The sky is pissing again.
Shouldn’t complain considering winter didn’t even start until just before the Super Bowl kick-off. But then it just flat got with it. Drifts. Wind-chill. Dead-chill. Frozen pipes. Deer in the haystacks. Deer dying on the road. A fawn over-nighting in the woodshed and raiding the birdseed. More snow coming. Calves dying before mothers could lick them dry.
Saw the ground for the first time in weeks days ago. But today it’s what the weather forecasters call a wintry mix. Down along the Front Range, it’s cancelled flights and bomb cyclones. With names. Last one was named Wesley. Dumbest thing ever to name snowstorms.
It’s April and the sky is pissing. Again. Hope for rain at the right time. Time it for desert quail, sync it to not fiddle with the Hun hatch, clock it just so with our friends the chukar and pheasant and their chicks a’coming. It’s April. Do it. Rain. Snow. Just get it over with. Don’t save it for later. Do it.
The dogs went around this hill. I’m climbing it. The season is over and I’m getting fatter by the day. A climb is necessary. Also, I have no idea where the setters are and I hope to spot them from the top.
A golden eagle hovers in the stiff wind over the crest. I top the hill and look down the steep sage-covered hillside. They are at the bottom, hard up against an abandoned irrigation ditch, pointing into the stiff wind.
It’s strange to see them pointing together. It’s the young dog’s first year and I haven’t run them together much. The eagle is almost at eye level with me, surfing the wind, waiting to see what comes loose.
I straighten the collar on my jacket to cover my bare neck and regret not dressing warmer. I don’t scramble downhill. The time for that ended months ago. There is no rush. I’m just a spectator. Less invested than the eagle. He is the hunter today. I reach for my phone to snap a photo, realize it’s still on the dashboard and I’m ok with that.
The eagle is close and I can see his feathers fluttering in the gusts, his head moving as he watches the action play out below. I‘m surprised at how steady the dogs are, not as individuals, but together. The wind is whipping. The March snow, hard and gritty, stacks against the base of the sage brush, making a last assault before the ground melts and the sage blooms and world turns green and soft.
For a reason I can’t put my finger on, I feel a great sense of melancholy. The weight of nothing in particular presses down on me, anchoring my feet to the ground. I stand alone in the snow, watching life and death play out in slow-motion. None of it seems to matter.
The spell breaks with a rustle and a clatter of wings. A rooster rises and streaks along the bank. The eagle flares, but doesn’t dive. Maybe he decided a wiry old rooster was too much fight and not enough meal. Or maybe he just couldn’t get up the enthusiasm. He floats away without acknowledging me at all.
It started in Idaho at the end of August and ended in New Mexico in the middle of February. Some might say that was plenty. The dogs might say they were just getting going.
But it’s over now and it is February and the deserts of New Mexico were thin soup, but soup enough. A covey a day, a point a day, maybe a bird a day. Good stuff. Hunt ’em when they are thick, you can hunt them when they are lean. And you were following your dog with a shotgun in your hand and that, for anyone, should be enough.
Now begins the long wait. There’s a year ahead and two young setters, aunt and niece, ready for anything.
A chile relleno is a Big Jim pepper stuffed with asadero cheese, battered and fried. Full stop.
Sometimes, in places that are not New Mexico, a waiter will put a plate in front of you. You will look down and see what appears to be an omelet, wrapped around an anaheim or pasilla or poblano pepper with a little cheese thrown on top.
You may ask, “What is this?”
If the response is, “A chile relleno,” then you have encountered a liar and you have great cause for sadness.
Okay, we got California and Nevada and Utah and most of Arizona and New Mexico all in that deal with Mexico back in 1848. I get that. Pretty good stuff.
Jim Thomas, author of Negotiate to Win says Americans are the worst negotiators in the world and when you look south from Mearns quail country, you get the feeling he is pretty right about that. President Polk’s armies had Mexico City in 1848. They had a lot of good quail country. And then they gave it all back. Couldn’t we at least have kept Sonora and Chihuahua? No need to build a wall, let’s just move the border. It’s narrower down there anyway. Annex that shit. Think of the Coues deer and the Mearns quail awaiting us!
It is about people and the land. People and how they manage the land. People who were here and then left. People who were here and died. People who are here now.
This is the pheasant hunt.
Up on the chukar cliff, time goes by and human touch is lighter. Same for the blue grouse ridges, the Hun hills, the ruffed covers of the West, the quail arroyos. Here, bird abundance is not always tied to human influence. It is tied to rains and snows, sun. Not so the pheasant fields.
I cannot walk here, into the teeth of this northern wind–a wind bringing Canada straight down to Kansas–without thinking about covers and pheasants and people and the many places of the wild pheasant in a life measured by the lifespan of a half dozen good bird dogs.
My pheasants have burst from the rich soil and buffaloberry of a Montana valley disappearing steadily to the appetite of citizens wanting a slice of Big Sky, hitting that magical age of fifty-nine and a half, and coming into the country with an AWD, a golf habit, and a pension plan. That soil, that buffaloberry and those roosters went to the pavement during the last boom.
My pheasants have run ahead of a fast-moving expert bird dog on a wind-lashed Wyoming morning, running faster than any bird dog alive, scurried between patches of greasewood and saltbrush, ducking and sneaking like a house cat in mouse pursuit, then bursting to wing. Beyond, even, rifle range. Out here, out in this wind-blown far-away, the nearest crop for the crop is a Russian olive pit. Coyotes, not bird dogs, are the common predator and alfalfa is turned into beefsteak. Row crops are found two hundred miles east, but here lives a savage, colorful, cackling son-of-a-bitch in track shoes. One-a-day is a good day.
My pheasants have flown before the guns on a genuine South Dakota Million Man March, the kind of hunt that puts a dozen ball-cap crowned faces in front of your shotgun muzzle on the other side of the field. You start walking toward each other, carrying a weapon. Wondering just what the hell you are doing here with your gun pointed skyward, praying that the guy you just met on the other side of the field directly opposite is a good gun handler who does not shoot low birds and that the plastic in your sunglasses can stop a pellet. And wondering again why you aren’t out alone with your setters in some other field instead of this gang-slog through millet planted specifically for this moment. That evening, with a pheasant burger in your belly and a limit that you did not shoot in the cooler and the whole house roaring with the laughter of old friends and new, you understand. This day was not about the hunt, it was about now, this moment.
My pheasants have come from the CRP of a tenant farmer out south of Ogallala whom you woke from a nap in the middle of the day on a Tuesday when you knocked on the door of the single-wide, stepping over the carcass of a month-dead kitten on a plywood porch sogged and sagged by many Nebraska winters. More cautious souls would have told you to move on, fretted about meth labs and trigger-itch, but you wended your way through junk piles and slinking hair-on-end farm curs because that cover out there looks too damned good to pass up and three cockbirds flew off the borrow ditch when you turned the pickup down County 26A.
And my pheasants have come from the beautiful well-kept old farm down near the Kansas line where row after row of cedars broke the constancy of the west wind coming from the far-off Colorado mountains. A farm that you visited on a bitter November day with ice in the air, ice on the stems of brome out in the CRP across from the corn, and ice in your beard. When you stepped over the Welcome mat and knocked on the door, he came to the screen bent by seven or more decades of this land and said If you guys are crazy enough to be out in this weather, just go right ahead and thanks for asking. Three roosters went into the bag in thirty minutes that day because ice on the grass on a bitter west wind is the great equalizer for a running feral bastard with no boundaries and no order of the day other than running and flying. The next year, the old fella was gone and unwelcome signs were on every corner. Nursing home? Grave? It made you sad just thinking about change.
These are the vignettes, the playback of cover and cockbird and human and there are seemingly thousands of them, scattered and random as spring snowstorm. A hunt in far northeastern Montana on a morning so cold that the lobes of your hunting buddy’s ears, bare skin sticking out beneath wool cap, freeze and frost bite. The roosters hold tight this day and blow out of snow drifts and rose bramble, birds reluctant to take wing in minus twenty-something. Which reminds you of a college Colorado hunt out east of Flagler during a hard deep blizzard and roosters at road edge for the bloodlust of a teenager’s trigger finger. Cottontails and roosters in the daytime and hard-drinking some gawd-awful flavored liqueur at a lonesome farm house filled with your local pal’s high school friends eager for tales of Arizona college shenanigans.
And finally my pheasants have come from the Gion farm out past the North Dakota diner named the Corner Club on the highway’s only curve on seventy miles of straight-away. Thirty years ago you stepped onto that ground with a good friend and his new Gordon and you and your new English and all there was to do was drink Johnnie Walker when the wind rocked your camper and get out every day and watch the roosters fly to the sky off the bends of the Cannonball. Walk against the hangover and into the wind, walk on a sour morning stomach empty of everything but camp coffee and old Scotch because it is morning and you are young and so is your bird dog and neither has the corner on enthusiasm. Breakfast can wait for mid-day. One morning your bird dog, all eight months of him and trailing thirty feet of check cord, pins a wild rooster against a fence and when the bird goes up you center the hell out of him and down he goes and the dog is on him and back to you with that rooster stone-dead and all you can do is shout for joy because Hank just became a bird dog. And your life-long mentor with his 1950s Superposed folded over his arm and a smile on his face is there to witness the coming of age.
So you march north in this Kansas cum-Canada windchill, contemplating this pheasant hunting life’s vicissitudes. People and the land. A life measured by covers and roosters and the occasional hen, by diners with good burgers and terrible coffee, by good kind people opening up thousands of acres to strangers with guns, by canine joy. And that of your own.
One morning while bobbing out on the lake in his johnboat with his buddy, Art, Hillbilly Jim turns to his pal and opines that the most amazing of all of mankind’s great inventions is the Thermos. Art, driven by a skeptic’s heart replies, “Huh?” To which Hillbilly Jim pulls up practical proof: “Keeps things cool in the summer. Hot in winter.” Says Art the cynical: “Huh?” Answers Hillbilly Jim: “How do it know?”
2018 was not the year to get a new pup, but hindsight is like that, attempting the impossibility of governing past actions with sentences peppered by “should-haves” and “wish-I-woulda-knowns.” My mother called this practice being “should-on” and for a woman who barely said damn, that was pretty close to about as blue as her air was going to turn.
A new son, work, and a fistful of family and friend health crises left the new pup with a lot of crate time, a few vigorous runs up on the bench perhaps once a week or maybe even less, an anxious and excited leash walk out to the road to get the newspaper a time or two, and that was about it. By eight months, she barely knew her name, didn’t come when whistled, chewed the living hell out of everything from electrical cords to irrigation hose, and had neither seen nor smelled a wild bird other than an occasional sparrow. She rarely messed in the house, but that was more of a function of crate and kennel time than any talent at bird dog training.
So October came and a hunt was squeezed into a weekend, but this hunt had to be in cell phone range and attentions were diverted to electronic devils instead of being on the horizon following canine breeze-ward. There was wild bird scent out there, Huns and sharptails and feral bastard roosters and the pup tore out into that landscape as if cattle-prodded. Up and over hillside, leaping across coulee and ditch bank, drinking the wind and giving those young muscles full release. Coveys were run over and chased. Roosters blew out of buffaloberry hundreds of yards out. Hens careened madly from tall grass. Sharptails? Sharptails were out and up chuka-chuka-chuka-ing for the county line before paw hit ground. There were no points. It was fruitless to yell or blow a whistle or hold a button down.
Go wild, young pup, run like hell, this is my fault, not yours. You do not know because I have not helped you know.
So run she did. There were a few more half-day trips, more just whistle-walks, getting her used to her two-syllable name: Ed-na. Double-tapping the whistle to come back at the same time as calling her. Bonding mostly.
When time is pinched, it is easy to pick a four-year-old veteran dog from the pack and put her on the ground because you want to put a bird in the bag and then in the pot. Harder is holding back on that urge, to let a teenager charge across the field even though you are not going to be treated to professional performances. Somewhere in that pinch of October going into November, there was just enough of teenager gusto combined with overseer control to turn the pup into something a little more restrained. An afternoon in Idaho when she ran off over a horizon of tall grass on a warm day and could not find us for several hours put the fear into her and me. There were a few more whistle blasts, even some check-cording.
So we worked like this for weeks, just the light control of things, no expectations other than knowing a two-beat old lady’s name as her own, and me as alpha and feeder. That was enough. Edna was growing on me and I think I was growing on her. There were smiles.
Nevada, up on a piece of slide rock, up in a canyon of buckskin grass as tall as a man’s hipbone, treading on a landscape that once was a river of lava that had dried out, hardened and broken into millions of shards long ago. The first covey got trampled with gusto. There was no cursing, for it was my fault, this unchecked eagerness, this loose-cannon go-go-go. There was a little whistle blasting until after one more tearing-ass-loop-around-the-place-of-the-covey-rise-for-the-100th-time, she came in panting wildly and reluctantly. Tongue dragging the sagebrush.
Okay, now, girl, let’s go find another covey.
And we did. Up over the rise, through the shards and sage, following the rim of the world where it dropped off into a cliff-edged canyon. A breeze at our right flank cliff-side and the pup charging off into it. Drinking. I let her. Then it appeared, as if plucked from sky and horizon.
She stopped. Tail out straight.
That looks like a point. Is she pointing?
Movement, creeping. Then stopping again. Birds out. Fifty yards out from the tip of that quivering nose.
Good girl!!! Good girl!!!
More wild tearing through the sage sea but that’s okay. A point. Two points. Self-relocating. But she did it.
Crate and kennel and occasional leash time. A neglected bird dog pup on the front end of what I hope she will see as a wonderful life. There has been little human attempt to make a bird dog, help find a bird dog. But a pup digging down into DNA and instinct, down to the great-great-great ancestor who whiffed the scent of red grouse on the damp island wind and crouched into it. Somehow a point is born. She’s going to make a bird dog. No fault of my own. All Edna.
The gun, a loaner, was new to me. That’s the excuse, anyway, for not dropping the bird right there, folding it up deader than hell. It flushed from 20 yards away and flew crossing left to right in front of me. But I clipped it.
I did hit it hard enough that I took the gun down and held it at my hips and watched the bird fly. Incredulous is a word that should always be accompanied by a look: Open-mouthed. The way you do when you can’t believe what you’re seeing, like passing a bad wreck on the interstate and looky-looing your ass off even though you tell yourself you shouldn’t.
So I stood there mouth-breathing and keeping an eye on that clipped bird, waiting for it to fall out of the sky. Even though another bird flushed from the same spot and flew even closer to the muzzle of the gun. I refused to look at that second bird, so sure was I that the first was going down.
But the damned bird kept going. And going. Then it sailed, took a few more flaps, sailed some more. Then it flew straight up into the sky as if it had spotted a hole in the heavens and was heading toward the harp music. And it died. Fell straight down. Down being the operative word.
Three hundred feet below and hundreds of yards out, out of sight into a ravine in the sagebrush. Damn again. When you have spent almost all of your energy climbing up a chukar hill, down is the last direction you want to head unless the day has been long and hard and down is a good thing and down means beer and kettle chips and a warm pickup. When you are up there, determined to dispense justice on a chukar population, dropping down, even one foot, is painful. But I marked the last seen sight of the dead chukar dropping out of the sky like detritus from an airliner—right in line with that big green rabbitbrush—called the dog off the rest of the covey she was working, and headed to find it.
We did. Maybe fifteen minutes later, stone dead and right in line with the big green rabbitbrush, deep in the ravine. Took it from the dog, pocketed it, and started back up the slope. Again. Elevation gained, elevation lost. Two steps forward, one step back.
Someone once told me that birds that towered after being shot, and then died stone dead while they were high in the sky, were heart-shot. So, that’s what we’re calling it here. I know nothing of the forensics of it, but I do know that those towering, dying birds are pretty damned memorable.
There was another cliff in another Nevada years ago. The dog was Sage, another brilliant female with talent and drive. We were lucky to camp right in the thick of the habitat, with chukar laughing us to shame at our campfire of an evening. One afternoon, I worked back toward camp, and took a swing at a wild flushing bird, clipping it in a snap shot. It towered, then fell out of sight hundreds of feet below, but damned close to camp. I took the setter down there and looked for that bird until dark and never found it. The campfire was calling.
The next morning as I was on my morning shovel stroll, I walked about two hundred yards from camp, the dogs following me off into the sagebrush doing their own thing. Then here came Sage carrying a frozen dead chukar. That chukar.
There is another one that sticks too, just for the sheer height of the nosedive. We worked the very top of a cliff that was perhaps two hundred feet sheer, the kind of pucker-cliff that makes you nervous just walking near it, but there were birds there and if they flushed one way, they were totally accessible because a flat bench peeled out to the right for miles. Shoot the left to right birds and you were in tall cotton. Don’t shoot the right to left ones.
Self-control is difficult with the red-legged devils. Some of the finest wing-shots I know have confessed ground-sluicing a covey of running chukar. Not shooting at chukar, even an out-of-range one, is one of the hardest things on the planet to do, particularly if the climb has been hard and the quarry elusive. On this particular cliff, the way I remember it anyway, is that I shot a left to right bird and not a right to left one, but that may not be the case. I do know that the bird took a punch from a fist of 6s and kept on going, veering almost ninety degrees and flying out over 300 feet of cliff and maybe another seven hundred feet of damn near cliff above the valley floor. One thousand feet. I watched the bird get smaller and smaller and smaller until I could barely see it and then all of a sudden, it flew up, straight up, and died. Plummeting. One thousand feet, perhaps. Perhaps even more. I lost sight of it out over the valley floor. Then I looked inside of myself. I could climb all the way down that hill, drop all of that hard-earned elevation, and maybe find the bird. It was mid-morning and a day lay out ahead of us.
Fuck it, said I. I’ll find it on the way back to the truck.
I never did. Hours later, we swept back and forth across the valley floor looking for that bird as the shadows of a gone-away sun brought winter back to the landscape. Finally, with the sagebrush blackening against the night, we gave up and trudged toward the pickup.
Maybe a coyote got it, girl, I said.
It’s a rooster pheasant, though that made for the most memorable heart-shot. We were hunting a tree row just west of a big, beautiful farmstead in eastern Montana when the dog went on point in a clump of Russian olives. The cover was between me and the dog and when the rooster went up it went the dog’s direction, putting the tree between the muzzle and its tail feathers, but I took the shot anyway and hit it hard. It kept going.
This farmstead was a showplace. Matching buildings, matching roofs, well-trimmed shrubs, tightly mowed shelterbelts. The kind of place that made you admirable and envious in the same wave of thought. And a family place too, with homes for the offspring and maybe the old pensioner scattered about. Neatly parked machinery, most of it under cover. Prosperous. Made you think that the owner and his minions spent the entirety of the day working on one thing or another and when there was a spare moment, they got out a paintbrush. They were generous too, sharing their prosperity with us fortunate hunters from the other side of the state.
Meanwhile, this hard-hit-but-still-flying-Chinese-ditch-parrot was still hard hit and still flying. Right toward that vigorous and well-kept farmstead. And now right over that farmstead. And now towering, right up to the sky, and then the lights went out, and the big old cock bird just swapped ends and fell straight down, trailing a 30-inch tail a-fluttering like an advertising banner behind a football stadium bi-plane. Out of sight.
I had no choice but to call the dog to my side and start a long trudge, perhaps a half mile, toward our host’s spick-and-span home. So I did, fully expecting to see the rooster lying dead in the driveway—which was paved—or the lawn—which, were a human head, would have just come from the best barbershop in the city.
It’s an odd thing to tell your dog to hunt dead in someone’s driveway, but I did and she tore off all around the place, looking behind perfectly trimmed pfitzers and under sculpted lilacs. No rooster.
Damn it, I know that S.O.B. died.
We looked everywhere. Behind perfectly parked stock trucks. Under a combine. Next to the John Deere. Next to the corrals. By the milking shed. Under a swather. No rooster, anywhere, and all the while telling myself it had to be stone dead somewhere.
Then I looked up. There, on the roof of one of those beautiful houses, just a foot or so from a dormer window, was the rooster. Our rooster. I looked at Sage.
There he is, I said. How to get it?
That morning, I had stopped at the main house when I had asked for permission, so that’s where I went. It was midday now and I was hopeful someone was home but not optimistic.
Turns out the farmers of that stead didn’t just paint or fix or farm or maintain. In the offseason, they played cards in the middle of the day. About ten of them were sitting around drinking coffee, dealing, shuffling, bluffing and blustering, having a good time when this hunter showed up at their door with an odd request.
“Hey, do you have a ladder by chance?” I said.
“A what?” said Farmer One.
“A ladder. I shot a rooster in that tree row about a half mile west and the damned thing flew over here and died on the roof of that house right there,” I said.
Chairs scooted backwards and everyone went to the window.
“I’ll be damned,” said Farmer Two. “Never seen that before.”
One of the younger of the clan piped up: “I’ll get a ladder.”
So we went out into the yard and there, behind a shed, of course hanging neatly on pegs, was a good extension ladder. The farmer started climbing, never even offering another option.
“This is one hell of a full service operation,” I said.
“We are not that different you and I.” He caught me off guard with those words. The dogs slipped by the little male Hun without catching his wind and he stuck his head out of the rabbit brush and started his speech. Strutting and proud at 10 yards in front of me. I shouldered my old Fox, looked down the rib and then dropped it to my side in amazement as he continued. He was puffed up now, showing the big brown bar on his chest like a badge of courage. Head up straight and wings tucked back on his hips as he spoke. He tried the big authoritative boom of a Prairie Chicken but he couldn’t help the occasional squeak, like a worn-out washing machine as it spun.
“Don’t look at me like I don’t belong. Maybe my type is not native here but neither is yours. You just act the part because you have a double barrel and some smokeless powder. I am more like you than you care to admit My clan was bounced out of the old country too. We were forced into ship hulls and box cars and spit out in a strange land. Hell, come to find out this is a whole country of immigrants. Who knew? Them bombastic Chinese parrots that your kind loves so much and the red-legged middle easterners…they are all invaders. And then there is you. None of us are exactly Sharptails and Sage Grouse if you know what I mean.”
He was right I thought, Busse might not be Hungarian but it sure as hell is not Blackfeet or Sioux. I’d always felt a kinship with these little birds and now here I was being set straight by a particularly sharp-witted specimen.
He went on, “I’ve seen you out here day after day. You go back to that town when you are done but that place is not you. All of that civilizing has pushed you into the scablands too. I can see it in your eyes. You’re an outcast just like us.”
He was right, I loved the challenge of hunting huns in big country. Didn’t much care for parking lots and traffic lights. He must have been listening as I mumbled to myself in the hills. He went on, “These are the places we have left to live and we like it. Those city songbirds think us partridges are simple country fowl, but we like it out here on our own. They wouldn’t make it a second in this country. A sharp-shinned would gobble them up in a single bite. We eat better too. Seeds and bugs like it ought to be. Not that industrial birdfeed crap they eat. Yeh, this place steep, rocky and dry. But this is real livin’.”
I had always said that my dogs are smarter than a lot of people but now I was confronted with a bird who might have us all beat. He hopped up on a sage brush branch, snuggled down in a squat. His version of kicking back in a lazyboy. He was ready to give me a talkin’ to. I cracked open my gun and tossed it on my shoulder as he expounded.
“I been meaning to tell you. Ya might want to take a message back to all of them puffed up peacock-humans in the big fancy buildings back in your towns. We are getting a little tired of being squeezed around the edges out here. I mean, you guys take the flat spots, the river bottoms, the best grass and the any place that will grow a kernel of grain. We like it out here, but damn! You are going to have to stop the march of progress at some point. I mean we love rocks, but we are not going to make it if you just keep pushing us into the last pile of skree. If we go, then you’ll be stuck in that town morning noon and night. Might want to think about that.”
Before I could think about it I heard the dogs coming back into range. Since I first hunted these birds, I had developed a deep respect for their craftiness and style. They seemed to have an attitude. The lecture from this little guy was only confirming everything I already thought. Just then, Teddy swung downwind and locked up tight. I turned from him and in and instant the professor-Hun was in flight. Up to speed in a single flap just like they always do. I thought I caught him smirk at me as he rose. He zeroed in on the bill of my cap and knocked it off with his tail as he passed. Before I had my gun snapped shut he was out of range. Just before he dipped over the ridge he looked over his wing and chirped back at me. “Gotta be faster than that cupcake! Oh, thanks for spreading that cheatgrass. We love the stuff!”