I’ve been bird-hunting for more than ten years, and I still can’t shoot for shit. Unfortunate though that truth may be, it does not stop me from chasing birds each fall.
The opening day of upland bird season in Montana is September 1st, and that glorious, long-anticipated day arrives suddenly. A Montana summer is a blink-of-an-eye event. It’s cold and wet in June, summer materializes in July, and the next thing you know, it’s August. In the thick of it, I try to cram in all the plans I made during winter: backpack, fly-fish, hike, trail-run, garden, barbecue, drink beer outside in a t-shirt. Then it’s late August, the landscape metamorphosing into brown and gold, and I can’t stop thinking about the thunderous flush of a ruffed grouse.
Opening day of bird season is a throwback to another era. Trout season’s opener used to be a big deal – but not anymore. These days, you can fish phenomenal trout waters year-round across the West. Not so with hunting. The opening day of each hunting season – ducks, pheasants, elk – looms large on every hunter’s calendar. I like that; the rigidity and ceremony of opening day make it special.
This September – like last year’s – I hurried into the Bangtail Mountains after work to look for grouse, ruffed and blue. Last year, a lightning strike of insane luck allowed me to drop a beautiful Sir Ruff on opening day. This year, amidst a spot-on impersonation of Dale Earnhardt Jr. on I-90, I wishfully pictured myself shouldering my 20-gauge and downing another grouse.
But this opening day would be decidedly different, as last June ushered in a momentous event in my bird-hunting career when I drove to South Dakota to pick up a seven-week-old black lab. (Did I really just write “bird-hunting career”?) Too young for last year’s opener, my bird dog, Aldo, was absent on September 1st. Instead, he was at home, likely committing aggravated assault on one of my shoes. I was advised not to bring him hunting until he was ready, whatever that means. Since Aldo can’t talk, I decided he was ready about halfway through duck season. I stubbornly brought him along on several duck hunts, and, well . . . you should look for my forthcoming book, Only A Raving Masochist Would Take A Puppy Duck-Hunting.
Opening day for upland birds this year was cool and wet – hunting weather. I parked the truck on the shoulder of the dirt road and geared up. With Aldo bounding around and peeing every five seconds, I realized I forgot my boots, a fitting start to the season. I tightened my dilapidated sneakers, apologized in advance to my ankles, and we set off to find some birds.
The simplicity of bird-hunting is refreshing. Fly-fishing involves more gadgets and trinkets than brain surgery, while bird-hunting requires a shotgun, some shells, and your legs. We worked through the kind of cover that usually kicks out a ruffed grouse or two. Nothing. We kept hiking. An hour elapsed, no birds seen. Self-doubt accompanies most of my bird-hunting adventures, but the poignant sense of urgency I was feeling was something new. Aldo appeared to be thinking, “Dude, you’re pathetic.”
I gave up on the ruffed grouse, and we turned uphill to search for blue grouse, the boss bird of the high country.
We climbed and we climbed. My lungs grumbled. We entered a stand of young Douglas-fir, and Aldo, who had stayed near my side for the previous hour, hustled out in front of me and started acting “birdy.” Head down, tail wagging, he was on to something.
I stopped to catch my breath and watch him work. His behavior was certainly birdy, but this was Aldo, my dog, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he was hot on the trail of a chipmunk. My doubt notwithstanding, he kept working. Side-to-side, up, down, back up, nose in the air, nose to the ground, tail waving.
Aldo was about 25 yards in front of me when, in one of those rare moments when time absolutely ceases to proceed, two huge blue grouse exploded out of the grass a few feet in front of his nose. The birds flushed downhill almost directly to me, my jaw crashed to the mountain floor, and, slowly remembering the shotgun, I raised it and fired off a brilliant miss at both birds.
It was over in an instant.
I scooped up my jaw, and I started hollering for Aldo. I was elated to the point of psychosis; I wanted to run around and pee every five seconds.
Aldo initially sprinted after what he figured were dead birds, but, finding none, he trotted over and cast me the now-familiar look, “Dude, you’re pathetic.”
After showering some gleeful hugs and kisses on Aldo, we continued hunting. No more birds were found. We returned to the truck with little light remaining, and we headed back to Bozeman.
On the drive home, with the first hunt of the fall in the rearview mirror, I didn’t rue my missed opportunity or the grouse-less dinner that awaited me. I thought about nothing but a young bird dog, nose down, tail wagging, and I wondered what lay in store for the two of us in the months – and years – ahead.
(This story originally appeared in The Bozeman Magpie.)