Cleanliness is far from Dogliness.

I was looking back through some of last season’s pics the other day, and came across this one:

I stared at this pic for a while, remembering that fine fall day with a good friend in Montana. But more than anything, the sheer unbridled, unashamed joy of a dog covered in mud brought the smile to my face. It was a great day to be alive, for both of us. And at the end of the day, whether the game bag is full or empty, what more can you ask for?

Get here already

September woods await.

It was cool this morning when I walked the dogs down by the creek. Cool enough for a fleece, cool enough to fire the engine in anticipation of another season.

On this, the last best month of summer, I find my thoughts drifting. Drifting to the next month, the best shortest month of the year. Screw February. February needs to be short. September needs to be twice as long.

I walk these mornings with steaming mug in one hand and watch the herd swing out into yellowing grass and I pause at the bridge over the crick and peer into clear water for little brown trout scattering from shadow. I walk out and talk to the horses and the dogs dig mice and point sparrows and then I walk back to the house and go to work. But my thoughts drift again.

Drift to elk bugling from black timber. Drift to blues rising before the gun, thundering from chokecherry and alder. Drift to grasshoppers–real and imitation–bobbing on current, right next to the bank. Drift to perfect precision cast, drift to the list of things to do yet, before that bright day on the first of the shortest best month of the year.

Most of my winter’s firewood is still up in the hills, baking in August heat, waiting to be felled and blocked and hefted into the old F250. Most of my fishing is here in these few wilting weeks of the best month of summer. Why, I ask myself, do I wait to get firewood in August? Panic sets in and I run to the hills in the evenings with a chainsaw. Why didn’t I do this in June? It was raining then, I guess. So I sweat through it, itchy with wood chip and bug bite. Sweat now while I must, for in only a few weeks, there cannot be work to do when a shotgun needs exercise.

During my lunch hour now, I shoot my bow. A dozen shots. Then I go back inside to the computer. In the mornings, after the walk, I unload last night’s firewood haul before the sitting at the computer for the day. During the day, I take breaks and unload some more and by quitting time, the old truck is empty and I can drive up to the mountains and haul out another load. Repeat. Routines.

Tonight, I’ll take an evening off and float a stretch of the river with a good friend and a box of hoppers. The imitation kind, not the Nick Adams tobacco-juice spitting kind.

Then it will come again, the panic of a coming season and the need to be out in the woods or on the open flanks of Montana autumn with a shotgun or a bow or a rifle or a fly rod instead of up in the woods with a chainsaw and some bar oil. The goal is to have it all in, all up in the woodshed before that shining day. It is a sin of the lowest order to be working in the woods when the dogs are stuck in the kennel and the season is open, I think. Do it in August, even if that means missing some fishing. Do it now before September because when that month comes, you need to go. Do it now. These last weeks of a good summer, dwindling and too short in themselves. I waft between get-here-already and shit-not-yet.

Such it is.


Dirt road soundtrack

Dirt roads traveled in the company of bird dogs and dog-eared maps deserve their own soundtrack.
The season is still somewhere ahead, but the road begins to beckon. The first trips are for mountain grouse, so September is for driving. It’s for sunflower seeds and cold beer in the cooler, lunches in Aspen groves and beside tiny trout water that you promise to re-visit with a rod, but never do.
Much of hunting blue grouse and ruffies in the west is an arm-out the window pursuit.
Later in the season, we’ll make the long treks into the backcountry for prairie grouse and chukar, starting early from the spots we know.
The first week of September, we set the cruise at 26 mph and glance at a stack of maps printed off with intentionally cryptic notes (lest they fall into the wrong hands) as we explore old logging roads.
The windows down and the dog whining in anticipation, we’ll stop and look, hunt a spot, then back in the truck.
We’ll spin a disk of old favorites and rejoice in birds and dogs and the roads to get there.
Here’s my disk for day 1
Stay a Little Longer – Willie Nelson
Photograph – Charlie Robison
Broken Bottles – Sons Of Bill
Out here in the middle – Robert Earl Keen
Circle back – John Hiatt
Threadbare Gypsy Soul – Pat Green
Down By the Water – The Decemberists
Guitar Town – Steve Earle
Pearl Snaps – Jason Boland & The Stragglers
Birthday Boy – Drive By Truckers
Lonely All The Time – Reckless Kelly
Horshoe Lounge – Slaid Cleaves
Rusty Cage – Johnny Cash
Wicked Twisted Road – Reckless Kelly
Snake Eyes – Ryan Bingham

Homestead Rhubarb

In the autumn, you dream of Huns bursting from the rubble that was the old milk house, and you carry your shotgun cradled ready. You follow the dogs, and they follow their noses.
But now the land is sharp green from rains that don’t seem to quit and when you go, you don’t follow the dogs, they follow you, and they don’t pick up scent, they pick up the bothersome beggars’ ticks burs from last years dried stalks of houndstongue. You go where you want and sometimes, you walk among the old buildings and think about a different time, a different era.

There’s a hand-dug well and fifteen feet down, water. It is rock-lined and covered with rotting timbers. Peering down into those depths gives a tremor in your soul. A dark, wet, fearsome cavern. You think about being down in there, digging the damned thing by hand, and placing each one of those rocks. You think about the darkness, but then you look up and above, is freedom. Above, sky. Lots of sky.

Once, you ran into the old man whose grandparents homesteaded the place. 1898. Part of the Desert Land Act of 1877 which quadrupled the Homestead Act’s woeful 160 acres to 640 if you could irrigate the place within three years. Up on the mountain, you have seen the evidence of this – old dams and a series of ditches dug by hand and a walk-behind plow. Tough men. Tough women. Tough horses. Grandpa died in 1919 and Grandma in 1932. The old place was burned down by teenagers on a lark before the Second World War.

In this early summer in this new century, before the cows come out on the land and before the grass really comes, you ride your best saddle gelding and fix fence to keep the cows in and the neighbor’s cows out. You ride and you think of homesteaders because it’s too early to think about Huns and when they start pairing up, you quit bringing the dogs because you want the Huns to marry well, be happy, and raise lots of children. Besides, you are tired of picking burs.

As spring comes, you watch it coming: pasque flowers at first, up in the timber edges and sage benches. Phlox next, then spring beauties then avalanche lilies, then marsh marigolds up on the edge of the crick where young aspen are budding and ready to burst forth like words from a pen. It is a cacophony of chlorophyll.

Each day as you ride past the old place, with its scattered rock foundations and its still-stout railroad-tie post and rail fence, you think about hard land and hard people and tough living. And then you find it. Ridden past it many times, but now, up in the saddle, it is obvious and big: a patch of homestead rhubarb, 100 years or more old, growing out there feral among the sagebrush and spike fescue. Untended and still growing, still going, still here long after the humans who planted it have left and been forgotten except only in the mind of an old man who once was a boy who remembers. Everything else, every companion plant in the garden, has been gone for decades. Save rhubarb. Still here, still growing. How long since a pie cooled on a countertop that was made from that rhubarb? How long has that plant been growing and waving its big leaves and bright red stems in the Montana summer breeze? How long since laughter of children? How long since it was watered by hand with water from a hand-dug well?

One evening as the sun tilts west and it is still daylight at nine, you decide to take a drive out there, out west of your place and you walk among the sage with a plastic sack in your hand and a doe antelope with twin fawns barks at you from the ridgetop and you bend to the plant and pull a few stems, enough for one pie. You don’t want to pull it all. It needs to survive, as it has for more than a century. You will tell the old man about that rhubarb and he will smile and remember. A survivor.


Further Proof That Hunters Just Think Different (as if you needed it)

Background: It’s been a long, wet spring in the northern Rockies, with many places over 200% of normal snowpack. It’s now mid-June, and there have been precious few days that have felt like summer to date. But rather than pining for warm summer days, we have exchanges like this:

Hunter #1: “Well, I don’t want to jump the gun, but….it’s less than three months away…”

Hunter #2: “Funny you mention that, it was the first thing that popped into my head this morning.”

Hunter #1: “Yeah, normally I don’t let myself get excited until after summer solstice.”

Hunter #2: “Take heart – the days will start getting shorter soon…”


Yeah, we’re not right in the head.

Close Waters

It is, despite any charitable stretch of the imagination, a shithole. Plastic bags undulate like jellyfish in the tepid brown water. A thick layer of trash rings the shoreline. Thick wads of yellowed monofilament, snelled hook packages, beer cans, Styrofoam worm tubs, broken and discarded ten-dollar spincasting rods, cigarette butts, crooked sticks stuck in stinking mud, an abandoned flip-flop; the detritus of the don’t-give-a-shit demographic is everywhere. In a land where public water and open space for dog training and fishing is scarce and precious, I marvel, repulsively, at the fact that I can hardly bring my dogs here for the shiny matte of broken glass they must run over.

Last year someone dumped an old mattress and recliner in the pond. For a few months the waterlogged mattress floated aimlessly across the water. I used to aim for it when throwing marks for the dog, the bumper making a gelatinous thunk when it hit. She would climb up on the mattress, grab the bumper, briefly survey the world from her quivering ship and swim back to me. I once caught a bass from under it before it finally sunk into the filthy, inscrutable depths.

But it is the only water I have, so I fish it, throw bumpers into its water for my retriever, let my setter chase the tough, cat-wise urban quail that live on its edge. There are trade-offs to living on the plains –  the fishing, music and friends of the past for birds, solitude and unfettered horizon of present. This lack of decent water is just one of them. Someday – if the birds continue their slide and what few remain are found behind fences to which I will never be afforded a gate key – those trade-offs will become too much to bear and I will leave this place, but until then I keep coming here to fish and train. Better thin gruel than no gruel at all.

The bass I catch are pale and colorless, like most bass from muddy, turbid water, but they take a spinnerbait readily enough, and they’ve indulged my recent obsession for flyfishing by obliging me with the occasional thrill in that endeavor, despite my incompetence. As a reminder of what I’ve lost for what I’ve gained, they do their job, and as a touchstone for what keeps me sane, well, they do that, too.

So I come back here to find what comfort I can in what the water, the dogs and the bass offer, because water is water wherever it may be and as one who has always been obsessed with water, I have no choice but to seek it out when I hear its call.

While fishing here I once found a used syringe and a little black fake leather bag with traces of what the cops in the affidavits I used to read as a beat reporter always referred to as “a white powdery substance.”

I walk up to the water, look down and there it is, just lying there at my feet. I pick it up, carefully, and put it in the fake leather bag, wrap it in a McDonalds bag (there’s always a fucking McDonalds bag handy) and stuff the whole thing into the overflowing trash can at the parking area. As I walk back to the water, I think about how miserable that person’s existence must be to seek out this shitty, polluted spot and take – in such a hopeless manner – what fleeting solace they can find in this world.

I make a cast and do the same.

Green and brown

Following the dogs.

Green arrives more suddenly than brown, I have decided. A month ago, I was in southwestern Missouri buying fast-walking horses that will keep up with my bird dogs this fall. One day it rained, the kind of rain that pounds the land like an old shower-head in a flea-bag motel stings your skin after a long day afield.
The next morning, it was spring. Green. The horses ate at the young grass as if they were starving. And green was on the land. We loaded our new horses into the trailer and headed out, watching the green fade from the land as we chased longitude westward, into the flat platter that is western Kansas and southeastern Colorado. The diesel out-ran the green, but still it came, as steadily and as consistently as a truly-talented young bird dog figures it out in his second year.
And so the green is here and yet I think about when it will leave. It will be more subtle, more of a fade than a swell of color, more of a wither than a burst. It will wane slowly in this country starting in late summer, when hoppers ratchet from baked fields.
I walk these fields now and see the green coming and watch the new horses talk to the resident horses in that ear-back style of equine language. I walk these fields and think about wilt and my heart swells with the thought of it–a juxtaposition of emotions. Celebrate coming spring, sure, but pray for rain at just the right time, for wetness that encourages tender shoots of grass for young chicks, for a sun that pops insects from the ground for bird protein. Make it a good year, with good moisture and young birds hatching and following their mamas. So we can shoot them. This is a weird sport.

Pony Luck

I can’t believe my luck. I came up to the bar for one drink–a gin and tonic, naturally–and left with $2,000 damage to my car.
The Pony Bar. The world famous Pony Bar, Pony, Montana. My bar. Three miles up the road from the ranch. “Come on up for one drink,” a neighbor texted. It was a Thursday night and my other neighbor was slinging swill at the bar. What the hell, I thought.
When I got there the bar was full of cowboys and ranchers. Neighbors. They were well in. Shots and beers. Then they all piled into their pickups. I was mid-sentence in some lame story: Crunch!!!
My car, parked across the street, met the rear bumper of a ranch pickup.
And the biggest landowner in Madison County met the biggest bird hunter in Madison County. If I’m not the luckiest son of a gun in Montana, I don’t know who is. Good luck in Pony, Montucky.

Next season: “Um, hey Bob, this is Tom. Do you mind if I take my setters out for a spin on that chunk of ground up behind my house? I’ve seen some huns up there.”

Damn, if I’m not the luckiest guy in the whole bird hunting world.

Ponies and ranchers and bird hunters all gather at the Pony Bar in Pony, Montana.

The Winter of Our Discontent

It is a poor substitute, to say the least. We go through the motions – I make him sit and hold while I go hide the dummy in the brush, make him wait till I return to his side, release him with a ‘fetch’ command. At this, he explodes, his hard-wired enthusiasm escaping in high-pitched barks as he charges toward the location.

He drops it at my feet and sits. He will do this with me all day, if I have the stamina – his, on the other hand, is not in question.

But there is no rich panoply of smells typical of an October day in pursuit of wild birds. We are not riding currents of air and ground scent, not feeling the same, simultaneous explosion in our hearts at a bird that launches skyward, not savoring the sharp tang of a spent shell carried on the breeze. There is only a feeble smell of rubber and plastic, the familiar heft of something bird-like in shape and weight. Something that, for reasons he probably can’t understand, is not a bird.

I feel cheap. I feel like I owe him a lot more. I feel like I’m trying to explain sex to my son, and I just copped out and bought him a blow-up doll instead.

But it is March and the snow continues to fall and another season is so goddam far away that I have no choice but to focus on more immediate distractions and put the thought of it out of my head. I imagine that his approach is not much different.

He drops the dummy at my feet.

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