Materials

So little of what we’re left with at the end of the upland season is tangible. Sure, there are guns to clean, maybe some birds still left in the freezer (though I rarely show that much self-discipline), and inevitably, finding new ways to try and occupy highly-energetic four-legged athletes. Ultimately, though, most of it will live on only in memory.

But then there are these feathers laying in front of me on the tying table. Ruffed grouse. Sharptail. Pheasant. These aren’t detached, consumable products in neatly-labeled plastic bags purchased from the fly store, packaged and shipped from Dog Knows Where – these came from birds my dog and I worked hard to find, birds I caused to drop from the sky, birds that, well, to be totally honest, he only sometimes half-heartedly retrieved in that way that so many pointers do who can’t be bothered with such mundane tasks, tearing off already to find the next holding covey instead.

These feathers sit in front of me on the table now, haphazardly strewn about amongst threads, tinsels, furs, tying tools, in a system of highly-subjective organization that others would likely call a mess; raw material from which I hope something useful will eventually emerge. The flies that will come of these feathers will occupy a special place, if not in my fly box, then at least in my mind, easily recognizable as different than those commercially tied by others in Sri Lanka or the Phillipines from materials of mysterious origin.

And when I remove that ragged, grouse bedecked fly from the cutthroat’s mouth, and release it back into that little creek high up in the newly melted alpine, I’ll flash back to that day last October when I was up to my knees in mud, shotgun in hand, trying in vain to keep up with a dog tracing currents of bird scent across a sweeping landscape, pulled along by compulsions I’ve never fully understood or bothered to explore; satisfied instead by knowing that not doing these things would cause a slow withering of my soul, which is simply not an option.

– Smithhammer

Outside apps

A couple of weeks ago the guy in front of me at the grocery store was paying for his sixer in change and I was browsing the magazine rack when I came across a quarterly publication called iPhone Life.
There is a magazine ($6.99) that is dedicated to the iPhone? And it’s in its second year of publishing?
I’m sure I don’t have to mention that there were no outdoor magazines on the rack. Not even a copy of National Geographic.
Not a single periodical relating something of the human experience, or any experience. Just celebrity gossip and a magazine dedicated to a cellphone.
This news so disturbed me that when I got home, I went to said rag’s Web site.
The lead post on the Web site was titled “Why I Bought My Kids iPhones.
The post starts out, “My kids are not spoiled (well, maybe a little bit), I bought them iPhones for economic reasons. Let me explain. The cost of a new Nintendo or Sony PSP is…”
My kids aren’t old enough to want anything other than milk and attention, but it seems to me that buying kids an iPhone might be counter productive to being a kid.
A phone is a tool. Hell, I have a Blackberry and I’ll be the first to admit that it makes my job easier and me more productive. Still,

I don’t want my kids to start obsessively checking their e-mail until someone is paying them to.
Much like a shotgun, it’s nothing more than a means to an end. I love shotguns, but the reason I buy them is the high lonesome country that I visit with them in hand.
The existence of iPhone Life suggests to me that some people might think their iPhone is actually part of their life or that it somehow matters what kind of phone you have or what you can do with it.
All this tells me that there are a lot of people who don’t spend enough time outside in the company of a good dog.

Luther

He was the “assistant foreman” on a ranch in West Texas. I had a gate key to that ranch and permission to hunt quail, but nothing else.

At dusk on a January afternoon, I was parked on the edge of a CRP patch when Luther came clattering up the road in his derelict Ram Charger. His two Blue Healers were standing on the toolbox and peering over the cab. I clipped my pointers to the tailgate and filled their water pans as Luther ground to a halt in a cloud of red dust. He left his truck running because it likely wouldn’t start again if he didn’t.”

“Any birds in that?”

“Three coveys.”

“Get any?”

“Five.”

When the dust and exhaust fumes cleared I caught a whiff of a sickly perfumey smell wafting from his open truck window. He was somewhat shaven and his hair was slicked back. He had on a black felt hat and one of those patchwork Garth Brooks type shirts.

“Luther, where you off to?”

“Town.”

That could have been any number of places but I assumed he was referring to Lubbock.

“What’s the occasion?”

“I got a date.”

“Are you wearing Hai Karate?”

He flashed a sheepish grin and I noticed that his scraggly mustache had been touched up with a grease pencil, a Sharpie, or something similar. It didn’t do much for me, but maybe she would like it.

“Who’s the luck lady?”

“Gal I grow’d up with. I ain’t seen her in years. She’s lately divorced and living back with her mom, and them.” He leaned over to his rearview mirror and checked his teeth; then he plucked a toothpick from his hat brim. “She’s a real looker.”

“Yeah?”

“Head twirler back in high school.”

Luther looked at me with a wink and a nod. I turned and looked at his dogs. They turned and looked mine.

“So, where you taking her?”

“Kenny Chesney concert. She won some free tickets through the radio. She answered four trivia questions about livestock and politics and all.”

“Smart gal?”

“Apparently.”

“You taking your dogs to the concert?”

He pointed into the bed of his truck with his thumb. “They’ll be fine back yonder. Anybody tries to steal em will thank better of it when he has to pry some teeth off his boys.”

He waited for me to reply to that but I didn’t. He watched me unclip my pointers and open their boxes. It was getting dark and I had an hour on the road back to my motel.

“Whatta you give for a bird dog like them?”

“A lot; depends on their breeding and their finish.”

He studied the dogs as they spun and jumped into their boxes. “You gonna hunt again tomorrow?”

“Not sure; sounds like we’ve got some bad weather coming.”

“Well, if you do, I seen a big covey at that wire gap going into the croton pasture this morning. Least I thank they was quail—mighta been doves—do they run along the ground?”

“Doves?”

“Yeah.”

“No, not as a rule.”

With that, he let off the clutch and his trucked lurched and sputtered down the road. After about fifty yards he stopped and hung his head out the window.

“Hey—if you come by the house in the morning and see my truck but I don’t answer the door….”

“Yeah?”

“…don’t keep on knockin, cause I might be doin some good?”

It was 22-degrees and spitting snow when I turned out my dogs the next morning. I hunted for a couple of hours before the wind picked up and it started dumping. On the way out of the ranch I drove past Luther’s house. His truck was out front with the driver-side door standing wide open. The snow was blowing sideways into the cab. His two Healers were sitting on the porch.

Two weeks later the paper said that Luther had been arrested for public intoxication and assault on a gal that was once a head twirler. I hunted that ranch one more time on the last weekend of the season and Luther’s house was locked up and dark. I never heard what happened to his dogs, and I never found that covey by the wire gap leading into the croton pasture.

– TB

Gear season

The upland season is fading the rearview, sheds haven’t fallen and turkey and fishing season are not yet on the horizon. That makes it covetousness season.
Time to sort through mud-filled shotgun hulls and scrape bloody feathers off unfired shells.
Time to finally rinse out that dingy water bottle the dog and I shared for the second half of the season.
Maybe sharpen a few knives and relace some boots.
Mostly though, it’s time to browse the catalogues and covet things I do not need and cannot afford.
For example, the CSMC A10 shotgun.

I have no need for a sidelock stack barrel, but I have been looking longingly at used Beretta S2s for years.

Now, along comes an American made gun with hand detachable sidelocks for about what I would pay for a used S2.
Do I need a straight stocked 20 guage sidelock with case coloring and an extra set of 28 guage barrels?
Maybe not during the quail season, but right now?
Absolutely.

– GM

Mouse hunting

The setter people entertain themselves these days by mouse hunting. We take our daily walks on the bench above the home place now in the light of spring, not the dark of winter. North Willow Creek is still fairly clear, but it is coming up and will be over the banks in a few weeks. The ice has abandoned its shoulders. The geese are hooked up and flying in pairs. Mallards jump from the ponds beneath the high ditch and yesterday, I thought I heard the first sandhill of the season.

The classic hard point with two honoring.

My thoughts trend to fishing now and a new six weight in the quiver and a section of the Missouri I haven’t fished yet. Screwing around with a spey rod, as if I need another hobby. Reminds me of when I transitioned to tele from downhill skiing. More crap to buy, more gear. I rounded out the fly rod collection this spring and have a whole box full of articulated streamers.

Hunting is off somewhere on a far rim and if I follow the Solstice Rule–no conversations about hunting are allowed until the days start getting shorter–then I can’t even talk about it. We invented the Solstice Rule to avoid the pain of not hunting, but it really is poor salve for such.

And yet, the major trips are already blocked out for the fall: up to the Front the first week of September, down to Arizona (they are getting a lot of quail rain this spring) in December, Nevada chukar in late October . . . . But now I’m hunting big rainbows and browns and planning summer pack trips. The other day a lady friend and I rode the horses to the Pony Bar and flushed two sets of paired-up Huns on the neighbor’s ranch. I have permission to hunt there. I tried to not think about that–that time so distant.

The finest mouse hunter in all the Realm.

And so, sandhills and trumpeter swans and Candada geese and red-winged blackbirds. The guns are cleaned and gun-safed and the only shooting I’m doing is my .45 Kimber auto at targets. For fun. For something that goes bang. Kind of like how a brown hits a hopper. The smell of sap rises in the cottonwoods and there’s a drift scent of beefsteak sizzling over the alder coals of the season’s first barbecue. It’s gin and tonic season. Spritzer season. I’ll survive.

The setter people? Mouse hunting and chewing on the legs of winter killed whitetails. Damned carnivores.

–TR

Rough shooting

As it turns out, I need a gun-bearer.

I’ve been reading a copy of Shooting By Moor, Field and Shore, an almanac of shooting in England, published 1929. It paints a portrait of a different time and a different world. Furthermore, it points out the inadequacy of my low brow ways. In the brief section on “walk up hunting” as opposed to shooting driven game, the authors point out the obvious burdens associated with “rough shooting.”

“In order to kill game on a rough shoot, you must either walk it up, or indulge in impromptu driving either with the help of a friend of friends. You have to carry your own gun all day, and most probably the game bag as well.”

Imagine the horror of having to “carry your own gun” and game whilst hunting. I should have flipped through this book before I logged a hundred or so miles to shoot only a handful of quail this season, carrying my own gun the whole time.

Beauty marks

I like shotguns.
Specifically, I like old, lightweight shotguns with two barrels and well-figured walnut.
Preferably in 28 ga. or 16 ga.
Some of my hunting buddies now carry guns made of black plastic that look like they might shoot lazer beams.
Personally, I don’t own anything I won’t hunt in the rain with, but I also don’t own any guns I would put a bumper sticker on.
When I was ten, I had a Remington Nylon 66 rifle. It was black plastic with white diamonds where the checkering should have been and it had glimmering stainless barrel and action.
It was the ugliest rifle I have ever owned and it could not dependably shoot beer-can sized groups at 20 yards.
Since then, I have stuck to guns that are made of dark-blue steel and checkered walnut.
I like them to smell of boiled linseed oil and 3-in-1 and if I leave it leaned against a fence, I want to be able to imagine my grampa standing next to it.
Last year I bought a 1936 Ithaca side-by-side 16 ga. with no butt stock.
I spent most of the spring fitting and shaping, sanding and oiling until I had a new-to-me upland gun.
She still has some of her case coloring and when the light is right, the barrels shine like obsidian. I added a few inches to the trigger tang and an english style stock in place of the Prince of Wales that would have adorned the gun originally.
The maker’s marks on the barrel denote ‘modified’ and ‘full’ chokes. On the pattern board, it’s more like ‘full’ and ‘rifle.’
Still, I managed to shoot a few birds with it this year and that brand new stock already has its first ding, earned high in the Pecos Wilderness on an early grouse hunt. I don’t worry much about the scratches and scuffs that mark the passing of the years.
I think what I like least about plastic guns is their inability to show the character that comes with age and use.
My guns carry their dings and scratches proudly, like little historical records of antlers and pack frames and chukar hunts gone wrong.
It’s how I like them.

GM

The lonely life of a desert Santa

Santa Claus was more emotionally needy than I expected him to be.
TR and I had stopped to refill our water jugs at a remote BLM outpost manned by volunteers.
“You guys here to see the museum,” he asked hopefully. He was a large man, sporting a full beard and was almost surely the real Santa.
“No. We’re just here for a little water.”

“Huntin’?”

He asked the question as if we weren’t covered in a week’s worth of dust and driving pickups loaded with camping gear and dogs.

“Yep.”

His wife, AKA Mrs. Claus, comes out and brings Santa a spotless cowboy hat. Were if it covered in grime, it would be a near twin of those worn by TR and myself.

“Those are our cats,” he gestured towards two big toms.

TR and I were non-committal, but they looked like quail killers and bird-dog fodder to us.

“One has different colored eyes and the other has different colored balls,” he said casually, adding, “I can tell them apart coming or going.”

That night over beers we speculated that Mrs. Claus might have brought out a different hat, depending on what the visitors were wearing.
We imagined Santa in a beanie, sombrero or maybe a cheesehead.
Weeks later I stop by again, ostensibly to get water. I throw my hat on the floor board and don a ball cap.

“Here to see the museum?”

Mrs. Claus walked out a moment later, bringing him a barely worn baseball cap.
I guess it’s a lonely life.

King of the Big Empty: Our generation’s Heath Hen

Consider the sage chicken. Take your time at it. He is a mighty bird, his pointed tail, his black-feathered breast, his mottled and muted yet beautiful hues, his huge feet. Many writers, attempting to describe his flight have penned imagery of Air Force bombers, kites, sails. Indeed, the pet name for the big ones, the old ones, is “bomber.” Others have sneered at the big grouse as a game bird, shuddered at the thought of eating his dark breast, laughed when talking about the sporting dog aspect of hunting “chickens.”

Yet I submit that those who turn their noses up at Mr. Chicken might in fact be deeply saddened if those big beautiful birds no longer dotted our sagebrush steppe, no longer flew our wide Western skies.

There are those among us who have grown up hunting chickens. Here, on the broad ocean that is the sagebrush sea, are a few of us whose first shotgunning experience was sage grouse, whose family reunions were on the high prairies of states like Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana. I love how the names of those states sound on the tongue, and when I think of sage grouse and of those places, I think of old Willys jeeps and Ford Broncos covered in alkali dust, of big heavy Labs panting in the shade of a September wall tent, of Winchester pump guns, of windy Labor Days in the middle of nowhere, of grape soda in a tub of ice–and when I was deemed old enough–Hamm’s, Oly and Coors. I remember listening to the Wyoming Cowboys or the Colorado Buffaloes or the Denver Broncos on AM radio, and I remember those big birds taking wing and my shotgun on my shoulder and that huge, huge target, and I remember missing. They were deceptively fast and the shotgun sometimes swung as if it were twenty feet long. Sometimes, I remember hitting. Always, sage chicken season was about family and laughter and the music of loved ones.

Not too many people have family reunions around sage chicken season any more. Perhaps it is a function of a fattening society, of lard-assed kids who would rather play video games or text-message their pals. But the real reason, I think, is because we’ve failed as a society to appreciate this bird, failed as a people to treasure the wide open sagebrush flanks of our land–the very openness that defines the West–and failed, ultimately to be good stewards. Lyrical ground like Sweetwater, Oregon Buttes, Vinegar Hill, Horse Prairie, Choke-A-Man Draw . . . I can’t even think of those places without sage grouse. Without them, they are truly empty.

Six dogs and one wife ago, I was the cocky young editor of a small town western Colorado newspaper. Back then, I hunted with a beat-up Remington autoloader that  jammed often, and a mutt named after my favorite beverage at the time. JD had been born under a house in Carbondale the year I dropped out of college to spend a season ski bumming in Aspen. The bastard child of a Springer mother and a Lab father, she was black and white, just like the Jack Daniels’ label.

Eventually, I went back to college, finished up that degree, put a few years of Arizona quail hunting and Colorado pheasant hunting in front of JD’s eager nose, and then found myself in the Gunnison Basin. I was editing a newspaper with an absentee owner and given free reign over the editorial pages. The pay was light, but the benefits were fantastic. The newspaper’s owner also had claim to a few miles of the Taylor River to which I had access, and there was wild country right out the door.

JD and the chickens

And there were chickens. The high country held blue grouse, but if you were a serious bird hunter (and with JD, I thought I was a terror to the game birds of the basin), you had to be a chicken hunter. They were everywhere. You could hunt chickens on the sage-blanketed sweep of the rising mountains and have a staggering Colorado mountain view as a backdrop.

It was pretty tall cotton then and I didn’t even know it. I must have killed dozens in my time in Gunnison and I cooked their meat to medium rare over aspen coals and savored every bit of it. Cooked beyond medium rare and their flesh was as palatable as an old shoe, but medium-rare and you were in business. A friend would gather a large group of us–a banker, a professor at the local college, a PR man, a county assessor, a county manager, and the young punk newspaper editor with his mutt and clunker gun–and we’d head out to Flattop and hunt for a day behind his Brits and my Splab. We’d laugh and drink beer at the end and admire our chicken harvest. The hunts were about friendships, about sharing a passion and were an annual ritual.

No one has killed a Gunnison sage chicken in a decade. The season clamped shut in 2000 and those kinds of hunts on the sagebrush shoulders of a big mountain, that music of laughter and mutual joy is a thing of the past. Just like those family reunions. In those ten years of no hunting, the population of Gunnison chickens has not rebounded and it remains a species in trouble. Hunting was not the cause, not the problem and sadly, hunters do not have the solution.

Everywhere, in every Western state, the story is the same. South Dakota has a silly two-day season with a one bird limit. Why even have it? Eastern Oregon has a permit draw system much like we have with big game. Nevada–with its mighty, tossing ocean of sage–has a two week season and most of the state is closed to nonresidents. And Wyoming–Wyoming, the state that defines sagebrush, the state that is antelope and sage chickens and wide open–has a two-week season with a two-bird limit, four in possession. It used to run a month and you could sack up three birds a day with nine in possession. Sad times. While we have built our Pheasants Forevers and our Quail Unlimiteds, and our Ruffed Grouse Societys, the very symbol of the West for the upland gunner has dwindled, lost ground and died.

Oil and gas development, predation, range fire, intentional sagebrush eradication funded by the feds and states, the looming shadow of renewable energy and its transmission lines, livestock grazing, “wild” horses, even West Nile virus . . . the sage chicken is in trouble. It is teetering close to being put on the endangered species list and if it ends up there, we hunter-conservationists should be deeply ashamed of ourselves. Sick. And it happened in finger-snap time; unless you are younger than 8, this has happened in your lifetime.

In my living room, mounted in a place of honor, is a big old bomber chicken. Whenever I look at him, I am back on the Big Empty. The memory of a girlfriend after the broken marriage, of a beautiful September Wyoming day, of golden aspen leaves and soft breezes scented by sage, of a talented dog on solid point, of swing and trigger pull, and retrieve to hand all come back to me. But there’s more. There’s a symbol. Of the West. Of families that got together in the outdoors and walked hallowed ground. Of simpler times? Perhaps. But we had problems back then. We just knew how to stick together, how to laugh, what family felt like, how to appreciate nature without motors and batteries and games . . . Our people seem to have lost those things.

Consider the sage chicken.                  –TR

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