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End of Season Omens

Final West Virginia Hunt

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.

Rio in Creek

Wyatt with Shed

Red Phase Grouse

Depths of Cold

Dead Deere
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.

Inroads

Covey in Flight

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.

Empty streets, empty storefronts breeding empty fields.

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.

To the Edge with Friends and Dogs

Public Land Ptarmigan

We all have limits.

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.

Believers

Mountain Goat

I can feel him in the distance looking down on us. The Deacon of this mountain is unimpressed with our pace and route. Yet this goat still watches as one worn little setter leads us up a chute 1,500 feet below the pulpit he’s chosen.

Every now and then I glance skyward to see if the sermon continues. But the setter seems immune to the preaching. Her feet are bloody and sore but she has no interest in changing course. Occasionally she looks back and beckons us to follow. The lab and I don’t argue with her rationale, only her methods.

There’s a pair of falcons working the ridge above, the ushers for this morning service. They dive in and out of the cuts ready to remove anyone who becomes restless of their scrutiny.

Halfway up a mountain is the best time for soul searching. There is yet to be any sense of accomplishment or euphoria and plenty of tempering self-doubt. When exertion nags your psyche and burns legs and lungs, the thoughts that appear are unvarnished.

I don’t want to be the King of the Mountain. I just want to be worthy of these wild places and the lessons they share with those willing to seek them out.

I love to be a part of this struggle. My heart pounding in my ears. It’s no rush or adrenaline, just an affirmation of fleeting opportunities.

The Deacon is done preaching and the ushers have followed him to another amphitheater.

As we reach the ridge above the pulpit the lab has no intention of squandering the sermon. The wind is at our back, and I see the slightest change of attitude in his posture and pace. We’ve been here so many times together. The setter catches scent and turns just in time to see birds jump from the ledge into the hellish abyss of fractured granite.

We are believers now. And we’re about to take up a collection.

 

Embrace the Hunting Curve

New Mexico Sunset

I kicked off this season hunting the entire month of September without ever pulling the trigger—for birds, not for big game, not for a once-in-a-lifetime tag draw. I never even came close. True, the Himalayan Snowcock might be the most challenging hunt in the country. This was my second attempt at those demons and I was just stoked to actually get a photo. Most people never have the opportunity to even lay eyes on one.

The dogs and I finished this season on public land in New Mexico. We’ve never chased desert quail before. We’ve never hunted this far south. I hadn’t heard a whole lot about bird forecasts or others hunting in the area this year. But there’s a big National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the state that is just a short 23 hour drive away, and it calls to us.

Visions of huge coveys of all three desert quail species duel with the knowledge I’ve gained from hunting elsewhere; late season wild birds are demanding. The later you go into winter the more educated upland birds become. These are the survivors of inclement weather, predator, disease, encroachment and every curveball their environment can muster.

But end-of-season wild bird hunters are the survivors, too. Hunters looking for an easy stroll and guaranteed gunning have retreated to preserves or have long ago retired their shotguns until next season.

For me, what is left is the essence of bird hunting that few get to see. The battle of wits between the smartest, strongest birds and Ultimate Uplanders with bird dogs not wanting this dance to end.

This New Mexico desert does not disappoint. It’s brutal and beautiful. It’s unfamiliar and unkind. Unseasonably high temps, gritty terrain and cactus of every sort that chew up pursuers. Quail offer fleeting glances and scent then scatter across the sand and evaporate leaving nothing but shallow footprints and spent, stumped dogs.

And I wouldn’t change a thing. We’ll be back to build on the lessons of this trip, to confront the unknown. The heft of the game bag remains a distant aim when the humbling by wild places offers such reward.

Hunting in the Shadow of Roosevelt

Elkhorn Ranch North Dakota

When I hunt in North Dakota, my thoughts often drift to Teddy Roosevelt’s days at Elkhorn Ranch — He named his Dakota home for a pair of locked elk skulls he found at the site. Today, centrally located within the million acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, Elkhorn is a great place to visit while upland hunting within this expanse. Sharptail still congregate on the bluffs and Ring-necked Pheasant and Hungarian Partridge have invaded the territory.

You’re confronted with a landscape of stark contrast. Fractured buttes and rolling bluestem, cottonwood culverts and the hellish infrastructure of fossil fuel harvesting which I imagine has Teddy’s grave in Oyster Bay sufficiently churned .

In the winter of 1884 after suffering the loss of both his wife and his mother within the span of 24 hours, Roosevelt retreated to the torn beauty of the Badlands for solace. The solitude, and toil of a new cattle business and pursuit of plains game provided the healing or at least sufficient distraction from depths of darkness.

Even the name badlands casts doubt on the therapeutic essence of this territory. Until you step into it. Unique views stretch to the horizon at the top of each new hill drawing you further into the folds, farther away from anything recognizable. The one benefit to the oil wells, they are unsightly beacons that can lead you back to “civilization”. At times I think I prefer the prospect of being lost. And when the setter and lab steer into the cuts where grouse gather out of the wind to dine on juniper berry, the possibility of becoming a permanent fixture of this forgotten landscape is at hand.

For most Americans lost is no longer a part of the lexicon. We’re digitally connected, plugged-in to one another and the safety and warmth of a glowing screen. And I can see the benefits. But a shrinking world needs the counter-balance of Badlands, of vast spaces unspoiled by humans. Fear of your surroundings, the inconsequence of your being, the brilliance of unyielding harsh landscapes offer perspective. Roosevelt knew the value of this much like I do. Rambling over stratified buttes and fractured limestone for hours, aware that the distances covered on foot are nothing but burnt legs and bootprints to be erased in the first strong wind. Watching late season birds flush wild at the hint we’ve chosen their direction and disappear on the horizon or so deeply into ravines the prospect they can be rousted or the energy to undertake it are in doubt.

Prairie fowl were so thick in this area at the end of the 19th century that Roosevelt could walk out his front door and shoot the heads off a few “chickens” roosting in the cottonwoods along the Little Missouri River with his lever action Winchester Model 1876 — a roast bird breakfast. Though Teddy was a notorious bad shot, peruse his auto-biographies and you get the sense that what he lacked in accuracy he made up for in frequency.

Despite gunning, game hogging and an awkward spectacled appearance that prompted many in the Dakota territories to label him a “dude”,  Roosevelt still rose to iconic status as a conservationist. His determination and ethic created the National Park system in this country and his role in crafting the North American Conservation Model is well documented. He was the first politician to raise wildlife to a national stage. It’s a legacy for all Americans that extends well beyond just sportsmen. Annually, hundreds of millions of visitors frequent the National Parks, National Forests, Wildlife Refuges and public lands that Roosevelt instigated. For all his other accomplishments, Rough Riders to the Square Deal among them, there’s little doubt that the legacy of wildlife and wild places has touched the most people.

Roosevelt, a lifelong adventurer, likely left few canyons untouched within the boundaries of the Grassland south to the town of Medora. While our pack of dogs disappears in the sage and brambles of the flats around Elkhorn, It’s seems safe to assume few areas within these million acres remained hidden from Teddy, either herding cattle or pursuing plains game. Those are certainly big footsteps. As we’re faced with the prospects of rising costs of continuing the North American Conservation Model and the pressures of human encroachment and consumption, truly wild places and wildlife seem more and more finite.

The ability to wander, chase birds and get lost with friends and rowdy running dogs in the same expanse that TR did 120 years ago is pretty amazing. Thankfully not all things have disappeared in the name of progress.

Shooting one of Roosevelt’s birds gives me a glimmer of hope that a legacy that was so hard fought may still survive the hair-brained, misguided ideas of lesser men. I believe I’ll side with the likes of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Roosevelt holding wildlife and wild places in the public trust, until someone more enlightened appears — doubtful that happens in my lifetime.

The Lab Knows

Wyatt and Pheasant

Wyatt knows he’s black. He also knows this is the color of night. He’s been able to surmise that humans have terrible night vision. During daylight hours when we take breaks from hunting, he plots. He knows most mischief will not fly in the light of day. Raiding other camps, gnawing a nearby rotting deer carcass, tapping into a hidden trash cache — all plans reserved for the cover of darkness. He’ll execute these plans silently standing right beside you within 10 yards. And he will ignore all calls unless you are lucky enough to shine a flashlight on him, which miraculously restores his ability to hear. Schemer.

I prefer a smart dog.

It’s a requirement for the way I like to hunt. No whistles. No yelling. No beeping collars or hawk calls. I want to hear the wind, the exhale of running dogs, the flush of birds and percussion of burnt powder. My bird dogs get to figure it out. They learn, adapt, become a part of this mongrel team of dog and human working toward a shared goal of bringing feathers to hand. I don’t want the dogs looking to me for direction. I want them fulfilling their purpose, breaking through linear thought to solve equations of wild birds.

Could we kill more birds if I reigned in free-running, free-thinking dogs — maybe. But then I’d sacrifice what I find most amazing; the front row seat to expansion of their consciousness. The times when bird dogs amaze themselves.

But smart dogs are trouble. And this black lab is living proof. Give him leash and he will take it. All.

Wyatt is not an alpha, not untrainable. But he is conniving. He could be broken of such habits, but always in the back of my mind there would be the question: would it break his will to become more, do more. So I don’t discourage it. It’s become an ongoing game of outsmart that we play. And he knows this too.

He has figured out what a camera is. He knows if the camera comes out of my vest there’s likely something of interest that he can put to chase. His head comes up on a swivel watching for the direction the lens will be pointed thereby revealing the coordinates to charge. I even test him sometimes when he’s really worn down, I’ll grab the camera just to see if he’s paying attention or exactly how tired he is.

This lab has grown accustomed to hunting in mixed company with pointing breeds. In general he knows that they have better noses. He realizes that by and large they are faster. But he also knows they do not ground track the way he does, especially on running birds. In open country while he hunts on his own, he always keeps one eye on the high-head, long-running canines. When they freeze he takes it as a cue to break into double time for their point. He is using pointers as a tool.

I noticed his latest evolution earlier this season. In the heavy cover of the Northwoods, seeing pointing dogs at any distance is nearly impossible. Wyatt now listens to hunters who use the command: “Whoa.” He even recognizes alternate instructions such as “go easy,” often used by friends coaching Shorthairs on moving quarry. This alerts him that the other dog might “like” his flushing assist. (Don’t worry pointer purists, I call him off birds unless a flush is wanted).

I guess I’m not shaping my hunting partners to someone else’s vision of perfection. We just hunt. Quarter-mile retrieves in the thickest of cover, out of sight, out of hearing on winged wild running birds – perfection happens, unscripted. And my only role is admiration.

I recently purchased a glowing light to clip to Wyatt’s collar at night in camp. I know he’s plotting how to disable it and return to the subterfuge of darkness.

There Are No Indifferent Snowcock Hunters

Snowcock Hunters

Between the years of 1963 to 1979 Himalayan Snowcock imported from Pakistan and Afghanistan were released in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada. Today it’s the only place in the Western Hemisphere these birds can be found. One can only guess why exactly the Nevada Department of Wildlife went to such lengths to establish a non-native to the northeast peaks of state. I like to think it was the master plan of an evil genius who believed upland hunters had become complacent and lazy.

I’ve been on this quest once before, climbing mountains that thrust at bases around 6,500′ and rise to 11,387′ atop the Ruby Dome. The Snowcock prefer the seemingly barren ground that begins around 10k where cliffs offer easy escape from anything game enough to test them. Unlike other mountainous creatures that head downhill when winter gets tough, the Snowcock have no aversion to hard weather. They seek out the frigid solitude of windblown faces to flaunt their master of mountains status.

The highest point a vehicle can reach in this range is 8,500′ leaving 2,000′ of thin-air ascent to strike prime Snowcock habitat. Pursuit of these birds is considered one of the hardest hunts in the country with just a historical three-percent of permitted hunters taking birds.

In contrast it seems for many bird hunters shooting daily bag limits has become some skewed meter of accomplishment. In the Ruby Mountains limits are only a topic of one’s preparedness and willingness to incur peril.

On the flatlands and game farms the ease and nonchalance in which upland birds often come to hand appears to promote apathy. Why should someone care about something so simple? So little thought goes into the challenges of upland birds to reach maturity, the value they represent by being an integral part of healthy, balanced landscapes.

If you are willing to trek to the farthest reaches of the Ruby Mountains carrying a shotgun, your love of upland birds is beyond reproach. You also might hate your body because the abuse it is about to sustain is substantial.

There are no blockers here. No food plots cut into predictable strips, no orange army walking shoulder-to-shoulder in assault formation.

It’s just a mountain and an impossible bird to test your desire and exploit every weakness.

I’m drawn to the honesty and effort of it all.