Honor among thieves

The fellow at the general store carefully marked the map with X's and O's indicating the areas I would or would not find birds.

The fellow at the general store carefully marked the map with X’s and O’s indicating the areas I would or would not find birds.

All bird hunters are jealously possessive of their birds – or their best bird coverts, at any rate – and they would more willingly tell the IRS all their sources of income than reveal the location of good bird ground. Consequently, any information you receive from a bird hunter afield is assuredly misinformation, and you would be a fool to follow it.

Honor among thieves

The Senator and I, along with his Vizsla Booker and my springer spaniel Herco, were enjoying a great morning of grouse and woodcock hunting back in October of ’02. In the first hour we had each bagged two grouse, and now we were preparing to plunge into one of our premier woodcock coverts, the hundred-yard wide belt of young aspen trees that surrounded an abandoned gravel pit in the Chengwatana State Forest.

We call this place the Gravel Quarry Hunt, and it had been one of the most productive spots for both local woodcock and migrating flight birds for more than five years. We were working out the “you take the north edge and I’ll take the south edge” details of the plan when we heard the voices of a trio of hunters walking up the trail behind us.

“Damn!” muttered the Senator…

…to tell this story with the least confusion I must provide background information. Without some explanation, several names  and phrases would make sense only to the members of our Over the Hill Gang of aging bird hunters, their ill-fated wives and families, and perhaps the county sheriff’s department.

The term covert, for example. For the OTH Gang, a covert is not a clandestine CIA operation but a piece of land that provides good habitat for game birds: shelter, food, protection, soil type, maybe water. On North Country hunts for ruffed grouse and woodcock, a covert is often a thick stand of young aspen trees intermixed with oak and pine, with clumps of grass, sedge and rushes for undergrowth on damp ground.

I should also explain hunting camp nicknames. The Senator acquired his by becoming the only member of the OTH Gang ever elected to public office. There is no possibility any of the rest of us miscreants will be elected to any post, no even municipal dog catcher.

Fats, who is no more fat that the rest of us, is so named because he is the only member who is a permanent resident of Minnesota, hence Minnesota Fats, soon shortened to Fats.

Click won his moniker by inadvertently telling us during a rifle-sighting session that he always makes a final one-click adjustment to the scope when the target shooting is done. One-Click was eventually trimmed to Click.

I was unjustly tagged with the handle Pancho because I reported to hunting camp several years ago a few pounds overweight with a barely noticeable paunch over my belt. It is long gone, and I am clearly a model of physical fitness these days, but the nickname hangs on.

I won’t belabor you with the history of other club members’ nicknames, and certainly not the derivation of our dogs’ names, because that would stretch this brief story to novella length before I could return to the morality tale of the Gravel Quarry Hunt.

And it is a tale worth telling…

… “Damn!” muttered the Senator as the trio of hunters came up the trail, caught sight of us, and waved. A stronger word might have been a more appropriate response to the situation because they were wearing Orvis hunting jackets, brush chaps, brand new orange safari hats, and thin leather shooting gloves. They carried expensive-looking over-under shotguns, and their dogs were well-groomed and walked at heel, on leash. These are not our kind of hunters. It was obvious they were foreigners, probably Wisconsinites from wealthy aristocratic families.

As we feared, they were looking for advice on how to hunt the Chengwatana – tips on the best areas to find birds. “Do you have any suggestions?” the oldest one asked.

As any veteran bird hunter knows, asking another bird hunter to reveal his best coverts is akin to asking for a date with his wife, or worse, asking to hunt with his dog. It simply isn’t done, especially in the field, and anyone who would be so uncouth and bad-mannered deserves the ill-treatment he has so boorishly solicited. Fortunately for me, the Senator is preeminently skilled in handling these awkward social situations.

He looked up to the overcast sky, obviously in deep thought, stoked his chin with his left hand, and finally pronounced, “On a day like this, a little cool and cloudy, you’ll want to hunt the Two-Mile Slough Covert. We’ve had a lot of luck in there over the years.”

The Senator gave them precise directions to the Two-Mile Slough Covert: follow this trail a mile west, then head southwest on a trail marked by a tall white pine and a snowmobile route sign, keep going downhill until you reach a wide bog – the Two-Mile Slough – turn west and follow it to its far end, and you will find a four or five-acre plot of mixed alder and aspen. “Some of the best bird cover in the Chengwatana,” he assured them.

The directions to reach the covert were true and accurate, but his appraisal of the Two-Mile Slough’s bird habitat was, I knew for certain, a bald-faced lie. We had never had any success there. The last time we had hunted it was in ’99, and except for one lonely grouse and a porcupine our dogs had found nothing. Zilch. Nada.

When the trio was out of earshot I gently reproached him. “So, we’ve ‘always had luck’ hunting the Two-Mile Slough Covert, huh?”

“Absolutely,” he said. “Bad luck. Really bad luck.”

As we resumed our hunt of the Gravel Quarry Covert, the Senator paused and dropped his gaze. Worry lines creased his forehead. He seemed perplexed. “I hope I didn’t do the wrong thing, sending them down there,” he said, more to himself than to me.

For a moment I thought his conscience might be bothering him, but that couldn’t be the case. The Senator and his conscience signed a non-aggression pact long ago: he never assails his conscience, and his conscience never assails him. Over the course of 20-some years, they have both abided by the terms of that agreement, and they have gotten along famously. Fats says the pact is more like a restraining order; whenever the Senator is bird hunting his conscience is not permitted within a hundred yards of him.

So there must have been something else troubling him as he pondered the advice he had given the Wisconsin trio. “Do you suppose, Pancho, that this is the one year in a hundred there might be flight birds setting down in the Two-Mile Slough?”

“Not very likely,” I consoled him.

“Good. That’s good,” he nodded. “I wouldn’t want to put them onto any of our birds.”

Our birds?

All bird hunters are jealously possessive of their birds – or their best bird coverts, at any rate – and they would more willingly tell the IRS all their sources of income than reveal the location of good bird ground. Consequently, any information you receive from a bird hunter afield is assuredly misinformation, and you would be a fool to follow it.

Sometimes the falsehoods are blatantly obvious, as when Click told a pair of pheasant hunters that the swamp from which we had just emerged was totally devoid of birds and we had seen none all day, this while the wind-tossed tail feathers of a pair of roosters in his hunting vest were tickling his ears. Other misinformation deliveries are more artfully devious: the half-truth advice, the altered-directions scam, the innocent-ignorance ploy, the don’t-tell-anyone-else secret, the no-use-going-there fable, the please-don’t-hunt-my-favorite-cover plea, the not-since-the-snowfall disclaimer. The Senator is a master of them all with an aw-shucks country boy delivery that convinces you that butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth if he were standing in the fires of Hell. Which he may be some day, if bird hunter prevarications are judged to be a cardinal sin.

My first lesson in feathered falsehoods dates back 40 years to a hunt for prairie chickens and sharptail grouse in the McKelvie National Forest (actually a grassland) in north-central Nebraska. I asked for information from the fellow who ran the general store by the Merritt Reservoir Dam on the eastern border of that 160,000-acre federal preserve in the Sandhills. He took great pains to locate a map of the McKelvie’s grazing allotments and carefully drew an O on each section where there were sure to be grouse, and an X on each section where he assured me there was nary a bird this year.

My springer spaniel Fleck and I hunted all morning on an O-marked allotment and found one pod of four birds that flushed wildly 80 yards ahead of us. We pondered this state of affairs while we ate a lunch of venison sausage, cheese, and sourdough bread in the shade of the pickup truck, and we decided to act on a hunch. Driving three miles west and a mile north, we made a quick sweep across a ridge of dunes in an allotment that had been marked not with one bold X but with two. In less than a half hour we flushed more than 50 sharptails and killed our limit of three. We returned the next morning to hunt another X-marked allotment and did equally well.

Honesty among bird hunters, I had discovered, is as apocryphal as honor among thieves. It was a lesson I never forgot.

But karma can also play a role in the great circle of life.

An hour after the Senator had sent the Wisconsin trio on a long hike to the Two-Mile Slough Covert to hunt for woodcock that would not be there, we heard a distant gunshot. Then a pair. Followed by a volley of four. All coming from the southwest, from the far end of the Two-Mile Slough.

“My god!” said the Senator. “They’re into birds. We put them into a bunch of flight birds.” We heard another two shots. Then a single. He was crestfallen.

“Look on the bright side,” I told him. “If we ever meet them again, they’ll trust us. We could send them to the Blueberry Hill Covert or the Red Horse Covert and they would never suspect a thing.” Blueberry and Red Horse are notoriously unproductive coverts.

After all, in the bird hunters’ information business, one good turn deserves a double cross.


More stories about bird dogs, bird guns, and bird hunting are published in my collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and in my novel Hunting Birds. All three books are available in paperback and Kindle editions at amazon.com.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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