Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dogged Decisions

I thoroughly enjoyed my time back East with the family over Christmas. It's always good to see them, and my sister's kids are at the stage where they are growing up at a staggering pace, and each time I see them they are completely different people. My nephew's vocabulary has grown exponentially in the past several months, and these days the little critter is downright me. It goes without saying that as soon as the mood changes and it's nap time or someone's hungry, Uncle Evan returns them to their creators and vacates the premises for child-proofed quarters.

My Dad and I managed to slip out for a day while I was home, and made the couple hour drive to DeCoverly Kennels, an English setter breeder in northeast PA that is owned by one of my Dad's buddies/old colleagues. These are gorgeous dogs and everytime I visit the place it's all I can do to resist throwing the credit card down and putting my name on the waiting list for a puppy. Dad's friend knows I am considering an addition to the family, so he had arranged for us to spend some time hunting released chukar over two started DeCoverly dogs; one of them his own personal 2-year old orange/white male named Rye, the other a big-bodied 5-year old black/white male named Cody.

Both dogs hunted beautifully, showing off their distinctly different styles, each getting the job done in their own way but with that unmistakable setter class, ingrained through generations of strong breeding and an unyielding drive to point something. It is always a privelege to walk up on one of these dogs when they are frozen solid as the winter ground they cover so efficiently.

Pen-raised birds will always represent a shadow of the real thing, particularly when shooting chukar in a flat, snow-covered corn field in Pennsylvania. Good dog work is always the real deal, however, and I enjoyed watching Rye and Cody do their thing far more than any trigger-pulling that I had a part in that day.

Like I said, everytime I hunt over setters, I want one. It was hard to leave without sneaking one of the little spotted critters out of the kennel in my pocket, but I managed. We wrapped up our afternoon with Dad's buddy over burgers and beers at the local pub, talking about fishing and football and trips taken or those in the works. But mostly we talked about dogs. It was a fine day.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where am I?

This is the worst nine-dollar beer I've ever had. I'm 1/3 of the way through my annual trek back east to spend Christmas with the family, and once again I find myself lost in the airport vortex. I'm holed up in the farthest, darkest corner of Wolfgang Puck's crown-jewel of express dining establishments, hiding behind sunglasses and headphones and trying to avoid prolonged exposure to the general public. I'm out of my element; alcohol and Toots and the Maytals are the only things keeping my wavering sanity in tact right now.

I think I'm in Denver. Yep, there went a pair of cowboy boots and a Stetson holding hands with a tight-panted cutie wearing giant bug-eye shades and a leather-fringe jacket. Only in Colorado. Or Missoula. All I know is that I'm glad to be back on the ground for now, because if I hadn't gotten off that plane as quickly as I did, I may have had to strike the fear of God in to the little rugrat sitting behind me. Screaming. Kicking. Constantly. At one point I turn around and ask dad, who didn't appear to be the brightest light on the Christmas tree, if we can stop playing the "Let's kick the seat in front of us" game? He gives me a blank stare that only generations of inbreeding and Budweiser can produce. Man, one burns out and the whole string won't work.

I generally dislike children. I particularly despise air travel. Unfortunately for me, it seems that exposure to one generally leads to an ample dose of the other, this time around with the added bonus of some indifferently stupid parents thrown in for good measure. My sister's kids are adorable and related to me, but I really can only tolerate even them in limited doses. I entertain them, they entertain me, but when bath time, or bathroom time, or tantrum time comes around, I promptly return them to their rightful owners. Being forcibly crammed into an aluminum can to have some redneck's stinking, screaming parasite kick the back of my head for two hours has almost driven me to sneak in to the airport bathroom and perform a self-vasectomy with the sharpened lid from a can of Copenhagen.

I don't fly very much. There's a reason I live in western Montana and actively try to isolate myself from as much of the American population as possible. I'm happy where I am. I find little need to fly anywhere, unless saltwater or the other hemisphere are involved. To paraphrase John Gierach, I don't travel to get away, because my everyday life is not something I need to escape from.

But I sure do enjoy spending time with my family, and I figure those little ones should see me at least once a year, lest they grow up to be even more unfamiliar and uncomfortable around Uncle Evan than they already seem to be. Given the distance between my little sanctuary and the East Coast, airplanes become an unfortunate necessity for me every year at this time.

I've always held a slight underlying fear of commercial air travel. Something about the whole thing kinda freaks me out. 9/11 didn't help. Being vacuum-sealed in to one of those unlikely birds with 150 of my closest friends, only to be flung across the continent at the hands of faceless pilots who may be drunk, gives me an overall feeling of helplessness. Thanks to the modern airline industry, flying domestically in the U.S today has to be one of the most uncomfortable travel experiences in the civilized world.

It's in all likelihood going to get worse before it gets better. I'm killing a three hour layover here...where?...and assuming (hoping?) my plane leaves on time, I will once again be teleported and emerge from the metal tube in Washington D.C., where they're just now digging themselves out from under two feet of snow. Less than ideal conditions, a fishing guide would say. I don't know if you've ever been to the commuter "A" terminal at Dulles, but I'm pretty sure it's where you go if you couldn't land a job as a pirate in the Gulf of Aden. No one speaks English and they have to be some of the rudest, least-helpful people to ever work in the service industry. The thought of spending any more time than is absolutely necessary in that drain gutter of human existence just motivated me to switch to bourbon.

Maybe if I reek of whiskey by the time I get on the plane, thick-headed parents will get the picture and steer their spawn away from the sketchy-looking ginger in the corner.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

¿Dónde están los patos?

I'm telling myself it's for the love of the game. Why else would I be slogging fifty pounds of gear and decoys across a barely-frozen, snow-covered beaver pond on a speculative evening duck hunt that, given the way the season has been going, will in all likelihood yield little or nothing?

To get to the other side, I guess. This shortcut across the slough seemed like our best option to reach the gravel bar we're trying to hunt, but when my right foot punches through the ice and I nearly lose it as my boot stays firmly stuck in the mud, I start to question our judgment. A lone drake whistles overhead, seriously looking over the exact spot of muck we're currently floundering in, before flaring and disappearing. At least it's not -15 out anymore.

When my buddy tells me he's "not comfortable with where I'm walking," we head straight for the willows and supposedly more solid ground. My decoy bag hangs on some branches and I slip and fall on the steep snow-covered bank, but at least I'm dry. It would be a far from glorious death to be found in the spring by some dog walkers, bobbing face down in a recently-thawed beaver pond, dressed head-to-toe in camoflauge with 36 plastic ducks floating around your head.

Once set up on the gravel bar, we both agree that our decoy spread looks tempting. I think the word "irresistible" is used at one point. We even have a great place to sit and hide. This will work. I'm sweating. Why isn't it -15 out anymore?

"Now we play the waiting game," says my buddy. And wait we will.

Silence. Or, if the only thing you really want to hear is the whistling of wings or the distant honk of geese in flight, it was silence. In reality, we're just outside of city limits, and the constant whine of rush hour traffic and the occasional siren wail stretch out across the river and over our decoys like the incessant buzz of fluorescent lights in an office building. This could irritate the shit out of you if you let it.

"Did you just hear that?"

"Yeah, were those geese?"

"I think that was the ref's whistle in a soccer game."

There is another group of hunters downriver from us a ways, friends of ours. I can't decide whether it's a good thing or not that we haven't heard them shoot either.

As sunset approaches, we procrastinate picking up the decoys and making the equally treacherous walk back to the truck by feigning hardcoreness and hope, counting down the minutes until the official end of shooting light.

When there are thirty seconds left in the hunting day, my buddy belts out a series of obnoxiously loud hail calls in shear frustration, shattering the evening stillness as effectively as if one of us had pulled the trigger on our silent, frozen shotguns. A single hen, flying fast in a straight line across the tree tops, appears from up river, passes by us well out of range, and is gone.

The dekes pack up faster than expected, and with the benefit of lingering daylight, the walk back goes smoothly. I'm trudging along a two-track breaking trail, almost within sight of the truck when I hear honks: happy honks. My buddy and I stop walking and turn just in time to see eight Canadas swing and light in to the exact spot where we had just been set up.

It's hard to say why we keep going out there and sitting in the mud if the birds aren't going to come. Sure, it beats the couch, but there's more to it than that. There's hope in watching a silent sky. The beauty of hunting migrating waterfowl is that even if the birds weren't there yesterday, they could be today. So you keep hunting, and talking, and hoping, and watching an empty sky.

If you start to lose faith, just watch the dog. If this wasn't fun, and if there wasn't just the slightest hint of hope, would they keep waking up before dawn every morning to sit in a frozen swamp and stare at the sky with you? The birds will come.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Abort! Abort!

No prose here, just a grip-and-grin redneck tailgate shot of an aborted duck hunt turned surprisingly successful pheasant hunt from this morning. You can only sit still and freeze for so long before you want to go for a walk, so you might as well walk pheasant cover. Good dog.