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.

Week-old chukar

It was a romantic dinner. Candlelight. A fire crackling in the woodstove, splashing orange shadows on the walls of the old ranch house. A decent Malbec. Some tunes.
And chukar. Sauteed in olive oil with an excellent mild curry paste added on low-simmer. Red peppers, cloves of garlic, slivers of sweet onion. Served on a bed of rice. Delicious white, wild meat, spiced just right. A most successful evening.
A week later, my old die-hard bachelor habits resurface. I dig in the refrigerator, find the remnants of that spectacular meal. I’d sent half home with my lady and she prudently ate it the very next day for lunch. My half I forgot about and now, like a treasure discovered at a garage sale, it resurfaces. Eureka! I’m not shoveling in microwave popcorn after all.
When was that meal anyway? I wonder, asking my canine friends. They don’t remember. Surely this has still got to be good, right? They agree. Offer to eat it for me.
Without female wisdom this night to guide me, I dive in.
I can put it on a tort! Melt some cheese! Dab a little Indian hot relish to top it off!

And so I do. And it turns out well. Nearly as delicious as the first time, with only the lovely company lacking.
Two hours later, a rumble. Hark! What was that? Distant thunder. A crack of gastric lightning! Silence rent with a sound much like a stepped-on frog. From under. Fumunder. What?! I’m tore up. Battered in a bile hailstorm!
I sprint from bedroom to bath and fling porcelain out of my way. An explosion! Then silence. A thunderclap!! Another! What?!
Two hours later, I shiver and sweat in bed, timidly sipping water, awaiting the next distant rumble and thinking: Goddamndable chukar partridge. Even in the off-season, they win. Little bastards.


They were waiting for the rain, but the rains came late.
Instead of wetting the ground and bringing shoots and bugs and cover that just hatched quail so badly need, the monsoon came when the chicks were on the ground.

The rain came in a torrent, mixed in equal parts with hail and sleet, hammering down on the desert. While the succulents drank it in, the quail were victims of its fury. Innocents swept away by the very thing they so badly needed. Add in years of drought, exacerbated by overgrazing and it’s tough times for New Mexico’s uplands.
Low survival rates mean few birds, scattered widely across the desert in small bunches. These are not the easy birds of wet years. There are no lay ups now.
These birds have been hunted, by man and beast.
At the flush, they go low and fast. Bird, tree, bird, nothing.
No shot, just a quiet curse for myself. On a day like this one, in a year like this one, the opportunities are few and far between.
The dog is exuberant and I laugh at how much energy she regains from her success at finding a single.
“Go on,” I shout at the scalie, rocketing downhill out of sight. That bird is a survivor. A worthy sire for another year’s covey.
It’s been three months of quail hunters, hawks, coyotes, bobcats, skunks and foxes.
Now the season is done.
The men and dogs are gone from the fields.
Time to dodge the raptors and predators and wait for the rain.
The dog and will I settle in and wait for Nov. 15.
For them, it’s merely another chapter in a long dry spell.
They wait for the rain.

Not Today

Not today...

Opening weekend. This is my place, goddamnit. My name may not be on the deed, it may even say “public” on the sign, but it’s mine nonetheless. I’ve purchased it with the coin of time and sweat and shoe leather and blistered skin. And I sure as hell don’t want to share it.

Yet here they are, the bastards. Rich ones in their new trucks pulling shiny trailers. Poor ones in rustbuckets with plywood boxes thrown in the bed. And all of them – regardless of social class – here to take what’s mine; what I thought I was jealously guarding by keeping my big mouth shut. Self-delusion: I was born to it.

I drive around the area – my area – and the license plates read like a litany of the dead for what used to be bird country: Alabama. South Carolina.  North Carolina.  Tennessee.  Florida. Kentucky. Virginia. Georgia. Arkansas. Louisiana. Mississippi. The In-state-but-out-of-towners. The Mongol hordes of landless Texans. And me.

I want to hate them all for being here, for fucking up my little set-piece dream of solitude and birds and the pup and me and not another living soul under this brilliant bowl of sky. But of course I can’t. Because they are me. He is us. Not enemy, but kindred seekers trying to sate the desperate hunger for a moment when sky and birds and dogs converge into an instant of pure meaning.

And how can I begrudge my kindred their quest for such validation of existence? I can’t. So my little set-piece dream is returned from whence it came, shoved back in the mental file labeled “unfulfilled.” I load up the pup and drive home. There will be no solitude, no magic and no first point this day. Today belongs to others. And as road dust obscures the receding prairie in my rearview mirror, I must convince myself once again.

I don’t begrudge them. Really,  I don’t begrudge them. But you can bet your ass I’m gonna beat those kindred sonsabitches out here next weekend.

– CL

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