A chile relleno is a Big Jim pepper stuffed with asadero cheese, battered and fried. Full stop.
Sometimes, in places that are not New Mexico, a waiter will put a plate in front of you. You will look down and see what appears to be an omelet, wrapped around an anaheim or pasilla or poblano pepper with a little cheese thrown on top.
You may ask, “What is this?”
If the response is, “A chile relleno,” then you have encountered a liar and you have great cause for sadness.
Okay, we got California and Nevada and Utah and most of Arizona and New Mexico all in that deal with Mexico back in 1848. I get that. Pretty good stuff.
Jim Thomas, author of Negotiate to Win says Americans are the worst negotiators in the world and when you look south from Mearns quail country, you get the feeling he is pretty right about that. President Polk’s armies had Mexico City in 1848. They had a lot of good quail country. And then they gave it all back. Couldn’t we at least have kept Sonora and Chihuahua? No need to build a wall, let’s just move the border. It’s narrower down there anyway. Annex that shit. Think of the Coues deer and the Mearns quail awaiting us!
It is about people and the land. People and how they manage the land. People who were here and then left. People who were here and died. People who are here now.
This is the pheasant hunt.
Up on the chukar cliff, time goes by and human touch is lighter. Same for the blue grouse ridges, the Hun hills, the ruffed covers of the West, the quail arroyos. Here, bird abundance is not always tied to human influence. It is tied to rains and snows, sun. Not so the pheasant fields.
I cannot walk here, into the teeth of this northern wind–a wind bringing Canada straight down to Kansas–without thinking about covers and pheasants and people and the many places of the wild pheasant in a life measured by the lifespan of a half dozen good bird dogs.
My pheasants have burst from the rich soil and buffaloberry of a Montana valley disappearing steadily to the appetite of citizens wanting a slice of Big Sky, hitting that magical age of fifty-nine and a half, and coming into the country with an AWD, a golf habit, and a pension plan. That soil, that buffaloberry and those roosters went to the pavement during the last boom.
My pheasants have run ahead of a fast-moving expert bird dog on a wind-lashed Wyoming morning, running faster than any bird dog alive, scurried between patches of greasewood and saltbrush, ducking and sneaking like a house cat in mouse pursuit, then bursting to wing. Beyond, even, rifle range. Out here, out in this wind-blown far-away, the nearest crop for the crop is a Russian olive pit. Coyotes, not bird dogs, are the common predator and alfalfa is turned into beefsteak. Row crops are found two hundred miles east, but here lives a savage, colorful, cackling son-of-a-bitch in track shoes. One-a-day is a good day.
My pheasants have flown before the guns on a genuine South Dakota Million Man March, the kind of hunt that puts a dozen ball-cap crowned faces in front of your shotgun muzzle on the other side of the field. You start walking toward each other, carrying a weapon. Wondering just what the hell you are doing here with your gun pointed skyward, praying that the guy you just met on the other side of the field directly opposite is a good gun handler who does not shoot low birds and that the plastic in your sunglasses can stop a pellet. And wondering again why you aren’t out alone with your setters in some other field instead of this gang-slog through millet planted specifically for this moment. That evening, with a pheasant burger in your belly and a limit that you did not shoot in the cooler and the whole house roaring with the laughter of old friends and new, you understand. This day was not about the hunt, it was about now, this moment.
My pheasants have come from the CRP of a tenant farmer out south of Ogallala whom you woke from a nap in the middle of the day on a Tuesday when you knocked on the door of the single-wide, stepping over the carcass of a month-dead kitten on a plywood porch sogged and sagged by many Nebraska winters. More cautious souls would have told you to move on, fretted about meth labs and trigger-itch, but you wended your way through junk piles and slinking hair-on-end farm curs because that cover out there looks too damned good to pass up and three cockbirds flew off the borrow ditch when you turned the pickup down County 26A.
And my pheasants have come from the beautiful well-kept old farm down near the Kansas line where row after row of cedars broke the constancy of the west wind coming from the far-off Colorado mountains. A farm that you visited on a bitter November day with ice in the air, ice on the stems of brome out in the CRP across from the corn, and ice in your beard. When you stepped over the Welcome mat and knocked on the door, he came to the screen bent by seven or more decades of this land and said If you guys are crazy enough to be out in this weather, just go right ahead and thanks for asking. Three roosters went into the bag in thirty minutes that day because ice on the grass on a bitter west wind is the great equalizer for a running feral bastard with no boundaries and no order of the day other than running and flying. The next year, the old fella was gone and unwelcome signs were on every corner. Nursing home? Grave? It made you sad just thinking about change.
These are the vignettes, the playback of cover and cockbird and human and there are seemingly thousands of them, scattered and random as spring snowstorm. A hunt in far northeastern Montana on a morning so cold that the lobes of your hunting buddy’s ears, bare skin sticking out beneath wool cap, freeze and frost bite. The roosters hold tight this day and blow out of snow drifts and rose bramble, birds reluctant to take wing in minus twenty-something. Which reminds you of a college Colorado hunt out east of Flagler during a hard deep blizzard and roosters at road edge for the bloodlust of a teenager’s trigger finger. Cottontails and roosters in the daytime and hard-drinking some gawd-awful flavored liqueur at a lonesome farm house filled with your local pal’s high school friends eager for tales of Arizona college shenanigans.
And finally my pheasants have come from the Gion farm out past the North Dakota diner named the Corner Club on the highway’s only curve on seventy miles of straight-away. Thirty years ago you stepped onto that ground with a good friend and his new Gordon and you and your new English and all there was to do was drink Johnnie Walker when the wind rocked your camper and get out every day and watch the roosters fly to the sky off the bends of the Cannonball. Walk against the hangover and into the wind, walk on a sour morning stomach empty of everything but camp coffee and old Scotch because it is morning and you are young and so is your bird dog and neither has the corner on enthusiasm. Breakfast can wait for mid-day. One morning your bird dog, all eight months of him and trailing thirty feet of check cord, pins a wild rooster against a fence and when the bird goes up you center the hell out of him and down he goes and the dog is on him and back to you with that rooster stone-dead and all you can do is shout for joy because Hank just became a bird dog. And your life-long mentor with his 1950s Superposed folded over his arm and a smile on his face is there to witness the coming of age.
So you march north in this Kansas cum-Canada windchill, contemplating this pheasant hunting life’s vicissitudes. People and the land. A life measured by covers and roosters and the occasional hen, by diners with good burgers and terrible coffee, by good kind people opening up thousands of acres to strangers with guns, by canine joy. And that of your own.
One morning while bobbing out on the lake in his johnboat with his buddy, Art, Hillbilly Jim turns to his pal and opines that the most amazing of all of mankind’s great inventions is the Thermos. Art, driven by a skeptic’s heart replies, “Huh?” To which Hillbilly Jim pulls up practical proof: “Keeps things cool in the summer. Hot in winter.” Says Art the cynical: “Huh?” Answers Hillbilly Jim: “How do it know?”
2018 was not the year to get a new pup, but hindsight is like that, attempting the impossibility of governing past actions with sentences peppered by “should-haves” and “wish-I-woulda-knowns.” My mother called this practice being “should-on” and for a woman who barely said damn, that was pretty close to about as blue as her air was going to turn.
A new son, work, and a fistful of family and friend health crises left the new pup with a lot of crate time, a few vigorous runs up on the bench perhaps once a week or maybe even less, an anxious and excited leash walk out to the road to get the newspaper a time or two, and that was about it. By eight months, she barely knew her name, didn’t come when whistled, chewed the living hell out of everything from electrical cords to irrigation hose, and had neither seen nor smelled a wild bird other than an occasional sparrow. She rarely messed in the house, but that was more of a function of crate and kennel time than any talent at bird dog training.
So October came and a hunt was squeezed into a weekend, but this hunt had to be in cell phone range and attentions were diverted to electronic devils instead of being on the horizon following canine breeze-ward. There was wild bird scent out there, Huns and sharptails and feral bastard roosters and the pup tore out into that landscape as if cattle-prodded. Up and over hillside, leaping across coulee and ditch bank, drinking the wind and giving those young muscles full release. Coveys were run over and chased. Roosters blew out of buffaloberry hundreds of yards out. Hens careened madly from tall grass. Sharptails? Sharptails were out and up chuka-chuka-chuka-ing for the county line before paw hit ground. There were no points. It was fruitless to yell or blow a whistle or hold a button down.
Go wild, young pup, run like hell, this is my fault, not yours. You do not know because I have not helped you know.
So run she did. There were a few more half-day trips, more just whistle-walks, getting her used to her two-syllable name: Ed-na. Double-tapping the whistle to come back at the same time as calling her. Bonding mostly.
When time is pinched, it is easy to pick a four-year-old veteran dog from the pack and put her on the ground because you want to put a bird in the bag and then in the pot. Harder is holding back on that urge, to let a teenager charge across the field even though you are not going to be treated to professional performances. Somewhere in that pinch of October going into November, there was just enough of teenager gusto combined with overseer control to turn the pup into something a little more restrained. An afternoon in Idaho when she ran off over a horizon of tall grass on a warm day and could not find us for several hours put the fear into her and me. There were a few more whistle blasts, even some check-cording.
So we worked like this for weeks, just the light control of things, no expectations other than knowing a two-beat old lady’s name as her own, and me as alpha and feeder. That was enough. Edna was growing on me and I think I was growing on her. There were smiles.
Nevada, up on a piece of slide rock, up in a canyon of buckskin grass as tall as a man’s hipbone, treading on a landscape that once was a river of lava that had dried out, hardened and broken into millions of shards long ago. The first covey got trampled with gusto. There was no cursing, for it was my fault, this unchecked eagerness, this loose-cannon go-go-go. There was a little whistle blasting until after one more tearing-ass-loop-around-the-place-of-the-covey-rise-for-the-100th-time, she came in panting wildly and reluctantly. Tongue dragging the sagebrush.
Okay, now, girl, let’s go find another covey.
And we did. Up over the rise, through the shards and sage, following the rim of the world where it dropped off into a cliff-edged canyon. A breeze at our right flank cliff-side and the pup charging off into it. Drinking. I let her. Then it appeared, as if plucked from sky and horizon.
She stopped. Tail out straight.
That looks like a point. Is she pointing?
Movement, creeping. Then stopping again. Birds out. Fifty yards out from the tip of that quivering nose.
Good girl!!! Good girl!!!
More wild tearing through the sage sea but that’s okay. A point. Two points. Self-relocating. But she did it.
Crate and kennel and occasional leash time. A neglected bird dog pup on the front end of what I hope she will see as a wonderful life. There has been little human attempt to make a bird dog, help find a bird dog. But a pup digging down into DNA and instinct, down to the great-great-great ancestor who whiffed the scent of red grouse on the damp island wind and crouched into it. Somehow a point is born. She’s going to make a bird dog. No fault of my own. All Edna.
The gun, a loaner, was new to me. That’s the excuse, anyway, for not dropping the bird right there, folding it up deader than hell. It flushed from 20 yards away and flew crossing left to right in front of me. But I clipped it.
I did hit it hard enough that I took the gun down and held it at my hips and watched the bird fly. Incredulous is a word that should always be accompanied by a look: Open-mouthed. The way you do when you can’t believe what you’re seeing, like passing a bad wreck on the interstate and looky-looing your ass off even though you tell yourself you shouldn’t.
So I stood there mouth-breathing and keeping an eye on that clipped bird, waiting for it to fall out of the sky. Even though another bird flushed from the same spot and flew even closer to the muzzle of the gun. I refused to look at that second bird, so sure was I that the first was going down.
But the damned bird kept going. And going. Then it sailed, took a few more flaps, sailed some more. Then it flew straight up into the sky as if it had spotted a hole in the heavens and was heading toward the harp music. And it died. Fell straight down. Down being the operative word.
Three hundred feet below and hundreds of yards out, out of sight into a ravine in the sagebrush. Damn again. When you have spent almost all of your energy climbing up a chukar hill, down is the last direction you want to head unless the day has been long and hard and down is a good thing and down means beer and kettle chips and a warm pickup. When you are up there, determined to dispense justice on a chukar population, dropping down, even one foot, is painful. But I marked the last seen sight of the dead chukar dropping out of the sky like detritus from an airliner—right in line with that big green rabbitbrush—called the dog off the rest of the covey she was working, and headed to find it.
We did. Maybe fifteen minutes later, stone dead and right in line with the big green rabbitbrush, deep in the ravine. Took it from the dog, pocketed it, and started back up the slope. Again. Elevation gained, elevation lost. Two steps forward, one step back.
Someone once told me that birds that towered after being shot, and then died stone dead while they were high in the sky, were heart-shot. So, that’s what we’re calling it here. I know nothing of the forensics of it, but I do know that those towering, dying birds are pretty damned memorable.
There was another cliff in another Nevada years ago. The dog was Sage, another brilliant female with talent and drive. We were lucky to camp right in the thick of the habitat, with chukar laughing us to shame at our campfire of an evening. One afternoon, I worked back toward camp, and took a swing at a wild flushing bird, clipping it in a snap shot. It towered, then fell out of sight hundreds of feet below, but damned close to camp. I took the setter down there and looked for that bird until dark and never found it. The campfire was calling.
The next morning as I was on my morning shovel stroll, I walked about two hundred yards from camp, the dogs following me off into the sagebrush doing their own thing. Then here came Sage carrying a frozen dead chukar. That chukar.
There is another one that sticks too, just for the sheer height of the nosedive. We worked the very top of a cliff that was perhaps two hundred feet sheer, the kind of pucker-cliff that makes you nervous just walking near it, but there were birds there and if they flushed one way, they were totally accessible because a flat bench peeled out to the right for miles. Shoot the left to right birds and you were in tall cotton. Don’t shoot the right to left ones.
Self-control is difficult with the red-legged devils. Some of the finest wing-shots I know have confessed ground-sluicing a covey of running chukar. Not shooting at chukar, even an out-of-range one, is one of the hardest things on the planet to do, particularly if the climb has been hard and the quarry elusive. On this particular cliff, the way I remember it anyway, is that I shot a left to right bird and not a right to left one, but that may not be the case. I do know that the bird took a punch from a fist of 6s and kept on going, veering almost ninety degrees and flying out over 300 feet of cliff and maybe another seven hundred feet of damn near cliff above the valley floor. One thousand feet. I watched the bird get smaller and smaller and smaller until I could barely see it and then all of a sudden, it flew up, straight up, and died. Plummeting. One thousand feet, perhaps. Perhaps even more. I lost sight of it out over the valley floor. Then I looked inside of myself. I could climb all the way down that hill, drop all of that hard-earned elevation, and maybe find the bird. It was mid-morning and a day lay out ahead of us.
Fuck it, said I. I’ll find it on the way back to the truck.
I never did. Hours later, we swept back and forth across the valley floor looking for that bird as the shadows of a gone-away sun brought winter back to the landscape. Finally, with the sagebrush blackening against the night, we gave up and trudged toward the pickup.
Maybe a coyote got it, girl, I said.
It’s a rooster pheasant, though that made for the most memorable heart-shot. We were hunting a tree row just west of a big, beautiful farmstead in eastern Montana when the dog went on point in a clump of Russian olives. The cover was between me and the dog and when the rooster went up it went the dog’s direction, putting the tree between the muzzle and its tail feathers, but I took the shot anyway and hit it hard. It kept going.
This farmstead was a showplace. Matching buildings, matching roofs, well-trimmed shrubs, tightly mowed shelterbelts. The kind of place that made you admirable and envious in the same wave of thought. And a family place too, with homes for the offspring and maybe the old pensioner scattered about. Neatly parked machinery, most of it under cover. Prosperous. Made you think that the owner and his minions spent the entirety of the day working on one thing or another and when there was a spare moment, they got out a paintbrush. They were generous too, sharing their prosperity with us fortunate hunters from the other side of the state.
Meanwhile, this hard-hit-but-still-flying-Chinese-ditch-parrot was still hard hit and still flying. Right toward that vigorous and well-kept farmstead. And now right over that farmstead. And now towering, right up to the sky, and then the lights went out, and the big old cock bird just swapped ends and fell straight down, trailing a 30-inch tail a-fluttering like an advertising banner behind a football stadium bi-plane. Out of sight.
I had no choice but to call the dog to my side and start a long trudge, perhaps a half mile, toward our host’s spick-and-span home. So I did, fully expecting to see the rooster lying dead in the driveway—which was paved—or the lawn—which, were a human head, would have just come from the best barbershop in the city.
It’s an odd thing to tell your dog to hunt dead in someone’s driveway, but I did and she tore off all around the place, looking behind perfectly trimmed pfitzers and under sculpted lilacs. No rooster.
Damn it, I know that S.O.B. died.
We looked everywhere. Behind perfectly parked stock trucks. Under a combine. Next to the John Deere. Next to the corrals. By the milking shed. Under a swather. No rooster, anywhere, and all the while telling myself it had to be stone dead somewhere.
Then I looked up. There, on the roof of one of those beautiful houses, just a foot or so from a dormer window, was the rooster. Our rooster. I looked at Sage.
There he is, I said. How to get it?
That morning, I had stopped at the main house when I had asked for permission, so that’s where I went. It was midday now and I was hopeful someone was home but not optimistic.
Turns out the farmers of that stead didn’t just paint or fix or farm or maintain. In the offseason, they played cards in the middle of the day. About ten of them were sitting around drinking coffee, dealing, shuffling, bluffing and blustering, having a good time when this hunter showed up at their door with an odd request.
“Hey, do you have a ladder by chance?” I said.
“A what?” said Farmer One.
“A ladder. I shot a rooster in that tree row about a half mile west and the damned thing flew over here and died on the roof of that house right there,” I said.
Chairs scooted backwards and everyone went to the window.
“I’ll be damned,” said Farmer Two. “Never seen that before.”
One of the younger of the clan piped up: “I’ll get a ladder.”
So we went out into the yard and there, behind a shed, of course hanging neatly on pegs, was a good extension ladder. The farmer started climbing, never even offering another option.
“This is one hell of a full service operation,” I said.
“We are not that different you and I.” He caught me off guard with those words. The dogs slipped by the little male Hun without catching his wind and he stuck his head out of the rabbit brush and started his speech. Strutting and proud at 10 yards in front of me. I shouldered my old Fox, looked down the rib and then dropped it to my side in amazement as he continued. He was puffed up now, showing the big brown bar on his chest like a badge of courage. Head up straight and wings tucked back on his hips as he spoke. He tried the big authoritative boom of a Prairie Chicken but he couldn’t help the occasional squeak, like a worn-out washing machine as it spun.
“Don’t look at me like I don’t belong. Maybe my type is not native here but neither is yours. You just act the part because you have a double barrel and some smokeless powder. I am more like you than you care to admit My clan was bounced out of the old country too. We were forced into ship hulls and box cars and spit out in a strange land. Hell, come to find out this is a whole country of immigrants. Who knew? Them bombastic Chinese parrots that your kind loves so much and the red-legged middle easterners…they are all invaders. And then there is you. None of us are exactly Sharptails and Sage Grouse if you know what I mean.”
He was right I thought, Busse might not be Hungarian but it sure as hell is not Blackfeet or Sioux. I’d always felt a kinship with these little birds and now here I was being set straight by a particularly sharp-witted specimen.
He went on, “I’ve seen you out here day after day. You go back to that town when you are done but that place is not you. All of that civilizing has pushed you into the scablands too. I can see it in your eyes. You’re an outcast just like us.”
He was right, I loved the challenge of hunting huns in big country. Didn’t much care for parking lots and traffic lights. He must have been listening as I mumbled to myself in the hills. He went on, “These are the places we have left to live and we like it. Those city songbirds think us partridges are simple country fowl, but we like it out here on our own. They wouldn’t make it a second in this country. A sharp-shinned would gobble them up in a single bite. We eat better too. Seeds and bugs like it ought to be. Not that industrial birdfeed crap they eat. Yeh, this place steep, rocky and dry. But this is real livin’.”
I had always said that my dogs are smarter than a lot of people but now I was confronted with a bird who might have us all beat. He hopped up on a sage brush branch, snuggled down in a squat. His version of kicking back in a lazyboy. He was ready to give me a talkin’ to. I cracked open my gun and tossed it on my shoulder as he expounded.
“I been meaning to tell you. Ya might want to take a message back to all of them puffed up peacock-humans in the big fancy buildings back in your towns. We are getting a little tired of being squeezed around the edges out here. I mean, you guys take the flat spots, the river bottoms, the best grass and the any place that will grow a kernel of grain. We like it out here, but damn! You are going to have to stop the march of progress at some point. I mean we love rocks, but we are not going to make it if you just keep pushing us into the last pile of skree. If we go, then you’ll be stuck in that town morning noon and night. Might want to think about that.”
Before I could think about it I heard the dogs coming back into range. Since I first hunted these birds, I had developed a deep respect for their craftiness and style. They seemed to have an attitude. The lecture from this little guy was only confirming everything I already thought. Just then, Teddy swung downwind and locked up tight. I turned from him and in and instant the professor-Hun was in flight. Up to speed in a single flap just like they always do. I thought I caught him smirk at me as he rose. He zeroed in on the bill of my cap and knocked it off with his tail as he passed. Before I had my gun snapped shut he was out of range. Just before he dipped over the ridge he looked over his wing and chirped back at me. “Gotta be faster than that cupcake! Oh, thanks for spreading that cheatgrass. We love the stuff!”
“What do you know about pheasants?” That’s how it started. A challenge I lobbed at a guy in a bar. My target had folded his 6’5” frame onto a barstool at the local watering hole. From there he was pontificating about bird hunting. James had a particular way of speaking. Not quite southern drawl. More like a stern traveling preacher minus any hint of piety. Voice slow and booming. Occasional Canadian twinges mixed with colloquialisms of his own making. A style bordering precariously between off-color, authoritative and hilarious.
Here he was holding court to a couple of fellow beer drinkers about a recent pheasant trip. He held peanuts in one hand and beer in the other. Waving both around as if in a pulpit. Booming again, he let fly a beauty; “They were flying around like goddamned bees. Everywhere! We were shooting the hell out of things. The dogs were crazy as shithouse rats and the birds were piling up like cordwood”. Even above the hum in the bar it was like the guy had a megaphone. I did not know a soul in the place and had yet to make a friend in this new town. That left me to focus on a sermon about birds. Jim’s verse got my attention and I had nothing better to do. So, I butted in with my challenge not knowing what might come of it.
Standing now he wasted not a second and shot back, “Well, quite a bit and who the hell are you?”. He looked down his nose, eyebrow cocked. If I did not know better, I would swear I was at home plate with Randy Johnson on the mound staring me down as he took a sign. James bore a strong resemblance to the iconic Seattle pitcher and I felt like the Big Unit himself was about ready to throw hard and inside with a 98mph fastball.
I had grown up on a ranch. Pheasants galore. So, I was ready for the pitch with my retort, “You guys think you know what pheasant hunting is, well you ought to see where I grew up.” Smack. I hit it out of the park. That was all he needed. A hint of wild birds in big country. A few months later, James was strolling across the grasslands of our ranch in the biting cold. Never mind the 1200 miles or the uncertainty of an unknown place. He took me up on the challenge of “real” pheasant hunting. Just the sort of gamble I would have taken.
Our hunting styles were a match. I loved to cover miles and James was a born walker. Like a moose at a long distance he first seemed slow and gangly. But up close he moved across the bird country with stretched effortless strides. So long and flowing that almost no one could keep up. He’d swing and shoot and walk all in the same motion. He hunted with purpose. We could rack up impressive daily distance totals that others came to call death marches.
Our shared a passion for birds soon drove us to range over huge swaths of bird country together. In the ensuing decades we strode across untold acres from Montana to Kansas. Between hunting days finding small towns, dingy hotels and greasy spoons. We explored it all. Always on the lookout for a new territory to hunt.
During our hunts I came to know Jim as a master story teller and our adventures became parts of new tales. He picked out the interesting places and people then wove them in the loom of his mind. Spinning until the fine fabric poured out. I mostly just listened and then cajoled him to repeat. His stories would usually arrive at unexpected hilarious places. “Did I ever tell you about the time I took out an entire motel in a runaway grain truck?” Turns out he had done just that. Nearly killing the last person in the place which was thankfully almost empty due to the late morning timing. He too had barely made it out alive.
In classic Jim fashion a few years after the wreck he randomly met the survivor on the same barstool where he and I had first discussed pheasants. Of course, he started holding court and drinking beer with her too. They ended up laughing over another of Jim’s stories even though she was minus a few key internal organs from the accident. Like me, Jim was always focused on procuring more hunting spots. Even though he had almost killed the gal with a Peterbilt he did not fail to ask if she had any good hunting property.
Jim wove this and scores of other tales with the magnetic pull of the finest novels. He came to be in high demand by my friends and family. Inquiries about upcoming hunting trips from them now focused on whether Jim was coming along as if I was an afterthought. His attendance would make or break the trip. Random strangers he hunted with over the years still ask me about him today.
The truth is that James was the kind of guy who you just wanted to have along for the ride. At least partially because he prided himself on being silver tongued when it came to prying permission from even the prickliest ranchers. I have to admit he might be the best I have ever seen. After a hard “no” through the screen door he would begin a booming sermonette and find a way to remember a distant cousin that maybe went to school with a friend, or a last name that sounded about right and then he’d throw in a good story and a slight exaggeration. The door would open, and he was inside, drinking coffee and eating cookies. Drawing maps on paper towels. He’d swagger back to the truck with his wool hat tipped just so and then bellar out; “hope you got some goddamned ammo Busse, ‘cause we can hunt ‘er all!”. Off we would go, striding across another swath of prairie.
You could always depend on Jim to be true and authentic. He became a corner post in the wobbly fence of life. Something steady and predictable, always to be relied upon. Following birds was the catalyst for it all.
Over time things got busier and I traveled more. Life happened. We hunted together less. On one of my work trips Sara called me to explain that our beloved Shorthair with whom I had hunted nearly 16 years was on her last leg. Our vet advised we put her down that same day. I could not return for nearly a week and in tears on the phone I blubbered, “I’ll call James.” And of course, he dropped everything and was at Sara’s side within the hour as we lost a bird dog. A very hard day for any hunter. He cried in the waiting room just as I would have and thought nothing of doing it. By now It’s probably woven into another of his stories.
Nearly 25 years has passed since our first bullshitting session. We’ve walked a thousand miles together and apart. New dogs have come and gone. Birds have indeed been piled up like cordwood. Family has passed, and a son has been named in his honor. And yet despite the march of time it is as if nothing at all has changed. We are just a couple of bird hunting buddies looking for the next ridge to hunt and tale to weave. Kidding each other about missed shots and permissions gained. A friendship between men based on the most elementary components first brought together from a random encounter. All we have ever really done is follow our dogs and tell stories. Simple things that are enough for us.
In my part of the world, killing a limit of wild, pointed roosters can be done, but it’s tough. This isn’t Kansas or the Dakotas or even Montana. But, I had a week off to hunt birds. The last week of my local pheasant season. “I wonder if I could kill a limit of wild, pointed roosters every day for a week.” And like putting the hex on a no hitter, I ruined it. I called down the wrath of the bird-dog gods and they deemed me unworthy.
I started the veteran on Monday. We hit a small private land parcel that I bribe my way onto once a year with the best salsa I can make. I let her out, she went 200 yards and pointed. I walked in and killed my first bird of the day before 9 a.m.
That’s when I started to think about it. That it took until 3 p.m. before I found another bird should have clued me in to where I was headed, but I didn’t make the connection. After two bumped birds, the young setter made a solid point and I walked in and knocked down my second rooster. Late in the day, the veteran pointed a bird and I claimed three birds for the day.
That is when I said it. Talking to the dogs on the tailgate, reveling in a big day spent with my setters, I mentioned you know what.
Tuesday, I was in high spirits. This was prime time. I was hitting the best public-land spots I had on the map. I brought coffee and granola bars to keep me in calories and caffeine. It went poorly from the start. The veteran pointed a bird that flushed low and offered no shot as it sailed downhill for private lands.
Then, back at the truck, the veteran went on point in the ditch as I shrugged off my vest and cased my gun. I watched a pair of roosters and a hen flush across the road, flying towards the highway where they were nearly hit by a passing truck.
Miles went by. Miles and miles of no birds. Then finally – the veteran starting to get footsore – a point. Jog for the beeper. There she is. A ruckus. A flush. A bird up. A shot and we were back in the game. He was down and I looked for the dog. She was pointing again, only moved a dozen feet. I saw a tail sticking up from a dead bird on my right so I moved to the point. Another flush, another rooster. Another shot. Two birds in the bag.
I considered the games remaining on the schedule. Three days left in the week and plenty of daylight left for the young dog to get it done. “I’m going to need my starter,” I had the audacity to think. We headed for the truck and moved locations. I called the rookie’s number and I felt the light get thinner as the day aged. She went big and I started to hedge. “Maybe they don’t all need to be pointed,” I mused, before reminding myself that the 8-month old pup needed me shooting unpointed birds like I need another hobby. She bumped two hens, then a rooster. I restrained myself.
And then she got birdy, shortening her swings. I made a bee line for her and arrived just as she pointed. The bird must have been running and it was out there when it flushed, 30 yards at the jump maybe. But she pointed and all was going to plan. I swung and shot and watched it fall from the sky like destiny. And hit the ground running. And vanish.
The little dog and I searched. And searched and searched. An hour later we stumbled back to the truck in the dark, minus the rooster.
I shouldn’t have said it out loud. I shouldn’t even have thought it. But I’m going hunting tomorrow. I’m taking plenty of coffee and granola bars, and I’ll probably start the veteran.
On the first day, fell flat on the face and onto the shotgun. On the flat ground, which was a great irony after scrambling over shale and climbing caprock. Broke a big chip out of the butt where it meets the receiver, enough to make it unshootable. Fortunately there was a spare.
Road-flushed a covey, the only birds seen en route to burning 3,000 calories to shoot a bird the size of a Cornish game hen. (A smart-watch that tells how much vertical has been gained and lost and how many steps have been taken and calories have been burned on a chukar hunt is a blessing and a curse). Found the road covey up the mountain with the pup off somewhere over the rise, so shot one of them anyway. Out of anger more than anything. An excuse to pull the trigger on the loaner gun too.
Walked eight miles the next day and never saw a bird. Broke the truck that night. The driveline. Fortunately we had a spare truck, but we lost a day. Found some good cover on the way to the mechanic 100 miles away, a cliff near water, sagebrush, cheat, bitterbrush, lots of hiding and feeding cover, some green-up. Salvaged a couple of hours for a hike. Seven-hundred and fifty feet climbed. That damned smart-watch again. Never saw a bird.
Snowed that night and wood stove in the camper made for a damned fine experience, particularly the good company and fine bison steak grilled to perfection, but then sustained a camp injury by running a crucial muscle—the thigh—into the trailer hitch in the dark. Blame it on the lack of chukar or the abundance of bourbon. Thighs are important.
Found a good covey the next day but they flushed wild and uphill despite a veteran dog working them cautiously. Put them up and over a ridge and then found single after single. Missed a rising overhead shot off a point. Clipped one down and had a nice retrieve to hand which made up for all of the previous mishaps of the previous four days. Missed the next seven shots, mostly pointed birds and some wild-flushed. Shot at everything. A chukar hill is no place for self-imposed codes of conduct.
Left the best pair of shooting gloves I’d ever owned, made by my pals at Orvis, up on the hill when I cleaned that bird. Went back the next day to look for them and maybe that covey again. Never found the gloves, but found a wild-flushing covey of four that flew into the meanest cover on the planet, never to be seen again. Lost a pocket knife, out of the pocket. Stumbled back to the truck only to find we’d left the beer in the camper 20 miles of bad road away.
Ran out of booze and beer on the last night. At least something went right.
Tires breaking tracks in two-day old snow, up the mountain, beyond where the last guy stopped his rig on a high slope. Stopped to glass the benches and ridges, the dark timber, the aspen.
Cutting fresh up past the old homestead with its root cellar of stones, its feral lilac and rhubarb, past the old spring and up the other coulee to the cabin. Park. The dog pirouettes and tap dances. It has been too long for me and she does everything in dog time. Can’t imagine.
We move off through the timber, cutting a loop down through the aspens in the snow. Ready.
The dog gets birdy once in a stand of Doug fir in the middle of the aspen river and we bend to the snow and see the tracks of a grouse going his grousely way. Get ready some more. Ready to swing up and pop a shot in the thick woods. Telling ourselves to swing even if there’s a tree in the way. The dog sneaks, eager, tail frantic, points once, but the tail is moving.
She’s not sure. But get ready.
Nothing. The tracks disappear and we circle and do not pick them up again. Bastard is probably watching us from a tree. Oh, I’m sure.
More tracks. Moose. A bed. Then another. Maybe more than one. Down through the aspens and alder. Brambles. Another stand of fir and the dog birdy again and more tracks and we spend time there, but no birds. Back up the other side, the sunny side, the dog vaulting logs, running hard. Eating snow on the fly. Barely stopping for anything, the bell tinkling all the time. More tracks. That’s a cat! Yeah, you are right. Bigger than a bobcat. Young lion maybe? That’s what I think.
Those tracks peel off into the sagebrush flat, past the old homestead with its feral lilac and rhubarb. Following the track of the moose.
We head over the bench and down to the next coulee. I’ve always moved birds here.
A flash of gray in the trees, the other side of the dog who had just started working scent and had no chance. Spooky bastard.
Loop up past the flush point. Tracks. Lots of them among the skeletal stems of gooseberry and currant. Another bird out, this one out of a tree that is right at twelve o’clock. Hear the sound, don’t see the bird. I got him. Good, where? Right in those trees right ahead.
We stand there like fools looking at jet contrails. Open-mouthed. Peer through thick needle and branch. Even the dog is looking up, standing on back legs, paws on bark. Bastard is probably looking right at us. No doubt.
I think this is one that got away.
I could shake a tree, see if he comes out.
I don’t know which tree.
Okay, he wins.
Work back to the truck, over the ridge, down another coulee with willow and gooseberry. Remember a time when another dog in another canine lifetime flushed a beautiful brown phase ruffed right out of these willows on Christmas Day. The bird flew dead into the window of the cabin. Became part of Christmas dinner.
I’ve got another spot.
Good. I’ve got a couple more hours. I’m game.
Another old homestead with its rusted hope. Another loop. A point or two this time. Huns. But they fool us, circle back then flush out of range. Put two shots after them, but they are gone. Far gone and the time is up.