June 01, 2015

Every hunter who has ever picked burdock from his bird dog’s coat knows one day it will end. But planning for the inevitable is no easier than predicting the day you will put the gun in the cabinet for the last time. The knees could go first. Or the heart. Sometimes it’s your best friend who quits, or dies, first.

I know something about this subject because my own legs all but gave out last winter while climbing angular hills of live oak in southeast Arizona in search of Mearns quail. The hills seemed higher, the thighs more painful than when I was here a dozen or so years earlier. This time I cut what locals call a “Moses stick,” a walking staff made from the spire of dead wood that grows atop a species of agave called desert spoon. Reaming the rough stick through the sawtooth edges of the plant’s bayonet-like spears smoothed the staff for splinter-free gripping.

When my legs grew so tired I could hardly lift them, the stick kept me from falling. For a while though, I wondered if my bird-hunting days were over. That night I awoke to charley horses; the next day my legs quivered from minor spasms.

We are not alone here, are we? Maybe you and your friends are also coming round the big wide bend. Some of us can recall the first bird we ever shot so long ago. Will we remember the last?

A friend of mine from Silver City, New Mexico hunted scaled and Gambel quail for more than 60 years, mostly in the company of good Brittanys. “Three, maybe four years,” Dick told me one day. “Whenever Boots can’t go anymore, I’ll hang it up, too. I figure we’ll go out together.”

“What about another dog?” I suggested.

“Nope. Boots is the last one.”

Dick traded his gun for a camera on the second day of our hunt. So did his good friend, Mort, who lost half a lung and several ribs during the Second World War. Mort came to the upland game when he was 65. “Dick corrupted me by training my dog,” Mort said, pointing to Britt, his male Brittany, who lay in the shade and panted with the desert heat as we talked.

“Britt and Boots are the same age. I imagine we’ll all quit together.”

Some can recall the first bird they shot so long ago…will we remember the last? Tom Huggler photos

I thought about my young dog at home in his kennel and wondered if he would be the end of the line for me (I’ll be 70 when you read this). Another friend of mine, a man about seventy, put his 13-year-old setter to sleep last spring. For the first time that I have known him, he did not hunt last fall. I had heard him say many times, “If you can’t hunt behind your own dog, why hunt at all?”

A good point. The late Dr. Jim Hall of Traverse City, who was in his seventies when I met him nearly four decades ago, rarely missed a day in grouse-hunting woods behind a long string of memorable setters. The fall before we first met, he told me had hunted 89 days of the then ninety-day-long season.

“I took off a day to remarry,” he admitted.

These men don’t go to kill birds anymore although they shoot those that offer an unusual opportunity or as an excuse to keep the dogs interested, even though they know that is nonsense.

They go to see if the owl cover maple is as brilliantly red as they remember it.

They wonder if the native brook trout in the step-across stream are as splendid in their spawning colors as last fall.

They want to smell, once more, the sweep ripeness of fermented wild currant.

They hope to hear again the pointer’s tinkling bell and the brrrrrrrrr of wings

Some quit at a given hour of a given day, and others ease out over time. A wildlife artist friend of mine, after losing a prize partner to old age, stopped hunting for two years even though he had another good setter in the wings. Jim, who died a few years ago, was seventy at the time. When he finally picked up his gun again, he was pleasantly surprised at how well the younger dog performed.

The late H. G. “Tap” Tapply, who wrote “Tap’s Tips” for Field & Stream for many years, also quit the game at age seventy due to arthritic knees. Tap never lost his desire to hunt, however. In a letter to me he wrote: “My idea of hell would be to read about grouse hunting and watch others hunt grouse—and woodcock, too, of course—while the devil taunted me: ‘See what you’re missing?'”

While researching for my grouse hunting book, I came across another New England gentleman, who at the time may have been America’s oldest bird hunter at age 97. A planned interview, which I was coordinating through his 74-year-old son, never materialized because the old fellow suddenly took ill and passed away.

Legendary Michigan wildlife biologist Andy Ammann hunted into his early nineties by carrying a cane in one hand and cradling his double gun in the other. Shortly before George Bird Evans died, I interviewed him by telephone for my woodcock hunting book. Evans, 95, was looking forward to autumn and hunting season number 73.

Each of us has his own cadence. The metrical patterns we march to are as personal as the private thoughts that drive the poetry of walking. Most bird hunters have lyrical hearts, and old men are iambic by nature.