Just Another Farmer

Mouthful of Feathers contributions are as infrequent as rains in West Texas, but we are still here and still kicking. And occasionally writing when we get a chance between feathers and gunpowder. Our original writers like Tom Reed and Greg McReynolds are still out there and still sharing, but we’re also expanding the pool of writers. Some, like Jim Houston, will bring us back to the way it was and make us think about the way it is. Others will make us think about how it can be.

Horseman, hunter and adventurer Jim Houston spent a career in wildlife management with the Colorado Division of Wildlife before retiring to Montana in the mid-1990s. Now 84, he lives outside the town of Silver Star, Montana, where he has a good bird dog. He still gets out to hunt, fish, camp and explore around the West every chance he gets.

By Jim Houston

What increases a hunter’s chance of giving a positive impression when asking permission to hunt private land? I have hunted pheasants, quail and prairie grouse in the West since my youngster days. During those decades I have observed some pretty fair techniques and many that failed. Especially in recent years it has definitely been tougher.

rmf00011mtA couple of long-term hunting partners who were pretty good talkers always insisted on my knocking on the door; I’ll assume my batting average wasn’t too bad. Here are a few styles I have used, presented in reverse order of success:

  1. Arrive at the farm early. A little after daylight sometimes works.
  2. Include all members of the hunting party when going to the door. This is the team approach.
  3. Make the contact away from the house. Catching the farmer miling cows or on his tractor sometimes works.
  4. Telephone in the evening before the hunt. Dinner time or during the local TV weather report should be avoided.
  5. Park your vehicle a respectful distance away from the doorstep.
  6. Clothes matter! Older garments showing some wear are best.
  7. My personal preference is to wear my oldest, stained Western hat.
  8. Use an older hunting vehicle if available.

This last suggestion demands an extreme explanation from years past and my most successful days of hunting pheasants on farms.

I had bought one of the very first Toyota Land Cruiser station wagons. They were at that time more affordable and Toyota dealers few and far between. The steering needed work and the nearest dealer happened to be in good pheasant country. I called for an appointment the day prior to a planned week of hunting. All went well at the dealership until my arrival to pick up my vehicle. The mechanic had disassembled all steering parts, found the problem, but had no replacement part in stock and in disassembly had irreparably damaged a bearing. Ordering parts would take days and my vehicle was not drivable. The dealer had no loaner for me.

I had previously worked a short time in this area and knew a big game outfitter who owed me a favor. This contact saved my hunt! The outfitter had a very well-used two-ton International stock truck. All I had to do was put a new battery in the truck and it started and ran fine. I hunted a week with my setter sitting up next to me and I was invited in to eat meals with several farmers and all invited me for more days of hunting. I can still hear the rattle of that old truck. It was the best hunting vehicle I ever drove.

Jim Houston, 84, lives in Silver Star, Montana, and is still knocking on doors for permission to hunt.

Don’t be a penguin*

As I type, hordes of angry labradoodle owners are besieging the walled compound where I store my collection of Stetsons, my wardrobe full of Wranglers and my motor pool of Chevy C-20’s. Since I penned “Posers” and posted the classy response “Hardasses” from This Long Haul’s Kyle Smith, I have heard from several of the MOF faithful writing in passionate defense of fanny packs, pen-raised birds, 7-shot autoloaders, 40-inch tires, soap-on-a rope, wiener dogs, and a host of other objects or animals that I haven’t yet had a chance to offend yet (have no fear, I’ll get there.)

So, I have two things to say. First of all, to everyone who owns a Pudelpointer, please note, I said “doodle.”
Second and most importantly, I was categorically wrong about one thing…
Propeller hats are awesome.
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Thanks to Josh Duplechian who not only shot this photo, but also designed the best bird hunting hat ever seen. He is a true artist.

Hardasses

Kyle Smith is a MOF reader, (it continues to baffle me that we have readers) spey caster and upland hunter who blogs at This Long Haul. He kindly offered the following response to Posers.

By Kyle Smith

Maybe sometimes my hat’s brim tends towards the flatter side of the spectrum. My Tacoma has an obnoxious hood scoop. I’ve worn out a few Patagonia puffy jackets. I’d take an IPA over a Banquet beer on most occasions. And I’d love a well-coiffed beard if I wasn’t such a damned babyface.

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I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in the gear I’ve bought and the shots I’ve taken and the birds I’ve flushed. But I love my time in the field as much as the next guy and wild birds on public lands are just as much my birthright as they are yours.

Admittedly, choosing a Pudelpointer is something I’d think twice about if I had it to do over again. While she’s the best animal I know, I’m beyond sick of hearing “that’s a cute/cool mix,” every time Joe Public asks me about the breed of my dog. Amongst the educated she’s still a Pudelpointer but to everyone else she’s now a German Wirehair.

I didn’t grow up in a hunting family. In fact, I came to upland hunting in my late-20s after a friend sent me a link to Smithhammer’s elegant, moving, hipster foodie fodder, “The Words We Use.” That post stuck with me and put into words some thoughts and emotions that had been banging around in my cosmopolitan brain for a long time. Not soon thereafter, I used my student loan check to buy the first 12 gauge over under I could find at the local gun shop. A couple years later and I had a gun dog.

Guess what I’m saying is that you should think a little more about the judgments you make and the words you use on this blog. There’s a bunch of us noobies out here that respect and dare say admire the writing on MOF and aspire to appreciate and understand upland bird hunting and our relationships with the natural world the way you so often capture with your posts. While we might be Posers now, I figure if we keep at it long enough maybe someday it’ll all come together and we’ll end up as Wrangler-clad, cowboy hat wearing, C-10 driving, Setter hunting hard-asses like you guys.

We only get so many Octobers

“It is easy to forget that in the main we die only seven times more slowly than our dogs,”

The Road Home, Jim Harrison

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October is finite – not only in volume, but in reoccurrence.

In Idaho, October is the perfect month. The weather cools and the aspens start to drop their golden leaves. Brown trout move upstream to spawn, colored up like the aspens and hungry and edgy and mean. Sharp tail seasons line up with other upland species so the whole host of bird hunting is on the menu.

October is a marker for my years and sometimes it’s alarming how fast they tick past. Throwing out a pair of worn out boots I realize it’s been a dozen years since I bought them. Sorting boxes of factory pheasant loads with $9  price tags, I try to remember when you could buy Golden Pheasant loads for that price.

Fondly remembering a hunt with a good friend, I realize we haven’t spoken in years. I look at my dogs and see I no longer have one in her prime and one on the upswing, but one in her prime and one that may not have another October left in her.

For a good long time, I was certain my springer was faking deaf. As in, “I can’t hear you boss, but there’s birds!”

Turns out she is not faking, at least not anymore. Sometimes I walk past her bed and out the door without her waking. In the evening, I occasionally have to walk out and retrieve her from the yard. She’s healthy and happy, but she has lost most of her drive and she can’t hear anymore.

She’ll make a few trips this year. Judging by our walks and initial trips out, she will mostly be at heel, strolling along as the old lady of the pack.

Last fall, I took an ill-advised shot at a rooster on the last day of the season. He seemed well hit, but locked his wings and glided across a good-sized channel of the Snake River into some cattails on the far shore. My old girl was never a good water retriever and I never force fetched her, but as I stood there wondering if my waders were in the truck, she lit out into the cold and fast water. She hit the shore and worked the cattails for several minutes before wading out and swimming back. She held a totally live rooster in her mouth, his head erect as she braved the current again.

I remember thinking, “That could be the last great retrieve I see her make,” because even then she had slowed down. Mostly, the fire has gone out of her. She still wants to go, she wants to head out the door and ride in the truck, but the barely controlled bird craziness is gone. It’s nice to have her around. She’s mellowed. She can lay down at your feet instead of pacing constantly. She can ride in the car on a gravel road without howling to be let out.

She’s just older. It happens to all of them. And to all of us. For me as well there is a day coming where hunting turns into something else.

We only get so many Octobers.

Stand up for public land today

Today is National Public Lands Day, a day worthy of recognition.

28 OCT 2012:  Upland Bird Hunting in  Pocatello, ID. (Joshua Duplechian)

After years of attacks on the very concept of public lands by a well-funded effort to fleece the American citizenry or our public lands heritage, the threat to the places we hunt and fish feels more concrete and close.
The attack on our public lands has intensified. Those dedicated to wresting the places we hunt and fish from the hands of hard-working Americans have moved their attacks from state legislatures to the halls of congress. They take every opportunity to run down our National Forest and BLM lands. Disparaging the management of our American public places is a tactic to buoy their transfer argument.
There is vast evidence to show that a transfer will not be good for hunting, fishing or outdoor recreation.
The threat is real and unless sportsmen stand for our public lands, we may lose them.

Ghost

I saw one grouse here.
One time.
He flushed left to right, a brown phase ruff. Going like a bat out of hell. Carrying the mail, as they say.
I shot about twenty feet behind him and then my little setter burst from the chokecherries with a “did you get him?” look on her face.
Um, no. Sorry. I wanted to. Sorry. I tried.
So every year for the last ten or so years, I spend a bit of time on this old homestead, tromping over old barbwire fences wilting and rusting into nothing. fullsizerenderSeptember sweating up through willows, scratching through gooseberries and raspberries. It’s always a solo trip because there’s only been one grouse in all this time. There have been bears and burrs and brambles. There has been mud and blood and, after, beer. But no grouse. That setter has been buried two years now and I have new one to chase the ghost. Different boots, less hair, more aches. Still going.
Every year. Ten years in a row. Sometimes twice a year. I have never seen another grouse here, ever. But I still go.
What the fuck is wrong with me?

Posers

There are a lot of posers in the upland hunting community. In the interest of full disclosure, we here at MOF are old, mean (especially when we’ve been drinking) and skeptical of everything and everyone. In other words, we assume basically everyone is a poser.

If you say you like to hunt upland birds, my line of questioning goes something like;

You have a dog? (Answer “no” and you’re out.)

What kind? (Answer anything that includes “doodle” or requires an explanation and you’re out.)

Other grounds for dismissal include; using the word “Bra” or “Bro”, wearing a flat-brim baseball cap, party hunting, using a “loader,” having someone else handle your dog, being a dill weed, walking slow, over using your whistle, wearing neon laces on boots, fanny packs, hats with propellers, riding in a jacked up 4-wheel-drive following someone else’s pointers, coiffed beards, taking selfies in the field or wearing purple.

There’s a reason I tend to hunt alone.

Posers litter the upland landscape. Just take a gander at nearly any upland product marketing material and you will almost certainly see a bearded hipster dressed like he’s headed for Sunday afternoon cocktails pointing a shotgun at a limp-tailed pheasant flying directly at the camera. I want to shout “Don’t shoot the photographer,” then I realize it’s likely the photographer who has set up the shot and put himself in harm’s way. Of course, it’s unlikely he’ll be shot by the hipster, but there is a pretty good chance he’ll be kamikaze-ed by the pen-raised bird careening toward him.

And that’s the thing. Upland marketing seems to center around pheasants even though a passel of enthusiastic upland hunters are not chasing pen-reared pheasants. Instead, they choose to hunt wild birds, often on public land. They are hunting ruffed grouse in the Carolina’s or the UP, chasing chukar in Nevada or desert quail in Texas or Arizona. They hunt sharptail grouse in the northern plains of Montana or sage grouse in the sage brush sea of Wyoming. They chase blue grouse on high ridges of Colorado or Utah. They might even scratch down an old rooster every once in a while in a few of those places. Some of them hunt pheasants in the Dakotas or Kansas, but the ones who hunt passionately are usually hunting wild birds, often on publicly accessible tracts.

Follow dogs across enough forest and prairie and you learn to notice things. Hunters can tell by the wag of their spaniel’s tail or the way a setter carries herself when birds are close. They learn to veer towards a falcon holding high above the cholla or to walk out of their way to swing past an abandoned farm implement. They notice how a pheasant will run like hell in short grass but hold up before he crosses a low spot or how huns will flush in a circle and after a few flushes, eventually lead you back where you found them. Upland hunting is a pursuit of subtleties and when you’ve see enough flushes, you know a setup when you see one.

Sadly, many of the companies selling guns and boots and vests are pretty far removed from the realities of upland hunting. There are some exceptions like Wingworks and Russell and Quilomene and Kenetrek and Gundog Supply. Big companies who understand upland hunting are rare, but one that stands out in a good way is Orvis, whose catalogues often  feature the birds and places people actually hunt. I think that’s mostly because their CEO, Perk Perkins, and their Vice Chairman, Dave Perkins, are serious outdoorsmen and upland hunters. And damn good fly fishermen as well. And while I’m not typically prone to endorsements, Orvis gives 5 percent of company profits to conservation and I think that’s a pretty big deal.

Orvis recently posted this video about upland hunting. It’s a pretty accurate assessment of what most of us at MOF do and how we feel about upland hunting.

Perk, Dave, if you’re reading, you’re in.

 

GM