Category Archives: Talegate

The Ones We Leave Behind, Part I

Coulee country. Threads of ash, chokecherry, wild plum in a tan landscape. Like the work-dirty khakis of a giant tossed in a crumpled heap. A creased land. Thick with ring-necks, tucked tight in the rumple–cattails and scraggly Russian olive in the wet, bramble in the bottoms, snowberry up on the rims at the edge of old corn.

The first bird is in there, pinned. It is thick and when his nerve folds under canine nose, he goes out straight up against a bank of chokecherry, the little setter right on his tail. Skyward. Shouldered gun and he hits the ground dead as stone.dscn1181

The second bird is harder. A lot harder. Up a coulee too thick for passage except in a few open places where a path worn by the hooves of a million deer have kept the saplings in retreat. Hands and knees in some places, then crawling out to the relief of the edge where the cobs of the summer’s corn lie scattered. The dog disappears completely and I know she’s on point and then a rooster gets up. Right at the edge of range. Easy. Swing. Shoot. Miss. Catch up. Shoot. Miss. Fuck. Catch up. Shoot. Too far. Damnit.

And another. Straight away. Edge of range again. A plum thicket between muzzle and ringtail but I clip him. Drop a leg. Damnit. Shouldn’t have shot. Search in the general direction where he disappeared hundreds of yards away. Dragging that leg. Son of a bitch. It is a burning regret. Contrition perhaps not as sharp and haunting as doing the same to a good buck, dropping a front leg and tracking for miles, but still a wounded creature lost. Coyote food.

The second bird still eludes and we scramble across to the other side of the coulee we’re climbing. The apex of the circle I’ve vowed to hike since leaving the truck now a silver dot two miles in the rearview. Maybe I can pick up another bird here and then perhaps the last one on the far edge of the lake across from the pickup.

As if I have created it from scrambled thought in the heart of the hike, Mabel conjures. A solid, tail-high intense point that I will never get tired of seeing. That I will summon on my death bed. That moment when everything is quiet and the dog is not panting, just taking tiny gulps of breath after going ten million miles an hour. Her nose is full of it, quivering. All else is still. Safety ready for push, trigger. Still. Wait. Kick. Nothing. Dog steady. Rock solid. A breeze trembles through the feathered tail stuck straight into pale sky.

And up he goes. Right against a castle wall of thick ash and chokecherry but the bead is on him and the gun barks even though I don’t hear it somehow and he falls down out of the sky.

Right into the top of a tree. In the throat of the coulee.

I have no choice.

Strip down. Gun unloaded. Dog is romping into the timber looking for the bird. Remote control off and placed on the gun. Pack off. Sunglasses on. There are things that don’t like eyeballs in there. Cap scrunched down. The rooster is still in the tree. Dead as stone, but twenty feet off the ground. The beauty is the tree is a small one, perhaps six inches in diameter and if I can get to it, I can shake the shit out of it and the bird will drop. If I can get to it. In theory.

Crawling now, scratching my arms, making sure I don’t leave anything I treasure hanging on a sharp stick. Shutting my eyes even though I have sunglass protection. It’s instinct. A stick draws blood. Ouch. A lip cut. Free flowing. Damn. That hurts. Crawling some more, should have worn a long-sleeve despite the heat.

Finally, the base of the tree. The rooster is still there, one broken wing lodged over a branch, hanging head down. Still. I grab the trunk. One good shake should do it. Get ready. Mabel!! Where the hell is that dog? Mabel, get ready honey. I grab the trunk. Look up at the rooster. His eyes are open. It’s surreal.

And he blinks.

Then falls out of the tree and is gone. What the? Mabel, Mabel, get over here!!! Faarckgoddamnit!! I can hear her thrashing and panting somewhere. But the rooster is flat gone. Into a coulee forest thicker than Malamute fur.

 

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Long weekend

Undercarriage gravel rattle.
School of shaptails v-ing overhead
Like steelhead up ancestral river.
Setters shift to high alert
From cold dead sleep.img_1648

Antelope in fading light
Lining out for new country.

Brilliant in goodbye day.
Road leavings and dog hair
Spitter shells, dust and shotgun hulls.

Going out now and tired
Rearview plume wide and long
Day done and tap beer calling.

Last light buck stotting away.
Old friend we have seen this many times.

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Herd of dogs

From our friend Josh Duplechian…

Finally found out who let the damn dogs out. @pjourn

A video posted by Josh Duplechian (@joshdup) on

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Rainy day rooster

The old girl keeps plugging along, slow and steady. This wing-tipped rooster made the mistake of trying to hide instead of run. At a dead run in the thin grass he might have slipped away, but even now there is no hiding from her nose.

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Just Another Farmer

Mouthful of Feathers contributions are as infrequent as rains in West Texas, but we are still here and still kicking. And occasionally writing when we get a chance between feathers and gunpowder. Our original writers like Tom Reed and Greg McReynolds are still out there and still sharing, but we’re also expanding the pool of writers. Some, like Jim Houston, will bring us back to the way it was and make us think about the way it is. Others will make us think about how it can be.

Horseman, hunter and adventurer Jim Houston spent a career in wildlife management with the Colorado Division of Wildlife before retiring to Montana in the mid-1990s. Now 84, he lives outside the town of Silver Star, Montana, where he has a good bird dog. He still gets out to hunt, fish, camp and explore around the West every chance he gets.

By Jim Houston

What increases a hunter’s chance of giving a positive impression when asking permission to hunt private land? I have hunted pheasants, quail and prairie grouse in the West since my youngster days. During those decades I have observed some pretty fair techniques and many that failed. Especially in recent years it has definitely been tougher.

rmf00011mtA couple of long-term hunting partners who were pretty good talkers always insisted on my knocking on the door; I’ll assume my batting average wasn’t too bad. Here are a few styles I have used, presented in reverse order of success:

  1. Arrive at the farm early. A little after daylight sometimes works.
  2. Include all members of the hunting party when going to the door. This is the team approach.
  3. Make the contact away from the house. Catching the farmer miling cows or on his tractor sometimes works.
  4. Telephone in the evening before the hunt. Dinner time or during the local TV weather report should be avoided.
  5. Park your vehicle a respectful distance away from the doorstep.
  6. Clothes matter! Older garments showing some wear are best.
  7. My personal preference is to wear my oldest, stained Western hat.
  8. Use an older hunting vehicle if available.

This last suggestion demands an extreme explanation from years past and my most successful days of hunting pheasants on farms.

I had bought one of the very first Toyota Land Cruiser station wagons. They were at that time more affordable and Toyota dealers few and far between. The steering needed work and the nearest dealer happened to be in good pheasant country. I called for an appointment the day prior to a planned week of hunting. All went well at the dealership until my arrival to pick up my vehicle. The mechanic had disassembled all steering parts, found the problem, but had no replacement part in stock and in disassembly had irreparably damaged a bearing. Ordering parts would take days and my vehicle was not drivable. The dealer had no loaner for me.

I had previously worked a short time in this area and knew a big game outfitter who owed me a favor. This contact saved my hunt! The outfitter had a very well-used two-ton International stock truck. All I had to do was put a new battery in the truck and it started and ran fine. I hunted a week with my setter sitting up next to me and I was invited in to eat meals with several farmers and all invited me for more days of hunting. I can still hear the rattle of that old truck. It was the best hunting vehicle I ever drove.

Jim Houston, 84, lives in Silver Star, Montana, and is still knocking on doors for permission to hunt.

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Don’t be a penguin*

As I type, hordes of angry labradoodle owners are besieging the walled compound where I store my collection of Stetsons, my wardrobe full of Wranglers and my motor pool of Chevy C-20’s. Since I penned “Posers” and posted the classy response “Hardasses” from This Long Haul’s Kyle Smith, I have heard from several of the MOF faithful writing in passionate defense of fanny packs, pen-raised birds, 7-shot autoloaders, 40-inch tires, soap-on-a rope, wiener dogs, and a host of other objects or animals that I haven’t yet had a chance to offend yet (have no fear, I’ll get there.)

So, I have two things to say. First of all, to everyone who owns a Pudelpointer, please note, I said “doodle.”
Second and most importantly, I was categorically wrong about one thing…
Propeller hats are awesome.
dup_4613-pheasant
Thanks to Josh Duplechian who not only shot this photo, but also designed the best bird hunting hat ever seen. He is a true artist.

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Hardasses

Kyle Smith is a MOF reader, (it continues to baffle me that we have readers) spey caster and upland hunter who blogs at This Long Haul. He kindly offered the following response to Posers.

By Kyle Smith

Maybe sometimes my hat’s brim tends towards the flatter side of the spectrum. My Tacoma has an obnoxious hood scoop. I’ve worn out a few Patagonia puffy jackets. I’d take an IPA over a Banquet beer on most occasions. And I’d love a well-coiffed beard if I wasn’t such a damned babyface.

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I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in the gear I’ve bought and the shots I’ve taken and the birds I’ve flushed. But I love my time in the field as much as the next guy and wild birds on public lands are just as much my birthright as they are yours.

Admittedly, choosing a Pudelpointer is something I’d think twice about if I had it to do over again. While she’s the best animal I know, I’m beyond sick of hearing “that’s a cute/cool mix,” every time Joe Public asks me about the breed of my dog. Amongst the educated she’s still a Pudelpointer but to everyone else she’s now a German Wirehair.

I didn’t grow up in a hunting family. In fact, I came to upland hunting in my late-20s after a friend sent me a link to Smithhammer’s elegant, moving, hipster foodie fodder, “The Words We Use.” That post stuck with me and put into words some thoughts and emotions that had been banging around in my cosmopolitan brain for a long time. Not soon thereafter, I used my student loan check to buy the first 12 gauge over under I could find at the local gun shop. A couple years later and I had a gun dog.

Guess what I’m saying is that you should think a little more about the judgments you make and the words you use on this blog. There’s a bunch of us noobies out here that respect and dare say admire the writing on MOF and aspire to appreciate and understand upland bird hunting and our relationships with the natural world the way you so often capture with your posts. While we might be Posers now, I figure if we keep at it long enough maybe someday it’ll all come together and we’ll end up as Wrangler-clad, cowboy hat wearing, C-10 driving, Setter hunting hard-asses like you guys.

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The experienced hand

mabel

Of course the setter sits in the middle. That way she doesn’t have to drive and she doesn’t have to open the gate…

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Out west

Sometimes you hit the truck before shooting light ends and sometimes you don’t.

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We only get so many Octobers

“It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs,”

The Road Home, Jim Harrison

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October is finite – not only in volume, but in reoccurrence.

In Idaho, October is the perfect month. The weather cools and the aspens start to drop their golden leaves. Brown trout move upstream to spawn, colored up like the aspens and hungry and edgy and mean. Sharp tail seasons line up with other upland species so the whole host of bird hunting is on the menu.

October is a marker for my years and sometimes it’s alarming how fast they tick past. Throwing out a pair of worn out boots I realize it’s been a dozen years since I bought them. Sorting boxes of factory pheasant loads with $9  price tags, I try to remember when you could buy Golden Pheasant loads for that price.

Fondly remembering a hunt with a good friend, I realize we haven’t spoken in years. I look at my dogs and see I no longer have one in her prime and one on the upswing, but one in her prime and one that may not have another October left in her.

For a good long time, I was certain my springer was faking deaf. As in, “I can’t hear you boss, but there’s birds!”

Turns out she is not faking, at least not anymore. Sometimes I walk past her bed and out the door without her waking. In the evening, I occasionally have to walk out and retrieve her from the yard. She’s healthy and happy, but she has lost most of her drive and she can’t hear anymore.

She’ll make a few trips this year. Judging by our walks and initial trips out, she will mostly be at heel, strolling along as the old lady of the pack.

Last fall, I took an ill-advised shot at a rooster on the last day of the season. He seemed well hit, but locked his wings and glided across a good-sized channel of the Snake River into some cattails on the far shore. My old girl was never a good water retriever and I never force fetched her, but as I stood there wondering if my waders were in the truck, she lit out into the cold and fast water. She hit the shore and worked the cattails for several minutes before wading out and swimming back. She held a totally live rooster in her mouth, his head erect as she braved the current again.

I remember thinking, “That could be the last great retrieve I see her make,” because even then she had slowed down. Mostly, the fire has gone out of her. She still wants to go, she wants to head out the door and ride in the truck, but the barely controlled bird craziness is gone. It’s nice to have her around. She’s mellowed. She can lay down at your feet instead of pacing constantly. She can ride in the car on a gravel road without howling to be let out.

She’s just older. It happens to all of them. And to all of us. For me as well there is a day coming where hunting turns into something else.

We only get so many Octobers.

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