Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Okay, it's not wingshooting but... bears mentioning nonetheless.  There oughta be an award or something given to Tosh Brown and Departure Publishing for bringing back my favorite fishing book.  It had been out of print for about twelve years when I first heard of it, then it took almost two more to find an affordable copy on the used market.  And it still wasn't cheap.  Now Tosh has partnered with the author to publish it in ebook format for less than the price of a movie ticket.

The book is Marquesa: A Time & Place With Fish by Jeffrey Cardenas, his story of a month spent alone on a houseboat in the Marquesas off of Key West.  In the late summer of 1994, Cardenas slowly motored a houseboat towing his flats skiff across the Boca Grande Channel and anchored in the uninhabited atoll.  Excepting a few visits from friends, he was alone with the sea and his thoughts, passing the time snorkeling, fishing or just watching the goings-on in his new neighborhood.  The story is perceptive, reflective, enlightening and completely enjoyable. Replete with the harsh realities and irreplaceable wonders of nature it shares one common flaw with any good book you've ever read: at the end you find yourself wanting more.

Every now and then I wish I could live a series of decades in my twenties.  Maybe three or four and then turn sixty having done all of the things I couldn't fit into a single decade and couldn't pull off in the succeeding ones.  Granted that wish, this adventure would be on page one of the program.  Solitude and the outdoors always adjust perspective and immersion on this level has the potential to be life-changing.  Or merely euphoric, depending on where you started.

If you like fishing - especially saltwater fishing - do yourself a favor and trade some pocket change for this book.  In case you haven't clicked on it already, here's the link:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Psst, Santa....I been super good this year

No kiddin.  I didn't fight with my brother or sister, I didn't play hooky from work (not a statistically significant number of times, anyway), I brushed my teeth almost every day and I didn't shoot BBs at the neighbor's cat.  And I got a real short list of stuff I want:

Any one of these will do.  I'll take 'em all if it's too tight in the sleigh.


About a thousand acres or so of this...

A few dozen days like this one...

Views like these every week or so..

And maybe one of these.  I promise I'll take good care of it.

courtesy Holland & Holland

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Why technology isn't always a good thing

Deer hunting is not my favorite thing to do out-of-doors.  Knowing that a decent sized doe will nearly pack my available freezer space and last well into the new year, I do it as much for sustenance as enjoyment.  If I manage to bag one on my first hunt of the season it might end up being the last hunt of the season; I just don't have much interest after that. Then I have years like 2010 when I get pretty mad at it and go half a dozen times or more, miss the one deer I shoot at (I still can't believe I whiffed it), and don't put a thing in the freezer.

I hunted a couple of times early this season and didn't shoot.  Again, not being a fanatic about it I don't actively seek opportunities to sit in a stand, don't drive long distances to do so, and don't get too upset if it doesn't happen.  I'd just about put the season behind me when I was invited to skip out of work last Wednesday afternoon and figured why not, it's a pretty day and I could sure use some fresh air.  About five minutes before sunset a nice big doe walked into the food plot and by the end of the week she'll be in my freezer.

But the story doesn't quite end there.  The deer made it about twenty yards into some of the thickest, nastiest brush in the county before expiring and took a while to extract.  Being the incredibly responsible spouse that I am, about halfway through the process I snapped a picture of the deer and sent it along with a text to my wife telling her that I might be a little late getting home.  Later that night I walked by the computer and saw a photo of a deer that looked eerily familiar.  On Facebook.  With my name under it.  Thanks honey.

I'm pretty sure she still doesn't understand why I'd rather not be seen advertising the trophy doe that I shot.  I tried explaining that around here, crowing about shooting a doe is like bragging that you got a hole in one at putt-putt.  Sure, you give yourself a little pat on the back when you do it, you enjoy the spoils at the table for the next six months, but there's really no need to alert the media.  Especially the social media.

The picture was only online a few hours but the damage was done.  Since last Thursday I've had a dozen guys with a smirk on their faces congratulate me on my deer.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Shameless link to a fine piece of work

I'm a little behind on both posting and reading, at least in terms of where I'd like to be this time of year.  Sitting down tonight to play some catch up I stumbled across this post by Hank Shaw over at Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook:

It's a subject all of us deal with on some level and he's done a fine job of getting to the core of it.  

Sunday, December 4, 2011

This takes more patience than I'll ever have

Gun engraving is an art that sparks mixed emotions from me.  Unfortunately it's usually found on guns that populate a higher price range than those I'm familiar with (desire).  At times it seems a bit impractical given the normal use of its medium (bewilderment).  Even the most pedestrian examples are beautiful (awe).  And it requires a skill that takes years if not decades to master (more awe).

While reading the latest issue of the online magazine Sporting Shot, I stumbled across a link to a blog by engraver Keith Thomas.  He's far from prolific on the posting side - I think I counted eight over a five year stretch - but it's interesting to read his perspective.  And the work is simply extraordinary.  I poached the image below as a tease..

There are more examples of his work in the Sporting Shot article.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

When a sure thing isn't

It happened and I'm finally at a point where I can bear to talk about it.  Laws of nature and physics and statistics dictate that it wouldn't go on forever, the last fifteen or more years notwithstanding.  What I'm referring to is the annual Saturday before Thanksgiving dove hunt.  You see, for whatever reason or reasons this particular hunt has always been the closest thing to a done deal in terms of being a barnburner.  I've walked out of the field in twenty minutes with a limit.  Most years it takes between thirty and forty five, but still...

Almost always a cold morning, the dew frozen on the grass so that your feet don't get wet walking in but might on the way out.  Watching your breath slip from your face it's like duck hunting, waiting for legal shooting time as the light replaces the dark, except you aren't standing in cold water up to your waist.  The birds have had more than a month of rest and peaceful dinners since the first season closed and they're drifting in to what they think is a sure thing.  And they drift in and cruise in and dart in and rocket in and keep coming in like bargain hunters overrunning a Wal-Mart on Black Friday.  At one point last year I shot a bird, shot another on the way to pick the first one up, shot another while I was still looking for the first one, and shot a fourth before I finally got to the first one.

Word started catching on a few years ago that this hunt was a hot one.  The day of the twenty minute limit only four of us cared enough to get out of bed.  By the time we finished we were giddy, punch drunk on success and good fortune and laughing just as hard at the suckers who stayed home.  Lately more and more guys have been showing up cloaked in anticipation.

This year the birds just weren't there.  High man in the field might have killed eight when the few that were around quit flying.  My bag was loaded down with exactly one bird.  I don't know why I felt so dejected.  Beyond mere disappointment, I actually felt let down, and with no legitimate reason.  It's not like I'd been offered a guarantee somewhere along the way.  There's only one explanation: somewhere along the way I'd been.......spoiled.

I suppose some UCLA basketball fans were disappointed in 1974 when they didn't win the NCAA championship.  Too much good fortune and you start to expect it and then it's only a matter of time until good fortune becomes entitlement.  And entitlements are rarely appreciated.  Shame on me.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Giving Thanks

With the exception of the occasional Monday most of us don't have to look too hard to find a few things to be thankful for.  The challenge is keeping the frustrations and inconveniences of everyday life in perspective so that all the good can rise to the top.  While membership in the Forbes 400 continues to elude me (and likely will until the Sun burns out), on a globally relative basis I am wealthy beyond belief.  I have food on the table and a roof over my head and a job that pays.  I have what I need even though sometimes I have to remind myself of it.  Truth be told I have more than I need...

...a couple of great kids, one of whom is showing promise as a hunting partner.  Few things make a bad day disappear more quickly.

...a wife who is generally gracious about indulging my outdoor obsessions (during hunting season anyway).  For any of you never-been-married guys out there trust me, this one alone is something of value.  I've seen the other side and it ain't pretty.

...a bird dog who has filled the hole left by my last one, right down to being a constant, devoted companion.  You're never alone with one of these.

...places to hunt that fit my frugal nature.  When I think of the people in other countries who come up short on this end, I realize how fortunate we are in this great land, government aside. And while we're on the subject, I'm extremely grateful my business card doesn't say 'Senator' anywhere on it.

...the good health and physical capacity to get outside and walk, and the inclination to do so.  If I have a nagging fear it's that I'll someday lose the desire or ability to pursue my diversions.

No one, not even those in the Forbes 400, is guaranteed an endless string of perfect days.  We all have good days and better days and now and then a downright crappy day.  The latter usually pass pretty quickly when a shade of perspective intervenes.  Honestly, every day should be an occasion to give thanks.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I'll take Amazing Things for $200, Alex

There are some things you just don't say no to.  Like when the boss asks if you'd like to come down to his lease in south Texas and go bird hunting.  Oh twist my arm.

It's a hardscrabble place to eke out an existence, especially if you're a bobwhite.  Especially in a dry year.  Yet for some reason, possibly proximity to the coast, the birds were there.  Thirty three coveys in three days and every one a bundle of dynamite waiting for you to get a bit too close.

Nature can be a mother at times, harsh, stingy, or hateful.  For whatever reason, though, she gives these locals what they need to survive in the place they are born.  And sometimes in the face of all odds they even seem to thrive.

A hot, dry, faded landscape where everything wants to bite you or sting you, predators waiting behind the next bush or looking down from above, waiting for a tiny little tasty meal to wander out in the open.  I've always had a healthy respect for these birds, one that bordered on reverence.  Lately it's grown.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What do you 'spose Freud would say about this?

Last night or early this morning, sometime between the second and fifth trip my son made into our bedroom, I dreamed that my bird dog could no longer smell quail.  Ran right through coveys just as happy as could be.  Pointed grouse, woodcock, chukar, pheasant, field mice and even children, but never once slowed down for a quail.  For me dreams of thirty bird coveys are not uncommon.  Dreams of them flying up all around me as the dog trots through them are.

What's a guy to make of this?  If dreams reveal unconscious desires has something gone very, very wrong in my kitchen?

Is this avocation I've been so passionate about for years just a sham?   Would I rather be pruning daisies or needlepointing pillows?

Or is it a harbinger of things to come?  A few years ago I had a dream about an old friend I hadn't seen since high school, very vivid and there was a man in it named Crumb.  Out of the blue the friend emailed me the next day.  We got to talking, I told him about the dream and he said his daughter's bus driver was named Crumb.  Kinda spooky.  Worse still is the chance that my dream last night might be a look into the season ahead.

I've read in various places that dreams are just a dumping ground for your brain, a place where the mass of thoughts that accumulate during the day are purged to avoid overload.  In the process they're combined in seemingly random patterns on their way down the chute.  Given the choice I'd take this option over the others and discount the whole episode.  Maybe I should stop by Sister Rosario's and have my palm read this afternoon...

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Gettin' ready

Bird season (the kind you hunt with pointing dogs) opens in just about three weeks.  Hard to believe it's been eight months since that unusually warm February day when we closed the book on last season.  Well, actually, there were a few days when it seemed it would never get here but we'll leave the past in the past.

I've been taking Wyatt out to run at a public dove field near my house to get us both conditioned and, truthfully, because pretending is the next best thing when you can't really hunt.  We're in between dove seasons so we have zero company - just the way I like it - and the convenience outweighs the reality that there is little chance of finding something to point.  It's not an ideal situation, bird contact being the best preparation for bird contact, but there's this obstacle to getting a dog on wild birds this time of year called the white-tailed deer. You see, there are LOTS of deer hunters in the south.  It vies with college football for most popular sport in the fall.  It vies with beer for biggest contributor to the state's revenues.  And it vies with me for use of public hunting grounds.

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoy sitting in a deer stand from time to time.  I take about one deer a year, never a trophy buck, usually a doe, and have everything but the tenderloin ground since that's the way my family will eat it.  It's just that those Realtree warriors are everywhere.  It's not like this is South Dakota or Montana or some other spot with a surplus of public land.  And very few whitetails.  Good wild bird land is at a premium here, and those boys with bows are Bogarting it.  The public land harboring wild birds is overrun with guys in treestands, a good many of whom wouldn't think twice about shooting a dog that runs through "their" food plot.

Our state hasn't yet placed a good bird dog's life on par with a human's, although I could make a case for the former being worth multiples of the latter in quite a few cases.  Still, I'm not so obsessed with right vs wrong that I'll risk my dog to prove a point.

Once the bird season opens the schedule allows us equal time with the bow boys.  In the meantime we get out and stretch our legs in a spot without the risk of fatality, plenty of room to run, plenty of space to work on things like patterning and handling and I don't have to drive an hour to get to it.  There's a nature trail not much further down the road that weaves along a river bottom, a perfect spot for woodcock and we'll be there once the flights arrive.  Looking at the weather in the northeast it may be sooner than usual.  No hunting allowed, but a fine place to give a nose a workout.  The hell with those deer hunters - I'll  get my pre-season work in one way or another.  Anyone who says pre-season doesn't count probably never had a winning season.

Friday, October 28, 2011

If you're in the neighborhood...

Tall Timbers Research Station, the preeminent organization studying bobwhite ecology in the southeast, is hosting a field day on Friday, November 11th, in the heart of South Carolina's quail country.  The venue is Groton Plantation, a 23,000 acre facility just outside of Estill in Hampton County.  On the docket are a regional hatch report, a presentation on Groton's wild quail management, and an update on the South Carolina Quail Project.  You can download the brochure here.

Flying under the radar even in these parts, the South Carolina Quail Project is an offshoot of Tall Timbers' work focused on habitat unique to the Carolina coastal plain.  They're also experimenting with some new methods of restocking bobwhite populations, an practice that hasn't previously met with much success.  Restocking has worked well with other species (whitetail deer, wild turkey) and success with quail would enable rapid recovery of numbers in areas hit hard by adverse weather or faster building of populations on tracts that have undergone dramatic habitat improvements.  It's no silver bullet but it sure would be a nice tool to have available.

A November day in the South Carolina lowcountry can be as pretty as one anywhere.  Might be too long of a road trip for you western guys but for NC/SC/GA residents it's worth the drive if you can play hooky for a day.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The State of the Bobwhite

Last week the NBCI issued their State of the Bobwhite report (download a copy of it here), a fairly comprehensive 46-pager detailing the warts and all of bobwhites in the United States.  Right about now you're thinking "I already know how bad bobwhite hunting is, seen three coveys in three years and my dog doesn't recognize a picture of one.  Why do I need a report?"

Well, if it were merely to moan about how bad bobwhite hunters have it we wouldn't.  The report bypasses the sobbing, however, and for the most part is heavy on the data.  From my perspective it serves two purposes:  (1) It establishes a benchmark by which all future population trends - up or down - will be measured.  At the same time it establishes the benchmark by which all future restoration efforts will be measured. (2) It issues a call to action, more on this later.

I'm a self-admitted bobwhite goober and read just about everything I get my hands on that pertains to the subject.  And while I won't point any fingers, I know I'm not the only one seeing as every post on this blog that has 'bobwhite' or 'quail' somewhere in the title gets an outsize number of views.  You're in good company.  A bird hunter's passion coupled with an engineer's penchant for numbers makes short work of 46 pages of facts and figures.  Still, it's not for everybody so if you don't have the appetite for all of it I'll boil it down to the most useful nuggets.

The key piece of data I pulled from all of the charts and tables is that on nearly every plot of land being managed properly for bobwhites, the numbers are improving.  Habitat management is not some pipe dream conjured up by biologists to ensure their employment.  It's the only, yes I said only, viable method of restoring bobwhite populations, and it's working.

The problem is that it's not at work in enough places.  For years the NBCI has stated that restoring bobwhite populations requires habitat change on a landscape scale, not on a few random farms throughout the native range. 

One of the lead-ins to the report is a call to action urging states and individuals to step up and get actively involved in bobwhite restoration efforts.  Specifically it asks that individuals:
  • Join a grassland habitat-related conservation organization immediately
  • Support your state's quail initiatives
  • Tell your local Congressional delegation to prioritize Farm Bill conservation programs
Given that I don't have a large farm that I can manage to my heart's content and am instead reliant on public land and/or the generosity of private landowners, I figure the least I can do is toss my hat in the ring.  My efforts are no guarantee that I'll have booming quail populations in the near future, but if a bunch of people like me don't step up it's pretty well guaranteed the hunting around here won't get any better.  So I'm gonna give these three suggestions a go and see where it leads.  And what good is a blog if you can't use it to gloat, vent, praise, criticize, prod, expose and share?  In short, stay tuned..

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Free Boone & Crockett membership

The folks at the Boone & Crockett Club in partnership with Hornady ammunition are working hard to spread the word about current attempts to ban all lead in hunting and fishing.  While there are readily available alternatives in both sports the
uncomfortable fact is that they are more expensive, in some cases ridiculously so.  If such a ban were implemented I'd have to take out a loan to go dove hunting.

The animal rights activists masquerading as environmentalists have their work cut out for them given that there is no scientific evidence to support a blanket ban on lead in any activities where it is not currently prohibited (waterfowling).  That hasn't stopped them from lobbing lawsuits at every government agency in arm's reach, however, the latest target being the EPA.  Imagine that.  What goes around comes around, I guess. 

What you as a wingshooter can do is contact your representatives in Washington and voice your support for S.838, the Hunting, Fishing, and Recreational Shooting Protection Act. You can read a summary or the full text of the legislation here.  The short version is that the Act clarifies the EPA's jurisdiction over certain sporting goods, conveniently excluding lead ammunition and fishing tackle from their authority.

In appreciation for your support and for taking the time to learn more about the issues at stake, B & C and Hornady are offering one lucky reader a free Boone & Crockett Club Associate Membership.  Leave a comment below and you're automatically entered.  Wit and wisdom are always appreciated but given that this will be a random drawing these won't earn you any favors with the selection panel, which incidentally is composed of my four year old and my six year old, neither of whom has any idea how to rig a drawing anyway.  Drawing will be held just prior to bedtime on Monday, October 24th.

Friday, October 7, 2011

From the back of the photo bin...

Killing time one evening earlier this week I rummaged through the photos that never found a way into the blog and came across a few that seemed too good to waste.  No extended commentary, just a serving of visual potpourri...




Poor man's field lunch

End of a day

Beginning of the next

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Change is up there with bullfighting and oysters: you either love it or don't care much at all for it.  Compared to the others, unfortunately, it's several degrees harder to avoid.  File it under Life's Not Fair.

Somewhere in the laws of physics must be a formula explaining why so few things in this life are static.  Particularly the good stuff.  Just when you get it right, just when it's all tweaked the way you like it and the planets line up and all is good with the world, something changes and before you know it you're back to square one, trying to make it right and good again.  Einstein should have calculated the energy wasted trying to stop, undo or otherwise negate change.

Earlier this season I finally gave up shooting my standby 870.  It is the first shotgun I ever owned and it's brought down just about every winged species of game in the lower 48, yet this fall I found myself (again) unable to hit much of anything with it.  I left it in the closet a few weeks ago in favor of my "walking gun", a lightweight 20 gauge that I carry on extended hikes, and quickly started dropping birds again.  Change.  I could get all maudlin about it but what's the point?  The 870 will still be there in the closet when I can't hit the ground with that 20 gauge.

Sitting under a pair of trees in the dove field last weekend I looked up at the branches of one, already mostly bare, and fought off the slightest bit of chill from the shade of the other.  Undeniable, unstoppable, once again fall is coming.  Change.  Maybe file it under Sometimes Life Ain't So Bad.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

As days go, this was a pretty good one

Any time you get a sub-70 degree day in September (in South Carolina) it's hard to complain.  If you can spend in it a dove field, all the better.  This is almost like getting a foot of snow in these parts and we took full advantage.  Beautiful day to be outside.

Oh, and there was this:

He's two months shy of his fourth birthday and this was his first hunt.  No, he didn't shoot it.  That gun is a Daisy that doesn't load, just cocks and kicks and makes a pop.  But he went after it like he did, complete with the universal kids arm-extended-tip-of-the-wing hold.  I showed him how to fold the wings against the body and carry it and he was fine with that right up until the next bird went down.  Then it was back to the wing tip.  A couple of them got poked with the butt of his gun. Kids are funny.

I'll admit I was a bit worried how he would handle the noise given his aversion to vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers and the like.  A pair of orange ("No! Not the yellow ones, Dad") plugs coaxed into those tiny ears and he never flinched. Small victories.

There's a lot that can go wrong in a kid's lifetime.  As a parent you do everything you can to put the odds in their favor, but there's still so much beyond your control.  I know how I'd like him to turn out.  I'd like to be sitting in a field forty years from now watching him watch his son do the same thing, but there are no guarantees.  So you take days like today and enjoy the hell out of them.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Opening day forecast: Hot with a chance of miserable

There's a downside to opening the dove season on Labor Day Weekend.  I'm sure it's beautiful in certain parts of the country this time of year but it's (still) downright hot in the south.  The less appealing alternative is to hold off the opener until it's consistently comfortable outside, usually sometime in early October, but that would initiate another form of suffering.

So we sit, tasting salt as it rolls across our lips, swatting the bugs intent on finding a way into one of our eyes, rhythmically wiping our faces on one shoulder or the other. Looking back I can recall only two years when it wasn't hot on the first hunt of the season.

For a long time I drove to eastern North Carolina to spend opening day with my grandfather.  He'd been a member of the same dove club since the late sixties and for as long as I hunted with him he was the oldest member.  Most clubs are members-only for the first few shoots but the Southern Pines Shooting Club had a Henry Ford-esque policy: bring anyone you want as long as they're male and over fifteen.  They'd have upwards of sixty hunters gather for the pre-game breakfast around ten (can't shoot before noon 'til after Labor Day) -  eggs, bacon, grits, homemade biscuits, sausage, gravy, orange juice and coffee all prepared on a trailer cooker.  On a hot day with a full belly it was mighty tempting to just lean the car seat back and enjoy the A/C for a while.

Nobody did, of course, and after a convoy to the field we'd all pile out, stake our spots and wait for the birds to start flying.  One year we piled out into the remnants of a hurricane.  In late August of 1999, Hurricane Dennis flirted with the North Carolina coast, lost a bit of steam, then looped back around and came ashore over the holiday weekend.  I've never hunted in sustained 35mph winds before or since and while it made the temperatures quite tolerable, trying to hit a bird in those conditions took me back to square one.

Anatomy of a windy opener, courtesy Wikipedia 

By mid-afternoon I figured out that although a crossing bird flying into the wind looks like it's barely moving, you need to put the muzzle a good eight feet in front of it and then double that distance.  The very same wind that's slowing the birds to a crawl is also flinging your shot pattern sideways.  In a hurry.  Pilots know it as the difference between groundspeed and airspeed, dove hunters know it as a good way to blow through four boxes of shells in no time.   

In all the years I've hunted dove I've only seen rain once on opening day.  When the storm blew in everyone thought it was just passing through and we'd be in for a sunny, albeit muddy, hunt once the clouds cleared.  After about an hour my grandfather and several of the other elders decided the rain had "set in" and headed for the cars.  I'd driven almost three hours to be there, was already mostly wet, and since the birds were still flying I stayed put. Somehow it was better than cooking under an apocalyptic sun.

Most openers I've spent just soaked in sweat.  You tend to get a little wiser as you age, though, even if only in the most practical of matters.  I'm talking specifically about personal comfort.  Lately I've been picking my stand not based on the flight path of the birds but the path of the sun and any object that can intervene.  Personal comfort gains value with each passing year.  Tempted by a sale flier in the Sunday paper, I broke down a few seasons ago and purchased a camo t-shirt made of some technical wicking fabric.  Worth every penny and now I'm on the lookout for a pair of matching boxers.  Heat be damned.

Enjoy that opener fellas...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Eager anticipation or desperation?

Pointing squirrels...

He just took to this in the last week or so, having been oblivious to the yard full of tree rats all summer.  I don't have the heart to tell him that his debut is still three months away.  If it's cold up north and the woodcock get here early his sniffer may get a workout before then, sans gun of course. 

The bird hunting blogs have been rather dormant since the start of summer, save the occasional fishing or vacation post.  Signs of life in the the last few weeks augur a spreading fever.  Here's hoping for an epidemic.

Friday, August 12, 2011


Before we get started I need to make it clear that I'm no art connoisseur.  I'm not even an aficionado in the broadest sense, an appreciation for fine art having eluded me over the years along with fluency in foreign languages, a taste for caviar and any proficiency at golf.  But I do know when something pleases my eye and stirs emotion, so I can at least claim recognition of the purpose of art.

A number of years ago I picked up a book solely for the subject matter only to be struck with a sense of allure by the cover.  The illustration was so subtle, so quiet in a whisperlike way that it begged me to lean in and look closely.  It took some time but eventually I did some digging and reading and then studying and by degrees began an appreciation for one of America's great landscape artists.

image courtesy of Chatham Fine Art

The book is Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock and the cover artist is Russell Chatham. A native of northern California and an artist since somewhere around age 6, Mr. Chatham has produced oils, acrylics, lithographs and etchings mostly depicting parcels of life in the west.  His talents extend beyond the art world as well; he's an outdoorsman who at one time held a line class record for striper, he's a respected author (if you can find a copy of Dark Waters, read it) - early issues of Gray's Sporting Journal are peppered with his work, and he's owned a publishing company.  A fascinating, multi-dimensional life that many of us would envy.

In 1972, Chatham moved from California to Livingston, MT.  I'm not sure if this was prompted by something other than the spectacular scenery and the civilized isolation, as if a person would need another reason, but here he settled, spread roots, and eventually opened a gallery.  On our trip last month a stop at his gallery was on my short list, and while I timed the fishing wrong, I timed the gallery visit just right.

Gala exhibits and openings might be the thing for the more educated of the art world, but I much prefer a quiet, uncrowded opportunity to view an artist's work, a chance to focus without distractions tugging at the senses.  Fortunately two of my most accomplished distractions, ages 6 and 3, were sound asleep in the back seat when we arrived in Livingston.  Opportunities are only as much as you make of them, the sweet spot between apathy and overindulgence ceding the fullest reward.  I settled in.

image courtesy of Chatham Fine Art

Mr. Chatham's work captures the openness of the west along with the relationship between seasons and weather and the beings that call it home.  Better than any I've ever seen his work bears the odd irony of the warmth of a cold winter day.  A single piece might tell a complete story or spark a solitary memory, or just as easily spur the imagination to wander.

image courtesy of Chatham Fine Art
Certain pieces like the one to the left remind me vividly of hunting my home coverts.  To a student of art it may come as no surprise that the image of a single bird could trigger hundreds of images of leafless trees, pale cane breaks, muddy dogs, worn boots and such.  To me it's astounding and beyond my ability to explain.  These seemingly simple works ripple all of the pleasant thoughts and savory hours with a dog and a gun and a late winter sun in the woods.  Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes more when words just can't do the scene justice.  This, to me, is art.

Sadly, August 13th is the last day for the gallery.  Mr. Chatham is 71 years old and plans to scale back a bit, continuing to paint but most likely discontinuing the time-consuming lithography process, and I can't say I blame him.  When I'm his age, I hope I'll have the good sense to pare my activities to only those that I enjoy most.

image courtesy of Chatham Fine Art

Saturday, July 30, 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

Don't look too hard, the answer is not in the picture at all.  This is Montana, it's beautiful, and it's summertime.  And if you're a bird hunter the summertime part is the problem seeing as it's neither legal nor very practical.  Right place, wrong time.  It doesn't stop a guy from thinking about how right the right time could be, though.  Driving through the valleys I stared at sheets of grass for miles wondering how many partridge were hiding underneath.  Life is a series of hits and misses.

This is my token post for the month of July. When it's 100 degrees outside, the grass is turning brown and not because it's going dormant, and when even dove season is still too far out to stir over it's a bit of a struggle to write about bird hunting.  There's just not much of it in the here and now and at times such as these it takes a stretch to tie it all together.

I spent last week in Montana (family wedding) and I don't want anyone to think I'm complaining.  It is simply beautiful, almost perfect, and I see why people go out there and never come back.  The reach of the scenery is beyond words.  Even though I couldn't put a dog on the ground and walk fields anchored at the edges by amazing hills I did manage to have an outstanding time.

There was, for a brief stretch of time, the possibility of doing some fishing.  Far better known for its dry fly bonanzas than wingshooting opportunities, Montana offers plenty to summertime anglers.  Except in years like this one.  Anyone who follows any fishing blog knows about the record snowpack out west, the runoff having muted much of the spring fishing season.  Every river we saw was full right up to the lip, not out of its banks but not offering one bit in the way of sand and shoreline.  We took the kids on a float down the Missouri one afternoon, putting in at Wolf Creek bridge and taking out at Craig, apparently a pretty popular stretch for fishers if judged by the number of drift boats in the water and trailers at each end.

I spoke to a few guides at the put in and the consensus was that they were catching a few on nymphs, nothing on dry flies (in spite of having to pull the caddis hatch out of my mouth to have a conversation), and if I really wanted to catch some fish I'd be better off waiting a week or two.  Easy to say if you live there I suppose.

I'm far too value-minded to console myself after shelling out $400 for a skunking by saying things like "Just being outside was worth it" or "It's not about how many fish you catch".  While I tend to agree with both statements when money is removed from the equation I can go sit on the bank for half a day with a line in the water and still have $400 to do something, oh, slightly more fulfilling or even necessary with.  So in the end I drifted past quite a few guys who paid their money for their intangible reward, never seeing a single tight line.

This little devil on the sign at the entrance to Yellowstone was the final bit of irony in a week that was but wasn't...

In the words of Nuke LaLoosh, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Tick, tock

Doves passing overhead draw my eyes.  I squint and sharpen my focus on their heads; it's almost a reflex now.

Mostly they move in pairs, mating pairs, making more doves for the season.

A lot of time between today and the opener.  More than two months, in fact.  Fourth of July, jaunt to Montana, time at the coast, lots and lots of grass to cut.  All the while staring down the calendar.

A few months from now I'll look at these passing birds as targets.  And later as supper.

The days are getting shorter...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

If you need something good to read this summer...

Yes, this is subjective as hell.  Anyone who's traipsed through this blog for a while knows that I'm partial to Guy de la Valdene.  My only complaint with his work is that there's not enough of it for my consumption.  Were he as prolific as some mainstream writers - John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Stephen King - I might never pick up a book written by anyone else.  That's a bit of a stretch I know, but hey, passion runs deep sometimes.

la Valdene's latest release, The Fragrance of Grass, is another memoir of sorts, this time loosely wrapped around the grey partridge.  Following a theme of previous works centered around woodcock and bobwhite quail, he gathers decades of stories from places as distant as his native Normandy and remote Saskatchewan.  Colorful characters from a life lived between the extremes of society offer a glimpse into the realm of people beyond the world of the average reader.  Farmers, poachers, royalty, singers, authors and more find their way into these recollections, each leaving something to ponder.

True to form, la Valdene paints life as it is, himself included.  Very few modern writers are so willing to open up about their transgressions with such candor.  He is as equally understated about his successes and unashamed of either.  While lessons learned early in life did not ward off all mistakes, they did leave impressions that he translates into timeless pieces of knowledge:
"My first bird dog taught me that personalities dictate decisions, which in turn affect events."
This line is not set off from the rest of the text but could easily be.  Many of the areas covered in the book - from learning to shoot to the stocking of bird populations to the excesses displayed in taking game at various points in history - all can be boiled down to this simple observation.  His perspective is that of a man in the third quarter of his life, looking back with the wisdom gained only from having been on the field the previous two quarters.  Widely traveled with plenty of days in the field, the experience is a solid foundation for the reflections he shares.

I remain amazed at his command of the English language, his second language, no less.  Neither blunt nor flowery, he has a knack for choosing the right word or expression to convey the feeling of situations that we as hunters often struggle to voice.  It's hard to summarize this book in a single line, but one in particular stands out from the rest:
"In the quiet of the night I confess to the dog closest to me my heartfelt wish to be a child again."
Don't we all.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mo (not moe.)

One of life's flavors is the steady stream of people who come (and go) unexpectedly.  Most are less than remarkable, some leave you wishing they'd been less remarkable, and still others seem innocent enough at first only to grow like a white oak, slowly yet undeniably, into something of prominence in your world.

Retrospection comes more frequently with age (higher number of years in the rear view than out the windshield, statistically speaking), and often only with the benefit of time do you realize how consequential some of these people were.  A parent who gave you no choice but to be responsible for yourself, an employer who allowed you to make mistakes and keep your job, a college professor who set the books aside and taught you what the real world was like.  None of them were sought for these reasons, fate simply planted them in the right place.

photo courtesy of Vic Williams
About 18 years ago I was looking for a stud dog to breed with a friend's Brittany, got to asking around and after a few false starts was given the name of a trainer in Moonville, SC.  Fate and fortune had landed me squarely in the lap of a guy named Maurice Lindley.  Most people call him Mo.  Looking back, he's been a treasure to know.  He operates in a part of my world that borders on sacred, and he's shown me how to make it even more so. 

Mo ended up training a pup I got from that litter and I did an article on him for the The Pointing Dog Journal back in 2002 that focused on the mechanics of training and on some of the obstacles he's faced.  Over time I realized that the story is less about mechanics and obstacles and more about the person.  He's humble, honest and patient, three qualities I like most in anyone, but of these patience has been the gift.

I say this because it's such a critical element to owning and training a bird dog.  Literature on the subject can't seem to resist spotlighting a star student, a pup who was scent pointing at two weeks of age or had a handful of championships by his first birthday.  While there's a place in the world for overachievers, using them as examples in training manuals does such a disservice to the guy who wants to learn more about training.  It plants a seed that somehow there is a schedule to be adhered to.  It creates an unnecessary sense of expectation, a goal with no practical virtues. Want to teach someone how to train?  Don't tell him how long it should take to teach a skill, tell him how to know when it's time to move on to the next stage.

photo courtesy of Vic Williams
Mo gets this and when you spend time with him it's evident in every aspect of his work.  He doesn't think twice about backing up if he feels a dog is being rushed.  He understands that a race is something run on a track, not part of an education.  And he's helped me to understand how much there is to enjoy in the process, in the small victories along the way.

I'm finally past the point of wanting to hurry through things in life that bring me pleasure.  There were years, too many of them, where I was more interested in the end product and getting to it as quickly as possible.  Oh, if I had the patience in my twenties that I enjoy today...

If you're curious...

There's a book available on his methods (and a review of it over at Living with Birddogs) or if you'd like just a taste, I highly recommend going to Steady With Style and downloading the field manual, no charge other than your email address and they won't inundate your inbox.  Look for this image on the right side of the main page:
The field manual gives a really good perspective on how Mo goes about teaching dogs.  You may want to drop by his website as well.

photo courtesy of Vic Williams

Friday, May 27, 2011

Well, it's a start...Zuckerberg now killing what he eats

Saw a clip on CNBC of Fortune's Patricia Sellers discussing a piece she did on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  Now this doesn't have a whole lot to do with wingshooting, at least not yet, and I'm not even a big Facebook fan.  I don't have an account and observing those who do only makes me feel smarter.  It seems about the biggest time waste of this century, so far.  Well, that and Twitter.  Anyway, the story is about Zuckerberg's personal challenge this year, which is to only eat meat that he kills.

According to the story he took up the challenge after a pig roast at his house where many of his guests were averse to the fact that the pork they were eating used to be alive. I gotta give the guy credit - in California, in the circles I assume he's part of, it takes a lot to step up and do something so un-PC.  Maybe he is deserving of that Time Man of the Year award.  And it gets better.  Sellers writes:
"What's next on this journey? He's told people that he's interested in going hunting."
If this guy tries hunting and likes it, he's gonna post about it.  And that means 500 million people with not a whole lot to do are gonna find out about it, and a whole bunch of them, being young and impressionable, may even give it a try.  And I'll just have to be damned if Facebook ends up turning the tide of the conservation movement.  I might have to re-think my position on social media.

Of course if he tries hunting and doesn't like it......well I'd rather not think about it.  Keep earning that Man of the Year, bud.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hemingway, the NY Times and bobwhites

This article appeared on the NY Times website yesterday and the print edition today.  Happy to see the coverage at every level.  A couple of good quotes in there, one from the NBCI's Don McKenzie:

“We have to come up with bigger pieces of landscape that are managed in common, and have connections with other pieces of well-managed landscape where there are sustainable populations of birds,” McKenzie said. “We must make it happen by the millions of acres instead of by the tens of acres.”
Can't underscore this enough.  A second is from Dan Petit of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation:

“We think that converting pastures of cool-season grasses into warm-season grasses is economically very palatable to those individuals that make a living off of those grasses. This does not require a stimulus bill or anything like that.”

They really need to give this point some publicity.  And yes, the article does talk about Hemingway bird hunting in Arkansas.  There's a notable quote about his ego, too.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bobwhite aficionados take a peek..

It's not exactly news in that it's not exactly new, but the guys at NBCI have been more than a little busy.  They launched a new website, released a revised plan, and now sport a new name.  By all accounts they've shifted this into a higher gear, and one that those of us without a biology degree can sink our teeth into.

Roaming around the site the phrase that comes to mind is user-friendly.  I recall reading the original Northern Bobwhite Conservation Initiative plan when it was released in 2002 and thinking what a great, ambitious piece of work it was and then immediately wondering how to make it happen?  How do you create all this habitat, transform all this marginal land, inspire bobwhite hunters nationwide to step up?  The plan was heavy on objectives but light on instruction.  Now they've started filling in the blanks, naming the pieces and showing how they fit together.  The tag line in the logo above sums up the new direction.

I posted last year about what the future of conservation groups might look like and what their role would be in the restoration of bobwhites.  How this plays out is going to factor heavily in how well the plan succeeds, in fact it has the potential to be the determining factor in whether or not it succeeds.  The money and membership of these groups is invaluable when it comes to making tangible things happen.  Left to their own devices, however, the sum of the effort is likely to be somewhat disjointed in terms of reaching the larger goal.  These guys need to be looking to the NBCI for guidance and the NBCI doesn't need to be shy about giving it.

Naturally the muscle of volunteers won't do the trick all by itself.  Ducks and pheasant benefited greatly from legislative changes that either directly or indirectly established thousands of acres of friendly habitat.  In a recent blog post director Don McKenzie addresses some of the farm bill changes necessary to provide the same lift to bobwhites.  Now they need to go one step further and tell us what we can do as individuals to help make this happen.  Letters to congressmen?  Tell us what these letters need to say. Grass roots level meetings with representatives to show them what's wrong and what could be done?  Give us the names and places. 

Back in 2002 the authors of the plan were thinking on a big scale and change at that level doesn't come in small, isolated pieces.  It comes through many people from many backgrounds in many places working together as part of a coordinated, or to borrow from the tagline, unified effort.  They're still thinking on a big scale, a grand scale even, and that's what it's going to take to return populations to their 1980s levels.  Now they're going to have to embrace the role as leader of this massive, monumental effort, giving to-do lists to the states for the states to pass down to NGOs, property owners, hunters and other volunteers.  It's picking up speed.  Momentum is one of the most curious things in physics - and one of the most powerful.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A change in olfactory seasons

I've been told that autumn's first killing frost is when bird dogs start getting serious about hunting.  Up until that time, according to legend, there are too many distractions for a nose with superpowers to sift the good stuff out reliably.  There's a brief period right after that first hard frost where all the vegetation's dying, which I imagine is something like the overpowering stench of sargassum washed up onshore in the Keys, and they struggle a bit until that passes.  Fortunately it doesn't have the staying power of sargassum and in a few days the dogs are in business.  In fall and winter and a dog's nose has one focus:  game.

Spring rolls around, however, and another legend has it that gamebirds stop giving off much scent, something to do with protection during the nesting season.  An idle nose is the Scent Devil's playground.  Bugs and snakes and frogs and the other critters that hole up in the winter come out to play.  Weeds and flowers and seeds hang in the air.  And food on the table, my oh my, how the interest in that rises through no apparent coincidence.  The rest of the earth comes back to life.  Even a lowly sniffer like mine gets drunk on the smell of honeysuckle and lilac.

A wet, pink nose is born again with a new purpose, millions of new smells to sample, savor and catalog.  Moving from one end of the yard to the other can take an hour or more in what must be akin to wandering the aisles of a really, really fine market and being allowed to taste every single thing on the shelf.  These must be the rewards for having to sleep on the floor and eat the same thing at every meal.

What I can't figure out (among other things) is how a nose that sensitive isn't completely pillaged by pollen.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Somebody give me another push

Hard to complain about a warm Easter Sunday without a cloud in the sky.  Got the yardwork done yesterday so I'd have the afternoon to pursue less punishing activities.  I settled into the hammock with a copy of The Sound and The Fury and minutes slid into hours.

The call of a pissed off squirrel is unmistakable, a muted screech lacking rhythm but not persistence (sorry for the derailment of any train of thought, but did I mention I was reading Faulkner?).  I peered through the branches of a sweetgum next to the tree that anchored the hammock until I saw a bushy tail waving like an old woman's handkerchief.  He was sitting on the lowest branch, cursing and taunting my dog lying on the ground fifteen feet away.  For some reason the dog only lifted his head to watch this rodent's rant.

Eventually the squirrel made his way into the maple at the foot of the hammock and through the leaves I saw something red in his mouth.  A flower?  Nothing red in bloom in our yard right now.  A strawberry?  Maybe, but where would he have gotten it?  One of the kids' toys?  Possibly, but why would he want that?  As he scrambled overhead I could make out red holly berries still attached to a branch with glossy green leaves.  This looked like something stolen off of the mantel at Christmas.  And he was still screeching.  And by now the dog had pressed his jaw back down to the ground, eyes closed as if these last few minutes never happened.

The prey tormenting the predator, a token from a different season in his mouth, the predator indifferent to his attempts. Had I fallen asleep and become suddenly conscious in the middle of a dream?  Somehow it really didn't seem out of place with a critically acclaimed novel that the author is still chuckling about in his grave, knowing another poor soul is trying to figure out just what the hell he's talking about.  I suppose life is like that some days.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Got that kitchen groove back

It's a tragedy when you take eating for granted.  Not on a Shakespearean level, mind you, but something to be mourned nonetheless and avoided if possible.  The one thing you have to do to survive is eat, so you might as well make the most of it.  Yeah you have to breathe, too, but there's only so much latitude in that and try as you might you'll never reach the delights found in eating.

I used to cook with fervor.  I looked forward to nights when I could spend several hours at the stove caramelizing, sautéing, searing, seasoning and tasting.  When the house is empty cooking can be a pleasure again.  There's no one to say "Ewww!" or whine "I don't waaaant it", no reason to rush the process to get a little whiner to bed on time.  It's also a good time to purge the freezer of less popular contents.  Yesterday I got a late start and vowed that I'd make do with whatever was in the house, opting to sip bourbon instead of trudging to the store.  Potluck marinade handles the underdog role well.  Dove breast fired in a cast iron pan takes a back seat to nothing.

These found their way on top of mashed potatoes that I'll sheepishly admit my wife found the recipe for in a Martha Stewart magazine.  But hey, fair's fair and good's good regardless of the origin and this dish, absent the customary milk or cream and infused with a heavy dose of olive oil and garlic yields the best mashed potatoes I've ever piled on a fork.  Of course I found I was out of garlic after the potatoes were boiling so I substituted a lonely shallot and some garlic powder and drifted in some cumin out of curiosity.  Jackpot.

You've had those meals.  Everyone's had those meals, the ones where the palate and the mind dance like the Peanuts gang, jubilant and uninhibited.  They occupy thoughts to the point that there's no room left for troubles and all seems right with the world.  Or maybe that's the whiskey at work.

And it was so good I forgot to take pictures.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Death in the short grass

It is undeniable.  You can tempt it, you can cheat it, you can curse it, mourn it, or brood over it yet it remains indifferent to actions and emotions, unswerving in its task.  The human world builds rituals around the end of life culminating with the planting of remains in cemeteries, the gardens of the dead.  The animal world has no such rite. They don't bury each other in unmarked graves either, Disney as that notion may be.  And despite a certain amount of evidence to the contrary they don't all seek asphalt in the end.  Given this and the vast number of animals in the wild it seems an average hunter would stumble upon a few more carcasses in the woods and fields.

Sure, quite a few creatures end up as links in the food chain and are digested to the point that only the most fastidious eye would detect the parts amid twigs and leaves.  For the rest the framework lands in plain view, picked clean, nature's near-perfect efficiency in action.  In plain view of something, but what?

If you believe in higher powers and predestination and those sorts of things it would make sense that each living creature, or at least the sum of its physical parts, ends up exactly where it's supposed to.  That fact is no closer to unlocking the answer but does provide a measure of comfort that there is some order to this end of the universe.  Known science suggests it's possible that the disguises that protect so well during life serve the same purpose afterward, but at that point what is the purpose?

It's also possible that this is one of those questions that Mother Nature never wants answered.  Logical, orderly, mathematical minds have trouble with such things.  Einstein-be-damned, maybe some things can't be reduced to an equation.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Good gear

In a closet full of gear, certain pieces get reached for more than others.  Year after year this core group that almost always makes the traveling squad gets a little older, doesn't necessarily hide the aging well, yet is ready to go when called. 

Good gear isn't necessarily expensive, a well-known name or overly specialized.  General purpose fits the bill.  You don't feel the need to baby it.  Mostly it's tough as a nickel steak.

A Wal-Mart special still going strong

Good gear is sometimes only qualified after you've owned it for 10+ years.  More times than not it's hard to find a replacement for (they usually don't make it any more), and it's good regardless of what it cost (although getting a deal on it makes it really good).  Browsing catalogs or a rack in the stores, a seasoned eye can take one look and know whether it'll make the grade in your world.

Broken in, not worn out

Is technical gear better?  Sometimes.  There's a lot to be said for waterproof, breathable, lightweight, and moisture-wicking.   Durability can be an issue with some of these combinations, though.  Certain types of brush can greatly extend the breathability of fabric while simultaneously taking the waterproof right out of it. 

Many miles to go
The acid test?  When it looks worn plum out but you can't bring yourself to stop using it.  Hence duct tape, seam sealer and Dr. Scholls have cemented their place in the good gear hall of fame.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ghost steps

Yesterday I played a little hooky and hunted the Crackerneck Wildlife Management Area along the South Carolina/Georgia border.  This is no ordinary managed public land - it's located on on the property of the Savannah River Site, more on this in a minute.

Walking among the tall pines it occurred to me that this very same land was likely hunted by my wife's grandfather back in the 1940s, avid small game hunter that he was.  While it's not unusual to hunt in the same places as family members from earlier generations, it is a bit unusual to come back after so many years and be the first in several generations to do so.

path of Cold War secrets
At the time he lived in Ellenton, SC, one of three small towns taken over by the Atomic Energy Commission in 1950 to build the Savannah River Site, a production facility for enriching weapons-grade nuclear material.  'Taken over' is a nice way of saying the government exercised its right of eminent domain and gave the people in these towns only one choice: leave.  The families were given a matter of weeks to find a new place to live, pack up everything they owned and move.  Even some of the graves were relocated.  And there was no going back.  I'm sure they were paid a fair market price for their real estate, but they weren't compensated for having to give up their life as they'd known it.  Many of the farmers found it impossible to start over in a new town.

I'm not anti-government by any means.  Every good, stable democracy needs one and yet at the same time it's virtually impossible for any government to please all its people all the time.  This site was picked for a variety of reasons one of which was surely that it would require displacing relatively few people, same as with sites picked for dams and power plants, but that certainly didn't make it any easier on those affected.

Gandy, as he was known to my wife, carried an LC Smith 12ga that my father-in-law still owns and has earmarked for my son.  I'll confess to a small bit of envy since I've never owned a shotgun that belonged to any of my ancestors.  The South Carolina DNR has done a tremendous job of improving the bobwhite habitat in the Crackerneck area and if their budget doesn't dry up and the government doesn't decide to repossess or restrict the property again, my plan is to close the loop when my son gets old enough to shoot that gun.

If you're a history buff or just curious about the story of Ellenton and the Savannah River Site, I'd suggest starting with the website of a documentary produced a couple of years ago, Displaced.  There's an interesting picture, the first one in Gallery 4, showing several hand-painted signs tacked onto the city limit sign of Ellenton soon after notice was given to the residents.  I'd post it here but I'm not sure about the copyrights, even though we have a copy of it in our home.  It reads: It is hard to understand why our town must be destroyed to make a bomb that will destroy someone else's town that they love as much as we love ours.  But we feel that they picked not just the best spot in the US, but in the world.  We love these dear hearts and gentle people who live in our Home Town. If that doesn't sum up the irony of the event I'm not sure what does.