I’m not sure what has gotten into me, but I think it has something to do with Gus, the young field bred English springer spaniel I picked up in Nebraska last Halloween, and it feels good. A field trial washout, Gus turned out to be a great little pheasant dog for us in a season that was simply too short. Best of all, he has me eager with anticipation for the coming hunting season.
Friends who are crazier about golf than I am look forward to a round or two and the inherent frustration of the game every week of the year, but I am a bird hunter, a pastime that channels my greatest passion in participatory terms to only a few months each year. Fortunately, recreation of this nature involves three phases. The first involves planning and preparation, then of course comes the hunting season, followed by the memories and reflections that carry us through until the next season and beyond, including that time when we will no longer be able to participate.
Rarely have I entered the planning and preparation phase as early as I have this year. How else to explain the fact that I have spent the last week getting my duck decoys cleaned up and in some cases re-painted for a season that is more than three months away? In the past, this exercise if performed at all, has taken place in the days rather than months before the start of the season. For some reason, this year just seems different.
Hardly a day goes by that I don’t open my map book and pore over the pages for Montana, the Dakotas and Kansas wondering where we will find pheasants and places to camp on a trip this fall. Shotgun shells are being stockpiled, gear bags checked for the necessary items. I’ve even been taking my shotguns out of the safe to shoulder them way earlier and more often than normal – a sure sign that I can’t wait for the participation phase of this game to begin.
The first shots of the bird hunting season come at dawn each year on September 1, the traditional opening day of dove season. It is a date that almost always finds me at our duck club in Imperial Valley and when the breeze is right, well within smelling distance of the Salton Sea. Sadly for Gus, early September temperatures in the desert can be prohibitively dangerous for a hard working dog so he will sit out the opener. A day or two later will likely find us at a friend’s mountain ranch where the doves will be fewer, but the temperatures cooler, especially in the water of a stock pond where maybe a few of the incoming doves will fall to give Gus some refreshing retrieves. The start of the dove season is just a tease, because within a couple more weeks the early portion of the season will come to an end.
The beginning of quail season will soon follow at the end of the month, but it will likely remain too hot for dogs, and quail hunting without a dog doesn’t hold much interest for me. Fortunately the quail season is our longest, and we can wait for winter to chase them after the pheasant season has come to a close.
Next up on the calendar is the waterfowl season which will begin in mid- to late October and despite the work I have put into our duck club and decoys, I will almost surely miss the opener. If all goes as planned, Gus and I will be somewhere a long ways away in pursuit of pheasants and any other gamebirds in season at that time. We may travel or caravan with a friend or two, or arrange to cross paths along the way.
I believe I’m normally a cooperative and collaborative sort when it comes to fishing and hunting, but have to accept and admit that on a highly anticipated trip like this, I may not be easy to travel with or tolerate. It is at these times, and right or wrong, that I have to do things my way. There is considerable comfort in knowing that Gus, like Rainy and Tap before him, have never questioned or objected to “my way,” as long as they were along for the ride.
I might drive 987 miles on Interstate highways in a single shot as I did from Eagle, Colorado to San Diego after picking up Gus in Nebraska last fall. Or, I might take side roads and stop to read every historical marker, visit every fly shop and gun store and check out half a dozen small town diners while taking every daylight hour to cover 50 miles. With me behind the wheel, itineraries vaporize with the dust of gravel roads that don’t exist on maps, and whim becomes a strategy for travel.
The best and most memorable parts of my adventures are almost never planned or expected. Some years ago on a steelhead fly fishing trip to Northern California’s Klamath River, I spent a couple of nights in the depressed and depressing town of Happy Camp, a misnomer if ever there was one. The fishing was alright, but the most memorable part of that trip was a Friday night high school football game. The home team roster had a total of 12 players and the visiting team numbered 13 in a game of 11-man football. There was a PTA sponsored Cakewalk at halftime and I remember returning to my motel room that night with a tasty chocolate cake, but don’t recall much about the fishing.
Another time on a fishing trip to the Eastern Sierras, we decided to visit a local park after dinner. Floodlights and a good deal of yelling attracted us to a dirt ballfield where a men’s softball game pitting teams from two different Indian reservations was in progress. It had become “full contact” event on the field as well as in the stands. The smaller the town sometimes, the bigger the stakes of the game.
Even on a trip dedicated to hunting or fishing, people, places and things are sometimes interesting to me beyond what might be considered “normal” for some.
I’m not sure what the coming season will hold for us, but I am looking forward to it like no other. I’m happy to have a new 28 gauge over and under for doves, quail and snipe. I’m excited about watching Gus roust roosters from deep ditches and overgrown coverts that might discourage other dogs and hunters, but no longer amused by his desire to climb into my lap in the duck blind.
I’m looking forward to Mexican food and cold beer at lunch, stories around campfires, being with old friends and meeting new ones who share our passions.
And when the season is long over, I hope to have many fond memories to look back upon, and with Gus sleeping contentedly at my feet. Then of course, will come the eager anticipation for the next season, its memories – and the ones after that – until there are no more.0