Season’s end

Flick on point

THE MONTH OF JANUARY WENT PRETTY MUCH THE WAY I’D EXPECTED— MORE AND MORE MILES FOR FEWER AND FEWER ROOSTERS. We were still seeing birds, Flick and I— fifty or sixty a day, sometimes— but as the month wound down, the average range of flushing birds steadily increased until, when Flick started working scent at my feet, I found myself watching the ridgeline for the flicker of wings. The GPS tally of the walks mounted steadily as the days passed: 12 miles, 13 miles, 14.8 miles, 15.2 miles of kochia and switchgrass and little bluestem, up and down the Nebraska hills from sunrise to sunset, hoping for one or two good chances. Hoping.

The last of the bird seasons closed at sunset on January 31, so, of course, Flick and I were on the road at four in the morning, the dog snoozing in a tight ball on the right seat while I navigated the black ice on the interstate in order to be in the cover at first light. We arrived to find four inches of fresh powder lying gently on the prairie grass, the stems bent in delicate arches under the roof of snow, draped with crystals they had gathered during the night, each crystal flashing as the sun touched it, the light shattered momentarily into the colors of the spectrum against the blue shadows.

It was a quarter of a mile from the road to the first patch of cover. I eased the truck door closed and started across the intervening corn stubble as quietly as I could, Flick at heel to minimize the chance of a wild flush. Ten minutes later at the northwestern corner of the grass, I released him with a wave of the hand, and he disappeared, leaving a trail of snow suspended in the air above the switchgrass as he made his first swing.

We worked our way down the east slope of the ridge into the draw where the old International pickup body rusted slowly away in half an acre of kochia. For all our care, the birds knew we were coming. A rooster flushed wild sixty yards to my right, out of range on the far slope, followed by a second bird even farther away. Disappointment. I’d expected them, but I’d hoped the snow would convince them to hold a little longer. At the sound of the wings, Flick popped out of the grass thirty yards to my left and froze with his ears perked up and a look of disgust. I had to smile.

And, right then, the third rooster jumped, thirty yards away instead of sixty. I’ve played the game long enough now to keep the jolt of panic from an unexpected flush under some sort of control, but the urge to hurry was nearly overwhelming, as it always is. I shifted my feet as the Model 12 came to my shoulder, swung through the bird as he hit high gear, and pulled the trigger just an instant too early. He rocked but didn’t fall. The second shot was longer but more considered. It caught him just as he rose to clear the cutbank on the other side of the cover, and he crumpled. Flick was there three seconds later to make sure he didn’t run.

On the last day, one rooster in the bag is a major success, but it was early and, with the snow, there was reason to hope for more. We checked the patch of kochia at the corner of the field where we moved a lone hen who ran 200 yards before she flushed at the shoulder of the ridge and disappeared.

As I turned south, I saw another set of tracks headed south through the corn stubble. Flick wasn’t on the trail— yet— but I took the gun off my shoulder and quickened the pace. As I came over the next rise, he’d come out of the cover and was trotting down the field edge when a plume of scent grabbed him by the nose, spinning him ninety degrees as he pointed. I hurried to catch up, thinking that this was another hen— on the last day, roosters never hold to points.

But this one had. Flick was certain sure, as tight as a fiddle string, and I stepped in front of that unerring pink nose, reminding myself to relax, just as the rooster exploded out of the switchgrass in a cloud of snow, incandescent copper and green against a flawless morning sky, cackling as he went. He swung right, and just as the muzzle of the gun caught up with him, banked back left. I managed to reprogram the change in trajectory, and he went down. Flick was there in a heartbeat to make sure he didn’t run.

We worked another kochia covert that should have been loaded with birds, pushing one rooster out at more than eighty yards and crossing the tracks ten or fifteen birds had left as they melted into the wheat stubble to the south. Then up the southern edge of the grass, a part of the field that had never produced before. Half way up the slope, Flick pointed emphatically. I walked in, kicked the cover, and turned to look at the dog. He moved three steps and locked up again. I was doubtful— roosters don’t hold this way on the last day, especially on public land. With the gun on my shoulder, I kicked half-heartedly at the tangle of grass in front of the dog . . . and a rooster flushed, headed low over the cover to my left.

I’ve missed that shot on many occasions. But not this time. He fell through the snow-covered canopy just short of the fence, leaving a sparkling cloud of frost in the air. And Flick was there to make sure of him.

As we walked the half-mile back to the truck, I found myself puzzling over my feelings about the morning.

It had been almost perfect. The landscape, so often cold and colorless at this time of year, had been transformed in the middle of the night into a fairyland. With the experience of another long season under his belt, Flick had done his job about as well as it could be done, instinct and training running straight and true in an ancient channel, and after a season of out-maneuvering and out-thinking hunter and dog, the birds had yielded, at least for an hour or two. I’d even managed to do my part with the wingshooting.

I’ve chased birds and dogs for more than fifty years now, and if there’s anything I’ve learned over that time, it is that hunting well, with grace and honest effort, respect and appreciation, is difficult, even for those of us who have done it all our lives. What brings me back is the pursuit of perfection.

But, in spite of the marvelous morning, I was more than a little down in the mouth as I realized that this was the last day. It’ll be nine months before Flick and I have another rendezvous with the birds. A long time to wait. If the birds had all been wild; if the dog had run ahead and flushed the only rooster; if I had missed the one good chance, as I so often do; if the wind had swung into the north and pummeled us; if we had come back to the truck at sunset, footsore, chilled, and hungry with nothing to show for the effort except blisters and the questionable benefit of ten hours of hard walking— if, in short, it had been what the last day almost always is— then it might have been easier to let go.  As it was, this hour had transcended the sum of its exquisite parts.  Everything— the weather, the land, the light, the birds, the dog, even the hunter— had been close to some sort of unspoken ideal, and the combination was so fine that it brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye.  It’s hard to let go of such days.

As I write this, Flick is sleeping in the corner, whining now and then, his feet twitching as he follows fresh scent through the coverts of his dreams. In this, as in so many other aspects of the hunt, he gives me an example to follow.  Fall will come again.  In the meantime, I’ll take his lead and remember this day, savor it, until next November.

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