There are estimated to be more than six million bird hunters in America, every one of whom has dreamed of the kind of epic hunting season that Jim Fergus lives in A Hunter's Road - 17,000 miles in 5 months, pursuing 21 different game bird species across 24 states. But one need not be a bird hunter to enjoy this picaresque adventure; and far more important than the statistics are the hundreds of miles on foot that Fergus and his trusty yellow Lab, Sweetzer, cover in the course of their longest season - tramping the mountains, plains, prairies, fields, forests, marshes, deltas, and deserts of America - both alone and with a host of memorable companions. A Hunter's Road profiles one man's personal journey into the romance of the open country, touching on the history, sociology, politics, and economics of bird hunting in America, while addressing the issue of hunting ethics and the burgeoning antihunting movement in this country - the latter, in Fergus's opinion, reflecting our increasing estrangement from the natural world. A thoughtful and sometimes troubling exploration of the health and well-being of what remains of the American countryside, A Hunter's Road is by turns poignant, humorous, lyric, opinionated, and unflinchingly honest. It is destined to become an American sporting classic.
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Jim Fergus is the author of the essay collection The Sporting Road and the novels One Thousand White Women and Wild Girl. His articles and essays have appeared in a wide variety of national magazines and newspapers, including Newsweek, Newsday, The Paris Review, Esquire, Sports Afield, and Field & Stream. Fergus was born in Chicago and attended Colorado College. He lives in southern Arizona.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
MY LIFE AS
A DOG TRAINER
Preserve wild game, use a trained dog.
Common ad slogan of
state fish and game agencies
I live in a small town in northern Colorado called Ayn (as in Ayn Rand; local boosters have tried to make a case: that the noted writer actually came here once and that our town is the model for a town in The Fountainhead, but I can find no evidence for either claim). It is a tiny community (population 13), not even on most maps. There aren’t too many shotgunners around and certainly no skeet range at which to practice, so last summer my rancher friend Billy Cantrell and I formed our own skeet club at his ranch dump. We called it the Ayn Gun Club and we were the only members. We had different stations set up in various parts of the dump. One of the most challenging stations from a shooting standpoint was the one we called the “hole” down at the bottom of the dump next to an old upended chest freezer; here the clay targets would whiz directly over your head. Billy shoots an old Ithaca Flues model 20-gauge double-barreled shotgun that he inherited from his beloved aunt, Effie, who died some years ago and is buried in the tiny cemetery on a windblown ridge overlooking town. He calls the gun “Old Effie,” which I find lovely. I was shooting my little Belgium side-by-side which I bought cheaply from a dealer in Texas. Manufactured in Liège by a small company that didn’t survive World War II, the gun has no collector value but is in excellent condition—a plain gun, but I think rather elegant. It has an initial plate on the stock and came with the original muttonchop leather case, both engraved with the initials DAB. It also has sling clips attached; before the war in Europe, bird hunters used to sling their shotguns over their backs and ride their bicycles outside town for a little shooting. I like to hold that shotgun in my hand and imagine young DAB pedaling away in the Belgian countryside on a fine fall morning. Anyway, by the end of the summer when it was time for me to leave on my trip, Billy and I were breaking targets pretty regularly, even from the hole. Maybe it wasn’t exactly the Orvis shooting school, but we had a lot of fun.
Though Cantrell never went to college and hasn’t been down to the city in nearly twenty years, he is possessed of that innate brand of rural wisdom and humor, hard earned through a lifetime of close attention to his surroundings and a familial understanding of the country. The first time he watched me working Sweetzer on hand signals when she was just a puppy, he smiled his generous tobacco-flecked smile, spat a stream of tobacco juice on the ground, and said, “Why Jim, she’s just like a fool a fuckin’, she don’t know where to begin!”
Billy used to hunt sage grouse around here as a boy. He tells a story about driving down a dirt road one day with his uncle. They came across a flock of sage grouse crossing the road. His uncle told him to grab the shotgun behind the seat and shoot one for supper. Billy reached around, got the gun, and aimed it out the window. Then he waited. “Well, what arc you waiting for?” his uncle finally asked. “I’m waiting for them to fly,” Billy said, thinking that was the sporting thing to do. He’d read the sporting magazines, too. “Billy, we can watch them fly after you shoot one,” his uncle explained. “Tonight I want to eat sage chicken for supper.”
There are actually two other fellows in town who shoot shotguns: my friend Don Reed, who runs the general store, and another rancher named Marvin Labatt, who owns a nice-looking English setter. Actually, Marvin found the dog in a campground in the national forest, either a runaway or abandoned by its owners, and though he advertised in the newspaper, no one ever claimed it. So I loaned him a couple of my dog training books and he set out to make the dog into a bird dog. For the most part, people up here still lead a kind of close-to-the-bone existence and there is no question of going out and buying a fancy thousand-dollar finished bird dog, or even a hundred-dollar unstarted bird dog for that matter.
Let me say right off that I believe in training your own dog, rather than buying a finished dog or sending it off to a professional trainer. It’s hard work but fun—for you and the dog (though there are people with temperaments clearly unsuited to dog training, in which case it’s no fun for anyone). So one day early that same summer I went down to the local general store to ask my friend Don if he was a competent wing shot. I had acquired a couple of pheasants from a game bird farm, and I wanted to shoot them over Sweetzer in order to teach her steadiness to wing and shot. I intended to eat the pheasants, too. Both Billy and Marvin were busy with irrigating and other spring ranch work and I needed a gunner while I handled the dog.
For those readers unfamiliar with the vocabulary, steadiness to wing and shot simply means that when the bird flushes and you shoot, the dog is to stop, sit, and wait until you send it for the retrieve rather than chase wildly after the bird. This is important partly as a matter of safety and also because the dog is better able to mark the location of fallen birds for the retrieve from a stationary position than when running. And the better able your dog is to mark and find dead and crippled birds, the fewer will be lost in the field.
Reed and his wife, Sandy, run the general store, which is the only business in town. Besides being one of those consummate jack-of-all-trades so important to the life of a small town, Don serves another invaluable function as the local skunk buster. The skunks get underneath the houses, many of which have no foundations. At night they tend to quarrel amongst themselves and squirt each other. Many times I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with my eyes watering from the skunk juice wafting up through the floorboards. That’s when I call Don, who, when he can’t shoot them, traps them.
“Don’s an excellent shot,” Sandy interjected proudly on the day I went over. “I bet he’s killed fifty skunks around town so far this year.”
“Yeah, but do you shoot them on the wing?” I asked skeptically.
“On the wing?” Don asked.
“Yeah, you know, are they flying or do you ground-sluice them?”
“Oh,” he said, nodding. “On the wing. Definitely. Wouldn’t be sporting to shoot them on the ground, would it?”
So that evening Don and I met up on the sage flat above town next to the cemetery for our controlled pheasant shoot. I rigged up my release cage with the pheasant inside, positioned Don, and put Sweetzer on the check cord. Reed wanted to shoot three-inch magnum shells in his 20-gauge Winchester automatic, his gun and load of choice to bring down flying skunks, but I insisted that he use light field-load shells which I provided. I wanted to eat that pheasant, not have it blown to bits. Don seemed a little nervous to me. I explained that the pheasant was likely to be a bit faster off the ground than your average skunk, and I tried to calm him by telling him that it was no big deal if he missed. Still, he knew that the pheasant had cost me five dollars, and that it would be a wasteful thing if he were to miss, like letting a package of perfectly good “pick of the chick” go bad in the refrigerator. This kind of conscientious thrift still exists in the heartland.
“Just take your time and say ‘Pull’ when you’re ready,” I told Don.
“Okay....” He settled himself. “Pull!” I pulled the cord attached to the lid of the cage, the pheasant saw daylight and rocketed out the top. Just as I had hoped—a perfect release, offering Don a perfect crossing shot. He swung on the bird. I had been worried that he might be overanxious and fire too quickly, not letting the pheasant get out far enough and thus damaging the meat with too much shot, but Don kept his cool and let the bird get out a bit, and then he let it get out a bit farther, and I began to think that he’d better shoot now, that pheasant was really gaining airspeed, and soon it would be out of range all together. “Ah, Don... ,” I said.
“Oh, shit!” he hollered suddenly, “shit, my goddamn gun misfired!” Sweetzer seemed to have a certain puzzled look on her face as the pheasant sailed, unmolested, over the ridge, heading for the dense willows of the creek bottom below. “That’s never happened before,” Don moaned, flustered and embarrassed. “I’ve shot hundreds of skunks, and this gun has never misfired!”
I wondered if maybe in the heat of the moment, Don hadn’t had a small attack of what is known as “buck fever” and possibly forgotten to take his safety off. I’ve done it myself, pulling helplessly against an unyielding trigger as the birds dispersed in the air. But I would never suggest such a thing to Don. If he says his gun misfired, then it misfired.
Still, he was terribly upset about it, and apologetic, and later that evening he called me at home and asked if he could have a second chance, could we try again tomorrow with my other pheasant? It wouldn’t happen again, he assured me. He had taken his shotgun apart, cleaned and oiled all the moving parts, and it was now working perfectly. Having just watched one five-dollar bill fly over the ridge, I admit I was reluctant to risk the other one so soon, and I stalled Don, told him that I wanted to get ahold of some pigeons for us to practice on before we tried the second pheasant. “Okay,” he agreed reluctantly, “but I want another chance.”
The next day I took my pigeon trap and set it up in the warehouse of a feed store in the county seat, a town called Thoreau (no relation to Henry David), twenty-two miles up the road from Ayn. They had...
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