Let’s Go.

First frost in the valley, patches of golden aspen beginning to pop on the hillsides, the occasional mountain maple, as if overnight, lit up like those neon Rolling Stones lips, blowing seductive, semi-obscene kisses your way through the living room window.

This is no tme for staring at a laptop.

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A couple handfuls of purple shells.

A stout, trusty pump gun with an action scarcely changed in a century (thank you, John Moses Browning). A straight stock and a forend of scratched, pedestrian-grade walnut.

The old, simple canvas vest seems right for this, not the fancy, feature-laden modular one. As if it’s a choice.

Briefly wonder what choke is in the gun, but then figure that it really isn’t that important – whatever choke you left in it at the end of last season is probably just fine. There’s a danger in over-thinking this.

Jeans and Red Wings and a wool shirt.

A shorthair beside himself at the emergence of a long gun case from the closet.

Let’s go.

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Filed under Blues, Keeping it Real, Tools of the Trade

New Country

Digital topo maps. GPS. Phone apps. Google Earth…

The list goes on. The number of tools at our disposal for scouting new country, without actually going there, has never been greater.  And I plead guilty to using all of them, though it would be dishonest to add “with no regrets.”

It wasn’t that long ago that in order to know what was on the other side of the ridgeline, or what that remote valley held, you had to put boots on the ground, your ass in gear, the necessary gear on your back, and go there.

Now, if I choose to, I can already have a very good idea of what those places contain before I get there. In fact, “getting there” can easily just become an exercise in confirming what a ton information from the comfort of my sofa has already told me. The biggest remaining variable, in these cases, is simply – “will there be birds there?”  Which, thankfully, no technology I currently know of can really tell me. I can only hope there will never be a substitute for the hard-earned answer to this question.

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I’m no Luddite, and I know that these tools have their useful place. But my fear is that as with so many things, for every convenience we adopt, something is also lost. That the rush and the intense sensory imprints of true, first-time discovery in new country are becoming watered-down in the process, pre-downloaded as we are with so much pre-trip info. That our desire for as much pre-existing knowledge as possible before going anywhere might just be kicking the legs out from under what used to be the joy, and occasional uncomfortability, of exploration. Can we still allow ourselves to be surprised by what’s around the bend?

And so, this season I’m deliberately choosing to ration my technological temptations, and preserve a little more of the mystery of new country. I want to know my location because I’ve been taking it all in, with all of my senses, every step of the way, not because I’m continually staring at a blue dot on a digital map. I want to remember what it is like to discover what might be on the other side of the mountain when I first see it with my own two eyes and not before, led on by virgin curiosity. Or, at least by the more likely scenario – wondering where the fuck my dog went.

I suppose I could get a GPS tracker linked to a harness-mounted GoPro for him and never have to wonder again…

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by | September 8, 2014 · 6:00 am

The Possible

Right now, it is basics. Come. Down. Mabel. Fetch. More fetch.

Never too much fetch with a setter. 

I think I can see it burning there. But then she doesn’t listen, turns the other way, does not even raise her head from a pile of fresh horseshit when I double-tap the whistle. Could she possibly be deaf? No, here she comes running like a bat of out hell right into my shins. 

So we play fetch and play-fetch. Dabble around the water. Follow the older dogs into the field. Kennel up. Remove socks and sandals and shoes from the clamp of needle-tooth. Play fetch some more. A routine of walking. Kennel time. Leash time. Fetch. More fetch. Crate. Meet other dogs. Puppies. Children. Picnics. People. Socialize. And play fetch some more.

There’s a new bird dog in the making and a new season out in front of her nose. Welcome to my world, Mabel. 

—TR

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Filed under Talegate

The chukar hunter’s refrigerator

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by | April 24, 2014 · 10:05 pm

The gift of an ending

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.

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Filed under Talegate

Possibility

Click.
The truck door closes and cold, crisp sage hits the nose.

Zip.
The shotgun slides out of its case, warm and familiar.

Kathunk.
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.

Crunch.
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?

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

No poetry

Last hunt

Last hunt

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.

—Tom Reed

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Filed under Reloading, Talegate

Waiting

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.

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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.

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Filed under Ditch Parrots, Good Eats, Talegate

The Book

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.

Cover art by Bob White.

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.

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Filed under Recommended Reads, Reloading, Road Tales, Surviving the off season, Talegate, True stories, Upland Hunting

Rethinking the Relationship

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.

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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.

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Filed under Dogs, Open country, Sharpies, Talegate, Upland Hunting