The shot not taken
The eastern bank of clouds meant that my friends on the far side of the state likely would not see much hunting action as my dog and I traversed the gravel roads south and west of town away from the shadow of the frontal boundary. The sun slowly climbed over the gray bank and dawn was delayed by the extended horizon, but we would be spared the downpours that canceled their grouse openers. Here and there on the blacktop and dirt, stretches of dampness marked those places where light rains had fallen before the start of the first day of the upland season, but it wasn’t enough to hinder our efforts.
Pulling into the quarter section of PLOTS I lamented the recent baling of late-summer grasses that often held the gurgling gray birds we planned on pursuing, but the rolling hillsides rising steeply from the western edge of the ancient river valley were still well covered and looked to be worth a walk as I recalled fond memories of recent seasons. With light winds slowly shifting to the west, I pulled into the approach and planned the usual loop through the public access parcel that often held sharpies and the occasional pheasant. Ole rose from his back seat slumber and issued a whimper of excitement as he seemed to recall the same adventures from last season on the quarter section.
As my dog rumbled out of the back seat of the F150 and into the roadside grass, I donned my well-worn blaze orange Winchester vest, a simple model with overstretched elastic shell holders that had seen more than 10 years in the field after replacing a more complicated version with ammo tubes and all sorts of excessive accoutrements that made grabbing a shell in the moment feel more like work than fun. The simplicity had stuck with me and with the orange fading, I hoped that I could hold onto it for a few more seasons — in part due to comfort and in part to how it tied me to times in the field with friends, with family, and my late father and previous dog. It served as a seasonal reminder that the hunt should be as easy as throwing it on over my shoulders, as natural as a bird taking to the wing, and hold not only my quarry but also previous memories close to my chest.
Up and down the hills we went until Ole caught the scent of an unseen bird on the move through a little draw between two rises. His speed and frenetic motion signaled a pheasant, but I tensed up just in case his nose had caught the pocket of scent generated by a covey of sharpies. He paused hard, a blonde granite rock on point at an unseen target. I released him with a “Go!” and a full-colored rooster took to the sky, curling against the slight breeze as my lab’s jaws snapped a few feet behind the elongated tail feather. My gun dropped and remained silent as the bird was spared by the calendar.
As we reached the edge of the harvested wheat field and meandered along the fenceline that connected to a small grassy strip that split the now gone crop in two. I watched a gray bird take off in the distance on the nearby private land and lifted my gun from my shoulder, just in case one were to rise at a closer distance. Moving down into the tall cane, then the still-green cattails, and finally the knee-high field grass, I paused as I let Ole make his way into the more grouse-like habitat. As the first rays of the late sunrise came over the gray bank to our east, the gurgle of a sharptail grouse erupted from my feet and the bird took to the wing, going low over the golden wheat stubble. Behind it, my dog bounced a few times as the sharptail refrained from gaining altitude and positioned itself conveniently just above the golden ears of my lab. I steadied for a shot that wouldn’t come and my dog scuttled after it, and despite the growing distance between the two, the altitude never increased. I clicked the safety back into place on the tang of the small scattergun and called the dog back as the bird disappeared over the slight rise in the field.
“That one knew what he was doing,” I said with a laugh as my dog turned to try and find his target.
It would be the only grouse that would get up within range, and one of three we would see on our opening day adventure which filled a quick two hours with all sorts of other wild sights: a group of young pheasants on the walk back to the truck, a pronghorn buck standing along the field edge as we pulled out, and a skunk that seemed to be content to wander in circles at the turn toward the parcel, as he was there when we arrived and when we departed. As the heat built and I cranked down the backseat windows for my dog to hang his head out, I reached back and patted his oversized melon and recalled that sometimes the most memorable shots — and the best ones in the grand scheme of things — can be the ones we don’t take…in our outdoors.