Sharpies and snow

The above is a short video I took last spring of a Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. This particular bird is taking in the scene after a morning of dancing on the lek. If you listen closely, you can hear a few optimistic males still dancing in the background. 

Snow is falling outside, putting a fresh six inches atop a weeks-old layer of deep, crusty snow. My little part of Idaho has been covered up for the better part of a month. It’s the kind of snow that knocks back our local populations of huns and chukar because it covers up the food and sometimes the roosting cover as well. There are a few steep and windblown slopes that are snow free and will keep some birds going, but there is deep snow on much of the best bird country.

It’s been long enough and cold enough that I even worry a bit about pheasants and sharp-tailed grouse, though those are much hardier birds. Last week, I saw a handful of grouse graveling on the side of the highway and I took it to be a bad sign. Still, sharpies can actually burrow under the snow for food and protection and they are native to some of the toughest places you can imagine. Their range straddles the northern plains from Wisconsin to Washington state and unlike pheasants, which share some of that range, they don’t need grain crops to get by.

Technically, it’s still hunting season in Idaho; you can hunt chukar and Hungarian partridge until the end of January. But many – myself included – will hang it up for the year and let the birds alone to survive the cold and snow.

Hopefully, I’ll get out of the snow and hunt a few more days before the end of the season, but part of me is already moving on to spring and fly fishing and the sound of sharpies drumming on the leks.

 

shot show

I’ve never been to Shot Show, but I do enjoy watching the industry news feed from Vegas. In particular, I love how excited everyone gets about “new” guns. I recognize that I am out of the mainstream here. My idea of an AR is my Winchester 1894 and I think ejectors on a double gun are over-rated.
In my mind, the last major innovation in guns was gas-operated autoloaders. Before that, there were some pretty significant firearm innovations. Recoil autoloaders, the over/under shotgun, breech-loading cartridges, smokeless powder; now those were inventions worthy of a week-long party in Vegas.
A new autoloading shotgun built on the same basic action designed 40 years ago with a new name and a camo stock? A bolt-action rifle that takes AR parts? Another rifle/shotgun/lawnmower maker producing a 1911? None of this strikes me as new or even interesting.
What I love about guns – double guns in particular – is that they are mature technology. I love seeing guns built before WWII that were the pinnacle of shotgun technology in 1930 – and knowing they still are the pinnacle of gun engineering.
So in honor of Shot Show, I’m going to post some ideas from days gone by that actually seem like cool gun innovations to me.
I’ll either put them here or on our MOF Instagram account (@mouthfuloffeathers in case you’re not following it yet) with the hashtag #shotshow1940. Feel free to make your own contributions.

Shooting poorly

There is no amount of shooting well than can make up for shooting badly over a sustained period. When your dog works her tail off for one or two points, it’s demoralizing to walk in and miss. Early this season I killed a dozen birds with only a single miss over three days, then proceeded to miss 6 out of my next 6 shots. Part of it is that I don’t shoot as much in the off season as I used to and practice helps. But for me it’s more than just a reduction in practice that has diminished my shooting consistency.

A few years back, I considered myself a pretty consistent and fair wingshot. Some of it was practice, some of it was shot selection, but mostly it was confidence. I remember the day that I started to shoot poorly. I was using a tightly choked, lightweight (tough combination) gun that I hadn’t shot much. It was shortly after I lost a 20ga O/U that had been my primary gun for years. The wind was blowing on a steep patch of sage-covered CRP above a cut grain field. I’d let my springer nose into the wind and she was really stretching her legs. She flushed a series of roosters, 7 to be exact. Each one of them would flush, turn with the wind, then rocket directly over my head.

I missed. Every single one. With both barrels. Later that day and in the following weeks, I missed some more. I piled bad shooting on on top of poor gun fit and too-tight chokes until I expected to miss.

I sold the offending gun and replaced the lost one, but the damage was done. Doubt had crept into my mind.

Last month, I hunted with my nephew. He’s 17 and the world is his oyster. We’ve hunted a few falls together and it’s been fun to watch him grow into a competent and confident woodsman. It wasn’t that long ago that I could walk away from him without trying but those days are gone. He’s at an age where he can hunt all day at an elevation he is not accustomed to and still leave me in the dust when a dog goes on point. He is also at the age where it does not cross his mind to miss.

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We hunted one day in the howling wind, following a line of cottonwoods up a narrow drainage. I could see the white setter pointing maybe 200 yards ahead in the grass about 20 yards out from the tree line. Before I even had time to yell, the rooster got nervous and jumped wild. He turned with the wind and bombed the hill using the trees as a course guide. He flew directly at us, right at treetop level maybe 60 feet in the air with a steep glide path and a 20-mph tailwind.

I never closed my gun or even lifted it from where it rested open across my shoulder, knowing from the moment it flushed that I wouldn’t hit it. My nephew, slightly to my right and downhill, fired an ounce of number 6 and knocked it from the air. It sailed 50 yards past him and hit the ground like a bowling ball dropped from a rooftop. Over the couple of days we hunted birds, I only saw him miss once. It never occurred to him that he could miss; so he didn’t.

For a long time, it never occurred to me to miss either. When I was shooting well, I never thought about lead or if I was swinging or pushing or pulling through or anything else. I just raised the gun and shot the bird.

Now there are days when I think about missing, and so I do.

Note from the southwest

I placed what I thought was a pretty normal order at the taqueria. Two chile rellanos, two soft chicken tacos, two fajita tacos, six bean-and-cheese tacos and one iced tea, to go.

The kid behind the counter looked up from his notepad and asked, “Is anyone else with you?”

I could have explained that I was hungry, had a long drive across four states ahead of me and knew it would be a while before I ran into an excellent taco again.

But earlier in the day, I’d found a cactus man in the desert. I’d seen some weird shit in New Mexico and I didn’t feel like I needed to explain myself.

So I handed over the cash and replied, “No.”

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I wonder if cactus man gets quizzed about his taco addiction?

 

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It’s a strange world when you wake up one morning and discover you’ve become an internet Meme and don’t even really know what that is. Tosh Brown took this photo of me and my old dog Sage on the Rocky Mountain Front a few years back. Sage is long gone, but still famous, I guess. This meme showed up on Facebook the other day and I can’t say I disagree with it.

The Ones We Leave Behind, Part II

No middle-aged man should scramble through the bramble on his hands and knees looking for a wayward wounded pheasant. It’s a mismatch.
Nothing runs like a pheasant. Nothing hides like a pheasant. The odds lie with the bird and briar.

Bleeding and cussing.
But then my little dog appears at my side as I slither through a tight runway in the chokecherry, roughly following the path of the departed runaway. She’s at my heels and there’s not enough room for her to pass. So I lie flat. No shit. The dog vaults, steps on my head, and passes over me in hot pursuit of a rooster I cannot see but she can smell.

Twenty yards ahead, I hear a mad scrambling and then the muffled, distinctive sound of a panting dog with her mouth full of bird. She has him and I shout praise and curses and claw my way out of the coulee. The setter emerges with the bird. Still alive.

img_1660I have to walk around to the head of the coulee and through the farmer’s cut corn to retrieve my gear and gun. Staunch the flow of a minor cut on the lip and one on the ear. Load the gun and walk on. Still bleeding.

We make birds again on the other side of the coulee, heading toward an old field that now is more weed than wheat, but the birds roost there when they aren’t running from a setter nose.

The third bird proves hardest of all. A point on the edge and the wrong side chosen by hunter and the right side chosen by rooster. A nice big tree between. No shot. Another point. Hen. Another point. Hen. We work to the edge of a large pond, where a blanket of snowberry meets the tules and I lose the dog. I know she’s on point. But as an advocate of the so-called silent hunt, I do not use beeper collars. So the dog is lost. For what seems like ten minutes. I stomp past a little tuft of cattail feather for the sixth or seventh time and then I realize that the weed in fact is just the barest tip of the bird dog’s tail sticking out of the sea of cover. Trembling ever so slightly. So I stomp into the brush, guessing at what should be four feet in front of her nose. This time a big rooster goes up and then down at my shot. Head up. Running. Damnit.

When last seen, he veered in the direction of the pond and the thick tules there. The dog goes into the forest of cattails and then freezes, pointing the cripple, I’m guessing, though I only have sound to guide me. Then moving again, fast. Scrambling and panting. Then stopping again, near the base of a Russian olive pond side. This is all determined by sound alone for I see nothing but tules. It’s machete country.

When I find the dog, she’s pointing downward. Into a badger hole. There’s a flank feather at the mouth of the hole. Not good. I unload the gun. Set aside. And start to dig.

We take turns digging. She, frantic, whining. Biting at the dirt and the roots of the olive. The hole is large enough for my arm. All the way to the shoulder. Too small for the dog, though. We widen the tunnel. Dig some more. Whine some more. Both of us. This goes on, a major excavation project, a dark tunnel to god-knows-where. The bird has gone to ground. And he’s gone.

The word trudge was designed for the long walk to the truck by a beaten pheasant hunter. The “grounded” pheasant gone. The “treed” pheasant in the bag next to the only clean kill of the day. En route, the setter had made one more point. This one in the middle of a field. No trees around for hundreds of yards. Rock solid and walk in. And a rooster takes to the sky. And I miss. Twice. Trudge.

A western hunter hunting the eastern edge of his state knows the thin air that is a full bag of wild pheasants. Two is enough, I implore. Back home, miles of prairie road behind me, I place the two roosters up on top of the stand-up freezer, letting them thaw after the deep freeze of a long drive. Tomorrow, I tell myself, I will clean them and think about wild birds on a wild land.

In the night, one of the house cats gets up on the freezer and eats one of the roosters.

 

The Ones We Leave Behind, Part I

Coulee country. Threads of ash, chokecherry, wild plum in a tan landscape. Like the work-dirty khakis of a giant tossed in a crumpled heap. A creased land. Thick with ring-necks, tucked tight in the rumple–cattails and scraggly Russian olive in the wet, bramble in the bottoms, snowberry up on the rims at the edge of old corn.

The first bird is in there, pinned. It is thick and when his nerve folds under canine nose, he goes out straight up against a bank of chokecherry, the little setter right on his tail. Skyward. Shouldered gun and he hits the ground dead as stone.dscn1181

The second bird is harder. A lot harder. Up a coulee too thick for passage except in a few open places where a path worn by the hooves of a million deer have kept the saplings in retreat. Hands and knees in some places, then crawling out to the relief of the edge where the cobs of the summer’s corn lie scattered. The dog disappears completely and I know she’s on point and then a rooster gets up. Right at the edge of range. Easy. Swing. Shoot. Miss. Catch up. Shoot. Miss. Fuck. Catch up. Shoot. Too far. Damnit.

And another. Straight away. Edge of range again. A plum thicket between muzzle and ringtail but I clip him. Drop a leg. Damnit. Shouldn’t have shot. Search in the general direction where he disappeared hundreds of yards away. Dragging that leg. Son of a bitch. It is a burning regret. Contrition perhaps not as sharp and haunting as doing the same to a good buck, dropping a front leg and tracking for miles, but still a wounded creature lost. Coyote food.

The second bird still eludes and we scramble across to the other side of the coulee we’re climbing. The apex of the circle I’ve vowed to hike since leaving the truck now a silver dot two miles in the rearview. Maybe I can pick up another bird here and then perhaps the last one on the far edge of the lake across from the pickup.

As if I have created it from scrambled thought in the heart of the hike, Mabel conjures. A solid, tail-high intense point that I will never get tired of seeing. That I will summon on my death bed. That moment when everything is quiet and the dog is not panting, just taking tiny gulps of breath after going ten million miles an hour. Her nose is full of it, quivering. All else is still. Safety ready for push, trigger. Still. Wait. Kick. Nothing. Dog steady. Rock solid. A breeze trembles through the feathered tail stuck straight into pale sky.

And up he goes. Right against a castle wall of thick ash and chokecherry but the bead is on him and the gun barks even though I don’t hear it somehow and he falls down out of the sky.

Right into the top of a tree. In the throat of the coulee.

I have no choice.

Strip down. Gun unloaded. Dog is romping into the timber looking for the bird. Remote control off and placed on the gun. Pack off. Sunglasses on. There are things that don’t like eyeballs in there. Cap scrunched down. The rooster is still in the tree. Dead as stone, but twenty feet off the ground. The beauty is the tree is a small one, perhaps six inches in diameter and if I can get to it, I can shake the shit out of it and the bird will drop. If I can get to it. In theory.

Crawling now, scratching my arms, making sure I don’t leave anything I treasure hanging on a sharp stick. Shutting my eyes even though I have sunglass protection. It’s instinct. A stick draws blood. Ouch. A lip cut. Free flowing. Damn. That hurts. Crawling some more, should have worn a long-sleeve despite the heat.

Finally, the base of the tree. The rooster is still there, one broken wing lodged over a branch, hanging head down. Still. I grab the trunk. One good shake should do it. Get ready. Mabel!! Where the hell is that dog? Mabel, get ready honey. I grab the trunk. Look up at the rooster. His eyes are open. It’s surreal.

And he blinks.

Then falls out of the tree and is gone. What the? Mabel, Mabel, get over here!!! Faarckgoddamnit!! I can hear her thrashing and panting somewhere. But the rooster is flat gone. Into a coulee forest thicker than Malamute fur.

 

Long weekend

Undercarriage gravel rattle.
School of shaptails v-ing overhead
Like steelhead up ancestral river.
Setters shift to high alert
From cold dead sleep.img_1648

Antelope in fading light
Lining out for new country.

Brilliant in goodbye day.
Road leavings and dog hair
Spitter shells, dust and shotgun hulls.

Going out now and tired
Rearview plume wide and long
Day done and tap beer calling.

Last light buck stotting away.
Old friend we have seen this many times.