Fossilized human footprints discovered inside bigger animal prints in what is now New Mexico suggest a hunter was tracking a giant sloth some 23,000 years ago. As a longtime bird hunter, I sense an affinity of sorts with this ancient fellow, although he likely carried a spear while I shoulder a 28-gauge double gun. In addition his quarry stood 10 feet tall and weighed more than a ton, whereas the prey I seek ranges from six-ounce quail to six-pound sage hens.
The connection? Hunting while walking, of course. New Mexico was lush with vegetation millenia ago, but the Upper Sonoran Desert is also beautiful today. Most wild gamebirds live in spectacular places that offer a phantasmagoria as you walk through them. A scaled-quail covey bursting from a thicket of mesquite, a sharptail erupting from shortgrass prairie, a woodcock hesitating in “the killing zone” between maroon dogwood and the golden aspen crown—it’s all good. So good that I’ve been known to miss the bird by getting caught up in its surroundings.
At its best, upland hunting is an ambulatory sport, not a sedentary one like stand hunting for deer or ice fishing. The dog, the bird and you are in perpetual motion, and if you pause to catch your breath or give the dog a drink, you’ll note that the setting has changed. The pink afterglow peeking through the clouds is suddenly orange. A maple you hadn’t noticed blushes red, the plum thicket a deeper purple.
The older I become, the more I see, and that is due in no small part to a deliberate pacing that naturally comes with ageing. The younger years’ death marches through grouse woods and pheasant sloughs have given over to purposeful ambles, proving that experience is the wise teacher after all. My veteran dog also knows the value of economy and paces herself with me.
Maybe it’s because I ran distance in high school, but I also know that I’ve been lucky to have good legs for so long. I have friends less fortunate—and if your mail contains AARP promotions, you have them too. Bad knees prompted one friend to take up golf, because his electric cart saves him from having to walk. Another, whose balance suffers from Lyme disease, hunts grouse from an ATV. To a bird hunter, the only things worse than losing ambulation are losing one’s mind or having to hand over the truck keys to someone who won’t be giving them back.
I like to think that that primitive hunter from long ago bagged his quarry. I like to think I’ll be following a bird dog for some time yet . . . .