There is just this. Windswept cheatgrass and sage, gradually ascending, wrinkled and folded in places like a well-used blanket. In the distance, steep rock and dark forest and blue grouse and elk and cougar all move under cover, but out here it is only the sheer vastness that aides concealment.

The steady gait of a horse, covering time and distance you’re unaccustomed to on foot; a horse that exudes the sort of disposition you want to take to the horizon. The rhythmic creak of saddle leather mixing with the wind and gurgle of ravens, trading precedence with your thoughts.

Dogs, possessed of incomprehensible drive, vacuuming the arid ground for scent before you. A sudden point – the kind of full speed to a stop that makes you think the dog is going to flip ass over tea kettle with the abruptness of it. Men, horses and dogs all stop in honor. A quick dismount, a few steps forward, a release command. A bird gets up and then tumbles over the knoll.

You can make more of it, if you’re so inclined, but really, sometimes, it is far better when it is just this.

– Smithhammer

Last Call

Grasshoppers whirl at my feet like playing cards snapped into a stiff wind, a sound that is enough like a rattlesnake to skip my heart a couple of beats. This is snake country, and they are still active, even now with mornings frosted and the aspens stripped naked. I tell the white setter to watch out and stay close to my side.

We have only a few hours of light left in the afternoon and one thousand feet to descend. The air seems frenetic, everything sun-baked, hot, late in the day and year. Even the hoppers seem hurried. Or maybe it’s just me.
Most people are hunting elk and deer, but the river calls. I can’t hear it from way up here, but it sings to me. I know the flow is low enough now to wade and the water clear enough to fish. The last hoppers are on, defying autumn. Go. Headlamp in the pack, hair-and-feather hoppers tied the past winter in the box, cold dinner of elk salami and Havarti in the bag. Go.
So we drop off the rim, and I can feel the pain of it in my quads almost immediately, half jogging, power hiking down into the canyon. There is a faint game trail that someone, damn them, has flagged with plastic tape. My secret place discovered. I’ve been scrabbling down into this canyon every year for ten years. This is my one trip for the year, and this one only a few hours squeezed between walls of sheer limestone. Not many make the effort. There are easier fish and gentler places.
I stop long enough to yank the flagging down and call the dog off a family of grouse he’s pointing. The trail fades and then disappears, and I’m in the thick north-side Doug fir with gravity as my only guide. I ignore the feel of my toes hammering into the boots. Is that a hot spot developing? To heck with it.
Finally, the river. It is squashed down here, flowing season’s-end-low through limestone boulders shed from the top. The river pools, then rushes, twisting. Both banks are too steep and tangled to hike. The river is the only path and only if you are willing to get wet. I rig the fly rod and tie on a hopper, wading into the first pool, heading upstream. The dog stays at my side, pointing fish now instead of birds, happy to be trembling in cold water, watching the trout rise.
The first is a brown, ten inches, sides sprinkled like he’s been rolled in black pepper and cayenne. The fight on the two-weight is brief, fun, then over. The next is a rainbow, complete with rainbow acrobatics. The next is a brookie. And so it goes, good fishing in clear water with big flies. Reward for sweat. Made sweeter by the effort of the hike, the urgency of the late hour and season. We wade upstream in the shade of the canyon walls, in the fading light of an October day.
By the time I fish back downstream to my stowed pack, I can no longer see the hopper riding the waves. The hike out, up, will be in moonlight and headlamp. We will take our time on the climb, however, for now there is only sleep ahead.

Fall comes with a quickening in the heart. You smell it early, maybe. Even in the hot years, perhaps as early as August. It happens suddenly. One morning you are standing on your front porch sipping your coffee and it dawns on you how cool it is. There’s a smell in the air, too, a smell of grass cured by the sun, of leaves, of sap, of faint thin wood smoke. Now your attention turns to the aspens on the hill above town and to the alder along the creek, watching, waiting for them to signal the beginning of it.

One morning, you notice a thin line of ice on the horse trough, like salt rimming a margarita glass. It won’t be long. Not long now. You start to dream when you are awake, just as you did back in April. They were vivid conscious dreams of salmonflies and caddis and trout rising above willow-blanketed islands. Dreams of summer coming. But now your dreams are laced with the smell of wet, happy dog, of elk bugling, of leaves changing and falling, of grouse warm and sun-dappled in your hand, of gunpowder and dog bell.
Autumn is a season that sings of harvest and bounty. Yet, on some days, it is still hot and sweat streams down the center of your back and you worry about hanging meat and fret about blowflies and rattlesnakes and loud leaves crunching under your boots. But it is time to harvest and there is not much time. Most days leave you happy, harvesting, collecting, breathing those great smells.
And yet with fall comes a sadness that washes over you for no apparent reason until you realize you are mourning the good things of summer lost. Still, you remind yourself of the peril of this melancholy path, of the fact that summers, like loves, are remembered only for the good things. Summer may be gone, but gone, too, are the blistering long, hot days, the parched landscapes, the mosquitoes, the horseflies, and the rivers with water too warm and low for healthy trout.
Early on, you look at your calendar and cross out days. You’ve hoarded your vacation time for this season and the Xs made by your pen take up days, then weekends and finally, whole weeks. Bird hunting. Antelope hunting. Berry picking. Wood gathering. Bird hunting. Harvesting the garden. Canning. Elk hunting. Deer hunting. More bird hunting. Listening to the Denver Broncos and the Wyoming Cowboys on AM radio. Hauling hay. More wood. You are awash in a frantic river of activity and then it hits you.
Fishing. You almost forgot fishing.
Autumn fly fishing is for the dedicated. The rivers have cooled and the action, at least the action of humans, has chilled a bit as well. Most have gone home and are settling into a season of football and cheese dip. So here, at long last, you have the rivers to yourself. If you are lucky, the hoppers will still be going, sometimes as late as mid-October. And if you are really lucky, the big browns will be on the move.
In late October, from the Miracle Mile to the Big Horn to the Green, the fish that we have credited with legendary intelligence, a trout worthy of kings—King Brown himself—will be on the move.
They run into the rivers from the reservoirs and up the rivers into the streams, and up the streams to the cricks. In October, it is entirely possible to catch a brown trout as long as the crick is wide. Big spawners, with sides as yellowed as the meat of a ponderosa pine. If you tie into one of them on your new four-weight, you’ll pray for its spine, its soul, and thank gawd that the manufacturer has a breakage guarantee, and you thought to bring a back-up rod.
The big brown boys of autumn react quickly to well-presented flies, as if enjoying the cooling of the water. They’ll slash and slam into grasshoppers and other big dries, while beneath the surface, they hammer Montana nymphs, girdle bugs, and wooly buggers. There’s nothing subtle about a fall-run brown trout. They have sex on the brain, and like bull elk, thinking about sex can get them into trouble. No longer are they delicately sipping those size 22 midges on 7x tippet. Instead, they’ll knock the snot out of a size 6 muddler fished on 4x and leave a hole in the water that seems to take forever to fill back up.
Rainbows and cutthroats, too, seem to frolic in the cooling waters, taking some of the smaller stuff on top, perhaps following the spawn of their brown cousins, perhaps just feeling the urgency of the shortened days. Brook trout run now as well, wearing colors almost too gaudy for nature, reds and blues and greens. They are hungry, and they act quickly and seemingly without premeditation.
The beauty of fall fly fishing is you can wait for the sun to come up over the rimrock before you leave the truck. You can wait for the waters to warm a bit and for the scattered hatches to come on, for the frost to metamorphose into dew, before you rig up and pull on the waders.

You’ll fish well, for the whole summer of fishing is behind you and your moves are practiced and honed by solstice-length days.
This short fall day finds you moving carefully among spooky trout, false casting just enough to get the job done, easing over boulders slick with the dying algae of summer. In the cool water, the fish you land fight vigorously and swim off defiantly, still full of spark. Each one you land has you wondering, Is this the last one? Is this the last trout I’m going to land this year?
If you have planned your day well and have had enough smarts to leave the shotgun and bird dogs at home on this rare fall day, you will perhaps—midday and six trout landed—have enough time and the good sense to sit on the bank for a while. Here you can contemplate the vicissitudes of the sporting life in this urgent, too-short, best-of-all-seasons season. You’ll watch golden aspen leaves spinning boat-like in the water and once in a while, you’ll rise to your feet and cast again. You may even have planned well enough to have packed a lunch into your fly vest. Perhaps, you’ll take a break from this quickening of season, from that hurried feel in your heart.
But more likely, you’ll fish hard and return many trout to the water and then you’ll start to think about that dog. It sure would be nice to put him on some ruffed grouse today.

This essay is excerpted from Blue Lines, A Fishing Life, published September 2010 by Riverbend Publishing, Helena, Montana. For more information, check out

Sharp-dressed Bird

I really like sharptails. If we ever run out of bobwhites in Texico, I’ll probably move north and hunt them fulltime.

Looking, first, at some of the sharpie’s kinfolk, I’d classify the ruffed grouse as the haughty blue-blood of the clan. He frequents the upper east and he’s often chased by folks who smoke pipes and belong to gunclubs. The spruce grouse is the inbred mountain-man of the family. He’s dumber than a stump, and that’s usually where he’s standing and staring blankly when a shotgun points his way.

Between these two intellectual extremes, we have the sharptail. He’s the sodbusting prairie-dweller that wakes up each morning with a different M.O. When it’s hot and windy he’ll flush underfoot and give you a decent chance. On cold days he’ll jump from the grass when the truck door slams and fly out of sight. I like his furry little feets and the way he cackles when he flushes. It’s a nasal, mocking, staccato, yodel that reminds me of the grade school punk that always needed an ass-whooping, but never got one.

Most endearing, though, is the sharpie’s little stomping and spinning jiggy-jag that he does when the ladies of spring are around. Thanks to Dawson Dunning for shooting this incredibly cool footage. – TB

King of the Big Empty: Our generation’s Heath Hen

Consider the sage chicken. Take your time at it. He is a mighty bird, his pointed tail, his black-feathered breast, his mottled and muted yet beautiful hues, his huge feet. Many writers, attempting to describe his flight have penned imagery of Air Force bombers, kites, sails. Indeed, the pet name for the big ones, the old ones, is “bomber.” Others have sneered at the big grouse as a game bird, shuddered at the thought of eating his dark breast, laughed when talking about the sporting dog aspect of hunting “chickens.”

Yet I submit that those who turn their noses up at Mr. Chicken might in fact be deeply saddened if those big beautiful birds no longer dotted our sagebrush steppe, no longer flew our wide Western skies.

There are those among us who have grown up hunting chickens. Here, on the broad ocean that is the sagebrush sea, are a few of us whose first shotgunning experience was sage grouse, whose family reunions were on the high prairies of states like Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana. I love how the names of those states sound on the tongue, and when I think of sage grouse and of those places, I think of old Willys jeeps and Ford Broncos covered in alkali dust, of big heavy Labs panting in the shade of a September wall tent, of Winchester pump guns, of windy Labor Days in the middle of nowhere, of grape soda in a tub of ice–and when I was deemed old enough–Hamm’s, Oly and Coors. I remember listening to the Wyoming Cowboys or the Colorado Buffaloes or the Denver Broncos on AM radio, and I remember those big birds taking wing and my shotgun on my shoulder and that huge, huge target, and I remember missing. They were deceptively fast and the shotgun sometimes swung as if it were twenty feet long. Sometimes, I remember hitting. Always, sage chicken season was about family and laughter and the music of loved ones.

Not too many people have family reunions around sage chicken season any more. Perhaps it is a function of a fattening society, of lard-assed kids who would rather play video games or text-message their pals. But the real reason, I think, is because we’ve failed as a society to appreciate this bird, failed as a people to treasure the wide open sagebrush flanks of our land–the very openness that defines the West–and failed, ultimately to be good stewards. Lyrical ground like Sweetwater, Oregon Buttes, Vinegar Hill, Horse Prairie, Choke-A-Man Draw . . . I can’t even think of those places without sage grouse. Without them, they are truly empty.

Six dogs and one wife ago, I was the cocky young editor of a small town western Colorado newspaper. Back then, I hunted with a beat-up Remington autoloader that  jammed often, and a mutt named after my favorite beverage at the time. JD had been born under a house in Carbondale the year I dropped out of college to spend a season ski bumming in Aspen. The bastard child of a Springer mother and a Lab father, she was black and white, just like the Jack Daniels’ label.

Eventually, I went back to college, finished up that degree, put a few years of Arizona quail hunting and Colorado pheasant hunting in front of JD’s eager nose, and then found myself in the Gunnison Basin. I was editing a newspaper with an absentee owner and given free reign over the editorial pages. The pay was light, but the benefits were fantastic. The newspaper’s owner also had claim to a few miles of the Taylor River to which I had access, and there was wild country right out the door.

JD and the chickens

And there were chickens. The high country held blue grouse, but if you were a serious bird hunter (and with JD, I thought I was a terror to the game birds of the basin), you had to be a chicken hunter. They were everywhere. You could hunt chickens on the sage-blanketed sweep of the rising mountains and have a staggering Colorado mountain view as a backdrop.

It was pretty tall cotton then and I didn’t even know it. I must have killed dozens in my time in Gunnison and I cooked their meat to medium rare over aspen coals and savored every bit of it. Cooked beyond medium rare and their flesh was as palatable as an old shoe, but medium-rare and you were in business. A friend would gather a large group of us–a banker, a professor at the local college, a PR man, a county assessor, a county manager, and the young punk newspaper editor with his mutt and clunker gun–and we’d head out to Flattop and hunt for a day behind his Brits and my Splab. We’d laugh and drink beer at the end and admire our chicken harvest. The hunts were about friendships, about sharing a passion and were an annual ritual.

No one has killed a Gunnison sage chicken in a decade. The season clamped shut in 2000 and those kinds of hunts on the sagebrush shoulders of a big mountain, that music of laughter and mutual joy is a thing of the past. Just like those family reunions. In those ten years of no hunting, the population of Gunnison chickens has not rebounded and it remains a species in trouble. Hunting was not the cause, not the problem and sadly, hunters do not have the solution.

Everywhere, in every Western state, the story is the same. South Dakota has a silly two-day season with a one bird limit. Why even have it? Eastern Oregon has a permit draw system much like we have with big game. Nevada–with its mighty, tossing ocean of sage–has a two week season and most of the state is closed to nonresidents. And Wyoming–Wyoming, the state that defines sagebrush, the state that is antelope and sage chickens and wide open–has a two-week season with a two-bird limit, four in possession. It used to run a month and you could sack up three birds a day with nine in possession. Sad times. While we have built our Pheasants Forevers and our Quail Unlimiteds, and our Ruffed Grouse Societys, the very symbol of the West for the upland gunner has dwindled, lost ground and died.

Oil and gas development, predation, range fire, intentional sagebrush eradication funded by the feds and states, the looming shadow of renewable energy and its transmission lines, livestock grazing, “wild” horses, even West Nile virus . . . the sage chicken is in trouble. It is teetering close to being put on the endangered species list and if it ends up there, we hunter-conservationists should be deeply ashamed of ourselves. Sick. And it happened in finger-snap time; unless you are younger than 8, this has happened in your lifetime.

In my living room, mounted in a place of honor, is a big old bomber chicken. Whenever I look at him, I am back on the Big Empty. The memory of a girlfriend after the broken marriage, of a beautiful September Wyoming day, of golden aspen leaves and soft breezes scented by sage, of a talented dog on solid point, of swing and trigger pull, and retrieve to hand all come back to me. But there’s more. There’s a symbol. Of the West. Of families that got together in the outdoors and walked hallowed ground. Of simpler times? Perhaps. But we had problems back then. We just knew how to stick together, how to laugh, what family felt like, how to appreciate nature without motors and batteries and games . . . Our people seem to have lost those things.

Consider the sage chicken.                  –TR

In search of the empty

Damn the red lines.

They crisscross the green and yellow areas on the map like bloody cracks.
On the ground, they are uglier and more numerous.
These are not the access routes that bring us to the edges. No, these are far from the rural route roads-the gravel arteries-that deliver us from here to “out there.”
Dusty, rutted trails, crosshatch the landscape. Parallel routes that go nowhere, achieve nothing except to reduce habitat and lessen the experience.
The ungulates see them as warning signs, for the quail they are deathtraps.
The red lines often begin and end at the same places. On the ground, they simply wander as if an unmanned machine had prowled the landscape at random, leaving ruts that will last a hundred years.
On the map, I search for an area devoid of the red lines. A place I can’t walk from one road to the next in the time it takes to smoke a decent cigar.
There are few.


This nothing, this sheet of land, this openness, this bigness. Nothing. Stand. Then turn in a slow circle, eyes open. Nothing stretches left and right, ninety, one-eighty, two-seventy, three-sixty. Nothing.
Walk into it. Follow good bird dogs who follow their olfactors into a northward wind. Sagebrush at the feet. Greasewood. Four-winged saltbush. Sand. Sandstone. Sage again, sage always.

The wind hard in the face now, coming strong from the south, clouds forming, joining, mating, darkening. Still after the dogs, panting hard now and pivoting in growing wind, ears flopping with movement of body and earth. Still, nothing. No birds. Not even a track in sand, nor white-wash of turd on rock, nor anything.
A hawk overhead, passing on the wind, carried, pushed, surfed. Hardly a wing beat, just a kite of feather and talon and sharp beak.
Still into the wind, still after the dogs, still looking for track and scat and dusting. Still on.
An hour now. Then two. Three. Rest in steep ravines, dogs watering in natural troughs of stone. Carved deep and ancient. Crunching on through bitter small sage, over needling cactus. On, still in the wind.

Likely spots, tall grass in sagebrush stands, green-up on south slopes. Nothing.
A skeleton then, red feet. Plucked clean. Except for those feet. Those damned feet. Usually running and making tracks. Damnable, loveable little bastards.

Juniper twisted by wind, hardened and sanded and tortured.
Finally enough. Turn. The truck now ahead, not behind. How far? Three miles? Five? Six?
A wide swing. A wandering course. Following dogs. Occasionally following faded experience, judgment, upland teachings. Last year’s fountains dry. Going there, checking for this year’s generation. Informed by memory, swatted by reality. But mostly following dogs. Trusting. They know. If there is anything instead of nothing, canine instinct will prevail.
Canyons now, deep ones, scrambled. Sliding on sandstone, stopping again at a trough, hot and panting dogs lying in meltwater. Shotgun slung over one shoulder. Shells heavy in the vest, juniper berries collected. Back home, back at the woodstove, one berry on a stovetop will scent the entire house.
An antler shed. Leave it. A chipping, then a point. Leave them too.

Mind wandering, then coming back again, eyes following the dogs, whistle tucked and un-used. They are fine-tuned and all business and there is pride there, right there in the heart. Heavy too because the oldest, the alpha male, lopes with a limp and will be stiff on the front end and decommissioned in the morning. But now, onward, into nothing. Alone out here except for canine and raptor, a mule deer doe stotting over far gray ridge, hide matched to the land. Invisible without movement.

Water low now, sloshing in the bottle and stomach growling; lunch left hours ago. Sun slowly falling out of the sky and toes mashed hard by downward slides, heels feeling hot from upward slogs. Left knee complaining of high school football. Ignore it. On. Onward. Still, nothing.

Finally, the truck. Keys in the gas cap. Water from the jug for the dogs. A beer. Cold and goddamned good on dry throat and now the sun almost gone and a wash of color–orange and red and pink–across the sky. Dogs flopping down hard on the soil by the truck wheel, panting and stretching out and drooling cold water. Thirst slaked. On the tailgate now and a cigar, smoke curling, blending with sage scent. The wind down and gone. The bird vest empty. The gun still clean.

Not nothing.

Something. –TR

Cactus Dreams

The country cascades. Everything moving, drifting along on gentle river of earth and sky.

A setter. Another and another.

Setter long tails and feathers matching the cadance of grass.

The grace of dog and desert steppe, the dance of the driven, the music of gentle December sunlight.

Grass everywhere, belt-deep, tawny. Breezes talk, whisper Coues deer and Mearns quail. Yarn of past hunts, decades and dogs gone.

A few thorns here, but mostly a stroll, a waltz, a flow like clear water over polished stone. A solid point. Honor. And more honor. Mearns burst, twittered alarm and shotgun shouldered.

In the evening, quail broiled on oak, tangy sweet spice of hardwood smoke and mesquite. Hatch chilis roasted. Agave sipped. Dogs resting, sated. Dreaming. Cactus dreams.        –TR