I almost didn’t go hunting on the last day of the season. I woke up tired.
The day before, I’d gone out with the dogs for my fifth hunt in seven days. Overwhelmed by the dread of the looming last day and already missing it, I wanted to take advantage of the unusually pleasant weather we’d been having in this part of Idaho, plus a schedule — or shall I say a lack of schedule — that allows me to hunt in the middle of the week. When I took early retirement from my employer last year, someone told me “The worst thing about being retired is that you never have a day off.” It’s true.
My second to the last hunt of the season was also my 52nd hunt. I know this, because back in September on opening day, as I’d done the previous season, I started keeping track with data off my GPS watch, if I could remember to turn it on. I like to know where I hunted, my distance hiked, how long the hunt was, and elevation gained. When I got back home I’d write it all down with a ball point pen in my hunting journal which is hand lined with a ruler on a paper notebook. Nothing fancy, just the old fashioned way. Bob, who I’ve dubbed the king of gadgets and who one of the UPS guys a couple of years ago called the king of Amazon Prime because of an almost daily delivery of books or some type of high tech gadget, keeps meticulous detailed records of all his hunts on an Excel spread sheet. Besides all the stuff that I like to keep track of he, likes to record how many shots fired, how many killed and bagged, lost birds, shooting percentage, how far each dog ran, averages and totals for each category, and a barrage of other miscellaneous notes.
After losing all the elevation in the truck driving deep down into the canyon and finding the place I wanted to hunt the second to the last day of the season, a place unoccupied and not near anyone else, I parked and left on foot with the dogs heading back up uphill for about an hour to the middle of a ridge. Angus and then Peat bolted in a direction that I didn’t want to go but I followed anyway. A couple of minutes later, my Garmin beeped that Angus was on point 127 yards away. Whenever Angus points, it’s almost always legit. Peat, on the other hand, has a collar that’s so ultra sensitive to him stopping for just a second to pee or to smell something that I’ve found myself often ignoring it when it signals me that he’s on point. I picked up the pace through the deep snow drifts that were tucked between forests of sagebrush, and zigzagged my way down to Angus. Once I found him, Peat soon arrived to back him up. I slowly and quietly inched my way in front of Angus, and the birds busted. One shot, and one chukar went down as we also watched the rest of the covey fly downhill changing direction and then disappearing behind a ridge near us instead of flying across valley and to the opposite ridge.
It took a few minutes for Peat to find the downed bird and we had no plans to give up on it because the day before I’d winged one that flew down hill into a some bunch grass and rocks and the dogs couldn’t find after 30 minutes of searching. While Peat was retrieving the bird, Angus continued to hunt. It was almost like they had an agreement between them that one would stay looking for the one that I shot and retrieve it while the other continued on searching for the scattered covey.
We continued in the direction of where the covey flew, traversing the rocky and muddy sagebrush and medusahead-covered slope. Angus below me with Peat working above me, my Alpha beeped that both dogs were pointing at the same time, on a different covey and not the ones that had just busted. Stopping to stare down at the screen to figure out which dog was closer, Peat flew past me heading towards Angus with a fairly fresh 3-foot-long mule deer leg in his mouth. This was no surprise because one of his many affectionate nicknames I’ve given him over his life time besides “Little F*#ker,” “Little Dummy,” “Crazy Eyes,” “Precious,” or “Sweet Pea,” is the “Garbage Man.” He has this uncanny knack of finding the stinkiest, nastiest, usually dead thing, and either rolling in it or running around with it in his mouth, unwilling to give it up for anything. Our current UPS delivery person last spring, a guy named Sail, was walking up to our house doing a delivery to support bibliophile Bob’s habit that I yelled at the top of my lungs to “STAY CLEAR” while I was hosing off and scrubbing Peat with a skunk concoction remedy for the fourth time after he rolled on a dead skunk near our house.
The big question of the day was whether Peat would drop the deer leg when he got up to Angus. As I fought my way through the sagebrush, I pulled out my phone and was actually hoping to capture what might possibly be the first photograph of a dog pointing with a deer leg in his mouth. To my disappointment, when I got up to both dogs, Peat backing up Angus again, Peat didn’t have the leg in his mouth anymore. He had actually dropped it.
The spooky birds busted below Angus flying downhill before I could get into position in front or to the side of Angus to shoot. This has been the theme for most of January where it’s hard to get near chukar before they bust wild. The dogs and I continued into the direction of both scattered coveys before my Garmin again beeped both dogs on point. Again, both dogs were located in different directions. Peat was closer but I could see him above me pointing downhill below a rocky outcropping so I headed uphill. One single busted from the rocks, and I shot once as the quick flying bird disappeared behind the rocks so fast that I didn’t know if I’d hit it or not. My Garmin beeped again, Angus was still pointing 180 yards below. “You have to always honor the point” was something Bob stressed to me last year, so I headed downhill towards Angus. Wondering where Peat was, I stopped and looked behind me uphill just as I saw him running downhill with a chukar in his mouth. I was so thrilled and surprised at the same time that I’d actually hit that one. Angus who held the bird or birds as long as he could before they probably eventually busted returned to check up on me wondering why I didn’t go down to his point.
The following day, the 31st, closing day, we went one final time. My goal was to head uphill and find a place with views of the surrounding valley. I wasn’t worried whether we’d find more chukar, I just wanted to take it all in. The plants, trees, rocks, and other kinds of birds and animals define my place in this ecosystem.
We headed up a narrow and snowy two-track in a deep valley lined with trees and bushes. Peat in his usual fashion found an animal bone and wouldn’t give it up. I forced it out of his mouth and flung it as far away as possible. I continued on looking at the ground at elk and deer tracks plus Peat and Angus’s tracks in the patches of snow. A paw print that I didn’t recognize at first caught my eye. It was a big cougar track, fairly fresh probably from that morning and heading the same direction. Peat’s body language and routine changed. Instead of running up the trail out of sight a ways and coming back like he normally does he was sticking close to me, running a few feet ahead, stopping and smelling the ground, and continuing on another few feet before repeating smelling the ground again. I watched Angus down by the creek; he wasn’t acting differently, but he’s older and wiser and not the big chicken of the two dogs.
Still, the cat track and Peat’s behavior was a bit unnerving. We continued up the road and I kept Angus closer to me and instead of carrying my gun on my shoulder, I kept my gun in the ready position and carefully listened and looked behind frequently. I could never willfully or ethically kill an animal like a wolf, coyote, or this cougar that I wasn’t planning on using for food but I actually thought about having to kill something to protect myself or the dogs, and this was the first time I felt the dogs or myself might be the prey.
Roles reversed. I now know how the chukar must feel.