A friend of mine has a golden that barks “treed” on forest grouse. At first, I found this annoying, the high-pitched yelps of the kind that only goldens can produce and usually only when the owner is cocking an arm to rocket a tennis ball across a lawn in Suburbia, USA. I asked myself, briefly, if it were the bias I have for tennis ball dogs or just bald-ugly jealousy. Briefly.

I was hunting with one of my setters, feeling the kind of sophisticated snootiness that occasionally plagues us setter owners, the kind reserved for pipe-smokers, smoking-jacket donners, double-gun only-ies. From the dark woods to my left came the yelp. Frantic. Ear-drum-stabbing. Frequent. Fucking goldens, I stewed.  At first, I thought she had been caught in a trap or hurt herself somehow and I chided my early thoughts of prejudice. Goldens are friendly, lovely dogs and certainly do not deserve pain.

Then, I heard Tim instruct one of his hunters to get in position. Northwestern Montana grouse are not known for their intellect, particularly spruce grouse which commonly fly up into the nearest tree and await the well-thrown stick before flushing for real. The end of this story goes like this: Tim threw the stick, the grouse launched out of the tree and the hunter had his first spruce grouse and the dog stopped barking because she had her mouth full of feathers.

We walked on, listening to the tinkle of the bell on my setter, sniffing the air like some snobbish cartoon character. Grudging. A few hundred more yards and the annoying golden barking came again and now Tim’s hunter had two grouse. My hunter had none. We were guiding three gentlemen from the South who wanted to experience a grouse triple: blue, spruce and ruffed. I felt a competitive ire which, when it washes over my tortured soul, makes me feel ashamed. Tim’s guys had two grouse. Sure they were spruce grouse that flew stupidly into a tree and waited like feathered statue until a stick preceded a wad of six shot. But still, he had two grouse. I had zero.

Thick woods are not my home cover. I’m a hunter of high crag where sagebrush is the tallest plant. Not a denizen of thick fern, tall larch, staggering cedar. I am of light, not darkness. Except, of course, my thoughts when I’m getting my ass kicked in the hunting game. Competition is something that sneaks into our hunting lore, no matter how we purists think it doesn’t belong there. But there it was. I was losing. Damnit.

Here in the pheasant fields of South Dakota, I had no clue that I was in the presence of a talented “tree” dog.

I was jealous. No way around it. Indeed, very jealous. My setter got some good points and grouse flushed, but they bent around trees, stooping and ducking and diving and in a forest, I had little clue where the went. My hunter had not one chance to even mount gun to shoulder. Sitting incredibly still on a spruce branch, you quickly learn just how invisible a spruce grouse can be. Which is pretty damned cloaked, frankly. As a survival tactic, very effective, actually. Perhaps these birds aren’t so bird-brained, I thought. A blind troll through the timber, grouse gone and not to be found. Unless one has a dog that barks “treed.” I didn’t.

The next day, I pulled my big male, Echo, out of the kennel instead of my veteran female from the day before. I had two hunters on this day and we headed into a cover known for ruffed grouse. I belled the dog and released him. He worked close and I watched and listened for the bell. It stopped. From somewhere off in the dark timber. Then I heard a whir of grouse wing. Followed, strangely, by panicky, high-octave yelping. In fact, an annoying yipping from deep in the woods. I thought, split-secondly, that he might have hurt himself, but there he was, looking up into a tree at a mature ruffed grouse. Holy crap, I have a pointing dog that barks treed! I told myself.

The hunter shot the grouse when I shook him out of his roost, and we pressed on. Then, hark! Another yelp from woodland interior. No fluke this. There’s a grouse in that tree. Two grouse for my hunters. Two in the bag. And ruffed grouse, I told myself, not these sesame-seed brained sprucers. Ruffed! A gentleman’s bird. Yeah, right. Whatever.

I have a dog that barks treed at treed grouse.  A gentleman’s setter? Perhaps not. But we are back on level ground with the tennis ball dog. Let the competition commence.


Thunder Chicken Chronicles

It starts in February, with being notified that you’ve been lucky enough to draw a spring turkey tag for our local, limited lottery. You know people who have put in for it for years and never gotten it. For two months, you persevere through exponentially accumulating snowfall, uncharacteristially optimistic that, by late April it will mostly be gone. You spend too much time pondering the merits of various decoys and turkey calls online. Your spouse walks in on you watching an instructional video of three good ‘ol boys sitting on a porch, demonstrating calling techniques. She lifts an eyebrow as if to sardonically say, “really?” and closes the door. You feel a bit sheepish, but quickly become engrossed again in the finer points of yelping and purring.

The opening date approaches, and you start scouting. Most of this involves futilely post-holing up to your waist, and you truly begin to question why you ever thought you’d find turkeys in our valley.

As the opening date approaches, on a walk with the dogs, it happens. Tracks. More than one bird, maybe half a dozen. Criss-crossing each other as they all travel in the same general direction up a snowy slope. You can’t believe it. It’s like coming across a canteen full of water while crossing the Mojave on foot. You follow them for half an hour up a trail, over a ridge, into the forest, and suddenly, you get that eerie feeling that you’re not alone. There they go – a flock of Merriam’s  fleeing into dark cover. You stop and let them vanish, and suddenly, it occurs to you that you just might be able to pull this off.

1970 Bear K-Mag

The alarm comes too soon, and it’s still dark and you wolf down a Pop Tart and a thermos of coffee and meld into the woods, bow in hand. You see a young bull elk. You spook coyotes in the steel blue of an overcast dawn. Mule deer everywhere. Sandhills sound as you hope they always will – like visitors from another planet. You are grateful for being here, so early, mixing with your elusive neighbors.

As you reach the end of the first week of your two-week tag, you realize that you have already spent over twenty-four cumulative hours in a small, dark blind – alone, staring at decoys, making no sounds other than something similar to a horny hen. There are people who would question your behavior, and reluctantly, you admit that they probably have every right to.

The time left progresses, and you see turkeys here and there, typically after you’ve just spent 4 hours hunkered and calling and you decide to pack it up and head home. A few hundred yards down the road, they run in front of your vehicle.

One day over a pint, someone asks you what you’ve been up to lately, and you tell them, fully knowing that it must sound a bit odd,

Jake Brakes

particularly as snow blows sideways past the windows of the tavern.

“There are turkeys around here?” they ask incredulously.

As your mind races through the possible responses, you find your mouth (as usual) crossing the finish line first with a simple, “Nope.”

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