Who Will Tie My Knots?

The fish wait for him, and I will wait until they know a part of him is still here.

[by Mathew T. Burgan]


The scientist speaks to me. “So, you’re a fisherman?” He claps a big hand white against my shoulder. Wrinkled eyes beg me to say yes so he can prove me wrong. He is daring me to a duel. He taunts me with his palm on my shoulder, squeezing a knot into muscle.

“I’ve fished from the Florida Keys to Alaska’s Inside Passage,” I reply with bravado. I take a half step away to loosen his grip. His hand does not break from me. My step goes short.

He is a foot taller than I. He is white-haired and stoic. He smiles under a thin mustache that remembers blond shades of youth. His sun-bleached eyes search me over.

“Aboriginal war drums bounce in my brain. He is counting coup. It is the ultimate act of the victor over the defeated. “

I am confident. I have wrenched tarpon from shallow salt water and beaten barracudas from wavefrosted surf. I wrestled catfish bare-handed from Mississippi mud. I wrangled smallmouth bass on the banks of Indiana streams. Michigan largemouths rest in my belly. Alaskan salmon and halibut have gone from the end of my line into the icebox. I am 23 and I have fished the waters of 10 men.

He looks down to me. The light behind him silvers the tips of his frame. He smiles and rests his big, warm palm back to my shoulder.

“Let’s fish,” he says.

I nod up to him. I am ready. I will kick his ass. Young hands will cast farther and strike more often. I will haul in more fish than a Japanese trawler with a starving nation behind it.

“How about Saturday?” he asks. I feign a punch into him to accept the duel. He does not flinch. He knows a false punch. He knows that there is no strength behind it before I clutch my fingers. He clamps tight into me.

“What time?” I ask.

“Be at my place at five.” He smiles and gives me an effortless shake that rocks me toe to heel.

It is Friday and I drink. Billy buys a round, and Templeman buys a round, and I buy a round. We dance with loose women. Templeman has stolen a stop sign from a crossing guard. The stick is wedged in his dirty-nailed mitts. We stop pretty girls and walk them safely across the bar. We drink Kokanee and Pabst and Jack Daniel’s. We are public servants protecting the beautiful. We dance and shout over the band. We clink empty glasses on a sticky table. We slam two-inch circles into the checked Formica as we cross off shots. I smoke small cigars and chat up a full-breasted redhead looking for something fresh. She challenges me with tequila and bits of salted lime. I win. At 2 a.m., the barman shouts last call. I leave the party to stagger home with a phone number tattooed in blue ink on my hand. Billy and Templeman stay behind in smoke. They are trolling for bottom feeders. I fumble through locks and fall into bed.

The alarm sounds and I step stiff to the floor. Two hours of shut-eye. There is no time to wash smoke and beer and whiskey and tequila away. There is no time to let my heavy, frozen head thaw to something less burdensome. I push my rod and gear into the pickup and drive half drunk to the scientist’s house. I am 15 minutes late and he is waiting in the driveway. He shakes his head and takes long strides as he moves gear from my truck to his. I toss my waders into the back and make an apology. He restacks my rod and waders and cooler. He bungies things tight. He leaves nothing to chance. He climbs into his clean truck. I lean heavy on the door as we drive through town, over Memorial Bridge, and into the mountains. We make good time east to St. Regis and north and two steps west to the St. Joe River.

I am weary in the morning light. I want black tea. We drive. He offers me a cookie. I nibble with dull teeth. It is the best cookie I have ever eaten.

“Mary made them,” he says without looking at me. I want to know Mary. I want more of these excellent cookies.

“Stick close to me when we get on the river,” he says. “Let’s figure out what’s working.”

I think, Screw you, buddy. I gnaw Mary’s perfect cookie. I won’t let him mooch off me. I will catch fish, and he will wonder. I lick cookie from fingers and rest my head against the passenger window. His words lull me to sleep. “The river is rocky,” he chimes. I nod away. “The fish are fickle. . . .” His words drift downstream.

We stand together at the roadside. The river is narrow and deep. The current is strong. It is different. It is not broad Alaska, shallow Indiana, muddy Mississippi, or salty Florida. It is swift and clean and clear. I skip felt soles boulder to boulder down the bank. I stomp into the water. I measure it. I wade in. He watches. A wall of rock and willow breaks steel on the backcast. I hear the hook snap like a toothpick. I move to shore and retie. He watches. I wade thigh deep, lift and curl my line. I break off again. I return to shore and he is there.

“Let me help ya,” he says. He takes my rod and swirls the line into his hand. “Wind knot,” he mumbles as he threads tippet between fingers. He stretches the line, bites out weakness, and blood-knots new leader in. His fingers are deft, precise. He does not speak. He pulls the leader to eight feet, adding finer tippets as he goes. He spits on each knot to ensure it slides tight. He ties on a fly from his box.

He mutters to himself. “I tied this last week.” I hear him. The river listens. He passes my rod to me. He steps a few paces up the bank. Haloed by the early sunlight, he searches the morning sky and his fly box for something else that might work.

I crack my knuckles and try to clear my head with deep breaths. I tell myself that his chicken feathers will do no better. I am correct. I drift a half dozen times and nothing. He has chosen a dead hole. His broken fly has no life. He is all pose, quiet word, and no meat. Big hat and no cattle. I clamber up the slope to him. “No fish here,” I say.

“Well,” he mutters to the air. “Let’s give ’em a minute.” He breaks another of Mary’s cookies. His eyes do not leave the St. Joe. He sips cold coffee and searches the water. “They know we’re here,” he mumbles.

I am angry. Doesn’t he know I’ve cut a good drunk and a sassy redhead short to be here? I am thinking about buckling knuckles and smacking him a good one when he eases my rod away and takes a few lurching steps to the river’s edge. He dips his toes into the water and sits. He whirls the line like a buggy whip and lets his homemade fly drift to the head of the bend.

GRAY’S BEST 2020

Our top choices for angling & hunting gear


Gray’s Best awards are anticipated by longtime readers of Gray’s Sporting Journal and coveted by hunting and angling manufacturers. The reason? Gray’s Best carries the weight of authentic sincerity. Many sporting magazines print an end-ofthe-year roundup of new products. Gray’s publishes a distinguished selection.

Our editors cover areas of expertise and experience—Angling, Shooting, Apparel, and Accessories—and choose gear that not only makes good first impressions, but also satisfies during repeated use. We make choices of our own volition, absent encouragement and incentive from the manufacturers. Further, Gray’s Best winners deliver on the claims of their makers but also have an extra attribute, an extra something that evokes a feeling, remembrance, or aesthetic and can be defined only as . . . satisfying. Much like Gray’s itself.

The Sportsman’s Galley & Paderewski Fine Art Celebrate Patrick Matthews in Residence

(from The Sportsman’s Gallery)


The Sportsman’s Gallery, Ltd. is pleased to present Patrick Matthews: Artist in Residence, 165 King Street, February 10th-16th, 2020.

Matthews is a Little Rock, AK native who started his career as an independent architect and although very successful, discovered a passion for loose and Impressionistic painting. Matthews is an avid camper, hunter and fisherman and often immerses himself in nature’s elements with paintbrush in hand to capture unique perspectives and detailed beauty. Pat says, "Painting outdoors, surrounded by nature, in all seasons, I am energized. I have a sense of inner strength, joy, and peace I feel nowhere else. My very vision changes and paintings appear on my canvases as though put there by some mysterious force.”

Come witness this contemporary landscape painter create compelling local and worldwide landscapes consisting of distinct texture and bold color. Pat is always eager to discuss his
inspiration and career while painting.

We invite you and your family to visit the gallery February 10th-16th (10am-5:30pm) for the opportunity to meet, greet, and watch Patrick Matthews paint. The gallery is located at 165 King Street, Charleston.


For additional information please contact:

Michael Paderewski
Gallery Owner
michael@sportsmansgallery.com
843-329-3509

Or

Annie Vangilder
Gallery Director
annie@sportsmansgallery.com
843-727-1224

Decade

HIGH COUNTRY HUNTER, BY BRETT JAMES SMITH

A wilderness reunion on horseback for elk.

BY TOM REED


 IT HAD BEEN 10 LONG YEARS SINCE THE BROTHERS AND I HUNTED ELK TOGETHER IN THE WYOMING HIGH COUNTRY. Years that had taken me north to Montana, where I hunted with various partners, tried different mountain ranges, scouted new basins. A few elk were taken, but it just did not seem the same, did not feel like the team I was once a part of for many long years. Nothing clicked. The brothers, too, had gone in different career directions, Dave helping run the state’s park system, Al out in Boise fighting fires. They kept hunting together, though, while I stubbornly tried to make Montana hunt like Wyoming, tried to find old friends Dave or Al in new friends like Ty and Corey.

But on this September morning, a morning that feels more like November, the very worst of it, we are together once again. In a blizzard, a full-on, nonstop blizzard that has been on us for most of the week. Opening morning, late in a month that usually is sunshine and short sleeves, and the snow is shin-deep, with more in the air, and the elk herd out in front of us.

It is the height of the rut, and the bulls are in full throat. Two days ago, we had seen the herd, in less snow, tucked up against the timber, across the basin, far away. We sat on a ridgeline where we could spin 360 and see elk country at every degree. Off south toward Togwotee, north to the park. Most of it burned in ’88, right to the ground, creating some of the best elk habitat in the West, opening up stands of monoculture lodgepole pine, clearing out old dying stands of fir and spruce. Thirty years later and the skeletons still stand, some of them, while others are on the ground providing fertile soil for brush in a hard land that is snow-laden most of the year.

So we sat up there two days ago, backs against one of the old victims that had fallen and was fading away, binos pressed to our faces, and we watched the show. Took it all in, that elk herd up there in the snow, watched as cows and calves popped out of a patch of fir, then disappeared, watched as a bull with the hide like my buckskin packhorse raked its antlers against the skin of a woebegone limber pine, then saw him, too, disappear into the folds of the mountain as if swallowed whole by some unseen force. The elk were there. Turn 180 and we could watch a sow grizzly and three cubs of the year working up an open ridge two miles distant, grubbing, scouring September for one last bite before the big freeze and the long sleep. It was a rare moment with sun warm on us, a sun we had not had the pleasure of facing for days, and a wild kingdom playing out everywhere we turned. It was also the final days of archery season. We could go make an attempt, but in two days, the bows would be cased and the weapon changed.

In blackness, in hard-driving snowfall, we had risen and moved to the cook tent. Bundled against it, Al on breakfast and the cookstove, Dave checking the horses and mules out in the meadow, where the week’s yield was 18 inches of powder on the flat. Good stock, tolerating it, plucked from the warmth of a late August pasture in the low country, ridden 15 miles in the rain up a soggy, muddy trail five days ago, right into the heart of winter. Hobbled and picketed, turned out and lovingly checked often every day as the snow deepened and just living got harder. All of us with jobs, unspoken jobs that needed done, taking up the slack, giving slack. Knock snow off the tent in the morning, shuffle to the cook tent, knock snow off it, light a fire to chase away the frost on the nylon and get breakfast going. Post-hole out into it, hoping to get a good bull in the snow with a well-placed arrow, work the day away, then move back to camp, knock snow off the cook tent, and do it all over again. Late September and none of us, western boys with years of experience, have ever seen anything like this last week. Rain on day one turning to snow and snow and then more snow.

Now the hunt. I have not seen Dave for at least two hours. He went one way, I another. Parallel paths in the timber, perhaps half a mile apart, moving toward the herd, which is talking frequently now. We have the ability to talk back, but we don’t. We don’t even cow-call. We don’t make this plan, don’t decide to move in quiet, neither of us tooting on a bugle. We just do it as if we had spent days hatching out a plan, drawing lines with chalk on some board, putting up Xs and Os, drawing arrows and curving, swooping lines. As if we had a coach barking out orders, laying out the game plan, chalk snapping on board, emphasis made.

There was none of that. It just was and we knew what to do.

In the blizzard, wearing wool, clutching a trusted rifle, there is only the whisper of it coming down all around us. Elk call from all around. One that may be the herd bull has a voice as raspy as a pack-a-day barfly, and it lies straight ahead. Our paths, 10 years on pause, may be parallel, but there is no way to communicate, no way to let each other know where we are going, and as the light rises up out of the day, we can only go our own pace. My own pace. Closer and closer to the herd, the wind right, snow in my face, and when I look to the north, toward where Dave might be if he was moving at exactly the same pace as me for the last two hours, there, suddenly, he is. Right there beside me, a half mile out on that parallel path. Then he disappears again, as if swallowed by that same unseen force, into the mountain itself.

Gray’s Gear & Lifestyle – Waterfowl / Winter 2019

There are certain pieces of equipment you rarely need, but when demand arises, all is lost without them. Such is the case with the SIMMS Transom Fishing Bib ($350), which pairs with the Transom Fishing Jacket ($400) to keep you dry, comfortable, and sealed tight against the elements on days when the weather turns especially nasty. Stretch panels on the bib allow you to layer up without inhibiting motion, while a lower leg zipper makes getting in and out of your boots a snap. Hand-warming pockets keep essential tackle secure—the only thing left for you to do is prove your grandfather correct when he asserted that the fish don’t know when it’s raining. With the Transom, you might not know either. www.simmsfishing.com

Portable power has come a long way since the days of tugging a pull string to start a noisy, gas-powered generator that may or may not come through in a pinch. Worry no more with the MIDLAND PPG1000 ($1,099), a 924 Wh lithium-ion-powered blockbuster that allows you to take clean, quiet energy to your campsite, tailgate party, or hunting camp—all at half the weight of a typical car battery. A heavy-duty hardshell carrying case, submersible in up to three feet of water when closed and sealed, makes it easy to transport while keeping things worry-free should the rains arrive. Chargeable via an AC wall unit, 12 V car outlet, or an attachable solar panel (sold separately), the PPG1000 provides hours of heavy use while operating any device that does not exceed a maximum output of 1000 W. www.midlandusa.com

The Nevalis Down Jacket ($250) from SNOWBEE is an exceptionally well-designed garment, created to protect you from the rain, wind, and cold thanks to a unique internal and external three-layer laminated fabric that uses hidden internal stitching to form waterproof pockets of down and feather. With no stitch lines on the outside, water is not allowed to penetrate the down pockets, while the outer shell of woven microfiber polyester makes sure liquid beads up and runs off the surface. Inside, a lightly woven lining with peachskin finish keeps you comfortable, while a pair of deep pouch pockets provides an ample home for your wallet and cell phone. Adjustable cuffs and two internal bottom hem adjusters complete the package, giving you an ideal shell for sporting adventures or everyday winter wear. www.snowbee-usa.com

Scout Rifles

The old Lee-Enfield No. 5 Mk. I, a.k.a., “Jungle Carbine,” was a decent “scout rifle” exactly as it was issued to British troops in Burma and Malaya in 1945. Other good factory scout rifles include the Savage 99 and the Mannlicher-Schönauer Model 1903.

Not quite a quest, but close.

[by Terry Wieland]


THE ARMY SCOUT IS AN ALMOST MYTHICAL CHARACTER FROM FRONTIER HISTORY—as admired in his day as a Navy SEAL is now. A scout combined the best qualities of a good soldier with those of a skilled hunter. He was at home on a horse, in the woods, alone on the prairie, or behind enemy lines. A scout was a woodsman, a reader of sign, a master of stealth, and a tactician who depended on himself alone to get out of trouble.

A scout was well but simply armed: a carbine, a knife, a pistol. He traveled light and moved fast, and his weapons reflected that. This was the image Col. Jeff Cooper evoked in the early 1980s when he embarked on a project that was to occupy his attention for the next decade: the design of a modern “scout rifle.” Nothing like the gun Cooper envisioned was commercially available in 1984, and in fact, few custom rifles fit the description. Hunting rifles of the time, he felt, were too heavy or awkward; some were too powerful, others not powerful enough. Therefore, he set out a formula, and what he described would, in another age, be the perfect stalking rifle for red stag in the Highlands, for white-tailed deer in Maine, or foraging for food in the Rockies.

“What happened to Cooper’s scout-rifle idea after that, after it fell into the hands of rifle companies and their marketing departments, is almost an object lesson in how a good idea can be turned by committee into a bad idea…”

Although the scout rifle’s specifications evolved over the years, the basics remained the same: It was to weigh no more than seven pounds, loaded and ready to go; it used a mid-power cartridge along the lines of the . 257 Roberts; had a barrel no more than 22 inches long; and the scope was mounted ahead of the action so stripper clips could be used. Having the scope forward also allowed the rifle to be carried for long periods, comfortably, in one hand or— in military parlance—“at the trail.” Unusual for the time, Cooper specified a plastic stock for lightness, stability, and durability. This was before the advent of Kevlar and similar high-tech stock materials, but Cooper accurately predicted the eventual domination of composites over wood.

Equally as important as what the rifle was, is what it was not. It was not a sniper rifle, so it did not need extreme range; 300 yards was more than enough. An army scout avoided firefights, so he did not need an assault rifle with high-capacity magazines. Sighting equipment was pretty basic—either a compact scope or a good aperture sight.

Writing in Guns & Ammo in 1987, three years after the project began and with several custom rifles then in various stages of completion, Cooper pointed out that “There is no single element that makes the scout superior, but rather the total effect of many small increments. No single feature of the scout makes it supreme, but when taken all together the effect is dramatic.”

Cooper called this process “increment-stacking,” but it could also be likened to the domino theory in reverse. Having all the right “small increments” may make the scout rifle supreme, but changing even one can affect the others adversely and result in a rifle that is unusable for its intended purpose.

Of course, a major element was the cartridge for which the scout rifle was chambered. It needed sufficient power and accuracy out to 300 yards, but it also had to be small enough to function through a compact action. And, since a man on a long scouting mission carries all his own ammunition, an adequate supply needs to be light. Dozens of cartridges fit that bill. My own choice would be the .250-3000, but anything from the .243 Winchester to the .308 would do. Cooper himself favored something along the line of the 7mm-08. Today’s darling, the 6.5 Creedmoor, would be ideal.

By 1989, a dozen of Cooper’s admirers had custom rifles in progress, but already he was experiencing a kind of “mission creep.” There was now a formula for a “super scout,” and even plans for a “lion scout.” The latter was a rifle suitable for African hunting—lions in dense brush and so on—and the array of so-called scout cartridges had expanded beyond recognition. The image of a lone scout on a horse had been updated to embrace three men in a Bren-gun carrier, cavorting behind enemy lines, and suitably armed for the purpose.

What happened to Cooper’s scout-rifle idea after that, after it fell into the hands of rifle companies and their marketing departments, is almost an object lesson in how a good idea can be turned by committee into a bad idea—or at least, one that falls far short of the original vision. Everyone, it seemed, had an idea of how to “improve” it, by using magnum cartridges, longer barrels, even bipods. Ever try to fit a rifle with a bipod into a saddle scabbard? Don’t.

Looking back to 1952, 30 years before Cooper floated his idea, Winchester had introduced a rifle that was almost ideal. The original Winchester Model 70 Featherweight, chambered for the .308 Winchester, could hardly have been improved upon. Within a few years, the Featherweight had been so adulterated by chambering it for such cartridges as the .264 Winchester Magnum that it was a travesty. It was abandoned, with shudders, when the Model 70 line was revamped in 1964.

Much the same thing has happened as one company after another has come out with a “scout” model, some proclaiming the blessing either of Cooper or his heirs. Most resemble Cooper’s original vision the way a Humvee resembles a horse.

Birds in the Borderlands

There were plants and birds and rocks and things. There was sand and hills and rings.

[by Reid Bryant]


IF YOU WERE TO STAND WHERE COCHISE ONCE STOOD, in the high saddles of the Chiricahua Mountains, you’d look out over a sweep of land that makes scale immaterial. Here the landscape grows so wide and spare that within it one can’t conceive of borders or the potential for man-made impediments. The scrub and grassland, the ocotillo and mesquite, become an indistinct mottling of straw browns and greens as dry and crinkly as shed snakeskin.

This landscape goes on forever, and the horizon becomes a shimmering apparition more than a line of demarcation, barely decipherable at all. It’s hard to consider that somewhere in that arc of scrub desert, a barrier of corroded steel delineates two governments—being far simpler to take in the whole and consider this landscape as wide and uninterrupted as all eternity.

That said, standing there looking down into Mexico, you’d do yourself a disservice not to look a little closer. You’d do yourself a disservice not to view this land as Cochise once did, or as Aldo Leopold would have when he thought “like a mountain,” contemplating the interconnectedness of matters big and small.

Within that sweep of desert, within that jumble of mountains and grassland that straddles a border and holds up a sky, there occurs a remarkable marriage of ecosystems. Here, the Rocky Mountains of the north greet the Sierra Madre of the south, and the Chihuahuan Desert of the east meets the Sonoran of the west. The attendant flora and fauna commingle, and this confluence makes for some powerful stuff, both spiritually and ecologically. Its energy cannot be retained by a Normandy Barrier, and it renders the very concept of one laughable. Jaguars roam these borderlands, drifting north over in ternational lines from the Central American jungles. Scaled, Gambel’s, and Mearns quail hustle back and forth across the hillsides, flushing from Mexico to the United States and back again. Mule deer and black bear and javelina follow ancient migratory paths, brushing against that iron fence, startling drug runners and “coyotes” whose disregard proves even more troublesome. This place mingles land and people and animals and climate into something that is not easily hemmed in. It is unlike anywhere else in the world.

The desert grasslands of Southern Arizona are expansive, with views stretching deep into Mexico. Nestled into that landscape are three species of tight-sitting quail, as wild and secretive as the hills themselves.

Whether Josiah Austin considered these profundities when his love affair with the region began, it’s hard to say. Ask him, and he’ll think for a bit and respond, “No, the place just spoke to my heart.” But he did know that it was a beautiful and powerful country, and that the area ranches came cheap, as generations of cattlemen had grazed the place into a wasteland. It’s also safe to say that he couldn’t have known the impact he’d have on the region’s fate, or the impact it would have on his own as he shook off any thought of what could not be accomplished and simply saved something worth saving. What is clear is that the place speaks to Josiah, and it speaks to him loudest through quail.

 

On a January day, Josiah is standing just off the access road of the Bar Boot Ranch, one of the properties that he and his former wife, Valer, purchased and began restoring back in the mid-1980s, amalgamating a vast portion of the desert southwest into an ecological success story under the umbrella of the Cuenca Los Ojos foundation. Over the past 35 years, what is now CLO has grown to maintain borderland properties in the United States and Mexico, with the sole purpose of restoring and preserving biodiversity, independent of international boundaries. This feat was accomplished most directly through water capture and a massive resource-management plan that reduces erosion and enables plant and animal regeneration. By allowing water to make a natural (i.e., slow) passage through the landscape and the ecosystem, erosive soils were retained alongside standing water. Couple those changes with an aggressive reintroduction of native species, and an eradication of invasives, and a place that had been recently mummified burst into life once more. The recurrence of native feed sources and water triggered a rebound in biodiversity. That meant quail and all that they represent, which makes Josiah Austin quite happy.

A tall and lanky man with a runner’s build, Josiah is dressed for the hunting day in a pair of faded jeans, a wide-brimmed hat, and his tattered shell vest. He’s nibbling on a dried grass stem, looking off dreamily to the west. There’s a skyline ridge there, a spine of contrasting green that makes the blue more radiant, but that is not what Josiah seems to see. He pulls the grass stem from his teeth.

“See the trincheras?” He sweeps a long arm over the landscape. “They’re the little earthen dikes that we’ve placed in the arroyos and washes, to hold back the rainwater and prevent erosion. I bet I can see a hundred of them just from here.”

I look hard but can’t see what he does. He smiles. “Look here,” he says, pointing closer. “There’s one right there, a small one. We call the small ones like that trincheras, but they are really just earthen berms. They fill the washes that runoff eroded when the native grasses were killed by overgrazing. True trincheras are made of stone. The bigger ones, the gabions, are wrapped in wire. You’ll see more of them tomorrow, on one of the other ranches. Over all the properties, I’d say we’ve built maybe 25,000. If anyone had told me that we’d be building 25,000 when I was just starting out, I’d likely never have built even one.”

I take a few steps closer, until I see what he sees. Nearly encased in dried grass, there is a small stonework dam that spans a shallow arroyo. It’s barely waist high, not four feet across, but lovingly assembled of rocky soil. I walk over to it. The grass behind it is thick, though dead in the lateness of the season. The sand there is dust dry, and fine like talc.

“That’s the point,” says Josiah. “The silt doesn’t get washed out, it gets retained. That’s where the native grasses and sedges grow. It’s the bulbs of those that the Mearns eat.”

And indeed it is. We see the etchings of small digging feet in the silt behind the berm, and Josiah traces them with his grass stem.

“Lots of Mearns on this property. Let’s try to go find a few.” He flicks the grass stem away, naming it quietly in Latin, reverently, under his breath. It’s unclear whether this is for my edification or not. We load up regardless, and work our way deeper into the desert grassland that Josiah and the desert quail now share.

THE IDEA OF HUNTING QUAIL ALONG THE MEXICAN BORDER HAD BEEN RATTLING AROUND IN MY HEAD FOR SOME TIME. It is likely that daydreaming was as far as the idea would have gotten had I not been friends with Dan Michels. Dan is another one of these fellows who doesn’t see impediments, and within weeks of floating an idea that I presumed was a nonstarter, I got a call from Scottsdale. “We’re hunting with my friend Dave Brown. He’s guiding and running his dogs on a property called the El Coronado Ranch. If we’re lucky, the dogs will be quartering back and forth into Mexico to retrieve our birds. I’ll pick you up in Phoenix.” So naturally, as happens when a dreamer is at the wheel, it all fell perfectly into place.

We wended our way out of the Phoenix sprawl, driving into the January night, stopping once for a case of Modelo and a handful of Mexican limes, and again for a bowl of albóndigas soup in Benson to stave off the evening chill. Dan was wild-eyed and excited, having hunted the region with great success just a week earlier. I was taking comfort in the warm soup and cold beer, quietly hoping that we’d not wind up on the wrong side of a drug drop, and that our penchant for guns would not make us hostile combatants. With bellies full, we trundled back into Dan’s truck and drove deeper into a desert borderland whose mountains were backlit by stars.

This was country I’d visited years ago, in one of those bohemian quests for connection. I’d not hunted then, but climbed through the spires of the Dragoons and Chiricahuas absorbing what I could of Goyahkla’s Apache medicine through twig fires and nights spent under the Arizona sky. The bloodstained desert soils that comprise a life on the borderlands fill the region with a palpable mystery, and the expansive silences make it bigger.

We turned into Turkey Creek Canyon and rattled over the cattle guards. The canyon grew tighter by feel, and the air was cool and still. Several miles in, the lights of the ranch house flickered in between branches. We pulled into the dooryard. Perched above us was a glorious hacienda, illuminated inside and out, a beacon of warm welcome. It seemed the only human habitation for miles and miles. We hustled in. Dave and Josiah were there in a room filled with firelight and warmth. We gathered beside a massive hearth and made our introductions. To say that we felt welcome would be an understatement. We warmed ourselves by the fire and considered the days to come. Josiah poured bourbons. Dave laid out a plan.

In this region, Mearns quail are king. Those glorious birds are found in intermittent patches of rolling desert along the Mexican border, often concurrent with Gambel’s and scaled quail, though the latter two prefer the bottomlands and places where standing water collects. In the eyes of a hunter, however, the species differ more significantly. Where Gambel’s and scalies run wild and bust, Mearns quail hold tight in grassland and scrub cover. For that reason, they are a pointing dog’s dream, erupting in coveys of 10 or more birds that whizz off like bottle-rockets in a clatter of short-feathered wings. They are rare and beautiful, which in combination make a hunter’s heart beat faster. I’d never seen one in person, let alone held one warm in my hand. They’d become for me instead just another piece of the regional mystery, an emblem of that Apache medicine, a vestige of the Wild West.

A Reading of “Old Hunter” by Katrina Hays

Old Hunter

by Katrina Hays


 

Stick at a jaunty angle,
the Labrador retriever hobbles
toward the river,
water still the Siren
that calls him home.

In his youth he could rocket
fifteen feet from land to liquid,
river’s edge bypassed by desire,
the shot and release
job and joy both.

In golden autumns,
smoke acrid in the air,
he smashed through currents,
legs as pistons, eyes fixed
on his Zion of waterfowl.

Straining to reach his prize
he was ferocious in his need,
work the reward,
retrieval and your hand
his dream in the nights.

Now, thick with age,
grayed and blind,
he staggers to slide
into the cool embrace
of his past.


Katrina’s writing has appeared in Apalachee Review, Bellingham Review, Crab Creek Review, The Hollins Critic, and Plainsongs, with writing forthcoming in Tahoma Literary Review. She is on the guest faculty of the Rainier Writing Workshop, where she received an MFA. She lives in Bend, Oregon.

Goose Hunt, original acrylic on board, 27 x 36 inches, by Chet Reneson.