Hunting upland birds without a bird dog always seemed like a foolish errand.
Yet, here we are.
After 25 years, give or take, without a dog or two zipping ahead of us with enviable energy and enthusiasm, we’re going it alone, with mediocre human noses and inferior instincts.
Technically, we do have a bird dog at home, but he isn’t near the hunter, or dog, he once was. Old age, and the fallout from going hard for years, which some of us are certainly familiar with, have sidelined him to daily walks around the neighborhood and unenthusiastic rounds of fetch with a tennis ball in the back yard.
The last bird he retrieved was a sharp-tailed grouse shot on public land last fall an hour from home. On Monday, he sniffed with passing interest a mostly flattened dove likely hit by a vehicle two blocks from home.
I’m expected to know what’s best and be the one to decide why lazing on the couch is smarter than running through buckbrush and little bluestem. It’s a load I don’t relish but can wrap my head around when I run my hand over bony front shoulders and hips that are too often unstable nowadays.
Time, at least years of it, it turns out, is not a bird dog’s friend. The same, certainly, can also be said for the hunter.
There was a time, out here in western North Dakota where we open the sharp-tailed grouse season on just a postage stamp of the more than 1 million acres of public land, when the birds were so abundant that employing a dog in the effort, other than to help pick up the fallen, maybe wasn’t even considered.
As was reported in “Feathers from the Prairie,” a Game and Fish publication: We had thousands of grouse in the early days (1908-23) in the Little Missouri bottoms. When you’d shoot a bird out of the bottoms, there would be so many grouse getting up, the air was filled with a roar of wings.
Hard to imagine.
With the temperature near 80 degrees, a gorgeous, wouldn’t-trade-it-for-anything day in the badlands, we do the obvious and hump it from one buffaloberry patch to next, hoping to flush grouse chilling in the shade.
This is a passable strategy that has worked before but starts to wear thin. Yet, no one suggests parking somewhere in the shade, eating what’s left of the fried chicken, venison jerky and cheese, and taking a nap, so we hunt.
Shouldering missed opportunities and just one sharptail in the bag, we wander into evening knowing that time, again, isn’t on our side. The sun will set before we know it. The conversation turns to what kind of pizza we should order at the hotel once we get back.
When the grouse flush, maybe a dozen or more, the air isn’t filled, like some old timers remember it, with the roar of wings. Yet, when we share this moment days from now, we’ll say it was difficult to tell because of all the shooting going on.