When I was a boy, we would occasionally make a family trip up to Greeley, Colorado, to visit a couple of my dad’s aunts, sweet old crones in their late 80s who had lived together their entire lives. They were two of something like 15 offspring. They had big litters back then, unpaid labor for the farm no doubt.
Mabel and Edna somehow managed to live their whole lives in the same house all the way to the very end. Neither one killed the other, which is saying something when you live eight decades in the same house.
They drove cool old cars, Edna a 1954 Chevrolet Belair two door, aqua-green and white. It was like riding around in a roomy suitcase. We ended up with that car and I took it on fishing trips to the South Platte when I was just learning to drive. It drove like a suitcase too.
Greeley at that time was still a farm town, a place where my grandfather had a pool hall in 1922, then a farm, where he once accidentally cut a hen pheasant in half while hand-scything hay. The hen was on a nest and the eggs joined a nest of chicken eggs in the coop where they later hatched. The hen pheasant was salvaged and went into the pot. Grandpa shot a single shot hammer 12 of some off-breed brand, but he obviously was equally deadly with the scythe.
I remember little else about Mabel and Edna other than they were kindly old gals and they lived together in relative harmony. And their names stuck with me. Mabel first, then Edna. Here’s hoping their spotted namesakes get along as well as those old ladies did and here’s hoping they last well into their dog-year eighties. The setter Mabel is actually aunt to the setter Edna and now there is a brace to follow into the western skies.
I first met Ryan Busse on a river. A fitting place, really, because it seems as if we both spend a lot of time in rivers or in the woods or out on the big empty. More likely to meet there than in a mall or something. His favorite all-time fly is the Turk’s Tarantula, which is the kind of thing you learn about a guy when you spend a day together on a river. We run in similar circles, breathe some of the same good mountain air, share an ethic and parallel paths in the outdoors and the desire to get our kids out in it as much as possible. He lives closer to Canada than I do and I live closer to Mexico. We both live in Montana. He runs Brittanys, I run setters. One of us has bad judgment. Or maybe both. Or neither. He names his Brits after crusty old outdoor authors who drank gin, I name my setters after maiden aunts who liked, well, gin. And well gin. I do know this: He loves wild places, watching good bird dogs do their thing, wild fish and wild birds. Like us here at MOF, he’s low on pretention and high on irreverence and, sometimes, reverence. So I asked him to start writing for us and sharing some tales of his own for MOF because all of us who love that should have a place to land, even if just for a moment and just metaphorically or vicariously. We’ll enjoy his stories from time to time here on MOF. Be on alert for a post from Ryan soon.
These back-end March days are so refreshing after a hard winter, that there is little thought of how damned far away September lies. March is here and so are the red-wings, sandhills, meadowlarks and the sweet multi-noted song of some bird that remains hidden along the stream. A stream now free of ice and it is this freedom that catches the heart and carries it away into thoughts of more spring and summer coming. Fall, our glorious gift, seems a long way off.
The dog, however, has other ideas. She is on point, tail-high, frozen solid, not moving. Just beneath a little pothole pond that sits on the hillside above the cottonwood bottom. A pothole of pondweed and frogs, but also the occasional mallard. I walk toward her, and she turns that eye toward me. Where is your frickin’ gun? I got ’em!
A triple gets up, two greenhead drakes and a hen, and she’s after them, breaking point at the flush because that’s how I want her to be, galloping, laughing and then they are gone and she is back, tongue out, happy as hell.
The point is an amazing thing. Good retrieves are too, but I’ve seen border collies and dingos that were endless stick chasers, tireless to the point of great annoyance. I’ve stood by in awe as a buddy’s lab made back-to-back blinds on rooster pheasants I had pass-shot and dropped out of sight, but one dead rooster on top of the other one. Busting across the river, sitting to look at the boss, the command “Over!” and the dog finding the bird and busting across the river again. Delivered to hand. Pretty amazing.
But for my money, the point is otherworldly. An animal whose natural instinct is to run like the hounds of hell are chasing it, then just stopping and tapping into its inner feline, if there is such a thing, and freezing solid. Maybe taking one cat-step forward, but solid. Unmoving. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Outdoing anything any mountain lion would do on a mule deer stalk.
Another walk on another March day and the dog disappears while a cigar is smoked on the bench that I like to call The Contemplation Station. Looking out across the brown land slowly, very slowly, turning green. All the way south to the Madison Range and east to the Bridgers, then back west to Hollowtop and the Tobacco Roots. A cool spring breeze and nothing but the sound of birds and a pickup truck hauling hay out on the Pony Road. Good place for a smoke. Then: where the hell is the dog.
Shout her name five or six times. Probably eating horse crap or gnawing the bones of last year’s elk hauled up on the bench for the coyotes. That damned dog.
A rooster pheasant blows out from the cover, as silent as a big bird can be even when it’s scared shitless, rising up over the cottonwoods and flying all the way east to the neighbor’s place. I had the shot. Towering, then topping out and flying like a big-ass bright-as-hell woodcock on a straight line for freedom. And here’s the dog. Laughing and wondering why there was no shot. She had been on point for an entire cigar only twenty yard off in the bramble while I was contemplating on the station.
I had a couple of setters that were champion mouse pointers in the offseason. Cocking a head, then finally giving up and pouncing and digging. A few caught and eaten, two solid gulps of squeaking fur.
The dogs I’ve had have all been outstanding at their craft. The point itself. Sharing the point? Not so much. Some sucked out loud at backing. The current one does too and it’s embarrassing because there is nothing more frustrating than a dog bursting in on another dog’s point. Stealing the point, or worse yet blowing out the bird or busting the pointer off its game. Explains why I hunt alone so much.
Sage was the best backer I’ve ever been around. She’d back salt licks. And big white chunks of quartz five hundred miles from the nearest glacier. She’d back cardboard boxes caught in briar patches and she’d back her hunting companions. Always. She had her fair share of her own points too in a too-short life of a baker’s dozen years.
Every time I see a point, it takes my breath away. The solid instinct of the thing. The special gift that is given to the hunter, who can walk, or run in. How amazing it is to be able to hunt behind a creature whose sole drive in the field is running, finding, stopping and letting you have all the fun. The flush is coming. And when it does, you know they’ve had fun too. That smile says it all.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.