Sometimes a fine piece of land is more than just a place to hunt.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors September–October 2009
There is a field in north-central Montana that was made for my English setter, Quester, and me. I came across it several years ago when it was enrolled in Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ Block Management Program. A county road runs along the east and south sides. The home ranch sits to the north. From the south, the field extends up a gentle hill and then rolls smoothly down to a dry creek bottom. The creek was not always dry; a few cottonwoods stand sentinel in a loosely dispersed formation.
The south-facing slope is the largest part of the field. It is in tall grass, between knee and hip high. Quester glides through it beautifully.
The field also has a slight upward tilt to the east. Just before it reaches the road it drops down about ten feet to the grade.
When looking from the road, the slight undulations in the slope are not clearly evident. You find them by foot. Each has its own way of being part of this magnificent field. They add to its character, which the field is not short on.
There are birds in the field.
I usually park near the southwest corner because there is a gate I can enter there, and also because it holds a covey of Huns. That is, if they are not on the other side of the fence, on the neighboring ranch. It depends. When Quest finds and points them, it is quick action. The birds invariably fly across the fence line to the adjacent private ranch, where they are untouchable.
From there I generally cast Quester to the east, working the strip along the road. This is where I am most likely to encounter sage-grouse. Those birds are strongly inclined to fly across the road. I try to cut them off at the pass, so to speak, so that I am not shooting over or across the road. Those big birds are always impressive.
After working the lower side, I take on the field. How I go is dictated by the wind. The field lacks obvious places for Quester to zero in on, so it’s more productive for him to work it over methodically.
Sharptails may be found most anywhere, and there is another covey of Huns toward the center.
Near the crest of the hill, on the west side, I always encounter a single rooster pheasant. It may not be the same bird each time, but I like to think it is.
The first time Quest worked the bird, the dog was still young. It made a fool of us both. Quest smelled the rooster, but we never saw him.
The second time, the following year, was a little better, but the bird still won handily. Quest was working the rooster’s track in a deliberate manner when I saw the bird flush way out ahead of us.
The third time we met was different. Quest pinned him right in the open, within yards of where we had met the two previous times.
I was well within gun range when the rooster figured he’d had enough and launched into the air like a rocket, straight up so I could see his back and outstretched wings. Long tail feathers reached up to a fan fully spread at the tail’s base. I saw flashes of blue epaulettes from his wings. His back showed bright with the rich, deep chestnut that flashed gold flecks from the sun. Then there was his broad, white neckband below the iridescent head. It was an image of more than just a bird. It was what bird hunting is all about for me. I took it all in and let him fly on to next year in the bird hunter’s version of catch and release.
The field has been good to me. It has given me birds when I deserved them, and I have respected the field and its owner by not abusing their hospitality. I limit my kill and rarely kill my limit. Bird hunting, with a fine dog, means too much to me to reduce it to a game of how many I shoot.
Most important, the field is owned by a rancher who has nurtured it and keeps it healthy. We have become good friends. I am grateful for his generosity of letting me share his treasure.
Larry Michnevich lives in Bozeman.
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