British Columbia – I was bear hunting in British Columbia with Primitive Outfitters.
I knew I was in trouble as soon as I saw the grouse cubs flutter up into the trees. An angry sow grouse came charging out of the bush flapping her wings and hissing with rage.
Keeping my wits about me I dropped to the ground to show I wasn’t a threat. She circled me until the grouse cubs had enough time to get away and then she retreated back into the bush without a trace. It all happened so fast I didn’t have time to grab the can of Grouse Spray I had with me.
Mike Thompson is a hunter, angler, professional artist and a MOF kindred spirit. You can follow him on Instagram, @upland_ish.
As a young man I once stood on a mountain ridge so beautiful that I now find it impossible to describe. It was summer and a bird dog was at my side when I first discovered the place that would change my life. It came to be part of my very being. Like a military boot camp it broke me and then built me back up. Wild, remote, harsh, and unspoiled by the hand of man. Owned equally by all citizens of the country. Many of my best days on the planet have been spent there.
Soon after I adopted this place as my spirit home it came into the sights of energy companies. Just another place for them to profit from one fossil fuel or another. And of course those big companies had guys in very nice suits to infiltrate the highest halls of government. And between those fellas with the Italian ties and the former energy bigwigs in the executive branch they cooked up schemes to roll dozers and derricks into my sacred spot. I came to find out that my story was one of many. The only things that changed in the other tales were the actors who played my role and the location of the wild land. The rest of the script was the same. The sequels are playing out in the sagebrush steppe and the canyon country still today.
I became a fighter, and student of the fine print. A purveyor of press conferences and pithy quotes in national newspapers. A lobbyist. A student of Ed Abbey. A political animal. I sharpened my existence and my tongue. I assessed what mattered pressed my shoulders into saving it. Of course politics were involved. I figured out how to engage in battles and win wars. I committed never to shy from either.
Those were the days that wiped the crust of naiveté from my eyes. From that time on, politics and policies have never left my consideration because their impacts never exit my days. I’ve known people who say politics don’t matter or that they are overplayed or that people like me care too much. I don’t buy a bit of that dribble. I say your politics is a window to your soul. What you care about and how much you care about it can be seen through your political window like an old gas lamp on a pitch black night.
I care about wild places and losing myself within them. That’s probably why I love bird hunting so much. My panes are wide open but you don’t have stick your head in to figure me out. My politics and life are one in the same and nowhere is this more evident than during bird season. In other words if you wanted to do a political profile on me, just follow me around for a couple days in October.
On an average day you’ll find me hitting the road early in the morning before anyone else is up. And if I don’t ditch the tail you’ll follow me to a remote chunk of public land. I’ll drop the dogs and we’ll be gone for hours, maybe all day. I rack up ten miles or more and dogs will do thirty. I like big tracts of wide open country. Unspoiled. The less human intrusion the better. I feel alive in the vastness. I am an explorer on my own land. I like going where others won’t. I imagine people in far off farm houses looking at me through binocs muttering at my stupidity before they go back to watching the news and drinking coffee. I imagine some of them voting for people who want to sell these places and the anger at this drives me up the incline.
You might note that I stop to examine grasses or flowers. I watch deer and elk. I hope to see a badger or a northern harrier falcon. When I am not admiring the place I am laser focused on my dogs and the terrain. We hunt wild birds first and always and they require tenacity. My dogs have never even smelled a bird from a pen. I hope to keep it that way. I tell myself that if I depend on wild places I am more likely to fight for them.
I might stand and watch as a sharptail rises from a point. I pass on the shot and just watch him flap a time or two then hear him cluck as he starts to glide. I watch him in earnest as he gets up to speed. A marvel of aerodynamics. I’ll stand there until he is only a dot in the distance and then gone from my sight but still in flight. I think how far he flew on this one small journey and how much grassy country he requires to exist. Its fall, nearly election day, and I’ll dream of that sharptail voting his self-interests in the booth. I think I know which ovals he would blacken. If you could document my thoughts you’d note that I am thinking of gathering up the sharpies into a great caucus so that we might vote together en masse.
If I see a BLM, USFS or game warden truck I will stop and chat with them. Sometimes for an hour or more. I always thank them for the work they are doing and note that I understand they have a tough and largely thankless job. I want them to know I appreciate what they do. I know this place and opportunity did not happen by accident nor will it continue to exist if we are apathetic.
Somedays you might find me hunting in the CRP. If you were in my head, you’d see memories of my father planting thousands upon thousands of acres of native grass in Kansas during the heyday of CRP. A disciple of Aldo Leopold on a 4230 John deer and a 12 foot grass drill trying to restore his corner of the Great Plains. And you’d see the resulting pheasants I chased, seemingly everywhere as if mosquitoes in Alaska. Even a mediocre dog could find a limit in short order. A kid with a Model 42 Winchester could fill a vest in a couple hours. I was that kid. You might note that I count the acres that are being removed from this federal program now. I glaze over, staring at a newly tilled field as I remember where a covey once lived. You might hear me gritting my teeth.
I like to stop by a local bar when the bird day is done. I figure those big national corporatized chains have figured out how to make plenty of profit without me providing too much aid. I want to eat and drink where the locals are. I like authenticity and dirt under fingernails. I want to know how things are going for these folks and what beer they drink. And if the waitress grew up on a big ranch up north that just happens to have a bunch of birds, all the better. “What’s your dad’s name again and you think I could call him?” I might ask. When she hollers her dad’s name in an affirmative tone, I’ll respond, “That’s awesome, I appreciate it, and Yeh, I’ll have another beer” And then I’ll mutter under my breath with a slight grin, “I sure hope he don’t care that I am a redneck hippie.” As I take my first drink from the beer I’ll wonder if maybe he will vote with the sharptail caucus too.
If I could peer into the twists of double helixes deep inside the cells of my dogs I am confident there would be no Monsanto signature. No corporate trademarks. No sign of the tiniest of tweezers selecting one protein and replacing it with another. And if Teddy, Ruark or Aldo could probe me on a cellular level I am equally confident that there is no Monsanto chicanery to be found within the twists of my mitochondria. Yet here I am GMO and proud, and there are my dogs, modified to act in ways that would make a modern geneticist smile.
Fifteen thousand years ago before big ag was even a glimmer in banker’s eye, a few of our ancestors and few of our dog’s ancestors started toying with each other’s genes. Some brave wolf sauntered up to some open-minded hunter. Then few smart hunters began using wolves to help on the hunt. That’s where it started and before long the slow guys in the tribe had labs and the smart ones had pointing dogs. This all happened over generations but was no less effective than a scientist engineering corn DNA to resist the active ingredient in Roundup.
Bird hunters often marvel at the magical connection we have to our dogs. Some even claim divine intervention. I admit to being struck dumb as a stone at what I believe to be nearly unexplainable moments of beauty. Once on a windswept Montana ridge my first great birddog crept then locked then trailed and locked again over and over as he tried to hold a running covey of huns. He was two and I was trying to control him. To whoa and break him and teach him all he needed to know. As he locked on to one more point, he held but the birds had broken again, and he looked over his shoulder as if to ask for permission. I waved and muttered and he started a half mile loop which culminated in him cutting into the wind and locking the huns between us at about 500 yards. I ran up and dropped a couple birds. As he scurried to pounce on a wounded bird I remember standing there almost in tears at the wonder I had just witnessed. If the water in my Nalgene bottle had turned to wine I would not have been more amazed. I now know that it was not permission he was asking. Rather it was him telling me he was in on the same secret. We were both products of the same science. We were literally bred to do this.
I sometimes like to think us bird hunters have a corner on the canine connection. But the hunter’s genes are spread throughout our population just like those from the first few domesticated wolves. Granted it can be hard to identify in flushing dogs and semi auto shooters but it’s not hard to see glimmers of our shared genetics if we just observe.
Grandmothers proudly bend rules to allow Bichon Frises to ride on airplanes with them for made up mental health reasons. In those cases, the dogs clearly demonstrate their relative mastery of the gene modification process. Most kids, or at least those with any hope in life, are automatically drawn to a puppy. I’d bet a case of shotgun shells that they all have roots in the same hunter gather tribes that spawned Teddy, me and other bird hunters with their dogs.
Genetic science clearly demonstrates that distinguishing traits and behaviors can be bred into a population in just a few generations especially in small populations. Oh yes, both dog and human have long been GMOing ourselves the old-fashioned way. In small tribes and with trial and error. We picked the ones that held points and retrieved with a soft mouth. And the birddogs were modifying us too. Selecting out those who would feed them let them lounge on couches with us.
In bird dog circles I sometimes hear the chatter about god and magic and unexplained phenomena. But a wider perspective tells me that what I feel with my dogs is not magic or divine. It is even more powerful. Its bred into us. Our species have been honing this relationship for millennia and it is locked in our genetic instruction sheets. Maybe that’s why my excitement about a big runner with a staunch point on a sharpie comes as natural as my next breath. For me, both the breath and the excitement are of equal importance. Guess I am just gonna have to be OK with being a GMO.
When I was a boy, we would occasionally make a family trip up to Greeley, Colorado, to visit a couple of my dad’s aunts, sweet old crones in their late 80s who had lived together their entire lives. They were two of something like 15 offspring. They had big litters back then, unpaid labor for the farm no doubt.
Mabel and Edna somehow managed to live their whole lives in the same house all the way to the very end. Neither one killed the other, which is saying something when you live eight decades in the same house.
They drove cool old cars, Edna a 1954 Chevrolet Belair two door, aqua-green and white. It was like riding around in a roomy suitcase. We ended up with that car and I took it on fishing trips to the South Platte when I was just learning to drive. It drove like a suitcase too.
Greeley at that time was still a farm town, a place where my grandfather had a pool hall in 1922, then a farm, where he once accidentally cut a hen pheasant in half while hand-scything hay. The hen was on a nest and the eggs joined a nest of chicken eggs in the coop where they later hatched. The hen pheasant was salvaged and went into the pot. Grandpa shot a single shot hammer 12 of some off-breed brand, but he obviously was equally deadly with the scythe.
I remember little else about Mabel and Edna other than they were kindly old gals and they lived together in relative harmony. And their names stuck with me. Mabel first, then Edna. Here’s hoping their spotted namesakes get along as well as those old ladies did and here’s hoping they last well into their dog-year eighties. The setter Mabel is actually aunt to the setter Edna and now there is a brace to follow into the western skies.
I first met Ryan Busse on a river. A fitting place, really, because it seems as if we both spend a lot of time in rivers or in the woods or out on the big empty. More likely to meet there than in a mall or something. His favorite all-time fly is the Turk’s Tarantula, which is the kind of thing you learn about a guy when you spend a day together on a river. We run in similar circles, breathe some of the same good mountain air, share an ethic and parallel paths in the outdoors and the desire to get our kids out in it as much as possible. He lives closer to Canada than I do and I live closer to Mexico. We both live in Montana. He runs Brittanys, I run setters. One of us has bad judgment. Or maybe both. Or neither. He names his Brits after crusty old outdoor authors who drank gin, I name my setters after maiden aunts who liked, well, gin. And well gin. I do know this: He loves wild places, watching good bird dogs do their thing, wild fish and wild birds. Like us here at MOF, he’s low on pretention and high on irreverence and, sometimes, reverence. So I asked him to start writing for us and sharing some tales of his own for MOF because all of us who love that should have a place to land, even if just for a moment and just metaphorically or vicariously. We’ll enjoy his stories from time to time here on MOF. Be on alert for a post from Ryan soon.
Unfortunately for us, it’s getting harder to see what search terms people used to find MOF. Google is encrypting searches, so we can’t see what search phrase brought the vast majority of people here. I get why Google wants to encrypt search terms, privacy and all that, but it does make my annual delve into the WordPress stats to see who landed at MOF much less interesting.
What follows are actual search terms and phrases that brought people to MOF in 2017 via the magic of search algorithms.
“Tent near forest” – If you are asking for advice on where to put you tent, then yes, you should put your tent near the forest. If you are asking about a specific tent near the forest that seems permanent… Don’t go in there. There is nothing but banjos and misery in that tent.
“Chukar scat” – They will do that, and quick too.
“Hazards from feathers” – Try searching the phrase “hypochondriac” or maybe “paranoia.”
“Upland dirtbag” – Really? There are like a million upland hunting blogs, and the folks searching for “upland dirtbag” come to us.
“Skint back” – Obscure hillbilly lingo? You probably found exactly what you were looking for here.
“Gallon liquor brown jug with bird dog” – I do not recommend this. Even if you have a hard-drinking dog like a Labrador, at most they are going to drink half-a-gallon. That leaves you with the other half and that is a sure-fire way to get alcohol poisoning.
“Giffy butte” – People seem to be really confused by this one, so let me break it down for you. Giffy Butte is not a real place. Seriously. Think about it. Stop trying to find it. They are laughing at you, and so are we.
“Clamato life” – Best family board game ever invented. Don’t even think of trying to steal it, we already filed a patent.
“Crack labs” – Do you mean narcotics search dogs like the cops have? Or do you mean labs on crack? Because we don’t want any part of either.
“When a crocodile cannot consume its victim at once it drags the carcass into the burrow” – David Attenborough and Siri seem to be getting along just fine.
“My pointing dog needs to slow down” – Would you say he’s “skint back”?
These back-end March days are so refreshing after a hard winter, that there is little thought of how damned far away September lies. March is here and so are the red-wings, sandhills, meadowlarks and the sweet multi-noted song of some bird that remains hidden along the stream. A stream now free of ice and it is this freedom that catches the heart and carries it away into thoughts of more spring and summer coming. Fall, our glorious gift, seems a long way off.
The dog, however, has other ideas. She is on point, tail-high, frozen solid, not moving. Just beneath a little pothole pond that sits on the hillside above the cottonwood bottom. A pothole of pondweed and frogs, but also the occasional mallard. I walk toward her, and she turns that eye toward me. Where is your frickin’ gun? I got ’em!
A triple gets up, two greenhead drakes and a hen, and she’s after them, breaking point at the flush because that’s how I want her to be, galloping, laughing and then they are gone and she is back, tongue out, happy as hell.
The point is an amazing thing. Good retrieves are too, but I’ve seen border collies and dingos that were endless stick chasers, tireless to the point of great annoyance. I’ve stood by in awe as a buddy’s lab made back-to-back blinds on rooster pheasants I had pass-shot and dropped out of sight, but one dead rooster on top of the other one. Busting across the river, sitting to look at the boss, the command “Over!” and the dog finding the bird and busting across the river again. Delivered to hand. Pretty amazing.
But for my money, the point is otherworldly. An animal whose natural instinct is to run like the hounds of hell are chasing it, then just stopping and tapping into its inner feline, if there is such a thing, and freezing solid. Maybe taking one cat-step forward, but solid. Unmoving. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Outdoing anything any mountain lion would do on a mule deer stalk.
Another walk on another March day and the dog disappears while a cigar is smoked on the bench that I like to call The Contemplation Station. Looking out across the brown land slowly, very slowly, turning green. All the way south to the Madison Range and east to the Bridgers, then back west to Hollowtop and the Tobacco Roots. A cool spring breeze and nothing but the sound of birds and a pickup truck hauling hay out on the Pony Road. Good place for a smoke. Then: where the hell is the dog.
Shout her name five or six times. Probably eating horse crap or gnawing the bones of last year’s elk hauled up on the bench for the coyotes. That damned dog.
A rooster pheasant blows out from the cover, as silent as a big bird can be even when it’s scared shitless, rising up over the cottonwoods and flying all the way east to the neighbor’s place. I had the shot. Towering, then topping out and flying like a big-ass bright-as-hell woodcock on a straight line for freedom. And here’s the dog. Laughing and wondering why there was no shot. She had been on point for an entire cigar only twenty yard off in the bramble while I was contemplating on the station.
I had a couple of setters that were champion mouse pointers in the offseason. Cocking a head, then finally giving up and pouncing and digging. A few caught and eaten, two solid gulps of squeaking fur.
The dogs I’ve had have all been outstanding at their craft. The point itself. Sharing the point? Not so much. Some sucked out loud at backing. The current one does too and it’s embarrassing because there is nothing more frustrating than a dog bursting in on another dog’s point. Stealing the point, or worse yet blowing out the bird or busting the pointer off its game. Explains why I hunt alone so much.
Sage was the best backer I’ve ever been around. She’d back salt licks. And big white chunks of quartz five hundred miles from the nearest glacier. She’d back cardboard boxes caught in briar patches and she’d back her hunting companions. Always. She had her fair share of her own points too in a too-short life of a baker’s dozen years.
Every time I see a point, it takes my breath away. The solid instinct of the thing. The special gift that is given to the hunter, who can walk, or run in. How amazing it is to be able to hunt behind a creature whose sole drive in the field is running, finding, stopping and letting you have all the fun. The flush is coming. And when it does, you know they’ve had fun too. That smile says it all.
We didn’t go south this past winter.
By all accounts, we didn’t miss anything. By quail accounts, or counts, that is. Bird numbers were down.
But quail are not the only driver for a trip south. True, it is fun to hunt when numbers are up, but I’ve always felt it a kind of penance for good years to hunt hard in bad years too. The quail deserve the effort, down or up.
We did miss a lot, though. We missed just watching the dogs float through those magical grasslands. Missed leaning a shotgun and a tired back up against the bark of a granddaddy oak tree, sipping water and listening to nothing but a panting dog and a scrub jay off somewhere.
Missed just the old-time country feel of some of the places, a feel that makes one think of Gene Autry or at least Lefty Frizzell. Old Arizona and Old New Mexico. Missed thinking about hunting in the same footsteps of my college days, missed thinking about my old college dog JD. Missed the college memories of cases of cold Coors and Coues deer and the best college buddies anyone could ever have.
Missed the food too. No good Mexican food north of the 38th, where the Chili Relleno Tour begins. Missed the Hatch chili stop, although the previous year’s frozen batch is holding out, thanks to spending a couple Benjamins in a classic store in Hatch where English is a second language and chilis are a work of culinary art, roasted and peeled and frozen. Bring a whole damn empty cooler for that stuff.
But mostly missed good tortillas. Good tortillas. Not the flour and chemical paste shit they sell in the grocery stores back home. Good torts made with lard. Good for you and your heart.
Deep in Montana winter and whining like a sad pup for agave and mesquite country, I remembered the magic of the internet. Got online, found an authentic tort maker in Tucson. Ordered seven dozen right out the gate.
I think I’m going to survive until next year. Such are modern times for a lucky bastard.
Many years ago, just months after an upland season that a flat-brimmer would describe with the cliche “epic,” my buddy died.
He was the pal who got me through a divorce and like any relationship developed when nerves and emotions are on a trigger-edge, the bond was incredibly tight. It was a time in my life when the need to be outside was fueled by what was going on in the attorneys’ offices, but also by a fire in me that wanted to feed the talent in him. The field was an escape, but also the food that sated our appetite for more. Always more. And his was a rare talent. He was my sidekick and my soul-mate. He was an orange belton English setter who saw it all, did it all and still occupies a rare, narrow peak in the mountain of dogs that I’ve had the honor of calling partner. His name was Hank.
The premature death of Hank was met by a staggering amount of grief, but it was tempered by a young pup named Ike, a tri-color who was literally in the shadow of a giant. Like whatever poor stiff stepped into John Elway’s or Peyton Manning’s shoes after they moved on. And he was just a puppy.
I lost a whole season that year, following a six-month old pup through an ocean of grass and corn stubble. There was one memorable hunt with my brother in the CRP outside of Ogallala, but whatever else happened that year is lost in the mists of time. Ike turned out to be a pretty good bird dog but he was Brian Griese to John Elway and he threw a lot of interceptions that first year. At the end of that season, I told myself that I’d never again be caught off-guard, that I’d have one coming or even two coming while another was in the throes of prime living. That vow has caused me to have as many as four setters at once and it is not something I regret. Having a ranch makes it easier, true, but there was a time when I lived in town—in defiance of ordinance—with a herd of bird dogs.
We have three setters now and a ranch dog. We also have a baby boy who gave us the best Christmas gift ever. There’s two litters on the ground as I write this, one filled with Mabel’s nieces, the other filled with Mabel’s half-sisters. And Mabel occupies the boulder right next to the summit cairn that Hank stands on. She may even nudge him off of it this coming season. Two litters on the ground and the timing sucks. But when is the timing ever just right? Just a perfect nexus of time and heart and desire all rolled into one package? If life tells us one thing it is that waiting for the perfect timing is like waiting to get to heaven to have a good time. One may never get there.