Ending it Right

We had decided that we weren’t going to accept the end of the season with anything resembling passive resignation. There would be no finding of lame excuses for occupying these end times with other, less worthy activities, while a few days of permissible bird chasing remained. No pathetic, “it would be nice to get out one last time, but it’s too cold now,” sniveling.

Perhaps most importantly, we wouldn’t be able to look these guys in the face if we simply let the season end with a fizzle:

And so, one last trip was hatched. A place none of us had hunted before, interest buoyed by whiffs of rumor and suspicion that an elusive, red-legged partridge might find such barren country to its aberrant liking.

It wasn’t easy, but frankly, in a perverse way, we wouldn’t really want it to be. This isn’t about “easy,” or we would be sharing this country with the hordes; McLodges springing up like blight on a country that deserves to remain desolate and wild and beyond the reach of those who think that with enough money, any sort of instant gratification can be had. These birds, in their wild state, will always demand more than you assume. Unless, of course, you go in assuming that an ass-kicking and a steaming hot plate of humble pie are on the menu.

In the end, we can unashamedly say that we wrapped up the season with deliberateness, with new country under our boots, with a few birds in the bag and the satisfaction of knowing we didn’t listen to any of the all-too-easy excuses for not going that can leave one staring out the window. No. We chose the only conceivable way to face the next seven, bird-less months with a modicum of fortitude, till we can feed our upland souls once again.

– Smithhammer

When the Weird Turn Pro

There is a headspace you sometimes get into on road trips. Or a headspace that I tend to get into, anyway. In this particular case, it was the pernicious result of a hangover, a couple Reese’s, a bag of cheese puffs, some strong coffee and three surreal days of seeking chukar. I was driving home, the trip behind me and the Tetons in ominous storm shroud before me, killing time by playing the game in my head of trying to explain all this to someone.

Sometimes in the midst of these hell-bent junkets, it feels like the things you see along the side of the road have been deliberately placed there to conspire against your already zoned-out, chemically-fueled, tenuous grasp on road reality. These must be documented in the event that your sanity is some day put on trial. It may be the only defense.

An entire life lived in the West, and there are times when the scale of things still screws with me. I look up at vertical caprock, trying to gauge if it’s 500′ or 1500′ above, though it really doesn’t matter – I’m going up there regardless.

An hour or three later, I’m standing on top, looking at telltale tracks in the snow, the sore legs and lack of oxygen already an afterthought as the little bastards take control of my brain, yet again.

The dog vacillates between ranging too far and alternately doing exactly what he should, still working to find that fine, triadic balance between enthusiasm and focus and teamwork. He slams on point; as dramatic as if he’d hit a brick wall at full speed, and I try to get to him before one of the parties involved breaks this fleeting impasse. Later, it’s not the bird getting up, not the passing shot, not the satisfaction of finding my mark that I will remember – it’s that deranged, amber fire in his eyes as he holds point and lets me know that we’ve found what we’re looking for. This continues to haunt me as I type; those blazing, otherworldly apertures etched into an obscure corner in the back of my brain reserved for a few indelible memories. The same eyes that now just belong to a goofy pup laying on his back with his legs in the air on my living room floor.

In the end, what would I say to the uninitiated? That I had driven over 500 miles round trip, to stay in a cheap motel, eat a lot of bad food, spend hours driving on rough two-track across tragically over-grazed former bird habitat, with but one bird in the cooler to ultimately show for it? And that for whatever twisted reason, this had fed my soul?

– Smithhammer

A dog’s calling

The early, excited conversations about bird dogs and shotguns have died out.
Now there is little but the quiet jitters of a sleepless night and an oncoming hunt, the silence punctuated by conspiracy theorist postulations on AM radio.
It’s 365 miles from my driveway to the first decent patch of public pheasant hunting at the southwest corner of Kansas. That’s a little over 5 hours of hard driving, leaving at midnight, arriving in the cold well before sunrise.
The dog is sleeping, finally past the nervous whine that pierced the first hour of the trip. Now she’s settled in, conserving energy for the day she surely expects at dawn. I am positive that she believes the trip is for her sake and this time she’s right.
She has hunted almost every western specie of upland bird, but as a springer her calling is pheasants.
We blast through Boise City, Texas and I open the windows and let the sharp, cold air in to keep our eyelids pried open.
In the jet black of predawn Oklahoma, the rural world is stirring.
Old Ford pickups are idling in dirt driveways, creating little clouds of exhaust while their owners enjoy a few more minutes in a warm kitchen.
It’s late season and the early crowd at the cafe is mostly Stetsons and John Deere baseball caps, devoid of the hunter orange that litters the tables in November.
Back in the truck, Roxy starts the nervous whine again. We’re out of town, racing down dirt roads past cut grain and CRP looking for any sign of terrain in this vast expanse of ocean-flat prarie.
We bail out of the truck at a small draw with a thin strip of amaranth down the center. White, Walk in Hunting Access signs, the siren song for out-of-state pheasant hunters, border the edges.
The dog is booted. Last trip the sand spurs were prolific. She prances for a few steps then settles down to wait for us.
Barely 20 yards in Roxy makes an abrupt stop, miscalculates the boots and falls flat on her side. Her legs are sticking straight out and her nose is in a clump of switchgrass that erupts in a hen pheasant.
Before the hen is even out of sight, a rooster cackles out of heavy cover with Roxy tight to his tail feathers.
This dog chases quail and on occasion will refuse to make a retrieve on a bird she deems too big, but she was born to hunt pheasants.
A few years ago I heard there was a springer pup with a local rescue organization in the next town over. I called and asked about the pup, tempted to bring him home. A few questions into the conversation, the woman on the other end of the line changed her tone.
“Would you be using this dog as a hunting dog,” she asked.
After the obvious response, she told me that the pup wouldn’t be allowed to go to a home where it would be required to hunt.
“It’s not good for the dog,” she told me.
I imagine that pup ate every plant, chewed up all her left shoes and destroyed most of her furniture with its pent up energy. While the thought of all that sweet justice makes me smile, I feel sad for the pup that likely never discovered what he was hard wired to do.
My own dog quarters through thick CRP, hunting hard and barreling into and through the thickest cover. The deep grass sometimes covers her completely, but she reappears momentarily in vertical leaps that are her breed’s namesake.
A nose-to-the ground, brush-busting springer has no greater desire than the trail of a wile old rooster, staying afoot and trying to hunker down or run out of range.
This is her calling and it’s worth the drive.
GM

Color

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

Excerpts from a Quail Quest…

From the Upland Lexicon of Essential Euphemisms (3rd Ed.):
Main Entry: 1quest
Pronunciation: \ˈkwest\
Function: noun
1) Typically used in retrospect, to summarize the unsuccessful pursuit of an elusive, small bird in a big land. 2) An attempt to put a valorous spin on failure. 3) Also used in place of such platitudes as “it’s just good to be out here.

Az. Fish & Game agent: “Yeah, the Mearns numbers seem to be really down this year. Dry spring and summer did a number on ’em. So what are you guys hunting out here?”

Us: “Mearns”

AZF&G: “Oh.”

“We scouted that road last weekend. It’s pretty rough, and **** ‘s truck wouldn’t make it, but I’m sure your rig will be fine.”

“Hmmm….where do you think those folks are going on ATV’s, in head-to-toe camo, ski masks and handguns?”

“Note to self – when you go on a road trip, bring the keys to the locking gas cap.”

“Javelina’s are basically just big cranky rodents on steroids.”

“We could always move down lower and see if we can find some Gambel’s…”

“I’m not ready to slum with Gambel’s yet.”

“That’s gotta be the weirdest Johnny Cash song ever.”

“Looks like that big pot of beef stew flipped over in the back of your truck.”

“Should he be chewing on that?

“Well, till next year.”

“Yep.”

– Smithhammer

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

Stupid is communicable

The first time we got stuck out there, you could probably forgive. The second time? Not so much.

Out there is Northern Nevada. Washed out, flung out, far out. Out so far that satellites don’t even pass over. We were there, me and the Jack Mormon brothers, for chukar. Or probably more correctly, for our dogs. Is there any reason to drive 14 hours from home to run around in some of the remotest country in the states, get your vehicle stuck for days, and end up getting stuck again . . . if not the dog? Come to think of it, there probably are, but those reasons are not the subject of this tale.

The first sticking came as we set up camp–a wall tent for cooking and a couple of sleeping tents. Two diesel trucks and an old Ford Bronco. Six bird dogs–four labs and two setters. Two cases of beer per person. A woodstove for the walltent. Firewood for the stove. A handful of cigars for the apre hunt. We got camp set up well enough, then I decided to move my old ’92 Dodge and the frozen earth I’d parked on dropped out from beneath me like Grandma’s Angelfood cake. We tried to pull it out with the other truck and sank that one too. Then we spent the entire day and half the next digging. We had radio coverage, so we dug and listened to the first game of the first round of the NFL playoffs, then we listened to the next game and the next. Gained a foot. Sank a foot and a half. The diesels were too heavy for the old Bronco to pull out. We put all of our firewood under the truck tires and not in the woodstove. We dug some more. I crawled under the guts of my truck and dug with a hand trowel. Got the Bronco stuck. Unstuck it. Broke a Hi-Lift jack. Got into the beer. Broke a tow strap. Went to the wall tent for more beer. Climbed out of the wall tent and retrieved muddy wedges of firewood from beneath the truck, light a fire, ate elk burgers and went to bed.

The next morning, we were at it again, digging. Broke another tow strap. Gained two feet. Listened to another NFL playoff game. Sank the trucks deeper. Then, anticlimatically, were out. Out.

Went hunting, one brother one direction, the other the other, me another following a wash of pent up dog-dom wound tighter than an eight day clock after 14 hours in the truck and 36 waiting for their human partners at the campsite mud bog. Six chukars later, I staggered back to the truck and found the Jack Mormons also with limits. We’d taken out our revenge on the birds. Reverse karma. It usually goes another way.

The morning hung low and gray and depressing, threatening more rain. We hadn’t seen a soul in three days. Not even an airplane. Rain would mean more mud. We piled into the Bronco, three guns, three dogs, three beers each for the post hunt.

The chukar were at the far end of the valley, up on a torn up patch of real estate, rock and mountain mahogany and sage and cheat grass piled up like tossed laundry. Between us and them were two stream crossings. In other weather, the crossings were arroyos. In this weather, streams. The first went well enough, the Bronco grinding and spraying water in brown sheets and then we were across. The second was less honest–an eroded bank and a cold stream of mud water and a sharp drop of more than two feet to the water, and the run out was not pretty either–another sharp bank that the Bronco would have to climb and then up onto the two-track and onto the chukar ground.

There was little discussion before the trouble started and if you talk to enough accident survivors, this is a common mantra–all of a sudden, without discussion, you are screwed. And we were. The drop to the stream lurched us forward in our seats and then the water pushed us hard left, downstream and the throttle roared and we washed out into the stream and farther downstream and then water came up over the running boards on the upstream side and we were indeed, screwed, blued and tattooed. We bailed. Dogs out. Guns out. Packs? Out. We scrambled to empty the old truck and the water washed it farther downstream. For a minute there, like a herd of elk taking rifle shots from an unknown location, we milled. Then the moment was gone and we were going, frantically pulling gear and tools, wading knee deep in strong current, balls puckered. Damn. Really? Did we just do this? My friend’s face was the color of piss porcelain.

“I’ll start walking.”

There wasn’t much to discuss. It was mid-morning and camp was eight miles away.

“Okay.”

I ran for a while, then slowed. Hunting boots. Ike jogged beside me in that loose-jointed, toe-dragging gait of his and I walked fast then broke into a run for a while. I’d been running to train for the chukar hills and it felt good after a day and a half of crawling beneath the pickup and only a half day of hiking. So I did this for a while, thinking now and again, of our predicament.

We had two good pickup trucks back at camp, but there was that first crossing of the stream. No jack. A tow strap that had been broken and retied and was now about six feet long. A broken shovel.

I ran again. Then speed walked. Ran. Walked. Ran. Walked. Ike wondered where the hell the chukars were. Ran some more. Ike jogged.

I heard it before I saw it, an engine somewhere, so far off it sounded like an airplane and I looked skyward and saw nothing except gray bile. Walked some more.  It got louder and then, it came around the corner like some sort of yellow metal dinosaur–a backhoe. We were well and truly stuck and here came the one thing that could really make a difference–a backhoe. The operator slowed and opened the cab and asked with the heck I was doing out there and I told him and he said climb aboard. And so I wrapped my right arm around a strut on the outside of the cab and Ike jogged alongside, going back the other way.

The Jack Mormons welcomed me like a snowbound wagon train cheering Jeremiah Johnson to the rescue. I hopped off and slapped skin and the operator–who was traveling to his mine site in the desert and just had happened to come that way that morning–extended the arm of that big hoe and tied a tow strap to the Bronco and half lifted, half pulled it out of the water. We fired it up and water and gravel shot out the tailpipe but it ran and we backed up away from the stream and damn near kissed the ground. We promised a bottle to the operator and then looked at each other and shook our heads and, without consultation, waded out into the stream and forded it, to the knees, then thighs. There were chukar to hunt, by God.

There are no photos. You are just going to have to believe me.

–TR

The Borderline

Pour me a drink from the bottle
And one for you
’cause we’re empty as the desert
As we drift from west to east
On the borderline everything is empty, even you and I…”

– “Borderline,” by Camper van Beethoven

We hunt the fringes, the transitions, the anomalies. We gravitate to this without much conscious thought; pulled to these points at the extremity of an amorphous compass by the lodestone of experience. You could say we’re merely following the dog, but there is more to it than that. The dog is pulled to these places as the birds are pulled as we are pulled – the collision of impulse and instinct between three separate species.

Why will we repeatedly cross an otherwise featureless field, drawn to a small rise that hosts a few sage, dragged along primarily by hope? There are the obvious reasons, of course – the fact that this negligible bump on the landscape gives a vantage point for the birds and possibly a slightly greater variety of feed, would be sound reasoning, but doesn’t account for all of it. Then there are the old hedgerows, the messy perimeter of the errant orchard, the sweeping line of scrub oak, the rocky edge of the bluff; all of them places that hold birds, all of them liminal zones of portent, possessed with a deeper significance if we care to stop and think about it.

These peripheries have an irresistible, innate pull, something hardwired into the collective limbic network we tap into when we take a shotgun and a dog in the field. It is something that gets at our soul and provides a glimpse of insight into this odd thing we love. Our pursuit, after all, doesn’t really stand up to much logic. From a simple, meat-gathering point of view, it is a net loss – we expend a great deal more energy than we ever hope to take in at the end of the day. But we do it anyway, and we have all sorts of other reasons that we tell ourselves; to simply get out in the great outdoors, to watch the dogs work, to keep one foot in the door of what it means to kill and procure your own food; all of them undeniably true.

Yet we’re fooling ourselves if we aren’t also aware that as an upland clan, we are a fringe unto ourselves, occupying but a small sub-group of an already minor segment in our society, comprised of those that still hunt. And thus, as much as we are drawn to these fringe places for the obvious, we also go there for reasons that reflect who we ultimately are. We are of the peripheral, stalking the transitional, drifting west to east along the borderline…

– Smithhammer

The End of Days

You could count the number of days remaining in the Idaho sharpie season on one hand. It had been a tough year, with a bird or two here and there, but the coveys were few and far between. Still, with the help of an up-and-coming first-season pup we managed to put one in the bag now and then.

Yet with the days waning in a season that always feels too short, time spent in the field was becoming less and less productive. We’d go to formerly fruitful areas, cover them thoroughly, and find nothing. I began to question if I knew what I was doing – truth be told, a state of mind as familiar to me as my favorite old Browning boots.

In such vast country, you try to cling to informed opinions about where the birds may be, and sometimes that works, but too often they simply burst skyward from places that hold no distinguishing characteristics. We’d been walking for hours, working our way through the subtle highs and lows of the landscape, hoping to stumble across the one indistinct anomaly that, for reasons I may never fully understand, just happens to hold birds on this particular day, at this particular hour. Nothing.

It was becoming downright frigid, and I was beyond spent. We headed back to the car, with Hank valiantly still trying to find birds right up till I opened the door. We got inside and sat there for what I think were a few moments but could have been much more, listening to the wind range southbound, shaking the truck, watching the light fade. I started the truck and drove slowly out on the gravel road. Looking up from starting the radio I watched the sharpie fly across the road, right in front of us, and disappear over the horizon.

Ultimately, the birds are not particularly fond of being shot, and they owe you nothing. You better be able to laugh or this pursuit will drive you crazy.