Many years ago, just months after an upland season that a flat-brimmer would describe with the cliche “epic,” my buddy died.
He was the pal who got me through a divorce and like any relationship developed when nerves and emotions are on a trigger-edge, the bond was incredibly tight. It was a time in my life when the need to be outside was fueled by what was going on in the attorneys’ offices, but also by a fire in me that wanted to feed the talent in him. The field was an escape, but also the food that sated our appetite for more. Always more. And his was a rare talent. He was my sidekick and my soul-mate. He was an orange belton English setter who saw it all, did it all and still occupies a rare, narrow peak in the mountain of dogs that I’ve had the honor of calling partner. His name was Hank.
The premature death of Hank was met by a staggering amount of grief, but it was tempered by a young pup named Ike, a tri-color who was literally in the shadow of a giant. Like whatever poor stiff stepped into John Elway’s or Peyton Manning’s shoes after they moved on. And he was just a puppy.
I lost a whole season that year, following a six-month old pup through an ocean of grass and corn stubble. There was one memorable hunt with my brother in the CRP outside of Ogallala, but whatever else happened that year is lost in the mists of time. Ike turned out to be a pretty good bird dog but he was Brian Griese to John Elway and he threw a lot of interceptions that first year. At the end of that season, I told myself that I’d never again be caught off-guard, that I’d have one coming or even two coming while another was in the throes of prime living. That vow has caused me to have as many as four setters at once and it is not something I regret. Having a ranch makes it easier, true, but there was a time when I lived in town—in defiance of ordinance—with a herd of bird dogs.

We have three setters now and a ranch dog. We also have a baby boy who gave us the best Christmas gift ever. There’s two litters on the ground as I write this, one filled with Mabel’s nieces, the other filled with Mabel’s half-sisters. And Mabel occupies the boulder right next to the summit cairn that Hank stands on. She may even nudge him off of it this coming season. Two litters on the ground and the timing sucks. But when is the timing ever just right? Just a perfect nexus of time and heart and desire all rolled into one package? If life tells us one thing it is that waiting for the perfect timing is like waiting to get to heaven to have a good time. One may never get there.



At some point in the heart of a 12 or 24 hour drive, the coffee just won’t cut it anymore. It’ll be somewhere east of Elk Mountain. The adreneline that kept you sharp over the top will fade once you’re rolling downhill and the snow clears and the road turns dry and black again. It might be south of Page, when the moon goes dark and all the stars come out and there is nothing but the Milky Way and the dashed yellow center line and darkness.
You’ll reach for the seeds. The bag is half empty, not because you needed them earlier, just because they are delicious. But now, in the belly of the night with your bird-hunting buddy catnapping and the promise of birds at dawn, you shove a handful of spicy sunflower seeds in your mouth and put on a podcast.
There is something magical about seeds, particularly when coupled with coffee, that will help you navigate a long drive.
But these are things you already know. You also know that we rarely endorse things that are not beer, dogs or Mexican restaraunts. In fact, we even created a category for durable goods, that up to this point has only been used once. “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.”
With all that in mind, I’ll lay it on the line.
There are three kinds of sunflowers seeds in current production that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
3. Spitz, chili lime: These are sweet, but not overly so, with just enough spice to keep it interesting, but not so much that your lips are non-functional after only a couple of pounds.
2. David’s, cracked pepper: These do not start out hot, but near the bottom of a pound bag, you’ll have to stop for chapstick if you didn’t plan ahead. These are the go to seed for late-night driving.
1. Lays, original, extra long: These seeds are like Dr. Pepper, Schlitz beer, nacho flavored Doritos, and the Beatles. They are timeless. I prefer the small bags for easy consumption.

On blogging

Blogging is a strange thing. I made a career of shooting photos and writing, first as a reporter and editor and later in the more technical and mundane aspects of the written word. But a blog, particularly one about something so obscure as bird dogs and shotguns and galliformes, strikes even me as strange some days.
Occasionally, word will get out to non-bird hunting acquaintances that I co-write a blog. “Oh,” they say. “You write a blog… about bird hunting? Currently?” Almost always, there is a long pause, followed by an unspoken, “How quaint.”
I can see it in their smirk and even I know how ridiculous it is to write a blog about birds and dogs and guns and rambling.
These are things that can’t be explained to non-initiates.
A dog, using it’s nose and brain and our shared relationship to work such magic as bird-to-hand cannot be described with something so simple as the written word. A bird, capable of flight, who chooses to walk until it is absolutely required that it fly, cannot be explained to someone reading text in the artificial glow of a computer screen. But here we are.
In addition, the subject matter is obscure. Only 6 percent of the U.S. population hunts. Less than half of those hunt small game, and that includes rabbits and squirrels. If you  sift out the rodent killers, then separate out the folks who like dogs, double guns, beer in cans and long walks in the desert; you have the MOF audience. By my math, that’s around 11 people. Statistically, writing a blog about upland hunting is like writing a blog about blogging. In 2017.
Strange as it may seem, not only do people read MOF, some of them take it seriously. Sometimes people even go so far as to be offended by something they have read on MOF. (see; Giffy Butte, Posers, Mexican Beer, Waste Loss and Legs, Target Clientele, On Monuments and Fish … actually, just see all of it.)
So, if you’re perusing MOF and read something that gets your hackles up, feel free to drop us an angry line. Or, just imagine that you’re reading a blog about blogging, and that people don’t really do that anymore.
If you are one of the kindred spirits who send us emails and exchanges ideas and passes the word on conservation issues, thank you. Thank you for the inside jokes and invitations to hunt birds that stretch across vast swaths of the country, based on little more than an appreciation for a few lines of prose or the look of a dog on point.
If you are here, and not by accident, thanks for reading.



Dear Mabel,

Suffering the blues in the off-season.

I don’t even know where to start. I don’t even know how to explain it to you. One month, we were all go-go-go, making it happen, going out all the time. Then overnight, nothing. Literally overnight.
It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, maybe that’s not totally true. If I could get away with it, we’d still be going out, but I mean, there are rules. How do I explain to you that the reason you are sitting at home instead of going out all the time is because it’s just that time of year? Yeah, the ice and the snow is depressing. It’s February, you know, that longest-shortest worst month of the year, a month so bad they had to put a love holiday in there with chocolates and roses just so we didn’t all drink poison? I know you are depressed. I am too. Crushed. Sad. I hope we can remain friends. Please forgive me. It’s not over, is it? I don’t want it to be over. Please tell me it’s not over. But I gotta take a break. We gotta take a break. Those are the rules. I promise we will start up again on the first day of September. Until then, try to forgive me and please don’t leave me. I love everything about you. We’re a team. Don’t give up on “us.”
Love, Tom

Last steps

Somehow, it was here. Too soon. Always is.

The wind was out of the southwest. Always is. The snow was more than foot deep. Too soft for bootstep yet hard enough for snowshoe. The wind, the snow.

But it was the last day and there was the dog. The spotted little wonder that spent a season pointing everything from woodcock to Hungarian partridge, filling your heart with ineffable thrill. But the wind. The snow.

But the dog. The dog. So it was snowshoes onto the state section west of the ranch. In September sagebrush, there were five coveys of Huns, a smattering of ruffed grouse in the coulees. Gray phase. In October leaf-strip, the same grouse that eluded September shot string fell before the gun. Three grouse. In November, thin snow revealed tracks of far more birds than you thought lived there. Or maybe just one bird with a penchant for the forced march. An occasional December bird, but usually just a nice walk. Now, it was the end. Always comes and comes too soon.

You walked bowlegged, getting those snow legs under you, getting used to the crunch and the movement and the little setter sprang out into it with a burst that always draws a smile. How can anything, any creature on earth, be so enthusiastic, so wonderfully full of life so consistently?

She had no trouble in the snow, thirty-five pounds of quick twitch and strong bone and bottomless guts. Grit may be a better word. Thirty five pound of smiling, laughable, lovable grit.

A mile that seemed like two. Christmas lard over the belt. Pants that somehow shrunk in the wash. Or something. No birds. The wind picked up. The dog laughed and grinned, wiggled from all ends, launched back into the snow. Do it for the dog, you lazy fat bastard. Do it for the dog.

Two miles that seemed like four. Then three miles, and you finally found a rhythm, forgot all about your sore butt, your holiday blubber. It was just the dog and the country and the now and the wind. The wind brought scent and the dog went on point and you fumbled for a camera, then said fuck it and moved in. She moved. Didn’t have them pinned. Then did again. Frozen like Lot’s wife. Scent in her nose, alternating between breaths and holding breaths. Huffing. As if puffing on a pipe. What was that like, having so much scent in your lungs and yet not moving a muscle other than pumping the bellows. Amazing, surely.

Two Huns went up, far out of range. Jumpy. Chased by hawk and hunter. Oh well. It was the last day.

Circled back to the truck as the sun tipped out and away, slanting in from low angle, covering everything in yellow goodbye light. Past the old homestead, head down. Then missed the dog and then found her on point and this time you moved in, gun ready, heart beating and the birds went up. Eight of them, out of range. Jumpy.

You wished them well and full productive lives, a winter of blissful feeding on hawk-free open slopes. And you wished for one more day. For the dog. For the dog.

Chukar and the jungle

The mystique around chukar hunting may be somewhat overplayed. “The birds are hard to shoot, impossible to get to, challenging for pointing dogs, you have to carry a kevlar gun and wear a helmet at all times… et cetera, et cetera.”
It’s true that a helmet is a good idea; but in the grand scheme of upland hunting, I’m not even sure chukar is the pinnacle of difficulty.
Certainly we (I mean chukar hunters in general, but I am in no way excluding MOF) have embellished the perceived difficulty. Not that I feel guilty about it, the last thing I need is more people clawing their way to the top of my chukar hills.
Last fall, I checked an item off my bucket list and hunted ruffed grouse in Minnesota. We hunted with a group of folks from the Little Moran Lodge and Orvis. I was concerned about how my dog would perform in the company of world-class setters, particularly in tight and unfamiliar cover. Strangely, I wasn’t that concerned about how I would perform. I mean, it’s flat right? And the birds are ruffies. I didn’t have a moment’s pause.
As it turned out, my little setter did great, pointing the very first woodcock she ever came into contact with and she had little trouble with the cover. She was steady. I, on the other hand, shot poorly and spent much of the trip missing birds, falling on my butt, tripping, slipping, and getting slapped in the face with numerous types of tree branches. I expended as much effort covering four Minnesota miles a day as I do covering a dozen Idaho miles.
The real trip was sitting around over beers in the evening and talking birds. Those who hadn’t been west asked about chukar terrain and habits and how hard they are to hunt. If they had been posers, I would have laid it on thick. But after my first day in Minnesota, I hadn’t seen fanny pack or propeller hat one. Plus, I was beaten near to a pulp and everyone else seemed perky and scratch free.
The Orvis guys, Charley, Tom, Reid, Steve and Andrew, were tough as nails and damn good shots. Apparently, they also spend long days afield with gun dogs (mostly setters, but springers and labradors too) for the chance at one or two birds. The only difference is they do it in Vermont, where the cover must be so thick you could misplace a tugboat.
Tom and Reid got nearly every bird they had a chance at and I’m pretty Steve and Andrew killed more birds on the first day than I did the whole trip. The first day, I saw Charley kill four birds on about six shots in cover too thick to swing a pocket watch. And I could tell that it wasn’t unusual because of how calm he remained. Mid-day, I saw him shoot a left-to-right crossing grouse with the first barrel and then his young dog made a great retrieve. Bird in hand, he merely cracked a smile. Had that happened to me, I would have reloaded and fired two celebratory shots into the air, then done an end-zone dance before lifting the setter over my head à la Lion King.
And it wasn’t just them. Bob St. Pierre, the marketing director for Pheasants Forever, shot a grouse so quickly and through such a small hole in the canopy, I’m not even sure if he actually mounted the shotgun or if he shot it quick-draw style. At the time, I was belly crawling, so admittedly my view was poor.
Little Moran’s Travis Grossman ran some of the nicest setters I’ve been around, hardly broke a sweat and never once made light of my abysmal shooting. Even when I missed a bird that flew directly over my head with both barrels. Plus, he told a good joke and produced an ice-cold beer as the sun set, right when my ego needed it most.
So when the subject of chukar came up. I couldn’t lie.
I said, “They’re not that hard. It’s open country. No trees to get in the way of your barrels or leaves to block your pattern. It’s easy walking without logs, bogs, vines, ticks, limbs, thickets or holes. Frankly you guys would probably kill them all. In fact, now that I really think about it, you probably wouldn’t even like it.”



A friend called me a few weeks back from the road. “I thought you were elk hunting,” I asked.

“I was,” He said. “Until I climbed out of my sleeping bag, got dressed, unzipped my gun case and found a 20ga instead of a 30-06. So, I’m headed home.”

I laughed. Then tried to console him. I told him that it happens to all of us. I told him about the time I left my gun in the field and a whole host of other things, lost or forgotten.

Truth is, I’ve forgotten all kinds of things. I’ve had to backtrack to some obscure gas station to buy a hunting license. Twice. Last winter, on a week-long trip to hunt desert quail, I forgot my sleeping bag and had to share the dog’s sleeping bag.

I’ve brought the wrong gauge shells. I’ve forgotten my vest and hunted with a handful of shotgun shells in my jeans pocket and a sharptail held by its feet in my left hand.

Once, I drove 30 miles to get to an early morning rooster spot. I stopped a mile or so beforehand to get myself together, planning to drive up ready to go at legal shooting light. I put the collar on the dog, put my vest on, took off my house slippers and reached for my boots. But they weren’t there. No boots. 

So, I put my house slippers back on and manage to kill a rooster and miss some huns. But I did ruin a perfectly good pair of socks.



Two shots or three

Several of my hunting partners shoot semi-autos. I give them endless grief about it. I love Star Wars as much as the next guy (maybe more) but I don’t want to shoot Han’s gun. I’ll take my shotguns with two barrels, two triggers, fixed chokes and a straight stock. I’ll take checkered walnut and blued steel. I’ll take an action that closes like a vault, not one that works like a retractable pen and sounds like a new-fangled rat trap closing on an empty beer can.
And then there was Saturday.

A late season point. The cover was thin and the setter wanted to move, but she waited. The bird got up as I came even with the dog, 30 yards out, with a running start. I knew I needed to be quick, so I rushed it. Missed with the first barrel. I mentally leaned in, squeezed the trigger and saw him start to fall. He spiraled down, long tail streaming as he headed for earth.
And then he righted himself. Started flying again. Gaining altitude. Headed right for me. I looked down. My gun was broken open and the empty hulls were in my right hand. I shoved the hulls into my vest, then frantically grabbed for shells. Dammitt. Why am I wearing gloves? Why can’t I seem to grab the reloads? I clawed them out of the pocket, my eyes still on the bird as he flew over my head hitting top speed and gaining with a tailwind. I finally managed to get shells into the action and close the gun, but it was too late. He was gone. Still flying. Pumping his wings with authority. He headed downwind and down hill. At the very edge of my ability to see him as a black speck against the snow, he landed. Maybe a mile distant. Later, the dog and I would check this spot hoping to find him. But we didn’t. Maybe he was a coyote’s feast later that night. Or maybe he’s still running.
On the slog back to the truck, I reconsidered the semi-auto. Maybe black plastic is attractive after all. Maybe when you really listen, the clanging of an improved rat-trap action is actually melodic. Maybe double barrels are over-rated. Maybe that third shot wouldn’t be so bad after all…

Snow bird

It is the getting there that has always been the thing. Drift-blocked roads on normal years and tires spinning. Even with chains on all four.
But this is not a normal year. There has been snow cover, but thin, at best. Enough for tracking. Tracking an unbelled bird dog somewhere off in the Doug fir. A dog you haven’t heard from in a while. The woods completely silent and ears straining for the sound of pant and twig-snap. Nothing. Minutes tick by. Nothing. She’s gotta be on point. Why didn’t you bell that dog? Why don’t she write?
She’s out there somewhere in the thick of it and then you hear a far off sound like the soft roll of distant thunder. The thunder of air and wing meeting silent winter afternoon. You follow her tracks as best you can, marveling at evidence of leaps over ten feet, the vaulting of timber, the tale of a nimble athlete drinking in life. And here she is, frantic pant as if she’s been holding her breath for an hour, nose full of bird and bird pretending to hide then giving up the wait and skying for tree top. Where were you? she asks. I had ’em. You need to learn to keep up.

It’s your fault, not hers. Your fault that you forgot the bell and in the climb up the hill, forgot to manage the dog and took your eye off the game and lost her. Lost her direction and eventually lost her track, even in that new blank chalkboard of new snow. So, one for seed is off there in the timber somewhere. And that’s okay. It is December. The time of gifts. Every minute in the last days of a season is reward. Just being up at this elevation with a shotgun and a good bird dog at this time of year is enough.

You release her again and this time, you stay focused, stay on her. Keep her in range, watch her move through the aspen and fir and gooseberry. You make a big circle, drop down a draw choked with alder and willow and aspen and bramble. Over the logs of granddaddy aspen that fell a decade ago. Then you pick up tracks. Grouse tracks everywhere. The dog is hot, then she disappears behind a stand of trees. Then all is silent.

This time, she is close. This time, you were on it and just behind those trees is where she is. Hidden, but everything is in range. You are certain of it. The gun is ready, safety beneath digit. Heart pounding. Get ready. Step out.