Dog with Pheasant

You know those moments when everything comes together, like it was meant to be, and you are simultaneously witnessing it while also being part of it? Well, I just experienced one of those moments. It was magical and memorable—beyond what I feel capable of putting into words.

I got an inkling that a special moment may lie ahead when I departed town at 4am with a clear mind and razor-sharp focus to head north and try my luck at late-season roosters in my favorite patch tucked deep away in the coulees of the Missouri. The last full moon of the year illuminated my path as I listened to Remi Warren’s podcast Cutting the Distance; early dawn gave way to the bluest and calmest of Montana’s skies. I was the first out, cutting my way through a foot of fresh and drifted snow.

Late-season roosters require a delicate hand, a strong heart, a clever mind, and years of experience. At this point, they are at the pinnacle of their game; they are the masters of their craft—and that craft is eluding predators and staying alive. One needs to be surgical, tactical, and steady. It’s best to be alone, accompanied only by a trusted four-legged companion. No yelling or cursing allowed—nothing is to upset nor pierce the bone-chilling scene that defies and spits out casual and careless engagement.

It comes when you apply yourself voluntarily to that which calls upon and demands of you to be your very best.

What unfolded over the next three hours is what I long for and dream about, but only rarely experience. My dog, Luna, tracked and locked up on more than 100 individual pheasants, honoring their presence with calmness, steadiness, and grace. One by one, each bird burst out and cleared the low shrubby cover with blankets of snow on their backs—inches away from her nose and my boots, and all within striking distance of my old, worn-out 20-gauge over-under. A handful of carefully placed shots later, meant not to disturb the tranquility and beauty of the pursuit and the stillness of the frosty morning, my bag was heavy with three beautiful mature roosters that Luna and I had earned fair and square. It seemed we could do nothing wrong this morning. No out-of-state license plates to contend with, no others to accommodate and compete with, no landowner to confront—it was just us and what we came to be part of.

Having been afield for more than 60 days this fall, I had yet to experience what I was craving deep inside and seeking incessantly in every one of my outings. By now, I have hunted game large and small throughout Montana’s vastness. Yet, it is not the quarry I’m ultimately after, but rather the quest for the moment when things come together and are simply meant to be—when I lose the sense of time, and when I seem to be floating effortlessly across the landscape. In these moments, I am one with my surroundings; nothing can come between me and the pursuit of the wild—I feel like I’m a part of it and I’m validated for being alive. I am the master of my own doing. Hunting for me is this quest for the glory day.

You know when you have it as there is nothing quite like it. You might get that feeling from running your best race ever, playing the best hand at a game of cards, or perfecting a crafted piece. It comes when you apply yourself voluntarily to that which calls upon and demands of you to be your very best. These fleeting moments and days are rare—as they should and ought to be—and cannot be captured by ready-made metrics borrowed conveniently from ordinary life, such as birds bagged, shots fired, miles hiked, inches scored, or grins captured on Instagram. Rather, they are what feeds the soul and the heart of the caring hunter. It is the moment when you are one with the landscape and part of something much bigger and grander than your mere self.

No pen-raised pheasant, stocked trout, manicured landscape, or dammed river will ever challenge you in the way that the true untamed wild does.

Why am I sharing this with you? Diaries are meant to be kept private. While I hope you will not view this as just another ramble of an old guy bragging about how good of a hunter he and his dog are (although I challenge and pride myself on striving to be good at this), I share this with you because I firmly believe that stepping into the arena of fighting for the opportunity to be a hunter in this country requires each of us to have experienced our own glory days. The quest to be the best in hunting and the best in conservation is fueled by the same drive and grit to achieve exceptional human conduct, including the unwillingness to settle for anything less than the best. Our cause is aspirational and, at times, achievable. Pursuing the wild and the excellence it demands fuels our passions to ensure Montana will never again be impoverished, as was once deemed inevitable.

No pen-raised pheasant, stocked trout, manicured landscape, or dammed river will ever challenge you in the same way that the true untamed wild does. No novice hunter will ever become the persuasive and passionate voice and defender of our wild heritage by being fed and raised on tameness. So please, if you haven’t yet experienced it, make the time to rekindle your spirit and recharge your batteries for the fight that lies ahead by seeking (and hopefully finding) your own glory days.

 Thomas Baumeister is the Vice Chair & Capital Leader of the Montana Chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.