Learning to Gambel

I am headed out to Vegas today. And you know what they say: what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

But this one particular part of the trip I feel compelled to write about.

I am out here not to gamble - no, a much more noble cause colors my travels this weekend. First off, and the primary reason for the trip, is a time-honored tradition among fighting men that has passed down through the millennia: a reunion of war-brothers. 10 years ago this fall, the men of 1/5 left Iraq for the last time, following their third consecutive deployment to that "restive" nation. OIF I (which I missed): The Invasion. OIF II: Fallujah 1. OIF: The Battle of Ramadi. I made two of the three - many of my guys, particularly those who enlisted just prior to 9/11, had the distinct honor to make all three trips.

So now, 10 years late, a lot slower and a little fatter and not nearly as mean, we are all getting together in our old Marine Corps Ball haunts, a week after all of the active duty guys have rolled through for Ball season. Vegas calls, and nearly 140 of our own alumni are answering that call, to reassemble and reminisce over scotch, cigars, and warm hazy memories of the finest days of our young lives, and the finest of us that did not return. Best men I've ever known. Best job I ever had.

But that is not the real purpose of this blog post - it is only the platform for a small one-day aside. I got a really sweet "value add" opportunity for this trip though: i found an outfitter that guides out Henderson NV, and booked an upland bird hunt once I figured out that none of the other officers were bringing their spouses. I thought at first we were going t be hunting chukar in the rocky rimrock of the surrounding mountains, perhaps out to the East Mojave near Invapah. Instead, it looks like we are going to be chasing Gambel's Quail, a bird I know nothing about but that sounds interesting all the same.

I hear they are small and fast, but not as small and maybe faster than their bobwhite cousins. All wild birds, out in the arid rocky arroyo's of eastern Nevada, just west of the Arizona border. The guide is picking me up at my hotel at 4am, which will no doubt consume most of Saturday in more productive fashion than would sitting around and drinking all day. Here is an excerpt from the little upland anthology I am reading currently:
The dog, on the other hand, has never experienced an environment remotely like this one. . . .[But] the dog does what every pore of his being is meant to do; he is relentless in his pursuit of a species of quail that he has never experienced before this trip, to the exclusion of numerous other bird species he's never seen before either, but pays no mind to. I find no shortage of marvel in this. He finds them and almost flips over himself slamming to a point. They don’t hold for a second, of course, but start running in a loose, directional flock, flowing around cholla and prickly pear and acacia like a school of fish around dock pilings, coming together again and heading for the nastiest cover they can find. Spindly head feathers bobbling as they run. He moves after them, maintaining something of a vector/point as he goes and I have no choice but to do much the same in pursuit. Quail running. Dog running, freezing, pointing, running again. Human trying to keep up. The whole thing seems comical and about as far from the stereotypical, “classic upland” experience as one can get. But being attached to stereotypes isn’t the least bit productive here, whether you’re talking about putting a few Gambel’s in the bag, or a number of other things. 
Lenny is picking me up in the truck at 4am tomorrow, and we are heading out to the Nevada / Arizona line for a one-day hunt. I've got the 870, most of the kit I need here in the hotel room. Flight out was a breeze. We had a good little get together with everyone tonight, not too much to drink and I haven't even touched the poker tables. Doesn't matter - I'm ready to Gambel.


Book Review: Daniel Boone, et al.

Jack told me on the phone today that while at Nana's house, he was getting to read one of my favorite
childhood books, the Landmark Series classic Daniel Boone: The Opening of the Wilderness. Jack relayed excitedly that Daniel Boone had killed a panther at the ripe age of ten, as if to intimate that he himself might accomplish such a feat in just a handful of years.

I grew up reading these books of American folklore, cover to cover and back again, often under the light of a flashlight concealed beneath my bedspread. While most other's childhood evenings may have consisted of "good night, ma" and "good night, john-boy," mine certainly most often consisted of "Stephen, turn your light out" and "just one more chapter, mom."

One of my favorites was the story of General George Armstrong Custer. to find out later that he was something of a buffoon does nothing to diminish his place in the history of my childhood. I read that book seven times in the Third Grade alone.


Happy Birthday Pookie Face

Dean the Dog officially turned 8 years old today. It's been quite a journey since that fateful trip down to Harker's Island to pick him up one October day. He's a good dog, and he's not at all jealous that he shares his birthday with his younger, prettier sibling, who turned 5 herself today.

There were plenty of snack treats for the ol' Deando, and a couple choice photographs. Doc even got him a special bone, which he sat patiently for while wagging his tail.

 He even got a little bit of Sister's cake, too..



I've gotten to the point - middle age, I guess -  where I really appreciate having things in my life that stick around for a while. I've got a wife I'll be beside for another 40 or 50 years, God willing and the lightning don't strike. My dog is eight years old and coming into his prime (which means he can still keep up with me on a hunt, but no longer bounces around the house like a pogo stick on methamphetamine if he doesn't get a walk in). I've been shooting the same Remington 870 Wingmaster LW Magnum in 20 gauge for about the last 25 years or so, and had my Benelli SBE for at least 15. My truck just hit 185,000 miles and is still going strong, for so long as I can keep my eyes on the road.

I also have this collection of little rugrats, bright-eyed and starting to come out of the dew of babyhood into a life of adventure and exploration. They love rock-hopping and romping in the woods, and I bet Jack asks me to go hunting before too long. But they are still a work in progress, many years yet to go before they hump it up the Black Mountain Crest Trail or the Teton Traverse. They have a ways to go to begin to develop the patina that age and hard work bring.

Some things start to show their wear in a neat way, and then they end up with a lot of good stories to tell. I guess you could say that about people too, but with them you take the good with the bad if you know what I mean. It's nice to go down to the gear closet, in the middle of summer when hunting season is still just an embryo of a hope, and think about the miles I've got under my belt.

As to gear, I got these McAlister upland pants with waxed cotton facing in 2007 (McAlister is now defunct, unfortunately). Hunted them for three hard days in the woods of north-central Wisconsin chasing grouse and timberdoodles, and they got broke in real quick. They've hunted South Dakota in a few feet of snow, and in balmier times, the heat of South Carolina in the early fall, and the rocky slopes on Montana's Kootenai NF (as shown below). They've got a bit of blood, a little gun oil, and a few good coats of sweat in em now (can't wash the waxed cotton, so you just hose em off). They are due for a re-proofing, but are still going strong. I wouldn't wear 'em on a date, but they'll go just about anywhere else.

The only drawback in the McAlister pants is the thin poplin fabric in the seat, which has a few noticeable holes from crossing wire fences, and which show up quite well with white boxers. So I have some extra fabric that I'm going to take into Mama-san and see if she can jerry-rig up a reinforced seat for me. Shouldn't be quite as hot as the Filson Double Hunting Pants, but a similar level of protection in the high wear areas. I'll let you know how it turns out.

I've also got this old Army jacket from the early 70s. It was dad's first "ski jacket" back when he was courting my mom (He missed the boat to the South China Sea, went I-A for 90 days in 1969 but they never called his draft  number). Still, a cool piece of kit that has worn in well, and makes a good coat for when you want to get out and get dirty a little bit. The GI poly/cotton mix launders up nicely. Probably has some good stories to tell from before Mom and Dad got married, not that I want to know the particulars.

Dad bought these boots (pictured above) from Cabela's, probably in the early 90s. I stole them at some point after I got out of the Marines and have hunted in them since. They are broken in nice, the leather with a little mink oil will turn away the dew, and I didn't have to pay for them. Dad finally noticed on our last trip that I was wearing his old boots, and laughed. I don't think its that funny - they are good boots. No sense in getting a new pair.


One Thousand One

That is how much time you have - as long as it takes to say "one Thousand one" -  to get a shot off at
 a mountain grouse.

In that time you have to hear and process the sound of the flush, stop walking or climbing or stumbling and gain some measure of solid footing, orient on the bird hoping to get a glimpse of feathered wings flashing in the sun, take your weapon from safe to fire, shoulder your gun, swing through the flight trajectory and fire. You've got to keep your finger on the kill button.

The best advice is to fire more than once, possibly until you run out of shells, because some substantial percentage of each shot is absorbed by the thick pine trunks or deflected by the dense Douglas fir or towering Larch through which Ol' Ruff just fled so nimbly. By the time the hammer falls with a dry snick on an empty chamber, the metronome in the back of your head might have gotten all the way to "one thousand two" - if you are lucky.

On the other hand, you might also be encouraged to leave one shell in the gun or to quickly hustle several new shells into the breech - rarely is there just one bird, particularly if you are out of shells. Unlike their lowland cousins the bobwhite quail, who may often flush allgoddamnatonce if you find a covey, these birds tend to flush seriatim, but in maddeningly unpredictable intervals and angles. Neither wood ducks rocketing through the cool misty dark nor doves screaming and twisting at terminal velocity compare to the difficulty of shooting that characterizes the mountain grouse on the wing in thick and hilly cover.

The ruffed grouse that we encountered - maybe a dozen or so over three days - were all fast and wild. Cover was typically thick stands of alder and larch, intermingled with emerging cedars, in draws on the northern slopes where there was a bit more moisture.

We surprised one cocktail grouse strutting in the middle of a fire road, and he hung there just long enough as if to say "look upon my glorious plumage!" until we piled out of the truck with guns at the ready. He got away.

While we didn't see a blue grouse, I do like the looks our their favorite habitat. We hunted the rocky spines of mountain ridges, relatively clear of brush with large grassy glades dotted with mountain pine and bare, crumbling stone outcrops several millennia in the making. I can imagine that a flush up here would send the bird soaring out below, an incredible mountain backdrop to accompany the shot. And just the same, a successful hit on a long bird could easily result in a half-hour effort to retrieve, even with a dog to assist. The rocky slopes were real ankle breakers, and more than once I used a hand or knee or hindquarters to assist a climb or descent.

We saw more spruce grouse than anything else. They are not called Fool Chicken in error, as they generally stand around in the road until you get ready to shoot, flush, and if you happen to miss they just light on a tree limb nearby.

Of course, maybe it is the hunters who play the true role of the Fool Chicken, hooting and hollering while trying to throw a rock or branch close enough to the bird to dislodge him from his perch. This recalls the age-old adage: "Who is the bigger Fool, the Fool Chicken or the Fool who chases the Fool Chicken."

Alas, all in the name of a "sporting" shot.

Grouse Hunting in The Kootenai

Deep within a majestic expanse of boreal forest, a stone's throw from the Canadian border and 65 miles from the nearest cell tower, lies the town of Yaak, Montana. I use the word "town" in the traditional but liberal sense - really, this is a haphazard collection of trailers, houses, sheds, and farms, which appear somewhat clustered around a single intersection but in reality are just generally strung out all along the river. There are at least two commercial establishments, the Yaak Tavern & Mercantile and the "World Famous" Dirty Shame Saloon -  actually, three - if you count the Yaak Tavern and Yaak Mercantile separately (they are conjoined but distinct).

The road in from the Idaho border winds along the north and west side of the Yaak River, with towering peaks to one side and the broad floor of the river valley on the other. We drove in around sunset, racing the last rays of sunlight as we traversed into the upper valley. The sun slipped first behind booming cumulus clouds before bursting out for a brief low angle finale just above the ridge line to the west. And then it was gone, light pink wisps of the day left the n the darling azure sky just as we turned into the cabin.

This place is teeming with life - a dozen wild turkeys and scores of whitetail deer crowded the mountain road into the valley, and ducks and geese sat quietly in a still oxbow pond as our car screamed by. Jays and squirrels chattered the tidings of our arrival to the cabin, and I am sure I heard the brief pounding flutter of a single grouse exploding out of the pines just a bit further up the hill.

We were staying three nights with Tim Linehan, in one of his self-catering cabins (seriously, stock up on steaks and beer on the way in, the Dirty Shame's kitchen was closed and we ate at the Yaak Tavern three nights in a row). Three days to the hills to chase three species of mountain grouse in this beautiful slice of country: ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, and blue grouse. Dean the Dog was along for the ride, taking the flight in stride and anxious as always to hit the treeline although its been so long since he's tasted bird I'm not sure he entirely knew what to expect.