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!

Color!!!                                                                                                              –TR

I got da blues dis mornin’….

Dawn on the first day of deer season. The cracking reports of high caliber rifles, some of them sounding more apt for buffalo or urban warfare, can be heard in the valley below. We gratefully stand on the ridge high above as dawn light strikes the far side. We are at 8000′ in mixed blue and ruffed grouse habitat, but blues are on the brain and at the top of the priority list. Hank clearly has a bug up his ass, and I suppose I do too. He’s ranging far – too far – and I’m letting it get to me a little too much, probably symptomatic of other things in the back of my mind that I’m trying to sort out.

Eventually, I remember that he is young and in his first season, that an occasional day like this is to be expected, that it would probably be best to just call it and head home. There are days when you just know it’s just not going to come together, and it’s best to listen to that. As we make our way back down the hillside, still several hundred feet above the truck, I break the action, unload and give a whistle. Wait. Another.

Hank hasn’t been seen for several minutes, which means he could easily be in the next county. I’m getting pissed. And then getting pissed at myself for getting pissed. Eventually, he comes charging in on my right at mach speed, scaring the crap out of a random blue that happened to have been holding in the brush nearby. The bird lofts right in front of me, the easiest passing shot in the world. I raise my now unloaded gun, swing through and say, “BAM” out loud. Hank looks at up at me like I’m insane, and takes off barking like the piss and vinegar pup that he is. It will be the last blue we lay eyes on this season.

– Smithhammer

Four–aka Taking Duke

The day my friend died.

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.

My friend smiled.                                                                                       –TR

In the Hall of the Chukar King

Out of breath, I stop to leave a little water in this otherwise dessicated landscape. Looking down, I note that my boys are as red as chukar legs in that detached, objective way not uncommon to moments of pain and survival. This trip is beginning to take a toll on me. Looking up, I survey a thousand feet of loose scree and caprock and cheatgrass above, and hear them laughing from on high. I try not to take it personally, though it is most definitely personal, and I continue scrambling to reach their steep patch of hell, simmering with murderous intent.

I know they are close – the dog starts getting birdy and then locks, just as half the covey pulls a flanking maneuver, running around behind him and then they all get up simultaneously – a dozen chukar exploding and tormenting him from all sides. He predictably loses his shit, jumping in the air and spinning and barking. Poor little bastard. No good dog deserves this. Instead, some of them, like some of us, simply become addicted in spite of better judgment; gluttons for punishment.

As the chaos subsides and I tell Hank it wasn’t his fault, I hear the lone holdover bird flush behind me. Wheel and fire and the bird drops decisively. Mistakes are unforgiving here; a maxim that applies to us as much to us as it does to them.

It wasn’t a classic take over a point, but you don’t always wait for that in this country, on this quarry. No, this is guerrilla warfare, and I don’t mean that lightly. Refined gentlemen and their traditions and their rules remain far below, looking up at places like this through binoculars.

From above the saddle I watch the covey flush wild and take cover in a jagged outcropping, disappearing into the crevices. We learn from their flanking tactics and return in kind. It’s so damn steep I practically have one knee braced into the hillside when I see the GSP locked up hard, balanced on a boulder. I catch my breath, taking a second to admire the work of this first-season pup, and release him with an “ok.” He rockets in and the little devils get up and I promptly send two of them to meet their infernal maker. I watch the birds drop 75 yards below me on a 50 degree slope of nasty, loose, volcanic talus. Even in death these fiends make you pay.

Lest the wrong impression is given, I spend the next day going through an entire box of shells with only two hitting their mark. Fast passing shots on birds dropping from above at mach speed, whiffed. Shots taken at birds that I knew damn well were out of range, solely out of frustration, hoping to bend physics to my will. It didn’t work.

Evening is not exactly  the affable return to the sprawling lodge after a jaunty day afield one imagines in the sportsman tomes of yore. It is instead a deliberate refueling with piles of greasy sustenance; a licking of wounds with corn liquor salve and barley-based anti-inflammatories. Plotting, debriefing, refiguring tactics – a team effort to recharge before tomorrow’s redeployment. The banter is generally about as offensive as you can imagine. The easily affronted might want to camp somewhere else. Far away.

Dawn reaches our cold little camp in the arroyo and high-octane joe eradicates the last vestiges of rust from sore muscles and we’re off. We ascend to the Hall of the Chukar King yet again – knowing they await far above, assuming they’ll be no easier than they were yesterday, working like you would for no other upland species, to return spent, with maybe a few birds in the bag and the weary contentment that only comes from having your ass handed to you by a small, crafty partridge in a vast, alien land.

We’ll be back.

– Smithhammer


In camp and around the house, he is a big loveable goofy bastard.

Right now, though, he’s on point and it is as classic a point as a setter man in a life of setters is likely to see. He is white and handsome and up against the skyline behind a juniper and frozen. Solid. A salt pillar.

One covey back, he had pointed and then broke with the shit-hell expression of a pup on his mug, flushing birds like playing cards shot into a stiff wind. Rotten sonofabitch, with a smile.

This time, I tell him “hold, buddy” (one does not command this dog, one converses with) and stumble-skip across mean footing and see the covey.
They go up in a flurry of gray wing and clown’s mask and I swing carefully and pull the trigger and one goes down. I do not think about a triple or even a double. One is enough, one good chukar after one good point.
His name is Echo and he’s here on the mountain with me as a partner, not as a dog doing the work for a walking man. For the most part I am not in that run-and-blast, stagger-and-fall, curse-and-bleed rant that is chukar hunting in on-end country. Instead I am largely lost in thought. Soaking. Absorbing. I’m all in.
His real name is Greylock’s Hank’s Echo. Greylock is a good kennel back east, but this dog is a western lad. It’s the “Hank’s Echo” that is the important thing.
Sage and juniper and greasewood run through his veins. Hank was his grandfather and in this country of echoes on rimrock, Echo is his echo.

A decade before, I climbed the same hill with Hank–a dog all bones and balls–and we shot chukar left and right and Hank pinned them all and brought them all to hand. In the cooling light of a northern Nevada day going away, we walked down to the truck one thousand feet below, Hank at my side and the warmth of a half dozen chukar dead against the small of back. The caprock across the valley splashed pink then gold-red and then it was gone and the chill of December was on me.
A decade gone by and a bird dog buried at the base of a chukar cliff in another state, a place where chukar walk across his grave and his name is carved in soft yellow sandstone above. Now his grandson at my heel, then cast out into the thick of it–the old cold lava, the junipers, the sage, the cheatgrass greening in December sunlight and a fresh-dead partridge in that same frayed-by-years bird vest. Dead and warm against the small of my back and a honed-hard, bones-and-balls white setter out in it, after them.

The third generation hunter after perhaps the fifth or sixth generation quarry. Life ticks on.                                                                                 –TR

Walking In

He froze in textbook style, and for a moment all thought of pursuit, of what we had come in search of, was gone. I stood there marveling at how I hadn’t taught him to do this, how I doubt that you really can. But there he was, locked up; the graven image of a genetic legacy on override.


I didn’t care about the bird – I just didn’t want this moment to end. I wanted us both to go on standing there, motionless, till darkness descended or the storm cut loose overhead. These are the things that will nurse me through the months of waiting. Waiting for it to all start again – these all too rare perfect moments, the many less than perfect ones, the sore feet, the hours and days with an empty game bag.  All of it.

– Smithhammer

Checks and Balances

WSDG13 copy

The pointer named William breaks stride and pauses to investigate a small patch of wilted ragweed. He then continues on track along a sidehill and into the gusting wind that determines his course. It was enough scent to prickle his bird-senses, a scant whiff of something besides dust, but not enough to stop him from running full out across a parched and featureless pasture.

The federal judge sitting alone on the seat atop the dog box pounds with his fist on the cab roof, “That might’ve been birds, right there, Captain!”

It’s the fourth time this hour he’s done that and the quail guide behind the wheel imagines landing a roundhouse punch to a gin-swollen nose for each amount of unbearable racket that his client has caused inside the truck.

The guide glances in his side mirror and finds the judge’s stodgy red portrait filling up the view. “That bird-dog of yours couldn’t smell a polecat in a peat bog,” the judge nags.

Continue reading “Checks and Balances”



He was three years old when I bought him and he came with that name. He never found many birds, but one day (before lunch) he killed a baby goat, got sprayed by a skunk, and ate two bobwhites that he neither pointed or retrieved. He ran off the first six times I let him out of the box. On one of those jaunts he was gone overnight. The next morning I found him snoozing in a hog trap where he had eaten and rolled in a vile mixture of rotten feed corn, molasses, and catfish guts. I eventually traded him for a cast iron smoker pit on wheels.

%d bloggers like this: