And then it was winter.

I was out with the dog in shirtsleeves just a few days ago. Now he looks at me with a pathetic mixture of loathing and remorse when I try to coax him into the kennel in the back of the truck. He tries to squeeze into the cab as I throw my gun and vest in, and learns that “denial” ain’t just a river in Egypt.

“Buck up kid, you’ll be lying on a fluffy bed next to the stove again as soon as you find me a couple birds.”

His head cocks at the word, “birds.”

He jumps into the back and curls up in the kennel. He’s not exactly happy about it, but he’s at least realized this temporary suffering has a purpose.

Good thing for all of us to keep in touch with, I guess.

Pocket Stash

It isn’t personal, but there are those places you keep to yourself, maybe even from your closest hunting buddies. Pocket stashes.

In part, you don’t share these because they’re an ‘ace in the hole,’ or at least you tell yourself that. Those places that are a little more out of the way, a little more under the radar, not on the usual list of spots you hit with friends. Even better if they offer a place to park out of sight. Maybe they’re even of questionable legality, and a low-key approach is best. But you didn’t hear that from me.

Of course, sometimes the irony here is that some of your co-conspirators have these same stashes. You can go along for several seasons, thinking you’re the only one that bothers with that particular marginal field or covert. And then one day you get there and find your buddies’ truck already parked. Of course, the appropriate response in this case is to leave a beer on the tailgate and move on to the next.

The other reason for having a few pocket stashes on your list is because these can be spots that are only big enough for one person and one dog. Limited spots that you might be able to cover in 20 minutes. But, this can be very productive. And some days you link these little pocket stashes together into one glorious, full day with just you and one dog.

All good hunting requires creativity.

Smithhammer

Somehow he knows

Somehow, he knows it’s time, and I never cease to marvel at this. He has an abundance of nervous energy these days, as if some internal voice is saying, “I know I’m supposed to be doing more than hanging out on the porch right now. Let’s go.”

We give ourselves over to these biorhythmic pulses, he and I, and the rest of our tribe. Though maybe some of us are just more susceptible to it than others, or embrace giving outlet to it more willingly. Or maybe we’re just lucky enough to know what outlets we truly need – something that some sadly never figure out and find all manner of displacement for.

Regardless, it is time, and with the dead of winter still feeling far, far away, life swells with new focus and purpose and less important things, like jobs and too many other responsibilities, must be shoved aside, in exchange for the preservation of our souls.

Somehow, he knows it’s time, and I never cease to marvel at this.

– Smithhammer

A Blessed Pursuit

An excerpt from Steve Rinella’s worthy new book, “Meateater:”

“Earlier, I wrote of the things that I’ve suffered while in pursuit of a lifestyle that makes sense to me. Things such as cold, hunger, loneliness, and fear. What I failed to mention are the ways in which I’ve been blessed through that same pursuit. While hunting, I’ve cried at the beauty of mountains covered in snow. I’ve learned to own up to my past mistakes, to admit them freely, and then to behave better the next time around. I’ve learned to see the earth as a thing that breathes and writhes and brings forth life.

 

I see these revelations as a form of grace and art, as beautiful as the things we humans attempt to capture through music, dance, and poetry. And as I’ve become aware of this, it has become increasingly difficult for me to see hunting as altogether outside of civilization. Maybe stalking the woods is as vital to the human condition as playing music or putting words to paper. Maybe hunting has as much of a claim on our civilized selves as anything else. After all, the earliest forms of representational art reflect hunters and prey. While the arts were making us spiritually viable, hunting did the heavy lifting of not only keeping us alive, but inspiring us. To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way.

The other side of the fence

They don their breeks and sporting coats and jaunty caps, as the hired help clean and polish their Purdeys, their Grullas, their Krieghoffs.

They pay upwards of $6000 a week to re-enact a pantomine of hunting; what it has sadly become a continent away in a place that lost its wild places centuries ago, lost the bulk of its public opportunities to hunt and fish, and was left with this ritualized costume party, for the select who could afford it.

And now, in a western state that is over 60% public land, where fantastic wild bird hunting opportunities abound for anyone willing to do a little homework and put one foot in front of the other, they are paying top dollar to do this, behind a fence, for pen-raised birds instead.

The birds pile up in the hundreds, considered little more than clays with wings. But no matter – many more are released. And some, I’d like to think the smart ones, high-tail it for the property boundary, where a free and wild life await on the other side. Those that make it quickly become wily survivors, constant predation being the price they pay for freedom.

I walk a field a few hundred yards away. I hear laughter coming from the expansive porch of the lodge, carried on the breeze. My jeans mostly muddy, a trusty 16ga. pump in my hand. The shorthair locks. Spins and repositions. Locks again, amber eyes ablaze. There’s a rooster in there, on this free, CRP land, adjoining exclusivity. I can’t help but laugh my ass off. Sometimes trickle down economics actually work.

– Smithhammer

Knowing It’s There

I could go on about how the season came and went too quickly, although now that I think about it, a lot has come and gone since it began last September. I could lament not having gotten out more, though I think I did pretty well this year. I could allow myself to be reminded, every time I look at the dog, of regret at not letting him revel in what he is bred for, every second and every day that he is legally allowed to do so. But then again, neither am I, and that’s life.

Instead of giving in to remorse, I opt to wander through the ever-expanding topo map of places I’ve hunted which lives in my head. I think of fields full of sharptail, warm and yellow and glowing on an October afternoon, now harsh and iced over and windswept. But still, these tough birds reside. I think about new chukar land I walked this past year. About how dry it was – even for that country; about how those birds of the Eurasian steppe are surviving in their adopted basin and range. Blue grouse now burrowed into snow, and a lone wolverine, high above tree line on a February morning, trying to sniff them out. Huns, normally spread out and elusive for much of the year, now coalesced into a large covey that has moved into the undeveloped sage scrub near my house to wait for the days to grow long again.

Somewhere deep in the big empty.

Maybe my drive is evolving. Walking country for days, with nothing in the game bag to show for it, doesn’t feel so much like “failure” anymore. While sitting down to a meal of chukar enchiladas, or pheasant pot pie, is a yearning I hope never to quench, it’s more important simply to know that the country is there. That the birds are there. That I know these things irrevocably, because I’ve personally been cold, dirty and hungry in such places, and it’s left its mark on me. I’ll wake up hungry again tomorrow, no matter how amazing the meal was. But these intimate connections to wild country are a longer-lasting feast. Either way, you are what you eat.

Questions

Why have I developed a callus on the index finger I use to operate my e-collar transmitter?

How do Huns absolutely vanish without a trace, even when you and the dog saw exactly where they went down?

Why do they call it an “improved” choke if I don’t shoot any better when I use it?

Why does whiskey always taste better with a full game bag?

Why do the voices in my head sound like chukar?


The Dark Side

Finely-finished wood. Detailed, craftsman engraving. I confess to loving well-made, beautiful guns.

But I also confess to hating the painful experience of seeing a nice gun that I’ve spent hard-earned money on getting scratched up. I know this is silly, and I believe that guns are meant to be used, not sit on the shelf. If you’re buying a gun for hunting you should expect that it’s going to start looking well-used after a while. But still, every time I put a new scratch in a nice piece of walnut, I feel the pain.

And with that pain, the dark thoughts began creeping in. Thoughts of a gun I wouldn’t have to worry about so much. Thoughts of a field gun that *gasp*  – didn’t have nice wood or a fancy receiver. I don’t exaggerate when I call these “dark” thoughts, as they became filled with visions of sacrilegious black synthetics.

I’ve had these thoughts for years, but have never gotten around to acting on them. I always rationalized the idea to myself with the notion that it would merely be a dedicated chukar gun. That harsh, nasty, devil-bird country would be the singular application for which I wouldn’t prefer to have one of my nice wood guns in my hands. And I kept telling myself that as I tracked down the model I wanted and tentatively pulled out the credit card. It would still be a few weeks till the first chukar trip, so I figured I would take it out that afternoon for grouse and just, “see how it shot.” The first thing I noticed is that it was light. Very light. As in a 1/2 pound lighter than my esteemed Browning “Superlight.” I could carry this gun all day and hardly notice it, I found myself thinking.

And as these seductive thoughts started to pervade, I saw the dog slam on point. Three birds got up and the gun flew to my shoulder like it was meant to be there and with the very first two shots out of this dark new piece of machinery I dropped a double on sharpies. Holy shit, I mumbled. Far more than just being a pragmatic choice for limited applications, this gun really shoots. And with that, the dark thoughts dug their roots in further and began to grow.

By the time I got home, concerns that my dirty little affair might blossom into something more were taking hold. I broke down the gun and cleaned it, finding the task no more complicated than disassembling and cleaning an O/U. My old bias about semis being a chore to maintain was thrown out the window. I went out again the following afternoon with the same gun, and again limited on a double. And with that second outing, the lid was permanently blown off the Pandora’s box and the deal was sealed.

I’ve even started to see a certain unconventional beauty in this new gun. A sleek, stark, functional aesthetic, combined with design that is no less craftsmanship for being modern. And I began to acknowledge that this might not just turn out to be a dedicated chukar gun. That lamentably, some of my “nicer” guns might just be spending more time in the closet. That this might become the gun I grab whenever I want something lightweight and well- balanced, that I shoot as well as anything if not more so, and that I don’t have to worry about. Which is to say, pretty much all the time.

There. I’ve gotten it off of my chest. I own a black gun. Nothing ‘traditional’ about it. A testament to pure performance. And dammit, I’m loving it.

Pre-Game Strategies

They are out there, even as we speak, going over the playbooks. Refining tactics. Brainstorming new evasive maneuvers. Reviewing the videos from last season. Running scrimmage.

But that’s ok. We’ve been doing the same.

The one thing you can count on is that the bastards won’t be the least bit sportsmanlike.

Some prefer to hunt in groups, walking abreast in a regimented grid pattern, throwing enough collective lead on a single flush that no one knows who actually connected. Not to mention that what would have been edible is now likely sluiced. I guess it’s a social thing. And that approach certainly works, but frankly, I think I’d rather drink light beer and slam my dick in a door.

Give me tangled, twisted bottom lands and a fast-moving pointer who can 180˚ on a dime. A dog who amazes me, just often enough, at his ability to beat them at their own wily game. Just the two of us, scrapping it out through dank ditches and walls of willow and boot-sucking mud, hitting the margins and forgotten corners, far from the crowds. Emerging with tails sticking out of the game bag, covered in the mire and vegetation of their little jungle and looking like extras on the set of Apocalypse Now.

Bring it.

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