Do you think she’ll remember this the next time she comes across a porcupine?
Of course not.
They are out there, even as we speak, going over the playbooks. Refining tactics. Brainstorming new evasive maneuvers. Reviewing the videos from last season. Running scrimmage.
But that’s ok. We’ve been doing the same.
The one thing you can count on is that the bastards won’t be the least bit sportsmanlike.
Some prefer to hunt in groups, walking abreast in a regimented grid pattern, throwing enough collective lead on a single flush that no one knows who actually connected. Not to mention that what would have been edible is now likely sluiced. I guess it’s a social thing. And that approach certainly works, but frankly, I think I’d rather drink light beer and slam my dick in a door.
Give me tangled, twisted bottom lands and a fast-moving pointer who can 180˚ on a dime. A dog who amazes me, just often enough, at his ability to beat them at their own wily game. Just the two of us, scrapping it out through dank ditches and walls of willow and boot-sucking mud, hitting the margins and forgotten corners, far from the crowds. Emerging with tails sticking out of the game bag, covered in the mire and vegetation of their little jungle and looking like extras on the set of Apocalypse Now.
First, a disclaimer: I’m fully aware that whitewing doves aren’t considered “upland” in the classic sense. But here in our state of Hellfire Apocalypse Formerly Known as Texas, I am forced to write about them because it’s 112 degrees and quail are now extinct and ditch parrots may be too, but I haven’t looked.
So here’s how it goes.
Twenty years ago, we had to drive way south to hunt whitewings. There were huntable numbers in the Rio Grande Valley, but the proper flyways were in Mexico. In those days there were lodges in Tamaulipas staffed by wonderfully accommodating folks who would fetch your birds and hand you margaritas and nachos when your barrel became too hot to touch.
In December of 1983, an Arctic blast descended upon the Rio Grande Valley and wiped out massive groves of citrus trees that were favored nesting habitat for whitewings. Everyone assumed that would be the end of the Texas population, but instead of moving south to join their Mexico brethren, they began trickling north. They first showed up in San Antonio around 1990. They liked the massive liveoaks for nesting, the adjacent grain fields, and the abundance of backyard bird feeders. By 1995 they were in Austin, in 2000 they arrived in Dallas. And now they’re everywhere. In San Antonio, alone, the population is now 50 times as big as it ever was down in the Valley.
They adapted, and so did we.
Nowadays, instead of sitting on a tank dam and waiting for a trickle of mourning doves, we gather around large fields adjacent to urban whitewing concentrations and wait for the daily assault. The first waves normally leave the towns around 7:30 am. They fly high and cautious and if you’re good with a full choke, they make a really neat “thud” when they auger in from the stratosphere. If you’re lucky enough to be in the field in which they want to feed, they come in undulating waves, juking and dive-bombing at eye level and making fools of those that forgot to switch from full to improved. While the bag limits aren’t as liberal as they once were in Mexico, it’s still a lot of fun, especially when your dog that once pointed quail discovers that shagging birds in a manicured farmfield ain’t as lame as it sounds.
And what happened to the once fertile whitewing grounds in Mexico? I’m guessing that the birds are still there, but the lodges are now shuttered and the blenders are idle and those once accommodating locals will now shoot you in the face for no plausible reason.
It was a romantic dinner. Candlelight. A fire crackling in the woodstove, splashing orange shadows on the walls of the old ranch house. A decent Malbec. Some tunes.
And chukar. Sauteed in olive oil with an excellent mild curry paste added on low-simmer. Red peppers, cloves of garlic, slivers of sweet onion. Served on a bed of rice. Delicious white, wild meat, spiced just right. A most successful evening.
A week later, my old die-hard bachelor habits resurface. I dig in the refrigerator, find the remnants of that spectacular meal. I’d sent half home with my lady and she prudently ate it the very next day for lunch. My half I forgot about and now, like a treasure discovered at a garage sale, it resurfaces. Eureka! I’m not shoveling in microwave popcorn after all.
When was that meal anyway? I wonder, asking my canine friends. They don’t remember. Surely this has still got to be good, right? They agree. Offer to eat it for me.
Without female wisdom this night to guide me, I dive in.
I can put it on a tort! Melt some cheese! Dab a little Indian hot relish to top it off!
And so I do. And it turns out well. Nearly as delicious as the first time, with only the lovely company lacking.
Two hours later, a rumble. Hark! What was that? Distant thunder. A crack of gastric lightning! Silence rent with a sound much like a stepped-on frog. From under. Fumunder. What?! I’m tore up. Battered in a bile hailstorm!
I sprint from bedroom to bath and fling porcelain out of my way. An explosion! Then silence. A thunderclap!! Another! What?!
Two hours later, I shiver and sweat in bed, timidly sipping water, awaiting the next distant rumble and thinking: Goddamndable chukar partridge. Even in the off-season, they win. Little bastards.
Seeing as it’s winter, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Apparently surprises the shit out of a lot of people though.
They are so surprised that many of them forget how to drive, or how to dress, or even how to take it in stride.
They forget how to talk about anything else. Don’t they know there are two weeks left in the quail hunting season? Or that ice on the river concentrates the ducks?
When you live in the Rockies above 5,000 ft, you have to know that’s it’s going to get cold sometimes.
The thing is, so many people never do more than brave the cold between their car and the front door of their office.
It makes them soft.
Unless they’re hunters that is.
If you have pounded through the snow clenching a 7lb chunk of frozen steel in your hands while following a deliriously happy dog, then what’s a little cold weather?
If you have felt your truck do the diagonal slide, where you look a bit like a crooked-gaited hound dog going down the road and asked your buddy, “We have a shovel, right?” Then what’s a little snow on the roads?
If you have knocked the ice off of your fly-rod guides so you could get an extra couple of feet on your cast, or sat shaking in the frigid predawn dark listening to elk, or taken off your gloves to cut the ice balls out of your dog’s toes, then what’s a single digit temperature mean to you?
It’s what happens in the mountains.
The road there sings anticipation. Dogs grumble from the shell, butts and junk sniffed, dominance decided but as tentative and thin as September ice. In the cab, laughs and Dew and miles to go. This year a new place relayed by another with “don’t tell any-damn-one caution,” a place of memories yet made and you push it, this road. It stands in your way, between you and the reason, between the dogs and the birds, in the way of the canvas that awaits your paint and your brush. So you grasp steering wheel, cradle caffeinated drink in your crotch and shovel mini mart popcorn. At the end of the road, you will work it off on canyon rim and shale.
Once in a while you find a safe and lone ranch road–”no service”–and you pull down it and stand spraddle-legged and piss on cracked gumbo and tumble-weed scrap and let the pack out to piss on each other and sniff ass and walk stiff-legged around the stranger and grouch at him. Goddamnitttttttt, c’mon, Ike. Sonafabitch. And back onto the road, slab concrete beating radial in three-quarter time. When finally you hit dirt, ten hours of truck seat imprinted on your butt, BLM map folded out in your lap, camp circled in pencil, ridges marked with “CKR,” you crack the first beer and crescendo down gravel-clay. The dogs up on all four, nose to the crack-wind coming through. Wagging, whining. The blank sheet awaits your notes, maestro.
A week later the road home. Carrying one hundred pounds of Nevada gumbo in the undercarriage. One spare flat. Rock break. Cab stale cigar and jounced beer. Feet hot and damp in two-day socks. Legs tired and complaining of the hop from gas pump to steering wheel. Dogs flat and dead out, not moving for ten hours and then only to stiff-sore piss and back to bed. No whine no grumble. Founder on Winnemucca Basque, sleep in Motel Six between pipeline workers grilling Sunday dinner on homemade grills in pickup beds. Up at 3 into a gray dawn as overcast as your mood. Heading out, heading home and the road slapping on rubber . It went too quickly, this road, and a year is a long time.