My dog, Riley. Always loving. Always ready to be loved. Except when it came to ducks. Even then I was never quite sure about the nature, intent, or depth of his passion. I trusted him completely, though, and whenever we went duck hunting I followed his lead.
We learned how to engage this undertaking as a team. We arrived on the field of battle together, but with our own distinct agendas. Riley was rather tight lipped about his, but mine was borne of this: There was a large and ever growing void in my understanding of what it takes to be an apex predator. I was increasingly uncomfortable with the desire and consequent responsibility of a position in the food web that I felt was thrust upon me.
When I first asked Riley about it, he feigned disinterest, pretending to be asleep on the carpet near my chair. When I said the word "responsibility," he looked at me through one partially opened eyelid. I knew he was probably baiting me to come up with some temporary resolution to this latest anxiety. Thinking he might be able to relate, I asked, "Maybe I should become a vegetarian?" With both eyes closed again, he rolled over with his back to me. I told him, "Okay, I got it. That was a feeble attempt at avoidance." We both already know that’s my typical first response to a situation requiring difficult thinking and possibly resulting in tough choices. I continued our dialogue:
ROGER: Lighten up. Work with me a little here.
ROGER: What are you saying? I should do the opposite? I should freely stalk and pounce upon some unsuspecting meat-bearing creature?
RILEY: Thump, thump. (wagging tail hits carpet twice)
ROGER: So, correct me if I'm wrong about this, but I believe you're suggesting we go out and kill something ourselves, and eat it?
At this point, with enthusiasm looming so large he could no longer subdue it, Riley sat up and looked right at me. Hmm. I needed a bit of thinking aloud to work through this:
ROGER: Okay. Just suppose, knowing as we both do, that birds, lets say, aren't actually found in their natural state wrapped in plastic in the freezer department at our local market, but instead exist as living, breathing cohabiters of our own beloved planet. Now then. Do you suppose it would be a reasonable measure of personal responsibility to deliberately place ourselves in their habitat, sight down the barrel of a shotgun, and, well, you know the rest of the story. If we took the first awful steps in procuring meat, could we then be carnivores with clear consciences? In short, do you really think we should go hunting?
At this, he not only assured me he was in full accord, but gave me a look of relief that I had finally settled on a course not just eminently reasonable but practical. A look that said, "After all this time, you’re finally making some sense." It was settled, then. We would go duck hunting, and soon.
Recognizing a Higher Authority
Not knowing caliber from my keister, I decided to consult an expert. My old pal, Dr. Andy Veit, was a fellow I'd always known as the ultimate outdoorsman. The kind of guy I envisioned hauling his dog and mountain bike along while ice climbing. The man made his own split-bamboo fishing poles, and he had a gun in at least one of every size ever made. Andy gave me all the right advice, and then some. He said, "Get yourself a twelve-gauge pump shotgun. Get yourself a hunting license. Get yourself a duck stamp on it. Get yourself over here three weeks from today just before dawn begins thinking about cracking. You, me, Riley, and Astrid are going to bag us some quackers. Glad you've come to your senses, buddy. Did Riley talk you into this?"
The intervening weeks had provided plenty of time to attend a hunter safety course and make a fun-filled shopping trip to the local testosterone extravaganza known as “the sporting goods store.” I availed myself of not only license, stamp, weapon, ammo, some first-class organic and all-natural doggie treats, bottled water, protein bars, a rather snappy-looking Elmer Fudd-type hat with matching gloves in fall camouflage colors, a carry container with built-in seat to house all this stuff, and three pairs of very sensible hiking shoes. One pair for me, two pairs for Riley. Andy had mentioned that traipsing across a cocklebur-filled field might be a more enjoyable experience for us all were Riley wearing some protective gear on his paws. The good doctor already had an abundance of decoys and duck calls and was willing, according to him, to use them fearlessly.
The Safety Mechanism
It seemed ironic to me to discuss the idea of safety while marching about with tools designed and built with the primary purpose of killing. But a friend cleared up this cloudy thinking for me by narrating a locally embellished version of what I'm sure is a treasured hunting legend the world over: the unsuspecting hunter making a remarkably clumsy attempt at crossing a barbed-wire fence with gun in hand and somehow managing to blow off his testicles. The concept was driven further home by my wife Roberta’s warning on that first morning to both Riley and me to return home that evening with all parts essential to our future intact. Even though I had intentionally kept that particular hunting story from her, I knew it wouldn't take much for her to imagine the alternative.
Impossibly Early One Morning
There we were: a perfect autumn day. Stately mountains looming in the distance. Solid blue sky above. Tufts of multi-colored grasses, cattails, and ponds of clear water at our feet. The anticipation of colliding head-on with nature before us. A truly enticing array of decoys bobbed happily with Riley in their midst. The ever-observant Dr. Veit had this to offer:
ANDY: Just as an aside, when the game warden comes to chat with us as he or she inevitably will, it would be far better to whip your license out of your pocket rather than explaining that it is, for example, now partially submerged down there in the swamp, attached to your dog’s collar. You're not the first to think of this, and they rarely find it as amusing as you think they should. This hunting business has no end to its subtle and complex nuances.
With all hunters safely tucked into our blind, we began what I thought would be the arduous task of waiting. Riley and Astrid were lazily crunching gourmet snacks, getting their bellies scratched, and asking nothing more of life for the moment.
Astrid suddenly looked as though her tail had been plugged into a light socket. Andy and I peered out through the site holes in our pillbox to see more than a half-dozen mallards arriving like a volley of feathered arrows into the thick of our decoys. One hand barely restraining Astrid, Andy leaned over and whispered, "Time to unleash a fury of firepower and fur. On three."
As we crashed open the lid of our shelter, Andy hollered, "Aim for the sky, brother!", and the two most excited dogs in the universe roared onto the playing field.
I managed to fill the air with thunder and buckshot several times that day, but couldn't say with any degree of certainty that I actually struck a flying creature with anything other than the non-lethal thunder part. Riley and I nonetheless came home with three ducks all but ready for the oven. Roberta had already insisted that should any duck-killing occur, said ducks could only be brought into the house if they closely resembled the supermarket type described earlier. No brightly colored wings, no cute yellow beaks or webbed feet.
It wasn't easy aiming a shotgun at the ducks and pulling the trigger, particularly if I spent any time at all thinking about just what I was doing. I knew, however, that were I willing to eat meat again, I also had to be willing to accomplish this manner of procuring it. And those three ducks, along with an assortment of herbs and vegetables, made the ultimate sacrifice that day to provide us with dinner that night. They became Southwest Duck Stew, and I was grateful to them for it. For his part, Riley wasn't at all intrigued by the vegetables, and I’m not sure where he directed his gratitude; but he devoured his portion of the stew without hesitation, or, as far as I could tell, remorse.
Roger's Southwest Duck Stew
2 ducks (skinned with fat trimmed)
1/2 lbs each parsnips, carrots, turnips, roasted chiles, corn
2 stalks celery
1 red bell pepper
1 medium onion
2 heads garlic
1 bouquet garni
4 cups chicken stock
2 cups water
1/2 cup brandy
Begin by heating stock and water in a large pot. For appearance’s sake only, I cut the parsnips into slices, carrots into batons, turnips into large dice, celery into large chunks, and bell pepper into confetti. Slice through the tops of the garlic heads exposing most or all of the tops of the cloves, then rub off the loose paper. Add the vegetables to the broth along with coarsely-chopped chiles and corn. Prepare bouquet garni by taking a couple branches each of basil, tarragon, thyme, parsely, rosemary, and sage. Tie these together with cotton string or wrap in cheese cloth. Add to broth. Cut duck into serving-sized pieces and brown in a frying pan using some of the fat trimmings. Toward the end of the browning process, add coarsely-chopped onion and cook until clear or lightly browned. Deglaze with brandy and add all to the broth. Salt and pepper to taste. Place the entire stew in a 375 degree oven for about 2 1/2 hours. Bon appetite!
Upland Bird and Shotgun Clubs
For some bird hunters, sitting in a cold, wet duck blind all day just doesn’t sound all that appealing. Some prefer to chase pheasants and Huns through golden fields, their dogs leading the way like scouts behind enemy lines. Others want exercise and solitude, opting for grouse in the high country. Still others eschew hunting altogether and just like to get out and shoot their guns. To each his own. The good news is there are plenty of places around southwest Montana to indulge your own particular style of shotgunning, be it trap and skeet, sporting clays, or pre-arranged “put-and-take” hunts on private land. Better yet, many of these places serve as great training grounds, for hunters of both the human and canine varieties—so every day spent there increases your chances of success in the field.
Manhattan Wildlife Association
Also known as the Logan Shooting Club, the MWA is open to members seven days a week with a $40 membership for an individual or family. Currently 1,200 members use the facilities just off of the Logan exit west of Bozeman. Trap and skeet shooting is offered on both Wednesday and Sunday, and skeet only on Thursdays. The club offers a hunter’s safety course twice a year and the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP), an educational program aimed at youth and inexperienced shooters, twice a month. For more information contact Tony Garibaldi at 587-2072 or visit www.manhattanwildlifeassociation.com.
Buffalo Ranch Sporting Clays
Twenty-two miles south of Livingston in the heart of Paradise Valley is the Buffalo Ranch, a 90-acre spread housing a full sporting clays range. Just outside Emigrant on East River Road, the ranch accommodates individuals and families wishing to hone their shooting skills. Automated traps with natural, hunting-like flight patterns are offered with no trapper required. Guests can receive professional instruction in groups or one-on-one. For rates and information contact Buffalo Ranch at (888) 462-4766 or visit www.buffaloranch.com.
Missouri Headwaters Gun Dog Club
The Missouri Headwaters Gun Dog Club acts as a hunting dog training facility for bird hunters. Located near Logan and Missouri Headwaters State Park, the club currently has 125 members. They allow three types of dogs to train at their facility: pointers, retrievers, and spaniels. It is recommended to call ahead and inform the club how many dogs you’ll be bringing. Club dues are $35 per year. Contact club president Sam Robinson at 539-6119 for more information, or visit www.mhdgc.org.
Plunkett Lake Shooting Preserve
Located north of Three Forks on U.S. 287, the Plunkett Lake preserve consists of 1,280 acres of commercial shooting and a 20-acre, trout-stocked lake. It is open to the public with rates of $50 a day for fishing, and $18 per pheasant or $11 per chukar with a three-bird minimum. Several different membership options exist for fishing, bird hunting, or both. Shooting preserve licenses are offered along with overnight camping for guests. The fishing is year-round; the shooting preserve is open September 1 to March 31. Calling ahead for reservations is recommended. Contact Todd Cazier at (406) 266-3820 for more information, or stop by the preserve at 591 Highway 437, Toston, MT 59643.
Park County Rod and Gun Club
Located in Livingston, this members-only club costs $25 per year. The club provides a trap range with single and double capabilities, as well as rifle and pistol ranges. They also offer youth activities for individuals or groups, such as 4H and boy scouts. Hunter’s safety courses are also held at the club. Contact President Bud Pynn at 222-7311 for more information.
Gallatin Sporting Clays
Started in 1991 by a score of local hunting enthusiasts, Gallatin Sporting Clays quickly expanded into one of the premiere sporting clays ranges in the region. Gallatin Clays is a semi-private club, offering memberships as well as being open to the public. They claim to offer the cheapest sporting clays in the country, with 100-target rounds costing a mere $14 for members and $35 for non-members. The club hosts various individual and team competitions throughout the year on their 220 acres, recently purchased from the Green Ranch near Logan, about five miles past the Logan Shooting Club. The season is late March through September, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and all day Saturday. Email [email protected] for more information, or visit www.gallatinclays.org.