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    Day's End

    When a Pair Is Enough

    What’s the best time of day to hunt upland birds? Some would say, “Whenever you can get away,” and that may be true. But out on the prairie in September, I’ll cast my vote for the last hour of the day, when soft light settles over the land, the wind dies to a gentle breeze, and cooler air makes scenting conditions ideal for my Brittany Tess.

    As the shadows lengthen, you might hear the hoarse croak of a rooster pheasant, the raspy, haunting calls of sandhill cranes high overhead or the yodel of a hungry coyote signaling to its mates that hunting time is near.

    You might see a mule deer buck edging from cover into an open meadow or a red fox trotting down a distant fence line. Then, too, you might have a close encounter with Mephitis mephitis, because dusk is when the striped skunk begins its nightly rounds.

    Such was the situation last fall when Tess came to a tentative point near a prairie pond on a large swath of public land. Walking up to her, I caught a glimpse of something black in the grass ahead and shifted into panic mode. “Leave it!” I yelled, and luckily for both of us she did. We backed off and made a clean escape.

    We still had a half a mile to the truck, maybe a bit more, and a cold drink on the tailgate had begun to beckon. We hadn’t found any birds, but dodging Pepé Le Pew seemed like a victory of sorts. At the top of a rise, I called in Tess and stopped to rest and breathe in the pleasant aroma of sage and sun-cured grass. Out ahead, little bluestem glowed like burnished copper in the late afternoon light. As we admired the view, a flock of white-fronted geese passed overhead, their high-pitched cries carrying down through the clear air. “Laughing geese” they’re sometimes called, as they look down and poke fun at us earthbound creatures.

    After a drink of water from the collapsible dish I carry in my vest, Tess raced ahead in a ground-eating lope, head high, testing the evening breeze shouldering down from Canada. Her Swiss bell grew muted as she disappeared over a low hill or dove into a chokecherry thicket, only to grow louder again when she emerged. Finally, out by an old corral where a lone, golden-leaved cottonwood tree held sway, the music stopped.

    I hurried toward the spot and found her hard on point at the edge of a patch of snowberry and wild rose. I wanted to stop and savor the moment – freezing it in time like a vintage sepia tone picture from the Old West – but years of hunting nervous prairie birds have taught me not to dawdle. It’s better to walk up quickly and keep going until the birds are in the air.

    When the prairie shivaree commenced, a dozen scolding sharp-tailed grouse rose from the grass, white bellies flashing silver in the fading light. Their noisy clucking always brings to mind a line from The Taming of the Shrew: “… she chides as loud as thunder when the clouds in autumn crack.” But quoting Shakespeare during a covey rise tends to slow one’s swing, so I got busy.

    I shouldered my over-under and clipped a bird from the front of the flock and then made a long shot on a second. Tess raced out to collect the far bird, and by the time she came back, I’d found the near one. My game vest had a pleasant heft as I made my way to the truck, gun unloaded. This time, a pair would be enough.

                                       – Dave Books, text and photos

    Wolfe Publishing Group