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

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.

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...

Stench

Here’s one they don’t tell you: Birds’ innards stink.

To holy hell.

It’s nice when you can breast out a bird neatly without breaking into the internal cavity; when you can fillet the meat off in two perfect little slabs. But when the shot mangles the meat or the freaking dog chews a bit too hard and the crushed organs behind the breast bone are exposed to air, the smell is almost toxic.

Worst bouquet ever: A small garage on the farm we stayed at in South Dakota where seven of us each cleaned our limit of roosters. It was like walking into a commercial poultry processing plant.

Even the lingering effects of quick stop breakfast burritos and draft beer caught in old neoprene waders can’t compare. Sunday morning frat house bathrooms smell better.

If you’re a dedicated crop-opener like I am, you have some insight on where the foul fowl scent comes from. Imagine what a diet of decaying apples, grasshoppers and aspen buds would do to you.

I know folks like to wax poetically about that magic moment when a dog’s olfactory system triggers the pooch to stop suddenly. Maybe, just maybe, our dogs are getting a whiff of the fetid internal stew inside the little birdies and they’re pulling up short.

Could you blame them?

– Matt Crawford

The Words We Use

“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” – Benjamin Lee Whorf

We have come to refer to rivers and forests, trout and elk as “resources.” They have become units that inhabit still other units. We now frequently hear the act of hunting referred to as “harvesting” or “collection,” or other, similarly clinical terminology. We have abstracted and reduced one of the most real, visceral experiences we have left in this modern world to the language of the bureaucrat and the commercial extractor.

There has, of course, been necessity to this. In order to converse with the bureaucrat and the extractor, to be taken seriously and to have a seat at the table, it’s become necessary to adopt their language, for this is the language that gets things done in our time. But in this linguistic shift, I believe something at the heart of this whole thing is lost, stripped of greater significance, reduced to the soulless level normally reserved for inanimate product or commodity.

Wildlife managers, and some in the conservation profession, maintain that this is the required approach for science-based conservation, and in a broad, and regrettably bland and mechanical sense, they are absolutely correct. Management of wildlife, and wilderness, has largely become about numbers, stats, population counts, carrying capacities, “maximum sustainable yields” and the like. It is not my goal to naively criticize this work, for I fully recognize its importance, just as I do its limitations. As mentioned above, statistics and quantifiable figures are essential in our day and age, if only in order to demonstrate value to a wider audience who apparently can value nothing else as highly. I know that this work is both important and well-intentioned. I  support it as much as I possibly can, and am eternally grateful that there are those willing to fight the good fight on these stark terms.

Yet we also see this shift in language occur in yielding, consciously or otherwise, to societal pressures; to distance the dialogue surrounding hunting from being about something as disagreeable as “killing,” and even from it being something that involves living, breathing beings at all. I suspect that these modifications in terminology are not coincidentally linked with greater shifting views in our culture toward hunting. How much easier, and more palatable, and less disruptive to the casual atmosphere of the cocktail party it is to say, in the presence of a hunting critic, that you spent the day “harvesting a local resource,” than it is to say that you killed several quail or a deer? Pass the smoked salmon, would you?

“Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground”

– Noah Webster

Is the recently dead grouse, whose warmth I can still feel through the game bag in the back of my vest, merely a “resource?” Moments ago, it was an eruption of wing and feather and cackle and native life. It will also soon be cooked as part of a special meal, relished as it should be, with respect for the life it was. To consider a wild river, or an expanse of old, healthy forest, and the marvelous things that inhabit these places, as mere “resource,” or “unit” would mean a fundamental part of me has withered and died. I know these places, and their inhabitants, too intimately to do them that disservice.

As a hunter and angler, deeply involved in this wet, dirty and sometimes bloody process, I have to draw a line and distance myself from this linguistic trend. This terminology can stay where it should – in offices and negotiation rooms and urban environs. Words reflect how we perceive things, and I can’t let the sterility of agency-speak infiltrate my own word choices. I can’t consider the process of hunting and killing an animal as “resource collection,” and I’m at a loss for what to say to anyone who has come to view this sacred, ancient act as anything so sterile. I won’t distance myself from what this really is. It is hunting, and a part of hunting, at least sometimes, is taking a life. While this is far from the sole reason I am out here, neither is it a thing I take casually. Nor am I willing to trivialize or sanitize this act out of consideration for those who have become so removed from the fundamentals of natural processes, and the manner in which food arrives on their plates, that they can’t deal with it. That is their burden to philosophically dance around, not mine.

Do you prefer to detach yourself from the singular act of having to kill what you eat? Does the reality of it make you squeamish or offend you, yet you still crave your burger or breast or steak? Well then it’s easy – all too easy, really, and it comes in a plastic wrapped, styrofoam tray in the refrigerated section at your local grocery store. But don’t try to drag me down that frigid, flourescent-lit aisle with you.