Tyroler hat

Klas took it down and spent several minutes in a more careful investigation. It was just a hat, a fawn-brown Tyroler with a braided, black leather hatband. Its sweatband was smooth, perhaps doeskin. Except for its too-square cut, there was nothing unusual about it.

Tyroler hat (2)Tyroler hat

Perched on top of a crosshatched pile of alders that the beavers had felled during the summer but had not dragged to their dam at the head of their pond. That is where he found the Tyroler hat, he told me. Right out in the open, at the edge of the clearing on the downstream side of the oxbow loop in Wolf Creek. As if someone had tossed it there and left it behind, unintentionally, most likely, and had forgotten it until it was too late in the day to go back.

The Tyroler hat, it looked almost new, he said. Its sweatband was a little stained and there was a spatter of dried mud on the brim, but otherwise it could have been a first-season hat that some Orvis-coat, city-bred grouse hunter had ordered from a haberdasher’s custom shop so that he could play the role of an Austrian gentry hunter when he ventured out for the first time in the northern Minnesota aspen forests. You see that kind of thing every few years.

Klas Svenson. He said that was his name, although his short pause before he introduced himself made me doubt that was true. We were the only two patrons in the bar in Duquette at the end of an October afternoon, and having bagged three woodcock and two grouse over my hard-working dog I was in a magnanimous mood and offered to buy him a beer. He ordered a Grain Belt, so I was sure he was a local.

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Snow bird

Snow bird 12-11-2017Abbey began to lecture me: “Wahrl-arn-wahrl-yawl!” which, translated from spaniel French to North Country English means “Pheasant season only lasts eleven weeks, you know, and every day spent in the Clubhouse is wasted, lost forever and cannot be regained.”

Snow bird

Huge snowflakes were falling this morning as the first real winter storm of December descended on The North Country, beautiful but not the sort of day I would choose to go pheasant hunting. The temperature was only a few degrees below freezing, so the snow cover was wet and clingy and just plain sloppy. And a cold wind was blowing from the northwest.

I’ve reached that time of life when I want recreation to be fun, not misery.

The dogs had a different opinion. Released from their kennel runs, Sasha found a half-frozen puddle of slush to roll in while Abbey ran eleven circles around me and begged me to chase birds with her. Scenting conditions, she said, were perfect, and the pheasants would be hunkered down in the thickest patches of grassy cover as they waiting out the snowfall.

She was right, but there were fewer risks for her. She has four-footed drive, a low center of gravity, and the strength, energy, and enthusiasm of youth. I have two-footed drive, a relatively high center of gravity, and though my enthusiasm often matches hers my strength and energy are waning in my senior years. As another member of The Over the Hill Gang likes to remind me, we have lost our catlike quickness and grace.

I was adamant about not going hunting in the snow, but Abbey wore me down. She was not appeased by a mile-long walk around the farm that left her soaking wet from running through snow-topped stands of brome and weeds, and left me leg weary and a bit dizzy from the herky-jerky dances I perform while struggling to keep my balance after tripping over gopher mounds.

When we returned to the farm yard she refused to go with Sasha (13 years of age and retired from the hunting trade) into the Clubhouse for a mid-morning nap. She began to lecture me: “Wahrl-arn-wahrl-yawl!” which, translated from spaniel French to North Country English means “Pheasant season only lasts eleven weeks, you know, and every day spent in the Clubhouse is wasted, lost forever and cannot be regained.”

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Bringing out the Big Gun

16 Gauge Loader

The bird hunter with a sixteen double gun is a peculiar fellow who almost certainly handloads his ammunition.

Over the course of the past hundred years the sixteen rose to the height of its popularity and then quickly disappeared. I seldom see a hunter with a 16-gauge double gun, and if I do I can be almost certain that it was manufactured decades ago…

Bringing out the Big Gun

THE LATE WEEKS OF THE pheasant season demand that I bring out the Big Gun. Abbey and I have had a good year thus far, hunting with the Browning BSS 20-gauge, but the roosters are educated now, the shots are longer, and it is time to switch to the Lefever Nitro Special 16-gauge.

For as long as I can remember, December has been the month of the Big Gun for ring-neck pheasants. We begin the year shooting tight-sitting and slow-flushing pheasants with 20-gauge loads of 7/8-ounce No. 7 1/2 shot, switch to 1-ounce loads of No. 6 shot about a week into the season, and increase shot size to No. 5 in late November. When I flip the calendar it’s a reminder to clean and oil the BSS and put it away in the gun safe until next year.

December is the month of the Big Gun.

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Six-rooster opening weekend

Quimby 2017-4

Abbey, tuckered out after a three-rooster Saturday and a three-rooster Sunday in heavy cover. She gets all the credit: found the birds, worked them stop-and-go, tracked them through thick, six-foot-tall native grass, pointed then, relocated and pointed again, did not bump a single one, flushed them on my “go easy” command,  marked them down, retrieved them. All I did was shoot. It’s probably been 15 years since my last six-bird opening weekend. A great bird dog is a joy that surpasses all the other rewards of hunting.

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Sandhills report

Sandhills 2017 morning

Morning light on Merritt Reservoir southeast arm as seen from our campsite at Boardman Creek Campground September 2017

Sandhills report

Grouse numbers are down. Way down. Both prairie chickens and sharptail grouse. Nebraska’s Game & Parks official bird hunting forecast told us that a month before: beware, there would be far fewer grouse. But we had to find out for ourselves.

We found out. Not many prairie grouse in the Sandhills this fall.

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What has it got in its pocketses?

Hunting vest

The thing I have never found in my pocketses is the much desired One Ring with the power and sorcery to take me into the realm of great and transformative adventures – or at least grant me enough simple magic to become a better wing shooter and dog trainer.

What has it got in its pocketses?

No hunting vest or jacket is ever truly worn out.

Several that hang on the rack in my clubhouse are no longer functional as field apparel, it’s true, due to ripped game bags, tooth-gapped zippers, frayed holes where buttons cannot be sewn back on, elbows torn out, and collars ragged as mouse nests. The cuffs are tattered, but I don’t regard that as non-functional because they are mended, in a natural way, by clumps and tangles of burdock and beggars tick that serve as a leathery patch that prevents further unraveling.

None of these half-dozen canvas-duck hunting garments will ever see another day afield, but the memories (and artifacts) they hold from hunting days passed are as strong as the odor of marsh mud, dog hair, dried sweat, and mildew that clings to them. Throwing any one of them away requires a willpower I lack – until a green-black streak of mold appears to proclaim the time has come to go our separate ways.

This moment of agonizing separation is also the time that I wonder, as Gollum asked Bilbo Baggins in the dark caverns under the Misty Mountains, “What has it got in its pocketses?” The answer to that question is always fascinating and often curious.

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Dog dreams

Fleck and Suzie

Dog dreams

These cool nights of early autumn unwrap dream presents,
untying the ribbons of my first deep and restful sleep since
midsummer’s soggy wool blanket of hot and heavy air
smothered the North Country and tucked in for a stay.
Dew-wet dreams of morning bird hunts past and future
soak sodden my boots and pants cuffs, rag-mop my dogs,
make rusty-hinged joints scrape and ache on walks that could
be light and wingless flights if real would yield to fantasy.
Maudlin nights I dream about my dogs, the ones gone on,
and wonder if I will see them again; a vexing thought
that leads away from coverts and down toward swamps
some of the dogs would rather not hunt – with me, anyway.
Not all canine reunions are a pile of happy puppies.
Peg and Annie never liked me; best we go our own ways.
Zeke was the sad-eyed house guest that refuses to leave until
you call a cab, give him twenty bucks, and slam the door.
Pete, the all-star-talent on your team, breaks your heart,
blows your gasket: always a happy drunk on game day.
Put the rest of us together one night in bird camp, though,
and there’d be yipping and barking and hugs all around.
Fleck, Suzie, Molly, Herco, Jessie – we’d have us a time.
Real in dreams, these cool nights and, I hope, for the long sleep.

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