Unspoken Alliances

Porcupine in tree

A number of years ago I was riding shotgun pre-dawn on opening day in Kansas. My buddy was behind the wheel as we chugged coffee fixating down the narrow tunnel of light cast on gravel. Most of the time upland hunters don’t have to contend with the early rise routine of other hunting disciplines. But this day we were racing to a remote corner of public lands scouted the previous evening where we heard Bobwhite gathering for the night.

You never can tell exactly what kind of traffic you will get on public lands, especially opening day. It’s one of the challenges of public land hunting. The only way to guarantee you are the first to bird hunt any place is to be the first there. Sometimes that means showing up hours before sunrise.

These were the pre-tech days. We weren’t relying on a smartphone to talk us to a pin dropped on a map.  We were using good old dead reckoning and paper maps to count crossroads past a known landmark. Road signs are few and far between on these dirt paths. When the roads do have signs, the names lack creativity, single letters suffice.

We cut a hard right on the correct consonant and tear down the final two miles to our scouted location. Just over a little rise in the road we were met by three sets of taillights parked at our stakeout. It’s hard to say when these trucks got here. Were we minutes late or did they just hang out here all night? It doesn’t really matter, they beat us at our game. That still didn’t prevent the cursing and scrambling that followed, the level likely commensurate with our age and inexperience. The sure fire plan for a quail bonanza had been foiled by this crew of insomniacs.

We begin backtracking at the speed of light forming Plan B while shuffling through maps and obscenities. Opening day, opening morning only comes once a year. Back then distracted driving hadn’t been given a name or stigma, it was a way to get to the corners of generic, inaccurate plats. Somewhere in this caffeine-fueled scrum of unfurled maps and kicked up gravel a skunk wanders into our path. The depths of darkness only revealed a brief flash of white stripe as we fully two-tire and it pummels into the wheel well. The whole truck, inside and out, took on the new perfume.

We hunted out the day and managed to scratch down a few birds despite the initial plans being upended.  But in our haste to identify an alternate hunting spot, we assassinated the skunk ambassador.

The following day, first field, my buddy’s Weimaraner pushed into some thick Bluestem and came face to ass with a striped enforcer that proceeded to give her the full dose. Because we were in the middle of nowhere and unprepared for war with skunks, it took us the remainder of the day to get back to a less blinding olfactory level. Many of you may believe you are familiar with skunk smell. But let me assure you that scent in your mind is the diluted and decayed version. Fresh, full-strength skunk stench is something akin to burnt rubber steeped in rancid, hot garlic that clings to everything and makes eyes water.

It’s tough to ignore that we had hunted for a decade prior to this without so much as a single run-in with a skunk. And now, in the last 24 hours, skunk encounters were up 200%. But even with the spike, it was my buddy’s truck and dog that took the hits. I was hunting the same places and had run the gauntlet unscathed. That’s when it occurred to me that I wasn’t at war with the skunks. He was.

Since that skirmish in Kansas, I refined the doctrine under which we hunt. The dogs and I have an alliance with all animals besides game birds. On some levels I know that sounds crazy. But hear me out.

A couple of years ago I was given permission to hunt on a ranch in Montana. The landowner asked me to dispatch any porcupines I encounter. A few miles into that hike at the edge of drainage Rio, the setter, on cue locks down on a big old pin cushion. I can see it clearly tucked into the base of scrub oak as I ease up beside the frozen setter. I pause to weigh the situation for a few moments. This porcupine, like most, is in no hurry to get anywhere. I have no desire to prompt the dogs with positive reinforcement of a shot on a non-target species. I certainly don’t want them to begin hunting porcupine. And those seemed valid enough reasons to not pull the trigger. But truthfully, In the back of my mind I don’t want to be the one to break the alliance with the ‘Nation of Stick Pigs’. I call the dogs off and we head the opposite direction.

The following year in Montana the young lab, Ida, in just her second season on a long solo cast stumbles upon a porcupine. The small porky is waddling down a rise towards me and I can see Ida sitting on the crest about 100 yards away watching it retreat. Right then I figured the alliance must be over and that Ida was waiting for me to come inspect and remove her new spiny jewelry. But when I reached her I could see that she had just a single quill in the point of her lip — a warning shot. The alliance was still intact.

A friend  was running his shorthairs on a different track this day and came across the same porcupine. We spent the next half-hour removing spines from his young dog. He is officially at war.

Lab with porcupine

GSP with porcupine

People who know I hunt in predator country often ask if I carry a sidearm. I do not. I know of bird hunters who do and who have had the occasion to use them. I always figure I’m more proficient with a shotgun and completely screwed if a threat is not sufficiently deterred by that.

I’ve had close encounters with javelina, coyotes, badgers, moose, even a wolverine and managed to maintain detente.

A handful of years ago I was hunting with my dad along a levee. The cover was hit or miss, but it’s a patch of public land we always hunt and a walk we enjoy. We made the turn back toward the truck, striding with the sun at our backs. The dogs were working well and running free. I saw some movement to my left in my dad’s direction. About 25 yards out front a skunk decided to join our hunting party, though he looked way less entertained — puffed and perturbed. The dogs had yet to take notice and I scrambled to herd them a different direction. But this skunk was between me and the hounds.

A collision was inevitable.  I still was looking for a way to avoid a preemptive strike. But I was running out of time, the lab had gotten wise to a shift in our demeanor and was heading our way.

I had the old man pull the trigger. I want to say he had a better angle or was closer, but we know the truth. I was hoping that a skunk death by his hand would keep my fragile alliance in place.

It didn’t work.

The skunks know I gave the order. Don’t ask me how, they just do.  Since that day, lead by the old lab, Wyatt, the battles have been frequent and rarely won. The pinnacle was when a big old sewer cat invaded our backyard and saturated all three dogs who retreated through the house dragging scent everywhere……. at 2 A.M.

I’m unsure how the war with skunks ends or if it ever will. But I’m thankful for the enduring alliances with the other wild creatures that realize our feud resides only with the birds and the impossible places we trek to reach them.


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