One more round

January wilts and the wind whips. It is cold and dry and barren as an old cow. No winter really, or no snow that is. Doug fir pops in the wood stove and piles of gear lie around the shop, waiting to be stowed. A wall tent, last used a month ago in chukar country, hangs loose in the barn, as if putting it away for the winter is too much, too painful. Or perhaps it is just laziness, nothing more. No special or secret meaning to a tent un-stashed. But it is there and it will stay there for a while longer.

There is one more ahead. One last trip south. The runs there this year have been a thin broth–birds few and scattered wide. Land there as dry and parched as this cold Montana range. But the season is open a few precious days in February and then it’s done. After that point it will be time to stow and clean and repair. Time to give the right knee a break, to run patches through the auto-loader, to let the dogs rest and sleep and gain weight. But there is one more hunt. A meeting with a friend you’ve hunted with hundreds of times, a person who knows your moves and pace as you know his. It is a reunion of friendships, with some drinking, some cigars, lots of laughter. Some new country too, and some old. Good dogs and big hikes. Muscles hard at season’s end and fishing season still off there so far you can’t even imagine it.

Tomorrow and the next day you load the truck and then the next day, you will turn south with 12 hours in front of the hood and then five days of hiking talus and scree, smelling the sage on the dry high desert wind, the big open. Five days. Five last days and then that’s it. There will be time enough ahead for all that other stuff. But now, one more round. And that’s it.

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Less than ideal

This is not the cover photo from a $9 upland hunting magazine.
Red, high-brass 12 gauge hulls litter the ground, always three together – as in BANG, BANG, BANG.
There are no Land Cruisers or Range Rovers parked in golden fields.
Just tall sage, Russian olive and the broken fence lines that litter this patch of BLM conveniently surround by private (and inaccessible) ground that doesn’t suck.
These public-land roosters have been chased by every labradoodle and aussie-cocker cross in four counties and fired on by snipers, road hunters and ground sluicers.
So when the dog goes into high gear and I know there’s a bird close, I look ahead just in time to see him slip away from the fence line into the sage 60 yards ahead.
I leave the dog to her business, working his trail up the fence while I head farther out into the sage on my right at an angle hoping to cut him off.
The dog puts up another rooster that held a little longer. He swings off to the left and I’m so behind that I never even take the shot.
I click the safety back on and as I start forward, I see the dog working back toward me. Just as I realize the first bird has cut back towards us, he gets up behind me.
I fire twice on a bad shot, miss the first but manage to clip him the second time.
He goes down and hits the ground running. I can’t see him through the sage, but I can hear the jingle of Roxy’s collar as she runs him down.
She brings him back with nothing but a broken wing.
Near a pile of beer cans and empty 12 gauge hulls I take the long-tailed, crimson bird from her mouth and wring his neck.
There are few niceties here.
This is a battlefield.

Diversions

Dove: it's what's for dinner...

First, a disclaimer: I’m fully aware that whitewing doves aren’t considered “upland” in the classic sense.  But here in our state of Hellfire Apocalypse Formerly Known as Texas, I am forced to write about them because it’s 112 degrees and quail are now extinct and ditch parrots may be too, but I haven’t looked.

So here’s how it goes.

Twenty years ago, we had to drive way south to hunt whitewings. There were huntable numbers in the Rio Grande Valley, but the proper flyways were in Mexico. In those days there were lodges in Tamaulipas staffed by wonderfully accommodating folks who would fetch your birds and hand you margaritas and nachos when your barrel became too hot to touch.

In December of 1983, an Arctic blast descended upon the Rio Grande Valley and wiped out massive groves of citrus trees that were favored nesting habitat for whitewings. Everyone assumed that would be the end of the Texas population, but instead of moving south to join their Mexico brethren, they began trickling north. They first showed up in San Antonio around 1990. They liked the massive liveoaks for nesting, the adjacent grain fields, and the abundance of backyard bird feeders. By 1995 they were in Austin, in 2000 they arrived in Dallas. And now they’re everywhere. In San Antonio, alone, the population is now 50 times as big as it ever was down in the Valley.

Grainfield in a can

They adapted, and so did we.

Nowadays, instead of sitting on a tank dam and waiting for a trickle of mourning doves, we gather around large fields adjacent to urban whitewing concentrations and wait for the daily assault. The first waves normally leave the towns around 7:30 am. They fly high and cautious and if you’re good with a full choke, they make a really neat “thud” when they auger in from the stratosphere. If you’re lucky enough to be in the field in which they want to feed, they come in undulating waves, juking and dive-bombing at eye level and making fools of those that forgot to switch from full to improved. While the bag limits aren’t as liberal as they once were in Mexico, it’s still a lot of fun, especially when your dog that once pointed quail discovers that shagging birds in a manicured farmfield ain’t as lame as it sounds.

Not shooting at quail

And what happened to the once fertile whitewing grounds in Mexico? I’m guessing that the birds are still there, but the lodges are now shuttered and the blenders are idle and those once accommodating locals will now shoot you in the face for no plausible reason.

Hey Gringo, fetch your own dang birds...

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.”

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

Jackets are the answer

It’s cold.
Seeing as it’s winter, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.
Apparently surprises the shit out of a lot of people though.
They are so surprised that many of them forget how to drive, or how to dress, or even how to take it in stride.
They forget how to talk about anything else. Don’t they know there are two weeks left in the quail hunting season? Or that ice on the river concentrates the ducks?

When you live in the Rockies above 5,000 ft, you have to know that’s it’s going to get cold sometimes.
The thing is, so many people never do more than brave the cold between their car and the front door of their office.
It makes them soft.
Unless they’re hunters that is.
If you have pounded through the snow clenching a 7lb chunk of frozen steel in your hands while following a deliriously happy dog, then what’s a little cold weather?
If you have felt your truck do the diagonal slide, where you look a bit like a crooked-gaited hound dog going down the road and asked your buddy, “We have a shovel, right?” Then what’s a little snow on the roads?
If you have knocked the ice off of your fly-rod guides so you could get an extra couple of feet on your cast, or sat shaking in the frigid predawn dark listening to elk, or taken off your gloves to cut the ice balls out of your dog’s toes, then what’s a single digit temperature mean to you?
Nothing.
It’s winter.
It’s what happens in the mountains.
It’s cold.
So what.

– GM

Chukar Recess

A scrape on my right knee, reminiscent of a ten-speed crash. A bruise on my shin, running knee-cap to ankle. Another on my ass. My shotgun has similar injuries. No matter. I’ve been playing.
I’m doing it again. Now running. She is on birds again, on the slope below, nose in the wind, working them. No doubt. Birds. Here we go boys! I skip over stone and slip on scree, and vault over cactus and long-jump small arroyos. I carry my shotgun in my right hand and sprint. She works the birds with care and expertise and still they go up out of range, no doubt spooked by the stampede of hunters to the white setter’s playground. No matter. It is good to be young again. I can’t stop giggling.

The school yard

– TR

Getting to the Point

Sometimes, I forget what I’m doing. Seeing him locked up like some ancient, graven image, with a level of simmering, white hot focus beyond anything I’ll never truly know, yeah, I’ll admit that I can easily forget everything else, including why we’re supposedly here. That there is an unseen third party somewhere close by. That this is merely the prelude to an explosion that can go any one of several different ways. I want the moment to continue; this traingulated tension to be savored indefinitely, but all such swings of the pendulum eventually seek equilibrium, and the longer the build up the more abrupt and chaotic the release tends to be.

But sometimes, all of this just goes out the window, and I look at him, truly dumbfounded by the capabilities of this  high-performance animal, and the ways he must experience the world so differently from my own, though we stride through it together. I’m so distracted with admiring the beauty of this point that the bird gets up and I’m not ready and I feel like a head in clouds idiot. And the briefest of glances from over his shoulder makes me feel even more so. But he immediately forgives and forgets and throws every bit of himself into getting out there and doing it again, and it is this, not the missing of the shot, that lets me know I’m the lesser of two creatures here.

The frequency of this doesn’t decrease with experience. In fact, quite the opposite.

– Smithhammer