I’ve been accused in the past of trying to make every bird hunt a “religious experience.” I laughed it off when first cast. But the truth is, that jab has stuck with me.
I’m unsure why.
But in the interest of being utilitarian and simple: I set up camp at the base of some mountains I intend to hunt tomorrow. I’ve had a few camper-temp drinks while I seer a thick-cut ribeye just long enough to be warmed through. The extra fat most would say adds flavor. The bird dogs will need to confirm this because I shared it with them. I felt like I needed to add something healthy to the meal so I forced myself to eat a half-can of lima beans. Those are healthy, right? And now I’ve poured another glass of wine while testing the new Camp Chef stove’s proficiency with peanut butter cookies. I think I can use the energy boost tomorrow.
Rain has moved in. There’s a voice in the recesses of my noggin that suggests I formulate a different plan for tomorrow’s hunt given the conditions. But the Shiraz and cookies overrule the recesses and I am left little concern.
The setter, Rio, is curled in the corner of a sleeping bag. She’s out, well aware that the dark hours are no concern for a bird dog. But Ida, the lab, just embarking on her second season refuses to allow more than a foot of space between us. Every move beyond the tap of this keyboard prompts inquisitive looks. Either she is jazzed to hunt or she’s hoping the steak scraps are not exhausted.
Many upland hunters await opening day ready to hit it hard at the crack of dawn. The long layoff of summer months builds a tension only satisfied by explosive coveys over fresh dogs and burnt powder. But the past few seasons it seems like the dogs and I have eased into the opening weeks, a metered approach. Those who know me well would likely raise eyebrows at that description since reserved isn’t often a term placed in the the same sentence. But, it has worked out better for us. It allows the dogs to get their legs under them. Allow this hunter to get his legs under him and prepare for a long, slow burn.
I no longer look forward to the season. Looking forward seems an affirmation of not living in the moment. I want to be a full-time bird hunter. How exactly to define that in the framework of seasons is still a riddle. I while away the off-months thinking of new places to hunt and new tactics to try. I work on shooting and fitness while averting eyes from calendars. I ignore the countdown posts of others, and silently detest photos and posts of previous seasons. It’s too much longing and want, not enough action. There’s a hopelessness to that mentality that I can no longer stomach.
Maybe I am making this upland pursuit more than it needs to be. Maybe I have become so consumed that I am no longer able to be simply objective. It’s just shooting birds, right?
But I can’t help searching for religion while following the dogs in the solitude of wild places. I want everyone to see that divinity and feel the perfect moments we share in the field. Otherwise, it IS just shooting birds.
Rio the setter is holding just below a lip of pitted volcanic stone a few paces up this 60 degree slope. We’ve climbed for over two hours to get to this point. The entire trek from the bottom the dogs have been trailing and repositioning. I can tell by Rio’s stature that she has trapped birds that have outrun us all the way uphill. She refuses to even sneak a glance my direction or acknowledge the young lab, Ida, beginning to close in on her find. I’m able to reset my feet on nearly level ground and catch a few deep breaths as Ida moves in to flush. A large covey of Chukar launches off the lab’s nose and begins to glide down the slope from right to left. For anyone else watching it all must appear a blur, a span of maybe three seconds. But for me these moments are as slow as time has gotten this season. Seeing every wingbeat in the vivid detail of elastic time, I pick a big bird and bring the bead to meet the dark mask expecting the fold on the snap of the trigger. But this red-leg never flinches. I follow with the second barrel again with no effect.
Time regains standard pace with my muttering a few choice words as the group sails hundreds of feet below us and around a point. I’m disgusted by the blemish on this perfect moment. But it’s something I’ve become painfully accustomed to this season.
I’ve always been a streaky shooter. Doesn’t really matter how much practice or repetition, I’m either hot or cold. Normally the streaks come and go without much warning or fanfare. I opened last season as deadly as I’ve ever been. The shotgun felt weightless and swung in a harmony with flushing birds that would fall as if by another’s hand. For much of the year, with a few breaks, that magic was uninterrupted.
During the summer months of training and shooting the hot streak continued, testing gear and breaking clays with good effect. Between shooting with friends, instructing and training with the new puppy the amount of off-season powder burnt was exponentially higher than most years. I started to believe that I’d finally broken through, ended the streakiness, become a shooter.
But I will always remember the start of this year as the season the broad side of the barn wasn’t even big enough.
No matter whether it was five yards or 50, straight away, straight up, quartering….. birds would not drop. I was seeing flushes well, picking out individuals, the gun mount felt the same as it always had. Yet no feathers could be cut. It was as if the birds were pulling Matrix moves and flying between shot. No matter the terrain, open mountains to dense woods, no matter how fair or foul the weather, there were no conditions that could cure this malady.
I’m already somewhat superstitious. So, when a piss-poor shooting string like this happens I start wondering which crack I stepped on, or which undisclosed rule I’ve broken to anger the bird gods to a level of disdain that they’ve chosen to armor plate all birds in my path.
This kicks off iterations of exorcism that truly start sounding insane. During hot streaks I don’t clean my gun because I don’t want to wash any good mojo off of it. But when a streak this cold arrives I break it down to the elements, clean everything.
Cleaning didn’t work.
I started shuffling choke tubes with ADHD fervor. No effect.
I switched ammo from favorite shells to alternate brands and loads…… three times. This is ill-advised during the midst of a hunting trip but desperation calls for extreme measures. No effect. At the conclusion of the trip I took this rainbow of shells and a stack of paper plates, measured out different distances and began shooting them with each load and each choke. Then I hired child labor to count the number of holes in each plate — easiest $20 my niece ever made. She’s likely hoping there are more cold streaks in the future. It’s not like I haven’t patterned this shotgun before but I’m at the end of my rope.
It’s not the gun or the ammo, though I elect to tighten chokes from my standard setup in order to make it more difficult for armored birds.
Then I start thinking my eyes are failing me. Am I actually seeing birds differently? I start closing alternating eyes, trying to read road signs at different distances while driving. I manage to convince myself that there’s pressure building up in my eyeball and there is potential for complete blindness at any minute. I start raining drops into eyes trying to prevent the coming darkness.
There’s no resulting bird lethality but at least my eyelids feel super slick from four different kinds of eyedrops.
I order new shooting glasses just in case the microscopic scratches on this used pair are distorting my view. Of course that’s not it either.
Obviously the forces at work here are strong. I’ve been hexed. I’ve angered someone with a story about tailgate photos or talk of Federal Upland Stamps to the point that they purchased a lock of my hair from the barber and made a voodoo doll. Then they stuck that doll’s tiny shotgun in his ass. And there’s nothing I can do about it. The chicken blood I need to break such a curse would require me to kill a bird and I apparently will never shoot another one again. I’m officially cutting my own hair from now on.
I give up.
I’m resigned to my fate as a birder and vegan once my freezer runs dry. I’ll keep carrying a shotgun to give the dogs a pittance of hope.
This streak has been trying. But it isn’t the result of equipment malfunction or even some witch. It’s my own preaching. My sermons always conclude with finding success in the hunt beyond the heft of the game bag. Now that’s come full circle, testing my own faith. But I believe. No streak will convince me that this upland pursuit is dependent on killing birds. The hundreds of miles covered with horrible shooting hasn’t weakened that resolve.
Maybe all it takes is that acknowledgement.
The birds begin dropping again. Hopefully these shots will set off a new era of shooting success. Because honestly the idea of becoming a vegan wasn’t very appealing.
It’s my hunting buddy’s first foray into the realm of the Ruffed Grouse. We’ve hunted a few days now, but this is the first overcast day in an area previously unexplored. It is remote, the far reaches of the king’s territory. What my friend doesn’t know is my cell phone is dead in my pocket. Even if it were live, I have no service. His texts are spinning in digital purgatory as he turns laps at the edge of this hellish bog we elected to enter.
I did hear his shot though. I thought, “that lucky bastard took the right route back to the trucks and knocked down a bird.” I assume all single shots to cut feathers, the second barrel is reserved for us less skilled who prefer burning powder to accuracy.
At the time of the shot I was actually directionally challenged as well. The setter had managed to point a woodcock that offered no shot. But it lit her fire and she had no intention of turning towards the exit now. Ida, the lab pup, thought all this might be the best thing she’s ever done in her young life: distant shots, flushing birds, swamps with knee high mud holes.
For me lost has become more of an equation to solve and respect than something to fear. I’ve obviously not done a great job relaying lessons I’ve learned over the years to my disoriented friend. Even though all my technology has failed me, which technology has a nasty habit of doing, and I’ve spun a half-dozen loops around this marsh, I recall the map I looked at just prior to departure. The two-track we entered on runs a fairly straight north-south direction. We walked west into this mess. All I need to do is point toward the east and I will hit that road if I can stay on a heading.
Eventually I convince the dogs there are better places to hunt and we make it back to the truck. We all regroup and have a laugh about how far south that initial plan quickly went. About an hour later after the phone has recharged and we’ve returned to the comforting blanket of cell service, I get those texts.
Many versions of upland hunting cross prairies, mountains and high deserts where landmarks can be identified or departure points are never far beyond a line of sight. But Ruffed Grouse will lead you into the darkness, impenetrable thickets that make navigating straight lines virtually impossible. Picking distinct landmarks becomes challenging when they are swallowed by the forest mere paces behind. On overcast days when the sun can offer no assistance, the grouse woods can quickly become a labyrinth.
It’s taken a number of years to get accustomed to trekking previously unexplored areas. I’ve been lost. Lots. I’ve come to look at the word with less permanence than I once did. It’s not easy to find an area where if you walk far enough that you won’t eventually stumble upon something recognizable, man-made, another human. The trick is to do it before running out of energy, water and good sense.
Coverts are talked about as specific places, ones you can actually walk to, find, maybe even find your way out. It’s a word that always sounds too small to me. I can’t think of a single area where I can walk directly and know there will be a grouse. The fact these areas even exist is absolutely foreign to how I hunt the woods. Maybe that’s simply because I’ve not wandered far enough to find my own coverts or spent enough time in the greasy spoon to befriend enough Old-timers. Maybe I don’t even know what a real covert is; I just kick into a few birds exploring areas outside their clandestine drumming grounds.
These Old-timers (that’s anyone older than you) often talk of cherished coverts; the areas they know to hold birds year-over-year for generations. The loss of coverts to development or land purchase I imagine lamented over coffee in local diners by gentlemen now too hobbled to have visited the covert in years. But it’s still lost, a few years earlier than when it would have been taken to the grave. I wonder if the Old-timers discovered these areas initially or if it was handed down as some priceless inheritance.
I am convinced that a covert can only have one true owner. If a forest feels as though it’s been previously explored then it doesn’t feel right for finding a new grouse nirvana. That’s how the search for coverts often leads us deeper and farther from beaten paths, and closer to being lost.
After a morning of turning circles in a young forest too big to be circled, I drove down to the local rocky beach to sit and soak in salty air and allow the dogs to recover from hours of stump jumping. A minivan pulled into the adjacent space and I looked over to the gaze of a rather hefty Griffon in the back seat, tongue out. I spend some time trying to translate any meaning in her stare, hoping she might share some secret of the local birds that will solve the current riddle. Eventually I notice her human counterparts, an older couple in the front seats with windows down enjoying the same salt air.
Bird dog people are my people. These folks don’t have the outward appearance of hunters, but they do have a dog along for the ride that looks game. Bird dog people who don’t hunt with their dogs is another riddle I am always interested in tackling, so I strike up a conversation with this elderly couple. Charlie and his wife seem surprised of my knowledge of their pointing breed. We talk of the unseasonably warm weather and the prevalence of Leaf Peepers before getting around to my business in the area. It turns out that Charlie does hunt with this wirehair. He interrogates me enough to realize I am rarely a good shot and root often for the birds. He decides that he’d like to show me some of his hunting spots if I’m interested.
The next morning is set to bring cooler weather and I can think of nothing better than following an Old-timer to some of his partridge haunts. I jot down Charlie’s number and ask when he’d like to embark. “Why don’t you call me in the morning and we’ll meet at the coffee shop. We can have a coffee and talk things over.” Invites like this are rare and seem particularly fragile. So I gingerly ask Charlie what time he’ll be up and around because I’m just as likely to call at 4 a.m. if given an opportunity to hunt a new place. “Sometimes I’m up at five, then other days I don’t get up until after seven.” We agree that if I call around 7:30 that should work and we’ll meet for coffee, then head out to find some birds. I thank them, smile and wave as they pull away from the beach.
The next morning I’m up early to get the dogs fed, vehicle reorganized, waters filled and then head to the specified coffee shop. I pull into the parking lot at 7:25 and give Charlie a call. It goes straight to voicemail.
“Morning Charlie, just wanted to let you know I’m at the coffee shop, looking forward to chasing birds. I’ll wait here for your call or see you when you arrive.”
I waited for three hours.
I speculate the remainder of the day how the invite went sideways as I follow the dogs through cascades of leaves. I could have dialed Charlie again. But his coverts are his to will and whatever reason changed his mind is something I can only respect. Maybe he just overslept. And maybe these coverts are one day closer to being lost.
Quick tips on how to avoid the abyss:
When jumping into a new area, regardless of terrain, I like to mark the time of departure. I have a general idea of the path I want to take though it can be affected by the dogs’ will. I normally think of this path roughly as a triangle which helps prevent hunting the same ground twice. I pay attention to how much time I spend on each leg of the triangle. The second leg, no matter the length, running what I believe to be parallel to the starting point. Then I know when I make the turn back towards the truck on the final leg that I should spend close to the same time as the first leg of the triangle to put me near the departure point. Often I get my angles by the position of the sun — being in the northern hemisphere, the sun is always in the southern sky somewhere between southeast and southwest depending on the time of day. If overcast I can often use a prevailing wind direction or I can get a quick heading from a compass.
Your smartphone’s GPS chip should work even when you don’t have cell signal. A little known fact is you can still drop a pin and mark you location in the standard mapping programs even when the map won’t download to your phone. What good is this when you can’t see the map? You are still able to determine your location and approximate distance in relation to that dropped pin even without a cell signal. The blank grid of death actually isn’t as useless as it may seem, so marking a waypoint prior to departure is always sound strategy.
Even better, onX Hunt has done a great job upgrading their App in recent years. You now have the ability to download maps for off-grid use — 5, 10 and 150 mile sections — no cell service required. Depending on what layers you have active onX Hunt can show you public lands, designated hunting lands, state lands, even the names of individual private land owners. It’s an invaluable resource for gaining hunting permission or regaining your position. If you’re in an area where cell signal is sparse, put your phone in airplane mode so the onX App doesn’t struggle with minimal signal trying to download the real-time map. Airplane mode is also a great way to reserve phone battery instead of your phone constantly working to attain signal.
And when I’m in serious backcountry when the threat of injury or mishap is real, I carry my SPOT GEN3. This allows me to send messages via satellite to friends and family relaying my location. And in the event that I’m unable to extract myself and the dogs, I can activate the emergency beacon, hunker down and wait for reinforcements to arrive.
Don’t’ be afraid of unknown places. Just practice your orienteering and be prepared. And though technology is great, always have a backup. A fun way to test your progress when hunting with friends in remote places, everyone pick the direction they believe to be the trucks, then pull up your GPS, phones or mapping program and see who’s closest to correct. The loser buys breakfast.
Bird hunters seem to have an unhealthy fixation with placing birds on tailgates, bumpers, and hoods for photos. I honestly don’t get it.
Upland hunters are blessed to pursue game in some of the most scenic places known to man: mountains, prairies, marshes, desert — the wildest of places. We hunt with dogs that are skilled and striking. Not to mention the birds, the patterns and array of feathers are the epitome of a master’s canvas. And some hunters are fortunate to have a shooting stick with character and history that shows it’s been been put to use.
There’s a chance if you snap a photo of you, your dog, your shotgun, a game bird if you were lucky and the place you were hunting, then one day when your mind begins to falter, you might actually recall a perfect moment afield.
In this age of social media as the upland seasons roll in, I’m reminded that one of every four photos I see will be someone’s tailgate. Was the arrival back at the truck the best part of your day? Are you secretly comparing tailgate pictures with friends? “Oh baby, you think that tailgate is something, take a look at this one. Look how nice and straight the birds are lined up across those ridges.”
Don’t let anyone think the highlight of your day was that vehicle. Don’t let people believe for one second you’re plunking birds from that truck. Chevy, Ford, Dodge — they all spend plenty on advertising, they don’t need your tailgate or bumper posted all over hell-n-back to help spread the word that they make trucks with tailgates.
I fully understand that vehicles offer a nicely elevated and level platform for your still-life. But do me a favor and turn 90 degrees and look at the area from where you just came. Now turn 180 degrees and take a look in that direction. Now turn back to that piece of stamped metal. Elevated and level be damned, which of those views would anyone prefer to see?
And now to address the inevitable “who cares what people think?” You’re posting images on social media platforms just for you? No, it’s SOCIAL media. Photos of your bird hunting adventures will be seen by your friends and family and often, if “liked,” will be seen by their friends and families. These photos should reflect the majesty of this upland pursuit. The beauty of the birds, dogs, guns and habitat can offer those less familiar with hunting a fresh perspective. There is something really cool about that potential that a tailgate has nothing to offer but dents.
Spike camp was two miles from base — as the raven flies not really that far in this expansive National Forest. But as flatlanders taking on the thin air of elevated places, two miles is a decent gap to begin separating yourself from those less prepared to depart known trails and the easy-breathing comfort of motorized vehicles.
Over the weekend we witness a queue of young men carrying massive packs converging on trailheads that lead endlessly upward. I scan the parking areas for license plates to determine the elevations of origin for these haughty explorers. When prompted they proudly proclaim gear totaling half their body weights. I wish them luck. I note the hiking boots fresh from a box combined with giant rucks and have little worry of seeing these boys on the mountain. I’ve been up these trails with packs weighing a fraction of their payloads. Preparation barely gets you up some of these hills. Bravado earns blisters.
This first hunt of the season has been more proving ground than mission. Two eras have converged upon our upland pursuit: the start of a new, gun dog puppy and assessing the remaining days afield for an aging, canine warrior. For the past eight years Wyatt, the old Lab, has been a constant hunting force. The amount we’ve leaned on him to dictate the direction and outcomes of our days afield has been easy to overlook because he’s just this steady, affable sidekick. An 80’s ballad has been bouncing around in my head – Don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Funny what hypoxia, sleep deprivation and low blood sugar can do to a brain.
After multiple days hiking peaks and two nights under stars away from basecamp, we return with gear crammed in packs and worn dogs on our heals. The heat has been uncanny for this season at this elevation. And the mountains have offered more mystery than answers this trip. A quick walk to the once bustling trailhead reveals the predicted retreat of the inexperienced and overloaded. We’re alone again.
We feast on random provisions left behind in the coolers at our basecamp while reorganizing bedding for the evening. A couple hot cups of coffee wash everything down and begin to put the edge back on. A quick camp shower — wet wipes transferring grime from one crack to the next — followed by a clean set of drawers and even the rankest backcountry hunter can begin to feel halfway human again. With that humanity comes an idea: we should take the puppy out solo while the big dogs are spent. So we watch the old boys curl up and crash on sleeping bags as we deviously sip coffee, then slip out the tent flap with the pup and shotguns to head back uphill.
The mountain let us believe we are away scot-free just long enough. Then dark clouds roll in towing a frigid downpour; they organized quickly against us for these peaks demand honesty from all. This is the first hint of anything cold we’ve had besides remnants fished from the bottom corners of the coolers, so it’s less deterrent than motivation. A clap of thunder greets us as we round a bend in the trail at the edge of a small clearing. A lone Dusky finds this opportune time to flush wild while we’re off guard and makes a clean escape. The fusion of birds, shots, rain and thunder have the lab puppy fully charged, wide-eyed and running wild.
For most of the week the grouse have been scattered and unsporting, flushing at distance from trees upon approach or simply allowing us to pass under without a peep. But this storm has driven birds back to the safety and shelter beneath the trees which opens an opportunity. We descend into the dark edges of the forest where we answer blazes of lightning with muzzle flashes. Hunting in thunderstorms while holding walnut-clad lightning rods seems a bit reckless, at least until the next flush. And maybe we’re a bit bird drunk from the sudden abundance of game in a week that’s offered little chase. But the thunder finally rumbles loud enough to sober us to the peril and we wrangle the puppy from pursuit and head back down the hill.
Many measure the success of a hunt by how full the cooler is at the conclusion. But we’re playing the long game here. Birds on ice are a poor metric for why we are here.
When asked how this first hunt of the season has gone I think some are taken aback by the response, “I didn’t kill the dog, so pretty good.” I guess I don’t feel like explaining beyond that. I don’t want to detail the decline of my longtime hunting buddy to strangers; they should have been paying attention these last eight years when only the smartest of birds was safe from his drive. But this old Lab still wants to dig deep and hunt through compounding ailments. After taking on this challenge I have an idea just how far he can push the rest of the season.
I also have a puppy that is officially bird crazy. No lightning, thunder, rain, hail of gunfire or darkness will dissuade her from chasing birds in the future. No altitude, howling winds or exhaustion will prevent her from looking for the next flush. She is game for wherever we go and at some point this season she’ll pick up a bird and return it to hand, only mildly plucked, and I will sing her praises in an 80’s rock ballad falsetto that will wake the dead.
And I have friends foolish enough to join me in the storms of wild places in search of their own answers. I hope we all find some this season.
The preparations of the past few seasons manifested in paper and piles. Maps stretched over more maps to cross-check terrain and access. Gear overflowing tables to neutral corners for ranking to make the pack or inevitable re-packs. The planning and gear goat rope is something to while away the weeks, a distraction from a sluggish calendar. Maybe all that preparation pays dividends afield. The hours of thought poured into a hunt resulting in success by someone’s metric.
But this year is different.
The sides of a stage unseen by spectators are referred to as wings. In 19th century theater understudy actors would wait in the wings during performances in case of an emergency; making one question the safety of those old venues or maybe the sobriety of the audience. These understudies rarely knew the lines of the main actor and would be forced to improvise, winging it.
The stage is set for this upland season and I find myself in the wings transfixed by the view, awaiting the shove to improv. There’s still plenty of opportunity to learn the upcoming scenes but I have no desire to drone on lines already written.
The civilized spring and summer months are now driving me wild, to be wild. There have been too many people and too much order. A bitter, divisive society over-consuming oxygen unable to acknowledge any virtue let alone imagine the wonders of hidden birds in wild places. It’s suffocating.
It’s why I keep staring at that upland stage. I sense if I dare move or look away the surrounding shit storm of negativity, geopolitical turmoil and divisive ideology threatens to somehow taint even this most sacred pursuit. So I stare.
The addition of Ida, the new chocolate Lab puppy, has also had an impact on the usual off-season iterations. There’s no pre-game ritual for a puppy. Ida, eyes wide open, just does. Right, wrong, half-wild — not a whole lot of thought or planning go into the actions of this little Lab. Just let it fly and react to the outcome. Bite the setter’s tail and see what she does. Bite it again just to be sure.
Watching and training this pup over the months has been a bright spot in the dull summer sun. It’s been a reminder of the joy of seeing with new eyes. The recklessness is infectious and offers too obvious a remedy for all the current dilemmas.
I head into this season willfully unprepared. The coming performance will be cringeworthy or brilliant; I expect nothing mediocre. We won’t be stumbling through, we’ll be winging it to unexplored places where opportunity and peril fraternize. The perpetual cast of upland birds will be stellar. And the dogs and I will play our cameo in the drama of wild places that’s gone on for millenniums.
Rio the setter suddenly hits the brakes, sliding to a stop on a steep grade beside an old logging road being reclaimed by the forest. We’ve spent a couple days wandering the hills of West Virginia searching for late-season Ruffed Grouse with no luck. I can tell by her stance, even on this awkward angle, there is a bird here. There’s no style, no high-head, no raised-foot or flagging tail. She’s just one solid muscle strained against the scent of this grouse, the first bird she’s marked in over 20 miles of running. It must be close to her because she won’t even sneak a look in my direction, afraid that even the shift of an eye might spook this elusive foe.
Wyatt the lab has been at my side for the past few miles bored with the lack of bird density. He’s unable to see Rio but notices a change in my demeanor which spurs him to double-time. I’m curious the tell he has picked up, though I suspect he spies my second hand move to grip the shotgun and thumb the safety. Whatever the clue, it’s rooted in the same assurance I have with Rio’s stance. We’ve seen this thousands of times before. We know what this looks like and it never gets old. I’ve tried for years to coach myself to not tense up. Stay loose and shoot better, right? And yet I’m still holding my breath, I still have butterflies.
We’re new to this area. Whenever we try finding birds in new spots I work down a mental checklist generated from other bird chasing experience. One item always on that checklist is talking to locals. Anyone we come across willing to engage in conversation about upland birds or dogs can help solve the equation of where birds reside. It doesn’t appear that many people chase birds in this area because the words “grouse” and “partridge” are met with blank stares, as if a foreign tongue. Even the outdoorsmen here fishing in unseasonably warm weather seem unaware they encroach on the realm of the King of the Woods.
The winter forest can appear flat and homogenous. Much of the color and highlights associated with other seasons is gone. That mental checklist has us probing different elevations looking for edges. Guessing why birds are lacking in an area, then looking for the solution to that issue in other areas. There’s a method to our late-season upland madness. But for all the thought and strategy, it’s not what has brought us to Rio’s point.
Evenings I pour a couple fingers of wisdom into a cheap plastic motel cup and pour over maps detailing 900,000 acres available to hunt in this National Forest. We can’t cover all that in even a dozen weeks. I look for cuts, different ages of forests where timber has been harvested or burns. The areas we’ve hiked so far have been dry and there’s very little snow on the ground. I decide we’ll try hunting creeks or culverts that should provide a water source.
I notice a name on the map I recognize, not from any intel or hunting journal. There’s a tiny tributary that shares my grammie’s name. She was an opinionated old bird who loved the dogs and stories of wild places. But she hated the hunting. Luckily she wasn’t above bribery and a few tail feathers from a recent trip would keep an uneasy accord. The name of that creek is an omen and I know regardless how the terrain looks, it could be a parking lot, we’re hunting there. How this level of superstition nullifies what I want to believe is some level of skill, I’m unsure. But the maps folds cooperatively and I tuck in for a night’s sleep untormented by indecision.
And now Rio is locked down a few yards above Grammie’s creek. Wyatt homes in on a spot at the base of a large fir as I shift to one side trying to predict a flight path. But late-season birds rarely allow you to guess right. I see a brief flash of a white, more blur than form. Faster than I can fully mount the gun, I shoot as positive reinforcement for the dogs. But there’s no way a single pellet has penetrated the evergreen shield this grouse threw between us.
Grammie would be happy with that outcome. And truthfully I am too. The deeper into the season we get, the more I root for the upland birds. I want to be proficient and deadly, no doubt. I want to be challenged by the conditions and educated birds and be able to overcome that with the dogs. But even more I want the birds to show us how they’ve made it this far and that no checklist or level of supposed proficiency is going to foil survival.
The dogs are reenergized as we turn back the quiet path to the road. Maybe there will be another omen on the map. And hopefully the birds continue to beat us.
There seems no bottom to the depths of cold. It’s one of the few solace for hunting in frigid condition: could be colder, windier, at least it’s not…more miserable.
I’m assured by medical science that freezing does have a lower limit in terms of the human body. Paradoxical undressing: the point at which humans experiencing lethal hypothermia begin stripping off clothes due to a sensation of burning up, when in fact they are freezing. Seems it’s the mind’s one final, futile attempt to avoid a bitter end.
When you grow up hunting in the Midwest, cold burrows deep into your predacious psyche. The first cool breeze of fall conjures thoughts of wandering afield. And when it’s too warm shouldering shotguns just feels unnatural. But on this day there are doubts of the wisdom of leaving the truck. Mustering the courage to crack the door begins the extraction of feeling from fingertips one frosty needle at a time. It’s quiet, six inches of fresh powder blew in under darkness and hushed the landscape.
The body objects to these conditions and begins firing distress signals to the brain to dissuade progress that will further the frigid encounter. Everything contracts: balled-up shoulders, rigid muscles producing choppy steps, leather chap lips pursed to impede the flow of cold air. It takes a couple long hits of the freeze to clear the mind, erase doubts, fire neurons to memories cached in the soul’s cellar of past frigid hunts.
The dogs have been hunting hard for a number of days now and have the same reaction. Coaxed off the bumper they churn tight circles close to the truck until witnessing shotguns emerge from cases. Tails untuck and begin rotating in a cadence that pairs with lengthening strides.
Our group drops-in the south facing, snow-covered shelter belt to an expanse of blanketed cover. All evidence that this area has ever been explored is hidden. Easy walks with dogs, short sleeves and aimless meandering of the early season is replaced by new gravity. No longer can you spend an entire day in this, or idle under a tree to take a nap.
Winter is the great equalizer testing mettle, knowledge, strength — all others leading up to this season were practice sessions. The struggle for survival is pronounced this time of year. Exposure to frigid conditions wakes you to vulnerability. Bodily objections to cold so engrained must be manifestation of protest to the permanent chill.
We point into the breeze and move silently across this bottom, the language of longtime hunting buddies and dogs who know what lies before us. This is an opportunity to seize a moment and be free of all others. Every sharp inhale finds worry, wandering, irrelevant thoughts and carves them to frosty exhale that settles to the boot prints being filled and forgotten to the wind just yards behind.
After constant pursuit for months, the birds’ senses are finely tuned. The first rooster feels the roil of energy headed his direction and has no interest in close proximity. He jumps wild and cackles, the crack of shells is muted along with any effect. But our intent is announced to this valley, there will be no surprise or happy accidents.
The labor of keeping pace with dogs impervious to drifts and fully engaged in the effort overrules the weather. We shed layers of clothing in our own acts of paradoxical undressing. Hopefully the ensuing lethality will fall to these late season birds.
Outlast. Outsmart. Outrun. This is why we are here, to feel this life, to be a part of struggle to exist.
We’ve been coming to this area of the grain belt for over 20 years. It took the locals at least seven of those to warm beyond a passing nod or the requisite finger waive to oncoming trucks. We now know many by name though most likely still recognize us only as familiar faces. Every year the list of those names grows shorter and tables easier to come by at the local breakfast joint where the menu hasn’t changed since the advent of Crisco.
There’s an undercurrent of sorrow in these tiny towns that subsist on the edges of massive seas of grain. The small, family farms are dwindling with the youth who choose lives away from the toil of land. With their exit the hedge rows, culverts and fences that shelter upland birds are put to the plow in memoriam. A constant shadow of loss runs deep in furrowed brows.
It’s a sharp contrast to the joy we feel returning to walk areas named for memories of hunts’ past. An escape from narrow spaces and narrow minds of populous hometowns to these wide, quiet prairies. The same solitude that weighs on residents heals transients. Attempts to transfuse our excitement for the region seem only to produce short lived results. The recession of these towns shows no sign of abating.
Opening week brings hope that the resident game birds will find a way to oppose the trajectory of aging residents. Members of this hunting band are trying to stave-off the march of time as well. My dad and Wyatt, the black lab, are well to the back side of the hill. But the hunt continues, sometimes at a little slower pace, often not tackling quite as big cover. Using decades of local intel we’ve amassed of the area seems to compensate for waning abilities.
The birds never age. They are elusive and spry as always. They are the same birds we’ve chased all this time. They recognize us and treat us as old adversaries. Most still outrun us, outfly our shot string, cackle at the idea of getting to know us any better than fleeting glances over splayed wings cast to the sunset. We’re greeted by more Bobwhite these last couple seasons, though the pheasant and prairie chickens still make a passing appearance, just long enough to acknowledge the dogs and alert the rest of the county to our presence.
The inroads we’ve made with the townsfolk seem impervious on the birds. But occasionally we’re able to break through and shake hands with a few. We share the encounters with our local friends who delight at the news that youthful flights persist.
But that edge is never static. It’s a river that rages perilously close or meanders docile and aimless in the distance. Most people are perfectly comfortable keeping a healthy distance—there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there is something about that torrent that is captivating and revealing.
What we see when we reach those limits, what we do, and how we react can’t be predicted until there.
Very few of us actually know where those are. They are much harder to get to than one might think. Our brains tend to go into safe mode in order to stay a step ahead of catastrophe. That voice in your head does a great job of can’t, don’t, shouldn’t.
I’ve been watching our pack of bird dogs run. They have no voices in their head. They run the edge without hesitation, occasionally splashing through the shallows of limitation. They are free of any thoughts of how far or how much.
There was a point in this last trip where everyone found the shore.
Whether that was a puppy on her first hunt half frozen at high elevation on a march to find open water; or hunters creeping across talus slopes appearing impassable in pursuit of ghost birds; or legs and lungs extended to exhaustion where adrenaline is the only fuel remaining for the next step.
I convinced friends that we should kickoff the upland season hunting White-tailed Ptarmigan in the backcountry of Colorado. These winged demons have a nasty habit of residing at the highest points available. In the Centennial State that generally puts them at elevations above 12,000’ where oxygen levels are 30% lower.
After our fill on the mountain, we moved camp into Wyoming and Montana in pursuit of prairie grouse and partridge. We averaged close to seven miles per day over the duration of 10 days, often carrying packs in excess of 30 pounds. The bird dogs would have doubled or tripled that distance depending on age and experience meaning 200 miles for the longest-legged.
On a particularly warm day the second week after hiking a few hours, I noticed that Wyatt, my black lab, was laboring for deep breaths. I reined him in to cool off but his breathing continued shallow and wheezy. We were three-quarters of a mile from the truck. I handed off my shotgun and carried him out.
He had no inclination to stop hunting and didn’t like being carried. He actually struggled to get free at the sound of one of my hunting partners shooting in the distance.
A trip to an observant vet in a remote Montana town revealed a grape-size mass far back on Wyatt’s tongue. It had likely been covering a portion of his trachea when hunting. Think about that for a second: Past middle-aged, running a marathon with a grape lodged in your throat blocking a portion of your airway—then think about wanting to continue.
I don’t know how to be free of the barriers, where the edges are, or how to silence the voice in my head. I only know I want be more like Wyatt. The satisfaction he gets from fulfilling his calling has him run that edge with reckless abandon. He’ll give it all up to hunt just another step, another field. How it has come to mean so much to him escapes me.
But maybe he knows.
The stretch for the edge keeps that river of doubt bending away from us. And if we can do that while chasing birds then so many possibilities open elsewhere.
I want others to see that. I want them to take a step past their comfort zone. Then take one more past that.