Bird hunters dream. Some of these dreams are easily fulfilled. Others seem out of reach, unrealistic and merely fuel for endless daydreaming. But then as smaller dreams become reality, it reaches the point where the “big one” suddenly seems possible. My “big one”? Checking out for an entire bird season with my Border collie, Rusty—more than five months of hunting almost every day. Maybe, just maybe . . . .
To be honest, I already spend more time afield than in the pursuit of commerce; yet work always manages to shape my plans and travel. But this past year was different, due to the societal meltdown triggered by Covid-19. I anticipated that my work would be scarce and prepared well in advance for the possibility—wondering if I really could live my dream.
As society turned into a depressing blur of masks, I traveled less and less to town. It bothered me . . . a lot. I remembered being human. Out in the field we still were. I needed to escape with dog and gun, so I did.
Left to right: Rusty with the catch of the day.The author with an eight-bird limit of North Dakota honkers. Rusty retrieves a North Dakota sharptail in the stubble.
September hunts took place near home. I hunted blue and ruffed grouse alone until the third weekend of the month, when friends came west to join me. Nathan Freshour came on a brief trip for sage grouse and blue grouse. Jason Owen, with more time available, stayed at my house. I showed him his first sage and blue grouse. We even managed to squeeze in a few hours chasing chukars, though the birds didn’t cooperate.
Mere hours after Jason departed, Eric Heitman and his daughter Kristen arrived. They lodged with mutual friend Mike Atman, who would share time afield with us. For four days we hunted mostly sage and blue grouse, ending their visit with the devious chukar. It was nice to be outside and feel normal.
Sage grouse season ended, and October found me alone again. Now what? I decided to rekindle my love for ruffed grouse, partly because I recently had acquired an ideal grouse gun: a 16-gauge Cogswell & Harrison that is the best-handling side-by-side I’ve ever swung on a bird. Relaxing walks along aspen-lined bogs and tiny tributaries melted away my stresses.
Another part of life I had been missing in recent years was spending time in the marsh defending my decoys from local ducks. October is a pleasant month for waterfowling and also when my favorite ducks, teal, are part of the rotation. By the end of the first split of duck season, I once again had become familiar with the charming aroma of cattail sloughs and shallow backwaters.
As October neared its end, my urge to travel came to a boil. Nice weather prompted me to head to Nevada for Himalayan snowcock. Plenty of sunshine and daily temps in the 40s and 50s up in the thin air were stark contrasts to 2018, when winter had showed up early. I spent the week focused on snowcock, blue grouse, fly-fishing and relaxation. My mood soared. Not even a sock failure and corresponding blister on day one could dampen my spirits. Of course, taking a pair of Himalayans that same day helped. Two superb dinners allowed me to resume hunting once my foot healed and after a lazy day of fishing for brook, rainbow and tiger trout. I was unable to take another snowcock before being joined by Travis Warren and Jay Beyer toward the end of the week.
Our group spent three days hunting hard and had some close encounters, but unfortunately Travis and Jay were unable to add snowcock to the bag. What we were able to do was record episode No. 78 of the “Upchukar” podcast, which Travis hosts. The lively discussion revolved around snowcock and the amazing country they live in.
Once Travis and Jay left, I decided to return to Wyoming. Rusty and I were worn down after many hard days, some covering 15 to 17 rugged miles and enormous elevation changes. It had been a great week spent with great friends, and I packed up knowing I couldn’t have asked for more.
Unfortunately, what I discovered at home was that post-election society was a wreck. There were masks everywhere, and it seemed like the whole world was angry about everything. I needed to get away again. Fast.
Three days later I was in North Dakota ready to enjoy two weeks at my friend Scott’s farm, which has become my second home. I didn’t even mind the low pheasant numbers for the third straight year. The good news was that the opening-day crowds had departed and that the sharp-tailed grouse numbers were way up. Long days of hiking through 20-plus years of memories and golden cover did my heart good.
The waterfowl hunting was interesting. November typically is when the local lake freezes, so I had brought only field gear for ducks and geese. But thanks to last fall’s warmer temperatures, the first day I ended up hunting a point with field decoys staked in open water rimmed by ice. The hole drew teal, shovelers and a few wigeon and, because Rusty decided that he didn’t want to retrieve any more ducks after his first swim in the slush, let’s just say that a lot of birds got a free pass that afternoon. (I had left my waders home, and I draw the line just south of the crotch when it comes to navigating icy water in cargo pants.) Temperatures then warmed, causing the lake to thaw for the remainder of my stay.
With rifle deer season in full swing, it proved difficult to find geese and sharptails returning to the same field locations on successive days. It did happen a few times, however, and I managed an eight-honker limit twice. On a more embarrassing note, I missed a sharptail with both barrels 10 yards over my grouse decoys—another reminder that I am human. Pass-shooting ducks and geese provided excitement when decoying didn’t.
Thanksgiving Eve I bid my friends farewell and returned home to spend the holiday with my mother. But before my turkey-day leftovers were gone, I was packing for Nebraska. This time my plan centered on chasing bobwhite quail, pheasants and waterfowl (mostly ducks) along the Kansas border.
Pheasant hunting turned out to be the “trophy hunt” I expected. Still, not a day passed that Rusty didn’t give me an opportunity to bag a rooster or two. Unfortunately, crowds were putting tremendous pressure on the birds—so much so that I considered heading home. But at the end of the weekend things calmed back down.
Bobwhite numbers were lower than I had experienced a couple years earlier, but the first day proved deceptive, with Rusty and me quickly taking a limit of six bobs and a pheasant. Visions of enjoying tight-holding quail all week were short lived, however, as within a few days “Gentleman Bob” transformed into “Beelze-Bob” in track shoes. The plum brush took a toll on my light khaki pants, too, and in no time I resembled a hobo.
One benefit of having to move around to find quail and pheasants was spotting a bay that held more than 500 ducks. The next morning I discovered the real jewel: a pond right behind the bay where green-winged teal were racing in after sunrise. Call me crazy, but I prefer hunting teal to mallards. Two sublime mornings hunting those sporty little chaps put me in mighty good spirits.
Once home—weary from the road and with Christmas just around the corner—my focus shifted to local chukars, Huns and the special treat of pheasants. We don’t have great pheasant hunting where I live in Wyoming, so any roosters that come back in Rusty’s mouth are treasured like pearls. Chukar numbers were only mediocre this past season, but I know a tremendous amount of chukar country—and this knowledge proved crucial to helping me stay in birds.
Hungarian partridge had blossomed in the next county, and Rusty and I were moving eight to 12 coveys per day. That is good hunting anywhere. Of course, as word spread, the “Toyota pickup parade” began. Oddly, most of the hunters literally were driving past birds to find birds. Christmas season brought another surge of pressure to the already-jumpy Huns.
I began pondering my longtime dream of hunting Arizona, uncharted ground for me. This needed to happen. So the day after Christmas I headed south in a Ford Ranger with plans to go cheap by sleeping under a topper in the back of the truck. Another friend, Chad Chance, had grown up hunting quail and doves in Arizona and 10 years earlier had told me of places to go. Finally I would have an opportunity to try them.
Shivering in the back of the Ranger at night (yes, Arizona can be cold) paid off with eight days of delightful Gambel’s hunting in amazing settings. Four afternoons of barrel-warming “dove blizzards” didn’t hurt my feelings either. Instantly, I fell in love with the alien landscape, and it is where I celebrated New Year’s Eve. I was very much at peace there.
I returned home and worked for two days, but the urge to head back to Arizona could not be ignored. This time I decided to burn a hole in my wallet by taking my older truck and camper so that I could enjoy more comfortable lodging, especially should it rain.
And in mid-January the rain did come—and brought with it good scenting conditions. While searching for new areas to hunt, I discovered a memorial to three members of a group known as “The Quailmen.” Evidently there had been five of them who had hunted all over New Mexico and Arizona. Some believe that these guys were just a Southwestern legend, but I have photos of the memorial that show otherwise.
Eventually the rain and mud worsened and a massive storm threatened to strand me. I decided that six amazing days had proved enough and broke camp at 3 am to head home. But winter caught me. Heavy snowfall necessitated towing in four-wheel drive for nearly 200 miles until I got north of the storm. Once home, I learned that several feet of snow had piled up behind me. I had gotten out just in time.
A weekend of work provided pause prior to the final week of chukar and Hun season. On the closer, January 31, I ventured to a special location where others never tread. It’s public ground, but roads end in the basin far away and no one seems to want to make the long, arduous hike.
It isn’t country teeming with chukars but rather country brimming with serenity—the key element for a day of reflecting on a season well spent and long-held dreams finally fulfilled. That day with Rusty, with nary a sight or sound of human activity, was how I ended my upland season. We found what we had been looking for . . . and a few birds as well.
The next day kicked off the final two weeks of Canada goose season, which I also wanted to be special. I bought a bag of No. 2 bismuth shot and loaded appropriate ammo for a Damascus-barreled Parker EH 10-gauge. Swinging that antique on the big birds was fun and satisfying and a wonderful final act for more than five months of hunting.
Gone for the season. What a concept. What an experience. Even if I never pull it off again, this past season was the one that all others will be measured against. Mission accomplished.
Garhart Stephenson makes a life of wandering with rod and gun both near his home, in Hudson, Wyoming, and far away. With his dog, Rusty, at his side, he is always eager to see where adventure leads.