A project we’ve been kicking around for some time is finally happening, and frankly, we’re damn excited about it. In early December of 2013, Mouthful of Feathers: Upland Hunting in the West will be released, featuring a collection of original, full-length essays by:
With an introduction by Miles Nolte.
The book will be published by Pulp Fly, Ltd. and available on Amazon, iTunes and Barnes & Noble for Kindle, Nook and iPad platforms.
More to come soon – please stay tuned. And if you haven’t done so already, the best way to stay tuned is by signing up as a follower of this blog, which you can do on the menu on the right side of this page, and by “liking” our Facebook page. Thanks.
I see him disappear as he drops off the cut bank and into the river, purely intending to cool off. By “river” I’m referring to the South Fork of the Snake, currently running at 12,000 cubic feet per second.
The uninterrupted force of the river is cranking along the undercut bank where he went in. There is a tangled strainer of logs and debris just downstream, reaching out like a wicked, gnarled hand dragging long fingernails across the galloping surface of the torrent.
I sprint. He’s clawing at the bank without purchase, and then I see him starting to get sucked under and swept. His eyes go wide as dinner plates as the reality of his predicament dawns on him. Somehow sinks through that knuckle-headed pointer cranium of his. It’s a look I’ve never seen on his face, and my own probably didn’t look much different.
I dive to the edge of the bank, grab a fistful of collar and pluck him from the current with little time to spare. Fall on my ass.
I think about what would have happened if I hadn’t been right there, and able to respond so quickly. What if I was still back in the cottonwoods, looking for morels, as I had been just minutes before? He’d be gone. Pinned below the undercut, or swept into the strainer. I’d have lost my bird dog.
On terra firma again, he shakes the water off and tears off back into the forest, following the onslaught of spoor that rules his better judgement. Living as he always does – entirely in the moment. I give up on the morels and decide to call it a day. Too dry anyway.
He was fully immersed in his second favorite thing to do in this world – chasing a tennis ball.
Without warning, he abandoned his second favorite thing to do in this world, which could only mean one thing. He hooked a hard left and headed toward the houses, nose to the ground, inhaling scent at a full run.
From a distance, it was obvious he was on point.
A standoff had ensued. The fowl held its ground briefly, before making a fatal mistake.
As the yardbird turned and ran, the shorthair was on it in seconds, shaking the life out of it.
We’ve been politely invited to help our neighbor build a new fence.
I could go on about how the season came and went too quickly, although now that I think about it, a lot has come and gone since it began last September. I could lament not having gotten out more, though I think I did pretty well this year. I could allow myself to be reminded, every time I look at the dog, of regret at not letting him revel in what he is bred for, every second and every day that he is legally allowed to do so. But then again, neither am I, and that’s life.
Instead of giving in to remorse, I opt to wander through the ever-expanding topo map of places I’ve hunted which lives in my head. I think of fields full of sharptail, warm and yellow and glowing on an October afternoon, now harsh and iced over and windswept. But still, these tough birds reside. I think about new chukar land I walked this past year. About how dry it was – even for that country; about how those birds of the Eurasian steppe are surviving in their adopted basin and range. Blue grouse now burrowed into snow, and a lone wolverine, high above tree line on a February morning, trying to sniff them out. Huns, normally spread out and elusive for much of the year, now coalesced into a large covey that has moved into the undeveloped sage scrub near my house to wait for the days to grow long again.
Maybe my drive is evolving. Walking country for days, with nothing in the game bag to show for it, doesn’t feel so much like “failure” anymore. While sitting down to a meal of chukar enchiladas, or pheasant pot pie, is a yearning I hope never to quench, it’s more important simply to know that the country is there. That the birds are there. That I know these things irrevocably, because I’ve personally been cold, dirty and hungry in such places, and it’s left its mark on me. I’ll wake up hungry again tomorrow, no matter how amazing the meal was. But these intimate connections to wild country are a longer-lasting feast. Either way, you are what you eat.
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.
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.
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.