It had been a few years since the Old Fella had hunted birds, so he was flattered when his friend Guido suggested they dust off their shotguns and venture afield last month.
“Everybody’s locked up at home these days,” Guido said, “so it’ll do you good to get out and stretch your legs.”
The Old Fella couldn’t argue, so he exhumed his hunting clothes and pulled his 50-year-old shotgun from the safe. He was a fair bit older than the 16-gauge side-by-side, which he’d owned for decades, but it had been five or six years since he’d last carried it in the field.
“The years teach much which the days never know,” he mused to himself, recalling a line from Ralph Waldo Emerson. In his heart, he knew the years were passing him by.
The Old Fella had never been much of a bird hunter, but there was an era in his life when he did a lot of elk hunting – back in the 1980s and early ’90s, back in Montana. He’d hunted with his older brother and his then-teenage nephew, first near Bozeman and later near Great Falls.
Those were good years, but he didn’t realize it at the time. Then work and marriage and children began to ease elk hunting into the past.
Since the mid-’90s, he’d only been bird hunting – but not with any regularity; some years, he only got out for a day or two.
Then five years got behind him without a shot being fired.
The Old Fella met Bill Guido and another friend, Paul, down by the Snake River on a clear Saturday morning in late November. They backed Guido’s boat into the water, loaded their gear and the dog, then set off downstream, angling toward the far shore.
Golden sunlight streamed through the cabin and Guido, at the wheel, turned to rub his dog affectionately on the head. The dog, Ria, quivered with anticipation.
Their partnership was clearly powerful, far greater than the sum of its parts.
The left bank of the river was in shadow, and the logs at water’s edge were slick with frost as Guido eased his boat into shore.
The Old Fella clambered down from the foredeck, bow painter in hand, and he carefully stepped across the logs to solid ground. It was cold in the shade and steam from his breath hung in the air.
The boat was secured, shotguns handed ashore, and the group paused for final preparations. Coats were stripped off, breech-loading guns were broken open and loaded, and the little group set forth.
They were expecting to find quail as they worked their way upriver, but the first 10 minutes yielded nothing.
Another 10 minutes ticked past as the thick blackberry cover gave way to steeper, stonier slopes high above the river.
Suddenly, a covey of birds took wing before them – a thrilling moment of powerful wingbeats, careening birds, and then silence. They were chukars, but the dog hadn’t scented them, the hunters were unprepared, and no one fired a shot.
The three men simply stood and watched where the birds set down. Then the banter between them ceased and they moved ahead quietly, communicating only with hands and nods of the head.
The Old Fella was ready when four or five chukars flushed a few yards in front of him.
The birds swung down and away, angling upstream, but he tracked one and fired. It tumbled to the ground and the dog was on it in a flash.
The bird was beautiful, tan with dark stripes on its sides, orange beak and orange feet. A thin, dark band across its eyes made it look a little like a cartoon bandit. It was the size of a large yam, though not nearly as heavy.
The bird was soft and warm, and the Old Fella stroked it admiringly, silently honoring the life he’d just taken.
He got another bird that day, a magnificent pheasant that held his ground as the dog – locked up like a statue – pointed him from 3 yards away. It took both barrels to bring him down, with size 8 shot from the right barrel augmented by 6s from the left side.
Though birds were the goal, the day was about more than just hunting. It was three good friends laughing and reliving old memories as they roamed the hills.
Beyond the banter, there was a serious, almost solemn immersion in nature. Each man paid careful attention to the wind, the water and the terrain.
For hours on end they put human instincts on hold and tried to think like a bird as they sought to outwit their quarry.
They walked for miles through beautiful, rugged country, past crumbling irrigation ditches and abandoned fruit orchards – mute vestiges of long-gone settlers.
Their legs ached, in a good way, as they loaded the boat at day’s end.
Back at the boat ramp, they got into their trucks to return to wives and families.
They shared some of the details over dinner, but no one else really knew what they’d experienced.
On the whole, it was a fine day out. With luck, there will be a few more.
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