Hell’s Gates

Hell’s Gates
Illustration by Gordon Allen
by Tom Huggler
Photograph by Gordon Allen

This fall, unless you are going to the Far North for ptarmigan, somewhere in your travels awaits a diabolic fence gate for you to either figure out or climb over. Other hazards could be hot wires ready to deliver the big tingle and barbed wire poised to puncture where it really hurts. Such man-made threats are the bane of bird hunters nearly everywhere. Like the TV ad says: I know a thing or two, because I’ve seen a thing or two.

If you ever have worried that your dog could lose an eye chasing a pheasant down a barbed-wire fencerow, you know what I mean. Maybe you, too, have wondered if the pasture wire was hot, and then learned the hard way that it was. How about that stretch gate you managed to pry open and that almost gave you a hernia trying to close?

Stretch gates are extensions of the fence itself. Farmers and ranchers make them from whatever is handy: sturdy branches, smallish fence posts, two-by-fours. Both the top and bottom of the last gate post sport heavy-wire loops for securing to the terminal post of the running fence. I like to think that the pioneers who traveled the farthest west were the toughest and therefore built the strongest fences. At any rate, the scarcity of trees and stones for building materials spawned weird designs made from leftover railway ties, scrap metal and other junk. Some have clever steel bars that act like scissor jacks, to apply or release pressure. Without such handy devices, it would take a bunkhouse crew to open and shut some stretch gates.

Leave it to south Texas cattle ranchers to invent bump gates. Made from tubular steel, these spring-loaded gates are “bumped” open by trucks with reinforced front ends. Veteran quail guides know exactly how hard to contact a bump gate and how fast to drive through the opening before the gate slams shut and crushes the vehicle.

The practice of making smooth wire by pulling hot iron through dies is at least 1,500 years old, but barbed wire—originally called “Devil’s Rope” by some—was first made in 1870 by Joseph Glidden from Illinois. The federal government awarded more than 500 patents for some 2,000 styles, resulting in millions of miles of barbed wire, still being strung today.

All of which is challenging for bird hunters. Years ago my yellow Lab ripped open her belly when she tried to leap over barbed wire in Kansas. Now whenever my dogs face any kind of wire, I whoa them until I can stand on the bottom strand and lift the next one higher for safe passage. (I wish someone could train dogs to return the favor!) If the wire is too taut to spread, lay your hunting coat over the upper strand and lift the dog over.

Then do you cross over or under? If I’m too big to roll under or pass through, I unload my gun (which I do regardless), grab the post like a saddle pommel and carefully mount and straddle the top wire as though on a tightrope. I move slowly and pray, because there is no safety net—only barbed wire—beneath me.

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