Autumn Quarter

There are only two times of year in Montana: bird season and all the rest.


Silence and an expanse of empty spaces. Isolated by the approaching sunrise, brilliant Venus stands alone above the eastern horizon, her fellow stars and planets banished by the light for yet another long Indian summer day. I can feel a suggestion of fall in the last of the pleasant overnight chill, but the crunch of dry grass underfoot and the awakening buzz of insects remind me at once that it will not last for long. This early in the season, it’s important to reach the field at first light, while it’s cool enough to hike comfortably and good scenting conditions still prevail. Midday belongs to mad dogs and Englishmen, and the Labs and I fail to qualify on either count.

Conceding a bit of discipline to their enthusiasm, Sonny and Jake boil out of the back of the truck as soon as the tailgate opens, but it’s not the time or the place to correct them. Their only fault lies in their eagerness to hunt and I’ll trade proper attitude for proper manners any day, in dogs as well as people. Together--more or less--the three of us set off toward a shallow coulee dotted with clumps of buffaloberry. This is natural, unspoiled sharptail habitat, and the size and splendid emptiness of the cover ahead would provide reason enough to be here even if I didn’t carry a shotgun over my shoulder and a hunting license buried somewhere deep inside my pocket.

Although generally a sociable person, I’ve always enjoyed hunting early season sharptails alone, or at least with no company other than the dogs’. Practically unchanged since the days of Lewis and Clark, real prairie bird cover invites the kind of introspection that develops best away from the distraction of human voices. And when you’ve been at this as long as I have, you go for the feel of the country as much as for the heft of the birds in the game vest at the end of the day. All of which provides at least an attempted explanation for the peculiar emotional ambience I experience as the dogs approach the first cluster of brush: alone without feeling lonely, or something like that.

Still too young to appreciate Sutton’s Law, Jake expends futile calories cutting wide circles through the grass. Sonny knows better, and as we close within shotgun range of the brush he picks up his tail and wades into the cover, leaving me with nothing to do but stand at port arms and wait. In the best of all possible worlds, this kind of effort would earn the dog the reward of a flush and a retrieve or two, but nature has always been an indifferent accountant and the morning air remains silent despite his determined labor down in the thorns.

But Sonny and I know this much even if Jake does not: send enough Labrador retrievers into enough good bird cover and something’s gonna happen. You can take that adage to the bank, and half a mile farther up the coulee, sure enough. With a faint suggestion of a breeze in our faces, Jake picks up a whiff of something that sends him into the brush right along with Sonny. That serves as my cue to scramble to the uphill side of the cover where I can see well enough to shoot anything that emerges. The sound of wings comes first as the grouse fight their way upward through the tightly woven branches. Then they’re chuckling their rich, reedy alarm calls and spilling over the top of the foliage like popcorn exploding from an overheated pan. The shooting that follows isn’t hard shooting but it’s good shooting, the kind that makes you appreciate the birds as something more than targets with feathers, and when it’s done there’s a bird for each dog. Perhaps nature knows how to keep score after all.


There’s a real edge to the air now, a bite that reminds you where your nose ends and the rest of the world begins. Here along the creek bottom, the year’s first hard frosts seem to have set the foliage on fire. The drab early season earth tones have yielded to a riot of pastels: crimson, orange, and magenta, shades that fix the place and time immediately in the hearts of those who have been here before. It’s pheasant season on the high plains, and a special kind of urgency prevails. For the faithful, pheasant season never comes quickly enough, and once it’s there at last, it turns out to be as hard to hold as mirage water.

Our new quarry seems to reflect the visual changes in the terrain. All muted grays and browns, the sharptails and Huns that defined the early season seemed designed to blend into their surroundings without attracting attention. Cock pheasants, on the other hand, serve as a study in self-promotion: garish bursts of color ready to explode from the brush in front of the dogs like advertisements for themselves. While grouse and partridge basically seem to want to get along, pheasants act like they’re daring you to do something about them, and believe me, we’d like to.

If only it were that simple. In fact, wild pheasants back up their brash first impressions with cunning and tenacity unique among all upland birds. Hunting them successfully requires a level of perseverance ordinarily reserved for big game. Among their real enthusiasts, those qualities count for even more than the excitement of the flush or the appeal of pheasants on the table. You hunt them for the same reason you accept any challenge, and there’s an edginess to the process no other western game bird can evoke.

Because so many of our friends understand this point of view, October has become the social part of hunting season around our house. The long, solitary walks through the sharptail cover lie behind me now, replaced by a pleasant swell of company. And I feel no regrets. Pheasants are what you do with friends just as surely as grouse are what you do alone, partly because of the demands of strategy and partly because of the essential human need to share both the triumph and despair pheasants alone arouse.

And so we form quite a crew as we head toward the brambles along the creek bottom: me, my wife Lori, three old friends from out of state, and enough dogs to populate a kennel. As an outdoorsman who appreciates his solitude, I ordinarily might bridle at this kind of production, but not today. The cover ahead looks big enough to swallow us all, and there will have to be some teamwork down there in the stickers if we are to prevail. Besides, pheasants are on the menu back home tonight, and autumn is no time to begin a diet.

Our strategic objective is to push the creek bends back and forth toward one another in a series of pincer movements, trapping running birds between dogs and open water and forcing them into the air, hopefully within shotgun range of somebody. Given our visitors’ lack of familiarity with the cover, it takes a certain amount of discussion to get all this worked out, but finally everyone winds up where they need to be and it’s time for me to wade into the cover with the dogs. Mornings like this remind me why I’ve always resisted the occasional urge to involve myself in the guiding business. Pushing pheasant cover for friends is one thing, but if I were doing this for money, there would have to be a hell of a lot of it.

I’ve never warmed to the habit of wearing brush pants in the field. As a bowhunter, I feel an instinctive aversion to noisy clothing and brush pants always seem to drag at my legs when I really want to cover some miles in search of birds. Now as I tack back and forth through the brush behind the dogs, thorns slap against my unprotected thighs to remind me of my hubris. To make matters worse, the beavers have been busy over the summer and gnawed willow butts stud the ground like punji stakes. While I know better than to take any of this personally, all these slings and arrows are certainly enough to whet the appetite. Halfway to our rendezvous with the creek, I want the cover to produce some birds with a sense of longing I haven’t felt… well, since last pheasant season.

I’ve lost track of everyone else’s dogs, which is probably just as well. Hunting wild pheasants isn’t the kind of thing dogs can learn in school, and Sonny, Jake, and I have worked things out together in a manner only experience can teach. As the high bank on the creek’s outside bend appears over the top of the brush, I can feel the dog’s intensity begin to gather as they work the scent through the cover ahead. There will be pheasants, it seems. Our job is not to let them embarrass us.

The angry cackle that accompanies the first rise identifies the bird as a rooster, but somehow the pheasant splits the defense and escapes downstream without offering anyone a shot. A second bird tries to cut back against the grain behind me, but when he finally flushes I’m too tangled up in the brush to raise my shotgun. Finally someone fires up ahead, but I’m too far down in the willows to appreciate the result. The sound of the shot signals an end to all restraint on the pheasants’ part. Still unable to see much of anything, I am reduced to following the course of events with my ears: wings, cackles, another shot, silence. For a moment, that is all.

“Well?” I inquire expectantly as I emerge at last from the cover.

“Dick has one bird down,” Lori announces from the top of the bank, and suddenly there is Sonny with a mouth full of rooster to prove it.

“How many roosters were there?” I ask, far from certain that I really want to know.

“Lots,” Lori acknowledges with a laugh.

“Dozens,” someone else confirms.

Of course I knew as much, and as I toss our one dead bird up the bank to Dick its weight feels insubstantial compared to what might have been. But the only event that can really ruin a good day of pheasant hunting is an easy limit, and as we turn up the coulee and proceed onwards toward our next appointment with the thorns, we all feel an indescribable lightness in our hearts.


The colors have deserted the landscape now, gone south, it seems, right along with the teal and the meadowlarks. The remains of the year’s first real snow cover the mountains behind town and a mantle of high clouds above the western horizon promises more to come. Our guests have left and the house feels as quiet as the brooding countryside beyond. Hunting season has entered the home stretch and the sense of impending loss feels palpable. The idea is to squeeze every possible drop from what remains.

The circle of the hunting’s pace has turned round again, from simplicity to spectacle and back to simplicity once again. The seasons’ advance has brought the mallards down from the north and the cold has concentrated them along the creek. With little more than an hour remaining between the office and the end of the day, I barely have time to change clothes, round up a few decoys, and head to the nearest open water I know. With a bit of luck, that will do.

This afternoon, I’m making the effort for the dog more than for myself. This has been young Jake’s coming-out season. He’s finally found a place for himself in the kennel’s hierarchy. While he’s still no match for Sonny’s guile in upland cover, he’s defined his role in the duck blind, and I want to be sure he remembers it during the long, quiet months ahead.

Like all kids, Jake has trouble waiting patiently, and as we crouch behind the fallen cottonwood and watch the decoys circle lazily in the backwater it’s all I can do to keep from swatting him. While Sonny would sit quietly and scan the sky, his heir-apparent fidgets constantly and his intemperance almost proves enough to ruin the evening. But suddenly a lone drake mallard is circling high overhead, and once he finally sets his wings and makes what proves to be a fatal commitment to land, it’s show time.

It’s really impossible to appreciate a determined Labrador retriever’s water entry without seeing it firsthand. I’m certainly not about to do it justice through the printed word. At the sound of the dead duck hitting the creek and my command to , Fetch!, Jake morphs from a bundle of unfocused adolescent energy into a furry yellow vector full of more purpose than most people would ever imagine possible in a dog. As he leaps down the bank, I dodge the geyser of spray and experience a realization. Water is his element. This is where he belongs. Technically there isn’t much to the retrieve, but Jake makes something of it anyway: an operatic spectacle fueled by passion and desire. This kind of performance is impossible to define by any number of dead birds collected. Like most of life’s great performances, the opportunity to enjoy a front row seat speaks for itself in the end.

By the time I’ve gathered the decoys and started back toward the vehicle, the air overhead is spitting snow. Like a less than entirely welcome house guest, winter feels as if it has come to stay. The warm brown fields we hunted in September might as well belong to the landscape of another continent, if not another planet. September, October, November: three discarded pages on the calendar cannot begin to suggest the complexity of all that has taken place. There’s nothing left to do but haul the memories home like the decoys in the bag and store them for another year.

Autumn quarter. It’s why we live where we do.

This essay originally appeared in Big Sky Journal. E. Donnall Thomas, Jr. is also the author of numerous books, including: By Dawn’s Early Light; Dream Fish & Road Trips: Fly Fishing Tales from Alaska, Montana, and Beyond; The Life of a Lab; Double Helix: Bowhunting African Plains Game; Outside Adventure Travel: Fly Fishing; and Labs Afield: Hunting with America’s Favorite Retriever. He lives in Lewistown, and his books are available at

Lab Lovers Unite

The Labrador retriever is undeniably one of the most popular and loveable breeds in the world. Whether they’re members of the family, jogging companions, or essential components of hunting trips, they exhibit some of the best traits man’s best friend has to offer. Our collective admiration for labs is what writer E. Donnall Thomas Jr. and photographer Denver Bryan reveal in their books ,Labs Afield: Hunting with America’s Favorite Retriever, and The Life of a Lab, both published by Ducks Unlimited. Through beautiful, revealing photographs and heartfelt descriptions of man and lab together, Bryan and Thomas capture exactly what we love most about our yellow, chocolate, or black canine companions.

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Dog Rehab

Extremely athletic dogs, and hunting dogs in particular, often experience the same aches, pains, and injuries that human athletes and outdoorspeople do. Unfortunately, many of these dogs find themselves relegated to “house dogs” rather than risk additional, and perhaps greater, injury in the field. But within the past decade, a new form of canine therapy has been adapted to give many dogs a second chance at active lifestyles. Veterinarians like Dr. Sue Geske of Double Diamond Veterinary Services in Bozeman offer this innovative water-based rehabilitation program as a possible alternative to surgery.

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-Jamie Vowell