I learned to bird hunt with friends — we weren’t reading about it or seeing it online or in social posts because there wasn’t an internet. We didn’t have a script or playbook from the past. We would unleash half-wild dogs into the field and walk our legs off in pursuit. Actually, we probably did equal parts of sprinting and walking with intermittent fits of yelling. Occasionally, we’d get into birds. It was all trial and error, mostly error. But we were gathering information. Every time out we’d learn something new and then reapply what worked. Reruns from those early years would make a great comedy series.
Long before I started writing public articles, I wrote about upland hunts in personal journals. I’m not really sure how it got started. I would end a day of hunting with friends, tuck into a sleeping bag, pull out the pen and start scratching out the day’s events before killing the flashlight and dozing off.
I still have those journals. I find them nearly unreadable — and not just because my hand writing is atrocious. Those first journal entries date back to 2002. I was just documenting the hunts so one day I could joke with friends about days afield.
I grimace at some articles I wrote just three years ago, let alone stories from 20 years in the past. Some of that is because I don’t consider myself a ‘natural’ writer and word selection, sentence structure and the flow of stories grinds on me. The other thing I notice is that my focus has altered so much over time. The changes aren’t intentional, they creep up.
When Ultimate Upland first took shape in 2010, stories of chasing birds was never part of the plan. We just wanted to be an online resource for other bird hunters to help plan out-of-state upland trips.
Though I had hunted birds for a long time, I felt a lot of pressure to understand upland beyond my own sphere because I was running a site about bird hunting throughout the country. I decided I best get after it that inaugural season. I drove west with a goal of camping and hunting birds for 90 days straight, every single day. I wish I had been writing or filming that trip because it was a lesson in humility. I forced myself to hunt in all weather and terrain, crossing seven different states. At night I camped in a second-hand tent and an old army surplus sleeping bag.
By the end of that stint I was nearly broken from the physical demands and the earth mattress. I think the looks I was a getting in public were from the stench of three shower-less months. I definitely had a maniacal grin on my face because the adventure was coming to a close. At that point, I was equally thrilled by the prospect of sleeping in a real bed again.
The final two days of the trip it rained nonstop. We arrived at a section of public access wearing clothes and boots still soaked from the previous day. I really didn’t want to get out in that cold rain, pretty certain the dogs didn’t either. But we were so close to completing the journey. We made a quick, soggy loop and I still recall the small covey of quail we bumped from a fencerow that scattered and disappeared into the haze. My gloves were so wet and limbs so numb that I wasn’t even able to click off the safety. I didn’t even mount the gun.
This was where I started realizing this pursuit was about so much more than just chasing birds. But those ideas were temporarily sidetracked by thoughts of a hot shower. I raced to the nearest travel lodge and checked in with the dogs. I steeped away a layer of grime and then fell face first on the bed and sunk into the depths.
After that slog of a hunt I recognized that I was trying to make these moments unforgettable. I started the journals to cement those great days of the past with friends, too. It wasn’t until two years later that I published a story.
Now we’ve chased so many birds across so much ground that sometimes I think we’ve got the game down. But I still favor the trial by fire methods that started with friends long ago. And every now and then something unexpected happens: birds flush from strange spots, dogs do something you never trained, you max your own physical limits. These things rock the entire foundation and make us start over — we’ve mastered nothing.
Plans for the next clueless season are well underway. It will be unforgettable.