We’d been to this place forty, maybe fifty times before. Over the course of a decade and a half of hunting together, Chuck and I had hunted this same ridgeline so many times we knew where every brood would likely be, because we’d found them in the same places year after year. But on this day, there were no birds.
During some years there are blue grouse everywhere, and it isn’t unusual for the two of us, with two good dogs, to put up a dozen or more birds in a two-hour hunt. But on this day, we found nothing.
That’s discouraging, but it’s not the end of the world. I’ve kept journals off and on for thirty plus years, and even during excellent seasons — or what I choose to remember are excellent seasons — my records remind me that there are days when we got skunked. That’s bird hunting for you.
But during the next couple of hunts, we also found virtually no birds. Covers that almost always produced a point or two produced nothing; places that reliably produced broods of a half dozen young birds produced a lone single, or on a very good day maybe two. Several weeks into the season, Chuck, a wildlife biologist by trade, told me what I already knew to be true: it was going to be a very bad year.
When the Birds Are Scarce
When the birds are gone, what then? Those of you who, like me, spend months planning our lives around the fall hunting seasons suddenly are left bereft, lovers of a sport that has abandoned us. I can hardly claim to have embraced acceptance in my advancing years. A season with no birds is never a season I want to see again any time soon. And yet, they persist.
In my nearly 35 years in Montana, last season was the worst by far. Not only were there few numbers of blue grouse, but also Huns, sharptails, and from what I understand, pheasants. There were low numbers of grouse and woodcock in Wisconsin, and a scarce amount of bobwhite quail in Nebraska. There were precious few Mearns quail in Arizona, where I spent a month every year for fifteen winters. Apparently, there were chukars in Oregon and Washington. But of course, I didn’t hunt in Oregon and Washington.
By November, when my season was half over, it was painfully obvious that we weren’t going to find birds no matter what we hunted and no matter where we went. The birds just weren’t there. And yet we continued to hunt, at least a couple days each week. But why? For me, the tired maxims that we like to tell people who don’t hunt about why we do are, tired or not, maxims I still believe in. I’ve rarely hunted birds in locations that weren’t beautiful. Beautiful country is why I live in Montana and why I hunt birds here and elsewhere. On late fall days, walking home in the Broad Valley, where I often hunt for Huns, I gaze at the mountains to the east and west. The late afternoon sunbathes the wheat stubble in golden light, and I am struck, as if for the very first time, by how lucky I am to be right here with a bird dog casting in happy arcs before me.
Bird hunting is measured not in days or weeks, but in years, decades, and generations. I began hunting in the sixties, in an era that is now recognized by many as the end of the golden age of the sport. It didn’t seem particularly golden to me then. I was just a kid at my father’s side with my new Brittany, an unschooled dog who, despite the abysmal training he endured under my tutelage, still managed to find quail. But it was all about numbers of birds shot and put into the bag back then. It would be years before I appreciated the nuances of the sport I was reading about in the outdoor magazines I consumed by the ream.
The upside of a poor season — if there is one — is that you either find other reasons for hunting besides killing birds or you find something else to do. There are many who find something else to do. I’m quite happy to see them go.
The way to approach bad seasons, I’ve learned, is the same way my dogs approach each day they hunt throughout the course of their lives: with enthusiasm. No matter how many days in a row they’ve been hunted, no matter how many points they miss or retrieves they don’t retrieve, they know, with the force of unshakeable conviction, that the next cast, the next tuft of grass, will produce that which their entire lives are predicated upon finding.
How can you not love a day with a dog who loves more than anything else in the world to hunt?
Eventually, the season passed, and there were no birds. Chuck and I complained and tried to analyze the litany of reasons that could have produced such a resounding disaster. Further hunts that season were pointless, but we continued to hunt. My dogs lived for the next day. At night, my two younger dogs slept in their crates and the old dog slept before the warmth of the stove. They curled in their crates and churned their paws and chased birds that I could not see. They knew that the next day would bring them the birds they seek, because it must. For when you believe that the next day will be better, and then it isn’t, your only option is to believe in the day after that.