Utah reminds me of mountain lions. Its craggy, high-desert hideaways are perfect for rough paws. A few years ago I hunted this hole-in-the-wall country for big cats, and thanks to good dogs I unearthed one. Throughout the miles we covered, however, I don’t recall bumping any birds. Back then when I thought of bird country I thought of the plum-thicket plains of Oklahoma, holly-berried hardwoods of Vermont, or South Dakota and Kansas’ endless fields of maize where roosters run forever like river water—not the Wasatch Mountains of central Utah. The world-record elk was taken on public land not terribly far from here in 2008, if that says anything to its remoteness.
But a long walk with keen dogs changed my outlook, as it often does. Actually, there’s a cornucopia of upland birds. There’s chukar and Hungarian partridge, white-tailed ptarmigan, sharp-tailed grouse, greater sage grouse, blue grouse, ruffed grouse and a whole bunch of tough grouse. Those are the type that demand a bird hunter hike all day up and down snow-dusted, boulder-studded mountains, barrel blindly through aspen thickets and depend on a good dog to flush one, only to see it bend around a pine and sail a half-mile down the mountainside and halfway up another. Utah still reminds me of mountain lions. But now it intimidates me, too.
High on a plateau the dogs found water in a time-carved bowl of rock. They went for the liquid savagely, as they didn’t seem to realize that a cool-mountain spring—the only we’d passed since leaving the truck hours before—babbled steadily in a copse of trees 50 yards below. The dogs allowed us to rest our legs and act like we didn’t need to. From a knee I surveyed the scene. With the rock outcropping above, the spring below and obvious game trails leading in and out, it was evident we’d happened upon one of those magical places about which hunters dream. I scanned the ground, focusing on scores of deer tracks. Then my eye caught the edge of something sharp, rock like. I pried it with my knife and held it out in the palm of my hand. An ancient artifact from a hunter past—an arrowhead—confirmed what I already knew. We passed it around and privately speculated. What was he doing when he lost it? Did it kill an animal? Or did it whistle under a buck’s chest, lost for eons until now? I placed it in my breast pocket and patted it flat. The dogs got their fill, and we resumed our hunt. I wondered if the ancients hunted birds. Some part of me yearned to be among them, hunting for survival. My walking daydream was snapped when I entered a thicket and a grouse flushed—but it was too quick. And then reality hit me: I couldn’t survive even one winter on this mountain, and birds are tough enough to hit with a shotgun.
Katlin Bell left his muzzleloader behind as he guided us down off the mountain and into a lush valley for quail. I don’t blame a man for not wanting to miss an opportunity at a mule deer, or even for being occasionally greedy, but deep down I know he’s a bird hunter. And bird hunters really aren’t all that much different from bird dogs. Not long into our hunt Bell’s dogs locked up, and a whirring covey rise resulted in three downed birds. Curiously, Phil said he hit two, and so did I. As Bell’s lead pointer gathered them, another dog pointed again, sure another bird was in the bush. The lead pointer honored, and when the single flushed Phil folded it neatly before I could find the trigger. The bitch broke on command and fetched it with the other bird still in her mouth.
Framed by dramatic Utah rimrock, it was one of the prettier scenes I can recall. “Nice shot, Phil!” I said, just as the dog delivered his bird to my hand and resumed bouncing through the field, searching for more of what must be the sweetest scent in the world. I was about to continue when I noticed ripe, red fruit dangling from a nearby apple tree. I reached up and twisted off a plump one and took a bite. It was so good and so tasty that I took another apple, and I took a bite of it too, despite not finishing the first. I took a third and stored it in my bag, with Phil's bird. I can't speak for Phil, but I like those apples indeed.
Gordy plucked his guitar near the campfire, and all the hunters were happy. Tim Brandt ruined punch lines while Wintersteen bellowed “birdsongs” between stogie puffs. We tolerated this ridiculousness because Wintersteen had an especially good day. All our vests were flush with birds—ruffs and quail and pheasants and Huns—but he’d also bagged a blue grouse on top of the mountain. It was a very tall mountain and that was his very first blue, but that wasn’t why he was beaming. He’d lucked out on a lone—a freak, as I called it—speckled-belly goose that he jump-shot with all of us watching from the lodge’s balcony. After our morning hunt he’d spotted some ducks on the pond and swapped his Prairie Storm loads for steel. They busted before he was ready, and our laughs backfired when they echoed across the valley and rousted the lone goose from the reeds.
Wintersteen leveled his Vinci and a cheer arose when it crashed with a gavel-like thud. He marched back to the lodge swinging that spec like he’d conquered Rome. Joe said he should have it stuffed lest he regret it later. That was last October. I wonder if it has been long enough yet. It’s August now, and I know Wintersteen’s got two pups chomping at the bit. My legs are itching as well. So I called him yesterday and asked him if he regretted not mounting the specklebelly yet. He said no, but added that its reputation as the tastiest of all geese is well earned. Then I asked him if he’d made up any more birdsongs. He told me no, citing the dog-day weather had given him no reason to crow lately.
It was 4 a.m. when I was stirred from my nest. Someone had obviously, mistakenly, turned the lodge’s heater to “broil,” and it was hotter than any red-blooded bird hunter who lives for November could bear. Each room had a door to the balcony deck that overlooked a Utah valley surrounded by a rocky-mountain rim, and so, still drowsy, I eased it open to let out the steam. It was absolutely still out, with not a breath of breeze. Directly my eyes were met by two glowing-yellow orbs as they rotated toward me and locked into mine.
Hauntingly, a great horned owl gazed into my mind from arm’s reach. He’d been sitting on the balcony post, doing what hunters do best. He studied me for a long moment, watching with those soul-searching eyes. I wiped mine dreamily and refocused, only to find the owl gone but for a short whooshing sound as feathers carved the night. I looked over the frosty landscape and to the mountains where we’d be hunting for birds with the morning light. Would I trade his wings and talons for my boots and Benelli? With each passing second my pupils grew larger and the silhouette of the mountain grew ominously bolder. You bet.
Castle Valley Outdoors
Bird Guns and Birdshot