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The Beginning of the End: Woes of a Lonely Bird Hunter

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November 13, 2012

The Beginning of the End: Woes of a Lonely Bird Hunter

By Chad Love

November. 1998. Opening weekend. This is my place. My name may not be on the deed, it may even say “public” on the sign, but it’s mine nonetheless. I’ve purchased it with the coin of time and sweat and shoe leather and blistered skin. And I sure as hell don’t want to share it. Yet here they are, the bastards. Rich ones in their new trucks pulling shiny trailers. Poor ones in rustbuckets with plywood boxes thrown in the bed. And all of them--regardless of social class--here to take what’s mine; what I thought I was jealously guarding by keeping my big mouth shut. Self-delusion: I was born to it.

I drive around the area--my area--and the license plates read like a litany of the dead for what used to be bird country: Alabama. South Carolina. North Carolina. Tennessee. Florida. Kentucky. Virginia. Georgia. Arkansas. Louisiana. Mississippi. The In-state-but-out-of-towners. The Mongol hordes of landless Texans. And me. I want to hate them all for being here, for screwing up my little set-piece dream of solitude and birds and the pup and me and not another living soul under this brilliant bowl of sky. But of course I can’t. Because they are me. He is us. Not enemy, but kindred seekers trying to sate the desperate hunger for a moment when sky and birds and dogs converge into an instant of pure meaning.

And how can I begrudge my kindred their quest for such validation of existence? I can’t. So my little set-piece dream is returned from whence it came, shoved back in the mental file labeled “unfulfilled.” I load up the pup and drive home. There will be no solitude, no magic and no first point this day. Today belongs to others. And as road dust obscures the receding prairie in my rearview mirror, I must convince myself once again: I don’t begrudge them. Really, I don’t begrudge them. But you can bet your ass I’m gonna beat those kindred sonsabitches out here next weekend.

I wrote those words in my hunting journal some 14 years ago. Times have changed. This past weekend marked the quail opener in my home state, and despite the howling wind, the crunchy, drought-stricken vegetation, and quail populations hovering near all-time lows, I do what I have always done: I load up the dogs and go hunting on my favorite piece of public ground, the very same place I wrote about in frustration all those years ago.

I know the parking areas will be mostly empty. They are. I know I'll have the place virtually to myself. I do. I know that on this quail opener, I'll finally be granted the solitude I craved all those years ago. I am. Solitude. That's what drought, rampant habitat loss, waning hunter participation and bird numbers at historic lows will buy those few of us who refuse to give up, sell the dogs, and take up something easier. Is it hope that drives us, or mere muscle memory, the vestigial liturgy of a long-gone past and a rapidly fading present?

I have no idea. All I know is that today, just like that day 14 years ago, I have a young pup who desperately needs to hunt. Solitude doesn't make a bird dog. Birds do. So the dogs and I set out across the lonely, undulating sandhills, three tiny specks, two white, one blaze orange, crawling across a giant swath of emptiness and memory. And as distance and time grows, so too does the realization that today, solitude is all we are going to find.

At noon, the dogs and I climb a tall sandhill overlooking the riverbottom below. I shrug out of the vest, give the dogs some water, lean back against the sagebrush, and take out my lunch. My spot commands a sweeping view, and there's not another soul anywhere within it. As I munch my sandwich, I somewhat ruefully recall that fourteen years ago, when the number of quail hunters in my state numbered in the hundreds of thousands and I was so outraged by the gall they displayed in showing up here at "my" place, that this moment would not be possible. Now, with quail hunter numbers at an estimated 17,000 and dropping fast, I might actually be able to go all season and never see another bird hunter.

And suddenly, I realize that it's not just solitude I crave. Or even birds for the pup. No, what I'd love to see right now, more than anything, is another tiny orange speck crawling across the landscape before me, looking for the same thing I am, driven on by hope and muscle memory. Perhaps then I could finally shake the feeling, if only temporarily, that I am living in epilogue.

Comments (13)

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from RES1956 wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

Well written, lot of heart and feeling.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from mdezort wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

That sir, was a very well written article. As a person raised in rural Oklahoma during a time of big quail populations, I so miss those days. Thanks for sharing such great memories.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Wags wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

We are kindred spirits fighting the same losing battle. We need to get together sometime to commiserate. My place or yours?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Wags wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

We are kindred spirits fighting the same losing battle. We need to get together sometime to commiserate. My place or yours?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from twoodrow12 wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

I know the place you're talking about because I was right across Highway 270/183 from you. My dad, my dad's friend, and I (and our dogs of course) have been going to the same spot on opening weekend for about 10 years now. I'm sure we've passed each other on the road or ran into each other in the field before. Your story sounds exactly like ours. Like you, we virtually had the place to ourselves. Saw a few other trucks/boxes but no one in the field. There might have been 10 dog boxes total in Woodward on Friday and Saturday night. Just doesn't seem right. However, we'll be right there with you until Oklahoma decides harvesting quail should be against the law.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from spentcartridge wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

There is another speck in blaze out there, he's five states and one time zone away. Might need some good glass to spot him, but rest assured he's there.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from JBgrouse23 wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

I had a pretty good quail opener. 3 dozen or so birds flushed in 4 hours. Saw a few pheasant as well.

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from Ol Krusty wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

Thanks for the great piece of writing, and if I may say the picture looks like a little piece of heaven.
This years pheasant hunt, as I wandered the grass, I couldn't help but feel a bit melancholy because of the birds dwindling populations. I honestly think that the only pheasants left around here are pen raised and released the first day of the hunt. Racoons, along with modern sprinkler irrigation systems, have devastated the pheasant population in my area and I found myself wondering if I should even pull the trigger on a bird if I were to jump one. I never flushed anything, so I never found out. I only found myself becoming more saddened as this is my second year in a row not seeing any birds during the hunt.

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from Ontario Honker ... wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

I have only seen three other pheasant hunters since I arrived here in Montana three weeks ago. Until yesterday I had been seeing damn few pheasants too. Then all hell broke loose. The dogs must have kicked up over a hundred birds as well as over forty deer flushed from the same five mile stretch of canal lowlands. Not another hunter though. Perhaps knee deep drifted snow and below zero weather had something to do with it. But the sky was fairly clear and no wind blowing (if you can believe that!). Some of the poorest shooting I can remember though. Embarrassing! I finally got my three birds ... with some help from Opal who managed to catch one on her own. Perhaps I was subconsciously missing my shots on purpose - I didn't want to see a day like that end. But it should have much sooner than it did. Old Pearl was a hurting unit by the time we got home late last night. She's better today. Sadly, I think it's only going to be half days for her from now on. I better start taking care of myself too. Turned sideways while shaving this morning and lost sight of the target. Was already somewhat underweight when I arrived. Now I'm starting to look like an extra in a Holocaust movie. What can I say ... I'm a pheasant hunting junkie. Naw, it's not the pheasants or the hunting. It's the country and the walking. Endless walking in the endless wind and sky and prairie. And to hell with the other orange specks. I don't miss them AT ALL. And if they knew what really counted, they wouldn't miss me either. Count your blessings, Chad. Maybe it's not the same in the sand hills as it once was but you'll eventually discover it's now better. Just very different. Once you get used to the solitude you'll not want it any other way. I'll take hunting pheasants in a Montana blizzard over the insanity of opening day hunting ducks on a public land Arkansas swamp. Stick with it. The sadness of losing what is familiar will pass and you'll learn to enjoy being out with the dogs alone in the fall colors ... even if you don't have any birds to clean when you get back home (oh shucks!). Fulfillment can come in many different packages if you just have the patience to learn to unwrap them.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from ckRich wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

Great piece, Chad.

I remember when I was little, Grandpa and Dad always talked about the Grand National hunt coming up. They were always getting ready for the hunt, working dogs, and it seemed like everbody we talked to was involved in some way. They only took a break from quail hunting during deer rifle season, and sometimes they crawled out of a deer stand and loaded the dogs. I remember seeing a dog box in nearly every truck on H-11, and orange clad bird hunters in every cafe or gas station we stopped at. It was rare to drive more than a couple miles without seeing a group of orange hats bobbing thru a field.

Now the bird hunters are still around, just not near as many. Camo clad deer hunters have replaced them in the gas stations, and dog boxes are less likely to be seen. Dad has passed and Grandpa's knee doesn't let him walk the fields as much, and I rarely hear talk of the Grand National anymore, unless Groendyke or Crosswhite stop by the house to say hello.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from blevenson wrote 1 year 21 weeks ago

It is pieces like this why I read Field and Stream. Thanks for posting it. I can't wait to get home from South America to chase some roosters with my German Wirehaired Pointers and my Dad in Minnesota. I love nothing more than hunting and fishing with my family. Great piece of writing.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from wisc14 wrote 1 year 21 weeks ago

have yet to run into another grouse hunter on public land in wisconsin this year. all bowhunters

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from haverodwilltravel wrote 1 year 20 weeks ago

Nice job. My bird is the Woodcock. Sure I hunt Pheasant and Grouse, but so don't others.....but woodcock to them is just an after thought.
Me, I live for them....and when I find them, I take my time. I shoot one or two and then let the dogs point a couple dozen more and finally end the day with my third.
It's not even the killign or the grilling, It's the dog work, the trick shots, the migration, the fact that if you are gentle with the cover and keep your mouth shut, it can last you for years and years.
We are bird and dog men most of the great hunting authors wrote of us, I kind of feel bad for other types of hunters, no romance. ;)

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment

from RES1956 wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

Well written, lot of heart and feeling.

+2 Good Comment? | | Report
from mdezort wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

That sir, was a very well written article. As a person raised in rural Oklahoma during a time of big quail populations, I so miss those days. Thanks for sharing such great memories.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from blevenson wrote 1 year 21 weeks ago

It is pieces like this why I read Field and Stream. Thanks for posting it. I can't wait to get home from South America to chase some roosters with my German Wirehaired Pointers and my Dad in Minnesota. I love nothing more than hunting and fishing with my family. Great piece of writing.

+1 Good Comment? | | Report
from Wags wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

We are kindred spirits fighting the same losing battle. We need to get together sometime to commiserate. My place or yours?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Wags wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

We are kindred spirits fighting the same losing battle. We need to get together sometime to commiserate. My place or yours?

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from twoodrow12 wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

I know the place you're talking about because I was right across Highway 270/183 from you. My dad, my dad's friend, and I (and our dogs of course) have been going to the same spot on opening weekend for about 10 years now. I'm sure we've passed each other on the road or ran into each other in the field before. Your story sounds exactly like ours. Like you, we virtually had the place to ourselves. Saw a few other trucks/boxes but no one in the field. There might have been 10 dog boxes total in Woodward on Friday and Saturday night. Just doesn't seem right. However, we'll be right there with you until Oklahoma decides harvesting quail should be against the law.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from spentcartridge wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

There is another speck in blaze out there, he's five states and one time zone away. Might need some good glass to spot him, but rest assured he's there.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from JBgrouse23 wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

I had a pretty good quail opener. 3 dozen or so birds flushed in 4 hours. Saw a few pheasant as well.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ol Krusty wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

Thanks for the great piece of writing, and if I may say the picture looks like a little piece of heaven.
This years pheasant hunt, as I wandered the grass, I couldn't help but feel a bit melancholy because of the birds dwindling populations. I honestly think that the only pheasants left around here are pen raised and released the first day of the hunt. Racoons, along with modern sprinkler irrigation systems, have devastated the pheasant population in my area and I found myself wondering if I should even pull the trigger on a bird if I were to jump one. I never flushed anything, so I never found out. I only found myself becoming more saddened as this is my second year in a row not seeing any birds during the hunt.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from Ontario Honker ... wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

I have only seen three other pheasant hunters since I arrived here in Montana three weeks ago. Until yesterday I had been seeing damn few pheasants too. Then all hell broke loose. The dogs must have kicked up over a hundred birds as well as over forty deer flushed from the same five mile stretch of canal lowlands. Not another hunter though. Perhaps knee deep drifted snow and below zero weather had something to do with it. But the sky was fairly clear and no wind blowing (if you can believe that!). Some of the poorest shooting I can remember though. Embarrassing! I finally got my three birds ... with some help from Opal who managed to catch one on her own. Perhaps I was subconsciously missing my shots on purpose - I didn't want to see a day like that end. But it should have much sooner than it did. Old Pearl was a hurting unit by the time we got home late last night. She's better today. Sadly, I think it's only going to be half days for her from now on. I better start taking care of myself too. Turned sideways while shaving this morning and lost sight of the target. Was already somewhat underweight when I arrived. Now I'm starting to look like an extra in a Holocaust movie. What can I say ... I'm a pheasant hunting junkie. Naw, it's not the pheasants or the hunting. It's the country and the walking. Endless walking in the endless wind and sky and prairie. And to hell with the other orange specks. I don't miss them AT ALL. And if they knew what really counted, they wouldn't miss me either. Count your blessings, Chad. Maybe it's not the same in the sand hills as it once was but you'll eventually discover it's now better. Just very different. Once you get used to the solitude you'll not want it any other way. I'll take hunting pheasants in a Montana blizzard over the insanity of opening day hunting ducks on a public land Arkansas swamp. Stick with it. The sadness of losing what is familiar will pass and you'll learn to enjoy being out with the dogs alone in the fall colors ... even if you don't have any birds to clean when you get back home (oh shucks!). Fulfillment can come in many different packages if you just have the patience to learn to unwrap them.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from ckRich wrote 1 year 22 weeks ago

Great piece, Chad.

I remember when I was little, Grandpa and Dad always talked about the Grand National hunt coming up. They were always getting ready for the hunt, working dogs, and it seemed like everbody we talked to was involved in some way. They only took a break from quail hunting during deer rifle season, and sometimes they crawled out of a deer stand and loaded the dogs. I remember seeing a dog box in nearly every truck on H-11, and orange clad bird hunters in every cafe or gas station we stopped at. It was rare to drive more than a couple miles without seeing a group of orange hats bobbing thru a field.

Now the bird hunters are still around, just not near as many. Camo clad deer hunters have replaced them in the gas stations, and dog boxes are less likely to be seen. Dad has passed and Grandpa's knee doesn't let him walk the fields as much, and I rarely hear talk of the Grand National anymore, unless Groendyke or Crosswhite stop by the house to say hello.

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from wisc14 wrote 1 year 21 weeks ago

have yet to run into another grouse hunter on public land in wisconsin this year. all bowhunters

0 Good Comment? | | Report
from haverodwilltravel wrote 1 year 20 weeks ago

Nice job. My bird is the Woodcock. Sure I hunt Pheasant and Grouse, but so don't others.....but woodcock to them is just an after thought.
Me, I live for them....and when I find them, I take my time. I shoot one or two and then let the dogs point a couple dozen more and finally end the day with my third.
It's not even the killign or the grilling, It's the dog work, the trick shots, the migration, the fact that if you are gentle with the cover and keep your mouth shut, it can last you for years and years.
We are bird and dog men most of the great hunting authors wrote of us, I kind of feel bad for other types of hunters, no romance. ;)

0 Good Comment? | | Report

Post a Comment