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.
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.
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…
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The designation ensured not only the permanent protection of the place, but also of the historic uses of hunting, fishing, gathering, and grazing. The land belonged to all Americans before the proclamation, and continued to do so after. Access remained.
Those who tell you monument designations are “land grabs” are either uneducated, or full of
shit. The truth is, monuments are protections put onto existing public lands to preserve the lands as they are and keep them available for public use.
Those who claim “lost access” are either too lazy to get out of their car when the road ends and walk, or full of
shit. The truth is, monuments remain open to hunting, fishing and public access.
Those who tell you that sportsmen – or the American public as a whole – benefit from the dismantling of national monuments are either deliberately misleading you, or full of
shit. The truth is, the only reason to dismantle monument protections is to allow those public lands to be drilled, mined, or sold.
I read the proclamation on Bears Ears and Staircase Escalante released this yesterday. If you cut through the bullshit, just skip past all the “whereas,” right down the to “now therefore shall it be resolved” section, you’ll see the meat of the thing.
“…the public lands excluded from the monument reservation shall be open to:
(2) disposition under all laws relating to mineral and geothermal leasing; and
(3) location, entry, and patent under the mining laws…”
They are trying to take Bears Ears and Staircase, so don’t think they won’t come for your places too.
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.
“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.
Looking back on a fall with grass so tall you could hardly find a dog on point.