The Bird Hunters
This piece originally was posted on Setlist Music Co.’s Blog. Check them out here.
The dusty ceramics studio was dead quiet. Except for the sound of fans drying out pieces in the back. I had been there a couple of hours already and had hardly made any notable progress on my collection of small cups. I was having a hard time creating in 3D. Years of working in and studying photography had my neurons wired to carry out my visions in 2D.
I will admit I was a little late to the Turnpike Troubadours train, but I instantly loved Evan Felker’s voice both in sound and storytelling. Even though I live in Montana I feel like his red dirt stories are just as true here; the only difference is we have more mountains. I was listening through the Turnpike library shuffled on Spotify as I worked. The song changed and immediately the first line caught me off guard.
“Well the covey took wing
A pointing dog down in the old logging road..”
“Wait a minute, I know that scenario. He’s talking about bird hunting. I’ve been there” I thought to myself. I stopped what I was doing and looked at my phone. The song was titled “The Bird Hunters.” I had a feeling Felker was the upland type, mostly by the way he spoke about the land but also because as a bird hunter myself, I think I can pick up when someone else is a kindred spirit. Bird hunters have a quiet cool about them, they are happy to spend days on end following a nose-to-ground dog through dry grasses, timber or sagebrush in search of pheasants, grouse or partridge.
A few lines later, “It's good to be back in this place/ With my hands around a Belgian made Browning..” and I was choking back tears. I had only ever hunted with Brownings, their engraved golden buck logos and beautiful wood grain stock glistening in the sun. For some reason, bird hunting is one of the most sentimental things in my life. I walked myself out of the studio and into the hallway. I suddenly was overwhelmed with emotions and memories. I pulled myself together and tried to pretend like I wasn’t getting teary-eyed over the thought of pheasants flushing.
“The old dog had pointed while part of me died
And a flutter of feathers
Then a shotgun to shoulder”
Oh boy, now he’s bringing the dogs into it. Bird dogs are my weakness. I grew up with a pack of good hunting Labs through the years, one great Golden Retriever and eventually a German Shorthaired Pointer. I was flooded with the visions of seeing the retrievers get on a scent and flush the birds, their tails moving Mach 1 as they got closer. I thought of our pointer locking up on a rooster somewhere out on the Montana prairie.
I packed up my tools, cleaned up my area and went home. My head swirled with memories from the many hunts of my childhood. When I got home it hit me- it had been years since I went pheasant hunting. I had shot my first deer in years just a few months ago but my heart lied in upland hunting.
My love for pheasants started when I was a young kid. I’d tag along with my dad and his friend on hunts, either walking behind them or hanging at the truck with his friend’s kids while the dads hunted. I remember sitting on the tailgate of my dad’s truck while he cleaned birds, watching his hands pluck the bird, sending feathers floating through the air. I remember eating pheasant in place of chicken and finding the occasional BB with my teeth. When I was old enough to hunt I toted around a youth model Browning and tried my best to keep up with the men and dogs in the field.
I walked across miles and miles of eastern Montana for years, shooting my way to a full game bag of birds and watching my step for rattlesnakes. I sat in divey cowboy bars and listened to the hunters and cowboys swap different stories about the same land. I fell in love with what bird hunting was and everything that came with it; the stories, the places, the birds, the people and of course the dogs.
But things change, life happens. Parents get divorced, people move away, college starts and before you know it you’re crying in a ceramics studio realizing you haven’t bird hunted in almost 4 years. The remainder of that semester in college, which would turn out to be my last for better or worse, all I could think about was the West and what it meant to me. In some ways, Turnpike Troubadours helped me rediscover my love for the west and the place I call home, especially bird hunting. The following months saw me run across the state photographing western landscapes and people and hearing their stories. It saw me move a valley over and start working on my fly fishing, writing and photography career full time. It also brought me to a Turnpike Troubadours concert.
Turnpike Troubadours played out at the Old Saloon in Emigrant, Montana which is about 25 miles south of my house in Livingston and 30 miles north of Yellowstone National Park. I couldn’t wait to see Turnpike play, prefaced by Corb Lund and my friend Jason Wickens. I had a feeling they would play “The Bird Hunters”. I had a feeling when they did, I would get a little misty-eyed. After a visit to Cowboy Mike who was behind the bar serving up generous shots of Pendleton, I made my way back to my group of friends towards the front of the crowd. Turnpike put on a great show and left the stage without playing “The Bird Hunters”, but as to be expected they came back for an encore. The fiddle player let out the first few notes of “The Bird Hunters” and I knew I was done for.
I found my friend in the crowd who had a similar upbringing with bird hunting as I did. For both of us, bird hunting served as some sort of spiritual coming of age act that shaped us as adults. Arm in arm we sang along with Felker as he recounted coming back to bird hunting after time away. A few tears were shed and I’m sure our non-bird hunting friends looked at us like we were crazy for choosing that song out of all of them to cry over. Though the song is, at its core, about heartbreak, it’s about bird hunting as well and coming back to it after time away. Falling away from bird hunting for whatever reason is heartbreaking and coming back to it feels like coming home, Felker knows that and he reminded me of that through this song.
Fast forward through a summer of amazing concerts and fly fishing, hunting season is around the corner. A blown out head gasket landed my jeep in the shop for a month and between mechanic visits, fishing trips, and a full-time job, the hunting season blew past me. No deer or elk were seen on the one day I did manage to get out with my rifle. Quickly big game season ended without a bang and the only thing left for me was birds.
I decided I would go at least once. I loaded up my family’s lab, met up with a friend and headed east. I put the e-collar on the dog, loaded my same youth model Browning and headed into the field. The lanyard of the dog collar remote around my neck reminded me that I was the one with the remote because this was the first time I had bird hunted on my own, with a friend and not family and as an adult. I followed the dog up the hill and eventually, we got to the top, where it opened up into the familiar tan fields with spots of green sagebrush sprinkled around.
“How good does it feel?
You belong in these hills
It's best that you let it all end”
Felker’s words rang through my head over and over again as I watched the dog move from bush to bush. I breathed in the air and the scent of the west overwhelmed my lungs. Sage, juniper, dirt, and a hint of cows- it was all well-known. I did belong in these hills. The fields had raised me, the sight of the dogs working, the cackle of rooster pheasants and the smell of gunpowder was all comforting. Even moving across the terrain felt comfortable. I was back, I was home.
Turnpike Troubadours and Evan Felker’s penchant for bird hunting helped remind me of my upland filled past. Those Oklahoma boys gently reintroduced me to bird hunting and gave me some good songs to listen to along the way. It brought me back to an important phase in my life that really never ended, it just got eclipsed by growing up and everyday life. But at the root, those moments in the field are what ground us.
“Dan says, "Hell of a shot, looks like you still got it
That's what we came here to do
Well, it's light enough still, at the foot of the hill
We could kick up a single or two"