Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Steelheading on dry land

John Gierach's latest in Gray's ("The Velvet Handshake", March/April 2014) about steelheading paints a picture that, oddly enough, lessens the sting of a slow bird season. The only steelhead in South Carolina are hanging on walls in offices and living rooms, but it's not difficult to understand both the allure and the long stretches of nothingness that shape the experience.  Gierach doesn't moan so much as explain that not catching steelhead is as much a part of the business as catching.

When times are poor the rule of thumb is there's nowhere to go but up, so when they actually get a bit worse it's enough to cause panic or, in the worst scenario, a compound case of seasonal affective disorder. Day after day it teeters between maddening and soul-crushing and yet the thought of quitting, of putting away the gear or selling it and leaving it behind for good never emerges.

On the other hand, dry spells do seem to breed a dangerous excess of contemplation on all matters personal, public or otherwise. According to Zen ideology the mind isn't supposed to wander. Stay in the moment, focus on the present, be here now. According the bird hunter the mind does, in fact, wander. Wanna re-think your career, your relationships, the way you're raising your kids or the future of the country? Grab the dog and go look for quail.

The arc carved by a fly line on a perfect two-handed cast is not much different than one carved through grass by a fire-breathing pointer. Things such as these fill the void and bring the mind back to the here and now.

If you find three or four or even eight coveys, you remember the day. If you find one covey and shoot one bird you remember the bird. Either way you're bagging memories, which is really all you have left after the meat is gone.

And if the dog never catches a zephyr of scent? There are reasons you head back out in the face of long odds, and it's better if you don't try to justify them.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Playing chicken with the grim reaper

His back legs can't quite carry the load like they used to, bending under the weight of standing still and dragging toenails on the ground when he walks. He wobbles a bit, too. He's mostly deaf and his head droops much of the time. Episodes that are best classified as some sort of canine dementia carry him into a corner where he'll stand for long stretches until you tap him and he snaps out of it.

But his health is generally good, he never seems to be in pain, and at times (usually around meal time) he gets some spring in his step again. Hard to say for certain what a dog considers good quality of life, but being able to get around on your own, eat, drink, and sleep probably cover the basics.

Sometime on Monday he wandered through the electric fence and didn't make it back by supper time. I walked around the neighborhood looking without luck in places an old dog might wander. With temps in the 40s he wouldn't have any trouble surviving the night as long as coyotes didn't find him but several days without food would weaken an already frail body to the point that he wouldn't be able to get around. By the end of the week there'd be little chance of finding him alive.

Shortly before bedtime I came to grips with the fairly good chance that we might not see him again and I wasn't overly upset. Sixteen years is a long time and he does require more effort and upkeep than the younger dogs. We'd all be a little sad but wouldn't feel cheated in the least. Not knowing would be the only difficult part.

I came home at lunch on Tuesday to see if he'd turned up anywhere. No sign of him in the yard. No messages on the phone.  On an impulse I pulled in the driveway across the street to see if he'd strayed into their backyard like he'd done once or twice before. Having checked on Monday evening there really wasn't any reason to go back but unseen forces, maybe animal spirits at work, will pull you or push you to do things that aren't entirely logical.

He wasn't in the backyard and I walked to the edge of the woods, looking down a hill toward the muddy wetland that borders the creek. A white spot in the distance turned out to be a five gallon bucket.  A second white spot had some brown patches toward one end and turned out to be my dog, stuck chest-deep in the quagmire. A few more hours and this would have been a recovery operation. He could barely keep his nose out of the muck when I arrived.

In the two decades I've owned dogs I have never, ever seen one this muddy. Hell, I've never seen a pig this muddy. He looked like he'd been dipped in chocolate and left to soak. It took the better part of an hour and some unimpressive work with scissors to get him reasonably clean again. He was so exhausted he went to sleep while I was bathing him.

If I had gone on back to the office instead of taking one look behind the neighbor's house, if I hadn't looked exactly where he was mired, if I'd just waited to see if he turned up....the story changes completely. It's humbling that just one split-second impulsive decision can be the fence between life and death.

There's no question life around here would be easier if he were gone. Old dogs, like old people and old cars are high maintenance. But we get attached to all of them. Maybe that attachment is the unseen force making you do things that aren't entirely logical.

Somewhere is a line beyond which you stop doing whatever is necessary to keep an old dog alive. I guess I haven't quite crossed it yet.

Friday, April 4, 2014


I've heard the stories of old men driving their land yacht Cadillacs into the field, giving the shocks all they could handle, and when they stopped in a cloud of dust and grass, one would open the trunk and let the dogs out. Evolution was inevitable.

Eventually someone had the idea of doing a little cutting and welding to a car to make it easier to get in and out of and added a few places to put the guns so you wouldn't have to carry them in your lap.  Then someone else figured the work force could use a nicer place to ride and the dog box was born.  Soon there wasn't enough room on a car, or there wasn't enough power under the hood, and the whole setup migrated to a truck body giving birth to the modern day quail rig.

I've seen some of the tamer versions in person and even ridden on a handful and my reactions have ranged from "bet that ain't cheap" to "you gotta be kidding me". They're a sight to see and a feast for the engineer's and tinkerer's mind. Just when you think you've seen it all, however, along comes one that resets the standard.

Native Texan photographer Lokey compiled upwards of 120 of these rigs in a new book slated for release later this month.  Texas Quail Rigs is the result of three years traveling the state shooting pictures where owners and ranch managers shoot birds, and some of these give new meaning to the sky's the limit.

When I spoke with Lokey he said the idea came from a conversation where someone suggested he do a book about quail hunting. "I said no, that's been done before. Then they asked if anyone had done a book about the rigs and I knew we were onto something." Considering the current state of affairs of the bobwhite he adds, "It's social anthropology on many levels."

One of the fabricators manufactures 80-90 rigs a year, far more than I would have guessed the market could stand. Of course, a market where a high-end rig can run as much as $250,000 isn't entirely reflective of the broader economy.

These rides are truly limited only by imagination and, in a few rare cases, by wallets...

AM General texas quail rig

Pure military meat. Built for the full-on assault of birds, a campaign waged in the field without sacrificing comfort, and ready if the North Koreans invade.

Vintage GMC 1500 before we got too carried away. I kinda like this one. You can almost hear a few old boys saying, "What if we put a seat up there and cut a hole here to walk through?"

Pinzgauer Texas quail rig

Euro-rig. I don't imagine it had any trouble getting to the top of the hill. Love the hatch in the roof.

13 seat Texas quail rig

This looks like a stretch frame job but it's actually an F350 Super Crew long bed conversion. Seats about 13 and you can drive it from the back end. Of course at full capacity you only get your turn every 6th covey.

VW Micro Bus Texas quail rig

You can do just about anything in a micro bus. Or to it. MP3 player has 6000 hours of bootlegs loaded and ready for an afternoon..umm...session.

VW Thing Texas quail rig

This may be the highest and best use of a VW Thing. Bookends, too.

Jeep Texas quail rig

Didn't Mad Max drive one of these? Form definitely taking a backseat to function here. I really included this one because the Brittany looked so damn good striking a pose.

Rolls Royce quail rig

....and in the More Money Than (go ahead, fill it in) category. Yes, this truly is - or was - a 1982 Rolls Royce Silver Spur. Grey Poupon in the glovebox.

Some of the options you can't see in the photos? A built-in 400 lb milo tank for spreading feed as you hunt. An onboard smoker. A full bar with blender and margarita machine. How about a 4000 watt stereo? As Henry Chappell says in the intro, boys will be boys.

Yes, we've come a long way from the mule-drawn wagon. You can see more at