The setter people entertain themselves these days by mouse hunting. We take our daily walks on the bench above the home place now in the light of spring, not the dark of winter. North Willow Creek is still fairly clear, but it is coming up and will be over the banks in a few weeks. The ice has abandoned its shoulders. The geese are hooked up and flying in pairs. Mallards jump from the ponds beneath the high ditch and yesterday, I thought I heard the first sandhill of the season.
My thoughts trend to fishing now and a new six weight in the quiver and a section of the Missouri I haven’t fished yet. Screwing around with a spey rod, as if I need another hobby. Reminds me of when I transitioned to tele from downhill skiing. More crap to buy, more gear. I rounded out the fly rod collection this spring and have a whole box full of articulated streamers.
Hunting is off somewhere on a far rim and if I follow the Solstice Rule–no conversations about hunting are allowed until the days start getting shorter–then I can’t even talk about it. We invented the Solstice Rule to avoid the pain of not hunting, but it really is poor salve for such.
And yet, the major trips are already blocked out for the fall: up to the Front the first week of September, down to Arizona (they are getting a lot of quail rain this spring) in December, Nevada chukar in late October . . . . But now I’m hunting big rainbows and browns and planning summer pack trips. The other day a lady friend and I rode the horses to the Pony Bar and flushed two sets of paired-up Huns on the neighbor’s ranch. I have permission to hunt there. I tried to not think about that–that time so distant.
And so, sandhills and trumpeter swans and Candada geese and red-winged blackbirds. The guns are cleaned and gun-safed and the only shooting I’m doing is my .45 Kimber auto at targets. For fun. For something that goes bang. Kind of like how a brown hits a hopper. The smell of sap rises in the cottonwoods and there’s a drift scent of beefsteak sizzling over the alder coals of the season’s first barbecue. It’s gin and tonic season. Spritzer season. I’ll survive.
The setter people? Mouse hunting and chewing on the legs of winter killed whitetails. Damned carnivores.
Consider the sage chicken. Take your time at it. He is a mighty bird, his pointed tail, his black-feathered breast, his mottled and muted yet beautiful hues, his huge feet. Many writers, attempting to describe his flight have penned imagery of Air Force bombers, kites, sails. Indeed, the pet name for the big ones, the old ones, is “bomber.” Others have sneered at the big grouse as a game bird, shuddered at the thought of eating his dark breast, laughed when talking about the sporting dog aspect of hunting “chickens.”
Yet I submit that those who turn their noses up at Mr. Chicken might in fact be deeply saddened if those big beautiful birds no longer dotted our sagebrush steppe, no longer flew our wide Western skies.
There are those among us who have grown up hunting chickens. Here, on the broad ocean that is the sagebrush sea, are a few of us whose first shotgunning experience was sage grouse, whose family reunions were on the high prairies of states like Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana. I love how the names of those states sound on the tongue, and when I think of sage grouse and of those places, I think of old Willys jeeps and Ford Broncos covered in alkali dust, of big heavy Labs panting in the shade of a September wall tent, of Winchester pump guns, of windy Labor Days in the middle of nowhere, of grape soda in a tub of ice–and when I was deemed old enough–Hamm’s, Oly and Coors. I remember listening to the Wyoming Cowboys or the Colorado Buffaloes or the Denver Broncos on AM radio, and I remember those big birds taking wing and my shotgun on my shoulder and that huge, huge target, and I remember missing. They were deceptively fast and the shotgun sometimes swung as if it were twenty feet long. Sometimes, I remember hitting. Always, sage chicken season was about family and laughter and the music of loved ones.
Not too many people have family reunions around sage chicken season any more. Perhaps it is a function of a fattening society, of lard-assed kids who would rather play video games or text-message their pals. But the real reason, I think, is because we’ve failed as a society to appreciate this bird, failed as a people to treasure the wide open sagebrush flanks of our land–the very openness that defines the West–and failed, ultimately to be good stewards. Lyrical ground like Sweetwater, Oregon Buttes, Vinegar Hill, Horse Prairie, Choke-A-Man Draw . . . I can’t even think of those places without sage grouse. Without them, they are truly empty.
Six dogs and one wife ago, I was the cocky young editor of a small town western Colorado newspaper. Back then, I hunted with a beat-up Remington autoloader that jammed often, and a mutt named after my favorite beverage at the time. JD had been born under a house in Carbondale the year I dropped out of college to spend a season ski bumming in Aspen. The bastard child of a Springer mother and a Lab father, she was black and white, just like the Jack Daniels’ label.
Eventually, I went back to college, finished up that degree, put a few years of Arizona quail hunting and Colorado pheasant hunting in front of JD’s eager nose, and then found myself in the Gunnison Basin. I was editing a newspaper with an absentee owner and given free reign over the editorial pages. The pay was light, but the benefits were fantastic. The newspaper’s owner also had claim to a few miles of the Taylor River to which I had access, and there was wild country right out the door.
And there were chickens. The high country held blue grouse, but if you were a serious bird hunter (and with JD, I thought I was a terror to the game birds of the basin), you had to be a chicken hunter. They were everywhere. You could hunt chickens on the sage-blanketed sweep of the rising mountains and have a staggering Colorado mountain view as a backdrop.
It was pretty tall cotton then and I didn’t even know it. I must have killed dozens in my time in Gunnison and I cooked their meat to medium rare over aspen coals and savored every bit of it. Cooked beyond medium rare and their flesh was as palatable as an old shoe, but medium-rare and you were in business. A friend would gather a large group of us–a banker, a professor at the local college, a PR man, a county assessor, a county manager, and the young punk newspaper editor with his mutt and clunker gun–and we’d head out to Flattop and hunt for a day behind his Brits and my Splab. We’d laugh and drink beer at the end and admire our chicken harvest. The hunts were about friendships, about sharing a passion and were an annual ritual.
Everywhere, in every Western state, the story is the same. South Dakota has a silly two-day season with a one bird limit. Why even have it? Eastern Oregon has a permit draw system much like we have with big game. Nevada–with its mighty, tossing ocean of sage–has a two week season and most of the state is closed to nonresidents. And Wyoming–Wyoming, the state that defines sagebrush, the state that is antelope and sage chickens and wide open–has a two-week season with a two-bird limit, four in possession. It used to run a month and you could sack up three birds a day with nine in possession. Sad times. While we have built our Pheasants Forevers and our Quail Unlimiteds, and our Ruffed Grouse Societys, the very symbol of the West for the upland gunner has dwindled, lost ground and died.
Oil and gas development, predation, range fire, intentional sagebrush eradication funded by the feds and states, the looming shadow of renewable energy and its transmission lines, livestock grazing, “wild” horses, even West Nile virus . . . the sage chicken is in trouble. It is teetering close to being put on the endangered species list and if it ends up there, we hunter-conservationists should be deeply ashamed of ourselves. Sick. And it happened in finger-snap time; unless you are younger than 8, this has happened in your lifetime.
In my living room, mounted in a place of honor, is a big old bomber chicken. Whenever I look at him, I am back on the Big Empty. The memory of a girlfriend after the broken marriage, of a beautiful September Wyoming day, of golden aspen leaves and soft breezes scented by sage, of a talented dog on solid point, of swing and trigger pull, and retrieve to hand all come back to me. But there’s more. There’s a symbol. Of the West. Of families that got together in the outdoors and walked hallowed ground. Of simpler times? Perhaps. But we had problems back then. We just knew how to stick together, how to laugh, what family felt like, how to appreciate nature without motors and batteries and games . . . Our people seem to have lost those things.
This nothing, this sheet of land, this openness, this bigness. Nothing. Stand. Then turn in a slow circle, eyes open. Nothing stretches left and right, ninety, one-eighty, two-seventy, three-sixty. Nothing.
Walk into it. Follow good bird dogs who follow their olfactors into a northward wind. Sagebrush at the feet. Greasewood. Four-winged saltbush. Sand. Sandstone. Sage again, sage always.
The wind hard in the face now, coming strong from the south, clouds forming, joining, mating, darkening. Still after the dogs, panting hard now and pivoting in growing wind, ears flopping with movement of body and earth. Still, nothing. No birds. Not even a track in sand, nor white-wash of turd on rock, nor anything.
A hawk overhead, passing on the wind, carried, pushed, surfed. Hardly a wing beat, just a kite of feather and talon and sharp beak.
Still into the wind, still after the dogs, still looking for track and scat and dusting. Still on.
An hour now. Then two. Three. Rest in steep ravines, dogs watering in natural troughs of stone. Carved deep and ancient. Crunching on through bitter small sage, over needling cactus. On, still in the wind.
Likely spots, tall grass in sagebrush stands, green-up on south slopes. Nothing.
A skeleton then, red feet. Plucked clean. Except for those feet. Those damned feet. Usually running and making tracks. Damnable, loveable little bastards.
Juniper twisted by wind, hardened and sanded and tortured.
Finally enough. Turn. The truck now ahead, not behind. How far? Three miles? Five? Six?
A wide swing. A wandering course. Following dogs. Occasionally following faded experience, judgment, upland teachings. Last year’s fountains dry. Going there, checking for this year’s generation. Informed by memory, swatted by reality. But mostly following dogs. Trusting. They know. If there is anything instead of nothing, canine instinct will prevail.
Canyons now, deep ones, scrambled. Sliding on sandstone, stopping again at a trough, hot and panting dogs lying in meltwater. Shotgun slung over one shoulder. Shells heavy in the vest, juniper berries collected. Back home, back at the woodstove, one berry on a stovetop will scent the entire house.
An antler shed. Leave it. A chipping, then a point. Leave them too.
Mind wandering, then coming back again, eyes following the dogs, whistle tucked and un-used. They are fine-tuned and all business and there is pride there, right there in the heart. Heavy too because the oldest, the alpha male, lopes with a limp and will be stiff on the front end and decommissioned in the morning. But now, onward, into nothing. Alone out here except for canine and raptor, a mule deer doe stotting over far gray ridge, hide matched to the land. Invisible without movement.
Water low now, sloshing in the bottle and stomach growling; lunch left hours ago. Sun slowly falling out of the sky and toes mashed hard by downward slides, heels feeling hot from upward slogs. Left knee complaining of high school football. Ignore it. On. Onward. Still, nothing.
Finally, the truck. Keys in the gas cap. Water from the jug for the dogs. A beer. Cold and goddamned good on dry throat and now the sun almost gone and a wash of color–orange and red and pink–across the sky. Dogs flopping down hard on the soil by the truck wheel, panting and stretching out and drooling cold water. Thirst slaked. On the tailgate now and a cigar, smoke curling, blending with sage scent. The wind down and gone. The bird vest empty. The gun still clean.
Really? Did I just hear that? Did he just say that?
My initial reaction–and all subsequent reactions– is “Giffy Butte.”
As in “GFY.” As in “Go Fuck Yourself.”
These are places earned in sweat. Toil. Research. Where you guys hunting? I’m gonna tell you that? A stranger in a parking lot motel with a SUV full of bird dogs? Umm . . . . Nope. GFY, dude!
We came here, to this tiny Wyoming burg, with hopes of birds and dogs on hard point. We each drove a half-dozen hours. I told my friend that I’d take him there only if he swore that he’d never take anyone else and never go there without asking me if he could. In the planning phases, he had asked me about another hunter, who lived only two hours away.
“What about taking him?” he had asked.
My answer was something like, “A guy who lives only two hours away? He hasn’t earned it. We don’t need to spread the word.”
To the novice, or to the hunter with only a few thin years under his boots, or to perhaps that uninvited hunter (whom I’ve nothing against), this might seem like raw arrogance. This is, after all, public land. Everybody’s land.
But this place, and many others, is sacred ground.
We found it, another hunter and I, almost twenty years before. Then, as now, we swore we’d take only a smattering of people, those who understood the blood oath, who understood the scarcity of a place with good birds and great hunting and deep reward in a shallow land. We’d take a few friends who lived many miles away, but even they would need to honor the oath. We shook on it.
I had done the research, talked with a warden and a biologist, and when we first stepped foot on Giffy Butte, we saw bird tracks in snow dust. This was a year or two before his best dog was even born. My best dog was between us, a pup of eight months with a heart full of talent. We got into the birds, killed limits. Swore on our souls.
His best dog and mine are dead now. Mine is buried out there, in a shallow grave scratched in a hard land.
We’ve gone annually, kept it quiet, and watched as a few more people found the place. Maybe they were researchers and big walkers and diehards who found the place on their own like us. But maybe, one of the few we’d shown had talked and pointed a betraying finger to a map. We wondered about that–And then they told two people, and so on and so on and so on and so on.
Today my friend I’m showing this place understands. We load his fine young dog and my pack into my truck and we drive there. There will be no revealing of this secret place to others–and certainly not to brazen eager turds in a motel parking lot.
I knew I could trust him.
My other friend, a kindred soul and fellow addict, called the other day. He was livid. Two friends who had taken the oath had lied. They had shown another that sacred spot and yet another leak sprung. Will this new addition honor the oath? Unknown. I barely know him.
But there is a resentment there. He hasn’t done the homework, nor, in fact, did those who showed him Giffy Butte do theirs. They were guests on the coattails of my generous friend’s sweat and hard work. For that gift, they gave him and me more competition on a place that we hold very dear. Thanks guys. Such betrayals are hard to forgive and I know that my friend will not be likely to share a new secret spot with them again.
For the hardened hunter, the avid dog man, such places are the core of the soul. The sharing of them is a time-honored ritual, a blood oath, a sacred trust. I have another friend who has walked many miles with me, a person I’d trust with my life. I’m even the designated executor of his will instead of his own son, but he never showed me his very best blue grouse hunting spot in Colorado. I never asked him to. And if he had, I would have never shared it nor even gone there without him. I would have held it as tightly as I’d hold an heirloom from my family’s ancestral trek on the Oregon Trail.
Sacred places. Some, even, are on private land. Many are on public. In a sport where territory sifts away each year like sand through an open palm, good hunting places are slipping. A place where I used to hunt Wyoming wild pheasants is now locked up tight. Another place where I chased blue grouse in high mountain holds has been nuked by greedy sheep and I’ve found more and more empty shotgun shells every autumn.
Herein lies the creed: do the homework, find your own places, walk long, sweat much, go birdless, find reward. If you want to share it, then do so. But share it knowing that life changes. Others discover. The land changes. The birds cling to life. Yours is a rare honor. Honor it.
Three hundred lots. A handful of open space tracts. Bull-dozed new ponds. Jogging trails along the streams where the new residents can enjoy wildlife watching.
But for now, a half section of farm ground in old wheat, a smattering of snowberry along the cricks, gone-awry tansy and thistle. Cover.
You walk this ground as you did last year. It’s good for one hunt a year, maybe two. You take only one dog. One dog, the old one, who stays close and hunts pheasants better than the others, more thoroughly, less ram-charger-hell-bent-go-daddy.
This place is close to town. Closer to the blade. They came here as your kind has come for centuries: lured by word-of-mouth, tantalized by brochures, urged by magazine articles that rated your town as a “Top Ten.” You came then too, so you are well aware of the dark crow of hypocrisy perched on your shoulder.
Farm ground went under the blade. Tracts surveyed. Nail guns spit. Places to live and raise your children and clean air to breathe and those amazing mountains on all sides. Good country.
But soil as black as an Angus turned over for the last time, covered in asphalt, concrete.
Then it all fell out.
The money stream dry. The realtors waiting tables. The construction guys on the road somewhere else. Some other boom.
Now it is as it has been for one hundred years. Farm ground. The surveyed and staked ground before you like some glowering storm off in the distance, a storm that promises to drop ice on the highway and force you elsewhere.
You are aware of time here. Aware of economics. Aware of change. When you come here as you have come every year for a half dozen, you wonder if you’ll have to find some other place next year. If this place will be no more. You do not think of these things in other places where change seems to creep as slowly as lichen across granite.
You walk behind the old dog and watch him move through the snowberry and tangle rose. You scrape along behind him and look for tracks in the snow. You start to pick up some, tracks of running roosters, a covey of feeding Huns, a doe-fawn combo. The old dog cuts parabolas on open ground, then finds a line that only he can feel and follows it, as if being reeled there. Then, a point. The cock bird goes up and you swing and pull and touch his warmth when the old man brings him back.
You go on now, thinking about hunting and unaware of time and change and development. There’s a hen beneath a solid point, and then another rooster warm in your hand and then you are out of cover and out of ground to hunt.
Two roosters on good ground. Two is enough. Save some for next year. Save some now. The ‘dozers will get the rest. –TR
This year there was no vibrancy to the slow fade of summer. A norther came down out of the high arctic and froze everything in early October, dropping temps down to singles, dropping a foot of snow on the backs of surprised baby partridge. The leaves on the aspens, the alders, the cottonwoods, turned black and fell off overnight.
Now deep winter.
Any hint of summer is long gone, drained from the grasses like blood from a corpse, the horizon sprawling out and the light as flat as the land. Petrified and pale. Along the empty and benumbed ditches are the stems of red willow, but even they have no verve, no splash, no elan. A man could get despondent in such a landscape with its off-tones and nothingness. When your partner compares the coming day to the soft pastels and dim light a Russell Chatham watercolor, you realize why you’ve never found the man’s art all that appealing. Why hang “Depression” in one’s living room?
Twenty below. Weather for fools and cattle feeders. The fools carry shotguns in refrigerated fingers. The cattle feeders feed from the heated cabs of tractors because they have to. You want to. Dolt.
Out into that drab vista with the only real vibrancy at your feet, panting and wiggling and dancing and wagging. Hell’s bells. It’s 20 below.
The sun splashes a little bit of yellow across the snow carpet, but still, nothing much more colorful than a hard-water stain in a commode. You crunch on in complaining squeak-snow and blow on the plastic whistle only once. Only once because the damned thing freezes to your lips and the end of your nose hurts and the lobes of your ears remind you of the last time they were frost nipped. Skiing a January or two ago. Skiing. Activity that makes sense. Or ice fishing. In a hut. With whiskey or schnapps or hot buttered rum. Not this idiot’s plod with a shotgun so cold the receiver glues to your glove and when you stop to get rid of some coffee, you worry about frost nipping the business end of your business. Jesus H. Jack London.
The path is a canal that in summer probably runs bank to bank with silt water but now is as empty as the land itself, its banks lined by brown brush and black weeds and reddish stems and here and there an acre or two of bled-out cattail. The dog charges into it and tufts of hair from the cattails drift and blend into the frost and you push on, coagulated limbs working, pulled only by the dog and his vivacity. In those thick cattails. Now quiet. Silence. A point, you think, and you pound into them, pushing through the floating cattail dust and the 20-below crystals and find him there, iced-over himself, and yet absolutely on fire at the same time and you kick about and hear a frantic beating at your feet and up she goes. Brown and black and a little white and flying. Hen! Dingy bitch.
A mile like this, along that canal, through blankness, your toes cold, your lobes slowly going from ‘nip to ‘bite, the whistle tucked away and forgotten, the dog stopping now and then to bite out chunks of ice between his pads, but bursting on, still giving it all. Would have liked to have that kind of drive and no-quit on your college football team. Who is playing probably right now while you are out here freezing your junk right the hell off. A simpleton’s trudge, yours. The farmer out there in his growling tractor, feeding faded green hay to his black cattle. Even that sounds more appealing.
You near the end of the canal where a big gray cottonwood presses into the sky and a ferruginous sits fixed on a limb, puffed out and gray and brown and black and reluctant to move. Does finally, launching silent into the freeze. The dog doesn’t see the hawk, though. Occupied and animated. When he stops again, solid again for the fifth or sixth time, you think: Probably another damned hen but you wade in anyway.
Your toes hurt from kicking the cattails and then a chaotic splashing at your feet and a cackle. A cry that is in reality probably one of fright, but you’ve imagined it a scold, an angry, cursing, pissed-off mean-ass sumbitch.
And there he is. A flying box of Crayons: Purple! Red! Green! Russet! Rouge! White! Black! Yellow! Chartreuse!
That day is on the list–you know, the list we all pack around. The personal list of the days that sink into your core, the days you will remember for a long, long time. Days like 9/11 and the day the Broncos won the Super Bowl for the first time. Bad and good. Burned deep. Days to remember when you are old and worn and pooing in your own britches and eating soft food.
So the day my friend died. Here’s another one–the day his family asked me to take his dog.
His name–the dog’s–is Duke. My friend had three dogs, two Brittanies and a setter. I’m a setter man.
“Would you maybe take him, Tom?,” Dave asked. “Dad would have wanted you to have him. He needs to be hunted.”
I gulped and goosebumped. “I’d be honored.”
Three were already at home, a team of setters that sweep the country and miss little. A fourth? Really? A fourth? There would be no bird safe from here to Great Falls with that kind of canine vacuum power. Four? I gave it about three minutes’ thought. Yes, four. I’d do it for my friend, but I’d do it for Duke too.
He came home with me in October, a thin high October with filtered light from the sky and a vast stretch of partridge prairie out before me. He was out of shape and a little overweight, which for a setter is about one pound. But he had fire. I had seen him hunt and I knew it was there and that he’d burn hot and long and get it done. And so it was and then all four dogs were out on the ground–a huge canvas of grays and browns and four white setters dancing across it like notes on sheet music. Glory.
They swept out into a southward Montana wind and spun in it. The original three following each other and swapping leads and going cautious when birdy. Why would I screw that kind of a trio up with a fourth? And then I saw him, off left.
Tail high noon. Stunned. Stopped cold. The trio did not see him and I loped his way and called to them and then they saw him and all three honored, then one moved ahead, stealing the point. Poor form. I spoke and she stopped then and there it was–four frozen. The frozen four.
The covey went up and the shotgun barked and a hun was there. Down and Duke on it.