Making the time

Willing grouse for the taking.

I’ve been kicking my own butt these past few days.
Seems as if I know exactly where a few blue grouse are and they are only about 15 minutes from my house, and somehow, I haven’t found the time to go up there with a shotgun.
This past weekend, I found the grouse while horseback helping a neighbor rancher round up some recalcitrant cows and calves that were refusing to leave the high country. Stumbled right into a couple of young grouse in the Doug fir, and just at the time that I was thinking: This looks like good grouse habitat.
Spent the whole day looking at guacamole-assed cows. The next day, I started to get nervous about the coming snowfall and gathered more firewood out of the hills. The next day–and yes, it was a three-day-weekend for me–I spent another whole day at the neighboring ranch helping sort cows for preg-testing.
Then work. Here I am. At work. It’s sunny outside. Damn my hide. Sometimes, I guess, life has difficult choices.
–TR

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.

Better days

Sometimes, they let us down.
At the end of a season, half-a-dozen years in, you expert a certain level of professionalism.

Mostly you get it.
Then there are the days like Thursday. Her blood was up. After a series of birds, we got into some chest-high sage where she was tough to see. I lost sight of her and when I saw a bird get up 100 yards ahead I realized how far ahead she was. I tried to reign her in.
To no avail.
Though I couldn’t see her, I could see birds getting up in twos and threes well out of range. While I shouted frantically.
I’ve used my whistle sparingly this season. Thursday, I didn’t even have it.
I’ve just expected her to do what she needs to do.
Thursday I regretted not just the lack of the whistle, but the lack of a training collar.
She let me down.
It took me a few days and a couple of trips to get over it. But she got back to center, I think she noticed the lack of shots or dead birds.
And I remembered the times I’ve let her down, with lousy shooting, or work, or poor planning or a million other excuses.
She’s far from perfect, but so am I.
So we hunt on and we hope to be better.

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?


Diversions

Dove: it's what's for dinner...

First, a disclaimer: I’m fully aware that whitewing doves aren’t considered “upland” in the classic sense.  But here in our state of Hellfire Apocalypse Formerly Known as Texas, I am forced to write about them because it’s 112 degrees and quail are now extinct and ditch parrots may be too, but I haven’t looked.

So here’s how it goes.

Twenty years ago, we had to drive way south to hunt whitewings. There were huntable numbers in the Rio Grande Valley, but the proper flyways were in Mexico. In those days there were lodges in Tamaulipas staffed by wonderfully accommodating folks who would fetch your birds and hand you margaritas and nachos when your barrel became too hot to touch.

In December of 1983, an Arctic blast descended upon the Rio Grande Valley and wiped out massive groves of citrus trees that were favored nesting habitat for whitewings. Everyone assumed that would be the end of the Texas population, but instead of moving south to join their Mexico brethren, they began trickling north. They first showed up in San Antonio around 1990. They liked the massive liveoaks for nesting, the adjacent grain fields, and the abundance of backyard bird feeders. By 1995 they were in Austin, in 2000 they arrived in Dallas. And now they’re everywhere. In San Antonio, alone, the population is now 50 times as big as it ever was down in the Valley.

Grainfield in a can

They adapted, and so did we.

Nowadays, instead of sitting on a tank dam and waiting for a trickle of mourning doves, we gather around large fields adjacent to urban whitewing concentrations and wait for the daily assault. The first waves normally leave the towns around 7:30 am. They fly high and cautious and if you’re good with a full choke, they make a really neat “thud” when they auger in from the stratosphere. If you’re lucky enough to be in the field in which they want to feed, they come in undulating waves, juking and dive-bombing at eye level and making fools of those that forgot to switch from full to improved. While the bag limits aren’t as liberal as they once were in Mexico, it’s still a lot of fun, especially when your dog that once pointed quail discovers that shagging birds in a manicured farmfield ain’t as lame as it sounds.

Not shooting at quail

And what happened to the once fertile whitewing grounds in Mexico? I’m guessing that the birds are still there, but the lodges are now shuttered and the blenders are idle and those once accommodating locals will now shoot you in the face for no plausible reason.

Hey Gringo, fetch your own dang birds...

Further Proof That Hunters Just Think Different (as if you needed it)

Background: It’s been a long, wet spring in the northern Rockies, with many places over 200% of normal snowpack. It’s now mid-June, and there have been precious few days that have felt like summer to date. But rather than pining for warm summer days, we have exchanges like this:

Hunter #1: “Well, I don’t want to jump the gun, but….it’s less than three months away…”

Hunter #2: “Funny you mention that, it was the first thing that popped into my head this morning.”

Hunter #1: “Yeah, normally I don’t let myself get excited until after summer solstice.”

Hunter #2: “Take heart – the days will start getting shorter soon…”

 

Yeah, we’re not right in the head.

Close Waters

It is, despite any charitable stretch of the imagination, a shithole. Plastic bags undulate like jellyfish in the tepid brown water. A thick layer of trash rings the shoreline. Thick wads of yellowed monofilament, snelled hook packages, beer cans, Styrofoam worm tubs, broken and discarded ten-dollar spincasting rods, cigarette butts, crooked sticks stuck in stinking mud, an abandoned flip-flop; the detritus of the don’t-give-a-shit demographic is everywhere. In a land where public water and open space for dog training and fishing is scarce and precious, I marvel, repulsively, at the fact that I can hardly bring my dogs here for the shiny matte of broken glass they must run over.

Last year someone dumped an old mattress and recliner in the pond. For a few months the waterlogged mattress floated aimlessly across the water. I used to aim for it when throwing marks for the dog, the bumper making a gelatinous thunk when it hit. She would climb up on the mattress, grab the bumper, briefly survey the world from her quivering ship and swim back to me. I once caught a bass from under it before it finally sunk into the filthy, inscrutable depths.

But it is the only water I have, so I fish it, throw bumpers into its water for my retriever, let my setter chase the tough, cat-wise urban quail that live on its edge. There are trade-offs to living on the plains –  the fishing, music and friends of the past for birds, solitude and unfettered horizon of present. This lack of decent water is just one of them. Someday – if the birds continue their slide and what few remain are found behind fences to which I will never be afforded a gate key – those trade-offs will become too much to bear and I will leave this place, but until then I keep coming here to fish and train. Better thin gruel than no gruel at all.

The bass I catch are pale and colorless, like most bass from muddy, turbid water, but they take a spinnerbait readily enough, and they’ve indulged my recent obsession for flyfishing by obliging me with the occasional thrill in that endeavor, despite my incompetence. As a reminder of what I’ve lost for what I’ve gained, they do their job, and as a touchstone for what keeps me sane, well, they do that, too.

So I come back here to find what comfort I can in what the water, the dogs and the bass offer, because water is water wherever it may be and as one who has always been obsessed with water, I have no choice but to seek it out when I hear its call.

While fishing here I once found a used syringe and a little black fake leather bag with traces of what the cops in the affidavits I used to read as a beat reporter always referred to as “a white powdery substance.”

I walk up to the water, look down and there it is, just lying there at my feet. I pick it up, carefully, and put it in the fake leather bag, wrap it in a McDonalds bag (there’s always a fucking McDonalds bag handy) and stuff the whole thing into the overflowing trash can at the parking area. As I walk back to the water, I think about how miserable that person’s existence must be to seek out this shitty, polluted spot and take – in such a hopeless manner – what fleeting solace they can find in this world.

I make a cast and do the same.

Home

Wind wedges its way between the boards, slowly deconstructing at a pace that could only be observed via time lapse imagery. A place where the roof was repaired with scrap tin lifts up, levitates for a few moments, and slams down in the breeze like a bad combover.  Shards of glass and porcelain and square head nails and the remnants of a kettle litter the yard.

Was it a family that lived here? Did children grow up and fertilize their foundational memories in this eastern Idaho soil, sweating through hot, dry summers, shouldering the bitter winters with tough, rural stoicism? Did the children continue to think about the imprint of this place as they got on with their lives elsewhere?

Was it all harsh, toil and drudgery, or were there days when you could take in that view and feel the heart lift a bit from what was no doubt not an easy life?

Did they sometimes take an evening to stroll these fields in search of a few grouse for dinner, as I’m doing now? Did they venture into the high country not far from here in hopes of an elk to fill the winter larder?

These thoughts swirl around as my attention from the task at hand wanders and I explore the old house, testament to the existence of ghosts. But then I hear barking far in the distance, and a young GSP, who likely held a point as long as a revved-up two-year old pointer possibly can, is trying to leap in the air at three flushed sharpies, and he’s barking at me as much as he is at them, and rightly so.