In the Hall of the Chukar King

Out of breath, I stop to leave a little water in this otherwise dessicated landscape. Looking down, I note that my boys are as red as chukar legs in that detached, objective way not uncommon to moments of pain and survival. This trip is beginning to take a toll on me. Looking up, I survey a thousand feet of loose scree and caprock and cheatgrass above, and hear them laughing from on high. I try not to take it personally, though it is most definitely personal, and I continue scrambling to reach their steep patch of hell, simmering with murderous intent.

I know they are close – the dog starts getting birdy and then locks, just as half the covey pulls a flanking maneuver, running around behind him and then they all get up simultaneously – a dozen chukar exploding and tormenting him from all sides. He predictably loses his shit, jumping in the air and spinning and barking. Poor little bastard. No good dog deserves this. Instead, some of them, like some of us, simply become addicted in spite of better judgment; gluttons for punishment.

As the chaos subsides and I tell Hank it wasn’t his fault, I hear the lone holdover bird flush behind me. Wheel and fire and the bird drops decisively. Mistakes are unforgiving here; a maxim that applies to us as much to us as it does to them.

It wasn’t a classic take over a point, but you don’t always wait for that in this country, on this quarry. No, this is guerrilla warfare, and I don’t mean that lightly. Refined gentlemen and their traditions and their rules remain far below, looking up at places like this through binoculars.

From above the saddle I watch the covey flush wild and take cover in a jagged outcropping, disappearing into the crevices. We learn from their flanking tactics and return in kind. It’s so damn steep I practically have one knee braced into the hillside when I see the GSP locked up hard, balanced on a boulder. I catch my breath, taking a second to admire the work of this first-season pup, and release him with an “ok.” He rockets in and the little devils get up and I promptly send two of them to meet their infernal maker. I watch the birds drop 75 yards below me on a 50 degree slope of nasty, loose, volcanic talus. Even in death these fiends make you pay.

Lest the wrong impression is given, I spend the next day going through an entire box of shells with only two hitting their mark. Fast passing shots on birds dropping from above at mach speed, whiffed. Shots taken at birds that I knew damn well were out of range, solely out of frustration, hoping to bend physics to my will. It didn’t work.

Evening is not exactly  the affable return to the sprawling lodge after a jaunty day afield one imagines in the sportsman tomes of yore. It is instead a deliberate refueling with piles of greasy sustenance; a licking of wounds with corn liquor salve and barley-based anti-inflammatories. Plotting, debriefing, refiguring tactics – a team effort to recharge before tomorrow’s redeployment. The banter is generally about as offensive as you can imagine. The easily affronted might want to camp somewhere else. Far away.

Dawn reaches our cold little camp in the arroyo and high-octane joe eradicates the last vestiges of rust from sore muscles and we’re off. We ascend to the Hall of the Chukar King yet again – knowing they await far above, assuming they’ll be no easier than they were yesterday, working like you would for no other upland species, to return spent, with maybe a few birds in the bag and the weary contentment that only comes from having your ass handed to you by a small, crafty partridge in a vast, alien land.

We’ll be back.

– Smithhammer

Generations

In camp and around the house, he is a big loveable goofy bastard.

Right now, though, he’s on point and it is as classic a point as a setter man in a life of setters is likely to see. He is white and handsome and up against the skyline behind a juniper and frozen. Solid. A salt pillar.

One covey back, he had pointed and then broke with the shit-hell expression of a pup on his mug, flushing birds like playing cards shot into a stiff wind. Rotten sonofabitch, with a smile.


This time, I tell him “hold, buddy” (one does not command this dog, one converses with) and stumble-skip across mean footing and see the covey.
They go up in a flurry of gray wing and clown’s mask and I swing carefully and pull the trigger and one goes down. I do not think about a triple or even a double. One is enough, one good chukar after one good point.
His name is Echo and he’s here on the mountain with me as a partner, not as a dog doing the work for a walking man. For the most part I am not in that run-and-blast, stagger-and-fall, curse-and-bleed rant that is chukar hunting in on-end country. Instead I am largely lost in thought. Soaking. Absorbing. I’m all in.
His real name is Greylock’s Hank’s Echo. Greylock is a good kennel back east, but this dog is a western lad. It’s the “Hank’s Echo” that is the important thing.
Sage and juniper and greasewood run through his veins. Hank was his grandfather and in this country of echoes on rimrock, Echo is his echo.


A decade before, I climbed the same hill with Hank–a dog all bones and balls–and we shot chukar left and right and Hank pinned them all and brought them all to hand. In the cooling light of a northern Nevada day going away, we walked down to the truck one thousand feet below, Hank at my side and the warmth of a half dozen chukar dead against the small of back. The caprock across the valley splashed pink then gold-red and then it was gone and the chill of December was on me.
A decade gone by and a bird dog buried at the base of a chukar cliff in another state, a place where chukar walk across his grave and his name is carved in soft yellow sandstone above. Now his grandson at my heel, then cast out into the thick of it–the old cold lava, the junipers, the sage, the cheatgrass greening in December sunlight and a fresh-dead partridge in that same frayed-by-years bird vest. Dead and warm against the small of my back and a honed-hard, bones-and-balls white setter out in it, after them.


The third generation hunter after perhaps the fifth or sixth generation quarry. Life ticks on.                                                                                 –TR

Leave. Please.

Another lonely morning in the treestand. A gray, late-arriving November morning completely devoid of deer. Only the red squirrels scurrying in the leaves puncture the far-off soundtrack of commuters heading to work.

I unload the .308, climb down, stretch the back and ready myself for my re-entry into the gotta-get-to-work crowd. Thirty yards from the stand, in a mix of dogwood and aspen saplings, I almost step on a lone woodcock. The color of a potato or a good beer. About the same size, too. It startles me, but I recover in time to playfully bring the empty rifle up to the shoulder and swing.

“Bang,” I say.

The season closed more than three weeks ago on these birds – little long-billed, worm-eating, tight-sitting, upside-down-brained migratory things. This one, I’m guessing, hatched in eastern Quebec and is on its way to, I don’t know, Virginia, maybe. North Carolina? Whatever. It should be there by now. We’ve had hard frosts. Snow is in the forecast. I’m awaiting snow for tracking deer and for making turns in the mountains. Everybody’s lighting woodstoves and furnaces. These are not the days for woodcock to be hanging around, although the weather dudes say we’re in something like the fifth warmest November on record.

Empathy is my first reaction, but then I remember not to doubt the acumen of nature, the insight of evolution. If this woodcock is tardy in arriving to its winter destination, there must be a solid, reasoned explanation. Not that I’m going to get it, or frankly, do I deserve it. I’ve guessed wrong about things woodcock too often in the past to develop any kind of logical rubric.

Maybe that’s the allure: not knowing, not understanding. If we figured it all out, if the answers were too easy, then the whole thing would be a sham – us in the driver’s seat of nature.

We wouldn’t want that.

MC

The Skeleton Crew

My family owns a piece of arid ranchland in Maverick County Texas. When it rains, down there, it rains quail. When the pasture grasses reach the truck bumpers, and the grasshoppers billow from the bar ditches in clouds, we’ll have covey counts that’ll make an undisciplined pointer blow a gasket.

As of today, however, our county is now entering month 30 of the Mother of all Droughts. Normal rainfall in our area is 28 inches. So far this year we’ve had 6 inches. Last year we had 4.5. This past summer we had 80-plus days over 100 degrees. We sold our cattle back in June when our stock tanks went dry. When (if) we buy back in, we’ll pay twice what we sold them for. Two months ago, most of the Texas drought map was colored orange and red. You probably heard about it on the news. Since then, most of the State has gotten a good soaking; but not Maverick county.

 

 

Over Thanksgiving my family gathered at the ranch to hunt whitetails and stuff ourselves with food and football. Quail weren’t even mentioned and no one brought a shotgun. On Saturday I was sitting in a deer blind and looking for a fat doe to put in the freezer. It was warm and windy and dry, and a fat doe was looking like a tall order. About thirty minutes before sunset, a cock bobwhite staggered out of a clump of withered prickly pear and began pecking aimlessly in the blowing dust. A bit later he was joined by another cock and three hens. It was a sad scene. They were skinny and disheveled and they looked oddly out of place; they reminded me of Mad Max and his band of post-apocalypse refugees. Two birds enter; one bird leaves.

The weather dweebs are calling for an El Nino year–and it does appear that the rain patterns are shifting (slightly) in our favor. Will that little five-bird covey make it through the winter with scant forage and no screening cover from bobcats and avian predators? Will this be the drought that finally eliminates bobwhite quail from Maverick County? Over the past thirty years I’ve seen these birds bounce back from severe droughts. They’re prolific little bastards when range conditions are good, and a few timely spring rains can kickstart a fury of whistling and nesting.

For now, though, we wait. We watch the radar and we hope Al Gore was wrong. We fondle and admire our shotguns and we thumb through the gear catalogs. We pay our ad-valorem taxes and we feed our dogs and we tell them to hang on. We consider buying a package of shrink-wrapped pre-marinated quail from the grocery; but that would suck, so we don’t.

Stupid is communicable

The first time we got stuck out there, you could probably forgive. The second time? Not so much.

Out there is Northern Nevada. Washed out, flung out, far out. Out so far that satellites don’t even pass over. We were there, me and the Jack Mormon brothers, for chukar. Or probably more correctly, for our dogs. Is there any reason to drive 14 hours from home to run around in some of the remotest country in the states, get your vehicle stuck for days, and end up getting stuck again . . . if not the dog? Come to think of it, there probably are, but those reasons are not the subject of this tale…

The first time we got stuck out there, you could probably forgive. The second time? Not so much.

Out there is Northern Nevada. Washed out, flung out, far out. Out so far that satellites don’t even pass over. We were there, me and the Jack Mormon brothers, for chukar. Or probably more correctly, for our dogs. Is there any reason to drive 14 hours from home to run around in some of the remotest country in the states, get your vehicle stuck for days, and end up getting stuck again . . . if not the dog? Come to think of it, there probably are, but those reasons are not the subject of this tale.

The first sticking came as we set up camp–a wall tent for cooking and a couple of sleeping tents. Two diesel trucks and an old Ford Bronco. Six bird dogs–four labs and two setters. Two cases of beer per person. A woodstove for the walltent. Firewood for the stove. A handful of cigars for the apre hunt. We got camp set up well enough, then I decided to move my old ’92 Dodge and the frozen earth I’d parked on dropped out from beneath me like Grandma’s Angelfood cake. We tried to pull it out with the other truck and sank that one too. Then we spent the entire day and half the next digging. We had radio coverage, so we dug and listened to the first game of the first round of the NFL playoffs, then we listened to the next game and the next. Gained a foot. Sank a foot and a half. The diesels were too heavy for the old Bronco to pull out. We put all of our firewood under the truck tires and not in the woodstove. We dug some more. I crawled under the guts of my truck and dug with a hand trowel. Got the Bronco stuck. Unstuck it. Broke a Hi-Lift jack. Got into the beer. Broke a tow strap. Went to the wall tent for more beer. Climbed out of the wall tent and retrieved muddy wedges of firewood from beneath the truck, light a fire, ate elk burgers and went to bed.

The next morning, we were at it again, digging. Broke another tow strap. Gained two feet. Listened to another NFL playoff game. Sank the trucks deeper. Then, anticlimatically, were out. Out.

Went hunting, one brother one direction, the other the other, me another following a wash of pent up dog-dom wound tighter than an eight day clock after 14 hours in the truck and 36 waiting for their human partners at the campsite mud bog. Six chukars later, I staggered back to the truck and found the Jack Mormons also with limits. We’d taken out our revenge on the birds. Reverse karma. It usually goes another way.

The morning hung low and gray and depressing, threatening more rain. We hadn’t seen a soul in three days. Not even an airplane. Rain would mean more mud. We piled into the Bronco, three guns, three dogs, three beers each for the post hunt.

The chukar were at the far end of the valley, up on a torn up patch of real estate, rock and mountain mahogany and sage and cheat grass piled up like tossed laundry. Between us and them were two stream crossings. In other weather, the crossings were arroyos. In this weather, streams. The first went well enough, the Bronco grinding and spraying water in brown sheets and then we were across. The second was less honest–an eroded bank and a cold stream of mud water and a sharp drop of more than two feet to the water, and the run out was not pretty either–another sharp bank that the Bronco would have to climb and then up onto the two-track and onto the chukar ground.

There was little discussion before the trouble started and if you talk to enough accident survivors, this is a common mantra–all of a sudden, without discussion, you are screwed. And we were. The drop to the stream lurched us forward in our seats and then the water pushed us hard left, downstream and the throttle roared and we washed out into the stream and farther downstream and then water came up over the running boards on the upstream side and we were indeed, screwed, blued and tattooed. We bailed. Dogs out. Guns out. Packs? Out. We scrambled to empty the old truck and the water washed it farther downstream. For a minute there, like a herd of elk taking rifle shots from an unknown location, we milled. Then the moment was gone and we were going, frantically pulling gear and tools, wading knee deep in strong current, balls puckered. Damn. Really? Did we just do this? My friend’s face was the color of piss porcelain.

“I’ll start walking.”

There wasn’t much to discuss. It was mid-morning and camp was eight miles away.

“Okay.”

I ran for a while, then slowed. Hunting boots. Ike jogged beside me in that loose-jointed, toe-dragging gait of his and I walked fast then broke into a run for a while. I’d been running to train for the chukar hills and it felt good after a day and a half of crawling beneath the pickup and only a half day of hiking. So I did this for a while, thinking now and again, of our predicament.

We had two good pickup trucks back at camp, but there was that first crossing of the stream. No jack. A tow strap that had been broken and retied and was now about six feet long. A broken shovel.

I ran again. Then speed walked. Ran. Walked. Ran. Walked. Ike wondered where the hell the chukars were. Ran some more. Ike jogged.

I heard it before I saw it, an engine somewhere, so far off it sounded like an airplane and I looked skyward and saw nothing except gray bile. Walked some more.  It got louder and then, it came around the corner like some sort of yellow metal dinosaur–a backhoe. We were well and truly stuck and here came the one thing that could really make a difference–a backhoe. The operator slowed and opened the cab and asked with the heck I was doing out there and I told him and he said climb aboard. And so I wrapped my right arm around a strut on the outside of the cab and Ike jogged alongside, going back the other way.

The Jack Mormons welcomed me like a snowbound wagon train cheering Jeremiah Johnson to the rescue. I hopped off and slapped skin and the operator–who was traveling to his mine site in the desert and just had happened to come that way that morning–extended the arm of that big hoe and tied a tow strap to the Bronco and half lifted, half pulled it out of the water. We fired it up and water and gravel shot out the tailpipe but it ran and we backed up away from the stream and damn near kissed the ground. We promised a bottle to the operator and then looked at each other and shook our heads and, without consultation, waded out into the stream and forded it, to the knees, then thighs. There were chukar to hunt, by God.

There are no photos. You are just going to have to believe me.

–TR

The First

Killing a wild bird involves nearly flawless insertion into both the time and space continuum, you know, being in the right place at the right time.

Trouble was, I’d put the kid into those sweet spots a goodly number of times in the last two seasons in an attempt to get him his first ruffed grouse before the Sirens of high school – girls, cars and sports – chilled his wing-shooting ambition.

He missed, of course, or farted around with the safety or was too slow to mount the gun every time we hit that time/space crossroads and The King eluded the kid in a thunder of wings and flash of gray.

But the black Lab and me or my hunting partner and his French Brit continued to stack the odds in the kid’s favor. Eventually it paid off.

A grouse ran out from under the Britt’s nose and as the dog relocated in the tangle of alders, the kid moved off to my left, toward the cornfield abutting the thicket. The bird exploded from somewhere behind me, banking for the sky, giving the kid what amounts to a decent shot in the New England grouse woods. He pulled the trigger, the bird tumbled and mission was accomplished.

I snapped pictures, him proud and happy, the bird limp and warm. More than anything, I wanted somebody to hit the pause button on that constantly moving time and space continuum. I wanted to stay right where we were, to stop time from shifting the moment to memory.
– MC

The Borderline

Pour me a drink from the bottle
And one for you
’cause we’re empty as the desert
As we drift from west to east
On the borderline everything is empty, even you and I…”

– “Borderline,” by Camper van Beethoven

We hunt the fringes, the transitions, the anomalies. We gravitate to this without much conscious thought; pulled to these points at the extremity of an amorphous compass by the lodestone of experience. You could say we’re merely following the dog, but there is more to it than that. The dog is pulled to these places as the birds are pulled as we are pulled – the collision of impulse and instinct between three separate species.

Why will we repeatedly cross an otherwise featureless field, drawn to a small rise that hosts a few sage, dragged along primarily by hope? There are the obvious reasons, of course – the fact that this negligible bump on the landscape gives a vantage point for the birds and possibly a slightly greater variety of feed, would be sound reasoning, but doesn’t account for all of it. Then there are the old hedgerows, the messy perimeter of the errant orchard, the sweeping line of scrub oak, the rocky edge of the bluff; all of them places that hold birds, all of them liminal zones of portent, possessed with a deeper significance if we care to stop and think about it.

These peripheries have an irresistible, innate pull, something hardwired into the collective limbic network we tap into when we take a shotgun and a dog in the field. It is something that gets at our soul and provides a glimpse of insight into this odd thing we love. Our pursuit, after all, doesn’t really stand up to much logic. From a simple, meat-gathering point of view, it is a net loss – we expend a great deal more energy than we ever hope to take in at the end of the day. But we do it anyway, and we have all sorts of other reasons that we tell ourselves; to simply get out in the great outdoors, to watch the dogs work, to keep one foot in the door of what it means to kill and procure your own food; all of them undeniably true.

Yet we’re fooling ourselves if we aren’t also aware that as an upland clan, we are a fringe unto ourselves, occupying but a small sub-group of an already minor segment in our society, comprised of those that still hunt. And thus, as much as we are drawn to these fringe places for the obvious, we also go there for reasons that reflect who we ultimately are. We are of the peripheral, stalking the transitional, drifting west to east along the borderline…

– Smithhammer

Walking In

He froze in textbook style, and for a moment all thought of pursuit, of what we had come in search of, was gone. I stood there marveling at how I hadn’t taught him to do this, how I doubt that you really can. But there he was, locked up; the graven image of a genetic legacy on override.

point

I didn’t care about the bird – I just didn’t want this moment to end. I wanted us both to go on standing there, motionless, till darkness descended or the storm cut loose overhead. These are the things that will nurse me through the months of waiting. Waiting for it to all start again – these all too rare perfect moments, the many less than perfect ones, the sore feet, the hours and days with an empty game bag.  All of it.

– Smithhammer

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