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Friday, November 26, 2010

The Sportin’Life in the Valley…

Pilchuck snows

When you pass the Fish and Game Department parking lot on the lower loop road these days, weekends especially, you’re most likely to see a number of large pick-up trucks hunkered down there. In the beds of most are dog carriers. Two in some. The carriers are empty, the trucks driverless. It’s hunting season, of course, and the dogs are in the cornfields under the command of armed men wearing orange vests. An occasional shotgun blast signals sportin’ men afield, pheasant hunters and their canine helpmates. You find ‘em and I’ll shoot ‘em.

For years now any public display of my Second Amendment rights has been strictly limited to self-defense against my arch enemy, a villain that has gone (or more to the point, lives) underground. Moles. Yes, there’s been an ongoing war on our property here in the Valley: those verminous little earthmovers vs. ME. Now my trusty little bolt-action .410 shotgun--the “molester,” I call her-- that used to wreak considerable havoc among upland game birds in Eastern Washington is relegated to blasting away at mounds of dirt. Dance, you little dirt dwellin’ buggers! Dance!

It might surprise you to know that back in those pre-video game, Dungeons and Dragons, I-Phone, Facebook and Twitter--those Chinese-checkers-of-a-winter’s-evening days of yore when kids actually spent time out of doors, I used to be a pretty fair shotgunner myself. In fact  (humor me a little boasting here) when I encountered a flock of quail, I would leave its numbers considerably thinned come parting time. And in those bygone days when I combed those sagebrush flats looking for food to put on the table, I kept good company.

If you’ve ever hunted game birds without a dog, it doesn’t take long to realize you’re not up to the task. You need a dog’s nose with a good dog attached. If you don’t drop the shotgun in fright when a cock pheasant explodes from the bushes next to your feet, your attention very well may be diverted by a suddenly emptied bladder. It is your canine partner that takes the element of surprise—yours—out of the equation. It’s your dog that alerts you that you have company out there in the brush. Then you become focused.

When I was a kid living on the river, I had just such a dog. He was about 57 degrees away from a purebred, Tiny was, an odd medley of spaniel, terrier, some short-legged breed. A mouth full of black tongue indicated a bit of Chow had slipped into Tiny’s lineage from somewhere. But if there was game in the vicinity, whether it was quail, rabbit or deer (in the beginning, we had a difference of opinion about whether mice were “game”), Tiny would roust it out. It took a couple of seasons to impress on my field companion there’s no “I” in TEAM; even with a full choke barrel, it’s impossible to down a bird flushed two hundred yards ahead. But we finally learned to work together, Tiny and I, and after a season or two more, I could pretty much interpret my dog’s behavior as “rabbit,” or “pheasant”and prepare accordingly. 

If you ever wanted to see pure joy canine style, all you had to do was step out on the porch carrying a shotgun. One look at the weapon and Tiny immediately transformed into an acrobat-gymnast, leaping and bounding, running in circles—a one-act self-contained Cirque du Soleil. Off we’d head for the hills, a kid carrying a shotgun, with a back-flipping, somersaulting dervish cavorting at his side. Together we’d spend the day combing the sagebrush flats, and as you can see, we rarely returned empty handed.

Huntin' dog TinySo men, their dogs and shotguns take me back to some pretty good times. And that’s why one Saturday morning I wheel Gladys in among the big trucks in the Fish and Game parking lot to talk to a couple of sportsmen: a team of father and son, the latter nearly swallowed up by his orange vest. I introduce myself to Brock Strickland and son Tye. They were up and out early to do a little pheasant hunting. I also meet hunter Ken who was loading his two huntin’ buddies into their carriers. The pair seemed reluctant to quit the fields, and Ken had to use his “I mean business” tone of voice to persuade them to load. Ken and his dogs had bagged two nice pheasants—or as the English would say, a “brace” of fowl. Ken tells me the Fish and Game folks plant the birds three times a week. “And I bet you have those days marked on the calendar, don’t you? I asked, and received a smile and nod in return.

I look at little Tye and remember the days when Dad used to roust me out of a warm bed and sound sleep, layer me up warmly, and guide me out into the frosty dark where we’d hike (and hike, and hike…) into deer country to spend the day hunting “mulies.” No video games or Wii for Tye this morning but plenty of fresh air, exercise, and the thrill of the hunt. And they bagged a nice young cock pheasant, too. But best of all, spending a few quality hours with your dad: as the commercial states, “Priceless!” Strickland jr. and sr.

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