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Winging It

Bird dog and trainer

This upland season is fast approaching.

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.

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