Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Being Tough

Toughness.  What does this mean?  Resilience, endurance, perhaps fortitude, strength, or stamina? Maybe visions of grit or possibly an ability to withstand tremendous strain in the face of adversity comes to mind?  For me.... it's defined by pointing dogs - period.

An endless sea of Cholla cactus unfolds from roadside to horizon as I jump from the rig to start the morning's preparation.  A stinging blend of sand, snow, dust and ice spits in my face, ejected from a dust devil churning nearby.  It's an immediate declaration that the elements are in charge in this vengeful surrounding.

I load as much water as I can carry for the four hour morning cast, pack some extra food and pliers for cactus removal, lace up my boots, put on my leather gloves, glasses, and hearing protection.  Fiddling with the shells in my vest pocket, I establish a little canine anticipation, and finally I strap collars on the dogs.  They tremble with excitement, no remorse or recollection of the last episode of cactus spine removal by the fireplace.  It's a painful but necessary ritual that must follow every outing in Cholla country.

Do they know what's in store for them, a day spent running through a land mine of toxic barbed needles and prickly pear?  They will run thirty miles or more compared to my twelve.  Why do they dance and jump, gleefully accepting of this buffalo bur, snakeweed, and spine infested environment with all the enthusiasm similar to that of a child who takes to a playground?

Walking them at heel, I question if I'm being cruel, exposing them to such harsh surroundings.  On more than one occasion today I won't get to Pepper in time to remove a cactus.  He'll lose patience waiting for me to catch up and will take matters into his own paws by removing the cactus with his mouth.  When I finally get to him, I'll have to sort through a bloody mess to remove 1" spines from his pallet and gums.  Once their out, he'll speed off to find another covey as though I just removed a pebble from his shoe.  Never a whimper, a complaint or cowering desire to return to the truck.

Before we begin, there is always a moment to pause and admire the landscape and all its emptiness.  The dogs are now whining at heel as if being punished by lack of motion.  Pepper and Lilly look up at me, begging for release.  I smile back in admiration of the contrast between their brutal enduring toughness and their gentle limitless need to please me.  The horizon is just over there.

The action snaps shut on my gun.  I give the dogs a soft pat on their heads.  "OK!"

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Trophy Day

Greater Prairie Chicken taken in Eastern Colorado
Bad shooting is a troublesome ailment.  Like the theme song to Dora the Explorer, it can creep into the deepest corners of your psyche and setup camp for a considerable period of time, bringing on feelings of self-doubt, disappointment, anxiety, and even despair.  Painted with another brush, it can be like an unwanted relative showing up for Christmas vacation and deciding to stay for a month.

This has been one of those bird seasons, one in which I have been exposed to a mix of emotions.  On the one hand, I have been blessed with good fortune and a tolerant wife who allowed me to get a new fur kid, a ten month old started Pointer named Lilly, and to visit some beautiful distant country to pursue some birds I have dreamed about for many years.  On the other, I have been relentlessly infected with a case of poor shooting, the likes of which I have often speculated might never go away.

In truth, I've never been a particularly good shot; too much intensity at the critical moment I suspect.  That said, I've always been predisposed to the ATV theory of bird hunting (accuracy through volume); where there's lead....there's danger.  The result is a fair number of birds I have collected over the years, and I am grateful for each and every one of them.

I've known people, several of whom are good hunting companions, that have a unique aptitude to harness the chaos of a flushing bird or covey into a moment of mechanical purity, calm and deadly focus.  In the company of their skill, I am eternally envious.

Having never been that guy, I conjured up a solution to my woes several years ago - pointing dogs.  The rational was that they would establish a mechanism to provide some degree of preparation, giving me an element of warning for what was about to unfold, allowing me to become better prepared for the flush.  Little did I know what internal anguish this would set off in my shooting.  Tied to all my previous feelings of inadequacy, now I could add guilt to the line up.

The day after Christmas was spent chasing my old foe, the pheasant; a time honored tradition with some very good friends.  We started out pretty rough, other hunters in fields we planned to attack at daylight, a broken latch on my topper forcing me to break the window so I could get the dogs and our guns out of the truck, and an injured dog within seconds of leaving the tailgate requiring a later trip to a vet for a bit of barbed wire induced surgery.

Despite the misfortunes, we opted to soldier on as we'd seen several dozen birds moving around in The Field while formulating our hunt plan.  With the idiot and my new pointer in full pursuit, I could feel that unsettling whisper of doubt stirring around in my head.  It's usually triggered by dogs moving through cover with elegance and grace brought on by good scenting conditions.

At about the half hour mark, my young pointer made a violent upwind turn and pinned an unsuspecting rooster fourty feet from her nose in stylish perfection.  Staunch and ready for the flush, she stood motionless, tail high and nostrils flared, waiting for the euphoria to begin, certain she had earned a bird.  I approached sick to my stomach, gun level, conscientiously trying not to look at the ground and my feet, keeping my head high.  The bird flushed and I missed with both barrels.  I can still hear his cackle, laughing at me as he made for the next zip code.  I'd have been just as effective if I would have thrown the shells at him.

Young Lilly turned and sprung after the rooster at the gun's report for an enthusiastic retrieve.  I quickly called her off, "No bird!" I shouted.  What followed was the look no bird hunter can ever forget.  She stopped, looked back at me, looked at the bird, and then looked at me again, dazed in complete confusion.  "You're kidding me," she must have thought.  I felt terrible. 

We had covered much of the field by the time I had let my puppy down.  One of my friends picked up a couple of birds, and as he walked toward me to discuss the events of the past few moments, I turned away in disgust and began the walk of shame in silence back to the truck.

Now, Scott has hunted with me for years.  In many ways, he knows me better than I know myself, at least when it comes to hunting situations.  We walked back toward the truck without a word spoken.  When we were a few hundred feet away, he turned toward me and said simply, "don't let him get into your head."  Little did he know,  I was contemplating giving up hunting for the rest of the season and thinking of just carrying a camera.

Back at the truck and after a few stories at the tailgate, I finally let go of my frustration and we made a plan to head to the vet and then to another spot where we have often flushed a bevy of birds.  As luck would have it, I was fortunate to approach a pile of pheasants from a perfect angle when the dogs put up the tangle of birds.  I solidly connected with a rooster, sending him tumbling to the ground with the open barrel.  Confident he was absolutely dead where he lay, I swung on another bird that had launched at the same time.  I reached out with the back barrel and sent a second rooster diving to earth - my first ever pheasant double.

I was ready for the truck and a triumphant ride back to Denver, but we were in prairie chicken country and I still hadn't been able to collect a male for my pair mount.  About an hour later with the wind coming up strong, the unthinkable happened.  One of those wily birds held just a moment longer than they typically do on a flash point from the idiot.  The grouse got stuck in the strong headwind for a moment, and with the tight barrel, I dropped him like third period math.  After a routine retrieve from my GSP, we were soon back at the truck ogling over what I consider a most fortunate trophy, a beautiful male Greater Prairie Chicken taken in Colorado.

It's possible I'm on the other side of miss mountain; probably not though.  For the moment, it's time to feed the blind squirrel.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Best Days and Comfortable People

The Olympic Peninsula is a particularly difficult place to swing flies for Steelhead in winter, especially when you can only muster up a planned trip on predetermined dates months in advance.  The rise and fall of water and mood of the season chooses the privileged.  On this occasion, no one in our boat touched a single fish in two days.  I count them among the best I've spent on the water.  Testing rods, tuning tips and lines, slowing our pace to the cadence of the river, ogling over flies, and telling stories about distant places and good friends (those not present to defend themselves).

Thank you Chris and Simon