It’s hard to believe there are still two full months of hunting season left, what with the six inches of snow blanketing the forest floor behind our home. So it may be premature to look back, except that the Wingshooting USA Awesome Upland Road Trip is finally history, and worth a look, adding pungency to the season so far and tempting me back to the field with what’s still to come.
Footage you won’t see on Wingshooting USA … just friends having a good time in the field.
Twice every season, the crew, dogs and a trailerful of gear ply the highways and dirt tracks for a string of days accented by new friends, beautiful places, and excellent dog work, gathering the raw materials for future Wingshooting USA episodes. There are some lowlights, but the trips are mainly brightened by moments that will dwell in my memory forever.
First, the line score: 8,453 miles, one broken shotgun, two dead batteries, one bee sting, six ticks and five stitches. Highest price for diesel fuel: $3.69; best breakfast: Perkins’ coffee shop, Billings Montana (our waiter was a wry and dry comic of the first order). The important stuff is harder to quantify:
Hunting sharptails on horseback at South Dakota’s Horsefeathers Lodge is a bucket list item. The prairie’s vastness isn’t reduced being nine feet aloft, it may be magnified by the vantage point. Making a tactile (ask my butt) connection to our pioneer forefathers’ hunting methods adds texture to the task of bringing home protein.
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As a dog owner and half-assed trainer it is easy for this human to pilfer credit where canine genetics and desire deserve it. Six-month-old Manny reminded me of this when he steadily honored his uncle Buddy’s points on quail and ringnecks in Kansas. The little guy will be a star if I don’t bungle things.
When my brother asked to hunt rather than watch us hunt in California, it was clear I’d done something right by doing nothing. By inviting him to come along – no strings attached – I’d unintentionally primed the pump. The dogs, magical surroundings and adrenaline rush of flushing quail helped me initiate Jeff into our fraternity.
Next time you yell at your dog out of anger, frustration, or because you locked the keys in your truck, STOP. Remember your personal variation on this story and hug your dog instead. Manny crashed into a brushed-over barbed wire fence, emitting one yelp – it seemed at the inability to keep hunting, being hung up on the strand. I detached him and after a cursory look thought him none the worse for wear. He hunted all day without a peep, covering ground, backing Buddy, and making multiple finds on his own. Only at the end of the day did I see how vicious the gash really was, ultimately leading to five stitches, which he endured stoically in front of a large audience at the veterinarian’s office.
Wandering Montana’s shortgrass sea near Big Timber with Al Gadoury is an exercise, literally but also figuratively. To share Al’s intimate and extensive knowledge of birds, dogs, and their environment is humbling. To walk the endless miles of wild country, a privilege.
The puppy seems to dominate conversations around here, but in reading this post I am reminded of Buddy’s unwavering, subtle influence on me in the field, in the truck and at my feet at the end of a long day. “Fido” is Latin for faithful. Had I known that sooner, Buddy might have had that name. Sure he produces birds. He also gets along with everyone, is an ambassador for the breed and for our sport. And when I need it most, there’s a warm fuzzy muzzle settling gently on my knee, or a look in his eyes that says everything’s going to be fine. Are you lucky enough to know that look?
Sorry, but the highest highlight of this trip won’t be seen on Wingshooting USA. It is, ironically, exactly what I’m trying to encourage on the program. At the turnaround point in Kansas, I met new and old friends at a favorite location and guided them. No gun for this writer, just dog whistles. I was unencumbered by the need to shoot, instead savoring everyone else’s experience, joy, camaraderie and frankly, their awe at some of the work Manny and Buddy did. It was an immersion in primitive emotions, a group hunt much like our forebears, teaming with hunting dogs toward a mutual goal, feasting and sharing a fire at the end of the day. I can’t wait to get back out there.