Well, the little guys are showing up again, small bird of peace here for the holiday season-
They look tiny next to those whitewing doves, don't they? Five thousand feet of elevation, a bit of snow in the last week and here they are- not bad for "a small tropical dove of arid areas". Inca doves make a distinctive little rattle when they flush from where they are feeding on the ground. I've enjoyed seeing them, as they are familiar to me from time spent on the Texas-Mexico border and the seeming expansion of range by whitewing and now Inca doves strikes me as a good thing.
I was also visited by what I'm pretty sure is a white-breasted nuthatch. The photos aren't great, they were taken through a kitchen window and my little pocket camera does not do real well on "digital zoom". The little dude was too small and quick to catch with the optical zoom feature, which doesn't offer quite the magnification. I also wasn't going to break out the 300mm lens and a roll of film just to get a better picture.
In addition, there were a gaggle of juncos at the feeder. They are very common, but favorites of mine and rare to my backyard. Typically, I only see doves, English sparrows, and house finches. Then again, I'm gone on weekdays during the hours most of the winter feeding goes on.
Well, the weather this morning was supposed to get down into the low teens, but Booker and I decided to see if we could find a few ducks anyway. I drove by one thermometer that said seventeen degrees Farenheit, which is pretty chilly. I ended up overdressed and sweating, though. It really didn't feel like the teens down on the river, my facemask wasn't freezing up too badly and the reeds on my calls weren't freezing in place. Those are usually pretty good signs of colder weather.
We got down to the river in good time and walked through the trees to the bank to find it up considerably, no doubt due to recent rain and melt from snow the last few days. More than that, the course of the river has shifted, putting me belt-deep in some decent current where a couple of weeks ago the water came to mid-thigh. Step in the wrong spot and the decoy bag would start to lift up on its shoulder straps, giving that walking-on-the-moon feeling.
Back in the beginning of November the blind looked like this:
Lots of bank between blind and river.
Now it looks like this:
The channel running in front of the little flat that blind is on has filled in from waist to knee deep and the river has spread out, all in the course of two weeks between my last hunt and this. We couldn't really use the blind, as I wouldn't want Booker to be sitting in a foot of cold water and most of the brush on the sides and front has washed away.
Accordingly, we shifted around to sit on the bank in some willows just a bit upriver where I could put out a decoy spread that looked good to me. Booker did well at sitting with me and holding still, but he did have a couple of issues with the brush, especially as not many birds were flying:
We got buzzed by a nice bunch of wigeon right at shooting light, but I wasn't ready and they didn't tarry. Surprisingly, the first hour of light, usually one of the busiest times, was very quiet. We persisted and managed to pick up a couple of birds.
Despite the lack of action, we hung on hoping for a bunch or two of birds looking for a late-morning loafing spot, but not even the hawks and cranes that usually provide distraction were much in evidence. Eventually we picked up the decoys and headed back in.
So, I'm coming up on one year of more-or-less consistent blogging and I've devolved to "what I had for dinner", surely a low water mark. I'll try to add some anecdote or throw in some links.
My plan for dinner tonight was a pasta dish I'd tossed together some time back that had worked well. For that, I had a bit of leftover link sausage, so I browned it in a bit of very hot olive oil, added some crushed garlic, then wilted mixed chard with a can of fire roasted tomatoes in the same skillet and tossed it with some penne. Very good, between the garlic, spicy rich sausage, and bitter-ish greens. Unfortunately, I planned this dish a bit too far in advance and my chard had gone slimy. Slimy greens are something up with which I will not put, absent dire circumstances, a relic of working for a caterer/restauranteur who had me and her other staff (all two) wash the slimy layers off nearly gone lettuce so we could chop the moderately firm centers and serve them. After the first case or so= Blech. Old lettuce (or other greens) still sets me off a bit.
In any event, home from work, walk the dog, get ready for dinner and discover it wasn't going to work. Into the compost with the chard and out to the freezer go I, to pull a package from my last elk labeled "thin, flat barbecue". That's what I label the 4 steaks you get from right off the shoulder blade of an elk- the cuts are an inch thick at the thick end, but pretty tender given the short grain of the meat, which must be sliced right off the blade of the bone. That package went into a sink of warm water to quick thaw while I scrubbed a package of Klamath Pearl potatoes from Trader Joe's, then tossed them in a bit of olive oil and cracked black pepper and sea salt in a roasting pan, which went into a very hot (450 F) oven to roast. Once the potatoes were about done (twenty minutes) and the meat well on the way to thawed, I put a knob of butter in a large cast iron skillet over high heat and let it melt.
When I went away to college, I faced the daunting prospect of life without access to a grill. My dad is California born and grilled meat and green salads were fixtures of my growing up that I feel deprived without. In the course of setting me up for solo cooking, my mother instructed me in the basics of pan-frying (to no means to be confused with just plain frying or chicken-frying) a steak. First, use an iron skillet. Second, get it hot, though not blazing hot, third, add a bit of butter, then the meat. Once the meat is well seared, set it aside, then deglaze the pan. The best way of doing that is to throw in a handful of mushrooms and, once they begin to release their liquid, add a healthy dash of Lea&Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce and a bit of red wine, then cook until the mushrooms are tender and the sauce starts to thicken. Until I was the glad recipient of a baby Weber Kettle at the semester break, which grill I still own and cooked on for a good fifteen years, I practiced on an iron skillet when budget allowed and taste required a bit of red meat suitable for something other than stew or burritos.
Generally, I advocate game cooked rare and generally prefer to cook mine on the grill. However, I've learned that well dressed and butchered game, particularly elk, is remarkably flexible. John Barsness, in one of his books, notes that guests were surprised that he and his wife cooked elk "just like meat" in a stir fry. He contends that with proper prep and care such is entirely possible and appropriate, allowing for the lower fat content of game meat. Ditto. So, in this case, once the elk was brown on one side, I sprinkled it with cracked pepper and coarse salt, then flipped it to get the other side to the same point. Then I placed it on a platter that went into the oven that the potatoes had recently vacated and was turned off, in order to rest it while I deglazed the skillet with a glass of red wine and a tablespoon of dried shallots (mushrooms not being on hand). Once the wine was reduced by half, I added a bit of elk demi-glace I'd prepared from bones of that '06 elk- a luxury, but, hey, the British version of "Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares" was blabbing from the tv and I was subject to repeated exhortations to use good ingredients and prepare them simply. Now, demi-glace is not exactly simple in my book, but it is awfully good and the whole production would surely qualify for Gordon "Two Michelin Star" Ramsay's definition of "simple". Once the demi-clace was melted and trying to boil, I poured it over the meat, sliced off a large chunk, surrounded it with potatoes, poured a nice glass of cabernet and sat down to steak frites, loosely interpreted and impromptu. Fine eats, happy place.
This guy turns out to be a good guide. Good dogs, good property, and he knows that property. We had a good hunt, saw quite a few (and our first) pheasants and even managed to shoot some. We'd hoped to goose hunt in the morning, but the playa lakes are mostly dry and the weather hasn't driven the geese down yet, so a goose hunt was foregone and we walked for pheasants all day. Hard life!
The first day, we were in shirtsleeves by ten in the morning. The next day, fog thickened and thinned and the temperature hovered in the thirties.
None of us had hunted pheasants before and this was probably a pretty easy introduction- birds on private land that have seen limited pressure, hunting strategies from a guide who works those areas every year, and dogs that hunt almost every day during the season. Pheasants were fun, though. Shots ranged from quick, quail-like rises at close range to wild flushes further out that allowed the birds to get up a good head of steam before they passed. Different scenery for me- grain fields and CRP, fence rows, weedy corners, and mostly flat.
New birds, some good shots made and some others missed and a good time with family.
Family and I are off to take a crack at a Panhandle hunt for goose and pheasant with an outfitter who is an unknown quantity to us.
In "Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing" John Gierach writes that "Now and then you'll hire a guide and that's about all you'll get: a boat and someone to row it." Of course, he also writes: "If you decide to be a guide, I think you should do it for reasons other than that you love fishing."
Guided trips are a bit of a minefield of expectations for me. Growing up, we never did or even really contemplated guided trips. We knew some guys that guided, on a part time basis, but didn't make those sort of hunting or fishing trips. Heck, we hunted with those guys other times. Having a professional to help you out, get access to property and scout out the situation, seems like it ought to result in a sure thing, though it shouldn't and doesn't.
As an adult, I've been on a few guided fishing and bird hunting trips. The initial experience down in Belize set a high bar. We were down on our first trip there and had never done any saltwater fly fishing. The hotel had an arrangement with some local guides and we booked a trip for flats fishing and completely lucked out with the guy who showed up. Severo had some gear and took my father and I out to some flats surrounded by mangroves and channels where he rigged up an 8-weight fly rod and had us cast to show him what we could do. Once that was established, he began to pole us to various little pods of bonefish, eventually finding a small mud and staking-out up-current so we could cast into it. After we had both caught a few bonefish (and for your first bonefish, "one" is significant and "few" is very significant),
he asked "Do you guys want to try for tarpon?" What else could we say but "sure"? We ran back to a large lagoon where a series of four-foot tarpon systematically refused the few flies we could get in front of them and the large mirrolure thrown as a back-up (neither of us could throw with a 12-weight at that point). Despite the lack of cooperation of the fish, it was an afternoon of high excitement: first the tarpon would appear, as it grew closer, Severo would guide his panga so that we would intercept the fish, a cast would be attempted, after the rejection or failure to get the fly by the fish, we'd throw the plug, then the fish would ignore that and we'd look for another. The sense of anticipation as the lures were presented to the fish is impossible for me to adequately convey. The next day, we went out with Severo and trolled around a reef for snapper and other reef fish, then for barracuda, all great light-tackle fun. Since that trip we've fished with Severo and his brother any number of times and always had a good trip.
Alas, other trips have not met the high expectations set by that trip. In southern Belize, we were taken on long boat rides punctuated by walks on empty flats by a guy who knew how to run a boat, but didn't appear to have much fishing experience or knowledge. Schools of bar jacks and other jacks were pinning baitfish against flats and tearing them up, but he continued a fruitless search for a flat with bonefish or tarpon on it instead of putting us on some of the easier fish. Finally, late in the second day and after repeated requests, he stopped and poled us to meet some of the jackfish. Since neither tarpon nor bones had been seen, we were happy for the chance to bend a rod. A later trip to the same region and we stayed on a caye with its own little flat and managed to find lots of shots at bonefish and quite a few at permit right there.
Waterfowl hunts have been mixed as well. One East Texas duck hunt went fairly well, the guide had a nice piece of property leased and a good blind and we got into a few ducks. My sister was also treated to lots of opinions as to why hunting is ok and a more than a bit of condescension, probably an unavoidable hazard for women who hunt but not something you really want to pay for. A later trip in flooded timber was worse: the guide brought his adult son along as an assistant, they sitting in either end of the blind. They insisted we keep down and keep our heads down until the ducks were right upon us, then opened the shooting themselves. "Take-bang! bang!-em!" Several ducks were killed, but I only pulled the trigger once and all our chances were at birds flaring from the opening volley. I think the guide and his son had a pretty good hunt. My father and sister have made several goose hunts on the east Texas rice fields. You get up and out early then set hundreds of decoys in the gooey mud and fire ants, typically to watch flocks of snow geese several thousand strong ignore the spread. In three or four trips they've been unable to get a shot. Of course, the huge flocks of snow geese over there are notoriously hard to decoy. A Panhandle Canada goose hunt a few years back was worse. The guide set a group of us out in a cut-over corn field and set up his decoys, then called and flagged as flocks of Canadas came our way. A hundred birds peeled off and began to circle over us as we lay out on mats in the stubble, the birds talking and drifting down, only to flare repeatedly just out of range. It turned out that the guide's young dog was unable to contain himself and was running through the spread behind us. Sixty pounds of Lab tearing around will flare geese, don't you know. Fun to lie there and watch the birds come in and hunting is not all about killing, but it isn't just a matter of going out to run the birds off, either.
My experience with guides on common waters or lands has given me some pause, too. Years ago we were hunting western Colorado and would run into guys in a large tent camp that an outfitter had packed them into on horseback. Of course, we were parked at the end of a road only half a mile or so up above them and the gear was brought in before the season on four-wheelers. Not exactly false advertising, but those guys were paying a fee that bought them a bit of a ride with respect to the difficulty in getting to their camp,if not in other ways. Some guides have a sort of proprietary attitude- because they are out every day and have to make a living off a particular patch of water, they don't hesitate to crowd the rest of us for their sports. When I fished the San Juan in north-western New Mexico quite a lot, I ran into a fair bit of that from guides. The most egregious example that springs to mind was one afternoon in March when I'd found a pod of rising fish a bit down a deep channel. The San Juan is mostly a matter of nymph fishing, but winter and early spring afternoons the blue-winged olives will sometimes hatch and get a rise going. After a (fun) morning of catching fish on nymphs, the spoiled 'Juan angler might head down to Baetis Bend and try to find some fish on a dry fly for variety in his sport. In this case there was no way to get right up to the half-dozen fish on foot. Consequently, I was upstream in water near my wader tops and making about as long a cast as I could manage, trying to throw some slack into it so I could drift a #20 Adams to the fish in a natural fashion. Hard fun! I had hooked one fish and was working on another when a guide in a drift boat with two clients came by. Instead of passing, he rowed back up until parallel with the fish and about thirty feet off, then anchored and proceeded to direct his clients to cast to them. Rude! Not to paint all who guide with the same brush. The vast majority of whitewater rafting guides I've been on trips with have been professional, competent, and fun. My only grief there is that they have started getting a little young in the last few years. I like these guys because they still have a few long-time Terlingua based guides who wouldn't start to be tempted to call me "sir". For that matter, I was on the San Juan another afternoon waiting to see if a hatch would develop in the same spot as had happened the previous two days about that time. Sure enough, BWO's started showing up and fish started rising. I had a prime spot staked out and clipped off my nymph rig and strike indicator, tied on some more tippet and a dry, and began fishing. This guy came by with three clients, an eighty-something grandfather, forty-something dad, and teenage son. He asked if I minded if he placed his clients around me, to which I of course responded "no problem". Kim placed the grandfather first, helping him find his footing and warning him not to venture out further, then bringing the son and grandson up past me a decent distance to get them in position and casting. Before he could get them sorted, the grandfather had a fish and began wading out to it. Concerned for the slippery rocks, deepish water a couple of feet out, and the man's unsteadiness, the guide ran down to him, netted the fish, released it, checked the fly, then came back up. No sooner than he had father and son placed and untangled, the scene repeated. As he chugged back up past me with a little grin, I looked over his shoulder to see his oldest client had yet another fish on. I laughed and pointed him back that way, which was met with a wry shrug as he trotted back down to the old gentleman, who clearly had some ability with a fly rod. Hard working, and polite, guide.
I think I can imagine some of the difficulties of guiding and the grab-bag of people you have to deal with in the course of making very little money and doing a lot of work. Nonetheless, for a regular-Joe type sportsman, a guided trip is a big deal and higher expectations are near unavoidable. With any luck, this upcoming trip will prove satisfying for everyone, guide and client alike.
The holidays are right around the corner and I find, to my surprise, that I don't have much in mind in the way of books that I'd like to give or receive. In an attempt to remedy that situation, I'm going to list five titles that I've read and enjoyed in the last year or so that are in print or readily available and exhort variousliterary, knowledgeableandinteresting(fascinating, hot) bloggers, as well as anyone who might read this, to contribute their recommendations. Fiction, popular science, popular history, biography, good stuff that might not come to one's attention absent a suggestion. The things that have made the biggest impression on me in the last year or so aren't exactly obscure and some are a couple of years old, but I don't hesitate in recommending any of the following:
1) 1491 by Charles Mann. Really, really interesting. Fantastic compendium of new theory and knowledge about that population and landscape of the Americas before European arrival and record keeping. One of these days I hope to get around to working through some of the material in his bibliography.
2) Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. A look at food production and a meditation on modern Americans' connection or lack of connection to their food. Lots of interesting information about growing corn, feed lots, organic farming, mushroom hunting, and an interesting look at hunting itself.
3) Heat by Bill Buford. A really interesting look at working in a commercial kitchen (Mario Batali's Babbo!), traditional Italian cooking, and, somewhat tangentially, Batali himself. Not at all like Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" except that it draws several pictures of a busy New York commercial kitchen, I found myself reminded of Bourdain's book frequently but enjoyed this one more.
4) 1634:The Baltic War by Eric Flint and David Weber. This is more a recommendation for an alternate history series, which starts with "1632" than the specific book, which is not the strongest in that series. Interesting premise and a very active publishing schedule from Flint, who does a lot of editing of and collaborating with other authors he's invited to participate in this setting. This is a good introduction to alternate history for non-science fiction fans. It is also good for fans and has the added benefit of a pretty big back catalog with more books forthcoming. I do wish Flint would return to his core characters a bit more, but that's me.
5)Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen. Fun mystery/thriller with an ecological bent by Hiassen, who sets his books in southern Florida and populates them with very eccentric characters. I can't imagine anyone not laughing out loud at least a few times when reading a Hiaasen novel.
Lagniappe: Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett. Most recent in a series of young adult novels. If you're not allergic to fiction for juveniles or have an eight to fourteen year old who needs a book to read, get this or, better yet, start with "The Wee Free Men", the first of the books involving Tiffany Aching. For that matter, if you can stand to read things in a fantastic setting at all and haven't read Pratchett, you're really missing something. I hadn't read any of his books before a couple of years ago and ripped through his back catalog in no time at all. Suggested beginnings are "Guards, Guards!", "Reaper Man" or "Small Gods".
So, what made an impression on you all? Comments solicited!
Guess he's never seen a fireplace in action before. Things have turned cold here, so I've built fires the last couple of nights. Booker has only ever been around one camp fire with me and considers this to be high entertainment.
The cat has added "crazy" to his list of reasons why the dog annoys him.
Tom Kelly is probably best known for "Tenth Legion", a great book largely about turkey hunting. A while back I ran across another book of his from The Lyons Press titled "The Boat" with a cover blurb that read in part "One man's quest to build his own wooden boat-". Now, as I science fiction reader, I long ago learned to disregard the cover of a book, as the stalwart figure in the space suit or the exotically-clad woman illustrated there, respectively shooting at or cowering from a BEM, seldom reflects the contents. I think the covers have gotten better with time, but they are still more misleading than not. While the illustration on this book was fine and appropriate, that blurb shows that someone had not read the boat. While the narrative is generally tied together by the story of a boat Kelly built and then used for thirty years, no "quest" is involved in the construction, which is described in a very few general and self-deprecating pages. Rather, the book talks about the history of timber cutting in the South, turkey hunting, fishing, river bottom land and its importance as habitat, and a whole host of other things. Kelly has what sounds to me like a classic Southern voice and the short book flies right by. Just don't expect to read about boat building.
Not having anything to do with the Trinity Site, down south of me, but the album by Cowboy Junkies. That album came out twenty years ago (I didn't pick it up until a year or two later after hearing their cover/reworking of "Sweet Jane".) It is, in my opinion, one of those rare perfect albums where all the songs are not only good but are better as part of the whole. Critics toss around terms like "moody" and "ethereal" when referring to it. There are a few covers- Lou Reed, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, but it isn't as country as you'd think from that list. I'd call it "spare" and maybe go for "contemplative", the latter largely because I enjoy listening to it while driving through mountains at night. The tempos are about right for slow dancing with a couple/three of them in 3/4 time.
So, in celebration of the anniversary of the recording of their break out album, the band went back to the church where they all sat around a very expensive microphone and recorded "Trinity Session" and, with the addition of Natalie Merchant, Ryan Adams, Vic Chesnutt, and Jeff Bird, recorded all the songs again and titled the effort "Trinity Revisited".
Since I'm a fan, I pre-ordered the thing like I have most their albums since they started doing things off their own label and website. The package got here the other day and so I tore right into it.
There is always a risk in reinterpreting something that fans have listened to thousands of times and come to love. I've read that the difficulty is an artifact of recorded music. Before we listened to exactly the same version of a song repeatedly people didn't have such fixed expectations as to what a given song should sound like. I've heard Jimmy Buffett complaint that he can't recall all the words to his own songs as exactly as the fans, as he hasn't listened to them over and over again. Nonetheless, I was optimistic that "Trinity Revisited" would be a good album. In part, with was because I think one of the Junkies' strengths is their covers- apart from "Nebraska" I don't care for Springsteen, but every cover of his work I've heard by Cowboy Junkies has pointed up how good his songwriting can be and brought out beauty that never gets through the bombast that is all I get from the songs when Springsteen performs them. At best, it is going to take a couple dozen listens to decide about this album and I'm not sure I'll get there. Margo Timmins, the Junkies' singer, has become a stronger vocalist over the years and her voice is wonderful. In contrast, the male singers on this album are terrible, unmusical, and not good despite having other, decent recordings. For that matter, I'm not sure what the deal was with Natalie Merchant. She wasn't singing in harmony much with Timmins and seems to sing in an increasingly stylized manner as time goes on. Hard stuff.
It's always interesting going back to something you really enjoy, whether it be a food, a movie, an album, or whatever. Much as I like live music and appreciate how a new take on a song can give it a different feeling, I haven't really been able to warm up to this recording and find myself thinking "they're messing up this song" because it doesn't sound like the original. You all can see a bit of "Trinity Revisited" here. If you don't have it, buy "Trinity Session", from back in '86, the very first opportunity.
When I was growing up I used to read in the Big 3 outdoor magazines about "slob hunters". Every other issue or so there would be an editorial encouraging hunters to behave well to avoid alienating landowners and non-hunters. "Slob hunters" was the slogan or phrase that the writers and editors adopted to label thoughtless, crude, or destructive behavior. To tell the truth, I never thought too much about the term or the exhortations. We didn't do that sort of thing and I was fortunate never to really run across any egregious examples of bad behavior. Now, the following isn't really that egregious, I don't suppose, but it is a good example of some low-level carelessness that just can't do hunting any good.
The area I hunt ducks is a stretch of river between towns, but surrounded by fields and houses. Access is via locked gates administered by a conservancy district. You pay an annual fee to get a key. The stretch through which the river runs is a mile or so between levees, the space not water taken up with cottonwood river bottom forest and tangles of salt cedar (tamarisk) and Russian olive. Coming out from a hunt the other day, I let myself through the gate to see the following: some fellow hunters who had enjoyed a decent morning cleaned their four ducks (two mallard hens, a drake, and a hen widgeon) and left the offal, heads, feet, and wings in the road right by the gate, almost in the access road. Now, what would the folks using that land behind the gate in the background think when they come across the bits and pieces as they go to fetch some of their hay? I'd guess they would probably elevate hunters from the minor annoyance of "guys who drive by in the early morning and make the dog bark" to "slobs". For that matter, quite a few folks ride their horses or bikes down the levee roads, even down there. A bunch of duck guts and heads isn't going to strike them well, either. What I really don't understand is, why there? That levee road runs for ten miles before the next gate, with hundreds of acres of forest they could have cleaned their ducks in and left the remains out of sight. Advertising their success? I tossed all the bits over the edge of the ditch bank for the delectation of the first crow, coon, coyote, or other scavenger to happen upon it. The scattered feathers won't draw flies and I didn't bother to hunt them down. I kind of wish I'd run into these folks as they were dressing the birds, just to ask "why here?" and hope it would shame them into a bit more discretion. It's not a big thing, but, heck, so avoidable.
Duck season opened last weekend but I didn't make it out until this past Saturday. I was looking forward to see how Booker the Chessie would handle his first duck hunt and I have to say, my expectations were pleasantly exceeded. We got the decoys out and he settled into the blind with no problems. We got buzzed by a couple of bunches of ducks and he was busy watching the birds, sometimes seeing them before I did. Of course, being a bird dog, Booker doesn't distinguish between cranes, crows, hawks or blackbirds. If it's close and flying, you can feel the mental pressure from the dog to "shoot!".
you got to watch close or they'll sneak up on you.
I started off on an embarrassing note; we had a bunch of teal blast through the decoys, then circle around and come back through. I stood up, swung, and missed. Booker charged out and insisted on checking every single decoy to see if it was the bird he was sure had been downed. Poor guy, he's going to have to get used to hunting with me, where every shot by no means indicates that a bird will be falling. After having to wade out to bring him back in from where he was still looking for a bird, I leashed him up. The next couple of opportunities, he tried breaking at the shot but furthered his acquaintance with the command/suggestion "whoa" courtesy of a stout blind support the leash was looped to. Once I did knock down a bird- off he went, having marked the fall and returning the duck to a couple of feet short of the blind before returning to the water to look for more. Retrieving is still not perfect.
We had a bunch of ten mallards, all but one drakes, circle us a couple of times then put in a couple hundred yards up stream. They swam down a bit, then headed back up and could not be convinced to join the decoys. After pretty much everything had stopped flying for an hour or so, Booker got bored-
so I told him we'd sneak those ducks. I leashed him up and we crept up a dry side channel and then through the cockleburrs until we got to about where they ought to have been. I stowed the leash and then we eased up to the bank to have the whole batch, plus a couple more, jump up. I took the closest drake and Booker made a great retrieve, swimming across the current to nab the cripple in a very decisive manner then bring him right back to hand-
A couple of birds and high note to end the day on. I'm going to have to really make an effort to get out this year.
I hate ATV's. I'll say that right up front so that there isn't any question of bias. No question, there's bias. I say this as a person who admires the ability to travel bad road, to know where your wheels are and ease over rough spots while dodging rocks and avoiding high-center. I admire that ability in outdoorsfolk so long as those bad spots consist of roads. Damned 4-wheelers, though, that is, the ATV variety, don't stick to roads. I recognize the usefulness that 4-wheelers provide for folks who work outdoors and have haul stuff to out of the way locations. My dislike springs from the fact that, regardless of the restrictions placed by the Forest Service or BLM on off-road vehicle travel, I frequently find ATV's or signs of ATV's well off roads or well down closed roads. I guess the temptation to ride rather than walk is just too much for most folks.
If you think that the motorized travel actually ended 100 yards from this sign, you're sadly mistaken. Nearly every one of these signs I saw last week had similar tracks around them.
Most amazing to me is the number of bow hunters I see driving ATV's. I've encountered bow hunters putt-putting along open meadows, bow in hand, presumably vehicle hunting. Maybe vehicle hunting with a bow works, as I've also seen guys riding along with an arrow knocked as they stand in the back of a pickup. This fall, while looking for grouse I walked down a steep timber ridge, across a saddle, then up another ridge of broken timber to some meadows on the east edge of that ridge. From the saddle on up I found the well trodden tracks where a bow hunter had gone up there on his ATV at least three or four times, parking to overlook the meadow. I fancy he would have had a much better chance at success if he had left the smelly machine down in the saddle (already well off a road) and hiked up quietly. Later, in the meadow photographed from the top which you can see few posts down, I found where another bow hunter had run his ATV along one tree line to the top, parked, and eaten a candy bar. Snickers, by the way. Of course, my tracking skills are not so marvelous but neither Leatherstocking-like ability nor Holmesian deduction was required when the wrapper was right where he'd tossed it. I had to wonder, given that he was carrying a weapon with a fifty-yard range (being generous) what success he hoped for sitting on his machine overlooking about 10,000 square yards of open meadow full of knee high grass. How do I know these guys were bowhunters? I don't, for sure. However, bow season was the only thing open at the time, apart from grouse, dove, and squirrel. The areas were wrong for dove and squirrel and sitting in one place while grouse hunting is neither the usual practice nor a recipe for success.
I wonder, too, at the hunters I see heading up into the mountains every fall with trailers crowded with their ATVs. Where do they put other necessaries? I see and hear them buzzing up and down the forest roads in the dark, heading to their hunting spots. While an ATV might use less gas for such chores, my pickup is far more comfortable and will get me to anywhere I need to start walking. For that matter, an ice chest, shovel, rope, and a bunch of other stuff travels along in the truck.
I know you can drive up on game. We've all done it. I wonder about ATV's well off-road, though. I recall a hunt hears ago where I was sitting and watching a hillside opposite a good size draw. A dozen deer browsed as the evening progressed. Suddenly, the deer stuck their heads up, looking at the top of their hill. They broke into a trot and made their various ways off down the draw, the last disappearing just as I could make out the putt-putt-putt of a slowly firing four-wheeler that shortly crested the ridge. I was a good ways off any road, though in the driver's defense, there weren't any restrictions on off-road travel in that area at that time. Given that he turned and putt-ed down the ridge, moving any game along the route I planned on hunting out, he managed to confirm a convert to the school of "no off road travel". Every year I hunt big game it seems I see at least a couple of guys who've just made some horrible amazing hike away off somewhere in my binos and I stop a second and admire their effort. I'm not saying everyone should do that, but I do wish the ATV yahoos would keep their stinky, noisy, annoying machines on the roads and leave the rest of the country to those of us who will take shank's mare.
This blog was interrupted in order to bring me elk hunting.
No elk were harmed this year, though we had a good hunt up in western Colorado. The last few years, the hunt starts with my folks getting in from Texas, then my father and I taking our trucks up into the Colorado mountains. You cross some, then start back up into the high country. Though it doesn't look high yet, there it is on the left:
Then up a canyon:
and into the area we hunt, a bit over 8000 feet in elevation:
Within a half mile, you can go from pinyon/juniper to aspen and ponderosa, with the occasional spruce hiding out in wet and shady draws. We were joined by a friend from Denver and his brother in law out of North Carolina, up for his first elk hunt.
A bear had apparently spend most of the late summer on the hillside above our camp, as it was littered with his scat, which was full of acorn hulls. There is a turkey roost up there, too. This was my year for seeing deer, as I came across quite a few nearly every day, including a couple of four-point bucks, one of which was pretty good. Elk were harder for me to come by, though I had one possible shot through oak brush that I declined. The elk didn't offer any further opportunity. Another of our party had a shot, so we won't complain.
I had a good time one morning tracking three elk down a ridge line, just a few minutes behind them. That sort of hunting, watching the trail in rapidly melting snow, reading the tracks to see whether it looks like the elk were spooked or are beginning to slow down or look for a bed, trying to move fairly quickly, yet stay quiet, watching the wind and all the while scanning ahead and to the sides for any hint of buff, tan, or chocolate elk hide, is very intense and very fun. As it turned out, I pushed those elk into my father, who was working the opposite direction down the ridge, but the cover was heavy and they spooked before he got a good look. Few of my tracking attempts succeed, but the interesting exercise and the occasional success is enough to keep me at it.
We managed to catch weather, everything from wind to a bit of snow on the second day of the season:
In this second photo you'll notice the toughest Volvo in Colorado, or at least one of the few to ever find itself on an elk mountain, all-wheel drive or not. Kudos to Chris for keeping the "S" in "SUV":
It was a good year for grouse, the third we have seen.. We found blue grouse up on top, hanging out in bush ponderosa and even down in the p-j. Some of us carry .22 pistols to liven up the walk back to camp with the possibility of picking up a couple of birds. Sometimes, if the elk hunting is looking a little slow, a fellow might find himself cruising areas more prime for grouse than for elk. Shooting only for the head renders the hunt challenging and sporting, while preserving the delicious meat. As John Gierach writes: "A blue grouse is often saved for serious game feasts followed by fine port or a seduction."
My dad ran into most of the birds and took best advantage, being the best pistol shot among us by far:
Despite that weather early on and a good shot of cold, we left in blue bird weather. Those are the La Sal mountains of Utah over there-
We drop back down into the lower country and then headed home. This was it, the most intense hunting requiring the most exertion, at least most years, and the big trip. Now I've got a dog that was left home who needs to spend a lot of time with me working on learning the ins and outs of duck hunting.
Back ten or so years ago, I spent some time around the remains of a Rainbow Family camp site. For those unfamiliar with the Rainbow Family, follow the link or know that they are a determinedly un-organized hippie group that coalesce every so often in a stretch of National Forest to smoke dope, pound drums, commune with nature, pray for peace, celebrate, and generally do whatever it is they do. I don't have any sympathy (nor use, in the abstract) for hippies, the term conjures the adjectives "smelly", "impractical" and "annoying" to mind. I'm too young to recall exposure to the real thing, but had the dubious pleasure of seeing plenty of latter day wannabes while in college and listen to way too many of the more aged variety that had found their way into academia. Nonetheless, I have less than no beef with the Rainbow Family based upon my limited exposure to their ways. Here's why:
The summer I observed the effect of the Rainbow Family, I had suggested to my Uncle, Cousin, Father, and Grandfather that we put in to hunt a certain northern NM elk unit. We did, and drew. Before we'd even drawn, I had gone up there to look around a bit and scout out the country some. I'd found a nice little dead-end road that terminated next to a mesa with a stretch of unroaded country going up in three directions, perfect to camp and perhaps hunt in. In the interim, I heard about the RF and the gathering of up to a few thousand hippies and hippie wannabes, right in the National Forest we hoped to head. Later, I learned that they were in fact in the hunting unit we had draw for. Later still, in August, I headed up to check things out. Now, the very last thing any right thinking red-blooded hunter wants is ten thousand smelly people forming drum circles right where he hopes to camp. How very far would a drum circle drive off elk? Shudder to think of the effect of the patchouli and marijuana fumes. On my way in to scout, I actually passed th last couple of wildly painted decrepit Bluebird buses making their way out. I know, it's a cliche. Nonetheless, that's what they were and that's what I did. As I headed down smaller roads to the prospective camp, I started to get nervous- the roads were showing an awful lot of travel. Pounded to dust, in fact. The turn off to my little dead end road was just as bad, confirming my fear. Sure enough, what looked like a good camp to me looked like a good camp to them, too. In moderate dudgeon, I got out and looked around a bit. I found lots of trampled grass, much of it pressed down in circles from teepees or dances or who-knows. I found where sod had been cut for firepits and then replaced. I found rocks that had been moved, but scattered again. Getting interested, I swung wider and checked behind nearby trees and bushes- neither nose nor eye could detect cathole or casual tree-watering. The little creek running nearby even had cutthroats remaining in it. Dang! Two months later, I returned to the spot. We had decided to camp somewhere else, after all. Looking around, there was no sign at all that the area had been negatively impacted.
Contrast that with the aforementioned red-blooded, right-thinking elk-hunting population with which I identify. Head up into the public lands after an elk season and the road will be much easier to follow due to the glint of beer and soda cans tossed in the bar ditch. Note the camps along to roads, easy to identify by the trash left and the prominent fire rings. I've found water jugs, no doubt "left for the next guys", pieces of old carpet probably laid in front of trailers or in wall tents and nastified by wet weather, then abandoned, and countless bits of decaying critters that no one bothered to haul back into the brush of the coyotes and other scavengers. Hunters really need to do better. Assuming that my experience was not an anomaly, they shouldn't only do better for their own sake, or the sake of the forest, but if for neither of those reasons then just to avoid being shown up by a bunch of dope-smoking anarcho-whatevers.
Y'all might be a little tired of all this, but I've been enjoying something of a different fall since by virtue of observing a slightly different perspective:
1) wood cutting is ok, particularly with a break to check out a ridgetop or two for grouse:
2) you should take joy in the process of building a duck blind!
3) after you give your Chessie pills in peanut butter for a couple of weeks, you don't really need a timer to tell you when the oatmeal chocolate chip cookies you're baking for the upcoming elk season are done- the crying from the kitchen as the smell grows more intense is a pretty good hint.
While out recently, I came across a pile of fresh bear scat, so fresh that it's moisture made a ring in the dust around it. Shortly thereafter, I saw where the small bear had walked down the road in my tracks from not an hour before, apparently unconcerned with the dog and I.
Nothing scary, certainly not dangerous. Bears in Alaska, now, the brown bears, are much more intimidating. Maybe all those "Outdoor Life" covers rubbed off on me. Those bears are so big! One of the first bear tracks I saw up there was so wide that I could place the palms of both hands, thumbs tucked under, side by side in it. Apart from size, those bears are really impressive in their lack of concern about people. Still, in over a month of fishing salmon streams, that time spread out over several years, we've only seen a couple of bears.
Black bears down in the Southwest are a completely different matter. It took me years to see a bear. Once I did, it seemed as though I saw one or two nearly every year after that for a time. Having missed this last bear by minutes, it occurred to me that I'm about due, as I haven't run into a southwestern black bear in a couple of seasons.
The first bear that I got a decent look at was actually two, a sow and cub, encountered while elk hunting in southern Colorado. I was working my way up a broad draw that was thick with brush, pinyon, and juniper. For a bit, I'd had the idea that something was up ahead of me- a general feel and anticipation, but never the distinctive thump of a hoof on hard ground or anything visible. Suddenly, about five yards to my front left the big brown sow blew across my path and to my right, closely followed by her cub. After a couple of seconds of crackling brush and thumping hearts, I could hear her sending her cub up a tree; her grunting and his claws scrabbling at the bark. I made a wide circle around up wind and we all went on with our days.
The year after that, I came around the corner on a gravel road and saw this guy:
as he messed about with a reflector marking a culvert. He was a very young bear and one of the most handsome I've yet seen. For once, I had the big lens on the camera, so I pulled off to the shoulder and jogged over a small hill to intercept him, getting a few pictures.
I find bears easy to identify with, in an anthropomorphizing sort of way. Coming across a hillside of overturned rocks in the spring woods and its easy to visualize the hunger that led to all that effort for some ants and grubs. In Alaska, finding a section of boardwalk on a trail scattered- ten foot 2x12 planks tossed about and tumbled- and you get a real sense of tremendous strength and the moment of "pissed off at the world". To me, at least, it is hard not to envy the casual strength with which that pique was presumable worked out. Life as the Hulk. One morning as I was looking for deer in the southwestern mountains, I saw a pair of round ears protruding over some low bush a couple dozen yards ahead. Binos in hand, I slowly eased up until I could see a medium sized bear, this fellow all black, sitting under a spruce with his hind legs flat on the ground, his forelegs between them. His post under the tree had a fine view of the ridge opposite and the rest of the fairly open hillside and caught the morning breeze. He was looking around without an apparent care in the world, despite a jay some three feet above his head which began scolding, perhaps at me. I regret not having a camera handy at that moment to try to catch the air of ease he (or she, of course) projected- sitting in the shade, a fine cool sunny morning, watching the world. I, in turn, watched him until a couple of bird hunters and their dog came up the hill behind, sending us each in search of quieter venues. I fancy our mental reaction to the intrusion was about the same, albeit for different reasons.
Well, the dog and I went up grouse hunting this weekend, up to some high country that I've been fortunate enough to knock around in a bit. Saturday, Booker and I took a long circuit, heading out a trail along the edge of a big basin where, five or six years ago, I missed a crack at a decent buck cannoning through the timber. We went through little meadows where I've found grouse before, then headed up a steep little edge to a rim where I've watched elk and deer and once had a pine marten play hide and peek with me for five minutes or so. Over then, to a stringer of quakies that were bedding to a decent buck a few years back, one that I was fortunate to get on the right side of and that family helped me pack out. Up through the trees, recalling that birds in here have always seemed wild,flushed hard, and flew out of sight. Through that stand and over to another rim where I once watched at dawn as a young five-point bull elk stomped and bugled one frosty morning, he only fifty yards distant. Through mixed conifer and aspen, birds always a possibility, then down across a little road and a drainage, up the other side through more stringers of timber interspersed with long meadows. A few years back, halfway through one of those patches of timber, I came upon a half dozen grouse, dropping one late flusher and, while searching for another up in the trees, was interrupted by a coal black sow bear and her two cubs, undisturbed by my presence even when I fired my .22 up in the air. I left them their hillside and headed down to the truck. A few years earlier and a few hundred yards up this same swale I managed to get on the right side of a five-point bull elk, both of us surprised by the appearance of the other through the drizzle- a story for another time. This day, the dog and I fruitlessly scoured the edges and patches of timber, foregoing heading over to the little point where I crept up on another bear whilst deer hunting, the circled back to the truck. A decent circuit, but no birds.
My poor dog had never seen a campfire before, he curled the whiskers on his muzzle taking a sniff. Twice shy, but not in the least intimidated. Today we woke to drizzle, waited for a break in the weather, then essayed a lone mountain, a solitary volcanic cone, which rises some three thousand feet above its surroundings. A hard half-hour's walk and substantial elevation gain is required even to reach the foot. Another hard hour and a half brought us to the top. Despite my efforts to make noise, we walked up on an elk, but the dog called off after just a short chase. Once up top, the dog worked into the wind while I looked to the meadow to my left and down and saw a suspicious grey shape. Binos confirm, grouse laying low with more heads beginning to peer up through the grass. I call Booker to me, have him sit, then head one some twenty yards off. At the shot, another bird flushes and the dog breaks, jumping at the scent as the other half-dozen heavy birds taking flight. Birds! He runs to the downed grouse, fluttering at the head shot, and pulls a mouthfull of feathers then runs about like a crazy man, no heed to my call or anything else. Eventually, I get him on the check cord (fifty feet of 4k test rope with a heavy-duty brass snap) and we go over to the bird. Booker looks at it, and I pick it up. For a few tosses, we play fetch with the bird, his first warm example. Excellent. Now we proceed to seek the rest of the bunch. Twenty yards from the treeline, an excessively wary bird rockets out of the top of an aspen still aways back in. Off goes the Chessie, burning my hand on the line, which I drop. He hits the end (dallied on my side to my pack's waist belt) and executes a mid-air 180. He gets up and gives me an injured look as I exhort "whoa!". Into the trees, we deal with the check cord, looking for birds, and hung up by dozens of deadfalls. Coming thought the slender line of trees I see a grouse standing on a rock, peering at us from twenty-five yards out. Ten yards beyond, another bird stands on a log. I call Booker to me (not hard when he's on the cord) and have him sit. Standing on his check cord, I lean against a handy aspen and discover that my shot is thereby obscured. Forced to fairness, I stand offhand and take my crack, rewarded as the nearer bird pitches off in the flutter of wings that announces a head shot. The dog surges, but upon feeling the rope and my "whoa", subsides. The second bird flushes, another surge and a whine. I release the dog and he runs directly to the fallen bird and picks it up. Joy! Genius! He brings it to within ten feet of me, drops the bird, the races around like a mad man seeking more birds. I cannot get him to pick up the bird and bring it those last few feet. Ok, a good start and work to be done. We hunt a while longer through the aspens, looking for the other birds from that bunch we broke up, watching as a line of dark cloud and cold grey rain marches in from the west. The many deadfalls and fairly thick cover make the check rope a real trial. Before long, Booker is heeling at my side, the default "can't get in trouble for this" position. Good, but not ideal for finding birds. I take him off the lead, only to have another bird flush out of a tree-top and across a meadow, hotly pursued by the dog some thirty feet below. "Whoa!" has much less effect off the check rope. He flushes another couple of birds as he heads pell-mell across the meadow, turning to follow one off the ridge. I go to look for the bird that appeared to land just inside the treeline, to be joined shortly by a winded Chessie. We search a bit, then I make the executive decision that, having found some birds, collected a couple, and being faced with truly miserable times on the western (weather-ward) horizon, it was time to beat feet off the mountain. We made it to the truck just as a mist started and as I cleaned the birds it turned to a serious cold drizzle. All in all, a good day. No amazing story, no amazing bird-work, but a foundation and indication of what we're here to do and things that we will need to be worked on. First game:
Oh, and aspens are turning, the shrubby cinqefoil is turning it's ruddy bronze, and a couple of squeaky-voiced young bulls serenaded our camp for an hour or so last night. Hard life!
Coming right up on the first day of fall, calendar-wise.
The new Pratchett is out, better still, in my possession. The truck is loaded, weather looks clear, and the dog and I are going up to some high country to see if we can't find a bird or two. I threw in the four-weight, just in case we're really successful or just need to splash around. A couple of bottles of wine, a nice chunk of backstrap, and some other goodies are ready to go in the ice chest in the morning. Hope everyone else is doing as well.
This weekend I went out for another try at grouse. Just a day trip, working on getting the dog to work and checking out a couple of places I hadn't been in a while in addition to some new spots.
Fall is definitely coming. The New Mexico locust (one of the rare spiny plants to encounter up high in the southern Rockies) is getting well on to yellow and some aspens are starting to turn. I heard a bull elk bugling a bit, too.
We found one bunch of birds, but didn't score in part due to difficult terrain, but mostly because of a series of brain fades on my part when it came to preparing for the day. I'm not quite in self-deprecating enough of a mood to share those particular errors. Good to see some birds, though. Having blown one opportunity, the dog and I loaded up and went in search of some new ridges to check out. I ended up finding a series of high meadows which were awfully pretty and which look like prime grouse habitat. We didn't find any birds, but that's not definitive. Another three or four dry runs and I'll not bother with them much anymore. I'll bet we get into birds up there, though.
Those meadows were halfway up a pretty bad road. Unfortunately, I've never figured out how to take a picture that does such a thing justice.
My skidplates got a little polishing and, mostly, it took a long time to get up there and even longer to get back, in part due to a probably poorly considered decision to take the shorter, rather than the smoother, route. You just have to creep along and pay attention to where the wheels are going. In this instance it meant nothing more than a late-ish evening.
A few years ago, I spent some time scouting around to find an elk hunting area in southern Colorado. Now, I know that there are elk all over southern CO, but I was looking for a specific place for a group of us to meet, which meant actually spotting elk and trying to figure out where they might hole up once the season started, as well as finding a camp we could all get to. I had been out a couple of days and was going to head home that evening when, around noon, I decided to check out another loop of road across a highway from the area I had been knocking around. In doing so, I broke a pretty strong guideline, maybe even a rule, that I had grown up with; namely, before heading off into the woods or some back road, fill up your gas tank. I had half a tank and figured that would be plenty for the little twenty-mile loop I saw on the map. I headed up and got off the gravel road onto a dirt forest road which rapidly got smaller. Still, there were some recent, as well as fresh, vehicle tracks. Up and around I went, eventually discovering that most people had been taking a little illegal spur up to a lake which showed as a mile off the road on my map. At least I knew I was on the right road. That road continued to dwindle and get more and more rough, but I jounced along. Eventually, it got darned faint. More distressingly, the tracks I took for another vehicle turned out to be those of two four-wheeler ATVs, which had been traveling abreast. They changed that shorty before they turned around. I hate ATVs. I thought about turning around, too, but figured I was better than halfway along. Then I hit the creek. Not enough water to matter, but some really large boulders presented a very significant obstacle to my Chevy S-10 pickup. It was a great little vehicle, but suffered from a fairly long wheel base and a lack of body clearance. I got out and checked the rocks and couldn't see any way across that wouldn't end up with me high-centered. Worse, I no longer had enough gas to go back the way I came. I got out my shovel and pried at a couple of the worst boulders. Subtle creaking from the handle indicated that, while I might break the shovel, I wasn't moving the rocks. A small aspen had been knocked down by a windfall spruce, so I cut that for a pole and trimmed an end to fit under a rock. That resulted in an impressive bend in the springy green aspen, especially when I hung all of my weight off the end, but no motion in the rock. A similar experiment with a dried spruce used as a pole just resulted in breaking off the end of the wood. Finally, I stacked some rocks in a couple of low places, cussed a little, put the truck in four-low, and eased my way out over it. Nothing else could be done, I had to get home and I couldn't get there by going back. To my surprise and utter relief, no disaster ensued. My only problem then was gas. Hurrying through the mudholes and washouts wasn't an option, so it was another tense hour before I finally got to the better road. Of course, given that it was now quite late on Sunday evening, no one was up there so I still faced a very long walk if I ran dry. I spent most of the ride trying to figure out the least-embarrassing way to describe my anticipated failure to show up for work on Monday. Amazingly enough, there was a whole half-gallon of gas in the tank when I coasted into the first station I could find open.
I got off easy and the experience was chastening enough that I haven't repeated the failure to gas up. Even if it is a bit more at the pump up in the boonies, you're supporting the rural economy and the peace of mind is dirt cheap at the price.
Well, here recently some family and friends and I gathered for a second annual party. The centerpiece of the do is a whole roasted pig. I got the general directions off the web, from these guys. In order to spare the sensibilities of more squeamish guests, we left the head with the processors and took off the feet. One nice thing about living in the Southwest, it isn't all that hard to find some place where "vende marrones" is advertised.
The directions call to build a roaster out of cinderblock, lined with some foil. You butterfly the pig and then fix it into a rack that goes on top of the roaster. Small fires in each corner provide heat and more foil over the top helps keep the heat in. The pig was marinated overnight in a mojo of sour orange, garlic, black pepper, salt, and oregano. More garlic is studded through the meat. Last year, I got too aggressive on the fire and charred the skin of the pig, although the meat came off the bone fork tender and well rendered of any fat. This year, I kept the fire down too low, resulting in roast pork with a nice flavor that had to be cut off the bone, rather than falling off. Also, the skin was a bit under-done to enjoy as a crispy treat.
Only one solution to the problem. Now that I've bracketed either end of done, a third try is required to get to "just right". Regardless of the state of the pork, it was a nice party with plenty of good folks, food, beer, wine, water, laughter, and all those other things necessary to a good life.
Otherfolks have been marking the opening of this fall's hunting seasons, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows hunters. The beginning of the year, or the best part of the year, and ready-or-not here it comes!
Doves were always the season opener when I was growing up. We lived down on the border with Mexico and mourning doves were very plentiful. Dove shoots tend to be social affairs, wingshooting skill being more important than stealth and larger numbers of hunters being useful to keep the birds moving, rather than having them all settle in the far side of a field. The first hunt that I can remember, one of the hunters took all of us kids to the side before the birds got flying or anyone dispersed. He had us all gather around, then set up a little, half-rotten cantaloupe on a clod of dirt (we were hunting a picked and disked cantaloupe field, the doves would come in to pick the seeds from the broken melons). From about fifteen feet away, he shot the melon with his twenty gauge, causing it to vaporize. Then Doc turned to the assembled kids and told us "It will do the same thing to your head, too. Always pay attention to where a gun is pointing." That remains one of the more graphic demonstrations of gun safety I have seen and, while not belabored, made a lasting impression on my six-year-old self. My first couple of years were spent chasing down shot birds, then I graduated to a .410 single shot, borrowed for a season, then a single shot twenty gauge (with a case of shells for my 10th birthday!). A week or two before the season, a friend and I would stand out in the vacant lot between our houses, yelling "boom!" at passing doves and watching as the returning birds would sideslip or roll, telling each other that the birds which sculled along without concern would be easy marks soon.
When we moved from the border, we got to an area where the dove shooting was spotty and, by our standards, terrible. Eventually, we turned to hunting mountain grouse, which has remained my favored season opener for twenty years now. Grouse season opens on September 1st, too.
The hunting is pretty hit or miss. Some mountains will usually have birds, others occasionally have birds, still others never or almost never hold them despite having what appears to be the same mix of vegetation and similar elevation. Also, grouse populations are cyclical. Even in a good year, you can walk five or six miles through good looking habitat (all above 9000', here) and never bump a bird. The next day, you might run into a bunch of six or seven in the first half mile. At worst, it is a walk in the mountains right at the start of fall.
Moving from the general to the specific, I managed to get out for one day this past weekend. I headed up to a couple of ridges which have irregularly produced birds for me. I ran into three other hunters or the vehicles, one a twenty-something guy with a young German shorthair who had just finished what I was setting out to do- driving down a ridgetop road that passes a number of meadows, working each one with the dog. to my chagrin, I got called "sir" by the polite sprout. The last few years, I've noticed more grouse hunters around my spots. I suppose the ever increasing population of the southwest means a few more people who know what grouse are and learn that we have them. I know hunter numbers are down, but I'll just warn any of you thinking of hunting grouse in the southwest- the birds taste terrible! Awful, horrible stuff-they'll stink up your house and break your dog from retrieving. Don't bother! Also, they won't sit for your pointer and they aren't any fun to hunt. Just move along, nothing to see here. These are not the giant quail that you are looking for.
The hunt was interesting because I took the new dog, even though he isn't really ready to hunt. The first hour or so, we had to work with him on a check cord, which was an enormous pain. However, I was very pleased that he got the picture and for the rest of the day remained mostly in range. The fact that both of us need more conditioning to be able to energetically quarter steep slopes at high altitude probably helped. Looking for grouse makes a for a nice early season hunt. No snakes, fairly cool temperatures, and ground that is relatively easy on feet that haven't toughened up yet. We found no birds, which was disappointing in that I'd hoped to show him exactly what we were out there for, but it was a pretty productive day in terms of working on some skills, getting some exercise, and just getting out. The only negative was the discovery of a spot where a bull elk had recently been getting his mojo going for the upcoming rut, which Booker apparently felt was the equivalent of Brut for dogs, or maybe Hai Karate. That was followed by a dip in a stock tank that I brought us foolishly (+/- 100 yards) close to. Hot chessie smells water- no point in even trying to call him off. Of course, water was only a small part of the contents of the tank. I'm not sure what all the green stuff bubbling up from the bottom consisted of, apart from cow droppings. In any event, the ride home was a bit fragrant and the day capped off with a short session under the hose; which he probably figured was a perfect capper to a good day.
In a recent Querencia post, Reid Farmer notes signs of fall's approach and mentions roasting green chile. Here the chile roasting stands are going steadily, perfuming the air. In light of that, I thought I'd share the recipe for calabacitas, a standard New Mexican dish which, to me, sums up much of late summer and early fall in food form. You need:
Corn kernels, about four cups either cut off the cob (best) or frozen Roasted green chile, peeled, seeded and chopped, approx. 1 cup but heavily dependent upon personal taste and the heat of the chile. Grated cheese, jack, cheddar, or a Mexican grating cheese, also about one cup. A large onion, peeled and chopped. Summer squash, like zucchini, scrubbed and sliced fairly thin, about equal to the corn.
In a deep skillet, saute the onion until translucent. Add the corn and a little water to start it cooking, along with the squash. Add the green chile. Cook until the corn is tender, salt and pepper to taste, then add the cheese, stir, and serve.
Of course, chile is not just a New Mexico phenomenon. They grow it in Texas and even in points north.