Materials

So little of what we’re left with at the end of the upland season is tangible. Sure, there are guns to clean, maybe some birds still left in the freezer (though I rarely show that much self-discipline), and inevitably, finding new ways to try and occupy highly-energetic four-legged athletes. Ultimately, though, most of it will live on only in memory.

But then there are these feathers laying in front of me on the tying table. Ruffed grouse. Sharptail. Pheasant. These aren’t detached, consumable products in neatly-labeled plastic bags purchased from the fly store, packaged and shipped from Dog Knows Where – these came from birds my dog and I worked hard to find, birds I caused to drop from the sky, birds that, well, to be totally honest, he only sometimes half-heartedly retrieved in that way that so many pointers do who can’t be bothered with such mundane tasks, tearing off already to find the next holding covey instead.

These feathers sit in front of me on the table now, haphazardly strewn about amongst threads, tinsels, furs, tying tools, in a system of highly-subjective organization that others would likely call a mess; raw material from which I hope something useful will eventually emerge. The flies that will come of these feathers will occupy a special place, if not in my fly box, then at least in my mind, easily recognizable as different than those commercially tied by others in Sri Lanka or the Phillipines from materials of mysterious origin.

And when I remove that ragged, grouse bedecked fly from the cutthroat’s mouth, and release it back into that little creek high up in the newly melted alpine, I’ll flash back to that day last October when I was up to my knees in mud, shotgun in hand, trying in vain to keep up with a dog tracing currents of bird scent across a sweeping landscape, pulled along by compulsions I’ve never fully understood or bothered to explore; satisfied instead by knowing that not doing these things would cause a slow withering of my soul, which is simply not an option.

– Smithhammer

Luther

He was the “assistant foreman” on a ranch in West Texas. I had a gate key to that ranch and permission to hunt quail, but nothing else.

At dusk on a January afternoon, I was parked on the edge of a CRP patch when Luther came clattering up the road in his derelict Ram Charger. His two Blue Healers were standing on the toolbox and peering over the cab. I clipped my pointers to the tailgate and filled their water pans as Luther ground to a halt in a cloud of red dust. He left his truck running because it likely wouldn’t start again if he didn’t.”

“Any birds in that?”

“Three coveys.”

“Get any?”

“Five.”

When the dust and exhaust fumes cleared I caught a whiff of a sickly perfumey smell wafting from his open truck window. He was somewhat shaven and his hair was slicked back. He had on a black felt hat and one of those patchwork Garth Brooks type shirts.

“Luther, where you off to?”

“Town.”

That could have been any number of places but I assumed he was referring to Lubbock.

“What’s the occasion?”

“I got a date.”

“Are you wearing Hai Karate?”

He flashed a sheepish grin and I noticed that his scraggly mustache had been touched up with a grease pencil, a Sharpie, or something similar. It didn’t do much for me, but maybe she would like it.

“Who’s the luck lady?”

“Gal I grow’d up with. I ain’t seen her in years. She’s lately divorced and living back with her mom, and them.” He leaned over to his rearview mirror and checked his teeth; then he plucked a toothpick from his hat brim. “She’s a real looker.”

“Yeah?”

“Head twirler back in high school.”

Luther looked at me with a wink and a nod. I turned and looked at his dogs. They turned and looked mine.

“So, where you taking her?”

“Kenny Chesney concert. She won some free tickets through the radio. She answered four trivia questions about livestock and politics and all.”

“Smart gal?”

“Apparently.”

“You taking your dogs to the concert?”

He pointed into the bed of his truck with his thumb. “They’ll be fine back yonder. Anybody tries to steal em will thank better of it when he has to pry some teeth off his boys.”

He waited for me to reply to that but I didn’t. He watched me unclip my pointers and open their boxes. It was getting dark and I had an hour on the road back to my motel.

“Whatta you give for a bird dog like them?”

“A lot; depends on their breeding and their finish.”

He studied the dogs as they spun and jumped into their boxes. “You gonna hunt again tomorrow?”

“Not sure; sounds like we’ve got some bad weather coming.”

“Well, if you do, I seen a big covey at that wire gap going into the croton pasture this morning. Least I thank they was quail—mighta been doves—do they run along the ground?”

“Doves?”

“Yeah.”

“No, not as a rule.”

With that, he let off the clutch and his trucked lurched and sputtered down the road. After about fifty yards he stopped and hung his head out the window.

“Hey—if you come by the house in the morning and see my truck but I don’t answer the door….”

“Yeah?”

“…don’t keep on knockin, cause I might be doin some good?”

It was 22-degrees and spitting snow when I turned out my dogs the next morning. I hunted for a couple of hours before the wind picked up and it started dumping. On the way out of the ranch I drove past Luther’s house. His truck was out front with the driver-side door standing wide open. The snow was blowing sideways into the cab. His two Healers were sitting on the porch.

Two weeks later the paper said that Luther had been arrested for public intoxication and assault on a gal that was once a head twirler. I hunted that ranch one more time on the last weekend of the season and Luther’s house was locked up and dark. I never heard what happened to his dogs, and I never found that covey by the wire gap leading into the croton pasture.

– TB

Rock Star and the Old Lady

My sons are just starting to notice my dog. They follow her with their 2-month-old eyes as she ambles past their swing or give a baby yell when she stops to lick the milk off a tiny dangling hand.
Today, she’s recovering from three days of hunting after a season with precious few days afield. A dog in her prime, she is nursing sore feet and moving like an old lady.
After the days of perfection she just turned in she is entitled to a little soreness.
In rough, dry country we cut a wide swath. Her zigzagging in front, never straying out of shotgun range but occasionally breaking her pattern to check out a particularly good piece of cover. She held tight, she flushed in range and she retrieved more dependably than any season past. She was more than steady, she was a rock star.
We had company this week and she put him on his first birds.

The first afternoon, he followed her lead into a patch of tall grass and Gambel oak and stopped when I called out. She put a pair of birds in the air and after his shot she brought a beautiful male Gambels to his hand.
When he looked back, I could tell she had just created an upland hunter.
My two upland hunters are years from their first shotgun.
The realization that Roxy will not be their dog brings an air of melancholy to the day. Her exploits will live on in my journal and stories but to them she will never be a rock star, just an old lady.

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

Blood Oath on Giffy Butte

“Where you guys hunting?”

Really? Did I just hear that? Did he just say that?

My initial reaction–and all subsequent reactions– is “Giffy Butte.”

As in “GFY.” As in “Go Fuck Yourself.”
These are places earned in sweat. Toil. Research. Where you guys hunting? I’m gonna tell you that?  A stranger in a parking lot motel with a SUV full of bird dogs? Umm . . . . Nope. GFY, dude!

We came here, to this tiny Wyoming burg, with hopes of birds and dogs on hard point. We each drove a half-dozen hours. I told my friend that I’d take him there only if he swore that he’d never take anyone else and never go there without asking me if he could. In the planning phases, he had asked me about another hunter, who lived only two hours away.

“What about taking him?” he had asked.

My answer was something like, “A guy who lives only two hours away? He hasn’t earned it. We don’t need to spread the word.”

To the novice, or to the hunter with only a few thin years under his boots, or to perhaps that uninvited hunter (whom I’ve nothing against), this might seem like raw arrogance. This is, after all, public land. Everybody’s land.

But this place, and many others, is sacred ground.

We found it, another hunter and I, almost twenty years before. Then, as now, we swore we’d take only a smattering of people, those who understood the blood oath, who understood the scarcity of a place with good birds and great hunting and deep reward in a shallow land. We’d take a few friends who lived many miles away, but even they would need to honor the oath. We shook on it.

I had done the research, talked with a warden and a biologist, and when we first stepped foot on Giffy Butte, we saw bird tracks in snow dust. This was a year or two before his best dog was even born. My best dog was between us, a pup of eight months with a heart full of talent. We got into the birds, killed limits. Swore on our souls.

His best dog and mine are dead now. Mine is buried out there, in a shallow grave scratched in a hard land.

We’ve gone annually, kept it quiet, and watched as a few more people found the place. Maybe they were researchers and big walkers and diehards who found the place on their own like us. But maybe, one of the few we’d shown had talked and pointed a betraying finger to a map. We wondered about that–And then they told two people, and so on and so on and so on and so on.

Today my friend I’m showing this place understands. We load his fine young dog and my pack into my truck and we drive there. There will be no revealing of this secret place to others–and certainly not to brazen eager turds in a motel parking lot.

I knew I could trust him.

My other friend, a kindred soul and fellow addict, called the other day. He was livid. Two friends who had taken the oath had lied. They had shown another that sacred spot and yet another leak sprung. Will this new addition honor the oath? Unknown. I barely know him.

But there is a resentment there. He hasn’t done the homework, nor, in fact, did those who showed him Giffy Butte do theirs. They were guests on the coattails of my generous friend’s sweat and hard work. For that gift, they gave him and me more competition on a place that we hold very dear. Thanks guys. Such betrayals are hard to forgive and I know that my friend will not be likely to share a new secret spot with them again.

For the hardened hunter, the avid dog man, such places are the core of the soul. The sharing of them is a time-honored ritual, a blood oath, a sacred trust. I have another friend who has walked many miles with me, a person I’d trust with my life. I’m even the designated executor of his will instead of his own son, but he never showed me his very best blue grouse hunting spot in Colorado. I never asked him to. And if he had, I would have never shared it nor even gone there without him. I would have held it as tightly as I’d hold an heirloom from my family’s ancestral trek on the Oregon Trail.

Sacred places. Some, even, are on private land. Many are on public. In a sport where territory sifts away each year like sand through an open palm, good hunting places are slipping. A place where I used to hunt Wyoming wild pheasants is now locked up tight. Another place where I chased blue grouse in high mountain holds has been nuked by greedy sheep and I’ve found more and more empty shotgun shells every autumn.

Herein lies the creed: do the homework, find your own places, walk long, sweat much, go birdless, find reward. If you want to share it, then do so. But share it knowing that life changes. Others discover. The land changes. The birds cling to life. Yours is a rare honor. Honor it.

–TR

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

Staked

Three hundred lots. A handful of open space tracts. Bull-dozed new ponds. Jogging trails along the streams where the new residents can enjoy wildlife watching.

But for now, a half section of farm ground in old wheat, a smattering of snowberry along the cricks, gone-awry tansy and thistle. Cover.

You walk this ground as you did last year. It’s good for one hunt a year, maybe two. You take only one dog. One dog, the old one, who stays close and hunts pheasants better than the others, more thoroughly, less ram-charger-hell-bent-go-daddy.

This place is close to town. Closer to the blade. They came here as your kind has come for centuries: lured by word-of-mouth, tantalized by brochures, urged by magazine articles that rated your town as a “Top Ten.” You came then too, so you are well aware of the dark crow of hypocrisy perched on your shoulder.

Farm ground went under the blade. Tracts surveyed. Nail guns spit. Places to live and raise your children and clean air to breathe and those amazing mountains on all sides. Good country.

But soil as black as an Angus turned over for the last time, covered in asphalt, concrete.


Then it all fell out.

The money stream dry. The realtors waiting tables. The construction guys on the road somewhere else. Some other boom.

Now it is as it has been for one hundred years. Farm ground. The surveyed and staked ground before you like some glowering storm off in the distance, a storm that promises to drop ice on the highway and force you elsewhere.

You are aware of time here. Aware of economics. Aware of change. When you come here as you have come every year for a half dozen, you wonder if you’ll have to find some other place next year. If this place will be no more. You do not think of these things in other places where change seems to creep as slowly as lichen across granite.

You walk behind the old dog and watch him move through the snowberry and tangle rose. You scrape along behind him and look for tracks in the snow. You start to pick up some, tracks of running roosters, a covey of feeding Huns, a doe-fawn combo. The old dog cuts parabolas on open ground, then finds a line that only he can feel and follows it, as if being reeled there. Then, a point. The cock bird goes up and you swing and pull and touch his warmth when the old man brings him back.

You go on now, thinking about hunting and unaware of time and change and development. There’s a hen beneath a solid point, and then another rooster warm in your hand and then you are out of cover and out of ground to hunt.

Two roosters on good ground. Two is enough. Save some for next year. Save some now. The ‘dozers will get the rest.                                       –TR