landscape. At least in the situations I most often find myself hunting in. This isn’t a quaint, 2-acre patch of errant apple orchard, but a wide open, hilly field 20 times that in size, and it wouldn’t even be considered “big” country by our western standards. I need a dog that has no shortage of initiative, not one that is going to be plodding along dutifully right in front of me. And in these scenarios, the reality is that we have learned to hunt for each other. Just as he is obliged to find birds for me in a vast and sometimes daunting landscape, I’m obliged to trust that he knows what he’s doing; that his desire to find birds is unwavering (the occasional rabbit or deer scent aside…) and at least as great as mine. Trusting this arrangement means that in general, he needs to go where I want him to, but it also means that it’s a good idea for me to pay attention when he clearly wants to head in a certain direction. Knowing a good bird dog well means trusting that he probably has his reasons.
I watch a couple skittish sharpies bust wild a hundred and some yards away, as he is quartering toward them, nose held high, before he has a chance to lock them down and point them. His sudden, 90 deg. detour now becomes clear – he somehow knew they were over there, even from that distance. I mark where they go down on the hillside, not far away. It could be tempting to raise my blood pressure regarding my “out of control dog” upon seeing this, but the truth is that he’s doing exactly what he should be doing, and the mistakes are honestly mine. Instead, I call him in, and as a team, we double back and move in together and get them. Birds we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, if it had been left up to me. Another lesson has been reinforced. Luckily, my dog is a forgiving and patient teacher.
Postscript: The following day, the little bastard ran all over hell and back, ignoring commands, whistles and every setting on the e-collar. I accidentally left the laptop open the previous night, and I’m now convinced he must have read this post.
A new, “highly recommended” addition to the upland hunter’s bookshelf has just been released – A Bird Hunter’s Table by Sarah Davies.
A Bird Hunter’s Table is about cooking, eating, and sharing friendship. It is also about gundogs, gamebirds, and getting outside to enjoy the land. Featuring contributions by MOF’s Tom Reed and Greg McReynolds, among other notables.
A Bird Hunter’s Table includes over 130 recipes, stories from the field, and a smattering of natural history. To learn more, see a sample of the book, or to purchase, visit www.birdhunterstable.com or contact the author at email@example.com. Trust us – this one is worthy, friends.
I don’t know about you, but I have friends who I rarely spend time with outside of bird season. It has nothing to do with the quality of those friendships; in fact, some of them are the most highly esteemed friends I have. But the intensity of our common love for dogs and big country cause our orbits to overlap around this time, and then the rest of the year life has a way of absorbing us in different directions. We occasionally keep in touch, but rarely do we cross paths until guns come out of the closet and the dogs are more antsy than usual and the sound of a bird busting from cover comes to dominate our thoughts.
It is that time again, and phone calls are made and e-mails traded and the mutual bonds re-energized as plans are made. But a nagging thought keeps clawing at the back recesses of my hat rack – another year has somehow gone by. It hardly seems real, but I haven’t shot the shit with “___,” I think to myself, since we were walking across that errant CRP field last October, game bags full of sharpies, my dog limping on a raw pad after a long day, a snow storm scudding our direction across the tops of the Big Holes… Jeezus – that was a year ago. A job I couldn’t stand was kicked to the curb where it belonged, new opportunities were created, new friendships, some old ones strained only to be strengthened again, others strained past the point of recovery, too little time spent with family, hopefully a little more perspective on what matters and what’s worth putting energy into… A YEAR.
I do the only thing one can do when such thoughts threaten to steal you from the present – I wipe the late September drip from my cold nose, drop a couple shells in the barrels, and join a friend as we head off toward the horizon, with much to talk about and little that needs to be said.
I see him disappear as he drops off the cut bank and into the river, purely intending to cool off. By “river” I’m referring to the South Fork of the Snake, currently running at 12,000 cubic feet per second.
The uninterrupted force of the river is cranking along the undercut bank where he went in. There is a tangled strainer of logs and debris just downstream, reaching out like a wicked, gnarled hand dragging long fingernails across the galloping surface of the torrent.
I sprint. He’s clawing at the bank without purchase, and then I see him starting to get sucked under and swept. His eyes go wide as dinner plates as the reality of his predicament dawns on him. Somehow sinks through that knuckle-headed pointer cranium of his. It’s a look I’ve never seen on his face, and my own probably didn’t look much different.
I dive to the edge of the bank, grab a fistful of collar and pluck him from the current with little time to spare. Fall on my ass.
I think about what would have happened if I hadn’t been right there, and able to respond so quickly. What if I was still back in the cottonwoods, looking for morels, as I had been just minutes before? He’d be gone. Pinned below the undercut, or swept into the strainer. I’d have lost my bird dog.
On terra firma again, he shakes the water off and tears off back into the forest, following the onslaught of spoor that rules his better judgement. Living as he always does – entirely in the moment. I give up on the morels and decide to call it a day. Too dry anyway.