In search of the empty

Damn the red lines.

They crisscross the green and yellow areas on the map like bloody cracks.
On the ground, they are uglier and more numerous.
These are not the access routes that bring us to the edges. No, these are far from the rural route roads-the gravel arteries-that deliver us from here to “out there.”
Dusty, rutted trails, crosshatch the landscape. Parallel routes that go nowhere, achieve nothing except to reduce habitat and lessen the experience.
The ungulates see them as warning signs, for the quail they are deathtraps.
The red lines often begin and end at the same places. On the ground, they simply wander as if an unmanned machine had prowled the landscape at random, leaving ruts that will last a hundred years.
On the map, I search for an area devoid of the red lines. A place I can’t walk from one road to the next in the time it takes to smoke a decent cigar.
There are few.


This nothing, this sheet of land, this openness, this bigness. Nothing. Stand. Then turn in a slow circle, eyes open. Nothing stretches left and right, ninety, one-eighty, two-seventy, three-sixty. Nothing.
Walk into it. Follow good bird dogs who follow their olfactors into a northward wind. Sagebrush at the feet. Greasewood. Four-winged saltbush. Sand. Sandstone. Sage again, sage always.

The wind hard in the face now, coming strong from the south, clouds forming, joining, mating, darkening. Still after the dogs, panting hard now and pivoting in growing wind, ears flopping with movement of body and earth. Still, nothing. No birds. Not even a track in sand, nor white-wash of turd on rock, nor anything.
A hawk overhead, passing on the wind, carried, pushed, surfed. Hardly a wing beat, just a kite of feather and talon and sharp beak.
Still into the wind, still after the dogs, still looking for track and scat and dusting. Still on.
An hour now. Then two. Three. Rest in steep ravines, dogs watering in natural troughs of stone. Carved deep and ancient. Crunching on through bitter small sage, over needling cactus. On, still in the wind.

Likely spots, tall grass in sagebrush stands, green-up on south slopes. Nothing.
A skeleton then, red feet. Plucked clean. Except for those feet. Those damned feet. Usually running and making tracks. Damnable, loveable little bastards.

Juniper twisted by wind, hardened and sanded and tortured.
Finally enough. Turn. The truck now ahead, not behind. How far? Three miles? Five? Six?
A wide swing. A wandering course. Following dogs. Occasionally following faded experience, judgment, upland teachings. Last year’s fountains dry. Going there, checking for this year’s generation. Informed by memory, swatted by reality. But mostly following dogs. Trusting. They know. If there is anything instead of nothing, canine instinct will prevail.
Canyons now, deep ones, scrambled. Sliding on sandstone, stopping again at a trough, hot and panting dogs lying in meltwater. Shotgun slung over one shoulder. Shells heavy in the vest, juniper berries collected. Back home, back at the woodstove, one berry on a stovetop will scent the entire house.
An antler shed. Leave it. A chipping, then a point. Leave them too.

Mind wandering, then coming back again, eyes following the dogs, whistle tucked and un-used. They are fine-tuned and all business and there is pride there, right there in the heart. Heavy too because the oldest, the alpha male, lopes with a limp and will be stiff on the front end and decommissioned in the morning. But now, onward, into nothing. Alone out here except for canine and raptor, a mule deer doe stotting over far gray ridge, hide matched to the land. Invisible without movement.

Water low now, sloshing in the bottle and stomach growling; lunch left hours ago. Sun slowly falling out of the sky and toes mashed hard by downward slides, heels feeling hot from upward slogs. Left knee complaining of high school football. Ignore it. On. Onward. Still, nothing.

Finally, the truck. Keys in the gas cap. Water from the jug for the dogs. A beer. Cold and goddamned good on dry throat and now the sun almost gone and a wash of color–orange and red and pink–across the sky. Dogs flopping down hard on the soil by the truck wheel, panting and stretching out and drooling cold water. Thirst slaked. On the tailgate now and a cigar, smoke curling, blending with sage scent. The wind down and gone. The bird vest empty. The gun still clean.

Not nothing.

Something. –TR

Rock Star and the Old Lady

My sons are just starting to notice my dog. They follow her with their 2-month-old eyes as she ambles past their swing or give a baby yell when she stops to lick the milk off a tiny dangling hand.

My sons are just starting to notice my dog. They follow her with their 2-month-old eyes as she ambles past their swing or give a baby yell when she stops to lick the milk off a tiny dangling hand.
Today, she’s recovering from three days of hunting after a season with precious few days afield. A dog in her prime, she is nursing sore feet and moving like an old lady.
After the days of perfection she just turned in she is entitled to a little soreness.
In rough, dry country we cut a wide swath. Her zigzagging in front, never straying out of shotgun range but occasionally breaking her pattern to check out a particularly good piece of cover. She held tight, she flushed in range and she retrieved more dependably than any season past. She was more than steady, she was a rock star.
We had company this week and she put him on his first birds.

The first afternoon, he followed her lead into a patch of tall grass and Gambel oak and stopped when I called out. She put a pair of birds in the air and after his shot she brought a beautiful male Gambels to his hand.
When he looked back, I could tell she had just created an upland hunter.
My two upland hunters are years from their first shotgun.
The realization that Roxy will not be their dog brings an air of melancholy to the day. Her exploits will live on in my journal and stories but to them she will never be a rock star, just an old lady.

Camp coffee

The explosion wakes me from a mostly sleepless night
Outside the frost covered hood of my sleeping bag, a raging fire burns
My companions are huddled too close to the flames, one clutching a can of Coleman fuel
It’s too cold to stay in the bag
Out into the biting cold to rummage around for the coffee pot
The excesses of the previous night are evident
A tin coffee cup is frozen to the table; a solid whiskey and coke ice cube in the bottom
Stumble to the water, bust the ice, dunk the percolator
Coffee boils over a gasoline fueled fire of wet, frozen wood
Early morning fix
Warms the body, defrosts the brain

Cactus Dreams

The country cascades. Everything moving, drifting along on gentle river of earth and sky.

A setter. Another and another.

Setter long tails and feathers matching the cadance of grass.

The grace of dog and desert steppe, the dance of the driven, the music of gentle December sunlight.

Grass everywhere, belt-deep, tawny. Breezes talk, whisper Coues deer and Mearns quail. Yarn of past hunts, decades and dogs gone.

A few thorns here, but mostly a stroll, a waltz, a flow like clear water over polished stone. A solid point. Honor. And more honor. Mearns burst, twittered alarm and shotgun shouldered.

In the evening, quail broiled on oak, tangy sweet spice of hardwood smoke and mesquite. Hatch chilis roasted. Agave sipped. Dogs resting, sated. Dreaming. Cactus dreams.        –TR

Agave recall

It’s a long way from dorm-room shots of Pepe Lopez, this Patron Reposada. I’ve mixed it with lime juice and a touch of Cointreau, even added just a little sugar. It’s one a hell of margarita.

But a smooth margarita on a cold New England winter night is a drink poured from the fountain of bittersweet. That little burn in the throat, almost medicinal in nature, always flashes me a few winters back to when I was a virtually unpaid editor of a small, quarterly bird-hunting magazine. In exchange for a laughable monthly salary, I had the chance to travel and hunt – with one of the most memorable trips being an exclusive bobwhite/dove/duck lodge in the Tamaulipas region of northern Mexico. There, the locally produced tequila was kept in an small oak cask, ours for the taking 24/7, if we were so inspired. That tequila was smooth and creamy and much like a brandy. We sipped it straight. No shots or lime or salt. It was infinitely better than the so-called good stuff I’m drinking now.

But, like good tequila does, it made my uvula spasm. So, whenever I feel that peculiar sensation at the root of my tongue I am reminded of my short stay at that lodge, of the brandy-like tequila, the Mexican guides, of the covey after covey of wild bobwhite quail exploding from the arid landscape. The 65-degree days and 35-degree nights.

We ate some sort of smoked chicken wrapped in tortillas and smothered with green salsa for lunch. I drank Coca Cola lite out of glass bottles. We hunted behind a pack of English pointers that were trial rejects from Texas and Mississippi. An older gentleman I spent a day with shot a rattlesnake he nearly stepped on. We hunted in orange groves. The guides unnervingly yelled “SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT!” when coveys erupted – like a parent screaming at a kid’s soccer game trying to will a goal through vocalization.

I missed, I don’t know, the first 10 birds I saw, unable to pick one bird out of covey rise and stay with it while others flushed. I finally connected. And connected and connected. So many points, so many shells, so many birds. Wild birds, all of them. My shoulder was sore. My hearing’s never fully recovered. I shot a double. Several times. We ate the birds at night, barbecued and spicy and washed down with that nameless mellow tequila.

I’ll probably never hunt wild bobwhite quail like that again. And tequila will never taste so good.

– Crawford

Ending it Right

We had decided that we weren’t going to accept the end of the season with anything resembling passive resignation. There would be no finding of lame excuses for occupying these end times with other, less worthy activities, while a few days of permissible bird chasing remained. No pathetic, “it would be nice to get out one last time, but it’s too cold now,” sniveling.

Perhaps most importantly, we wouldn’t be able to look these guys in the face if we simply let the season end with a fizzle:

And so, one last trip was hatched. A place none of us had hunted before, interest buoyed by whiffs of rumor and suspicion that an elusive, red-legged partridge might find such barren country to its aberrant liking.

It wasn’t easy, but frankly, in a perverse way, we wouldn’t really want it to be. This isn’t about “easy,” or we would be sharing this country with the hordes; McLodges springing up like blight on a country that deserves to remain desolate and wild and beyond the reach of those who think that with enough money, any sort of instant gratification can be had. These birds, in their wild state, will always demand more than you assume. Unless, of course, you go in assuming that an ass-kicking and a steaming hot plate of humble pie are on the menu.

In the end, we can unashamedly say that we wrapped up the season with deliberateness, with new country under our boots, with a few birds in the bag and the satisfaction of knowing we didn’t listen to any of the all-too-easy excuses for not going that can leave one staring out the window. No. We chose the only conceivable way to face the next seven, bird-less months with a modicum of fortitude, till we can feed our upland souls once again.

– Smithhammer

Hunting alone

The water is warm and gritty but it will extend our range, so the taste doesn’t matter much.
Out here in the flat, away from the roads and far from the convenience store world we live in, it is the space in between that is most relevant.

There is nothing but the dog and I, the rolling hills and a cup of chemically purified water. It tastes almost sweet with the sense of self reliance.
The muscle aches that flared near the truck are gone and I’m walking easy now. We’ve been into a few coveys and our steady pace follows the terrain lines.
There is no sign that anyone has passed before us.
It feels good to be alone.
Self sufficient.
I came for the quail but now it is the horizon that pulls me along.
Besides the dog and my shotgun I have a handful of iodine tablets in my vest, a zippo and a two-bladed Case knife in my pocket. Everything a man might need to cross a barren landscape.
The urge to continue – to journey – is ever-present.
A biologist friend of mine told me about a female coyote that was collared out on the eastern edge of the Edwards Plateau in south Texas in the early 90’s. She turned up a few years later in the middle of Arizona, nearly 1,000 miles from where she started.
I often think of that coyote when I am afoot in wild country. Did she get run out of her territory or did she just have a touch of wanderlust? Did she journey west all at once or did she just gradually drift across the open spaces?
The sun has dropped well below it’s apex and if I turn back now, I will find the truck only a few minutes after full dark.
With a last look west I turn for home. The dog circles wide, still hunting.


Blood Oath on Giffy Butte

“Where you guys hunting?”

Really? Did I just hear that? Did he just say that?

My initial reaction–and all subsequent reactions– is “Giffy Butte.”

As in “GFY.” As in “Go Fuck Yourself.”
These are places earned in sweat. Toil. Research. Where you guys hunting? I’m gonna tell you that?  A stranger in a parking lot motel with a SUV full of bird dogs? Umm . . . . Nope. GFY, dude!

We came here, to this tiny Wyoming burg, with hopes of birds and dogs on hard point. We each drove a half-dozen hours. I told my friend that I’d take him there only if he swore that he’d never take anyone else and never go there without asking me if he could. In the planning phases, he had asked me about another hunter, who lived only two hours away.

“What about taking him?” he had asked.

My answer was something like, “A guy who lives only two hours away? He hasn’t earned it. We don’t need to spread the word.”

To the novice, or to the hunter with only a few thin years under his boots, or to perhaps that uninvited hunter (whom I’ve nothing against), this might seem like raw arrogance. This is, after all, public land. Everybody’s land.

But this place, and many others, is sacred ground.

We found it, another hunter and I, almost twenty years before. Then, as now, we swore we’d take only a smattering of people, those who understood the blood oath, who understood the scarcity of a place with good birds and great hunting and deep reward in a shallow land. We’d take a few friends who lived many miles away, but even they would need to honor the oath. We shook on it.

I had done the research, talked with a warden and a biologist, and when we first stepped foot on Giffy Butte, we saw bird tracks in snow dust. This was a year or two before his best dog was even born. My best dog was between us, a pup of eight months with a heart full of talent. We got into the birds, killed limits. Swore on our souls.

His best dog and mine are dead now. Mine is buried out there, in a shallow grave scratched in a hard land.

We’ve gone annually, kept it quiet, and watched as a few more people found the place. Maybe they were researchers and big walkers and diehards who found the place on their own like us. But maybe, one of the few we’d shown had talked and pointed a betraying finger to a map. We wondered about that–And then they told two people, and so on and so on and so on and so on.

Today my friend I’m showing this place understands. We load his fine young dog and my pack into my truck and we drive there. There will be no revealing of this secret place to others–and certainly not to brazen eager turds in a motel parking lot.

I knew I could trust him.

My other friend, a kindred soul and fellow addict, called the other day. He was livid. Two friends who had taken the oath had lied. They had shown another that sacred spot and yet another leak sprung. Will this new addition honor the oath? Unknown. I barely know him.

But there is a resentment there. He hasn’t done the homework, nor, in fact, did those who showed him Giffy Butte do theirs. They were guests on the coattails of my generous friend’s sweat and hard work. For that gift, they gave him and me more competition on a place that we hold very dear. Thanks guys. Such betrayals are hard to forgive and I know that my friend will not be likely to share a new secret spot with them again.

For the hardened hunter, the avid dog man, such places are the core of the soul. The sharing of them is a time-honored ritual, a blood oath, a sacred trust. I have another friend who has walked many miles with me, a person I’d trust with my life. I’m even the designated executor of his will instead of his own son, but he never showed me his very best blue grouse hunting spot in Colorado. I never asked him to. And if he had, I would have never shared it nor even gone there without him. I would have held it as tightly as I’d hold an heirloom from my family’s ancestral trek on the Oregon Trail.

Sacred places. Some, even, are on private land. Many are on public. In a sport where territory sifts away each year like sand through an open palm, good hunting places are slipping. A place where I used to hunt Wyoming wild pheasants is now locked up tight. Another place where I chased blue grouse in high mountain holds has been nuked by greedy sheep and I’ve found more and more empty shotgun shells every autumn.

Herein lies the creed: do the homework, find your own places, walk long, sweat much, go birdless, find reward. If you want to share it, then do so. But share it knowing that life changes. Others discover. The land changes. The birds cling to life. Yours is a rare honor. Honor it.


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