Lessons

There is much to mourn in this world, and in the even smaller world of those of us who chase wild birds with dogs:

– We mourn the loss of access.
_ The loss of our dogs, none of whom ever live long enough.
– The loss of so many Sage grouse, and the resulting loss of ample seasons.
– The loss of our own youth, our past injuries and aging bodies increasingly undeniable as we climb those first chukar hills of the season.

The list of course goes on, because we rarely ever find anything as good as it “used to be,” or at least as good as we selectively remember it. It can be tempting to think it’s all in a state of continual decline. We don’t shy away from such mourning on this blog, because sometimes those are some of the most intense emotions we feel in this pursuit, and our goal was always to peel away so much of the varnished excess that can epitomize portrayals of this sport, and expose some raw nerves now and then.

However mourning, while necessary, only gets us so far and the saying that “life is for the living” is an undeniable maxim. Sure, I do this because I love spending time walking in country that wild game birds live in, be it the desolate butresses of the chukar, the alpine living rooms of the various species of forest grouse, the sprawling open vistas of sharptail country. Yes, I do this because I love watching my dog vacuum up country with senses I can only dream of, and that I see best demonstrated when the two of us are working in tandem far from other distractions. Of course I love the satisfaction of a delicious meal I’ve obtained myself.

But really, all of those are just garnishes on the ‘meat’ of the thing. The truth is I do all of the above for one deceptively simple reason – to feel alive.

Q:Scrub

I believe it was Aristotle, or some other robe and sandals-clad aspirant to our modern Dude, who once said “the unexamined life wasn’t worth living.” Like so many other absolutist statements, this is really only a partial truth, best implemented in moderation. True, no examination at all is probably not a good thing, but neither is too much, lest it devolve into navel-gazing self-indulgence. It must be tempered by doing, or else all the self-examination in the world is worthless. Life doesn’t belong to the philosopher in a comfortable chair, it belongs to those of us who need to get dirty, exhausted, occasionally lost and sometimes even a little bloody. There is no frame of reference without visceral, firsthand experience.

I don’t want to sit around examining my life any more than I want to continue mourning losses I can’t control. Too many of us sadly don’t seem to live enough, to grasp this rare opportunity by the short hairs and wring what we can from it. But unlike just about anything else I can think of, there is no drawback  to over-living – walking away from the matching, over-stuffed luggage of past and future concerns, and utterly inebriating ourselves in the sensory stew of the present.

This more than anything, I’m convinced, is what our dogs have been patiently trying teach us all along.

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Filed under Blues, Fodder, Keeping it Real, Reloading

Six Months

 

A blue grouse is in trouble.

A blue grouse is in trouble.

In my stronger moments, I tell myself it’s going to be okay. That it has been a good run and she has been loved. That she’s been my bird dog and I’d like to think, somehow, that this life I lead is a kind of version of canine heaven. Especially for gun dogs.

But I have weaker moments. Sometimes, they come in daylight while she lies in her dog bed beside my desk. Sometimes they come in darkness when I lie awake and listen to the sound of her breathing, a sound not unlike the crackling of plastic wrap in a fist.

I’m home this week early, a trip to Oregon’s coastal rivers of steelhead cut short. I don’t mind. I want to be here, not there.

It started a month or so ago, the huffing cough like a throat-tickle that can’t be cleared, and in a thirteen year old dog, I didn’t think much of it. But the kennel where I boarded her when we went on holiday vacation is owned by my veterinarian, and she, being an alert practitioner of the medical arts, asked. Have you noticed a cough?

So we shot a film and drew some blood and tried a dose of antibiotics, thinking, perhaps, that the shadow in her chest was an abscess from an inhaled grass seed, a common affliction of dogs who drink the wind that brushes bird. A month later, the coughing still there—sounding wetter—and another film. This time a gloom in her lungs like boiled smoke from a slash pile that had jumped the dozer line, metastasized and blown up into a wild fire. Even before a layman’s eyes.

There will be no chemotherapy. I will not make her final months any sicker than an old bird dog at thirteen can stand.

Six months. In six months, it will be bird season again. Another September.

There have been other old dogs. But this one has owned my heart more than any other. This is the one that inspired my friends to buy their own pointing dogs. She has been a spectacular finder of wild birds, a retriever whose retrieves are as memorable as the vision of the Comet Hale Bopp (and only slightly less rare), and never-fail backer of other dogs’ points. She has made so many stunning bird finds that they are lost to my memory just like living at the base of the Tetons makes one forget about the staggering scenery on the horizon.

The other old dogs went out of my life without a clock ticking. One day they were old and I could see the dwindle  in them and then they were gone. There was no egg timer to the whole thing. So we have six months until bird season. Maybe longer, maybe shorter. Six months of riding in the pickup cab with me, six months of jerky treats, six months of canned dog food and pretty much any damned thing she wants. Six months when I will try to be here rather than somewhere else.

Six months and one day, perhaps with September painting the grouse woods and grasshoppers rattling along North Willow Creek where I will do the sad work with sharp spade, I will know.

I will know that the countdown to the end of the dog has ended.

—TR

 

Two for the pot.

Two for the pot.

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Filed under Dogs, Keeping it Real, Talegate, Upland Hunting

Good news everyone…

It’s only 8 months (242 days) until October 1.

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Filed under Talegate

On getting even

DSCN0634It would be, by all measures including wallet width and vacation time, the last hunt.

As if to commemorate the occasion, a blue storm swept out of Saskatchewan, carrying that thin, cruel snow that comes only with subzero weather. Too cold for big flakes. Mean little ones.

Six hours on the road turned into seven and then we were finally there, at the bar, beers before us. Minus twelve outside. Tomorrow, into it. Minus twelve boosted down to minus thirty-two courtesy of our northern wind. Thank you.

I looked at her, sipped my beer, and grinned. “Tomorrow,” I said, “we get even.”
She looked at me as if I were crazy. No, check that. Not as if.

At seven the next morning, coffeed-up, cafed-up, we were at the first cover, snow screaming beneath our boots. The dog paddled out into it, stopping to chew clumps of snow from his toes, but pushing on, collecting burrs as he went, but eager. Minus thirty two with the wind. What the hell? I couldn’t stop grinning and then a rooster went up. Close, cackling and the auto loader was at my shoulder, barking once, twice, and the bird was down and the dog on him and then the bird in hand. Getting even.

Getting even for all of those wild flushes two hundred yards from the gun even after you’ve been careful with the truck doors. Even after you’ve whispered to the dog, heeled him tight until ready. There they go, a whole fucking field full of those bastards, all at once all in the air, all gone before you even have time to piss, zip up, and load the gun. Motherfuckers. I do not apologize for foul language and feral fowl. Pheasants. Or chukar, too, for that matter. Neither are a gentleman’s bird.

The blood in our veins flows like a slow river of lava into a cold ocean. We turn, move back to the truck a mile away, frozen, fingers tight. The dog chews more chunks of ice. Thank god for wool everything. Fingers and toes cold. The tip of the nose. But we are getting even with the bastards.

Drive to a new cover, trying to warm in the old Dodge, the heater going full blast and the temp gauge still not up to normal, despite an hour of idling. Dog out again and then we are in the chokecherries and another big gaudy sonofabitch gets up and swings out overhead and the gun barks and then jams solidly in the cold, doesn’t feed the second shell, but no matter because the bird is down and and the bird is dead.

We move on. The dog makes birds again and another big rooster gets up tight and close and I swing and shoot and the gun jams again. Too damned cold. But the bird is dead and by the time we get back to the truck and gut both of them out, they are cool and stiff and going frozen. But we’ve gotten even. For one day. A limit of roosters. Makes the vengeful heart happy.

Coffee handed out from the gal at the kiosk, a big smile and a shake of the head for anyone out hunting pheasants in twelve below. No one understands. It’s late season. It’s pheasants. It’s revenge.

The next day, out in it again. Up to minus twenty-two now. Wind chill. Still air, if there were such a thing, minus ten. A heat wave. Plugged the truck in at the motel last night. Good move.

Different dog this time. Same technique. Close, quiet, slow but before we’ve had to a chance to enter the good stuff, birds start going out, threes and fours and fives, some cackling. One hundred yards away. Not our fault. The doors were shut quietly, the dog close. Different day. More out wild and I get one quick shot, freezing and slow and a miss. Hit well yesterday. Missed first shot today. That’s all. We try to hunt up the singles, the pairs, but they go out wild before we can even crunch over there, frost in my beard, frost in my lady’s long hair, making her look prematurely gray. It’s a good look, I’ve got to say. A harbinger.

Different cover, another dog and the same result, birds out wild before we’ve even straddled the barbwire. Not the dog’s fault. Not the doors. Cursing.

We move up and even the hens are wild, going out in twos and threes, the dog working close and well, a veteran dog. Chewing snow and ice from pads. Too cold for more than one good run with one dog and then trade off. Finally, at the end of the quarter section, he goes on point, fairly close, a solid-something-is-right-here point and a big old gaudy cockbastard goes up and I swing up. And fumble the safety with my gloves in the subzero. That’s my excuse. And the bird is off and away and I shoot little more than a send off shot. A wide miss that I know is a whiff before the sound even comes to my ear. The day is an empty bag.

Not getting even at all.

—TR

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Filed under Talegate

Where it went

DSCN0595I will never get used to it. The suddenness of it. In human, it is difficult enough. Wake up one morning and you’re having to use one point five readers for the newspaper. The tromp through the cattails seems to go a little slower, the truck’s warmth a little more welcome. The fire for another push needs more stoking. It’s more of an erosion, a slow spin.

But in canine, the slap of years is stunning. One day you look down at her and she’s an old lady, her joints swollen by arthritis, various bumps and warts in her hide, a once-stunning feathered tail now something a rat might sport. She totters where once she used to float. She huffs and coughs at the fountain she once drank.

We drive east, across the roll of Montana, past coulee and pine, pump-jack and silo. Past corn and scrubland to the Dakotas. It has been a long span for me and for her, this leave from the Dakotas and now it is late in this season and late in her life and I wonder how it all happened.

She gets the princess perch, behind the driver, the other dogs in back in the camper shell. She rides in the warmth of the cab for after a dozen years of bringing me to all of those different birds, the least I can do is bring her into the truck where she can curl in a tight ball against that rat tail and snore.

There have been other trips. Many.  I view her mostly backward. Pups are forward, what lies ahead. Old dogs are what you have been and what they were and what it once was. Over the shoulder, behind, when she was young and the truck had one hundred thousand miles instead of twice that and she had ten thousand miles instead of twice or thrice that. I will make one trip to the Dakotas this year, one visit to the river of scent that is hundreds of pheasants in one section of CRP. This journey, I tell myself, is for the young pup who is fire and burst, an uncontrollable effervescence of puppy joy. But really it is for grandma, kinked with time, crippled by the uplands of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico. Knotted and rusted by roosters and blues, sharpies, ruffs, sprucers and sage chickens, chukar, Huns, Mearns, cottontops, Californias, mountain and Gambel. It has been one hell of a run.

So she sits behind me as the diesel growls east, through Baker and Hettinger and Lemmon and Mobridge. East. Toward. One last trip, one last bird, one last point. Please, God, just one more.

—TR

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Filed under Ditch Parrots, Dogs, Talegate

Worn

The sun is dropping to the southwest as we slog 200, 500, 800 feet up. The dog ranges ahead while I put one foot in front of the other, sometimes searching for a footing, sometimes skidding and sliding, clawing at the scree and the grass.

At the top, sweating and panting, my fingernails caked with dirt, I take a drink and feel the wind instantly turn the sweat of the climb into an uncomfortable liability. I look west and see the sinking sun against the backdrop of the Snake River Canyon. I know we may find a covey of birds before sundown. Or we may not. There are no guarantees. There are no planted birds, no mowed pathways. Flat ground is a rarity and birds, when you find them, are always uphill.

GregMcReynoldsBootsOct2014 (1)

What brings me to this place is the rawness of it. The opportunity to go where I wish without the burden of “posted” signs and knocking on doors begging for permission. There is no freedom like the freedom to Go. Miles to cross, mountains to climb, spaces to camp or hunt or hike, places to push ourselves and stretch against the bounds of modern convenience, here are the last places where we are unrestricted. Truly Free.

So I find it particularly galling that a few greedy bastards want to try and take it from us. For many of us, the loss of our public lands would be akin to a prison sentence. We can’t afford to buy access and we have no desire to take up golf or play video games.

For the most part, the public lands we hold so tightly are not the verdant lowlands, those were snapped up by settlers 100 years ago. They are hard, wild places and what we do is a hard scramble. There are days where I don’t even fire my gun. This is miles of hiking, climbing and pushing to find the secret spot – the one place so difficult that no one else has hunted it. The spot where the price of admission is so steep and daunting that only we would dare to chase birds in this place. Some days my dog gets one solitary point and all I have to show for it are sore legs and worn boots. Those are good days. Out here, It is not about killing birds, it’s about earning birds. In this crowd, people rarely even say the word “limit.”

A lot of other folks don’t understand. They tell me they gave up hunting when the bird population dropped, or that there is nowhere left to hunt. And if we talk about the flat-ground fence rows that used to hold hundreds of roosters for the price of asking, they’re right. Those places are gone, tilled up or simply sold off to folks richer than us.

And that’s the beauty of what we do. There are millions of acres open to hunting. All it takes is a good pair of boots. A good old American-made leather pair with heel counters and high tops, laces and spares, toe caps and Air Bob soles. The price of admission is what you’re are willing to put in and how much are you willing to sweat, not just in October, but in April and July.

I spend three times more money on boots than I do annually on shotgun shells – because I wear boots out.

The greedy bastards who want to sell my lands – the ones who want to carve the choicest parcels for themselves while selling the bulk of it to the multinational corporations to pillage and plunder – they have not earned that right. No one who has worn out a pair of American made hunting boots thinks we should sell our public lands. No one who has climbed to the top of Giffy Butte or Nowhere Ridge looking for chukar or elk or muleys thinks we should sell off those places to a bunch of rich, foreign bastards with Land Rovers and jacked-up golf carts.

My boots are worn and cracked, but I have paid the price of admission and my heart is full. The new robber barons who are calling for the sale of our hunting lands under the guise of “states rights” have not paid the price of admission. They have never worn out a pair of hunting boots in their lives.

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Filed under Conservation and legacy, Giving thanks, Open country, Public Land Rocks, Talegate

Target Clientele?

Extremely Polite Southern Accent Customer Service Girl: “Hello, welcome to “_______.” How can I help you?”

Me: “Yeah, hi. I’m not sure how I got on your mailing list, but I’d like to be removed, please.”

EPSACSG: “Ok sir, I can do that for you, but can I ask why you’d like to not continue to be informed about our fine offerings?”

Me: “Uh, you’d like to know why I don’t want to receive your catalog?

Well, since you’re asking…to be honest, I don’t think I’m exactly your “target clientele.” You see, I live in the West, and hunt for wild birds on public lands, on foot. I’ve never been to a private $7k/week plantation lodge. In fact, I’m pretty sure that someone in a position of influence would make sure I never even made it to the front door of such an establishment.

image-pro-shop

Nor have I ever been transported from one planted bird location to another in a horse-drawn carriage. Do those things have a wet bar?

I’ve also  never faced the peculiar dilemma of which sportcoat I should pack for standing around the fireplace after a day “afield,” while discussing my many and varied accomplishments in both the realm of canned hunting and finance.

Also…Are you still there?”

EPSACSG (practiced politeness eroding quickly):I am, sir.”

Me: Great. Also, I can’t ever imagine myself in a pair of your $200 bright green jackass slacks with the embroidered Labradors and ducks on them. In fact, I would fully expect that these pants come with a clown nose, a ball gag and a pair of handcuffs. Is this true, or are these accessories extra?”

Click.

Me: “Hello? Ma’am? I still have a few more reasons I’d like to share… Hello?”

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Filed under Fodder, Glutton For Punishment, Ill-mannered Jackals, Keeping it Real, Talegate, True stories, We might have been jrunk.

Lost

We impart a piece of ourselves on the things that we carry.

My father’s knife, my grandfather’s block plane, the gun that I have carried across a dozen states and hunted nearly every species of upland bird in America – these things do not define us, but they are significant exhibits that help explain us as people.

My gun was a light, quick handling Italian 20ga, made by I. Rizzini and imported by B.C. outdoors as a Verona. It came with a spare set of barrels in 28ga. More important than all that was that I shot it well. So much better than everything else, that in the years since I have rarely hunted with anything else.
Light parade, Jason, Boys, Matt, Thomas
My wife bought it for me on my 30th birthday. Completely unbeknownst to me, she ordered it, went to pick it up, didn’t like the one she got and sent it back for another one. The one that I ended up with was perfect for me and I loved it even more for its origin. There are few things in life like getting a truly special gift from the person you love most.
I’ll miss shooting that little gun and the confidence that I felt when I swung it on flushing birds. I regret that I never got to restock it, for once sanding, fitting and checkering a gun that would always be mine. More than that, I regret that I won’t have it to pass on to my sons and tell them about how their mom bought it for me.
It’s been a week since I drove off and left it behind in a nondescript parking spot near Arimo, Idaho. A week since I rushed back hours later in a panic, only to find it gone. It’s been a week since someone else picked up my gun, the one my wife gave me and that I held in trust for my kids.
It’s been a week since I filed the report with the sheriff, called every gun shop for a 100 miles. A week since I told my wife that I had squandered the effort that she put into that special gift all those years ago.
It’s been one day since, shooting another gun, I missed 12 shots in a row. And no, that is not a typo. 12.
I try tell myself that it was only a gun, but it was more than that.
Maybe someday, whoever picked it up will read this and the gun will find it’s way home. Maybe the serial number will come up somewhere or a gun shop will recognize it. Maybe I will have a chance to buy it back. Maybe a guilty conscious will deliver it to the sheriff, who will return it to me.
Or maybe the Verona with the faint crack in the wrist and the worn bluing on the action, the gun that I carried and left my mark on, will simply go somewhere else.
Somewhere out there, someone has a gun that I was holding in trust for my kids. It is part of a narrative that helps explain who I am and what a special person my wife is. It is an exhibit that means more than birds and miles and hunting. It has been imparted with my story and I want it back.

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Filed under Guns, Talegate, Tools of the Trade

No Tell Motel

IMG_1181Anyone who has a bird dog and has taken to the road has a good motel story. These stories usually include burs, barking, poop, blood, ass gas and the midnight puking. Not all of these features are confined to the dogs.

All manners and all bets are off when the setters enter a motel room. Beds are made to be jumped on. Carpets made for dragging butt. Toilets for drinking.

I like motel rooms that are on the first floor, with doors opening to the parking area and quick access to a place for a midnight dash. The worst kind of motel is the kind that has access only through the lobby and perhaps one other door, and all the doors open to a shared hallway. If you are really screwed, your room will be up a flight of stairs on the second or third floor and the outdoor poop zone will be some gravel parking lot in the middle of town. Probably behind a bar (occupied by midnight drunks outside smoking cigarettes and making comments about how preeeetty your dog is and trying to pat him without falling over). Assuming you yourself are not in the bar because there’s an early morning of pheasant chasing to be had.

Recently, I found myself in a scenario that was worst-case, as they say. Upstairs, indoor access. Long, long hallway. Three setters one of which was my girlfriend’s, a five month-old puppy and an 11-year-old veteran. Numerous walks with the older dogs at heel, pup on the leash. A gauntlet of dog-patters and cooing admirers to run in the hallway. Early rise planned. Really early. Like five a.m. A dirt parking lot behind the drunks. Worried about the pup and her tentative housebrokeness. Finally, I hit the sack at 11 or so, setting the alarm.

Duke the veteran woke me just before dawn. Panting. Not a good sign. I hurried to get dressed, hooked the pup up to the leash and headed out into the early morning hallway. A quiet, not-a-mouse-stirring hallway long before sunup. Both of the veteran dogs sprinted past me and ran down the hallway at top speed. I did my best Lauren Bacall shout, yell-whispering: “HEEL, HEEL, HEEL. DUKE! HEEEL!!”

The pup went one way while I yanked the other, chasing Duke, who was in the lead. Suddenly, NOOOOOO!! I couldn’t believe my eyes, for there was good old Duke, every bit of 11, squatting and deploying a schooner right in the middle of the hall. The door was shut behind me and the GF’s dog running past Duke while he was in full quiver and the pup jerking the leash one way and probably likely to make Mr. Grumpy herself. And a fresh steaming turd in the hallway. What to do? What, indeed, to do?

I figured I had no choice. I bare-handed the turd. That’s right. Bare hand and a steamer.  My left, because the pup’s leash was in my right.

All of this before even a hint of coffee.

We ran down the hallway, down the stairs. HEEEL. DAMMIT. HEEL. At the bottom of the stairs, first floor, a quick Duke detour to deposit another goodie in front of room 105. Bare-handed that one too.

Finally, door to the outside and there stood a fellow just coming in from his early morning cig break. Duke was jumping up and down at the door that this guy was holding shut. “Hey, I didn’t want to let him out until you were here.”

“Yeah, good idea.” Please, please don’t look at my left hand. I’m carrying dog shit in it. Please.

Out into the morning air, sun a long, long way from rise. I scrambled to the parking lot, putting yards behind me and the guy in the lit doorway. The guy just stood there while I held the pup on a leash and Duke sprinted out to do his third act of the play. The pup peed, then pooped. The guy stood there looking at me. Okay, man, go in and shut the door. I need to get rid of this thing. I have a wet, hot turd in my hand. Two of them. Finally, he went in and I pitched Duke’s little gifts behind the dumpster and loaded the dogs into the truck. Ran upstairs as fast as I could to wash my hands.

It was opening day of pheasant. God, I love bird hunting with dogs.

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Filed under Talegate

Direction

Compasses are fascinating things, with much to teach for being an inanimate object. I’m speaking of course, of an analog piece,  little changed for centuries, not the app on your phone.

There can be a number of things that affect the proper reading of a real compass, causing one to lose direction. Unlike your phone, a dead battery isn’t one of them.

compass

The Tru-Nord pin-on compass. Generally more reliable than I am.

Other things in your pocket may be interfering, pulling the needle from true. Take this as a sign that you may have too many things in your pockets, and that it might be time to simplify. Don’t let other things confuse your compass and cause you to lose direction. True direction is the highest priority.

It seems inevitable that cheap compasses develop bubbles over time. These too will affect the needle. Don’t trust your life, whether it be your ultimate safety or only your current direction, to cheap things. You’ll get exactly what you paid for.

Compasses are only useful when you can see them, and the less accessible they are, the less likely you are to use them. Keep your compass handy and refer to it often.

There is an old adage to the effect of, “if you keep checking your course regularly, it’s much harder to get lost than if you wait until you’re not sure where you are.”

Sage advice.

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Filed under Fodder, Keeping it Real, Reloading, Tools of the Trade