feature By: Jack Ballard, text and photos | March, 21
The bad news came from the supremely competent and congenial nurse who met me in the parking lot with self-administered nose swabs that felt something like deliberately releasing a horsefly into one’s nostrils.
Apologetically she explained that the results would take two to four days, more likely the latter as our Thursday test would probably hit the lab on the weekend.
“You really need to isolate yourself at home, preferably in a room in the house away from other occupants,” she urged, sincere blue eyes locking with mine. “Can you do that?
“I’ll keep my distance from everyone,” I assured the angel, averting my sight from her steady gaze. Already hatching a quarantine plan not found in the two-page medical guide she handed me, I wasn’t about to raise questions with a shifty-eyed stare.
I’d quarantine all right, camping in my cavernous Ford Expedition and hunting birds on the prairies of eastern Montana as far away from other virus-susceptible humans as I could get.
“That’s nuts!” my incredulous wife Lisa exclaimed.
With some help, I was on the way in a few hours. My daughter Zoe made a run to the grocery store for victuals. Lisa retrieved gear from the basement while I dropped the back seats in the Expedition and stashed a cot, pad and sleeping bag inside.
Percy, our English setter, dogged my heels as we arranged the gear in the car, a familiar activity. His love for such outings is boundless. With a cot and sleeping pad to lounge upon while riding, homemade venison scraps stew for dog food and his master’s undivided attention in the field, living in the car for this canine is consummate luxury.
We camped the first night not far from home. A mild cough and congestion scarcely disturbed my slumber prior to 60 pounds of setter slinking onto the cot just before daylight. The second day involved a lengthy drive across the broad expanse of Montana prairie east of our home on the threshold of the Rocky Mountains. We made two short forays on state land adjacent to the Yellowstone River on the way to a roughly planned destination for an upland hunt not far from the Dakota border. One yielded a fat Canada goose; the other, a ring-necked cock with a flowing tail and lengthy spurs.
Weary from the long drive and several hours hiking behind the dog, I stopped at a pull out on the northbound lane of a lonely highway. Before retiring to the flannel lining of the plump sleeping bag on the cot, I ducked out of the Expedition for a final bio-break and gazed skyward at a myriad of stars and a bashful sliver of mustard moon.
The Milky Way galaxy shone above the horizon, its endless arc of stars illuminating the heavens above the Big Dipper and the unerring glow of Polaris. In the tourist literature, you’ll see much ado about Montana’s nickname, the “Big Sky Country.” But those who believe the state’s broad horizons are apparent only in the blue atmosphere of daylight are severely mistaken. The breadth of the prairie’s celestial ceiling is perhaps more compelling at midnight than at noon.
I awoke to a simple, tasty breakfast of instant oatmeal, applesauce, yogurt and coffee. And the soft jowls of a vulturous setter resting on my shoulder in hopes of a handout. I mixed his ration of doggy stew with dry kibble in a stainless steel bowl and shoved it toward the back of the outfit, gaining just enough time to finish my own meal in peace.
After eating, we motored northward to a 640-acre parcel of state land where six weeks earlier, Lisa and I had hunted south of the area and encountered copious numbers of sharptails. The habitat was perfect for the native grouse with rolling, grassy knolls rising above steep draws flush with deciduous prairie shrubbery and green ash trees, ravines that branched, then branched again as they graciously faded into the uplands.
The birds were there. Wild birds they were, previously hunted and wary in a manner peculiar to that species of prairie grouse that many neophyte hunters and young dogs find favorable. When a second big covey rose a quarter-mile beyond our approach, I watched the two dozen birds effortlessly jet over a yonder ridgeline with fading enthusiasm for the hunt. Yes, I felt much stronger than the previous day. But no amount of human or canine endurance is fit to subdue skittish members of the tympanuchus phasianellus wise to the designs of dog and hunter.
After two miles of looping through the hills and hummocks attempting to approach pockets of habitat favored as daytime lounging areas, the closest we’d come to a covey was still 40 yards beyond shooting range. I’d had enough. Exploring some new blocks of public land held more appeal than flaying this proverbial dead horse. With Percy at heel, I aimed our six legs down a southbound branch of the larger and more densely vegetated east-west drainage leading back our parked car a mile away.
A couple hundred yards from the intersection with the main stem of the drainage, I paused for a breather on a broad cow trail that wandered conveniently in our direction of travel. A trio of the clumsy bovines stood on a hillside across the bottom of the draw, grazing placidly in the midmorning sunshine. As I gazed at the cattle, movement at the edge of a thicket in the broad ravine ahead caught my eye. The bold plumage and long tail of a rooster pheasant ducking into the brush was unmistakable. A few seconds later another impatient cock arose a few feet into flight to follow his fellow.
“Heel,” I commanded. If we played our cards correctly, we were certain to encounter the brace of skulking birds.
The copse of brush and low-growing trees into which they’d disappeared was well contained. It terminated into low grass on the top and was separated from another thicket up the ravine by another distance devoid of cover. On the downward side, a vertiginous abutment discouraged the pheasants from attempting to escape on foot.
The plan was obvious. Keep Percy at my side until we reached the edge of the thicket, and then send him in from up the draw, directly into a faint but discernible breeze. It seemed the roosters would either flush or hold point in a game of “chicken” in which the fowl would blink first. Either way, I’d be waiting with a Weatherby 12-gauge to claim the winnings.
Percy’s feathered tail had scarcely disappeared into the tangle when a red-cheeked rooster rocketed skyward then veered abruptly away toward the top of the ravine, offering an extremely difficult target. But before I swung on it, a second cock erupted from cover, flying directly overhead and down the draw. A single charge of no. 5s folded the bird. The report brought the setter from cover. He quickly spied the pheasant’s resting place, rapturously retrieving the rooster.
“Teamwork,” I said to the happy canine now happily rolling on his back in a patch of snow.
Over the next half hour, our partnership frayed.
A major side draw to the south looked very birdy. Foolishly, I allowed the dog to forge ahead into unknown cover. He busted out a dozen birds over a half-mile like an unbroken colt going about nobody’s business but its own. Another duo of roosters arose from a tiny patch of cattails, a patently obvious place from which to kick birds. When the 7-year-old derelict returned to the whistle after his witless binge (he’s never worn a shock collar), I could have strung him from the barbwire fence demarcating the backside of the public parcel on which we hunted.
In reality, it was my own fault. The leggy setter is at his best running open grasslands and fields in search of sharptails and partridges. He’s a serviceable pheasant dog in heavy cover only when allowed to enter obvious, contained portions then quickly whistled back. Promising side draw blown out of the playbook, I kept the dog at heel as we started down the drainage in the direction of the Expedition.
A few minutes into the hike, the ravine broadened.
Spring runoff and flash thunderstorms had eroded a pathway through a hummock in the wide spot, creating passage through a steep bank. To its right, a tidy patch of brush and a single tall ash tree appeared, just the place to find a wayward rooster.
“Hunt ’em up,” I encouraged Percy, signaling the appropriate direction with a curt wave of my hand. He dashed forward, then froze atop the embankment, brown eyes fixed on the tall grass not 30 feet beyond the toes of my boots.
I strode forward expecting a flush. Nothing. I glanced back toward the dog that now appeared to be staring at my boots. Still nothing. Just as I looked back at the setter to affirm his point, a bold, bright cock ejected itself from cover. The bird nearly disappeared behind the wall of earth on my left side before I discharged a shot from the bottom barrel of my gun. A few pellets scratched the top of the embankment, but a tendril of feathers indicated at least some had found the rooster. Before I could dash up the draw and scale the abutment, Percy was proudly delivering a very limp bird.
As we drew nearer the vehicle, favorable cover dwindled. But then a sweeping bend revealed a side draw with a dense thicket in the shape of an oversized, woody bathtub. I released Percy from heel and then hustled forward to cut off birds I suspected would flush from the far end.
The rush came sooner than expected. A single hen first flew the coop, followed by two handsome roosters. I swung on the bird in back, passing its long tail and pale beak in an attempt to get the pattern in front of the pheasant. The rooster’s wings beat briefly after the shot and then leapt upward like the hands of a schoolboy performing jumping jacks as it plummeted to the ground.
The weight and warmth of three birds in my vest and a contented canine at my side, I hiked the final half-mile (of over five) to the car, reflecting on several firsts. It was my first limit of pheasants on a singular parcel of public land. Ditto for filling out in three shots. And I had never before encountered hardy ringnecks in such numbers in native prairie habitat, miles from the nearest agricultural outpost.
Later that evening, a ping on my cell phone announced an incoming email. From the laboratory, it brought happy news of a negative COVID-19 test. After a snow in the uplands, the following day before heading home we dropped another rooster and a grouse.
I wouldn’t for the world wish the coronavirus or its devastation on any individual or society. But that quarantine thing? In my book, it ain’t too bad.