For an old Coot

“In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.” –Henry Beston

It has been said—by those who should know—that a man only has one special dog in a lifetime. I wonder about this statement, for I can remember every dog I ever had fondly, an attachment of heart and soul that brings a smile. Sometimes there are tears. Not long ago, I found myself tearing up over the day I put my first gun dog down, a day that has more than eleven years behind it. I remember my first dog—gone twenty years now—and she was not even a gun dog.
But then I think about special times and places, about timing and time. There was a period in my life when I needed a friend and his name was Hank, a hard-charging English setter with the heart of a pure hunter. I had left an unhappy marriage and Hank was there, ready for the wind-whipped granite chukar haunts, ready for the pheasant fields stretching to the western horizon, ready for sage grouse rising above an ocean of sage. He tore it up and lived not long enough. But before he left, he put a litter of setter pups on the ground and then he was gone. But this story is not about Hank. This tale is of Hank’s buddy Coot and her partner, Dave.
Coot was a lively black Lab pup, all teeth and torment, a bundle of high-test energy who squirmed in your grip and growled puppy growls and launched herself into algae-covered ponds at ten weeks of age with the enthusiasm and drive of a finished dog. She came into Dave’s life just a year after Hank came into mine. We were new friends then, Dave and I, but we were kindred spirits, lads raised in the West, fed venison and elk steak, trained from youth to squint at far ridges looking for game.
In the mid-1990s, Wyoming was awash in upland birds. There were Hungarian partridge in places where there had never been Hungarian partridge. Chukars lived on about every crag in the desert. Even the pheasants were doing well, with wild tough roosters thriving on nothing but greasewood and new grass. It was into this landscape that Dave and I loosed Hank and Coot.
I needed the distraction from the logistics and loss of a failed love. That was my excuse for hunting every weekend and most week days. I don’t know what Dave’s was, but he was usually along with me. With time and opportunity, our young dogs tore it up. Hank hunted like a finished veteran of eight years when he was eight months. Coot was the same.
Those years were also duck years and the flyway was thick with big northern greenheads, widgeons and teal. We floated the Big Horn through Thermopolis, drifting past Russian olive, crawling and jump-shooting when we didn’t feel like setting up decoys.
One warm November day, we stood on the bank of the river taking a break from the action. Dave, who always shoots better than I, was done. I had one duck to go before I could claim my limit. The Big Horn rolled by thick and green and cold and then a male widgeon drifted downstream about forty yards out, on the edge of my range. I swung up and pulled the trigger and dropped the widgeon stone-dead far out in the river. In an instant, Coot was out in the current, swimming hard, and bringing the duck back in to hand.


On another trip, a wounded drake mallard took to a muskrat hole across the river. It was during the Ice Jamboree, our annual last-weekend-of-the-season hunt down the Bighorn and it was cold, with panes of ice thick on the river and fingers frozen on canoe paddles. Coot had seen the duck go down, but we didn’t know where it ended up. Working on a blind retrieve, she swam the river, sat at Dave’s command, and then worked right and then left and then finally down into the hole where she came up with the duck. She was like that. I can never remember losing a cripple when I was around Coot. She found them.
North Dakota in that era was also full of birds, particularly pheasants. It was hard to drive down a country road without seeing fifteen or twenty roosters standing roadside picking gravel. That first year, Dave and I joined a group of four other friends and we turned our dogs out into bird heaven. I walked through one field of tall grass and had three roosters off Hank points in about an hour. I met Dave on the other end of the field. He was done too and we waited while our friends came through. At the edge of the field, a rooster went up before the gun and one friend swung and dropped it, but it hit the ground like so many of those damned roosters do—head up and running. We had four dogs with us and all of them were turned loose to find the cripple. We hunted back and forth for what seemed like a long time and then someone asked, “Has anyone seen Coot?”
The little black bitch had run off and Dave was cursing her. She had disappeared over a rise in the prairie and was gone. Time ticked by and then I saw the grass moving, and a flash of black and there was Coot, the pheasant in her mouth, charging hard back to us. She had run perhaps a quarter-mile after that bird.
After that trip, we drove home to Wyoming, saturated in that tired-good feeling of hunters with birds in the cooler and memories in the bank. Hank and Coot were worked—their muzzles raw and red from ten thousand grass cuts, their bodies twitching as they slept the sleep of dogs with birds in their heads. We stopped in Spearfish, South Dakota, at a Subway sandwich shop and each ordered. As an after-thought, we asked if they had any old meat they wanted to give to a couple of tired dogs and the young man behind the counter made each of our dogs a free sandwich sans condiments.
This past spring, I drove through Spearfish. In the backseat slept a tired puppy named Hank’s Echo, whose grandfather had eaten a Subway sandwich in that same town a decade earlier. I found myself thinking about Coot and Hank and those special years and then my cell phone rang.
She was an old dog with cataracts starting to cloak her eyes. Her ears were deadened by many shotgun blasts, but she still had a season or two left in her, maybe an hour in some easy pheasant field. She deserved to die in her sleep in front of a crackling winter woodstove, warm and relaxed and dreaming of hunts behind. Maybe she never even heard the car that hit her. I hope so. I hope it was without pain and that wherever she is now, she has a white lean setter to keep her company and a human friend who can drop a bird.
And so I think about that adage. One special dog in a lifetime? Perhaps. But perhaps too, there is one unique period when you have the time and the wherewithal and the means to hunt a lot with one good gun dog, when the birds are thick before your gun and your hunting companions share common ground and equal ethics. If that is the case, I hope to duplicate that stretch of time again and again and again until my eyes cloud with cataracts and my old bones can no longer carry me into the pheasant fields of autumn. When that happens, I will remember a black dog named Coot and I will smile and cry with that memory.

This essay appeared in Wyoming Wildlife in 2007.

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Cottonwood Bottoms

Perhaps you have noticed that even in the very lightest breeze you can hear the voice of the cottonwood tree; this we understand is its prayer to the Great Spirit, for not only men, but all things and all beings pray to Him continually in differing ways. – Black Elk

The way the sap smells. A rising tangy scent among tall trees, buds not out yet, but pushing, pushing. Like bean sprouts in black soil.
The trees rattling bare in spring wind and then, almost overnight, even though you have plotted the course of it for weeks and stared hard, it is there and it surprises you: leaf. New baby leaf, small, the sheen of it a subtle thin blanket like some green lacy organic lingerie. Once, long ago, when I lived in a high mountain valley and we ached for something green in a place where snow cuffed the land hard and fast for months, we made a bet. When, we asked, would the cottonwoods across the street leaf out? Who won the bet is lost in decades, but the date remains: May 17.
June came to this piece of ground where I live and the stream swelled up out of its banks and danced and flowed among the trees, large and small. Saplings bent to the force of it and the soil soaked and soaked until it could not take any more. Down where the stream met the river, more water poured out of the margins, onto fields where center pivots lay idle because God’s irrigation system was in full throat. The river ran between cottonwoods tall and cottonwoods small and pushed brown water full of rich silt onto sapling flats, feeding and watering in one big swell. Then the water dropped streamside and riverside and left mud flats around thin lively stems and sun provided the boost, the power, to young and old trees alike.
Summer now and the cottonwoods fully fledged. Three species on my place, all staking their own part of the ground: black, eastern, narrowleaf. And deep smells now, rich and full. Not the promising subtle-sharp odor of rising sap, but more pervading—the kind of scent one gets when you step into a candle store, a spice shop. A hint, somehow, of cinnamon. Not just from the cottonwoods, though, but chokecherries in their shadow, mint along the ditchbank, grass and flower and soil alive.
I walk with my morning coffee now among the trees, sipping and feeling the height of these giants over me, the deep green shade of their leaf. Cottonwood. I think about the cottonwoods I have known, the places. A shaded glen, an Eden along a desert river where in all directions there was nothing but baking slickrock and sweltering juniper, yet beneath the cottonwoods on a desert river, there was cool greenness and hearty laughter. A thin line of cottonwoods way out in the eastern plains, a line of trees, a line of life. In late summer, no moisture anywhere, but the roots deep in hard sand and cobble-soil and somehow the trees green. Another cottonwood grove in another place, where a vast stand sheltered a flock of wild turkeys and I stalked them with my shotgun and waited. Listened.
No tree has so defined the West as the cottonwood; its fluffy seeds waft in the breeze over nearly every western town, its bark is still nibbled by horses just as it was in the time of Lewis and Clark, its saplings are thrashed by whitetail buck antler and nibbled by mule deer fawn. The scent of dried cottonwood burning in my open-air barbecue pit floats now across a summer landscape and elk steak sizzles over cottonwood coal. Just as it did in the time of Washakie.
Fall will come to this land in a few months, crisping the big trees, tinging them yellow. A new scent will arrive, an odor that somehow reminds me of fresh apples. I’ll walk among the trees with a rifle and wait for a whitetail buck that I’ve watched all summer long. I’ll know his pattern, the shape and curve of his horn. If I’m right and he does what he has been doing, I’ll shoulder my rifle as I lean against the wizened bark of a one hundred-year-old tree and my aim will be solid and sudden. Then the next summer, when the scent of richness hits this piece of western ground, I’ll sizzle venison over cottonwood and think about the cycle of life and the turn of leaf.

This essay originally ran in Wyoming Wildlife. 

Another way to train bird dogs

I catch myself when I tell people he’s fifteen months old because, as time does, he is really seventeen months. As soon as I get used to telling people he’s seventeen months, he’ll be nineteen months.
But these days he’s fun and it’s the things that all parents mark mentally. Words and facial expressions and a sense of humor. Things like that.

So every day after daycare, rain, snow and shine as these May months are, we jump into the month and get out on the ground. Sometimes, he’s in a backpack, sometimes in a stroller. Always, the bird dogs are here. I can’t help, at these times, to reflect on how different the world is for myself, my son and my bird dogs. And how similar. The dogs are still getting out, still getting exercised, still running big, but their humans now shout unintelligible gibberish.  Then again, maybe it was always that way for them. Nonsensical words shouted into the sky.

Get it over with

The sky is pissing again.
Shouldn’t complain considering winter didn’t even start until just before the Super Bowl kick-off. But then it just flat got with it. Drifts. Wind-chill. Dead-chill. Frozen pipes. Deer in the haystacks. Deer dying on the road. A fawn over-nighting in the woodshed and raiding the birdseed. More snow coming. Calves dying before mothers could lick them dry.
Saw the ground for the first time in weeks days ago. But today it’s what the weather forecasters call a wintry mix. Down along the Front Range, it’s cancelled flights and bomb cyclones. With names. Last one was named Wesley. Dumbest thing ever to name snowstorms.
It’s April and the sky is pissing. Again. Hope for rain at the right time. Time it for desert quail, sync it to not fiddle with the Hun hatch, clock it just so with our friends the chukar and pheasant and their chicks a’coming. It’s April. Do it. Rain. Snow. Just get it over with. Don’t save it for later. Do it.

It is all over but the cryin’

The inspectors examining some of the year’s take.

It started in Idaho at the end of August and ended in New Mexico in the middle of February. Some might say that was plenty. The dogs might say they were just getting going.
But it’s over now and it is February and the deserts of New Mexico were thin soup, but soup enough. A covey a day, a point a day, maybe a bird a day. Good stuff. Hunt ’em when they are thick, you can hunt them when they are lean. And you were following your dog with a shotgun in your hand and that, for anyone, should be enough.
Now begins the long wait. There’s a year ahead and two young setters, aunt and niece, ready for anything.

Damn you, James Knox Polk! or Annex that shit!

Old Mexico’s quail and Coues country looks pretty good.

Okay, we got California and Nevada and Utah and most of Arizona and New Mexico all in that deal with Mexico back in 1848. I get that. Pretty good stuff.

Jim Thomas, author of Negotiate to Win says Americans are the worst negotiators in the world and when you look south from Mearns quail country, you get the feeling he is pretty right about that.  President Polk’s armies had Mexico City in 1848. They had a lot of good quail country. And then they gave it all back. Couldn’t we at least have kept Sonora and Chihuahua? No need to build a wall, let’s just move the border. It’s narrower down there anyway. Annex that shit. Think of the Coues deer and the Mearns quail awaiting us!

 

 

In rooster country

It is about people and the land. People and how they manage the land. People who were here and then left. People who were here and died. People who are here now.

This is the pheasant hunt.

Up on the chukar cliff, time goes by and human touch is lighter. Same for the blue grouse ridges, the Hun hills, the ruffed covers of the West, the quail arroyos. Here, bird abundance is not always tied to human influence. It is tied to rains and snows, sun. Not so the pheasant fields.

I cannot walk here, into the teeth of this northern wind–a wind bringing Canada straight down to Kansas–without thinking about covers and pheasants and people and the many places of the wild pheasant in a life measured by the lifespan of a half dozen good bird dogs.

My pheasants have burst from the rich soil and buffaloberry of a Montana valley disappearing steadily to the appetite of citizens wanting a slice of Big Sky, hitting that magical age of fifty-nine and a half, and coming into the country with an AWD, a golf habit, and a pension plan. That soil, that buffaloberry and those roosters went to the pavement during the last boom.

My pheasants have run ahead of a fast-moving expert bird dog on a wind-lashed Wyoming morning, running faster than any bird dog alive, scurried between patches of greasewood and saltbrush, ducking and sneaking like a house cat in mouse pursuit, then bursting to wing. Beyond, even, rifle range. Out here, out in this wind-blown far-away, the nearest crop for the crop is a Russian olive pit. Coyotes, not bird dogs, are the common predator and alfalfa is turned into beefsteak. Row crops are found two hundred miles east, but here lives a savage, colorful, cackling son-of-a-bitch in track shoes. One-a-day is a good day.

My pheasants have flown before the guns on a genuine South Dakota Million Man March, the kind of hunt that puts a dozen ball-cap crowned faces in front of your shotgun muzzle on the other side of the field. You start walking toward each other, carrying a weapon. Wondering just what the hell you are doing here with your gun pointed skyward, praying that the guy you just met on the other side of the field directly opposite is a good gun handler who does not shoot low birds and that the plastic in your sunglasses can stop a pellet. And wondering again why you aren’t out alone with your setters in some other field instead of this gang-slog through millet planted specifically for this moment. That evening, with a pheasant burger in your belly and a limit that you did not shoot in the cooler and the whole house roaring with the laughter of old friends and new, you understand. This day was not about the hunt, it was about now, this moment.

My pheasants have come from the CRP of a tenant farmer out south of Ogallala whom you woke from a nap in the middle of the day on a Tuesday when you knocked on the door of the single-wide, stepping over the carcass of a month-dead kitten on a plywood porch sogged and sagged by many Nebraska winters. More cautious souls would have told you to move on, fretted about meth labs and trigger-itch, but you wended your way through junk piles and slinking hair-on-end farm curs because that cover out there looks too damned good to pass up and three cockbirds flew off the borrow ditch when you turned the pickup down County 26A.

And my pheasants have come from the beautiful well-kept old farm down near the Kansas line where row after row of cedars broke the constancy of the west wind coming from the far-off Colorado mountains. A farm that you visited on a bitter November day with ice in the air, ice on the stems of brome out in the CRP across from the corn, and ice in your beard. When you stepped over the Welcome mat and knocked on the door, he came to the screen bent by seven or more decades of this land and said If you guys are crazy enough to be out in this weather, just go right ahead and thanks for asking. Three roosters went into the bag in thirty minutes that day because ice on the grass on a bitter west wind is the great equalizer for a running feral bastard with no boundaries and no order of the day other than running and flying. The next year, the old fella was gone and unwelcome signs were on every corner. Nursing home? Grave? It made you sad just thinking about change.

These are the vignettes, the playback of cover and cockbird and human and there are seemingly thousands of them, scattered and random as spring snowstorm. A hunt in far northeastern Montana on a morning so cold that the lobes of your hunting buddy’s ears, bare skin sticking out beneath wool cap, freeze and frost bite. The roosters hold tight this day and blow out of snow drifts and rose bramble, birds reluctant to take wing in minus twenty-something. Which reminds you of a college Colorado hunt out east of Flagler during a hard deep blizzard and roosters at road edge for the bloodlust of a teenager’s trigger finger. Cottontails and roosters in the daytime and hard-drinking some gawd-awful flavored liqueur at a lonesome farm house filled with your local pal’s high school friends eager for tales of Arizona college shenanigans.

And finally my pheasants have come from the Gion farm out past the North Dakota diner named the Corner Club on the highway’s only curve on seventy miles of straight-away. Thirty years ago you stepped onto that ground with a good friend and his new Gordon and you and your new English and all there was to do was drink Johnnie Walker when the wind rocked your camper and get out every day and watch the roosters fly to the sky off the bends of the Cannonball. Walk against the hangover and into the wind, walk on a sour morning stomach empty of everything but camp coffee and old Scotch because it is morning and you are young and so is your bird dog and neither has the corner on enthusiasm. Breakfast can wait for mid-day. One morning your bird dog, all eight months of him and trailing thirty feet of check cord, pins a wild rooster against a fence and when the bird goes up you center the hell out of him and down he goes and the dog is on him and back to you with that rooster stone-dead and all you can do is shout for joy because Hank just became a bird dog. And your life-long mentor with his 1950s Superposed folded over his arm and a smile on his face is there to witness the coming of age.

So you march north in this Kansas cum-Canada windchill, contemplating this pheasant hunting life’s vicissitudes. People and the land. A life measured by covers and roosters and the occasional hen, by diners with good burgers and terrible coffee, by good kind people opening up thousands of acres to strangers with guns, by canine joy. And that of your own.

 

How do it know?

Thermos and a bird dog pup.

One morning while bobbing out on the lake in his johnboat with his buddy, Art, Hillbilly Jim turns to his pal and opines that the most amazing of all of mankind’s great inventions is the Thermos. Art, driven by a skeptic’s heart replies, “Huh?” To which Hillbilly Jim pulls up practical proof: “Keeps things cool in the summer. Hot in winter.” Says Art the cynical: “Huh?” Answers Hillbilly Jim: “How do it know?”

2018 was not the year to get a new pup, but hindsight is like that, attempting the impossibility of governing past actions with sentences peppered by “should-haves” and “wish-I-woulda-knowns.” My mother called this practice being “should-on” and for a woman who barely said damn, that was pretty close to about as blue as her air was going to turn.

A new son, work, and a fistful of family and friend health crises left the new pup with a lot of crate time, a few vigorous runs up on the bench perhaps once a week or maybe even less, an anxious and excited leash walk out to the road to get the newspaper a time or two, and that was about it. By eight months, she barely knew her name, didn’t come when whistled, chewed the living hell out of everything from electrical cords to irrigation hose, and had neither seen nor smelled a wild bird other than an occasional sparrow. She rarely messed in the house, but that was more of a function of crate and kennel time than any talent at bird dog training.

So October came and a hunt was squeezed into a weekend, but this hunt had to be in cell phone range and attentions were diverted to electronic devils instead of being on the horizon following canine breeze-ward. There was wild bird scent out there, Huns and sharptails and feral bastard roosters and the pup tore out into that landscape as if cattle-prodded. Up and over hillside, leaping across coulee and ditch bank, drinking the wind and giving those young muscles full release. Coveys were run over and chased. Roosters blew out of buffaloberry hundreds of yards out. Hens careened madly from tall grass. Sharptails? Sharptails were out and up chuka-chuka-chuka-ing for the county line before paw hit ground. There were no points. It was fruitless to yell or blow a whistle or hold a button down.

Go wild, young pup, run like hell, this is my fault, not yours. You do not know because I have not helped you know.

So run she did. There were a few more half-day trips, more just whistle-walks, getting her used to her two-syllable name: Ed-na. Double-tapping the whistle to come back at the same time as calling her. Bonding mostly.

When time is pinched, it is easy to pick a four-year-old veteran dog from the pack and put her on the ground because you want to put a bird in the bag and then in the pot. Harder is holding back on that urge, to let a teenager charge across the field even though you are not going to be treated to professional performances. Somewhere in that pinch of October going into November, there was just enough of teenager gusto combined with overseer control to turn the pup into something a little more restrained. An afternoon in Idaho when she ran off over a horizon of tall grass on a warm day and could not find us for several hours put the fear into her and me. There were a few more whistle blasts, even some check-cording.

So we worked like this for weeks, just the light control of things, no expectations other than knowing a two-beat old lady’s name as her own, and me as alpha and feeder. That was enough. Edna was growing on me and I think I was growing on her. There were smiles.

Nevada, up on a piece of slide rock, up in a canyon of buckskin grass as tall as a man’s hipbone, treading on a landscape that once was a river of lava that had dried out, hardened and broken into millions of shards long ago. The first covey got trampled with gusto. There was no cursing, for it was my fault, this unchecked eagerness, this loose-cannon go-go-go. There was a little whistle blasting until after one more tearing-ass-loop-around-the-place-of-the-covey-rise-for-the-100th-time, she came in panting wildly and reluctantly. Tongue dragging the sagebrush.

Okay, now, girl, let’s go find another covey.

And we did. Up over the rise, through the shards and sage, following the rim of the world where it dropped off into a cliff-edged canyon. A breeze at our right flank cliff-side and the pup charging off into it. Drinking. I let her. Then it appeared, as if plucked from sky and horizon.

She stopped. Tail out straight.

That looks like a point. Is she pointing?

Movement, creeping. Then stopping again. Birds out. Fifty yards out from the tip of that quivering nose.

Good girl!!! Good girl!!!

More wild tearing through the sage sea but that’s okay. A point. Two points. Self-relocating. But she did it.

Crate and kennel and occasional leash time. A neglected bird dog pup on the front end of what I hope she will see as a wonderful life. There has been little human attempt to make a bird dog, help find a bird dog. But a pup digging down into DNA and instinct, down to the great-great-great ancestor who whiffed the scent of red grouse on the damp island wind and crouched into it. Somehow a point is born. She’s going to make a bird dog. No fault of my own. All Edna.

How do it know?

 

Heart-shot

The gun, a loaner, was new to me. That’s the excuse, anyway, for not dropping the bird right there, folding it up deader than hell. It flushed from 20 yards away and flew crossing left to right in front of me. But I clipped it.

I did hit it hard enough that I took the gun down and held it at my hips and watched the bird fly. Incredulous is a word that should always be accompanied by a look: Open-mouthed. The way you do when you can’t believe what you’re seeing, like passing a bad wreck on the interstate and looky-looing your ass off even though you tell yourself you shouldn’t.

So I stood there mouth-breathing and keeping an eye on that clipped bird, waiting for it to fall out of the sky. Even though another bird flushed from the same spot and flew even closer to the muzzle of the gun. I refused to look at that second bird, so sure was I that the first was going down.

But the damned bird kept going. And going. Then it sailed, took a few more flaps, sailed some more. Then it flew straight up into the sky as if it had spotted a hole in the heavens and was heading toward the harp music. And it died. Fell straight down. Down being the operative word.

Three hundred feet below and hundreds of yards out, out of sight into a ravine in the sagebrush. Damn again. When you have spent almost all of your energy climbing up a chukar hill, down is the last direction you want to head unless the day has been long and hard and down is a good thing and down means beer and kettle chips and a warm pickup. When you are up there, determined to dispense justice on a chukar population, dropping down, even one foot, is painful. But I marked the last seen sight of the dead chukar dropping out of the sky like detritus from an airliner—right in line with that big green rabbitbrush—called the dog off the rest of the covey she was working, and headed to find it.

We did. Maybe fifteen minutes later, stone dead and right in line with the big green rabbitbrush, deep in the ravine. Took it from the dog, pocketed it, and started back up the slope. Again. Elevation gained, elevation lost. Two steps forward, one step back.

Bird in hand

Someone once told me that birds that towered after being shot, and then died stone dead while they were high in the sky, were heart-shot. So, that’s what we’re calling it here. I know nothing of the forensics of it, but I do know that those towering, dying birds are pretty damned memorable.

There was another cliff in another Nevada years ago. The dog was Sage, another brilliant female with talent and drive. We were lucky to camp right in the thick of the habitat, with chukar laughing us to shame at our campfire of an evening. One afternoon, I worked back toward camp, and took a swing at a wild flushing bird, clipping it in a snap shot. It towered, then fell out of sight hundreds of feet below, but damned close to camp. I took the setter down there and looked for that bird until dark and never found it. The campfire was calling.

The next morning as I was on my morning shovel stroll, I walked about two hundred yards from camp, the dogs following me off into the sagebrush doing their own thing. Then here came Sage carrying a frozen dead chukar. That chukar.

There is another one that sticks too, just for the sheer height of the nosedive. We worked the very top of a cliff that was perhaps two hundred feet sheer, the kind of pucker-cliff that makes you nervous just walking near it, but there were birds there and if they flushed one way, they were totally accessible because a flat bench peeled out to the right for miles. Shoot the left to right birds and you were in tall cotton. Don’t shoot the right to left ones.

Self-control is difficult with the red-legged devils. Some of the finest wing-shots I know have confessed ground-sluicing a covey of running chukar. Not shooting at chukar, even an out-of-range one, is one of the hardest things on the planet to do, particularly if the climb has been hard and the quarry elusive. On this particular cliff, the way I remember it anyway, is that I shot a left to right bird and not a right to left one, but that may not be the case. I do know that the bird took a punch from a fist of 6s and kept on going, veering almost ninety degrees and flying out over 300 feet of cliff and maybe another seven hundred feet of damn near cliff above the valley floor. One thousand feet. I watched the bird get smaller and smaller and smaller until I could barely see it and then all of a sudden, it flew up, straight up, and died. Plummeting. One thousand feet, perhaps. Perhaps even more. I lost sight of it out over the valley floor. Then I looked inside of myself. I could climb all the way down that hill, drop all of that hard-earned elevation, and maybe find the bird. It was mid-morning and a day lay out ahead of us.

Fuck it, said I. I’ll find it on the way back to the truck.

I never did. Hours later, we swept back and forth across the valley floor looking for that bird as the shadows of a gone-away sun brought winter back to the landscape. Finally, with the sagebrush blackening against the night, we gave up and trudged toward the pickup.

Maybe a coyote got it, girl, I said.

It’s a rooster pheasant, though that made for the most memorable heart-shot. We were hunting a tree row just west of a big, beautiful farmstead in eastern Montana when the dog went on point in a clump of Russian olives. The cover was between me and the dog and when the rooster went up it went the dog’s direction, putting the tree between the muzzle and its tail feathers, but I took the shot anyway and hit it hard. It kept going.

This farmstead was a showplace. Matching buildings, matching roofs, well-trimmed shrubs, tightly mowed shelterbelts. The kind of place that made you admirable and envious in the same wave of thought. And a family place too, with homes for the offspring and maybe the old pensioner scattered about. Neatly parked machinery, most of it under cover. Prosperous. Made you think that the owner and his minions spent the entirety of the day working on one thing or another and when there was a spare moment, they got out a paintbrush. They were generous too, sharing their prosperity with us fortunate hunters from the other side of the state.

Meanwhile, this hard-hit-but-still-flying-Chinese-ditch-parrot was still hard hit and still flying. Right toward that vigorous and well-kept farmstead. And now right over that farmstead. And now towering, right up to the sky, and then the lights went out, and the big old cock bird just swapped ends and fell straight down, trailing a 30-inch tail a-fluttering like an advertising banner behind a football stadium bi-plane. Out of sight.

I had no choice but to call the dog to my side and start a long trudge, perhaps a half mile, toward our host’s spick-and-span home. So I did, fully expecting to see the rooster lying dead in the driveway—which was paved—or the lawn—which, were a human head, would have just come from the best barbershop in the city.

It’s an odd thing to tell your dog to hunt dead in someone’s driveway, but I did and she tore off all around the place, looking behind perfectly trimmed pfitzers and under sculpted lilacs. No rooster.

Damn it, I know that S.O.B. died.

We looked everywhere. Behind perfectly parked stock trucks. Under a combine. Next to the John Deere. Next to the corrals. By the milking shed. Under a swather. No rooster, anywhere, and all the while telling myself it had to be stone dead somewhere.

Then I looked up. There, on the roof of one of those beautiful houses, just a foot or so from a dormer window, was the rooster. Our rooster. I looked at Sage.

There he is, I said. How to get it?

That morning, I had stopped at the main house when I had asked for permission, so that’s where I went. It was midday now and I was hopeful someone was home but not optimistic.

Turns out the farmers of that stead didn’t just paint or fix or farm or maintain. In the offseason, they played cards in the middle of the day. About ten of them were sitting around drinking coffee, dealing, shuffling, bluffing and blustering, having a good time when this hunter showed up at their door with an odd request.

“Hey, do you have a ladder by chance?” I said.

“A what?” said Farmer One.

“A ladder. I shot a rooster in that tree row about a half mile west and the damned thing flew over here and died on the roof of that house right there,” I said.

Chairs scooted backwards and everyone went to the window.

“I’ll be damned,” said Farmer Two. “Never seen that before.”

One of the younger of the clan piped up: “I’ll get a ladder.”

Bird on a roof

So we went out into the yard and there, behind a shed, of course hanging neatly on pegs, was a good extension ladder. The farmer started climbing, never even offering another option.

“This is one hell of a full service operation,” I said.

I think he appreciated the compliment.

 

Chukar rhymes with

The definition of joy.

On the first day, fell flat on the face and onto the shotgun. On the flat ground, which was a great irony after scrambling over shale and climbing caprock. Broke a big chip out of the butt where it meets the receiver, enough to make it unshootable. Fortunately there was a spare.
Road-flushed a covey, the only birds seen en route to burning 3,000 calories to shoot a bird the size of a Cornish game hen. (A smart-watch that tells how much vertical has been gained and lost and how many steps have been taken and calories have been burned on a chukar hunt is a blessing and a curse). Found the road covey up the mountain with the pup off somewhere over the rise, so shot one of them anyway. Out of anger more than anything. An excuse to pull the trigger on the loaner gun too.
Walked eight miles the next day and never saw a bird. Broke the truck that night. The driveline. Fortunately we had a spare truck, but we lost a day. Found some good cover on the way to the mechanic 100 miles away, a cliff near water, sagebrush, cheat, bitterbrush, lots of hiding and feeding cover, some green-up. Salvaged a couple of hours for a hike. Seven-hundred and fifty feet climbed. That damned smart-watch again. Never saw a bird.

Cozy camp.

Snowed that night and wood stove in the camper made for a damned fine experience, particularly the good company and fine bison steak grilled to perfection, but then sustained a camp injury by running a crucial muscle—the thigh—into the trailer hitch in the dark. Blame it on the lack of chukar or the abundance of bourbon. Thighs are important.

Found a good covey the next day but they flushed wild and uphill despite a veteran dog working them cautiously. Put them up and over a ridge and then found single after single. Missed a rising overhead shot off a point. Clipped one down and had a nice retrieve to hand which made up for all of the previous mishaps of the previous four days. Missed the next seven shots, mostly pointed birds and some wild-flushed. Shot at everything. A chukar hill is no place for self-imposed codes of conduct.

Left the best pair of shooting gloves I’d ever owned, made by my pals at Orvis, up on the hill when I cleaned that bird. Went back the next day to look for them and maybe that covey again. Never found the gloves, but found a wild-flushing covey of four that flew into the meanest cover on the planet, never to be seen again. Lost a pocket knife, out of the pocket. Stumbled back to the truck only to find we’d left the beer in the camper 20 miles of bad road away.

Ran out of booze and beer on the last night. At least something went right.