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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Tires breaking tracks in two-day old snow, up the mountain, beyond where the last guy stopped his rig on a high slope. Stopped to glass the benches and ridges, the dark timber, the aspen.
Cutting fresh up past the old homestead with its root cellar of stones, its feral lilac and rhubarb, past the old spring and up the other coulee to the cabin. Park. The dog pirouettes and tap dances. It has been too long for me and she does everything in dog time. Can’t imagine.
We move off through the timber, cutting a loop down through the aspens in the snow. Ready.
The dog gets birdy once in a stand of Doug fir in the middle of the aspen river and we bend to the snow and see the tracks of a grouse going his grousely way. Get ready some more. Ready to swing up and pop a shot in the thick woods. Telling ourselves to swing even if there’s a tree in the way. The dog sneaks, eager, tail frantic, points once, but the tail is moving.
She’s not sure. But get ready.
Nothing. The tracks disappear and we circle and do not pick them up again. Bastard is probably watching us from a tree. Oh, I’m sure.
More tracks. Moose. A bed. Then another. Maybe more than one. Down through the aspens and alder. Brambles. Another stand of fir and the dog birdy again and more tracks and we spend time there, but no birds. Back up the other side, the sunny side, the dog vaulting logs, running hard. Eating snow on the fly. Barely stopping for anything, the bell tinkling all the time. More tracks. That’s a cat! Yeah, you are right. Bigger than a bobcat. Young lion maybe? That’s what I think.
Those tracks peel off into the sagebrush flat, past the old homestead with its feral lilac and rhubarb. Following the track of the moose.
We head over the bench and down to the next coulee. I’ve always moved birds here.
A flash of gray in the trees, the other side of the dog who had just started working scent and had no chance. Spooky bastard.
Loop up past the flush point. Tracks. Lots of them among the skeletal stems of gooseberry and currant. Another bird out, this one out of a tree that is right at twelve o’clock. Hear the sound, don’t see the bird. I got him. Good, where? Right in those trees right ahead.
We stand there like fools looking at jet contrails. Open-mouthed. Peer through thick needle and branch. Even the dog is looking up, standing on back legs, paws on bark. Bastard is probably looking right at us. No doubt.
I think this is one that got away.
I could shake a tree, see if he comes out.
I don’t know which tree.
Okay, he wins.
Work back to the truck, over the ridge, down another coulee with willow and gooseberry. Remember a time when another dog in another canine lifetime flushed a beautiful brown phase ruffed right out of these willows on Christmas Day. The bird flew dead into the window of the cabin. Became part of Christmas dinner.
I’ve got another spot.
Good. I’ve got a couple more hours. I’m game.
Another old homestead with its rusted hope. Another loop. A point or two this time. Huns. But they fool us, circle back then flush out of range. Put two shots after them, but they are gone. Far gone and the time is up.
There was a time of Wranglers and Chuck Taylors, even among mesquite thorns and Gambel quail. Cotton long underwear. T-shirts. But you were dumber and younger. Bullet proof and able to work your way through tequila shots on birthdays.
Along came common sense, somehow you survived. Found comfort in small things, good things.
Orvis Pro LT gear came along recently. The kind of lightweight and yet durable stuff that makes you think, Where you been all my life? First time out, the day cooked to the near nineties in the sharptail fields. Next time out, another warm day up on a blue grouse ridge far above timberline. Designed for those hot days, breathable, flexible. Then a deep cold in early October and with long underwear beneath, still a damned fine piece of equipment. Pants and shirt both.
It’s the little things, the good things. Orvis Pro LT. Remember it.
In the newspaper industry back before journalists were pecking on computers, the insertion of -30- at the bottom of every story was common practice. It meant the end.
Thirty is also the number of years, almost to the day, that we’ve hunted together. Thirty years. How can it be? We greet this realization with incredulity sprinkled with gratitude. Peppered with memory. All of this swirls as I drop the old boy off at the top of the ridge on the high road, a celebration hunt of sorts for mentor and protege, for 30 years of hunting and the outdoors together.
Blue grouse live in the slide rock and currants of the northwest slope of this ridge we’ve hunted together for years. Doug fir twisted by hard living shoulder the sky. It is not an easy walk, but it is doable and simple.
“Work down the ridge and I’ll meet you at the truck by the cattle-guard.”
It is a move we’ve repeated many times, and an easy plan for 50-something legs. Not for 80-something cane-assisted legs.
This thought comes to me only hours later, hours after there is no sign of him, hours where mild concern has roiled up into near-panic, like some evil brew atop a witch’s stove.
It is a hunt that for me would be less than an hour, dropping down the ridge, following Mabel and Edna, moving quickly on birdy dogs, swinging on big rooster blues peeling down between the big fir trees. Down, down. Gravity as friend, not foe. Quick, easy. Rendezvous. Move on the next spot.
I have an image of him in my mind, the last glimpse. An old man and a bird dog hobbling down a logging road, cane in one hand, Superposed 20 in the other. When he doesn’t show up at the truck after an hour, then two, then three, it becomes the image that haunts me. Concern becomes oxygen to embers and a flame leaps in the brain, inventing thoughts Did I have a premonition? Is this the last time I’ll ever see him? Is this the last sight picture of him?
When you go into the woods with men of middle age, you don’t think about such things. But octogenarians, enough rawhide ones, make one take stock of things like medical certifications and emergency kits.
The first hour, I climb the ridge, expecting to run into him half way down. Too many years of shooting pistols and rifles and shotguns has left him deaf. “I can’t hear thunder,” he tells people as he leans in, cupping. So I do not yell for him because I have to climb the ridge. Twice, then three times. Need my breath. Three hours goes to four, and concern darkens to thick anxiousness. There is just no way that he came down this mountain without me seeing him, or at least his all-white dog.
I drive back to where I left him, then ease the diesel down the road, hoping that maybe he will hear the truck despite his auditory challenges. I stop at places in the two-track where the dust lies an inch thick like talc and look for tracks. None. Drive back down. Climb the ridge again. Six hours. It is September, but it is high country and it is cool and there were rumors of a storm moving in. As always, he is out there with no water, no matches, no food. No need to carry supplies on such a short trip—the epic oft-repeated words of the hypothermed and exhausted. All he had to do was climb off the ridge and meet me at the truck, but everything is seen through my eyes, not his.
At seven hours, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do when I find his body, about the poetry of an old man dying on his last hunt. It is not an easy feeling, not a romantic visage for my addled soul. I don’t want this to be the way we say good bye because we didn’t say good bye. Goodbye is for the living, I guess because he might want to go this way, up on a ridge with a good gun and a good bird dog. Maybe a blue grouse in the pouch. But it sure isn’t how I want it. Is this the end? Surely, this can’t be the end? This isn’t -30-.
I start thinking about how I’m going to get a cell signal to get some help up here, how many hours I have to drive in the wrong direction to get that signal, leaving him on the mountain. Start to think logistics about something that may not have a good ending.
I waft the concern away from these flames for a minute, then decide to hop in the truck again. Leaving water and a cooler full of beer and food where the truck was. Drive up the ridge again, thinking about first aid training, about what I’m going to tell his son, wondering if there is such a thing as sudden-onset dementia.
And there, at long last, he is, walking down a random off-shot road, cane in hand, tired, sore, with his dog and his gun, coming toward me. Thirty will click toward 31 after all. Not the end.
There is, in the hunter’s heart, a conflict that builds as the season descends. It is a conflict fed by many things: the state of canine, the state of the freezer, the need to expand the “rolodex” of place, and even the very date and timing of the hunt itself. Go where you have gone before and know there will be birds, or go where you’ve never gone but think there should be birds?
Each of these elements of conflict is driven by its own nuance as well. The state of canine, for instance, can be the age of the dog (old and last hunt or new and first hunt), how tightly wound the veteran who hasn’t been hunted in months is, and, sometimes, sadly, the health of said best friend. You’d like to put the new pup on her first birds, or if you’ve got an old timer, put him on his last birds. Or maybe you just want to find a new place to go because the old tried-and-true got discovered.
Idaho’s grouse season opened on August 30 and Greg and I had penciled a trip on the books months before. Pencil because with busy lives, sometimes the eraser comes out. We each did our best to erase and reschedule, but we each, separately, resisted the other’s attempts to bail. We actually pulled it off.
We’d seen “grousey” looking country on the Idaho/Montana line exactly midway between our two homes and talked often about that ground. Never been there, either of us. Knew some folks who lived in the area, but felt uncomfortable just cold-calling and asking to be put into their home cover. Kind of like calling up and saying, “Hey, mind if I take your wife out for dinner?”
So we used our decades of mountain grouse experience, a few good maps and a summer scouting trip and just went. Didn’t see shit. Well, actually did. Walked all morning long, didn’t see a bird. Saw some bird poop and had a false point and discovered enough to go back. We semi-sated our canine needs by each running pups whose age is measured in months, not years, then pivoted to the veterans. Got the dogs out is about all you can say about that. Saw some pretty country, a new place.
Saturday on Labor Day weekend, Montana’s grouse season opened up. Worst possible opening day ever. Jason and I coyoted out Friday night at the for-sure-always-see-birds place. It has been discovered. By the time we were half way up the mountain in barely-shooting-light, the parking lot had five other vehicles and two more were bouncing in on the two-track. I already had a Hun in the game vest, and we were well ahead of them, so it didn’t really matter, but it was still a bummer to know that someone else had discovered a place we’d been hunting for years. Probably bummed them out too to see someone up the mountain while they were still pulling on their boots and maybe it was a place they had been hunting for years and just as much “theirs” as “ours.” Was running the veteran this time because it had been a long summer for her and for me without a whole lot of fun and the freezer was empty of both grouse and Huns. We filled it a bit and came down the mountain with that heavy, humbling, good weight in the back of the bird vest.
On Wednesday, my friend Tom Hanson, who is one of the crack employees for the great upland program at Orvis, and I got together for another hunt. Tom had never killed a western grouse, so getting one or two for him was my top priority. Problem is, he’s a busy guy. Just like everyone else. He had to be in Great Falls early that evening and Great Falls is a long way from my home ground and unknown territory. So I called another buddy, one that I knew I could impose upon, and asked for a general direction. He gave me one, like all good buddies would, and off Tom and I went, hunting in the cool of the morning with the Rocky Mountain Front over our shoulders. If nothing else, it was one hell of a pretty place to chase after good bird dogs. Which can be a problem if you’re looking at the scenery on the horizon instead of the canine scenery within gun range. Tom managed to kill his first-ever sharptail grouse off of one of Mabel’s points when we weren’t gaping at the skyline and then later in the morning, his first-ever blue grouse. On the same half-day. I didn’t kill a thing, but it hardly mattered. I had never seen that particular combo done before. It was pretty special.
So that’s how it has started. Completely blind on the first day, old reliable on the second day and semi-blind on the third day. Varying levels of success. But new country discovered. Let 2018 begin, at long last.
In this piece of country, the mid-section of summer comes on July 15. Mark it down on the calendar. X it out. On July 14, the grass that has not fallen to sickle mower to make hay for beefsteak is green and tall. On July 15, the unstoppable tanning of that grass begins.
There is a tendency, particularly among those whose outdoors experience is a water park or a golf course, to lament the downward slope of summer into autumn. Shrinking are the long days of summer light, the barbecues, the evening cigars against mosquito whine, the gin and tonics on the back porch, the cycles of mayfly on clear water.
Good things, all. Viewed from the lens of February’s monochrome, great things. Wonderful, highly anticipated things. Who, in the throes of high country March does not dream, at least a little bit, of a June cutthroat trout brought to hand briefly? Captured and photographed only by synapse and gray matter. Unhooked. Released. Memory captured for the next long winter’s lament.
But now it is August and upon us is the dwindle. Mourn this?
Grieve the end of summer when one finds the thermometer at 40 on a cool dawn morning? Chill enough for a sweater, enough that morning coffee is not only a kick to the heart but a welcome heat to the palms. Bemoan the babble of young coyote pups from up on the sagebrush bench, stretching their lungs and legs in celebration of a late summer bounty that includes everything from chokecherry on the stem to barnyard chicken? One morning, up on that same bench, flush a covey of young Huns, eight or nine in all, little buggers that can barely fly yet somehow avoid coyote belly. Then flush another covey of the same size and vigor. Yes, summer is now fading and the tan on the land is coming on strong, covering the body from horizon to horizon.
One morning, the trail camera you put out on the cottonwood down by the trail from the neighbor’s willow thicket reveals a buck in full velvet, a massive buck that you’ve heard whispers of in prior seasons. Last December at the Town Haul Cafe, “Boy, I saw a huge buck cross the road down by your place yesterday morning. That sucker slipped through the season.” Now there he is on camera. In a few months, perhaps hanging in the shop ready for the knife work and freezer.
One early August day you drive the old Ford home from the post office and the corner of the eye catches movement in the borrow ditch. Pheasants. You pump the brakes, because that’s the only way to stop a 1970 F250, and there they are, three young roosters with just enough color on them to tell you their gender. Remind yourself to swing into the neighbor’s place and ask about October opener.
There are raspberries on the stem down by the northeast headgate. Lots of them now—if you can beat the birds and the coyote pups and the farmhands who come to change the water—to them.
You know that one morning, maybe soon, you’ll wake up and there will be a heavy frost on the ground. If you’re lucky, you will have listened to the weatherman and pulled all the tomatoes to vine-ripen in the barn, or at least have covered them with blue tarps every night.
Half of the shed is full of lodgepole cordwood, split, stacked. Five cords. Need ten. Just to be safe. Two woodburners will do that. The propane lady stopped by the other day. Remarked on how little propane was used last year. “Sure like your dogs,” she said, as Mabel jumped up on her for a scratch, despite the scolding and embarrassment over a four year old setter that suddenly forgets her manners. “She knows a dog lover, it’s awright,” she said.
August now and the hoppers are out there in the tall stuff that is left standing and that is now in full color. Hoppers for young pheasants and Huns and sharptail grouse.
This is no ending. This is no long slide to a dismal black winter. This is a beginning. There are four bird dogs on this place and now, as August gets rolling like an old Ford building momentum down the country road to the post office, there seems to be just a bit more zip in their zing. Sure, they still loll about in hot weather, but the mornings are cool now and there is a feel to everything that says hello. That says welcome. That says it is nearly on, let the games begin. Release us into this landscape of sky and tall grass. Release us to those young birds before gun and canine olfaction. Long walks are ahead. Perhaps on the loop back to the truck, soon, there will be the extra weight of the bounty of the land and there will be a sated, happy heart beating its old beat in the chest.
There will be no keen for a summer gone in this house.