column By: Tom Huggler, Dave Books, Jeff Nedwick, Joseph Sands | April, 18
I’m probably not as old as the guy who bought me for three bucks at a garage sale back in the early ’70s, and I’m clearly in better shape, too. After all, cast iron cookware lasts a long time, which is why some of my ancestors are 300 years old. They say Paul Revere designed my No. 10 flat lid with turned-up rim to hold coals, along with my three stubby legs for better heat conduction and air circulation underneath. Could be. All I know is that I’m a USA-made Wagner Ware Dutch oven with the “Griswold cross” stamped on my hefty bottom right above “Pat’d March 16, 20.” I’m guessing I was made after 1957 when Wagner, which began operations in Sidney, Ohio, in 1891, bought out competitor Griswold.
Tom plucked me from the rummage pile, along with a set of scratched Melmac dishes for a dollar. I was in rough shape with crud on the inside and rust on the outside. Tom scrubbed away for hours and then seasoned me with a new coat of cooking oil. I shined like one of Mister Ford’s Model Ts rolling off the assembly line and have ever since. All summer long I went camping with Tom and his kids and kept them well-fed and happy for more than 8,000 miles throughout North America.
At 10 pounds or so, weight is my liability, but that’s also an asset. I can make enough blackberry cobbler to feed half a campground. I know because I have. Load me up with sauerkraut and sausage for Monday night supper, and you won’t have to cook again until the weekend. That is, unless I show up with Tom at Bird Camp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Then, all bets are off. One year he used me to make ptarmigan pot pie, with a score of birds he brought back from Nunavik, and his piggy friends left not a single bite.
That’s also because I make food smell and taste good. I heat evenly if you nestle me in a bed of coals and put a few embers on my lid. A roux of olive oil and flour nicely binds the mixture of chopped root vegetables, boned-out birds and herb seasonings and bubbles sumptuously beneath a Bisquick roof. I remember how the boys howled for more pie next year, but the Arctic is a long way from home. Besides, don’t you know the most memorable meals are those that are one and done?
I saved Tom from being tossed out of Bird Camp, though, by dishing out braised lamb shanks. That was the year his garden was overgrown with Roma tomatoes, which he smoked with green cherry twigs until the fruit wrinkled into candy. Reducing the tomatoes in a cooking pot for hours made for a rich and smoky sauce, perfect for braising shanks over low heat, which is also where I excel if you have a watchful eye. Poured over Arborio rice, the succulent meat and delicious sauce pairs well with a crisp salad and Oregon pinot. There were no leftovers that year either.
From wagon trains to lumber camps, my story is the history of America. Somewhere up in Alaska is an enormous cast iron skillet, perhaps 4 feet in diameter, mounted over the entrance to an old log dining hall. On the pan someone wrote in chalk: “Over many years this frypan served 13,000 pancakes; 10,000 sausages; 8,000 eggs; 132 moose and 1 cook’s shorts.”
Ever proud of my brethren, I don’t doubt the figures but always wondered how a lumber camp cook had time to count.
Speaking of lumber camps, legend has it that in Michigan, the cooks often worked a day ahead of log drivers on the Au Sable, Manistee and other famous rivers. Digging a hole along the sandy stream bank, the cook built a hardwood fire and when the coals were just right, settled a Dutch oven over them. Inside were beans, water, molasses and chunks of salt pork. With the lid secure, the cook threw a few coals on top and then shoveled sand over the oven, marked the spot and moved on to the next day’s destination. When the drive team showed up the following day, a delicious hot meal was waiting for them.
If Tom promises to do that in Bird Camp next fall, I promise to do him proud.
We’ve all heard the old song lyric, “Let freedom ring!” But upland bird hunters also know freedom does more than ring – it thunders and clatters, whirrs and whistles, cackles and chirps. Sure, we may head to the woods or prairies for a chance at a bird and a wild game dinner, but isn’t it the freedom to be on our own exploring the countryside with a gun and dog that we really seek?
Out West, often on public land that you and I own, there lives a native bird that gives free rein to our craving for elbow room and adventure: the sharp-tailed grouse. It may not sport the gorgeous colors of a rooster pheasant, thunder up from the forest floor like a ruffed grouse or corkscrew through the branches like a woodcock, but when a covey of sharptails erupts from the grass, freedom rings across the prairie. It’s a clucking, clattering sound that writer E. Donnall Thomas likens to “God rolling the dice.”
It is a sound thousands of years old, a sound revered down through human history. Sioux dancers mimicked the sharptail’s elaborate courtship ritual and used its feathers for decoration, as did other tribes. Lewis and Clark marveled at the “pointed tail prairie hen” on their journey up the Missouri River in 1805, finding it “worthy of remark that the grouse or prairie hen is booted, the toes of their feet so constructed as to walk on the snow.”
Sharptails survive winter on the plains by burrowing under the snow to roost and escape summer heat by resting in the shade of coulees filled with snowberry, wild rose and chokecherry. They’re strong fliers capable of moving miles to food or shelter when the need arises. As cover thins in late fall, they gather in large flocks and grow harder to approach. Many watchful eyes help detect danger, be it man, fox or coyote.
When John Audubon explored the upper Missouri in 1843, he found young sharptails to be “first-rate eating,” a sentiment shared by the soldiers, stockmen and homesteaders who came later. In the latter half of the 19th century, market hunters plied the prairie with dogs, hammer guns and buckboards laden with ice, shipping birds by the barrel to restaurants in the Midwest. In 1879, the Grand Pacific Hotel in Chicago included “roast pin-tail grouse” among a long list of game delicacies.
About a third again as large as a ruffed grouse, the sharptail has darker flesh and a relatively bigger heart due to its proclivity for long flights. Most hunters today find them to be fine cuisine, especially in early fall when the young birds have waxed fat on herbs, grasshoppers and berries. They are best when breasted out and grilled to medium-rare perfection, never overcooked.
In the early 1900s, the sharptail helped feed the army of homesteaders flocking to Dakota and Montana territories, lured by free land and boosters who promised them that “rain would follow the plow.” It didn’t, and by 1925 thousands of honyockers had seen their crops and dreams disappear in clouds of grasshoppers and dust. Through it all, the sharptail endured. You have to admire a bird that tough.
In ensuing decades, hunters like H.L. Betten pursued the sharptail for sport rather than profit. He penned this compelling narrative in the 1940s: “Blue drew to a covey point. … Then Jake glided up to a rigid back. … We walked in and bumped up the covey. Big, full-fledged white bellies they were. They seemed large as balloons as they roared up and away with guttural cackles.”
Fortunately for those of us who love hunting wild birds in natural landscapes, Betten’s classic hunting tableau still exists out on the western plains. But many things have changed. Roads crisscross a landscape dotted with farms and ranches, and in places energy development – natural gas and oil fields, wind farms and surface coalmines – encroach on prairie vistas. None of this bodes well for sharp-tailed grouse, but the birds still thrive where grass and shrubs still prevail.
Sadly, native grassland is almost nonexistent in Midwestern states where the sharp-tailed grouse once coexisted in large numbers with its square-tailed cousin, the prairie chicken. Farther north and west, in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, down through Montana, the Dakotas and south to Nebraska, expanses of mixed-grass prairie still provide sharptails with food, cover, dancing grounds and room to roam. It is here they can be pursued in open country that tests the mettle of hunters and dogs. Any good gun dog will help when hunting sharptails, but in this land of weather and wind, where the tawny grass stretches to the horizon, a big, running pointing dog will shine.
If you’re lucky enough to shoot one of these iconic prairie birds, examine it closely. Run your fingers down its back to the two central tail feathers that give the bird its name. You’ll see it is patterned from head to tail with an exquisite combination of white, buff, brown and black. Turn the bird over and observe how the brown chevrons marching down the breast merge into the snow-white feathers of the belly and how the legs are feathered down to the scaled toes. Hold the bird close and breathe in the earthy, ancient smell of rain, rosehips and prairie dust. It is the scent of freedom.
The typical bird hunter owns several shotguns over their lifetime. From finely crafted, rarely fired masterpieces to purpose-built reliable workhorses, every gun shares a history with its owner. Regardless of how many guns a hunter accumulates over their lifetime, though, the bond between a bird hunter and their first shotgun is unique.
Mine was a Christmas gift from my parents when I was 11 years old. The brightly colored, Santa Claus-themed paper (undoubtedly my mother’s choice) used to wrap the gun symbolized the paradoxical world of an 11-year-old boy poised for a headfirst plunge into adulthood. The single shot H&R 20-gauge may have been considered a youth gun, but I felt like an adult holding it in my hands that Christmas morning.
I explored every feature of the gun in detail, handling it like one of the fragile ceramic figurines my mother kept on the mantel.
Upon reaching the gun’s exposed hammer, my fingers came to a puzzled stop. Sensing my confusion, my father explained the operation of the gun’s simplistic design. The hammer served as the gun’s safety; if it wasn’t cocked, the gun would not fire. Once cocked, however, the only way to return it to the safe position without firing the gun was by squeezing the trigger while easing the hammer back into position with your thumb. Lose your grip on the hammer, and the gun discharged.
The only thing standing between me and my first hunt was my ability to master this somewhat tricky maneuver, so I practiced – and practiced – until the proper amount of tension was hard-coded into my thumb’s muscle memory.
Despite all my preparation, when I took to the field for the first time (on a preserve hunt arranged by my father), anxiety bordering on full-blown panic consumed me. All that remained of the confident dexterity in my shooting hand was a trembling trigger finger and a thumb unsure of where it should rest. Thankfully, the smooth coolness of the metal chamber against my cheek, the warmth of the wood forestock in my palm and the knurled texture of the hammer beneath my thumb provided comforting reassurance, and by the time the first rooster flushed, I had fully recovered. I raised the gun tight to my shoulder, led the bird slightly, squeezed the trigger and watched as the bird dropped to the ground.
As is often the case with youth guns, I outgrew it after only two seasons. With money saved from my first part-time job, I purchased a new 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun. In the excitement of acquiring the new gun, I unceremoniously dumped the youth gun that meant so much to me just two years earlier into a dark corner of the basement, buried beneath piles of junk.
I came across it several years later and was overtaken by an urge to feel the gun in my hands once again. The zipper of the case was encrusted with rust and lime and wouldn’t budge, so I had to cut it open with a hunting knife. I took hold of the wooden stock to pull it from the remnants of the case, and for a moment I was once again tearing through Christmas wrapping paper and cardboard. But the gun that emerged bore little resemblance to the shiny, new gun I remembered. Rust now covered the entire barrel, chamber and even the grooves within the knurled hammer. I tried to pull the hammer back to see if I could still manage the safety maneuver, but a horrible metallic, grinding noise made me stop short.
Ashamed that I could let such an important piece of my past fall into such a state, I spent hours cleaning and oiling the gun until the hammer functioned properly again. Delighted at the feel of the restored gun in my hands, I briefly considered hunting with it again. Instead I gave it to a local gun shop where it could be recycled as a Christmas or birthday gift for another new hunter.
These days, during the opening minutes of opening days, my thumb still occasionally searches for the place on my latest semi-automatic where a hammer should be.
Bird hunting frequently involves moments that you wish you could hold onto. Usually, something incredibly fast occurs, in stark contrast to the generally slow pace of walking – a ruffed grouse blasts across a creek, a covey of quail explodes in three directions as you try to single out a bird. The fury of these few seconds punctuates the broader narrative that is the landscape, the weather, the lingering question of how many miles you have actually walked in your current pair of boots. My guess is that most bird hunters live for these bursts of action, which makes sense. Without them, we are merely hiking. However, I think the bigger picture provides the impetus for these short-lived moments of activity: The idea of walking up a long canyon in pursuit of a Mearns’ quail covey is much more attractive than the long walk to an airport gate, even though the outcome is less certain.
Other than shotguns, I only have a couple of possessions I hunt with regularly that would cause a significant amount of distress if I lost them, and they are most of the knives I own and my binoculars. The binoculars are not sentimental as much as they are just expensive to replace. The point of this is to clarify then that bird hunting involves more than just physical possessions; for me, it is the intangible transition periods of dawn and dusk. The hours in between dawn and dusk make up the bulk of a day, but they run together, broken up by lunch and the occasional stop in the shade. In the field, I cherish the first light and last light as I do any of my possessions.
There’s a sliver of light to the east. It awakens one bobwhite covey and then another. They call to each other for a few minutes before going about their business, a rallying cry for a Texas day that will, we hope, end in some pointed birds and decent shooting. We are up early, maybe too early, as bobwhites often wait until after breakfast to peak in activity. But a lot happens in the first light of morning, so why miss it by sleeping in?
In the West, where there are no bobwhites, sage grouse fly out of big sagebrush to desert tanks for a drink before walking back to the sage. The world wakes up in a grainy light, and suddenly you’re surrounded by the Great Basin in all directions. There is nothing left to do but walk over the ancient dust until you find a flock of birds feeding through on the slope below an outcropping of basalt. Your friend doubles, and his Oregon sage grouse season ends. The dawn gives way to late morning.
In the failing light, the dogs find a final covey of bobwhites, and we shoot two before the sun drops for good. The dogs lead the walk back to the truck through the bluestem and past a windmill on a warm south Texas evening. Even in January it’s warm, and they’re ready for water. On the bay, moonlight coaxes the ghosts of Baffin back to life in a gathering fog. Three of us finish our cold drinks together while the dogs run along the beach. There aren’t many better places to be.
It’s possible to have a lifetime of success hunting upland game birds without ever seeing a sunrise. There is a certain charm, perhaps, in delaying a morning’s hunt long enough to stop at the diner for biscuits and gravy or a last cup of coffee. It is foolish to spend a lifetime in this pursuit without seeing a sunset. The last half hour is when shots count and dogs grow up. My own pointer figured how to really play the game for the first time as the light grew soft on the edge of a milo field in the Texas panhandle. It was dark when we got back to the truck, though you could hear an oil derrick to the north working through the night.
I’m attracted to dawn and dusk in big landscapes because they sweep through the imagination more easily than they do in my best forest hunts. Or perhaps ruffed grouse and woodcock habitat force me to be preoccupied with every step, avoiding thorns and logs. The endless open country lets your mind wander as you look to the horizon and walk towards the sunset with your dog in the golden light of autumn.