Sunday, September 23, 2007


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!

Friday, September 21, 2007


Happy weekend to you all.

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.

Monday, September 17, 2007

bad road

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.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pig Roast

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.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Season opener

Other folks 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.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

food stuff

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.