Where it went

DSCN0595I will never get used to it. The suddenness of it. In human, it is difficult enough. Wake up one morning and you’re having to use one point five readers for the newspaper. The tromp through the cattails seems to go a little slower, the truck’s warmth a little more welcome. The fire for another push needs more stoking. It’s more of an erosion, a slow spin.

But in canine, the slap of years is stunning. One day you look down at her and she’s an old lady, her joints swollen by arthritis, various bumps and warts in her hide, a once-stunning feathered tail now something a rat might sport. She totters where once she used to float. She huffs and coughs at the fountain she once drank.

We drive east, across the roll of Montana, past coulee and pine, pump-jack and silo. Past corn and scrubland to the Dakotas. It has been a long span for me and for her, this leave from the Dakotas and now it is late in this season and late in her life and I wonder how it all happened.

She gets the princess perch, behind the driver, the other dogs in back in the camper shell. She rides in the warmth of the cab for after a dozen years of bringing me to all of those different birds, the least I can do is bring her into the truck where she can curl in a tight ball against that rat tail and snore.

There have been other trips. Many.  I view her mostly backward. Pups are forward, what lies ahead. Old dogs are what you have been and what they were and what it once was. Over the shoulder, behind, when she was young and the truck had one hundred thousand miles instead of twice that and she had ten thousand miles instead of twice or thrice that. I will make one trip to the Dakotas this year, one visit to the river of scent that is hundreds of pheasants in one section of CRP. This journey, I tell myself, is for the young pup who is fire and burst, an uncontrollable effervescence of puppy joy. But really it is for grandma, kinked with time, crippled by the uplands of the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico. Knotted and rusted by roosters and blues, sharpies, ruffs, sprucers and sage chickens, chukar, Huns, Mearns, cottontops, Californias, mountain and Gambel. It has been one hell of a run.

So she sits behind me as the diesel growls east, through Baker and Hettinger and Lemmon and Mobridge. East. Toward. One last trip, one last bird, one last point. Please, God, just one more.

—TR

Waiting

So tired, I could easily blow it off.

But the birds have been hanging in the cool crawlspace plenty long enough and it is time. “I’ll have a beer first…” and I do. And it’s so good, I have another.  It is already late fall and the sun is long gone and it feels later than it is, even though it’s barely dinner time. The birds are laid out on the cutting board, waiting. Although they really aren’t waiting, because they are dead; if they ever actually “waited” for anything while alive.

I often seem to procrastinate when it comes to cleaning birds, and then I hurry through it mechanically. But tonight, I’m in a different mood. Almost as tired as the shorthair curled up in the corner of the living room by the stove. The good kind of tired, where whatever you’re going to do you’re going to take your time doing.

roosters/cutting board

I lay the bird spread out on its back. Game shears remove wings and head and legs. Feel through the deep mahogany and purple-tinged belly feathers for something more tangible. The knife slides in easily, and the thin skin parts up the length of the cavity. The pungent odor of pheasant hits the nostrils. Rich pink flesh exposed. A pile of technicolor feathers accumulates. A few crimson spots where #6 did its thing.

Flushed under cold water, thoroughly.

And then its time to ponder a recipe. Maybe a sautè in sage, bacon and port. They deserve nothing less.

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

Seventy

In the span of eight decades on Earth, the man has seen much. World history, to be sure. But pheasant history too. He has seen the rise and fall of borrow ditch and shelter belt. He has seen the eradication of weedy fence lines and weedy row crops. He has seen the genesis of CRP and, in the next Farm Bill, its possible extinction. Pheasants have come and gone, risen and fallen, risen again, and fallen again. Each time, the peak of the curve is significantly lower than the last peak years before. He has seen fields where he hunted pheasants as a child in eastern Colorado and western Kansas turn dry and barren and fill with weeds. The rows of corn he hunted in college have sprouted condos and shopping malls. He has seen the termination of a time when one simply found a patch of good cover and started hunting and the emergence of orange-painted fence posts and red-faced farmers. The end of “go ahead and hunt” and the onset of “it’s one hundred dollars a day.” He has seen the team-drawn plow fade into rusty history and the dawn of the $100,000 combine. He has seen the birth of pesticides and herbicides and the death of many living things as the result.
For seven decades, he has been hunting these Chinese ditch parrots. He hunted the first-ever season in Colorado, shooting his single-shot 20 at everything that rose before a black pointer of mixed lineage. When he finally started hitting, Dad told him, “Okay, that’s enough. Now you can shoot only roosters.”
He doesn’t lament the fields turned under, the loss of shelter belt, the consumptive appetite of clean farming. Instead, he looks back on seventy years of pheasant hunting and says, “I’ve been lucky.”
Today, with the wind whipping off the Rocky Mountain Front, drawing tears to the eye, snot to the nose, he turns his young setter into the wind and walks the tree rows on the lee side of a 40 mile per hour blast. There’s a walking stick in the truck, just in case, but he doesn’t reach for it. Instead, he balances a Belgian Browning, bluing worn to bare steel, in a gloved hand and he follows his young girl. She points.
A pheasant rises, banks, and falls. She brings it in. Seventy years before the gun, memories like elm leaves on a west wind.

Pre-chewed

I waved at them as the drove past.
It seemed like the neighborly thing to do. I was hunting a narrow patch of public ground edged by a gravel road, they were cruising the road in their orange getups on a similar quest for ditch parrots.
When they jumped out of the truck a few hundred yards in front of me to hunt a prime patch of Russian olive I was obviously headed toward I felt a hell of a lot less like waving anything but my middle finger.
What kind of road hunting scum bags would cut in front of a hunter, park in the middle of a road, jump out and hunt a 50 yard patch of cover, then slam the doors and speed away?
The kind of guys who would wave as they drove past you knowing they were about to screw you, I guess.
I’m not sure if they saw any birds, but I know they didn’t fire a shot.
A few minutes later and 75 yards short of that sweet but now pre-chewed patch of cover, the dog put up three birds and I shot my first double of the season.
Justice is sweet.
If I see those guys again I’ll be sure to wave.

Less than ideal

This is not the cover photo from a $9 upland hunting magazine.
Red, high-brass 12 gauge hulls litter the ground, always three together – as in BANG, BANG, BANG.
There are no Land Cruisers or Range Rovers parked in golden fields.
Just tall sage, Russian olive and the broken fence lines that litter this patch of BLM conveniently surround by private (and inaccessible) ground that doesn’t suck.
These public-land roosters have been chased by every labradoodle and aussie-cocker cross in four counties and fired on by snipers, road hunters and ground sluicers.
So when the dog goes into high gear and I know there’s a bird close, I look ahead just in time to see him slip away from the fence line into the sage 60 yards ahead.
I leave the dog to her business, working his trail up the fence while I head farther out into the sage on my right at an angle hoping to cut him off.
The dog puts up another rooster that held a little longer. He swings off to the left and I’m so behind that I never even take the shot.
I click the safety back on and as I start forward, I see the dog working back toward me. Just as I realize the first bird has cut back towards us, he gets up behind me.
I fire twice on a bad shot, miss the first but manage to clip him the second time.
He goes down and hits the ground running. I can’t see him through the sage, but I can hear the jingle of Roxy’s collar as she runs him down.
She brings him back with nothing but a broken wing.
Near a pile of beer cans and empty 12 gauge hulls I take the long-tailed, crimson bird from her mouth and wring his neck.
There are few niceties here.
This is a battlefield.

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.

Just us

The small army is gone. The skirmish line and the blockers have packed their bags and headed across the horizon, leaving a mile-long cloud of dust.
This time there is no, “how should we hit this one” conversation. No waiting on slowpokes or getting into position only to watch the line dissolve into a grupetto.
Now, it’s just the dog and I and a simple plan. Head up wind, as quickly and quietly as possible.
No whistle, no yelling, just a quiet “easy,” then we’re moving. A few dozen yards in, she sniffs hard, inhales something bigger than bird scent and snorts a bit before working two hens into the air. Their flight sends a jumpy rooster up, just out of range.

We round a corner and two roosters get up. I whack the first one and when the second one drops, I’m momentarily disappointed that there is no one to witness my shooting, then Roxy drops a bird in my hand and returns to complete the double and I recall how many birds we have watched flush from 500 yards away on this trip. I snap back to reality and think about how often this game of wild birds and dogs comes down to chance.
Sometimes, for a few brief moments, the dog is flawless, the birds hold and my shooting is clean.
It’s just us and it’s perfect.

– GM

Blood and Plunder

He’s a knife-in-the-teeth type, a run-hell, fast-go, wound-tight, son-of-a-bitch, so when he yelps down by the creek—out of sight (again)—I don’t think much of it. He comes roaring back and I can see blood dripping from his ear. The cut is perhaps a quarter of an inch in length and right at the tip and not bleeding very heavily. Yet. As a horseman friend of mine would say, “It’s a long way from the heart.”

The Bloody Duke pauses only long enough to check in.

And we’re a long way from the truck. It’s 15 below zero and the pheasants are holding tight. There’s about one point five minutes of debate. We push on. If he could vote—and he can—he’d vote “aye.”

This is the way. His way. He’s pretty good at it. Full-fricking-tilt until he’s completely gassed and done. This is also the way of Western pheasant, those savage bastards of greasewood and buffaloberry, their craws stuffed with Russian olive pits, their hearts full of bitter fuck-you fire. No other bird evokes the chaos, the running pandemonium beneath the wide skies. Wild bird, of course. Feral is more apt. You hit the ground running and you need a “Katie-bar-the-door” dog. Barbwire, thorn, bur, be damned. Late season? Snow? Even more so. Those runnin’ sons-a-bitches. David Alan Coe, or perhaps it was Chris Ledoux captured it this way: “Oh, it’s forty below and I don’t give a fuck, got a heater in my truck, and I’m off to the rodeo.”

So we continue, despite the bleeding, because, darn it, the pheasants are holding tight and the injury is superficial. It is worth a repeat: the pheasants are holding tight. It’s too cold to hunt. But the pheasants are finally, for once, holding tight. This is the epic once-every-seven-years cicada hatch on the Green, for crying in a bucket. The pheasants are holding tight and you may not see this again in his lifetime. Maybe even yours. It’s too cold to hunt? Yeah, right. Unless you are a cold-hearted bastard. So, onward, blood flying from sliced ear. Hey, we’re hunting late season wild roosters. Call the ASPCA. Go ahead, call ’em.
In the whitewash of eastern Montana’s winter, he is lost quickly and then I pick him up again. The ear is bleeding freely now, and he’s frozen on point. I huff up and watch the blood dripping into the snow. He’s oblivious to anything but the smell in his nose and when the cock bird goes up and the shotgun barks, he’s on it. Hard on it. A 24-inch-tailed rooster and he retrieves, then blasts onward. I think for a moment, “Maybe I ought to do something about that ear.” But as soon as that thought enters, he’s gone again, romping into the snow, blood-be-damned, as if affirming my “long-way-from-the-heart” mantra.

Swingin'

By the time we get back to the truck (with three stone-dead rooster pheasants being flash-frozen by Montana December against my back), he’s a red and white setter. He looks like something out of a slasher movie, all from the flopping of an ear splattering blood everywhere, a minor cut with a major bleed. He doesn’t care, though. I tape him up as best I can, but the tape comes off and the ear bleeds more. I wrap his head and he digs into it and off comes the bandage. Screw it, he says, I’m a tough guy.
That night in the motel room, the bleeding finally stopped, he gobbles his feed, then promptly pukes it—and a wad of cocklebur and pheasant feather—up on my bed. Twice. “Get off the stage, you god-damned goof,” sings Ledoux. What an animal. Both. Or all three of us.

–TR