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The Sporting Road
Perhaps too often the nonhunter might accuse the upland game sportsman of "killing off our birds," whatever the species might be. With the present controls on hunting this is, of course, utter nonsense. Far more important than the numbers of birds shot during the fall hunting season is the amount of winter food and cover available to support the survivors until the following breeding season.
—Paul A. Johnsgard, The Grouse of the World
It was opening day of grouse season in Colorado, and things just didn't feel right. For one thing, it was too hot to hunt, even in the high country where I live. But it wasn't only the weather; something else was clearly amiss. I had been dogged for several days by an impending sense of disaster, and then the day before the opener I was in Denver attending to some last-minute business before bird season when the Suburban broke down—I mean completely collapsed. I drove it limping and knocking, wheezing and smoking, groaning and leaking fluids from every orifice like a great gut-shot beast into the shop, where, of course, because it was Friday, nothing could be done for it until the following week. "But tomorrow's opening day," I begged. "I've got a hunt scheduled. I'm meeting a friend; I need my vehicle."
The mechanic just shrugged, which is never a good sign. Clearly he wasn't a hunter and didn't give a damn about opening day.
So I went across the street to a car rental agency. It was hot as hell in the city, and naturally I was not in good mood. "I need a four-wheel-drive vehicle for the weekend," I said to the young rental agent.
"It's Labor Day weekend, sir," the agent replied with an unmistakable hint of reprimand in his voice. "I'm afraid we're completely out of four-wheel-drive vehicles."
"Great," I said. "Well, what about a truck, or even a van?"
He shook his head.
He shook his head.
"What do you have?"
"I can put you in a Ford Escort, sir," he said. "We have one left."
"A Ford Escort?" I said. "Tomorrow's opening day of bird season, and all you can give me to drive is a Ford Escort?" It was obvious to me that this fellow wasn't a hunter, either.
"Yes, sir, I'm afraid so. You won't find a four-wheel-drive vehicle to rent in the entire city this weekend. All the out-of-state tourists are going up to the mountains for Labor Day, and they all like to drive four-by-fours."
"But most of them never even leave the pavement," I said. "They don't need four-wheel drive."
"That may be, sir," the rental agent replied with a condescending smile, "but the tourists still like four-wheel-drive vehicles to get them to the mountains. It makes them feel like they're having an authentic Rocky Mountain experience."
"Yeah, well, I live here," I said, "and I'd also like to have an authentic Rocky Mountain experience."
"I'm very sorry, sir," he said, "but I'm afraid that for you, this weekend, that's just not going to happen."
"A Ford Escort …," I muttered. "What the hell kind of a car is a Ford Escort for a field editor to be driving on opening day?"
"What's a field editor?" the young man asked.
I had to think about this for a minute. "I'm not sure," I finally admitted, "but I am one."
"Perhaps someone who edits in a field?" said the young fellow helpfully.
"Sure, that's it," I agreed. "Look; I'll take the Escort."
The next morning before dawn, I loaded Sweetz and my gear into the tiny subcompact and headed for Steamboat Springs, where I was meeting my friend Mike Mastro. Although the sun hadn't yet risen, it was already unseasonably warm, and now, driving in the Escort, it felt less than ever like opening day. I think even Sweetz was embarrassed by our new vehicle. She rode beside me in the front seat looking notably ungainly, too big for the little car, and somehow even dopier than Labs usually look.
Mastro has a brace of excellent little English springer spaniels whom he hunt-tests. He used to be a navigator for United Airlines, but then they transferred him to Newark, New Jersey. He lasted a week there before, like any self-respecting bird hunter faced with the prospect of bird season in Newark, he quit his job. Conveniently, this happened just before the season opened, and presently Mike was kind of dragging his heels about seeking new employment.
Mastro and I were looking for Columbian sharptail grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus), of which there still exists a huntable population in this part of Colorado. Commonly known as mountain sharptail, the bird is a slightly smaller subspecies of the more widely ranged plains sharptail. Sweetz and I had never hunted them before, but an acquaintance in the Division of Wildlife had suggested that if we intended to do so, we might want to get it done soon. Although populations of mountain sharptail in Colorado were considered to be generally stable, threatened and/or extirpated populations in neighboring states pointed to the distinct possibility that the subspecies might be reclassified as a separate species altogether and listed as threatened or endangered, in which case, of course, hunting them anywhere would no longer be allowed.
However, as Paul A. Johnsgard, perhaps the world's foremost expert on gallinaceous game birds, points out, the steady, tragic decline of this fine little bird has nothing whatsoever to do with hunting pressure, but with a complicated combination of factors that generally involve changing land use practices—overgrazing, fire suppression, "clean" farming, residential development, etc.
At the same time, further limiting hunting pressure on mountain sharptails in western Colorado (and hunting opportunities, as well) is the fact that most of the areas with the highest bird populations are on private land. The local landowners—ranchers, farmers, hobby ranchers, and second-home owners alike—tend to be protective of their sharptails, particularly where granting hunting access is concerned. Curiously, the parceling of the land into thirty-five-acre "ranchettes," the frequent destruction of sharptail nests while summer-fallowing wheat stubble, overgrazing, and intensive dryland farming methods are rarely perceived by anyone other than the knowledgeable wildlife biologist as a threat to bird populations. Meanwhile, the poor beleagured gun-toting hunter is considered to be the prime enemy of wildlife.
I had made better than a dozen phone calls toward the end of the summer, trying to line up hunting access for opening day. I'd talked to game officers and landowners and had finally scored permission from a rancher who, though he owned a relatively small piece of property, said that he had some birds.
Now I pulled into the parking lot of a café outside town where I was to meet Mastro. He was already there, sitting in his truck, of which I had never been more envious. I parked beside him in the Escort.
Mike looked down at me as I pulled up. "Traded the Suburban in for something more economical, huh, Jim?" he said.
"That's very funny, Mike," I answered.
"It'll look great pulling the Airstream," he said.
"Ha … ha … ha."
By the time we had followed my directions to the ranch the sun was well up. Now it was really getting hot.
"It's too damn hot for opening day," I said.
"We'll have to watch out for the dogs in this heat," Mastro answered.
We knocked on the door of the ranch house. The rancher himself answered. He was very accommodating and pointed up behind the house. "Just hunt up that draw," he said. "You'll find birds there. They like to be near water."
As we were talking to the rancher, a tiny, wizened old woman came out of another small house in the ranch compound and glared at us suspiciously. "Don't say anything to Mother about hunting her birds," the rancher added. "She's kind of protective of them."
"What shall we say we're doing?" I asked. "In case she asks."
"Don't say anything," he said. "Just pretend you're hunting deer. She doesn't mind that."
"Hunting deer with dogs and shotguns?"
"Don't worry; she won't know the difference."
So we drove down a two-track lane behind the ranch yard, parked, unloaded the dogs, and walked to the end of the draw—a small drainage that ran out of the hills to irrigate a meadow below. Although only an hour's drive from the wide open spaces of the high mountain "park" in which I live, this country is on the other side of the Continental Divide in western Colorado and represents a different ecosystem altogether. Hardly mountains any longer, the hills hereabout seem as close-set as the hills of West Virginia and are covered mainly with scrub oak, cedar, and juniper.
At a couple of thousand feet of elevation lower, it was also considerably warmer than my home country. Still, Mike and I had been encouraged by the rancher's certainty of finding birds in the draw. Who knows? Maybe we'd get into them right away and be finished before the real heat of day set in. The daily bag limit on mountain sharptails is only two birds—down from twenty in the year 1915.
We worked up either side of the draw as the dogs quartered through the grass and shrubs in the bottom. Although neither of us had ever hunted them before, we'd been boning up the birds' habits and habitat by reading various Division of Wildlife publications and by talking to wildlife officers. Too, there is a universal element to all good game bird habitat, the basic requirements of which are really very simple—food, cover, and water—and hunters eventually develop a kind of sixth sense about where birds are likely to be found, even in unfamiliar country.
Now Mastro and I both remarked on how "birdy" the country looked (as in "well, it sure looks birdy")—which shows how much we knew, for as we worked up the draw from the meadow into the lightly timbered hills we found no sharptails, nor did any of the dogs act even remotely interested. We hit the rancher's fence line, grateful for the shade of the trees on the hill.
"I guess we'd better go back down to the house and ask him where his second-best spot is," Mike suggested.
This time the rancher sent us over to his alfalfa and wheat fields. "You'll find birds there, for sure," he assured us. His tiny old mother was still watching us from her doorway. She kind of gave me the creeps. It was getting hotter by the minute.
The country here was divided into a lot of small parcels, and the rancher's wheat and alfalfa fields were not contiguous to the rest of his property. It required a short drive and a couple of turn-offs, but we found the place, or so we believed.
We started working around the edge of the wheat field and through a likely-looking patch of mixed brush cover. We stopped frequently to rest and water the dogs. It was getting dangerously hot. In my journal entry of that day's hunt I have written: "I can't ever remember having hunted in such hot weather."
Then from the thick brush we heard a yelp from Mastro's young spaniel, Misty, who plowed, squealing, out of the cover with a face full of porcupine quills, at which exact moment a pickup truck came careening and bouncing down the two-track road toward us. Even before we could see the driver's face, we knew from the way he was driving that he was not coming to welcome us. It occurred to us both in the same instant and with an awful clarity that we must have taken a wrong turn and were inadvertently trespassing on someone else's land. "Uh-oh," I said as Mastro tried to calm his quill-stricken dog. "I think we have a problem here."
The truck pulled up short, and the driver, a small, wiry fellow, jumped from the cab and strode purposefully toward us. "You'd better get out of here!" said the man, his face flushed with anger. "You'd better get out off my property!" he added, waving his finger at us.
Menaced by the man's aggressive approach and obviously unaware that we were the trespassers, Sweetz started howling at him.
"Knock it off, Sweetz!" I hollered at her. "Sir, I'm sorry," I said to him. "Jack Soper [not his real name] gave us permission to hunt here." Even before the words were out of my mouth, I knew that this was not what I had meant to say.
And it made the little rancher even madder. "Jack Soper? Jack Soper gave you permission? Jack Soper did not give you permission to hunt here!" he hollered, his face going scarlet with rage. Clearly this fellow had a heart attack in his future; I just hoped we weren't going to be the cause of it.
"I guess we got a little confused," I said lamely.
"You'd better get out of here," the rancher repeated. "You'd better get the hell off my land! And tell your goddamn dog to stop barking at me or I'll shoot the miserable sonofabitch."
"We're gone," I said. "We're outta here. Shut up, Sweetzer!"
As many bird hunters have found out the hard way, nothing puts a damper on a hunt more thoroughly than getting hollered at by a landowner for trespassing. It's a terrible way to start the season. Of course, it was entirely our own fault, though as Mike had pointed out, it would make things a whole lot easier for all concerned if property owners would simply post their land, especially in country as chopped up as this.
Although things were going rapidly from bad to worse, Mike and I still weren't prepared to give up on opening day just yet. Back at the truck we regrouped, pulled quills out of Misty's face, and decided to give it one last shot. The first thing we did was go back to the ranch house and get our directions straight. By now it must have been ninety-five degrees in the shade, easy.
This time the rancher was gone and a young woman answered the door. She looked too young to be the rancher's wife, too old to be his daughter. Later Mike and I both decided that she must be the rancher's live-in girlfriend. She introduced herself as Susie, and I recalled that I had spoken to her a couple of times on the phone over the summer while trying to arrange hunting permission. Now we exchanged pleasantries at the door. Susie was smoking a cigarette in a certain world-weary manner. She looked like she'd been around some.
"You come from this country, Susie?" I asked her, more by way of gauging the reliability of her information regarding resident bird populations than out of mere curiosity. Susie shook her head. "I come from all over—Utah, Nevada, Wyoming. My people are oil field trash."
Right off I liked Susie.
"Now what can I do for you boys?" she asked, taking a long, squinty pull on her cigarette. Then she kind of flicked her head back and expertly blew the smoke skyward so that it didn't go directly in our face through the screen door. "Tell me this: what's your goal?"
"Our goal?" I asked. This struck me as an odd question, though it did kind of fit with the slightly off-kilter nature of opening day so far. "Our goal is really very simple, Susie," I said. "Our goal is to shoot a couple of sharptail grouse. Or maybe just to see a couple. We just got busted by one of your neighbors for accidentally trespassing and we want to be sure not to make the same mistake again. He was not a bit happy to see us."
"Little terrierlike guy?" Susie asked. "Looks like he's going to grab your pant leg in his teeth and shake hell out of your leg?"
I nodded. "That's the one."
Susie waved her cigarette dismissingly. "That's Schroeder," she said. "Don't worry about him. Schroeder's never happy. He's pissed off at the whole world.
"Now if you're looking for birds," Susie continued, smoking reflectively, "I'd probably send you up to hunt the hillside above the stock tank. I've been seeing birds there all summer. Sometimes they're right down by the water. If you want, I'll take you up there myself. You can follow me in your truck."
Because hunters are eternal optimists, we allowed our spirits to rise slightly as we followed Susie, who drove one of the ranch trucks. She seemed quite competent and so certain about finding birds by the stock tank. But just as we were pulling out of the drive I noticed that the old woman was watching us again from her doorway.
"I think that old woman is jinxing our hunt," I said to Mike. "I got a weird feeling about it."
"Don't be ridiculous," Mike said.
"I'm serious," I said. "She gives me the creeps. I think she's put a hex on us. She doesn't want us to find her birds, and that's why we've having such bad luck so far." Mike hummed the Twilight Zone theme song: "Do-do do-do, do-do do-do." "Maybe she even caused your truck to blow up yesterday, Jim," he remarked. "Do-do do-do, do-do do-do."
Susie led us to the stock tank, showed us the hillside that we should hunt, and wished us luck. Now the midday heat was at its peak. I'll bet it was pushing a hundred degrees.
The hill was steep, covered with patches of scrub oak, mountain blackberry, chokecherry, and serviceberry. Not only was it hot, but it had been dry as well, the fruit on the berry bushes sparse and shriveled. The hillside had a certain tindery feel to it, as if at any moment it might burst spontaneously into flame. However, there was some shade and good cover and if I were a grouse, this was where I would loaf during the relentless midday heat.
We humped the whole length of the hillside—hard, hot work, climbing and busting brush—and did not come across a single bird. Rather than risk having a dog fall victim to heat prostration, which would turn a merely lousy opening day into a truly disastrous one, we decided to quit. We'd had enough. We were whipped.
"I don't know about you, but I've had better opening days," Mike observed as he drove me back to my rental car in Steamboat Springs.
"No kidding," I said. "Yesterday my truck blew up and all I could rent in Denver was a Ford Escort, which should have been my first tip-off that opening day was going to be a bust. Right off it was too damn hot to hunt; then your dog got into the porcupine and we got our asses chewed for trespassing. Now it's what? about ninety-eight degrees in the shade and we never even saw a bird. I think it's safe to say that we've both had better opening days."
"Well, at least no dogs died," Mastro pointed out.
We parted company in the parking lot of the café, promising to try another time for this species, maybe next season, as this year we were both headed in different directions.
But evidently the opening day hex wasn't off me just yet. On my way home I stopped at the grocery store in Steamboat Springs. As I pushed my cart past the meat counter, three college-age kids, a young man and two young women, presumably visiting one or another of their parents' condo (probably built in what was once prime mountain sharptail habitat) for the Labor Day weekend, were involved in an intense discussion over a package of chicken breasts, which the young man held in his hand. "Totally gross!" said one of the young women. "I can't eat that kind. Get the kind that doesn't have bones or skin on it." It occurred to me with a start that this person might actually believe that boneless, skinless chicken breasts were a separate subspecies of the gross kind with the bones and skins—kind of like the difference between mountain and plains sharptails in her urban mind.
"Yes, but what I'm trying to tell you is that I can take the skin and bones off," said the young man. "It's less expensive to buy it like this." There was hope yet for this lad.
"Hello? You're not listening to me," the young woman insisted. "It makes me sick even to look at the bones! I can't eat that kind. That kind is totally gross!"
I stepped up to the counter. Of course, I had not intended to call attention to myself, which is something hunters have learned to avoid at all cost these days—especially in cities and ski resorts. I thought I was pretty inconspicuous; needless to say, I was not carrying a shotgun in the supermarket, and I had taken off my orange hunting vest. I was, however, still wearing my old brush pants with bloodstains on them from past seasons, and I had forgotten to remove my whistle lanyard.
When I stepped up to the counter, the young man noticed me. "Say, you must be a bird hunter?" he asked very politely.
"Why, yes, I am; how'd you know that?" I asked. "Do you hunt?"
"My Uncle George lives in Kansas and I go every year to hunt quail with him on opening weekend," he said. "What kind of birds do they have around here?"
I told him. All the while the two young women were eyeing me with something between revulsion, hatred, and fear—as if I might suddenly whip out an automatic weapon and spray the place with gunfire.
Finally, the one who had the aversion to chicken bones spoke up. "You kill birds?" she asked her boyfriend in a tone of shocked disbelief, as if she had just learned some dark, relationshipbusting secret about the young man. "That is so totally weird. Hello? I suppose you haven't heard that birds are going extinct at an unprecedented rate?" She was presumably quoting this last interesting factoid from the environmental literature she received in the mail.
On another day and in other circumstances, I might have tried to defend myself, and this young man, against such misrepresentation. I might have pointed out that it was hunters—such visionaries as George Bird Grinnell and Theodore Roosevelt—who had started the modern American conservation movement; that hunting license fees had funded the National Wildlife Refuge program and thousands of other habitat preservation and restoration efforts across the country; that such hunters' groups as Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, the Ruffed Grouse Society, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation had created and protected more wildlife habitat, and hence more wildlife, than all the animal rights groups in the country combined. But I did not point these things out; sometimes you just have to admit that you're licked, that not only aren't you going to kill a game bird, but even a package of pick-of-the-chick is out of reach on opening day.
"Run for your life, kid," I warned the young man. "Get back to your Uncle George's as soon as you can."
And I fled myself, a fugitive from popular culture. As I made my escape from the resort grocery store, I flashed on the image of the little old ranch woman standing in her darkened doorway, beaming out bad fortune like a radio signal to those who would slay her birds. Do-do do-do, do-do do-do …
THE SPORTING ROAD. Copyright © 1999 by Jim Fergus. Introduction copyright © 1999 by Rick Bass. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.