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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Three seconds

24-hour clock

Our time on this Earth is a momentous gift. For each of us, deciding how we will use that gift is an enigma.

Three seconds

What will you do with your three seconds? How well will you fare with your fleeting speck of time in the procession of humankind’s pageant on Earth?

Three seconds. That is all the time we have, in a relative sense. Human beings appeared in a flash of evolution and dominated the Earth as fast as the minute hand could sweep the face of the anthropological clock. Our survival was something of a miracle for two million years, and then the miracle became a swarm. We became preeminent, populous and capable of altering the natural forces of this world. This power seemed a godsend for a time, and then it became a runaway engine. We have much to account for, and we each have our three seconds to try to balance our debts.

Homo habilis, the first creature that many anthropologists regard as human, sweated under the Sun and looked up in wonder at the Moon 2.4 million years ago. Compared to the age of the Earth – 4.5 billion years according to the best estimates of geologists, astronomers, and mineralogists – mankind’s story is not long.

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