There are easier ways to spend a birthday than climbing one thousand vertical and post-holing. Better ways than spending what little air you have blowing it through a whistle. Climbing still, climbing always up into the deep snowline, breaking crust, crunching. The Douglas fir forest, snow-bound home of the West’s greatest native game bird. Sweat running down backbone, but cooling and freezing everywhere else. Frost in the beard, hard packed snow marbles in the dog’s feet. She stops every now and then to chew at those ice balls, but mostly she toughs it out. Feet starting to bleed. This is high enough, isn’t it? This ridge where blue grouse of past hunts have pitched wildly down and across in front of the gun and a big blue rooster, big as a polt turkey, gives you the most challenging shot of a lifetime of shotgunning. Down, away, dropping, swinging and dropping and when the trigger is found, the shot is long. On the edge of range. And yet big blue bird goes down and you do too, dropping, plunge-stepping like a mountaineer—because you are, shotgun instead of ice axe—down to where the rooster went in, calling the dog and there it is. The bird is in hand and feels as if it weighs ten pounds. Twenty when you gain the ridge again.
That was last year. This, no birds yet. But then you find the tracks. You slug water (getting low), check the dog’s feet (bleeding but a long way from the heart). Check your supplies (dwindling), check the elevation gain (one thousand fifty), check the shotgun (still loaded), check the watch (advancing rapidly) and check your ambition (see the tracks? yeah, that’s a good sign, gotta be a big one up ahead).
There are better ways to spend another year, spend the marking of a new one. Maybe. The tracks lead up. Up you go.
She was running big, maybe just for the fun of it. She’d been cooped up, in recovery mode with only short jaunts for the last week. But now she was loose. The beeper turned on silent and miles ahead. The setter sees that as permission to stretch and she was ranging way off to my right. There was no point worrying about bumping birds in country this big. No point worrying about covering it all or how to hunt it. Just pick a general direction and go at it.
She knew where I was, so I plotted my own course heading west toward the aspens on the edge of the foothills a mile or so ahead. It was the last few days of sharptail hunting, a warm October day that is Idaho’s finest hour.
I carried the 16ga broken over my shoulder, not planning on shooting unpointed birds and knowing my chances of walking them up in this sea of grass was thin anyway.
I watched the setter swing across in front of me, covering ground that she had missed in her northern swoop.
She stopped 100 yards ahead, pointing back at me. She was steady but relaxed, watching me with her eyes. I walked in, talking softly to her as I closed the gun.
“Good girl. Good point. Thanks for waiting for me.”
The world shrunk down to a white dog on point and the familiar weight of a shotgun in my hands. The sun shone from a blue sky onto an ocean of golden grass. Time ticked slowly, counting down to an eruption of feathers.
And then nothing. No bird. No covey of sharptail. Just grass. The setter unwound, but not into the mile eating lope. She moved left, carefully. Relocated 20 yards, then steadied again. This time not looking at me. Sure. Her nose and eyes locked on something invisible to me.
This time it was a quick. A step, a flush. A squawking dandy of a rooster got up and for a moment I hesitated. This was sharptail country. What was this swashbuckler doing way out here? I recovered and swung my gun, connecting. The rooster hit the ground running, but in this cover he was no match for even a poor retriever like the setter. A bird in the bag. We walked on, miles behind and miles ahead.
There was a time when the pinnacle of challenge was a wind-torn butte somewhere in the middle of a western desert and a bird that laughed in your face and ran off before your dog was in sniffing range. There was a time when trial was measured in heart rates and quick-twitch muscle screaming under vertical gain and loss. When the toughest upland experience imaginable was bounded by sagebrush and cliff face, cheat grass and wide open sky. When the gun came to the shoulder and carried three shells because those Afghan partridge always rose in spurts and left a double gun man empty while a late-riser came from his feet. This is how you measured things, wild chukar on public land and twenty thousand feet of vertical gain and loss in a day.
That bar is no more.
There is a place where alders and poplar and highbush cranberry and dogwood grow as thick as canine hair. Step into this tangle with aspirations and they will evaporate like a woodcock rising before a point into a blizzard of leaves. There are no mountains here, but there sure are a lot of gawd-damned logs. Logs slick with rain, traps for ankle sprains and shin-barks. Some spattered with the leavings of a drumming grouse, others splashed with paint from the arse of the strangest little game bird God ever created. Somewhere off in the distance—two hundred yards?—there’s the chime of a bell and then all is quiet. Distance is a trickster here, for the bell is on the neck of a dog that is really only forty yards away. Might as well be a mile. Slip and stagger in that direction while the devil himself slaps you repeatedly about the face with a willow switch. Where is the dog? She could be at your feet or she could be in the next county. So Beelzebub gives you a quick poke in the eye with a sharp stick and sends you in a general direction, both hands on the gun, anticipation in your heart. You have entered Lucifer’s woodlot. The dog, a big-country lady you had fretted may not adapt to close quarters, is on point. She has adapted. You needn’t have worried.
You, on the other hand, have not adjusted a thing except your rain-soaked crotch-pinching pants. Your fabled and treasured autoloader is a hindrance but a convenient excuse for poor shooting. You punch shots at shadows, kill trees, scare leaves from stem, misfire and fumble for shells dropped into a shag-carpet of impenetrable understory. Might as well shoot that gun straight up into the sky as fast as you can. It’s like swinging a baseball bat from inside a coffin. You touch not a single feather. The timberdoodles dip and dive a spastic sky-dance and when the gun is at your shoulder it feels as erratic as a paintbrush might in the hand of Jackson Pollock. Twice, three times, four, you have rock-solid points on ruffed grouse and they are gone as quickly as one might read a Hemingway sentence. There are no windows for swinging a shotgun, just a quick up and out and gone. The burst of seven-and-a-halfs takes an alder midsection and the devil slaps you smartly on the nose with his alder quirt. Ticks crawl everywhere. On your pant legs, on the dog’s head, up under what’s left of your hairline. Your feet have been wet for three hours and most of the forest—really just an outright swamp—is a boot-top deep puddle.
It’s raining again and you have no flipping idea where the truck is and you might, in fact, be bleeding.
Now in most parts of the uplands, is time. Time for moisture, but not snow. Rain, but not too much. Green grass coming. Birds pairing up. Just the right amount of everything now will mean just the right amount of birds in the sky. Pray for chick survival now and birds in hand later. Pray for life for tomorrow’s bag. Ironic.
“The wilderness will lead you
To the place where I will speak”
Come back to me, by Gregory Norbert
There is a beautiful piece in the NYT this weekend about Edgelands by Rob Cowen. It makes me think of the places I used to run my dogs in Abuquerque, or fly fishing in Houston, or mountain biking in San Antonio. We need wild places and it’s a good reminder that it doesn’t have to be Yellowstone to make a difference in someone’s life.
My dog often runs at the edge of my vision. Hell, my boys are often running at the edge of my vision and they don’t read that much better than the dog. Worse yet, in this particular case, it seems like even the cursory protection of a sign wasn’t given.
I’m not anti-trapping. I’m not even anti-predator control, though I believe it does little to help upland birds. I am anti-M44. I can see no good reason for setting such a dangerous and indiscriminate booby trap out for a child or dog or anything else to find.
Wanted: Dissatisfied with current relationship which for no apparent reason seems to have changed at the end of January. Previous trips to far away places have suddenly ended without notice. Walks with the gun have ceased. Riding in the pickup has halted. Long getaways are no more. I have to chase mice and songbirds and sleep on the couch with the cat for entertainment. I’m so bored. Yesterday, I shit on the floor just because. Jogging on a leash has taken the place of unfettered runs in open country. This is the winter of my discontent. Interested parties should send photo of shotgun and bird cover and operational plan for future hunts. Ask for Mabel. I can’t take six more months of this.
A point on the ragged edge of tenuous obedience
Two dozen birds, running
A jog, a flush, swinging through
A shot, a miss…
She’s running again, and big
There are birds and her blood is up
A speck on the horizon
getting larger, re-centering, maybe on me
Rocky sand, littered with cholla and creosote
scalie country defines inhospitable
prickly, hot, jagged and dry
she’s running west
birds headed north, running like tiny pheasants
I stay with them as she circles round
another point, this one false
Then another, real – but brief
Birds up, a shot and another
scaled quail in hand
Everyone and their bird dog has a blog or a space in print for product so-called reviews. So we here at MOF thought it might be useful to have one too, but not your average product review. You know that kind; a company hoping to sell a product to the masses contacts a fairly reputable writer and asks him or her to take their gear into the outdoors and give it a spin. Or conversely, a so-called writer looking for some free or sharply-discounted (think pro-deal) shit contacts a manufacturer and asks for the free or sharply-discounted shit for a “review” on their blog that gets read by one point five readers. The writer/recreator maybe takes the product out into the local city park or maybe it’s their back yard, and gives the product a spin. Or maybe doesn’t use it at all. Then they generate about fifty words on it—usually glowing to justify getting the free shit or the advertising dollar from the manufacturer—and the consumer is left to make a decision to buy or not buy. The fact is, product reviews are like where-to articles that send the masses by the hundreds into your favorite cover. Call it ethically shaky. Not shady. Shaky. Maybe the user really used it, maybe the product was taken into the backcountry and used hard, maybe it wasn’t.
You will never read a where-to piece on this blog. But a real product review? That seems like something an avid uplander could use. So, relying on about one hundred collective years of chasing and yelling at bird dogs after wild birds in cool places, we’ve found a few things we like almost as much as those dogs we run after. What will make Durable Goods different? For one, we purchased the gear at full retail price for the most part and in most cases way before MOF was a glimmer in our daddys’ eyes. If we got it free or discounted, we’ll let you know. These products are things we’ve used in the field, in real time, in real cases, for years. Not just a weekend. In the field, for years. This is the shit that works. That we like. That we’ve had for a long time. We weren’t bribed to write nice things. Durable Goods will be honest. Sometimes the words will be constructive (which is psycho-speak for critical) and sometimes the words will be complimentary. Maybe our products will have been made by a company that’s been dead for years. Maybe it will be a new company. But the reviews will be reviews, not hyperbolic gush for a free product, not the work of a writer looking to whore words for goods. No. These are Durable Goods. Enjoy.
Part I. Monte
Chukar did it to me. Those bastards. If you hunt chukar you will understand. Walk in on a point. Covey gets up. Empty your double gun and curse at the sky when a single or a pair gets up after the gun is empty. I gotta have another fuckin’ shot!
So. Monte. Benelli Montefeltro. I have been called many things for carrying an autoloader into the field. Low type. But, that third shot has been awful nice.
I installed a sling. If you’re a chukar hunter, you know why. Slings are nice on cliffs. Slings make nice belay devices. And I have three shots. That sometimes means I miss three times. That sometimes means I hit three times. That sometimes means I miss twice and hit a third late riser. That makes me happy.
It functions in all weather. It has been rained on, snowed on, frozen, dipped into the mud. This gun I have is a 20 and it has killed chukar, huns, all kinds of grouse, pheasants, all kinds of quail, a few ducks and countless European doves and starlings when I have the bloodlust in the off-season. Almost all with an improved-cylinder choke.
Right out of the box it fit me and the bead was up and the bird was down. Yeah, I go through streaks, but the gun fits and it works 9 out of 10 times.
Here’s one thing. I’ve hit the carrier release a few times accidentally while in the field and partially injected a shell. The gun won’t fire when this happens. I’ve missed a fair number of birds when I haven’t noticed this has happened. Bird goes up, gun goes click. You can imagine the invective. But this is operator error if it’s anything. Wouldn’t have happened with a nice double gun, though.
Last fall, I borrowed a friend’s unbelievably beautiful L.C. for a spin. First two birds that went up, I stoned to hell. Next 10, I missed flat. I went back to Monte and missed two pointed roosters bang FUCK bang FUCK!! But I carried it the rest of the trip and killed everything else.
Don’t worry about the nicks and the dings and the sling. It’s a chukar gun. It does its and always will. I’ll save the double gun action for when I am feeling special.