Thursday, January 28, 2010

I want to be with the coconuts

This is a coconut. Or at least it used to be. I smuggled it home in my luggage last year on a trip to the Florida Keys. The reason I was smuggling an eight-pound coconut (green at the time) in my luggage is because my son had specifically requested I bring him one so he could savagely cut it open and partake of its delicious, life-giving liquid. Just like Les and Bear.

So I did. And my son did partake of its delicious, life-giving liquid. One sip, a horrible face, and the rest of it went immediately down the drain. So much for the survival coconut. I hollowed it out and hung it in a tree, hoping a bird would nest in it. I think, however, our land-lubbing plains birds are either confused or frightened, because over the past year it's just been hanging there, slowly turning black.

I'm staring at it wistfully, though, as I stand here splitting wood in anticipation of yet another monster snowstorm. I remember the exact spot I picked up that coconut: a  lonely little bit of shoreline facing the lovely, mysterious, inscrutable vastness of the Atlantic. Heady stuff for an Oklahoma boy.

The week we got home from that trip we got blizzard warnings, whiteout and two feet of snow. I swore then that someday, after the kids were grown and gone I'd fulfill my newfound life's dream of moving to the Keys, living under a nice comfy bridge on US 1 and being a fishing bum.

If you've never had the opportunity to experience the unique charms of a plains-state blizzard, I'd refer you to Thomas Hobbes. Like life, a plains blizzard is generally nasty, brutish and (thankfully) short.

This will all be out of here by the weekend. Whether we will have power in its wake is another question entirely.

So here I am, holding a splitting maul and watching that coconut sway in the frigid Oklahoma wind. School's cancelled today and tomorrow and the NWS is predicting freezing rain, ten inches of blowing snow and widespread power outages.

I want to go fishing. I want to be with the coconuts.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Things That Don't Suck: Cabela's SuperMag 1600 waders

I haven't done a "Things That Don't Suck" post in quite a while, and as I was putting away all my waterfowl gear this past weekend (cue tears) I found a perfect candidate.

Now for all you new readers (I think there at least three of you out there) my "Things That Don't Suck" posts highlight gear that I've bought myself, used hard and found to be - for lack of a better term - not shitty. And bought at regular retail, btw. I'm neither important, influential nor well-known enough to have such things sent to me for review, damn the bad luck.

*** in the interest of full disclosure, the GLX travel rod I reviewed last year actually wasn't purchased, it was a loaner. And I cried when I dropped it in the mail...***

So, rest assured dear readers, when you see the "Things That Don't Suck" stamp of approval you can be certain that the item in question, well, doesn't suck. At least for me. Not yet, anyway. And really, how much more honest can you get than that?

Which brings me to today's item: My Cabela's SuperMag 1600 waders.  (I know the picture sucks, but it's the only one I had...)

I just concluded my third season of wearing these things, and I have to say that may have been the best $169 (they're around $200 now, but still worth every penny) I ever spent on a waterfowl-related item.

*** in the interests of full disclosure, I did attend a Cabela's-sponsored turkey hunt last year but they didn't give me any waders, the bastards...***

I'm hard, very hard, on waders. I'm also poor, very poor. Which means I've always bought cheap, very cheap waders. And if there's a more potent formula for sudden, shocking and acute discomfort than icewater, leaky waders and balls, I'm not aware of it.

Generally the waders I could afford wouldn't make it through a single season without major surgery, and I don't think I ever had a pair make it more than two seasons before I had to trash them. And even when they did manage to keep me dry during a hunt, I was still freezing. Dry, but freezing.

Finally, in the wake of a particularly cold and miserable duck season four years ago, I decided it might be cheaper in the long run - or at least as cheap and a helluva lot more comfortable -  to buy a decent pair of waders every four or five years instead of a cheap pair of waders every year.

So that's what I did. I gathered my pennies, performed my due diligence via the online duck hunting chatrooms and boards and ordered a pair of the SuperMag 1600s.

And despite having a name that sounds better suited to a vacuum-assisted penile enhancement device (TRY THE SUPERMAG 1600! GUARANTEED TO ADD FOUR INCHES OR YOUR MONEY BACK!) these waders have been superlatively awesome. They are simply the warmest, toughest waders I've ever worn (I know, I know, I've always worn junk, but the point holds...).

And when I say I'm tough on waders, I don't mean I sometimes snag them hopping out of the boat on to the hunt-club dock. I mean I get out of my truck at the parking area with the rest of the schlubs, put on my waders and then walk through a half-mile or so of sandplum thickets, prickly pear, barbed wire fences, cedar thickets and other assorted sharp and pokey brush. I then break ice, sit in two feet of frozen muck for a few hours and then I get up and walk back to to the truck. That kind of hard.

In three years of doing this numerous times per season I've had a grand total of no leaks, rips, tears or holes. And not once have I ever been cold wearing these things. And again, I rarely hunt out of an above-water blind or a boat. I'm usually just sitting on my ass in the water. I originally planned on these things lasting four years, and if they did I figured I'd be ahead.

But after three seasons of hard use they still look pretty much perfect. So unless they literally fall apart next season it looks like they might start actually saving me money.

So here's my conclusion on the Cabela's Super Mag 1600 waders: No, they won't give you four extra inches, but they definitely don't suck.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A little Friday surliness...

There are very few things - in terms of material possessions - for which I have an abiding weakness: nice shotguns, high-end fishing tackle, books, gun dog puppies, that sort of thing. I've just never been much of a gearhead or trinketeer. I like simple, quality, aesthetically pleasing stuff that works, even if I can rarely afford it.

I guess that's why I've never been much interested in attending any of the hunting and/or fishing trade shows. SHOT is, of course, going on right now and I did pitch the idea to my editor of attending the show and blogging about it. He wisely declined. Well, he said he loved the idea but budget constraints, you know. In truth, I'm sure he realized having me attend the SHOT show would be like sending Abbie Hoffman to cover thr annual meeting of Corporate Capitalists For A Deregulated Future (I just made that group up, BTW, so don't bother Googling it...).

So once again I'm sitting here at home, monitoring the non-stop SHOT show coverage on all the major hook-and-bullet websites, and once again I can't help but feel that SHIT show is a perfectly appropriate nom de guerre for this circus of the stupid, the unnecessary and the inane.

Trade shows overwhelmingly highlight products no one knew they needed, offer nifty solutions to problems no one knew they had and urge us to spend money we probably don't have on shit we definitely don't need (OK, so I paraphrased that last line from a passage in Fight Club...)

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not completely anti-trade show, I'm not anti-progress and I'm not anti-new product. But here's the problem I have with many of these products: they add layers of ever-increasing complexity and technological dependence to an activity in which we should be stripping those layers away as fast as as we can.

There's been much discussion recently (and good discussion, I might add) about the ethics of hunting. Many very intelligent, thoughtful people take the position that anything that helps the ultimate goal of killing an animal quickly is ethical because hunting, parsed to its element, is about killing something. Baiting, crossbows during bow season, etc. Because these things help us kill animals quickly and more efficiently they are, by definition, ethical.

Now I'll save the issue of baiting for a future blog post, but I don't necessarily agree with the argument because I think the premise on which that argument is based is flawed, and in my rambling, seni-coherent way I'll try to explain why.

The way I see it there is a fundamental philosophical and practical difference between modern hunting and traditional subsistence hunting and the two simply can't be reconciled without recognizing those differences. What are they? Well, they're legion, but I think it all boils down to means and motivation.

It is true that the ultimate goal of traditional subsistence hunters was, of course, to kill something, and to kill it as quickly as possible so those who make the "any means possible is ethical" argument do have a point. To a point.

However, those traditional subsistence hunters had absolutely none of the modern conveniences that we are afforded. They relied on their woodsmanship and their wits. It was, by necessity, a raw, primitive, thoroughly atavistic experience. Now would they have traded that experience for the almost-sure thing that modern hunting tries to be? Probably, but that's not the point, is it?

To me, replicating that raw, primitive, thoroughly atavistic experience is the point,  the ultimate goal of modern hunting. It's not just the killing something that puts us in touch with whatever it is that compels us to hunt. If that were the case I'd go get a job in a slaughterhouse. But of course whether you agree with me depends on where your beliefs happen to fall on means versus motivation. The experience is the motivation for me, and how I kill something is just as important to me as the actual act of killing it.

And that, in a nutshell, is my problem with where modern American hunting is heading. It seems no one really cares how they kill things anymore, just so long as they do. And it seems that every new product that gets rolled out these days reflects that mentality.

(This is a severely truncated version of my thoughts on the subject, but for the sake of brevity I'll save the rest for later)

Now I recognize this could be debated endlessly and that my personal reasons for hunting open me up to a slippery slope of counterpoint, the old "if it's the experience you're after why not use a spear" argument. Fair enough. That's what debate's for, and let me make it clear that I'm not saying my way is how it should be. I'm just lamenting here, I'm not suggesting that lament be codified into law.

And I will be the first to admit there is a tinge of personal snobbery coloring my argument here. So much of modern American hunting "culture" as it were, is simply a reflection of how tacky, cheesy, cheap, superficial, torpid and willfully ignorant our larger culture has become.

But I guess that's fodder for a future blog post. Back to SHOT and our gear and convenience-obsessed hunting industry. Perhaps I wouldn't be so down on it if it featured less of the tits, the tramps, the tasteless, the tactical, the technological and a little more of the timeless, the tested, the trusted and the truly useful.

But then again, it wouldn't be there if there wasn't a market for it. Someone out there's gotta be buying this shit, right? Maybe I'm just being - in the recent words of a magazine-based editorial critic - a "douchebag."

Ehh... probably.

***At the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, the guys over at F&S just posted a new SHOT show update, and damn it, some of it is pretty nifty. I'm nothing if not inconsistent..." *** 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Verily, I scored!

OK, I'm going to get my book geek on here...

 What you see here is an almost-perfect slipcased 1965 third-printing of the first edition of the second revised American edition of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Confused? I'll explain later. Suffice it to say it's a nice find for me. The slipcase has a few little flaws, and there's a tiny tear in the dustjacket of Fellowship of the Ring. But aside from that the books are absolutely pristine, and I'm not sure they've ever been opened, much less read.

I very recently stumbled across this set and snapped it up for, well, not much money. It was just one of those serendipitous coincidences that don't happen to me very often. In truth, however, I have to give all the credit to my wife. She's the one that first spotted it and told me about it. If it hadn't been for her I'm quite sure that by now some grubby-handed little high school nerd would be soiling its lovely pages with half-masticated cafeteria food.

Instead, this grubby-handed middle-aged nerd is going to lovingly place it on his "good books" shelf, along with the other, pitifully few collectable and/or rare books he owns.

In terms of monetary value, it's hard to say what the set is worth. It's certainly no Tamerlane, but I'm guessing more than a hundred and probably less than a thousand.

But in terms of collectability this edition is pretty desirable, especially in this condition. Tolkien first published LOTR in the UK and the US in the mid-fifties, and if you want a first UK edition you better be ready to mortgage your house for it. There were several US editions published after that (including one unauthorized) but in 1965 Houghton Mifflin published this "revised second edition" with Tolkien's consent and a number of revisions from earlier editions.

The rest, as they say, is history. Before you knew it, LOTR became a cult phenomenon: people started scribbling "Frodo Lives" on bathroom stalls and Gollum got name-dropped in a Led Zeppelin song. There have been any number of editions published since then (many of them collectable as well) but this was the edition that really got the ball rolling (well, a generation of stoned and impressionable hippies helped its success as well...)

But wait! There's more. At the same time I also picked up this...

I don't really know much about this book. It was written in 1909 by a guy named Frederick William Unger, and from what I can gather so far it isn't a first-hand account of Roosevelt's famous African expedition, but rather a general overview of Roosevelt, his trip and Africa in general. It's in pretty bad shape so no real collector value - if it even had any to begin with - but it does contain a number of very cool plates and drawings.

No more birds, ducks or deer this year, but I'm happy to still be bagging a few nice books...

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Season's End 2

I almost blow it before it starts. I hadn't slept well the night before, and when the alarm goes off at five I hit the snooze button. Five minutes later I hit it again. And again. Lying there, I try to rationalize: there aren't any ducks left. The lake's locked up solid. I didn't see any ducks on the river Friday. It's gonna be a waste of time. It's frickin' cold. Go back to bed.

But it's the last day. It. The end. Fini. Last chance for another year, not just for me, but for her. She's only six. Not old, but not a pup any more, either. Realistically, another five seasons, maybe six. So I drag my ass out of bed, drink my coffee, get dressed. I sneak into my son's room and peak out his window at the kennels. She's standing there at the kennel gate, staring holes into our front door.

She's no dummy. She knows. She watched me load up the waders and decoys the evening before. I go outside, unlatch the kennel door and let her out. As I turn back to the truck Lewey starts his jailbird routine, pressing his muzzle against the chainlink fence, whining and howling his heartbreak to the world. But it was his turn last week, so he stays. Forlorn, forgotten and sad beyond measure, he sits on his haunches and watches us walk off. He'll never recover from this betrayal. At least until the truck pulls out of the driveway and he falls back asleep.

No dog box this trip. Tess hops into the cab and, for better or worse, we're off. I'm not optimistic. The slough I'm headed for is shallow, and I'm hoping the warm weather has thinned the ice enough for me to break out water for a few decoys. But we better hurry. Thanks to my earlier sloth, we're an hour behind schedule and the sun's catching us. I pull into the parking area, quickly throw on my waders, grab the gun and decoy bag and take off at a swift waddle. They may keep you warm and dry, but there is no dignity or grace to be found in a pair of chest waders.

Twenty minutes later, soaked in sweat, we arrive at the slough just as the eastern sky starts warming from pink to orange. I can hear ducks whistling overhead. The west side of the slough is frozen, but thin, breakable. The east side is solid, intractable. I need to be on the east side, crouched in the catttails with the sun to my back, but I'm out of time. Shooting light is here and small groups of gadwall and wigeon are buzzing the ice. I say to hell with it, break out a tiny spot, throw out a half-dozen decoys in what is surely one of the fakest-looking spreads ever and splash back to shore.

Tess and I crouch in the slushy muck next to a rotted, hollow cottonwood trunk and wait. Two minutes later the gods smile and ducks start pouring in. I shoot a drake wigeon out of the first group and Tess breaks at the shot, like she has virtually all season. I know I shouldn't, but I just let her go and tell myself I'll fix it when we start training again. Right now I just want to watch her plow through the ice.

 She's always loved the ice, this one. When she was twelve weeks old she jumped off the end of a dock at the city pond, right into the slushy, ice-filled February water. Horrified, I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and pulled her back on to the dock. I thought I'd ruined her. I let her out of my arms and she jumped right back in.

She brings the wigeon back to me and drops it in my hand. I shoot another wigeon, then a drake green-wingteal. She attacks the ice each time, breaking it when she can, pulling herself up when she can't. Nothing flashy, no breathtaking dock dog aerial launches like Lewey; just a stout, plodding little tugboat making vees through the shattered water.

One more wigeon, a pair of gadwall and suddenly, unexpectedly, inexplicably, we're done. Limited out. On the last day of a weather-screwed season in which limits have been few and hard-earned. On a day I almost didn't get out of bed. Almost left her in the kennel. Almost let the season steal silently away.

She would have forgiven me. Dogs always do. But forgiveness for myself would have come harder. I gather the decoys and ducks, sling the bag over my shoulder and start the long walk back to the truck. The added weight digs the straps into my shoulders. Tess prances and jumps around like a pup as the sun finally breaks over the trees. Not a bad way to go out. Not a bad way at all.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Bear with me...

...because I may be scarce for the next day or so while I attempt to get everything from my old computer on to my new computer. You know how I am with electronics...

Tess and I did manage a season's end duck hunt Sunday morning and I'll try to get that up forthwith, with a few images. All things considered, it could have gone a lot worse...

Friday, January 15, 2010

Season's End 1

Today is the last day of Oklahoma's deer archery season and although I have very little faith in actually killing anything, I'll be going out anyway because, well, it's the season's end and I feel somehow compelled to, an obligation to see the sun set on yet another year.

My notion of a year, anyway. Forget that whole Gregorian calendar nonsense. My year ends with the close of the last hunting season and it starts with my first bass in the spring. The time between those two events is what alcohol and books are made for.

According to that definition I suppose that, technically my year doesn't end today. Duck season runs through Sunday and both quail and goose season run through the middle of February and I'm even planning on getting back into rabbit hunting - which runs through March 15 - now that my eldest son is old enough to keep up.

So I guess it's a long sunset. But it starts today. And I can't help but feel a tinge of sadness. Or perhaps it's a creeping sense of mortality, an awareness that I'm fast approaching the apogee of whatever arc my life will trace on this earth.

You think about things like that on those cold, incredibly quiet and still late-season bowhunts. The gun hunters are all gone, as are most of the early-season bowhunters. Even most of the quail hunters have packed up by now and the sense of  loneliness is palpable. Sitting out there on those crystalline evenings I can almost feel the land breath a sigh of relief. I know I am, because truth be told I hunt the late season not for the deer, but the solitude.

That solitude is - to misanthropes like myself -  a precious commodity, and one not easily gained when you're a public land hunter, even out here on these hard and lonely plains. Last week another hunter walked in on me while I was bowhunting, a first for me. He never saw me as he walked by. I thought about standing, getting his attention and asking him why, with 16,000 other acres available he felt the need to choose what was surely the only spot on the entire place occupied by another hunter.

But I didn't. Maybe he didn't see my truck and thought he was alone. Maybe he was looking for the same thing I was, just a little peace and quiet. He walked on down toward the river, his illusion of isolation intact.

Mine shattered, I picked up my bow and headed for the truck. I'll be back tonight. I hate to sound like an asshole, but I sure hope that other guy isn't.   

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

It's that kind of place.

I have no idea what story is contained within this picture's alloted thousand words, but I was cleaning out some files in anticipation of switching over to a new computer this weekend when I stumbled across it and said "that's so weird it needs to be on the blog".

I took it some years back on a state highway somewhere between the southeastern Oklahoma towns of Antlers and Broken Bow. As I was driving along I looked over, saw something dangling from the highway sign, thought "what the hell?" and turned around to take a look.

It turned out to be a string of decapitated catfish, mainly flatheads. I have no idea what compelled someone to hang them there: an angler's pride, some kind of hillbilly voodoo, perhaps a warning to to stay the hell on the main roads (homegrown weed is and always has been a big cash crop in the mountains of SE Oklahoma). I never figured it out. I snapped the picture, looked over my shoulder to make sure Leatherface wasn't watching from the trees and got back in my truck.

I shouldn't have been surprised, though. My mother was born and raised in Antlers and I still have a pile of relatives down that way. I spent a lot of time there as a child so I was well aware things are a little, well...different in that part of the state.

How different? When I took that picture I was down there on an assignment, writing about... Bigfoot.

Yep, it's that kind of place. Beautiful, but strange, a little spooky and completely unlike the popular image of Oklahoma. The year prior I had been down there on another assignment, writing about Oklahoma's timber industry. While there I had arranged to drive around some logging sites with a local timber company foreman. As I got into his truck and snapped my seatbelt into place he looked over at me and quite unexpectedly asked "You gotchaself a gun, doncha?"

Now, for those unfamiliar with that part of Oklahoma, it's as rugged, as isolated, as wild and as suspicious of outsiders as any place in the country. I was going to be spending all day in the woods with this guy, alone. And here he was asking me if I happened to have a gun on me. Cue banjos.

As it turns out I did, in point of fact, have myself a gun. Yep, it's that kind of place. Notebook? Check. Tape Recorder? Check. Camera? Check. Glock? Check. But I wasn't sure if I should tell him or not. I didn't know this guy from Adam. And he was big, kind of wild-looking. I was from "the city." Cue banjos again.

 Would it be tactically prudent to keep it a secret or should I just come out and say upfront that I was packing. Was it a trick question? Would I be violating some company policy? The question, however, was rendered moot as he pulled a scoped .223 from behind the seat and shoved the barrel into the floorboard next to me.

"This is for coyotes 'an such," he informed me with a grin. I instantly wondered if nosy reporters, taxonomically speaking, fell into the "such" genus. "But," he continued, "Ah don' go nowheres roun chere without a gun. Dope growers. An there some roads you doan wanna go down even then."

Great. With the prospect of armed conflict apparently part of the day's tour, I figured I might as well tell him. He gave me an approving look and off we went, engaged in perhaps the most heavily-armed interview in Oklahoma journalism history. Yep, it's that kind of place.

I never ran into Tony Montana and his little friend on that trip, and I after I snapped this picture I went on, but never found Bigfoot, either.

Didn't really matter, though. The locals were scary enough...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Technical minutia...

Thanks to Norcal Cazadora and Suburban Bushwacker I am now an accomplished pro at linking without showing the URLs. At least I hope I am. I'll find out when I post this blog...

At any rate, thanks guys. That worked so well I think I'll ask another: Surely there's a procedure - simple enough to be understood by the densest of simpletons (that would be me) -  to make my entire header clickable, right?

A friend pointed out to me that without a clickable header there's no easy way to return to the top of the blog (and the most recent post).  It seems my blog title is clickable, but that's pretty much it. If there's a way to do it easily (and again, "easily" is code for "easily enough for a moron") I'd be eternally grateful yet again. Norcal, I'm thinking specifically of your header.

If I want to continue this blogging thing (without an editor at F&S taking care of all the technical stuff, which is what happens now) I'm going to have to force myself to learn this garbage these skills.

Problem is, I'm generally very impatient with electronic machinery. It's more than a little embarrassing for someone who habitually rails against anthropomorphism in animals to admit it, but that's exactly what I do with computers and other electronic gadgets.

When things start going wrong my reason and sanity go out the window and I find myself ascribing a soul to the offending device. A very dark, malevolent soul whose sole meaning for existence is to piss me off. This little binary demon derives its pleasure from my misery. Human frustration, my frustration, is its lifeforce. And the angrier I get the more I become convinced the little bastard is goading me on. And that's when the threats of physical violence start.

Call it immaturity, an infantile character flaw or ordinary, garden-variety stupidity, but I dislike machines and they, in turn, dislike me. Back in the dial-up age, we had a computer with a modem that - and to this day I remain fully convinced of this - hated me. My wife could surf for hours without a hitch. But the minute I got on, it started in. Kick off. Re-dial. Work for five minutes. Kick off. Re-dial. An endless loop of frustration, curses, shouts. I warned the modem I would get my revenge, and a few months later, I did. The new computer arrived and the old computer went in the garage sale pile. But not before I popped the case, removed the modem, grabbed a hammer and went completely Office Space on its ass.

It didn't make any sense at all. But damn it felt good.

So there you go. I need to figure out how to expand my clickable header area, and I need to figure out a wayto do it without the help of blunt-force trauma. Any ideas before things get out of hand and someone - or something - gets hurt?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Knowing when to say no...

This is a continuation - of sorts - of my last blog post, because recently I've been mulling over a blog post that  David Dibenedetto posted over at F&S (and if someone could tell me how to post a link without the address I'd be eternally grateful.)

It touches on an issue and a question of responsibility that - if you hunt ducks with a dog - you will at some point be confronted with: when is it too dangerous for your dog to hunt?

The story in question involved three brothers in California who were out duck hunting when one of them (for reasons not made clear) threw a rock out on the ice. One of the brothers' dog, being a dog (a chessie, I believe) went after it and broke through the ice. In trying to reach the dog two of the brothers ended up dead.

Duck hunters who often hunt in extreme conditions ask a lot of their dogs, and almost without exception, be they labs, chessies, goldens, spaniels, whatever, they obey without hesitation. They don't question your decision. Personal safety or self-preservation are not issues with which duck dogs bother themselves. You say go, they go. Unquestioning loyalty, unwavering faith. That's what they're bred to do, and it's an utterly amazing thing to watch. But in doing so, our dogs are quite literally putting their lives in our hands. That's a huge responsibility.

Once, long ago, I almost lost my first retriever, a lab, in a situation similar to the one David featured on his blog, except it wasn't a rock she went after, but a duck that had fallen well past the shelf of thick ice ringing the large and very deep pond I was jump-hunting. I was young, new to duck hunting and I stupidly assumed my dog could either break through the ice or climb back on top of it with no problem. That stupidity almost cost my dog's life. After a few tense minutes of thrashing around she finally managed to pull herself back up on the ice, but the experience of standing there helpless, watching as my dog struggled for her life left an indelible impression.

I don't coddle my dogs. Like most duck hunters I generally hunt without regard to weather or temperature, and I expect my dogs to do the same, sometimes in pretty brutal conditions. But I know their limits - and mine - and since that long-ago experience with my first lab I've tried to never put them in a situation they couldn't get themselves out of.

The morning I went duck hunting last week was, quite frankly, miserable. Like all of the central plains states last week Oklahoma was - and remains - frozen solid.

But before I hunted the river I checked the lake, and there were ducks out there, in little pockets of open water scattered across the otherwise frozen surface.

I thought about it. I could break a little ice, clear a spot, throw out a few decoys and probably shoot a few. But what if I wounded one and it glided out a few hundred yards onto the ice, way beyond the thigh-deep cove I usually hunt? The ice may hold for the dog. Then again, it may not. Then what?

I decided this wasn't a situation I wanted to put my dog in, so I turned the truck around and headed for the river. No open water. Many fewer ducks. But my dog came home with me.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Irony and Frostbite

It's seven degrees outside, with a north wind at 15 gusting to 25. At least that's what the computer told me before I left the house. But the frozen snot on the end of my nose tells me the question of whether it's warmed up any since then is, semantically speaking, moot.

 We're making our way down the riverbank, Lewey and I, crunching through the frozen grass, when it happens. Ranging out thirty or so yards ahead of me he suddenly shifts out of his normal I'm-just-a-happy-go-lucky-goofball lope into "what's this smell" mode. Moments later the covey bursts out of the grass and flies across the river.

I don't shoot, because I'm standing here in a pair of waders, with a decoy bag over one shoulder, camera and gear bag over the other, and a trio of three-inch #2s in the 870.

And the reason I'm standing here in waders, holding a decoy bag and a shotgun full of steel is because several days earlier I had been standing along this same riverbank in brush pants and a vest, holding a 20 gauge full of #8s, and all I saw were ducks. Piles of them, all up and down the river.

Today, however, all I find is quail. Lewey flushes another small covey huddled along the ribbon of cottonwoods, eastern redcedars, tamarisks and sandsage that flank the river. I find no ducks, anywhere. All I find is an inch of ice covering the river and silence. I've long since dumped the decoy bag and resigned myself to sneaking along the ice, hoping there might be a mallard or two we can jump.

Finally, when Lewey flushes the third covey, I can stand it no longer. Screw it. Full choke and duck loads be damned. I pick out a bird, shoot and - predictably -  pulverize a completely innocent bystanding tamarisk branch.

The quail flies on. And predictably, my shot flushes a group of mallards loafing on the ice just around the next bend. Unpredictably, they decide to fly right over my head as they make their escape. Survival-wise, this is generally a pretty sound tactic when I'm shooting. This time, however, I manage to knock down a drake. Thinking double, I rush the third shot and hit only atmosphere.

Lewey tiptoes onto the ice. Halfway across it gives way with a loud crack and Lewey plunges into the icy water below. All six inches of it. Gotta love prairie rivers. He jumps out of the icy water, grabs the duck and gives that area a wide berth coming back.  As he gingerly crosses the ice and drops the duck in my hand I realize this is by far the best quail hunting day he's ever had...

But I've had enough. I'm a half-mile from the truck, my waders are stiff with ice, my hands are like clubs and I've got to take a leak. And there's no way in hell I'm pulling my waders down out here...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hunting the Lonesome Dove.

I wasn't going to do another book-themed post today, but last night as I was reading the just-published second book of Larry McMurtry's three-book memoir, I came across this startling passage:

"I was an avid bird hunter at the time and was also heavily into guns. I devoured every issue of Field and Stream and its competitors. My favorite writers, during this period, would all have been hunting writers: Elmer Keith, Jack O'Connor and the big-game expert, Colonel Townsend Whelen."

Now I've read pretty much everything - novels and non-fiction alike - that McMurtry has published and not once did I ever get the notion that he was or ever had been a hunter. And McMurtry does go on to say that he considers the beginning of his real reading life to have begun when he entered Rice University and discovered that school's extensive library, which I'm assuming didn't include books on quail hunting or big-bore handguns.

Still, it's interesting to discover that one of our most distinguished authors (Lonesome Dove didn't win a Pulitzer for nothing...) was, as a child, influenced by what he read in the pages of Field and Stream. Surely McMurtry wasn't alone in that regard. The big three sporting magazines of yore were ubiquitous, routinely published great tales by great writers and they had much less with which to vie for a young boy's attention than do today's magazines.

Who knows how many future famous non-hunting writers may have been influenced by their childhood consumption of the Golden Age of twentieth-century sporting literature? Maybe some bright young grad student will take up the subject as a dissertation...

As an interesting aside, McMurtry is also one of the country's preeminent book dealers, and one of McMurtry's specialties as a book scout and dealer is classic American sporting books such as those published by the famous (and now highly collectable) Derrydale Press. Even if McMurtry's writing wasn't influenced by Field and Stream, perhaps his book-collecting was.

One of these days, maybe on that border-to-border bird hunting odyssey I've always wanted to take, I'll make it down to Archer City, Texas and spend a day wandering the shelves of his bookstore. Archer City is just off US 281, which happens to be one of the candidate roads for that particular dream.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Of books, bullets and bad ideas...

There's a great scene in the movie "High Fidelity (and the brilliant Nick Hornby novel from which it was adapted) in which John Cusack's character, while going through his LP collection, asks one of those chicken/egg questions that bedevil us all:

"What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"

For me it was always "is my fascination with books the reason for writing or merely writing's result?"

That question is probably as unanswerable as Hornby's, but I have been collecting and coveting books from as far back as I can remember. I didn't, however, make the conscious decision to become a writer until I was almost out of college, so I guess my money is on books.

At any rate, one of the ideas I've toyed with from time to time is opening a used bookshop. But not just any bookshop. What I envision is a bookshop where you can browse the stacks for books, then walk over to the gun rack to check out the used shotguns or maybe take a look at the vintage Ambassadeurs in the reel case.

Yep, a combination used book, gun and tackle shop. The kind of place where you can walk out the door with an obscure first-printing, a box of AAs and a classic pre-owned baitcasting reel, all in the same bag. In essence a literary and sporting junk shop. I think it sounds cool, and it's the kind of quirky, off-beat place I've always been drawn to. Not too stuffy, tradition-bound or pretentious, but not too weird. Just a mellow, funky spot for freethinkers, hippies, gun nuts, literate rednecks, bookworms, fishing bums or anyone else who possesses an artistic bent and an appreciation for firepower and spinnerbaits.

But would it work? I have no idea. Certainly not where I live now, and maybe no where at all. The idea may be a little too weird, a little too stupid, or a lot too both. But let's face it: writing, especially in today's post-literate culture, is quite frankly, a bullshit way to make (or try to make) a living, and becoming more so every day. As much as I appreciate and enjoy the work right now, I just can't see myself writing 300-word link-driven rants and web-based, photo-heavy features forever.

The problem is that writing, professionally speaking, is all I've ever known and I'm not sure how successful I might be in re-inventing myelf as something else. But a used book-gun-tackle shop would require no re-invention at all. That's pretty much who and what I am. And it certainly wouldn't prevent me from continuing to write. In fact, it'd probably help tremendously. Surrounding yourself with great writing can inspire you in a way that surrounding yourself with the cubicles of other white-collar drones cannot.

It's an intriguing idea, made more so by the fact that I'm currently reading Larry McMurtry's memoir, aptly titled "Books" which chronicles his own fascination with books and his second career as a book scout and bookshop owner. Of course, it helps quite a bit if - as McMurtry certainly has -  you've already made your millions as a successful writer, but hey, I'm dreaming here. No need to inject any financial reality.

I even have a bookshop name thought up, which I won't reveal just in case I get a wild hair and decide to register the domain, because of course any shop nowadays is pretty much required to have a Web presence.

But what about the physical presence? Any suggestions on potential relocation sites? Here are my requirements...

1. It must be a small to mid-sized university town not too close to a major metropolitan areas. Big enough to have some cultural opportunities. Educated enough to support a brick-and-mortar shop location. Not so big that I find myself routinely screaming obscenities while stuck in traffic.

2. It must have open space. I'm not opposed to mountains, I even like them when balanced with plains, but remember where I was born and raised. Oklahoma. I'm a prairie rat and any place I decide to relocate to must have some open space or I start going a little wiggy.

3. It's gotta have good bird and duck hunting and lots of public land on which to hunt them. Elk would be nice but not required and deer are of course everywhere so that's a moot point, but anywhere I live must have some upland and waterfowl hunting or I'll be miserable.

4. It's gotta have decent fishing. That's the main complaint I have about my current location. It's arid and good water is rare. Fortunately great fishing is not too far away, so I manage.

Any sugggestions?

***If you're curious, the bookshop in the pic is Shakespeare and Company in Paris. And if you could imagine that picture with a few gun racks along one wall, a few old reels in a glass case and other various and sundry sporting esoterica lying around, that's my idea of perfection.