Good torts

We didn’t go south this past winter.
By all accounts, we didn’t miss anything. By quail accounts, or counts, that is. Bird numbers were down.
But quail are not the only driver for a trip south. True, it is fun to hunt when numbers are up, but I’ve always felt it a kind of penance for good years to hunt hard in bad years too. The quail deserve the effort, down or up.
We did miss a lot, though. We missed just watching the dogs float through those magical grasslands. Missed leaning a shotgun and a tired back up against the bark of a granddaddy oak tree, sipping water and listening to nothing but a panting dog and a scrub jay off somewhere.
Missed just the old-time country feel of some of the places, a feel that makes one think of Gene Autry or at least Lefty Frizzell. Old Arizona and Old New Mexico. Missed thinking about hunting in the same footsteps of my college days, missed thinking about my old college dog JD. Missed the college memories of cases of cold Coors and Coues deer and the best college buddies anyone could ever have.
Missed the food too. No good Mexican food north of the 38th, where the Chili Relleno Tour begins. Missed the Hatch chili stop, although the previous year’s frozen batch is holding out, thanks to spending a couple Benjamins in a classic store in Hatch where English is a second language and chilis are a work of culinary art, roasted and peeled and frozen. Bring a whole damn empty cooler for that stuff.
But mostly missed good tortillas. Good tortillas. Not the flour and chemical paste shit they sell in the grocery stores back home. Good torts made with lard. Good for you and your heart.
Deep in Montana winter and whining like a sad pup for agave and mesquite country, I remembered the magic of the internet. Got online, found an authentic tort maker in Tucson. Ordered seven dozen right out the gate.
I think I’m going to survive until next year. Such are modern times for a lucky bastard.



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.

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.

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.

The things you do for love

There is no alarm because you catch it and cancel it out an hour ahead of time. Might as well just get the hell up. The night has been sleepless, or if there has been sleep it came without conscious acknowledgement and you didn’t know it happened until it was just time to get up. After lying there and stewing, turning from a pins-and-needles side to a sore side, and back to a pins-and-needles one, you just get the hell up.

The coffee is instant because you don’t want to wake the whole house with that brewing aroma. Today’s instant is a lot better than that chemical shit they used to have, those crystals crusted like brown alakali and tasting about the same. Do they still make that crap? Is it even legal? Does anyone buy it? Goddamn.

In the headlights after you crank the key to warm up the pickup, the first flakes are just coming down. But as you turn out the drive, it is a blizzard and there are four hours ahead. Four hours on a good morning let alone a bad morning.
Four hours on the road for one day of hunting. Then four hours back. Seems about right. The snow is sideways now and this fucking travel mug won’t fit in your cup holder and it spills all over the floor when you hit the brakes for a deer coming up out of the whiteness like Ebenezer’s undigested bit of meat. You miss the deer but not your carpet with lukewarm coffee and you lament it for a while, but it’s just as well, for you need both hands on the wheel.

The road is white, the world is white and all you see is blizzard. Flake and a little light on the dash that reads FOUR WHEEL DRIVE in steady, sturdy, calming amber. You see a reflector post and then nothing and then another reflector post and you ease for the centerline rumble strips which you feel through the steering wheel. Still on the road. Good. And sideline rumble strips? Yep, they are there too. Hope this shit doesn’t last all night.

An hour goes by, though, and your shoulders knot and you remember to flex your fingers, first one hand, then the other, careful to steady the wheel, careful to make no sudden moves, careful to keep one hand on there at all times. Cramped. Tense. You pull over. Have to. Can’t see shit. Send a text: Whiteout. Gotta stop for a bit.

Hope there’s some birds.


Sometimes, there is only nothing. Nothing stretches to the horizon ahead and back over whence you came. Nothing is all there is. Left, right, ahead. Behind.

The world is encased in crust. Covered in a hard shell that makes your legs ache with each step and the dog’s feet bleed. Mostly, the dog skims the crust as if it is nothing while you post hole, breaking through, falling sometimes. And there is nothing.

A month ago, there were eight coveys of Huns on this moonscape of stubble to the sky. A month ago was a month ago. Now is now and all there is is nothing. So you plod and plod and plod and break through again. Your calves ache. Your thighs. It is a day at the Good Lord’s gymnasium. Or perhaps that of His alter ego. You break on, following the dog, whose attitude never wanes despite the nothing. She is out hunting and that is everything even when its nothing.

There will be no birds before the gun today. No points. No meat for a meal. Only nothing. You plod on because that is all there is and all you know. Nothing.



There are easier ways to spend a birthday than climbing one thousand vertical and post-holing. Better ways than spending what little air you have blowing it through a whistle. Climbing still, climbing always up into the deep snowline, breaking crust, crunching. The Douglas fir forest, snow-bound home of the West’s greatest native game bird. Sweat running down backbone, but cooling and freezing everywhere else. Frost in the beard, hard packed snow marbles in the dog’s feet. She stops every now and then to chew at those ice balls, but mostly she toughs it out. Feet starting to bleed. This is high enough, isn’t it? This ridge where blue grouse of past hunts have pitched wildly down and across in front of the gun and a big blue rooster, big as a polt turkey, gives you the most challenging shot of a lifetime of shotgunning. Down, away, dropping, swinging and dropping and when the trigger is found, the shot is long. On the edge of range. And yet big blue bird goes down and you do too, dropping, plunge-stepping like a mountaineer—because you are, shotgun instead of ice axe—down to where the rooster went in, calling the dog and there it is. The bird is in hand and feels as if it weighs ten pounds. Twenty when you gain the ridge again.

That was last year. This, no birds yet. But then you find the tracks. You slug water (getting low), check the dog’s feet (bleeding but a long way from the heart). Check your supplies (dwindling), check the elevation gain (one thousand fifty), check the shotgun (still loaded), check the watch (advancing rapidly) and check your ambition (see the tracks? yeah, that’s a good sign, gotta be a big one up ahead).

There are better ways to spend another year, spend the marking of a new one. Maybe. The tracks lead up. Up you go.

Slap happy

Entering the jungle. photo/Greg McReynolds

There was a time when the pinnacle of challenge was a wind-torn butte somewhere in the middle of a western desert and a bird that laughed in your face and ran off before your dog was in sniffing range. There was a time when trial was measured in heart rates and quick-twitch muscle screaming under vertical gain and loss. When the toughest upland experience imaginable was bounded by sagebrush and cliff face, cheat grass and wide open sky. When the gun came to the shoulder and carried three shells because those Afghan partridge always rose in spurts and left a double gun man empty while a late-riser came from his feet. This is how you measured things, wild chukar on public land and twenty thousand feet of vertical gain and loss in a day.

That bar is no more.

There is a place where alders and poplar and highbush cranberry and dogwood grow as thick as canine hair. Step into this tangle with aspirations and they will evaporate like a woodcock rising before a point into a blizzard of leaves. There are no mountains here, but there sure are a lot of gawd-damned logs. Logs slick with rain, traps for ankle sprains and shin-barks. Some spattered with the leavings of a drumming grouse, others splashed with paint from the arse of the strangest little game bird God ever created. Somewhere off in the distance—two hundred yards?—there’s the chime of a bell and then all is quiet. Distance is a trickster here, for the bell is on the neck of a dog that is really only forty yards away. Might as well be a mile. Slip and stagger in that direction while the devil himself slaps you repeatedly about the face with a willow switch. Where is the dog? She could be at your feet or she could be in the next county. So Beelzebub gives you a quick poke in the eye with a sharp stick and sends you in a general direction, both hands on the gun, anticipation in your heart. You have entered Lucifer’s woodlot. The dog, a big-country lady you had fretted may not adapt to close quarters, is on point. She has adapted. You needn’t have worried.

You, on the other hand, have not adjusted a thing except your rain-soaked crotch-pinching pants. Your fabled and treasured autoloader is a hindrance but a convenient excuse for poor shooting. You punch shots at shadows, kill trees, scare leaves from stem, misfire and fumble for shells dropped into a shag-carpet of impenetrable understory. Might as well shoot that gun straight up into the sky as fast as you can. It’s like swinging a baseball bat from inside a coffin. You touch not a single feather. The timberdoodles dip and dive a spastic sky-dance and when the gun is at your shoulder it feels as erratic as a paintbrush might in the hand of Jackson Pollock. Twice, three times, four, you have rock-solid points on ruffed grouse and they are gone as quickly as one might read a Hemingway sentence. There are no windows for swinging a shotgun, just a quick up and out and gone. The burst of seven-and-a-halfs takes an alder midsection and the devil slaps you smartly on the nose with his alder quirt. Ticks crawl everywhere. On your pant legs, on the dog’s head, up under what’s left of your hairline. Your feet have been wet for three hours and most of the forest—really just an outright swamp—is a boot-top deep puddle.

It’s raining again and you have no flipping idea where the truck is and you might, in fact, be bleeding.