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.
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.
“Hey man, hold his head so he don’t bite me…”
You could count the number of days remaining in the Idaho sharpie season on one hand. It had been a tough year, with a bird or two here and there, but the coveys were few and far between. Still, with the help of an up-and-coming first-season pup we managed to put one in the bag now and then.
Yet with the days waning in a season that always feels too short, time spent in the field was becoming less and less productive. We’d go to formerly fruitful areas, cover them thoroughly, and find nothing. I began to question if I knew what I was doing – truth be told, a state of mind as familiar to me as my favorite old Browning boots.
In such vast country, you try to cling to informed opinions about where the birds may be, and sometimes that works, but too often they simply burst skyward from places that hold no distinguishing characteristics. We’d been walking for hours, working our way through the subtle highs and lows of the landscape, hoping to stumble across the one indistinct anomaly that, for reasons I may never fully understand, just happens to hold birds on this particular day, at this particular hour. Nothing.
It was becoming downright frigid, and I was beyond spent. We headed back to the car, with Hank valiantly still trying to find birds right up till I opened the door. We got inside and sat there for what I think were a few moments but could have been much more, listening to the wind range southbound, shaking the truck, watching the light fade. I started the truck and drove slowly out on the gravel road. Looking up from starting the radio I watched the sharpie fly across the road, right in front of us, and disappear over the horizon.
Ultimately, the birds are not particularly fond of being shot, and they owe you nothing. You better be able to laugh or this pursuit will drive you crazy.
The pointer named William breaks stride and pauses to investigate a small patch of wilted ragweed. He then continues on track along a sidehill and into the gusting wind that determines his course. It was enough scent to prickle his bird-senses, a scant whiff of something besides dust, but not enough to stop him from running full out across a parched and featureless pasture.
The federal judge sitting alone on the seat atop the dog box pounds with his fist on the cab roof, “That might’ve been birds, right there, Captain!”
It’s the fourth time this hour he’s done that and the quail guide behind the wheel imagines landing a roundhouse punch to a gin-swollen nose for each amount of unbearable racket that his client has caused inside the truck.
The guide glances in his side mirror and finds the judge’s stodgy red portrait filling up the view. “That bird-dog of yours couldn’t smell a polecat in a peat bog,” the judge nags.
Continue reading “Checks and Balances”
He was three years old when I bought him and he came with that name. He never found many birds, but one day (before lunch) he killed a baby goat, got sprayed by a skunk, and ate two bobwhites that he neither pointed or retrieved. He ran off the first six times I let him out of the box. On one of those jaunts he was gone overnight. The next morning I found him snoozing in a hog trap where he had eaten and rolled in a vile mixture of rotten feed corn, molasses, and catfish guts. I eventually traded him for a cast iron smoker pit on wheels.
“Leave me in the truck while you hunt? Just because that damn vet said I was out of commission for two weeks?!? Have fun putting your pillows back together, pal.”
If you’re of the sentiment, as John Buchan was, that fishing is “a perpetual series of occasions for hope,” I’d highly recommend trying to finding birds out here:
You will walk farther than you think, and look back to see that you’ve put precious little landscape between you and where you started. You’ll find yourself putting up the same bird repeatedly as you make your way across the field, always flushing just out of range, or, not coincidentally, taking wing just as you’re distracted by a bull moose the size of a small mastodon on the far ridge. You’ll invariably find yourself making your way back to the truck against the wind, no matter which direction it was blowing when you started; the dense grass grabbing at your boots and slowing your progress. I can only compare it to wading upstream against a stiff current. For miles.
You’ll lose your dog and curse him with a level of creativity you never knew you possessed, only to crest a rise and find him locked down on a covey, doing exactly what he should be with exemplary style, and you’ll turn the stream of invective deservedly on yourself. After picking up one downed bird and stuffing it in your vest as the others continue over the horizon, you’ll offer part of your meatloaf sandwich and it dawns on you that he will never, ever hold any of your shortcomings against you; that he will continue tolerating hunting with you until you undoubtedly tire before he does.
This may indeed be another one of those pursuits that is an endless series of occasions for hope. But then again, it was that wry wit Ben Franklin that said, “He that lives on hope will die fasting.” So no matter how boundless your optimism may be, don’t bother venturing into this country, in pursuit of sharptails, without one of these:
And by all means, trust him.