Bad decisions in chukar country

There are bad decisions, and then there are bad decisions in chukar country.

It started with a point and the beeper ringing across the hillside to my right. As I jogged toward her, I realized she was in some nasty country. I finally saw her standing beautifully, tail high, nose to the sky, pointing uphill. She was on a steep slope and it looked odd to see her at that angle, her high tail marking the low winter sun.

There was a steep, narrow scree field between us and I wondered how the hell she crossed it as I stepped into it, the promise of birds on the other side.

 

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The scree started to slide, a river of rock running in slow motion and I surfed it down, taking steps when I could. I hit solid ground downhill from the setter. My heart was racing, and not just from the cardio. I looked up and she was still standing, steady as a rock, beeper still screaming. Up, up, up. “Good girl, good dog!” And then they were airborne. Two shots, pushing the barrels right, missing and then missing again.

I wasn’t even mad. That was a hell of a point and nothing makes you feel alive like this. And then I broke one of my hard-earned rules. Rather than cross the scree field again, I decided to go down a different route in rugged, unfamiliar country to follow the birds down.

We navigated one set of cliffs, a butt slide and a couple of short jumps and we were making progress, but we worked our way into a narrow chute. Then we hit the 15-foot drop.

I thought hard about turning back, but it was a long climb up, plus some scrambling, plus the scree field. I decided to take a look and see if we could do it. There was a narrow ledge about half-way down and a nearly sheer wall going to it. I sat down and tried to get a sense of the feasibility. I stretched my tip toe, decided it was a bad idea and then I was sliding. My first thought was, “Oh shit,” followed quickly by “No turning back now.” I caught the ledge halfway down with my feet, which was good news coupled with bad. The setter looked down at me from above. I couldn’t climb up, and it was a good drop to the bottom.

Standing on a narrow ledge, I took my gun apart and slipped the three pieces into my vest. The setter started a nervous whine, but I had my own problems. I considered that I might injure my stupid self and checked my pocket for a lighter. I already knew there wasn’t a reliable cell signal for 30 miles.

I steeled myself, then turned to face the cliff and slid my left boot down to a cleft that seemed like a solid hold. A couple of minutes later I was at the base, now with Luna 15 feet above me, howling like a pack of coyotes.

I prowled the base, looking for a route for her to come down. I wasn’t excited about the prospect of climbing back to the top, climbing back up the chute, then crossing the scree and covering the miles back to the route I came up. After a while – Luna growing more vocal by the minute – I concluded that I couldn’t get all the way back up, at least not with the gun and with all my bones intact.

I slipped off my vest and whistle and stripped layers. Luna sounded desperate and it was making me a little desperate too. I left everything in a pile at the base and climbed back up to the ledge. It was a hell of a lot easier going up and without the gear.

On the ledge, I didn’t have a better idea, so I just called the setter. She came without hesitation and I wasn’t totally prepared. She stepped onto the slick rock immediately started sliding toward me, her claws scratching but not enough to arrest her. I moved sideways so she didn’t knock me off the ledge and grabbed her collar as she got to chest level. I swung her around and stopped her on the narrow ledge where I was standing. She was steady, so I let go of the collar and give a whoop of triumph.

I climbed down the same route I took before, but about halfway down, Luna decided not to risk being left again and jumped. She landed like a cat, lightly and on her feet. I rushed, slipped and slid, scraping the skin off my forearms and finger tips while trying unsuccessfully to grab the wall. I hit the bottom on my tip toes and felt my body compress vertically before rolling sideways.

Luna was glued to me as we navigated the last 500 vertical feet to the bottom, butt slid through another chute and clambered down one more cliff, this one not so sheer. At the base of the hill, the adrenaline born of success and terror and elation wore off and I was suddenly bone tired.

At the truck, I loaded Luna in her box, give her a good hug and told her what I hope she already knew.

“I won’t leave you behind.”

 

GM

 

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Into the basin

Cold blew hard from the north. The setter tore into it. The man followed, wind whipping his shirttail and numbing his face.

He focused on the dog ahead and his footing below, stepping cautiously but letting his mind run, replaying the hours before.

“Why don’t you let me come with you,” she asked for the hundredth time.

“Alone is part of the attraction,” he answered honestly.

He looked at her face, ruddy from an early-morning, cold-water scrub and saw the corners of her eyes crinkle in concern. “Are you sure you can handle it,” she asked.

He hesitated, almost giving the easy lie, then conceding.

“I can’t say for sure.” He wasn’t accustomed to explaining himself, but she deserved more than that. “I might be old, but I don’t have to die in bed.”

He stepped off the porch and walked in the early morning darkness to where the truck was running and the dog was stretched across the seat.

He slammed the door and the dome light went off. He saw her on the porch, lit with the glow of a single tungsten bulb. She looked so much like her mother that for a moment he was confused about where and when he was. His mind righted itself and he reaffirmed his time and place before stepping on the clutch and pulling the shifter hard, willing it into gear.

They crept out of the drive, the dog standing on the seat looking back at the house before settling in and resting his head across on the old man’s leg.

The wind gusted, tugging at his collar and bringing him back to the sage brush and basalt, both frosted in white.

He wore awool vest– black with silver buttons – that had lay in the bottom drawer of the dresser for 20 years waiting for a special occasion. He had donned his best shirt, a bright white, pressed herringbone pattern that he’d always saved for Christmas.

The shotgun was cold against his hand, but the weight felt good and it balanced just at the hinge pin. For all his years collecting shotguns, he was down to this one, a 16-gauge Parker GHE. The spiraling pattern in the Damascus barrels grew more intricate as you looked closer. His great uncle had left it to him when he was 30. He rarely shot it and never hunted chukar with it.

Mostly, he hunted with a 20-gauge Remington pump gun. He had other guns, a Spanish side-by-side and an Italian over-and-under, but he’d kept them for the trap range and lowland pheasant jaunts. He told those who asked that the pump was a proper chukar gun, indelicate and with a handy third shot. In truth, he carried it because it belonged to his father.

Dad was decades gone, but on warm fall days seventy years past his father had picked him up from school and taken him along to jump shoot mallards on Elk Creek. They hadn’t said much to each other – those days or any other – but the just-fired smell of waxed paper hulls still brought a vision of those moments.

The Parker had always seemed as if it were for someone else. Over the intervening years, he’d retrieved it from the safe countless times to hold it in his hands, admire the cartography of the dark-grained walnut and listen to the sound it made when he closed the action. He would stare at grain of the pattern-welded barrels until he drifted off to some other place, then he’d heft it a few times before returning it to the safe.

The pump had been handed over to his daughter and the other guns had been passed on in quiet ceremonies with nephews and friends. Even the safe was gone now. He’d paired down some, though he was dressed for a wedding and carrying a shotgun that was worth more than his pickup, so he hadn’t exactly stripped himself of all but the essentials. Still, he was lighter than he’d been in thirty years in more ways than one. He was not alone, though barring the dog no one depended on him for anything any longer.

The young setter was the same as he’d ever been. Fleet and determined. He always seemed to be charging, never running or going anywhere in particular, but moving across the terrain as if he meant to subdue it. He still thought of him as the young setter, though he wasn’t anymore. He was the last in a line of dogs that stretched back to his teens. Ten seasons had slowed him some, but he was more than enough dog for the old man.

Unprovoked thoughts of mortality washed over him as he struggled over the uneven ground. The man knew he would die, maybe someday soon. He wondered if the birds ahead could feel what he was feeling. Did they feel death descending on them like a darkness, or like something familiar and warm? Maybe they felt something different. Maybe they felt the car slipping on the curve at 90 mph, the terror of losing control mixed with the certainty of immortality. Even chukar must be teenagers at some point, he mused.

The dog ranged ahead and he followed, lost in the decades that melded together somewhere between the pickup and the big wide empty.

Follow the girl, follow the job, follow the money. Follow. Eventually, the job finished, the girl passed on and the dream faded to something simpler.

And he did dream of this. This ocean of grass and sage had always called to him. In the last few weeks, he had dreamt of this place and had woken disappointed.

The setter marked a variation in the sea of rock and snow and grass and varied his course to carry them toward it. When the old man arrived a few minutes later, the dog was gone upwind, still seeking.

He stopped at a rock wall, all that remained of a house in country that was too hard for someone, even back in the day when people were harder. There was a low spot in the wall that must have been a window. It’s weathered wooden frame stood like a portal, nothing on one side. More nothing on the other.

The grass was better around the old house, as if some spirit still tended it. The grass had drawn the dog and the man had obliged. Now he sat with his back against the wall and rested for a moment.

He reached for the whistle to reel in the setter and realized he’d left it hanging from the rearview mirror back at the truck.

Swiveling to look, he saw the dog had come back and was lying at his feet. The man reached down and gave him a pat, wondering how he would fare without him or if he would. He’d left the camper shell on the truck and the tailgate down. He’d put food and water in with the old sleeping bag he used as a travel bed, justin case.

The old man knew if he tipped over, the setter might stay with him and lead him right to the end. And if so, he would follow.

He only been in the hospital for a week. Nothing serious, just a bout with a virus, though he knew age was the real culprit. All the damn beeping and buzzing of the machines, plus people coming in every few minutes to check on him, had interrupted his mental wandering into the basin where the chukar lived. If they had left him be, maybe he could have just died. But his body wasn’t ready to give in and now he was less worried about death and more worried that being off his feet had taken the starch out of him. Folks had waited on him hand and foot. They had spoken to him softly, as if he were a child and not an 81-year-old man with poor hearing and low tolerance for bullshit.

It wasn’t that he wanted to die. This was not some final quest for peace. It was just that he didn’t want to die slowly. He didn’t want to slide into nothing without putting up a good fight. He chuckled at the thought of quoting Dylan Thomas as an explanation for being here.

Truthfully, part of him wished he’d let her come along. She was good company, a good shot and the dog worked harder for her. But he did not need his hand held today. He didn’t need to see the look of poorly concealed concern on her face every time he took a step or climbed a hill.

He stood up and checked the chambers before closing the Parker on two purple-hulled shells.

The setter was already gone, 50 yards in front, nose into the wind. Before he could follow, a wave of vertigo washed over him. Maybe stood too quickly. Maybe his blood pressure was out of whack again.

The fall wasn’t painful, but it shocked him. One moment, he was standing watching the setter, the next he was lying on his back with the Parker across his chest. In the lee of the wall, the wind slowed and for a moment it felt almost warm.

Lying on his back, he turned his head and looked over the wall, through the old window hole and saw snow flurries swirling against a gray sky. The weathered wood of the window framed a swath of grass and sage that made up this part of the Great Basin. Low hills off to the west were crowned with black rock. It was the kind of view that might have kept someone here, he thought.

He loved this wild country. Even mulled walking into it and not coming back. In the beginning, the longing was about traveling, about toughness and exploration and the feeling that comes from a long hard walk and the knowledge of self-reliance that is strongest when you are young. Later, when the rolling hills beaconed, it was about running away from all the things he’d spent his youth chasing. Now, there was nothing left to run from and nothing left to pull him back either.

He lay still for several minutes before struggling to his feet. Miraculously, the Parker was intact, not even scratched as far as he could tell. He dusted himself off and felt no worse for the wear. He looked for the setter and to his surprise, saw him on point maybe 100 yards out on a shallow hillside just past a low spot that might have carried water in wetter times.

You can always find a little extra energy when the dog goes on point, and he moved toward the setter, no longer sore or tired or dying, but striding with determination.

The dog would wait, that much he knew, though he couldn’t say whether the birds would.

The setter was upright and solid, the feathers on his tail were waving in time with the grass but he was otherwise still. He walked in confident that they were holding, though his confidence stretched to little else.

He had time to soak it up. He saw the setter give him a sidelong glance as he walked past. He saw the snow, on the ground and still falling. He saw the cheat grass poking up above the skiff of snow and the jet black of the rocks in the lee of the storm.

There were a dozen, flushing from the snow at 25 yards. He lifted the Parker and swung on the second to last bird before shooting far behind. It would be easy to say he missed intentionally, though it might be harder to say he could have connected if he wished.

The old man broke the gun open and caught the fired purple hull with his palm as the ejector kicked it from the chamber. He lifted it to his nose and closed his eyes. He had a vision of his father, tall and lean with jet-black hair and a rare smile on his face, holding a pair of drakes in one hand and a Remington model 17 in the other.

He slipped the fired hull into the back pocket of his vest and dropped another shell in the chamber. He felt good. Maybe even as good as the young setter.

The old man looked over at the dog.

Just for a moment the setter looked like he was standing in a picture frame, or maybe a window.

No matter.

The setter was waiting for direction.

“OK, let’s go find them.”

The dog tore into the wind, and the man followed.

 

Greg McReynolds

A bystander

The dogs went around this hill. I’m climbing it. The season is over and I’m getting fatter by the day. A climb is necessary. Also, I have no idea where the setters are and I hope to spot them from the top.
A golden eagle hovers in the stiff wind over the crest. I top the hill and look down the steep sage-covered hillside. They are at the bottom, hard up against an abandoned irrigation ditch, pointing into the stiff wind.
It’s strange to see them pointing together. It’s the young dog’s first year and I haven’t run them together much. The eagle is almost at eye level with me, surfing the wind, waiting to see what comes loose.
I straighten the collar on my jacket to cover my bare neck and regret not dressing warmer. I don’t scramble downhill. The time for that ended months ago. There is no rush. I’m just a spectator. Less invested than the eagle. He is the hunter today. I reach for my phone to snap a photo, realize it’s still on the dashboard and I’m ok with that.
The eagle is close and I can see his feathers fluttering in the gusts, his head moving as he watches the action play out below. I‘m surprised at how steady the dogs are, not as individuals, but together. The wind is whipping. The March snow, hard and gritty, stacks against the base of the sage brush, making a last assault before the ground melts and the sage blooms and world turns green and soft.
For a reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel a great sense of melancholy. The weight of nothing in particular presses down on me, anchoring my feet to the ground. I stand alone in the snow, watching life and death play out in slow-motion. None of it seems to matter.
The spell breaks with a rustle and a clatter of wings. A rooster rises and streaks along the bank. The eagle flares, but doesn’t dive. Maybe he decided a wiry old rooster was too much fight and not enough meal. Or maybe he just couldn’t get up the enthusiasm. He floats away without acknowledging me at all.

GM

Dog attacks, hamsters and peacocks

I’m not sure how to respond to this, published in the Washington Post last week. It’s a horrible story about an “emotional support” pit bull that attacked a 5-year-old girl in an airport.

And then it gets weird in a way I did not see coming at the beginning of the story. I’m not sure what to say about it, so I’m just going to leave this here. From the Post story …

The support-animal shenanigans — and tragedies — have not been limited to dog bites. One service dog, a golden retriever named Eleanor Rigby, gave birth to puppies at a terminal in Tampa in June, though people didn’t complain very much about that. In sad news, an emotional-support hamster named Pebbles was flushed down the toilet by its owner in February 2018 after Spirit Airlines informed the student she could not take the pet with her on the flight from Baltimore. Another man got angry at United Airlines for denying Dexter, his Instagram-famous emotional-support peacock, a seat on the plane from Newark, even though he had purchased a ticket for the bird.

 

 

Liars

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.

 

 

 

 

Don’t even think it

I shouldn’t have said it out loud. Even thinking it was a strike against bird-dog karma.

But I did. I thought it, then I uttered it aloud.

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.

Zero bird dogs

If you ask my vet, my kids or my wife, they will tell you I have three bird dogs. That’s three eating, shitting machines ready to chase birds, bark at the neighborhood deer and rack up vet bills at a moment’s notice.

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Unfortunately this isn’t Sesame Street and the counting isn’t quite as straightforward as I wish it was. There is a different number of bird dogs that I have as the forest grouse opener approaches in six days.

That number is zero. Zero bird dogs.

I have an old dog – 13. Deaf. Mostly blind. Gives no shits about anything. Retired.

I have a young dog – 5 months. Energy like the sun itself. Obedient as a house cat. More likely to point bumble bees than birds.

I have a dog in her prime – 7. Steady. Trustworthy. Laid up from surgery. Probably not hunting next week.

The vet removed a benign cyst from her shoulder a couple of weeks back. We’ve cut it out before, only to have it return. She’ll be fine and probably ready in a couple of weeks, but the wound is healing slowly.

Come Thursday, maybe I’ll give the veteran a spin. The pup will blow off some steam. If she heals quickly, I might even give my starter a short run. But I won’t have three dogs.

It reinforces something Tom told me last fall; the line between one bird dog and no bird dog is thin.

Dispatch from B.C. bear country

Special to MOF –  Mike Thompson 

British Columbia – I was bear hunting in British Columbia with Primitive Outfitters.

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the grouse cubs flutter up into the trees. An angry sow grouse came charging out of the bush flapping her wings and hissing with rage.

Keeping my wits about me I dropped to the ground to show I wasn’t a threat. She circled me until the grouse cubs had enough time to get away and then she retreated back into the bush without a trace. It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to grab the can of Grouse Spray I had with me.

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Mike Thompson is a hunter, angler, professional artist and a MOF kindred spirit.  You can follow him on Instagram,  @upland_ish.

How did I get here?

MOF has a loyal fanbase (thanks to all 11 of you) but we also have plenty of one-time visitors, many of who were captured here (By accident) and here (Wrong URL.)

Unfortunately for us, it’s getting harder to see what search terms people used to find MOF. Google is encrypting searches, so we can’t see what search phrase brought the vast majority of people here. I get why Google wants to encrypt search terms, privacy and all that, but it does make my annual delve into the WordPress stats to see who landed at MOF much less interesting.
What follows are actual search terms and phrases that brought people to MOF in 2017 via the magic of search algorithms.
“Tent near forest” – If you are asking for advice on where to put you tent, then yes, you should put your tent near the forest. If you are asking about a specific tent near the forest that seems permanent… Don’t go in there. There is nothing but banjos and misery in that tent.
“Chukar scat” – They will do that, and quick too.
“Hazards from feathers” – Try searching the phrase “hypochondriac” or maybe “paranoia.”
“Upland dirtbag” – Really? There are like a million upland hunting blogs, and the folks searching for “upland dirtbag” come to us.
“Skint back” – Obscure hillbilly lingo? You probably found exactly what you were looking for here.
“Gallon liquor brown jug with bird dog” – I do not recommend this. Even if you have a hard-drinking dog like a Labrador, at most they are going to drink half-a-gallon. That leaves you with the other half and that is a sure-fire way to get alcohol poisoning.
“Giffy butte” – People seem to be really confused by this one, so let me break it down for you. Giffy Butte is not a real place. Seriously. Think about it. Stop trying to find it. They are laughing at you, and so are we.
“Clamato life” – Best family board game ever invented. Don’t even think of trying to steal it, we already filed a patent.
“Crack labs” – Do you mean narcotics search dogs like the cops have? Or do you mean labs on crack? Because we don’t want any part of either.
“When a crocodile cannot consume its victim at once it drags the carcass into the burrow” – David Attenborough and Siri seem to be getting along just fine.
“My pointing dog needs to slow down” – Would you say he’s “skint back”?
“Dogs that look like horses” – They’re called Shetland ponies, they won’t point and most of them won’t retrieve. I believe they are welcome at Motel 6 though. 
“Stinking brown stuff” – That’s called shit. Don’t pick it up. 
“In wayne county mo. can you just throw your trash in the ditch by your house just because its your property isn’t that nasty” – This is more of a statement, but yes, we agree.
“Long-beaked land birds” – I don’t know what this means but I’m seriously considering changing “Mouthful of Feathers” to “Long-beaked land birds.” It just rolls off the tongue.
Even if you found us by accident, we hope you stay a while.