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.
At some point in the heart of a 12 or 24 hour drive, the coffee just won’t cut it anymore. It’ll be somewhere east of Elk Mountain. The adreneline that kept you sharp over the top will fade once you’re rolling downhill and the snow clears and the road turns dry and black again. It might be south of Page, when the moon goes dark and all the stars come out and there is nothing but the Milky Way and the dashed yellow center line and darkness.
You’ll reach for the seeds. The bag is half empty, not because you needed them earlier, just because they are delicious. But now, in the belly of the night with your bird-hunting buddy catnapping and the promise of birds at dawn, you shove a handful of spicy sunflower seeds in your mouth and put on a podcast.
There is something magical about seeds, particularly when coupled with coffee, that will help you navigate a long drive.
But these are things you already know. You also know that we rarely endorse things that are not beer, dogs or Mexican restaraunts. In fact, we even created a category for durable goods, that up to this point has only been used once. “These products are things we’ve used in the field, in real time, in real cases, for years. Not just a weekend. In the field, for years. This is the shit that works. That we like. That we’ve had for a long time.”
With all that in mind, I’ll lay it on the line.
There are three kinds of sunflowers seeds in current production that stand head and shoulders above the rest.
3. Spitz, chili lime: These are sweet, but not overly so, with just enough spice to keep it interesting, but not so much that your lips are non-functional after only a couple of pounds.
2. David’s, cracked pepper: These do not start out hot, but near the bottom of a pound bag, you’ll have to stop for chapstick if you didn’t plan ahead. These are the go to seed for late-night driving.
1. Lays, original, extra long: These seeds are like Dr. Pepper, Schlitz beer, nacho flavored Doritos, and the Beatles. They are timeless. I prefer the small bags for easy consumption.
Blogging is a strange thing. I made a career of shooting photos and writing, first as a reporter and editor and later in the more technical and mundane aspects of the written word. But a blog, particularly one about something so obscure as bird dogs and shotguns and galliformes, strikes even me as strange some days.
Occasionally, word will get out to non-bird hunting acquaintances that I co-write a blog. “Oh,” they say. “You write a blog… about bird hunting? Currently?” Almost always, there is a long pause, followed by an unspoken, “How quaint.”
I can see it in their smirk and even I know how ridiculous it is to write a blog about birds and dogs and guns and rambling.
These are things that can’t be explained to non-initiates.
A dog, using it’s nose and brain and our shared relationship to work such magic as bird-to-hand cannot be described with something so simple as the written word. A bird, capable of flight, who chooses to walk until it is absolutely required that it fly, cannot be explained to someone reading text in the artificial glow of a computer screen. But here we are.
In addition, the subject matter is obscure. Only 6 percent of the U.S. population hunts. Less than half of those hunt small game, and that includes rabbits and squirrels. If you sift out the rodent killers, then separate out the folks who like dogs, double guns, beer in cans and long walks in the desert; you have the MOF audience. By my math, that’s around 11 people. Statistically, writing a blog about upland hunting is like writing a blog about blogging. In 2017.
Strange as it may seem, not only do people read MOF, some of them take it seriously. Sometimes people even go so far as to be offended by something they have read on MOF. (see; Giffy Butte, Posers, Mexican Beer, Waste Loss and Legs, Target Clientele, On Monuments and Fish … actually, just see all of it.)
So, if you’re perusing MOF and read something that gets your hackles up, feel free to drop us an angry line. Or, just imagine that you’re reading a blog about blogging, and that people don’t really do that anymore.
If you are one of the kindred spirits who send us emails and exchanges ideas and passes the word on conservation issues, thank you. Thank you for the inside jokes and invitations to hunt birds that stretch across vast swaths of the country, based on little more than an appreciation for a few lines of prose or the look of a dog on point.
If you are here, and not by accident, thanks for reading.
I don’t even know where to start. I don’t even know how to explain it to you. One month, we were all go-go-go, making it happen, going out all the time. Then overnight, nothing. Literally overnight.
It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, maybe that’s not totally true. If I could get away with it, we’d still be going out, but I mean, there are rules. How do I explain to you that the reason you are sitting at home instead of going out all the time is because it’s just that time of year? Yeah, the ice and the snow is depressing. It’s February, you know, that longest-shortest worst month of the year, a month so bad they had to put a love holiday in there with chocolates and roses just so we didn’t all drink poison? I know you are depressed. I am too. Crushed. Sad. I hope we can remain friends. Please forgive me. It’s not over, is it? I don’t want it to be over. Please tell me it’s not over. But I gotta take a break. We gotta take a break. Those are the rules. I promise we will start up again on the first day of September. Until then, try to forgive me and please don’t leave me. I love everything about you. We’re a team. Don’t give up on “us.”
The wind was out of the southwest. Always is. The snow was more than foot deep. Too soft for bootstep yet hard enough for snowshoe. The wind, the snow.
But it was the last day and there was the dog. The spotted little wonder that spent a season pointing everything from woodcock to Hungarian partridge, filling your heart with ineffable thrill. But the wind. The snow.
But the dog. The dog. So it was snowshoes onto the state section west of the ranch. In September sagebrush, there were five coveys of Huns, a smattering of ruffed grouse in the coulees. Gray phase. In October leaf-strip, the same grouse that eluded September shot string fell before the gun. Three grouse. In November, thin snow revealed tracks of far more birds than you thought lived there. Or maybe just one bird with a penchant for the forced march. An occasional December bird, but usually just a nice walk. Now, it was the end. Always comes and comes too soon.
You walked bowlegged, getting those snow legs under you, getting used to the crunch and the movement and the little setter sprang out into it with a burst that always draws a smile. How can anything, any creature on earth, be so enthusiastic, so wonderfully full of life so consistently?
She had no trouble in the snow, thirty-five pounds of quick twitch and strong bone and bottomless guts. Grit may be a better word. Thirty five pound of smiling, laughable, lovable grit.
A mile that seemed like two. Christmas lard over the belt. Pants that somehow shrunk in the wash. Or something. No birds. The wind picked up. The dog laughed and grinned, wiggled from all ends, launched back into the snow. Do it for the dog, you lazy fat bastard. Do it for the dog.
Two miles that seemed like four. Then three miles, and you finally found a rhythm, forgot all about your sore butt, your holiday blubber. It was just the dog and the country and the now and the wind. The wind brought scent and the dog went on point and you fumbled for a camera, then said fuck it and moved in. She moved. Didn’t have them pinned. Then did again. Frozen like Lot’s wife. Scent in her nose, alternating between breaths and holding breaths. Huffing. As if puffing on a pipe. What was that like, having so much scent in your lungs and yet not moving a muscle other than pumping the bellows. Amazing, surely.
Two Huns went up, far out of range. Jumpy. Chased by hawk and hunter. Oh well. It was the last day.
Circled back to the truck as the sun tipped out and away, slanting in from low angle, covering everything in yellow goodbye light. Past the old homestead, head down. Then missed the dog and then found her on point and this time you moved in, gun ready, heart beating and the birds went up. Eight of them, out of range. Jumpy.
You wished them well and full productive lives, a winter of blissful feeding on hawk-free open slopes. And you wished for one more day. For the dog. For the dog.
The mystique around chukar hunting may be somewhat overplayed. “The birds are hard to shoot, impossible to get to, challenging for pointing dogs, you have to carry a kevlar gun and wear a helmet at all times… et cetera, et cetera.”
It’s true that a helmet is a good idea; but in the grand scheme of upland hunting, I’m not even sure chukar is the pinnacle of difficulty.
Certainly we (I mean chukar hunters in general, but I am in no way excluding MOF) have embellished the perceived difficulty. Not that I feel guilty about it, the last thing I need is more people clawing their way to the top of my chukar hills.
Last fall, I checked an item off my bucket list and hunted ruffed grouse in Minnesota. We hunted with a group of folks from the Little Moran Lodge and Orvis. I was concerned about how my dog would perform in the company of world-class setters, particularly in tight and unfamiliar cover. Strangely, I wasn’t that concerned about how I would perform. I mean, it’s flat right? And the birds are ruffies. I didn’t have a moment’s pause.
As it turned out, my little setter did great, pointing the very first woodcock she ever came into contact with and she had little trouble with the cover. She was steady. I, on the other hand, shot poorly and spent much of the trip missing birds, falling on my butt, tripping, slipping, and getting slapped in the face with numerous types of tree branches. I expended as much effort covering four Minnesota miles a day as I do covering a dozen Idaho miles.
The real trip was sitting around over beers in the evening and talking birds. Those who hadn’t been west asked about chukar terrain and habits and how hard they are to hunt. If they had been posers, I would have laid it on thick. But after my first day in Minnesota, I hadn’t seen fanny pack or propeller hat one. Plus, I was beaten near to a pulp and everyone else seemed perky and scratch free.
The Orvis guys, Charley, Tom, Reid, Steve and Andrew, were tough as nails and damn good shots. Apparently, they also spend long days afield with gun dogs (mostly setters, but springers and labradors too) for the chance at one or two birds. The only difference is they do it in Vermont, where the cover must be so thick you could misplace a tugboat.
Tom and Reid got nearly every bird they had a chance at and I’m pretty Steve and Andrew killed more birds on the first day than I did the whole trip. The first day, I saw Charley kill four birds on about six shots in cover too thick to swing a pocket watch. And I could tell that it wasn’t unusual because of how calm he remained. Mid-day, I saw him shoot a left-to-right crossing grouse with the first barrel and then his young dog made a great retrieve. Bird in hand, he merely cracked a smile. Had that happened to me, I would have reloaded and fired two celebratory shots into the air, then done an end-zone dance before lifting the setter over my head à la Lion King.
And it wasn’t just them. Bob St. Pierre, the marketing director for Pheasants Forever, shot a grouse so quickly and through such a small hole in the canopy, I’m not even sure if he actually mounted the shotgun or if he shot it quick-draw style. At the time, I was belly crawling, so admittedly my view was poor.
Little Moran’s Travis Grossman ran some of the nicest setters I’ve been around, hardly broke a sweat and never once made light of my abysmal shooting. Even when I missed a bird that flew directly over my head with both barrels. Plus, he told a good joke and produced an ice-cold beer as the sun set, right when my ego needed it most.
So when the subject of chukar came up. I couldn’t lie.
I said, “They’re not that hard. It’s open country. No trees to get in the way of your barrels or leaves to block your pattern. It’s easy walking without logs, bogs, vines, ticks, limbs, thickets or holes. Frankly you guys would probably kill them all. In fact, now that I really think about it, you probably wouldn’t even like it.”