Dave Carty
Dave Carty
SHOOTING SPORTSMAN  |  July/August 2006
 
The Cadence of Prairies

Huns and sharptails in the Western 'out there'.

Someone was already there when we drove up. Was this the owner? In fifteen years of hunting his place, I’d met his wife and son, and talked to him over the phone at the start of each season, but never met the man. Whomever this was, he didn’t seem to fit the mold of the friendly Dutch farmer I talked to at the beginning of each season, and his blue heeler cemented my bad first impression when he stalked up and glared through the window, as though trying to decide if he’d whip us both right there or let us make a run for it first. We stayed in the truck.

The wind was howling, and the windmill beside the implement barn shrieked in the gale, keening across miles of wheat stubble and winter fallow. Wind isn’t unusual on the prairies, but it is no less annoying for being so commonplace. The blue heeler finally left and wandered back to his owner, who was backing an ATV out of his truck. I zipped my vest around my neck and stepped out of the cab, keeping a firm grip on the door, then turned to wave, but the farmer – or whomever he was – had already driven away.

On the prairie, you learn to deal with the wind or you stop hunting. I cinched the cord on my hat tightly under my chin and stepped to the back of the truck, where John was already waiting. John has an annoying habit of bounding out of the truck a second or two before it comes to a full stop and dropping the tailgate while I’m still sitting in the cab trying to get a read on the day. At 270 pounds and growing with each plate of deep-fried finger steaks he eats, John shouldn’t be bounding anywhere, but he bounds everywhere. By the time I made my way back, crouching behind the truck to keep from getting my teeth sandblasted by dust, he already had put on his vest and was hopping to go. I opened the airline crate and turned out my Brittany, Powder.

Out here, you never know what kind of weather you’re going to get. The heat of September can easily kill an unconditioned dog run too hard or too long, and I finally gave up hunting on the prairies when temperatures were pushing eighty. By October, it’s cooled down a bit, but it is November and December when the hunting really picks up. By then, a forty-degree day is a gift, and you remember the afternoons when the sun shines. But the weekend bird hunters have long since moved on to chase elk, pheasants and waterfowl, leaving me and the dogs alone with my Huns and sharptails.

Huns are never a guarantee, but they’re always around someplace. After leaving the truck, John and I ran Powder a mile or so up a coulee, turned around, and ran her a mile or so back down. At that point, John discovered he’d lost his spare glasses. Since he’s blind without them, this was breaking news. So we walked a mile or so back up looking for them, and then returned a mile or so back down once again, Powder hunting enthusiastically on each succeeding swing, but without so much as a by-your-leave from a covey. John finally determined he’d left his glasses in the truck.

We continued our walk down a broad swath of grass between two wheat fields, Powder casting three hundred yards ahead, while I mentally ticked off hunts I’d been on here before. Over there was where another friend and I had spotted a badger, which had watched us from between furrows and then scurried away after we passed; and a bit further on was where Powder had pointed her first covey five years earlier, whose descendents I hoped were still in the neighborhood. Then it dawned on me that Powder was gone, and had been for several minutes. I held up my hand, trying in vain to hear her beeper between gusts, then began striding up a hill toward where I’d seen her last. We found her on point just over the rise, crouching like a lioness ready to pounce, her back level with the cheat grass and her beeper barely audible above the gale. We took three more steps and the covey went straight up into the wind, turned, and was gone in an instant. John took a futile poke at them with his 28, but I could only watch them go.

On the prairies, the Huns and sharptails are always "out there," as opposed to "in here," as they would be if you were describing, say, a bean patch in Kansas or a cornfield in southern Iowa. "Out there" can be anywhere from the edge of a coulee to halfway up the side of a grass and sage-covered hill, which gives on another hill, which gives on yet another, as far as you want to go. "Out there" is always wherever you’re not, and you’ve got to walk to get there.

Walking is what separates serious Hun and sharptail hunters, who are few, from serious pheasant hunters, who are legion. The prairie is a lot of things, but one thing it is not is flat, and while pheasant hunting is rarely easy, few hunters in this day and age equate walking for miles up and down hills with thigh-slapping fun, particularly when there’s no guarantee that their hard work will earn them more than a fleeting glimpse at a covey flushing 100 yards out of range.

Luckily for me, though, I enjoy walking. Always have. Also lucky, I suppose, is that I’m a good walker – I mean, really good – but, by way of compensation, I’m also a thoroughly miserable shot. So, knowing that I’ll probably miss when the covey gets up anyway, I don’t mind it all that much when they get up out of range. It’s all the same to my dogs.

It’s tempting to reduce Huns and sharptails to qualitative bits of information about habitat, daily movement, and reaction to weather patterns, but the trouble is, after almost twenty years of hunting them, I’ve found that almost none of the truisms I’ve read or heard about them are true. I’ve become pretty familiar with the coveys in my neck of the woods, and at least some of the time can predict where they’ll be and where they’ll go when they flush. But I wouldn’t guarantee their whereabouts if you put a gun to my puny little head. There’s a whole lot of empty land around each covey – or each individual bird, if you want to get technical about it -- and finding ways to stay entertained between shots is often the biggest part of the sport. It helps if you love the country.

Every once in a while, though, the birds are everywhere that you are. A couple weeks ago, I put down both Powder and my setter, Scarlet, at the head of a valley that extends for several miles in a relentless westerly climb, at which point it peaks and then falls away in an equally relentless descent. It’s all private land, miles of wheat stubble broken with grassy ravines and hillsides. That’s one of the cowboy myths newcomers to the west learn right quick: Almost all that beautiful prairie you see splashed across the pages of outdoor magazines belongs to farmers who by and large don’t hunt and often aren’t particularly impressed that you do, either. What’s more, some of them are convinced that they don’t have any birds, since "birds" are invariably assumed to be pheasants, and if they had any pheasants then by God they’d see them once in a while. Hard to argue with that.

But if vast tracts of once native prairie haven’t supported native grasses since the settlers last broke sod ninety years ago, what succeeding generations of farmers have wrought on this rough land is, to my way of thinking, equally beautiful. Wheat stubble abuts fallow soil which abuts grass which snakes around hillsides like a vast furling quilt of gold and brown and winter green, while the sporadic creek bottoms show traces of red-osier red and pale cottonwood yellow. And above it all the vast, over-arching blue sky, as clear and as real as the dreams of a child.

A few feet above where I put the dogs down, I can look twenty miles distant and see the town I live in, and at that precise moment is when both dogs slam into a point. I can’t believe this. We are what, 100 feet from the truck? The birds aren’t supposed to be here; they’re supposed to be at the upper end of the valley. When the birds that aren’t supposed to be there flush they fly into the sun and directly over my head, and since even I can occasionally hit a Hun delineated by sunlight at point-blank range, I pick out a black silhouette and kill it. I miss with my second barrel, though, which lends a renewed sense of familiarity to the event. They fly off squeaking and spread out below me among piles of last year’s seed potatoes, gravel pits and stands of irrigation pipe. Twenty minutes of furious shooting and two birds later I emerge from a matt of sweet clover ready at last to tackle the climb up the valley. But two hundred yards up Scarlet pins another covey, which flushes out of range and immediately dives over a ridge. Chukars have nothing on Huns in the diving-off-ridges department. I send the dogs on, hoping to relocate them. They blast over the ridge and by the time I crest it myself they’re already three hundred yards below me, maniacally working the edge of an intermittent creek bottom.

Suddenly, there are Huns all around me. Most of them break uphill and I swing on one, watch it drop, then swing on another and watch in amazement as it too flutters to earth. Sweet Jesus! A double! But we never find the second bird, although the dogs and I search until almost dark, a piercing reminder that my life-long passion for blood sports extracts a small but real price from my soul.

Huns are so central to the joy I find on the prairies that I sometimes forget that they haven’t always been here.  One farmer I know remembers when they weren’t.  He’s pushing ninety now, and was born in a rickety frame house on the very same bench that he still farms and that I still hunt. He says he’s always had  "chickens," though, and doesn’t want me to shoot them. I don’t, although I haven’t seen a sharptail on his place in years. Sharptails, which are as perfectly engineered for the vast country they live in as antelope and golden eagles, are nothing if not long-distance flyers, so maybe the birds that used to be on his place simply up and decided to fly somewhere else.  It’s not like they couldn’t if they wanted to.

Last season in eastern Montana, I saw flocks of sharptails migrating like so many out-of-formation ducks while my buddy Jack and I stood slack-jawed and watched them pass overhead. Throughout the four days we hunted there we saw flock after flock of birds migrating from nowhere we could see to nowhere we could discern, all unflushed by hunters and unshot-at by the likes of us. I have no idea what put them into the air. Maybe, in all that open country, they figure it’s just easier to get around that way.

The sharptail’s innate wildness captures my imagination in a way few other birds ever have. If you could distill the essence of the land they live in -- take a snowberry here, add a few kernels of wheat, throw in a dash of the green forbs that sprout beneath the snow and add a pinch of silvery sage, then trust the prairie wind to mix it all together – what you’d have is a bird born of the coulees and hills where hunters earn the right to take its life by the miles they’re willing to put under their boots for the gift of a hard point, a flush, and a shot.

But it turns out I’m not altogether correct about the walking part. These days you can hire a guide to chauffer you around in a truck or an ATV and, if you can’t figure it out on your own, lead you to where the dog is holding the birds you paid its owner to find for you. Fortunately, there seems to be less of that going on now than there used to be, to which I credit an aging population of hunters who seem to actively dislike any form of exercise and an equally pervasive feeling among many that the only gamebird worth pursuing has a white ring around its neck. Not long ago, in fact, I was told rather archly by a friend that he was going to hunt pheasants no matter what I thought, and that I could shoot all the Huns and sharptails I wanted. Seemed like a good idea to me. When the pheasants are all bought up the Huns and sharptails will still be here, assuming somebody still cares.

Either way, the prairies will still roll on in their prairie way until they’re interrupted by mountains, and when the mountains have had their say the prairies will pick up where they left off and roll on past them, as serene as the wrinkles on the face of a monk.  The prairies hold a kind of wisdom that can’t be measured in any rational sense, but if you really want to see, you can find it in the ache in your bones, and you can touch it in the birds you cradle in your hands at the end of the day.  

Cadence of the Prairies Cadence of the Prairies Cadence of the Prairies Cadence of the Prairies Cadence of the Prairies

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