Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Mallard Has Not Flown South...

It's just been a hectic and very, very, very busy four weeks or so, with barely enough time to catch my breath, much less sit down and write anything. New gigs and new responsibilities have kept me hoppin'. I've managed to get out for zero duck hunts, one quail hunt in a blowing snowstorm (two coveys, with one nice point, one bust, and one bird killed), the most miserable muzzleloader season in recent memory, and a first week of deer gun season that has so far proven to be nothing more than a series of well-armed birdwatching sessions.

I told myself - after holding out last season for one particular buck that had dissimilar interests to mine concerning his future - that this year was all about the freezer. Headgear would not enter into the 2014 equation. So far this season, however, real, live deer hadn't entered the equation, either. So this morning, when I managed to slip away by myself for a short solo hunt before Thanksgiving dinner, I had low expectations. But it was a beautiful morning, with this year's bumper crop of quail whistling all around me and flights of ducks flying overhead. And really, what more can you ask for than that?

OK, OK, so if I'm honest, an actual deer would have been nice, too.

So when he came trotting over the ridge and into the draw, I first became confused, because it had seemingly been years since I had seen one of these creatures in the flesh. After checking my Audubon field guide to North American mammals, just to make sure he was indeed a whitetail deer and therefore legal game, I then had to consult my rifle's instruction manual, because I had forgotten how it worked.

Now fully up to speed on both what, exactly, I was observing, and how, exactly, to shoot it*, I did just that. He dropped in his tracks, and after the echo of the shot died, I sat there in my blind for a few minutes before walking down to him, just thinking, as I usually do after I kill a deer. I believe the animals you kill deserve that much. It doesn't have to be some hokey, New Age thank-you ceremony, or some philosophical self-flagellation, or a weepy, hand-wringing bout of self-doubt and sorrow. Just a little honest reflection, that's all. And maybe a little thanks, which I suppose is appropriate today. He won't turn any heads at a check station, nor will he score well (or at all) against that ludicrous artificial construct by which we measure the alleged worth of the animals we kill, but I think he's a pretty damn perfect Thanksgiving gift, anyway.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Hope you had a good one.

 * Yes, that rifle is the same Winchester model 70 6.5x55 I set up for my son to use. Nope, I didn't steal it from him. He didn't want to go hunting today, so I used it instead of the CZ 6.5x55 I normally use. And as an aside, the 140-grain, 6.5mm Nosler Accubond is a helluva bullet.        

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Refried Mallard: A Series of Lovely Paintings

Quail season is nigh, and although I need to fill a couple muzzleloader deer tags before then to put some meat in our woefully empty freezer, I'd be lying if I said that birds and dogs are not occupying my thoughts these days. So a quote from the late, great Gene Hill, one of my favorites, from an old blog post a few years back...

I felt strange and somewhat rude as I walked in behind the point and honor - I was a man walking into what was so much like a famous painting that I almost had to laugh. But, if you're lucky, that's what a lot of quail hunting is - a series of lovely paintings that we walk into and out of all day long."

                                                                           Gene Hill, from My Respects to Mr. Bob...

...Which is the second story in the book you see above, a mint, limited-edition, slipcased copy of Lamar Underwood's "The Bobwhite Quail Book." This particular edition was published in 1981 by the Amwell Press to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Grand National Quail Hunt in Enid, Oklahoma.

I found it while perusing a thrift store recently. I paid a dollar for it. Sometimes even I get lucky.

This particular copy is number 61 of 500 and signed by Underwood and several other grand poobahs of the Grand National, one of those celebrity-driven, self-aggrandizing events that, quite frankly, I've never much cared for (probably because I have never been neither well-heeled nor important enough to ever be a part of it...)

But the book itself is wonderful. Lamar Underwood was the longtime editor of Sports Afield and a die-hard bird hunter. And "The Bobwhite Quail Book", first published in 1980, is one of the best collections of quail hunting sporting literature ever put together. I think it's still in print today, but early editions are pretty damn rare.

And it's also something of an artifact in that it represents something that is -  for the most part -  long gone. You couldn't publish a new book like this today because A: no one would buy it because it has words, thoughful words, and everyone knows thoughtful words are so, like, 20th century, and B: it's a collection of bird-hunting stories drawn mainly from the pages of Field & Stream, Sports Afield and Outdoor Life, back when such stories made up a good chunk of their feature wells. Have you noticed how many bird-hunting and gundog stories are being published in those magazines these days? That would be a mighty slim book...

So those of us enchanted with such things must seek our literary solace in the past and in what stories we can find among our online kindred. But reading through the book last night, that passage from Gene Hill's story struck me as a perfect description of what it is we seek in this obsession with gundogs: those moments of utter perfection and ethereal beauty that flash-burn themselves into our consciousness and leave softly ghosting images that stay with us long after the moment - and the dogs themselves - are gone. 

And a picture of my old pointer, D.P., sweetest, most gentle dog I ever owned. A little bit Elhew, a little bit Fiddler, and all bird dog. She made some lovely paintings for me in her day.


Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Chad's Intergenerational American Male Incompetency Gradient

A couple knives built by my father, who is not a knifemaker but a consummate tinkerer, one of that generation who truly could (and still can) build, repair, or do just about anything with their hands, a generational trait that is, in most areas save perhaps advanced smart phone operation, sadly falling out of favor these days. In fact, some time ago, while trying to gauge exactly how much more capable in all manly things my father is than I, I actually formulated a theorem to that effect, called "Chad's Intergenerational American Male Incompetency Gradient," which states,  "Each succeeding generation of American male is, on average, 25 percent less competent in the manly arts than its immediate predecessor."

Then I realized that, if I'm being honest, I am much more than 25 percent less competent than my father, so I had to revise the gradient to reflect the rapidly accelerating rate of incompetence that began with my generation, and which, judging by the kids I see these days, has now reached Warp Speed.

But I digress. The knives: The one in the foreground was, in a former life, a blade made by the German firm Klaas. My father simply fitted the blade to his own shed antler crown handle, complete with handmade bolsters, spacers, and pommel. The finished product is, hands-down, the most comfortable and attractive handle of all the knives I own. I have large hands and it fits them like a glove. The knife itself does not see much use, not only because it's pretty, but because I simply don't use large blades that much. Neither does my dad, to be honest. He just got bored one day in his shop and made it for the hell of it. But is sure does look pretty sitting on top of my bookcase on a piece of walnut burl in front of a skull-mount buck I shot a couple years back.

The other knife was, in its former life, an old planer blade that my dad shaped into a very thin, very plain, but beautiful recurved trailing-point design, again with an antler crown handle and homemade bolsters and pins. I don't know what kind of tool steel that old planer blade was made of (01, maybe?), but like most tool steels actually used in tools, it's extremely hard, probably extremely brittle, takes an absolutely wicked edge (he convexed it) and holds that edge like a miser holds a nickel. Too thin and brittle for general use, but I do actually use this one to help cut up deer.

These are the first two attempts at knifebuilding my father ever tried. Like most men of his age and generation and social class (working) my dad is always making or fabricating or building something. I, on the other hand, have trouble opening a box of cereal. Oh, I can usually figure out how to do most things, but like the cereal box I sometimes make a damn mess doing it.

Could I do anything like this myself? Probably not. Because I am, according to Chad's Intergenerational American Male Incompetency Gradient, approximately 50 percent less competent than my father, a man who once, on a trip to Seattle, refused to enter the Space Needle. Why? Because my dad, a retired pipefitter and lifelong welder, had been inspecting the base of the Space Needle as we waited in line to enter, which is always a bad sign. Inspection complete, he then declared, "I'm not going up in that thing."

"Why, dad?" I asked wearily, knowing full well that my perfectionist father had probably found some alleged deficiency somewhere. I was, of course, used to it, because finding deficiencies, in both things and people, occurs quite frequently with my father.

"Because those are some of the shittiest welds I've ever seen," he replied, pointing out a weld that didn't pass muster. "Just look at that. Who'd the hell they get to build this thing, the local vo-tech class?" Eventually he was persuaded to - reluctantly - enter the Space Needle, but not without griping, endlessly, about the shameful decline of the American work ethic. You know, typical father stuff.

Luckily for him, since he lives in Montana and I live in Oklahoma, my father doesn't often get the opportunity to see his oldest son's sometimes, uhh...questionable  handyman handiwork. But one of these days, just for fun, I'm going to get him in my truck, get out on the highway, and as the speedometer creeps up to about 75 or so, I'll say, "Dad, you're gonna be proud of me! I just changed the brakes in this truck all by myself! I learned how to do it on YouTube!"

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Okie Lifehacks...

 How to temporarily repair a broken exhaust pipe weld using two beers*, two hose clamps, a tube of JB Weld, and The Big Lebowski.

Step One: Press and form JB Weld into the cracked exhaust pipe weld.

Step Two: Go inside, watch The Big Lebowski while drinking the two beers as you wait for the JB Weld to cure. Do not resume repairs until the movie is over and the beer cans are empty. This is a crucial step.

Step Three: Take the two empty beer cans into the garage, cut off their tops and bottoms, and slit lengthwise.

Step Four: Slide one can over the top of the weld joint, one can over the bottom of the weld joint, and place both cans to where they overlap the joint.

Step Five: Place the two hose clamps on either end of the overlapping cans and tighten as much as possible.

Step Six: Step back and observe your handiwork. Become very pleased with yourself. Go back inside and watch Fargo.

Step Seven: When you do eventually get around to taking the car to a muffler shop to have it repaired correctly, make sure your wife does it so they can't make fun of the idiot who thought this was a good idea.

*No, I don't usually drink Michelob Ultra, but my wife does, and those slightly longer-than-normal, skinny little cans were perfect for the repair. So don't judge.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


It's what's for dinner. Whaddya' expect? Halloween's just a couple weeks away... A little October creepiness, courtesy of an excerpt from a story I wrote a couple years back for Living Ready magazine...

"Night has fallen. And there’s nothin’ we can do about it."
                                                                                James Dickey, from “Deliverance”

"Paddle Faster, I Hear Banjos," read the bumper sticker on the truck in front of me. I was stuck in traffic on a sweltering summer day, just another trapped suburban lemming, one of the untold millions doing the routine shuffle from my relatively safe and domesticated workplace to my relatively safe and domesticated suburban home.

But I knew instantly what it meant. And I also knew that the humor in the bumper sticker’s allusion to the infamous “Dueling Banjos” song of the equally infamous movie “Deliverance” (which, of course, was based on the brilliant James Dickey novel) masked an uncomfortable yet fundamental truth of human existence:  It’s not the bump in the night that scares us. Or even necessarily what made the bump in the night. What scares the hell out of us is thinking about what might have made the bump in the night.

There are multitudes of fears. The world is awash in them. In fact, the human condition itself can be defined by how we have evolved in response to fear: Fear of being eaten by larger, more fearsome predators, fear of death by starvation, thirst or exposure, the fear of being captured by a rival tribe or clan, and above all else, the fear of the unknown, at a time when the unknown often meant quick (or slow) grisly death. These days, of course, we have many fears, but our daily fears tend to be more abstract, less primal: Fear of losing the house, fear of getting passed over for a promotion, fear of our spouse leaving us for a more successful partner. Modern fears. Bloodless fears. Knowable fears.

To most of us, the old fears, the evolutionary fears, have been relegated to the status of scary bedtime story; cautionary tales meant to teach a lesson. The rise of society, culture, rules, and laws have beaten back such old fears. Rare these days is the coppery, electric taste of true terror, of being alone, helpless and at the mercy of something monstrous and unknown. The artificial construct of our societal safety nets envelop us, protect us, lull us into a stupor of complacency.

But those old fears will not go so gentle into that good night. The monsters are still with us, will always be with us. They never left us, of course, because they are us, dwelling in the long-forgotten vestigial DNA of a million huddling, terrified ancestors. They are the firelight shadows dancing on the wall of the cave. They are the snapping branch, the creaking staircase, the rustling in the closet, the monster that sits hungrily, silently, just beyond the feeble light of our vision like some half-remembered nightmare, waiting patiently for those moments when we foolishly wander outside the dim circle of the campfire.

And when that happens, when we do find ourselves outside the safety nets of society, culture, and laws, we also find out, sometimes to our horror, that the monsters of our fears are often not nearly as terrifying as the monsters of our realities…

It was a fun little story to write, with the added bonus that doing the research for it terrified me enough to insure I will never again leave home without packing heat for mortal monsters, and my official Van Helsing Paranormal Foe Defense Kit for the immortal variety. It makes for some awkward public moments, what with the multiple firearms and wooden stakes and vials of holy water and rosaries and books of incantations and such, but hey, no one ever said preparedness was easy or convenient or mainstream, right? Besides, Oklahoma's an open carry state, so trust me, I've seen much weirder... 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Lively Game Guns and Stupidity

Nothing about shotgunning makes any damn sense at all, when you think about it. I mean, hitting an object with a shotgun is not voodoo, nor is it some mysterious alchemy. It should be a simple matter of physics, right? Right? So why the hell isn't it?

This is an Edwards recoil reducer. They've been made since the mid-Sixties, and are still fairly popular among shooters. This particular specimen was pulled out of the buttstock of my 1968-vintage Beretta BL-5 last year. Why? Because I'm an idiot, that's why. You can read about it here. 

And now this ugly slug of metal is messing with my head.

Here's the background: that 12-bore BL-5 was (past tense) my "lucky" gun. I shot it well, really well, and I don't shoot much of anything well. But it was a tad heavy in the butt, and didn't conform to my notions (or more accurately, the notions of others that I've read and then adopted as my own, because I'm a lemming) of how a game gun should feel. It wasn't what I considered "lively" (Lively? Now there's an overused gun writer's term. What the hell am I supposed to do with a "lively" gun? Dance with it?).

So toward the end of the 2013 quail season, after I had been shooting the gun really well, I took off the recoil pad and extracted that recoil reducer. Suddenly my gun was 12 ounces lighter, and (finally!) "lively." My plan was to tear the gun down, refinish the stock myself, get a set of 28-inch barrels I had bought on Gunbroker fitted to the action, and put it all back together. But the gun felt so good in the hand without that added weight, and swung so well (at least in the garage), that I just had to close out the season with it.

For the next seven days until the end of the season I went quail hunting almost every day, and missed virtually every quail I shot at. Almost every single one. That's not an exaggeration. But boy did it feel good in the hand, like a wand, really,you know..."lively."

I was frustrated. So much so that I put the gun away, afraid to follow through with any of my grand restoration plans. And I kept that recoil reducer, just in case. I didn't shoot the gun much at all last year, nor any clays with it this summer, but last month I drug it out and shot it on one dove hunt, and shot it well. But dove are not quail, and all the while there was a nagging little voice in my head telling me I'd screwed up, that I'd tinkered with something I shouldn't have tinkered with, and that I needed to make it right before quail season started.

I was warned. Both Uplandish and Phillip said I shouldn't do it, that mojo is a sensitive thing. Pshaw! I thought. Mojo? Shotgunning is a science, not some superstition-larded dark art.

Well, guess what I'm doing this weekend? It involves sticking a piece of metal back in its rightful place. Call it superstition, mojo, or the rational, empirically-based theory that perhaps the added weight helps smooth out my swing. Whatever. All I know is that from this fool there will be no more gibberish talk of lively game guns, and there will be no more screwing up of the mojo.


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Old Dog Pics

September is the promise whispered on a cooling wind, but for me the first true day of fall has always been the first of October, regardless of what the calendar says. It is a curious month, my traditional month for pensive reflections on mortality, Deep Thoughts, and the passing of time. Mostly on the passing of time, the fading of what you once were, or hoped to be, and the reconciliation and acceptance of who you are. You know, the typical personal reflection and vague restlessness that most everyone, on some level, engages in when the seasonal change from the light of summer to the twilight of autumn triggers ancient, long-forgotten fears buried deep within our DNA.

I am no different, and in fact I am much worse than most. Which is why I'm sitting here on the first day of October, on a brilliant afternoon with a forecast high of 90 and not a hint of autumn anywhere, thinking about long-dead dogs, but mostly Lewey, my beloved male Chesapeake Bay retriever, who to me will always be four years old. He would have turned eight this January 20th. He was going to be my first field trial dog, then life got in the way and I had no choice but to set that dream aside for other things. Lewey and I never got the chance to at least try to fulfill his potential, and I've always felt a keen regret about that.

I have, however, followed from afar the progress of his littermate, a female named Judy that Lewey's breeder, Bill Burks, kept and has trialed. I even watched her run at a couple trials. I was recently browsing on the Team Chesapeake website (a forum for chessie enthusiasts that I lurk on sometimes) when I noticed a thread about Lewey's sister Judy winning the amateur at a recent field trial. That puts her, according to Bill, within 1 1/2 points of her AFC (Amateur Field Champion), which is a big, big deal in the field trial world, especially for chessies.

It's an incredibly impressive achievement, and I have no doubt that Judy and Bill will win that AFC. But I can't help but wonder - on this first day of a month devoted largely to wondering and musing about stuff - how Lewey might have turned out if things had worked out a little differently and I'd had the opportunity to devote to Lewey like I wanted to. Not to the level of Bill and Judy, of course, but to just participate in and enjoy the game, the scene, and maybe even be mildly competitive once in a while, when the marks fell our way. I would have liked to have experienced that. On the other hand, Lewey got a lot of love and picked up a lot of ducks in his four years, and was beloved by our entire family (I still call Ozzy Lewey on occasion). That counts for something, too, I guess. And who knows, maybe someday I'll find another like him, and see where it goes. That's all you can do, really, with anything; just try it and see where it goes.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Sight*

The fixed-power optical sight, that is...

Duck and quail seasons are still a month away, so I figured this was a good time to get my oldest son's deer rifle set up while I had the time to do it. This is a combination of three of my favorite things: a Winchester Model 70 Classic Featherweight (a New Haven gun), the venerable 6.5x55 caliber, and the classic Leupold fixed 3X straight-tube scope.

Personally, I think it's about as perfect a beginning hunter's deer rifle as you can get. The rifle itself is one of mine, and it's a gem. It's not quite as accurate as my CZ 550 in the same caliber, but accurate enough (and in its defense, I haven't much tinkered with loads for it). It's light and nimble and elegant, not some ponderous beast of a gun, and it doesn't offend my sense of aesthetics, which is important.

Not much to say about the 6.5x55 except that it's about as perfect a caliber for deer-sized game as has ever been created. Those long, skinny, 140-grain, high-BC bullets traveling along at (depending on what load you're shooting) a relatively mild and sedate 2600 or so feer-per-second are relatively flat-shooting at reasonable ranges, produce a mild, almost melodic muzzle blast, and in the (paraphrased) words of Dave Petzal, might create enough recoil to "dislodge a thrush from a thistle." And as an added bonus, it pretty much kills whatever you shoot with it, quickly. What's not to love about that?

And then there's the scope. Talk about a dinosaur... under-powered, under-featured, under-objective lensed, under-reticled, under-tacticaled, under-branded, and most definitely under-"cool". But all it does it work, beautifully. There is no power ring to fumble with. There is no confusing bullet-compensating reticle to try to interpret in the heat of the moment, and it has four inches of eye relief so he won't get scoped no matter how much he may crowd the ocular lens. It's light, unobtrusive, and doesn't make the rifle top-heavy like some of the Hubble-sized scopes now in vogue. It's bright, has plenty of magnification for the maximum distances I want him attempting a shot, and it has a huge field of view so he can easily find the deer if one steps out close to us. Simple, effective, bombproof, and perfect.

And sadly, fast disappearing. You really have to seek out fixed-power scopes these days. They're rapidly going gentle into that good night of widespread consumer disfavor. They have become novelty throwback items, the shooters who use them seen as fringe-y, anachronistic loons, kind of like the guys who shoot flintlocks during muzzleloader season or longbows during archery season. Few companies still offer them. Leupold still makes several (including my favorite 6x42), Weaver still has their K-series, a couple of the European companies offer a tiny handful of fixed-power scopes for the American market, but the vast majority of us now clamor for the giant, bulbous variables. Hell, even I own a few, and they're good scopes, I cannot deny. But fixed-power scopes are still my favorites, because they still work well, and look elegant doing it.

* With apologies to Dylan Thomas' ghost... 


Monday, September 29, 2014

If You're Bird Hunting...

In my part of the world this fall, you'd better not forget dog boots, because we've got an absolutely insane crop of these things...

Endless acres of sandburs, the most horrible, useless plant to ever diminish the world with its presence. Most years, in most areas, they're usually not bad enough that I think I need to boot the dogs. Both my dogs have pretty tight feet and tough pads. Burs usually don't bother them too much. But based on what I've seen so far this year, it looks like I'll be breaking out the dog boots more than normal, which means I'll be losing dog boots in staggering numbers. There are guys who can wrap a boot to where it never gets thrown, and then there are guys who don't think a hunt's complete without losing at least one, and more likely two. Guess which guy I am?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


I was scrolling through the news this morning when I came across a story on the return - after a 102-year absence - of Chinook salmon to a river in Washington that had recently had its dams removed.

From the story

The largest dam removal in history experienced a key first signal of success this week, as three adult Chinook salmon were spotted above the site of recently blasted-away Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic National Park. The discovery, by snorkeling Park Service biologists, marks the first return of Chinook in 102 years to upper reaches of the Olympic Peninsula’s master river.
“When dam removal began three years ago, Chinook salmon were blocked far downstream by Elwha Dam.  Today, we celebrate the return of Chinook to the upper Elwha River for the first time in over a century,” said Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum. The dam removal will open up an estimated 70 miles of salmon habitat in a river system once populated by thousands of Chinook salmon, some reaching 100 pounds in size.

Now I have never had the privilege of fishing for real, wild, salmon (snoozing trolling, endlessly, for 10-inch long kokanee in Montana's Lake Koocanusa doesn't count) but for some reason this story struck a chord, not only because it gives hope that someday, if I'm ever in a position to do so, the fish will be there for me to experience (salmon, as well as others), but also because it illustrates, beautifully, the wondrous mysteries of the natural world, mysteries worth pondering, and saving. How did those three fish know to get there? Some vestige of an ancient, genetic memory? Pure chance? Three weeks after a century-old dam is gone? That's just eerie. The mind boggles, in a good way. How does nature know how to pull these acts of regeneration?

The salmon reminded me of a story I wrote last year for Covey Rise magazine, about a place in Mississippi's largely-disappeared black belt prairie region, a working ranch/farm/hunting lodge called Prairie Wildlife. The  owner, Jimmy Bryan, is trying to balance the demands of running a large, diversified ag operation with conservation efforts designed to restore long-gone native prairie, and wild quail. And he's pulling it off. As we drove around his property, he showed me areas where native plants, and the insects and animals that depend on them, had come back on their own, almost as if it was a sort of spontaneous regeneration. "I didn't plant it," he told me. "It was just here, waiting. You start doing things, or not doing things, and this stuff just appears."   

Nature seems to pull this trick out of her hat all the time, doesn't she? Whether it's salmon or quail or whatever, nature responds, always responds, to doing right, even if it's just a tiny, seemingly inconsequential bit of right. I'm often pessimistic, gloomy even, about the future of wild places and wild things. I do not know if I will ever get the opportunity to catch a sea-run salmon, or a bluefin tuna, or a steelhead, or all 15 or so subspecies of cutthroat, or any of the other fish on my personal list. I don't know if I'll ever get the opportunity to hunt lesser prairie chickens (at all), or sage grouse (again), or any of the other birds on my list.

The future is a great unknowable, and always will be. But if there's anything this certified cynic can take away from three fish showing up in a river in Washington, or a patch of big bluestem appearing in a patch of dirt in Mississippi, it's this: there is no level too small or too large on which nature will not pay us back tenfold if we can just manage to do a little right, by both us and her. And that's a wonderful thing to contemplate, even for a grouch like myself. Now actually doing it? That's another story, but who knows, maybe we'll get there yet.