by Dave Zoby
Building up the flavors of a long, cold season.
The first bird came on a bright October day in North Dakota, near Scranton. My friend and I were walking a huge field of what farmers call kochia. It was a low spot in the landscape, an island in a sea of monoculture. Everything else around us was harvested wheat.
This bight of weeds was the only cover in hundreds of acres, unless you counted the wild grasses that clung to the fence line. Seedpods were exploding, burrs clung to our pants, our dogs. There were badger dens augured into the clay, a few scattered bony remains serving as doormats.
Rocket, my veteran, was out front, trotting and getting antsy in the last vestiges of native prairie. I was trying to determine whether some of the cover was western wheatgrass or wild rye. Henderson, my puppy, was behind me. When I pressed the deep cover, I felt his chin hitting my ankles each time I stepped.
Rick, one of my tried and true hunting partners, was talking about a new restaurant in Casper that he and his wife had recently discovered. But my focus was on Rocket, who was turning tight arcs in the cover. He stopped and boxed his ears. Rick saw it, too. We had been hunting for so many years behind this one Lab that we knew when he pinned a bird. He doesn’t point; rather he cocks his head as if hearing something and gets a sort of bemused look on his face. Before I could tell Rick to get ready, two perfect sharp-tailed grouse exploded from the weeds and chirred away. They made their chuckling sound as I tapped off two quick shots, missing wildly because the dog work was so beautiful and I wanted both birds so badly. My gun was empty, and I was out of superlatives.
Rick eventually realized they were sharpies and not hen pheasants. He dropped the lead bird, and Rocket galloped back to us with it in his mouth. I was devastated by my poor shooting, but happy that Rick had shot his first sharptail. I held it up for him in the sunlight. We marveled at it.
In a region where we shoot dozens of pheasants, something other than gets a lot of praise and reflection. I showed him the feathers all the way down to the feet, and the beautiful camouflage on the bird’s back. The belly was arctic white. I watered both dogs and let the puppy get a nose full of grouse, telling him that this is what we were after.
“It’s a hen,” I said, but I wasn’t sure. I pushed it into Rick’s vest and we made a long, looping drive that yielded only a few hen pheasants. On the way back to the truck, I stopped and watered Henderson and Rocket. The dogs were all tongues and sweat. After drinking greedily, Rocket regained himself and pranced over to some kochia, where he stopped and locked his forelegs. I readied myself. A grouse flushed 30 yards off, out of range, gone forever. I resisted the urge to fire a Hail Mary, optimistic that there might be a straggler even though I’m almost always wrong in these cases. Rocket cocked his head absurdly at the groundcover.
Two grouse broke. I missed the first, but rolled the second. A puff of feathers hung in the air, just hung there, as if pinned by the remarkable luck of stumbling upon two groups of sharptails in one drive. As far as I know, those feathers are still suspended over that low area in the field where even the tractors couldn’t go in spring. Wasteland they call it, but they’re so wrong. This moment made the whole season worth it. I could have put my shotguns away and been happy with the grouse, but the dogs needed more work, and I needed something else, too.
The second bird came during a waterfowl misadventure in my hometown of Casper. One of the landowners who tolerates me, my dogs, and the ragtag sportsmen I tote along, called to tell me that with these terrible blows have come an extraordinary number of geese.
“Every morning, if the wind’s up, they fly over the barn at about nine thirty,” he said. “Come get yourself a few.”
I’m sort of a decoy guy, and I’ve outgrown jump-shooting, more or less. This season was almost embarrassingly good for mallards and widgeon. But I wanted a goose for a recipe Jason Veggie Burger had been bragging about for years. (We now know that he takes the geese three doors down his street and has his mother prepare them, then claims the dish as his own. He’s from Texas, where this kind of behavior is acceptable.) I called Veggie Burger and told him about the low-flying flocks. He said he’d take three or four.
We picked up Bill Mixer, my fly fishing friend who calls himself the Rodfather. He rode in the backseat crammed between a camo ground blind and a deconstructed deer stand. It had been months since he caught his last trout on a fly, and he was gloomy. He brought his shotgun and said something cheerful about shooting some “rib-eyes in the sky,” but I could tell he wasn’t committed. Having forgotten his shells, he flipped through the errant ones rolling around on the floorboard, looking specifically for high-brass BBs. The Rodfather kept brining up Boca Raton, and a single-origin coffee roaster he visited there.
Out at Bessemer Bend, the wind was gusting up to 60 miles an hour. Most folks have a hard time believing people will go out in near hurricane-force winds to bag a few geese. Some people might even doubt that geese can fly in those conditions, but in Casper, it’s quite normal to have those kinds of williwaws in winter. The birds, like it or not, have to travel from their roosts on the frozen river to the grain fields. They have to eat.
I parked my truck facing the wind so that Veggie Burger wouldn’t throw open the passenger door and have it torn off. Already, the wind was cutting an odd tune on the truck’s antennae. Rocket came along. I left the puppy at home because I didn’t want him to confuse what we were doing with true waterfowl hunting. Rocket had been corrupted years ago.
The first hour we spent around the rancher’s woodstove. We had brought Mike a cappuccino with low-fat milk and sugar-free vanilla, the way he likes it. He was wearing only a red union suit, and his uncombed hair looked like switchgrass. He talked about what a winter it had been, how his cows had suffered, how his thermometer captured a reading of minus 37 just a week ago. And the winds—he spoke of winds the way sailors do, talking about knots and gusts that knocked him down. Bill took a seat by the woodstove and flipped through a fly fishing magazine. It was the annual gear guide, and I knew we had lost him to the precarious pastime of wanting.