Pre-season jitters

When the pegasus flushed, I shot it without thinking.
I was pretty surprised when it folded up and went straight down. I was using my standard quail load, 3/4oz of 7.5s in a 28ga, which in hindsight didn’t seem sufficient for a giant, flying horse.
Never-the-less, there it lay, it’s wings splayed out in a patch of tall grass and dead as a doornail.
It was at that point that I got really nervous.
What will everyone think? Did I need a special tag for this? Did I have my license? Did I have a migratory bird HIP number? Did I need a migratory bird HIP number? How ridiculously high is the fine for shooting a flying mythological creature?
Pre-season dreams are weird.

GM

Possibility

Click.
The truck door closes and cold, crisp sage hits the nose.

Zip.
The shotgun slides out of its case, warm and familiar.

Kathunk.
The tailgate drops and an explosion of black and white and various shades of brown erupts, bursting with yelps of excitement and unbridled instinct. For a moment, it all borders on chaos until direction is given. You watch all that energy channeled into a force that shoots across the landscape, bending vegetation in its path like the winds that continually pummel this place.

Crunch.
Boots break thin surface ice is as you leave the road and start heading up the hill. You look up to see the top of the mountain shrouded in falling snow. You aim for it, even as it descends to meet you halfway.

This moment, full of anticipation and possibility, defines it all. Does it really matter what else the day brings? Have you ever felt more in-the-moment alive than now?

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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...

The Other

He may be the best dog I will ever walk the ground with. Perhaps not. Perhaps there will be another dog that will display and dazzle. But there will never be another dog like him. And there will never be another time like his. That I do know.

Some would say he was just a dog, but there are those of us who know the other plane. That place of which Henry Beston wrote: “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”

There are humans, though, who at a minimum understand Beston’s other nation. They may even live there. Perhaps. Many are my friends. Hunting men mostly, men who hunt because they have a dog and if they did not partner with a canine, they would find no pleasure in walking an autumn field with a shotgun no matter how much they enjoyed the taste of roasted pheasant. They certainly would find the cliffs and crags and rough tough of the chukar partridge much more empty. Perhaps they would draw upon the wildness and raw beauty of the desert, but without a dog pal the picture would be incomplete like Mona Lisa without her smile. Can an old woman with a Peekapoo experience the same kind of other plane, that melding of human and dog mind into a mutual understanding that transcends verbal language? Perhaps. But I think not. The reason is quarry. There is something very different about an animal that lives to hunt for you, that pursues what you pursue. You are caught up in a mutual joy of the hunt, a mutual drive that sinks deep to the soul into the core, the heart, the bone, the very cells that make up a living creature. This is in our DNA, those of us who hunt. I am sure that dogs that hunted held a different status in the ancient nomadic tribes of which we are rooted than dogs that plodded along at heel, eating food and in the end becoming food. Each type of dog—the food hunter and the food “on the hoof” certainly played a role in the survival, but it was hunting dog that actually earned its keep by living, not dying.

It was hot that day. Christ was it hot. June. People do not think of Wyoming as hot. Wyoming is snowy peaks and ice, wind and empty. That day it was over 100 and the sweat poured over my eyes. I took a half-splintered Pulaski bandaged by black electricians tape and a half-sharp shovel and made little progress. A more prudent man might have a sharp shovel and a strong-handled swinging tool, but I did not expect to be burying my dog. Maybe at twelve. Definitely not at six. He lay next to me in black plastic and I did not look over there very often. I swung the Pulaski and water ran off of me, out of me. I was miles from nowhere and the desert made me small. Tiny. Alone. Only a half year earlier, I had walked the same piece of ground with a shotgun in my hands and him out there before me. And now he was wrapped in black plastic. The desert had never made me feel so small. True enough it is a big place with sky flung in all directions, miles from water, miles from those snowfields on the Bighorns and the Absarokas. No it was not the desert that made me feel tiny, it was death. I was no longer a man with one hell of a bird dog. I was just a man.

– TR

Dust

I can smell creosote bush and prickly pear and somewhere in the western mountains, a fire is burning.
Under it all lies the smell of dust.
It’s 10,000 years of grass, fires from an eon, elk sheds and mule deer scat, feathers and foot prints, all ground and desicated into the gritty essence of this place, rising in small clouds at every step.
We are near the ridgetop, past the two benches that from below seemed the summit.
Ahead, the dog bares her teeth and nips at her foot. I whistle her in and stop for moment to pull the cholla from her foreleg.
I fish the pliers out, grab it and pull, check her mouth, pour a splash of water for us both and then we’re moving again.
Upward.
The dust that is this place has settled into my sweat-soaked hair and across her muzzle. We are coated in fine, pottery-like clay.
Looking west I can see the the river and just this side, the alluvial fan stretches out before us like a crimson peacock tail. The arroyo we came up looks minor now, it’s 10-foot rock walls insignificant. There were birds in that place, but they’re here now, seeking refuge.
Rounded live oak trees dot the grassy mesa and there are junipers and cholla intermixed. A few century plants tower above us, their seed pods showering flat brown seeds when the wind gusts.
The thermometer said 16 degrees when we parked the truck, but it’s damn hot now. We stop again, a little water for me and a little for her. We brought a gallon, and if I stay out of it, we’ll cover most of this big expanse of grass before we are forced to drop off the edge and back to the truck at dark.
This place asks much, and we will give it.
Not to give all that is asked is to remain in the truck. To stay low in the sandy bottom, to perpetuate disbelief at coveys on the mesa.
We give what is asked and in return, we get more than dust.

– GM

Sweetness

Sometimes, she is lost in the crowd, run-over, crotch-sniffed and dry-humped by big males.

But somehow, she always finds her way to the front and she is there, frozen and steady. Cat-like on the creepers. Chukars and pheasant and sage chickens mostly. The walking birds. Moving now. Then frozen.

The males, if they pay attention, nearly always come in second. When she is second, or third, or fourth, she gives quarter without complaint. She honors. Literally. She honors friends’ Griffons and short-hairs. She honors big white rocks. She honors feed tubs and salt blocks.

And she honors me, especially on the days when it is just her and her fine nose and her glide and float, her creep.

A friend watches her from horseback. She’s working sage chickens. She is a cat, and looks over her shoulder: “Um is someone going to come shoot this bird?”

And she moves as the bird moves, never pushing too far, stopping now and looking back at us and the friend is off the horse and moving in. “Okay, it’s about time.”

And slinking and then frozen and then the bird goes up and the gun barks and she has honored me once again. Make it last, this rare privilege, this fine honor, this sweetness.

– TR

Meat hunting

I’m two woodcock and a couple of spray-and-pray shots at ruffed grouse into the day when Henry’s little French Britt, Koda, goes on point. Or at least the beep-beep-beep of  his electronic collar tells me he’s on point.

I jam my way through the nasty tangle not yet suppressed by a real hard frost toward the dog. In this thick stuff you’ve got to be within 15 feet of the dog to see him, so I’m walking with the 20-gauge at the ready, unsure how close the bird might be. And then Koda moves, or least the tinga-ling of his bell tells me he’s moving.

And he’s back on point. Then barking. Then moving. And barking. And seemingly on point again. Weird.

“You see him Henry?” I yell.

“No,” Henry yells back. “He’s closer to you.”

Koda barks again, about the same time the beep goes off on the collar.

“What the hell is going on with him?” I yell to Henry.

And then I see it. At first I think it’s a fawn stuck in a muddy depression, but when my brain catches up with my eyes I realize Koda is standing – barking – a few feet from a mature whitetail doe with paralyzed hindquarters .

“Christ, Henry!” I yell. “It’s a deer!”

Henry emerges from his patch of thick alders just as I notice a quarter-sized hole on the doe’s spine. It’s a fresh wound, oozing blood, not a lot, and she thrashes around at our feet using only her front legs. I can see her backbone in the hole.

It’s archery season here, and I know the landowners have a couple of treestands hanging not far from where we are in the cover.

“We’ve got your deer!” I yell, thinking the archer would be within earshot if they were still in the woods.

Once it becomes clear there’s nobody but Henry, Koda and me in the woods with this deer we have to devise a plan. I run back to the truck to get my cell phone and a knife. I call  the landowner’s son – who’s still in high school – and ask him if he might have shot at a doe from his stand in the last 24 hours.  No, he hadn’t. Maybe his brother did? No, he hadn’t, either. A couple of phone calls later and it’s clear that whoever shot this doe is neither the landowner or still around. The game warden is called, and he’ll come around to tag it for us so we can get her out of the woods without violating any big game laws.

With little fanfare, I lay on the doe’s front legs, holding them tightly so she can’t swipe us. She doesn’t protest much, her bulging eyes the only real sign of panic. Henry takes the knife, tenderly caresses the doe on her neck just once, and plunges it into her jugular. She doesn’t die quickly, the blood gurgling in her throat as she bleats.

“They are tough bastards,” says Henry, as she flops and flutters. I notice he has blood stains on the knees of his pants. Finally, after a period of time longer than you’d think, the life drains out and her heaving chests stops moving.

The warden comes with the high schooler and his brother. We meet them on the edge of the woods and we drag her out. She’s legally tagged. They clean her and bring her to a butcher shop.

Henry and I finish our hunt – we found the deer in what’s really the sweet spot in the cover – and I manage to knock down one more woodcock.

The woodcock, too, is still alive when Koda finds it.

I just rap its head against a small tree. The bird does not bleed. It immediately goes limp.

– Matt Crawford

Charged

I worried about the heat; 80 and rising and four dogs in fur coats out in it. I worried about the back end of the old man, breaking down now after nine hard years of sweeping before my guns. I thought of a girl who has my eye these days and I thought about work. Anything but the activity before me, anything but the hunt. That’s not an easy admission. But I was distracted, off my feed.

At the toe of the mountain, up against the wilderness boundary, we followed, my thoughts and I, and we climbed through hip-deep grass and pushed through alder and chokecherry and aspen.

Then it happened. He was there. Five hundred pounds, I’m guessing. I’ve been close to grizzlies before, but never this close. Twenty yards. He burst from a chokecherry patch and bounded down the hill, stotting like a flushed mule deer in fresh alfalfa. But this was a bear. And there was no doubt: the hump, the roll of silver on his shoulders, the head, the small ears, and the claws. They looked like they were eight inches long, but probably were half that.

The dogs were out in front, beyond the bear, sniffing out grouse, and the grizz ran a perpendicular path faster than I can write this sentence and you can read it. I had enough time to yell: “Hey bear!!” and I had enough time to think about firing off a shot into the air, those meager seven and a halfs. And I had enough time to think: “No, if I fire a shot, the dogs will get excited, see the bear and then it will be on. Or over.” So I yelled. I may have hit a high note. And then he was gone.

All four dogs at heel now and heading to the truck. I thought about wild country and animals that can snap you out of your mundane bag of thoughts and re-energize, invigorate, and excite. May there always be a wild place of the hunt where something is bigger and meaner and has better judgment than I. Now, at last, I was back to being a hunter; next time would be a time of alertness and stepping light, of open eyes and focused energy. I would be fired up and ready. Charged.

–TR

He say “I know you, you know me”

It’s one thing to meet another bird hunter in October at a gas station, motel or greasy spoon diner. The frayed field pants, the whistle around the neck, the pick up with the Vari Kennel in the back, a blaze orange Purina hat – you don’t have to be The Amazing Friggin’ Kreskin to figure out you share a good deal of common ground.

But in the summer, whether it’s at the boat ramp, a wedding reception or just an evening stroll around the local rec fiHigh fiveeld, crossing paths with another heretofore unknown bird hunter sends little jolts of contentment deep into the remaining Sulci of your brain.

The first step in the conversation begins when the other dude somehow establishes he’s a hunter or that he, too, owns a springer/setter/shorthair/pointer. From there, the discussion unfolds along a fairly predictable, but altogether pleasant, path. You talk dogs, birds, guns, favorite writers, trainers, a wicked cool little blog called Mouthful of Feathers, even local covers if he happens to be local.

Almost always, when the conversation closes, there’s the sense that you made – if not a friend – at least a new ally. Somebody who thrives on that smell that emanates from a just-fired shotgun, who enjoys those long hikes back to the truck, who’s made hero shots and missed the gimmes.

Somebody a lot like you.

– Matt Crawford