The Question of Enough

“It’s deliciously impractical covering eight or ten or twelve miles a day, gaining elevation much of that time, all for, if you’re lucky, a couple of birds that, plucked, will fit in your palm.”

Story by


Tyler Sharp

Read Time

13 minutes


It’s not a banner season by any stretch, but there are a few viable coveys to chase, enough to make me feel like I can point the truck in the right direction, burn half a tank of overpriced gas, let Zeke out of his kennel onto the parched steppe, follow that sleek black-masked setter for an hour or so, and eventually find him leaned into an uphill thermal on the lee side of a nob, mean-mugging a robust pile of Huns — all of which has me feeling pretty doggone fortunate, and perhaps as well-off as a bird- hunting poet shooting three-dollar bismuth shells can feel.

Two years ago, by contrast, the Hungarian partridge numbers, or “Huns” as we call them, were so dismal that I didn’t find a bonafide covey all season, a six-week window during which I logged over a hundred miles, the dog likely four times that. Sure, there were pairs and trios and scattered sixes and eights, the latter of which were arguably too small to shoot. En masse it was a barren season, a season of antler sheds and befuddled looks from the dog, of learning the names of grasses and the species of sage, of loving country, which is never a bad end. Because of course, as Jim Fergus wrote, “if you love country, you will never be lonely.”

As someone fairly versed in the world’s wisdom literature, I should not use the word “miraculous” lightly, but I did find myself wielding it last season when, on certain parcels — those which had appeared two seasons ago void of birds, which held nothing more than a few fresh Hun droppings, and yielded no more than a ghost point or two — we started finding robust coveys. Puzzled, I asked Zeke’s vet about it. He’s hunted the region for so long that he knows the locations of such a number coveys — coveys he doesn’t even shoot at anymore, just trains his trial-winning pointers on — that I call him The Godfather.

“Crazy, isn’t it?” The Godfather responded. He nicked back Zeke’s right dewclaw with a set of heavy-duty clippers and looked over the eight-year-old setter’s paw pad. I had scheduled the visit to get a small cyst checked out on Zeke’s forehead, but I was also not so secretly trying to extract some of The Godfather’s hard-won expertise and perspective on the dynamic fluctuations in local game-bird populations. It was a method I had employed more than once but The Godfather, clearly hip to my angle of approach, was nonetheless forthcoming. “I’ve seen it happen year after year. Places that seem totally scrapped rebound the next year to hold two or three real coveys. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that they’re hearty birds. And of course, just as fragile as they are hearty.”

Of course. You can go into winter with a solid cache of mating stock, aka “seed birds,” coast through a mild January and most of February, only to get hit with a few cruel weeks of wet snow, a sustained low-pressure system that keeps the skiers and snow-boarders bro-hugging but finds the bird hunters fretting something fierce. Cold, clear nights after moist days mean a layer of hardpan beneath the snow, which is the death knell for birds looking to get protein from seeds and green-up — how OGs like The Godfather refer to it — which is inch-tall patches of cheatgrass carpeting the ground.

So when I’m walking up behind Zeke on point, when he seems soldered to the earth with the wind in his snout and his eyes unblinking, I try to consider all of the elemental vectors, the good fortunes, that have converged to bring a healthy Hun covey — the one I’ve been led to believe is under Zeke’s nose — into existence.

This, or some version of it anyway, is what I tell my novelist friend Nick on the drive to our annual late November hunt. He’s visiting Montana from Wisconsin for a couple of days on what has become a rite of fall for us, a long weekend that we relish not only for the dog work and the birds and the meals we make of them, but also for the rich windshield time.

Nick stares out the window, smiling slightly, perhaps pondering the aforementioned Hun-manifesting vectors, or simply entranced by the landscape we pass through — which differs greatly from the native Wisconsin woods about which he has written so unforgettably in best-sellers like Shotgun Lovesongs and Little Faith — the endless southwest Montana sage plain rising into vast parks of cheat, the slopes and shadows of slopes, the light in the grass.

“Okay,” I say, walking back my exegesis on Hun genesis, “mostly I’m just reminding myself to click off the safety when the birds flush. But later, when I’m walking, endless walking in this country, I get to pondering all the seasonal luck that has to coalesce for a Hun covey to exist.”

“Point, flush, safety, shoot,” Nick says. He shot competition skeet as a kid, so he’s a crack shot; however, some unfortunate moments with irresponsible mentors turned him off from hunting for a few decades. Now decidedly middle-aged, he’s taken it up again with the help of folks like his Wisconsin neighbor Doug Duren. “I’m gonna keep it simple.”

On his two previous visits to Montana, when Nick was brand new to bird hunting, we had targeted pheasants, so I explain that the amount of ground we will be covering today will far eclipse the kind of distances we covered when chasing ditch parrots. Because of its vastness and aridity, high desert steppe Hun country is full of what

the great Tom McGuane called long silences (sometimes we cover miles between coveys) and is the ideal ground to let “the whole dog be the whole dog,” another McGuane phrase — to give Zeke, in other words, a long leash, the freedom to lope and sprint by the furlong, to test wind direction and scent density, to disappear into the horizon only to return with suspicion to a draw that he registered on first pass, to begin to slow his strides when he meets a promising wind, then finally get down to the business of pinning birds.

“I know. I can get pretty romantic when I’m talking about Huns. It’s really a perfect pastime for a poet.”

“Go on.”

“It’s deliciously impractical. Covering eight or ten or twelve miles a day, gaining elevation much of that time, all for, if you’re lucky, a couple of birds that, plucked, will fit in your palm.”

I steal a glance at Nick to see how he’s processing this pre-game reality check. He looks a bit concerned. Last year, when we met in a snow-covered far eastern Montana, the pheasants were piled into heavy wooded cover; the garishly plumed birds flushing at his feet were easy pickings. He looks out the window at a mile-wide bowl of sage and cheatgrass backed by steep, tight, scree-laden draws, the occasional rosehip or stunted juniper casting a muted shadow on the hard December ground. By the time we park at the base of the hills on a two-track, the expanse we’re about to hunt looks twice as steep as it did from the dirt road.

“You’re really going to drag me up that mountain?” Nick asks. “No, Zeke is.”
“Remember when you shot that big long-tailed rooster out of the steep draw last year, and it flew up all crazy before landing dead on the rise. And that frigging golden eagle swooped down on it? And you sprinted down and then up the draw to run it off?”

“Yeah?” I say.

“Well, I’m just here to say that I’m not up for anything resembling that shit, not for one minute. I amble through my woods every day, sure, but I’m a damn novelist, not an animal.”

Even on the south-facing sunstruck slope, there remains a trace

of last night’s snow, powdered sugar on a crumb cake. Well behind a ranging Zeke, Nick and I huff the hillside with shotguns broken, our footfalls quiet on the blond, knee-high grass. The cheat must be loaded with protein and nutrients, because every crop I dissect this time of year is packed with it; the birds ignore even the snowberries.

“This is what the late-season Huns eat,” I explain. “If it’s here, they’re nearby.”

No sooner have I uttered those words — how fast does a load of bismuth shot travel when fired? 1300 feet per second, you say? — than I spot Zeke, slowing, then striding sidelong into a point a few hundred yards uphill from us.

“Zeke’s on,” I say. “Get up there. You take the shot.”

“I’m gassed,” Nick says, breathing heavily, looking back on the now-tiny truck below us. “You go. I’ll get the next one.”

When I reach Zeke, I glance back at Nick, who’s not far from where I left him, then slide two shells into the Browning and close

the gun. On the flush, I drop a male from the upper-left edge of the shifting covey. Zeke is on the bird before I’ve ejected the cartridge. Once Nick has caught up, and once we’ve praised Zeke, watered him and admired the bird, I talk Nick through the flush.

“That covey was borderline shootable. Ten birds. Any smaller than eight and I wouldn’t have shot.”

“Eight birds? That seems like a lot.”

“It is, but they need at least that many in a covey to survive the winter. Gotta make it through with enough seed birds for spring. Remember that big pile of droppings I showed you a ways back? That’s a roost. They roost tail-to-tail-to-tail for warmth and need lots of sets of eyes to watch out for hawks and foxes.”

I can tell what Nick is thinking: he’s traveled thousands of miles to get here, popped for a plane ticket and an expensive out-of-state license, leveraged time away from his beloved family, and now his hunting partner is asking him to ethically calculate whether he should take a kill shot in the split second between when the birds flush and when they’re out of range?

We walk on, our strides loosening and lengthening as the sun climbs into the high blue sky. Moist air after a night of rain and snow with gentle thermals pushing uphill: the scenting and bird-holding conditions couldn’t be better, and Zeke seems constantly on a lead, his nose high and his posture businesslike, that of a man sent to deliver a subpoena. Hello, Mr. Hun, name is Zeke, but let’s dispense with the small talk; I’m here to put you on the end of my master’s gun.

Suddenly he stops in the middle of a mile-wide flat. His white tail rises and curls, a luminous sickle.

“That’s you,” I tell Nick, and beckon him past me. “Walk straight to his nose.”

A couple of hours later, we sit atop a boulder, a dark, car-sized

erratic that a glacier placed here millenia ago, and pull two harvested birds apiece from our game pouches. Four birds in four shots: a feat so baffling we joke that we should abandon the hunt to purchase lottery tickets. Zeke rests beneath us, content. I try to tell Nick that it’s not this easy, that it’s never this easy, that the weather and stars simply aligned to tee up this rare day for him. But he’s hearing none of it.

“Not to jinx us,” he says, smiling big in his Green Bay Packers hat and bright red down puffy, “but what’s the limit on Huns?”

“It’s eight, but given the size of our actual populations, I think it’s the most preposterous bird limit in Montana.”

I used to chase limits just as hard as the next guy, I explain, but the longer I hunt, the more I relish taking a single bird per hunt over a solid point. Sure, I admit, when the conditions are just right, it’s hard to stop at a bird or even two; and admittedly, sometimes it does take several finds from Zeke, combined with my marginal shooting ability, to put one bird in the bag; and true, perhaps my hunting ethic might simply have evolved as an excuse for said shooting ability — but as The Godfather asserts, the Hun populations are fragile in the increasingly pressured West, and we hunters bear responsibility for sustaining them. Ultimately, it comes down to the question of enough: if we don’t learn to appease ourselves with less and less in the overexposed, under-resourced landscape of contemporary hunting, won’t we just end up with nothing?

This ethic isn’t something I arrived at on my own, I continue. I was fortunate to have a few good hunting mentors who schooled me in the necessity of a conservation-based harvest. One of these hunters keeps a kennel of three English pointers and two Lewellyn setters and could decimate the Hun population in a valley if he chose to shoot a limit of Huns a couple of times a week. Luckily for the birds, and for weekend warriors like myself, he values pictures of dogs on point more than he covets those tailgate bloodbath pics. “His deal is: he shoots a bird or two, then he empties his gun and starts taking pictures.”

Nick shoots me another look that seems to indicate suspicion.

“But he’s also hunting a hundred or so days a year, way more than us navel-gazers. You shouldn’t feel bad shooting another bird, if we’re lucky enough to find another big covey.”

“Should we go after the last group we flushed?”

“That’s another thing. This Hun-monk doesn’t go after a covey he’s flushed more than twice. Feels they’ve expended enough energy, and if you’ve shot, he says, there’s a chance you’ve wounded a bird with stray shot even if you aimed responsibly at a single target and killed it dead. Lot of variables, I know.”

Nick looks a bit defeated, like I’ve opened the door to a room he didn’t want to see into.

“Don’t worry. We’ve still got more coveys to find today at another spot a few miles away, and you should shoot away. I’ll take pics. They get me through the winter.”

He looks down at the Huns we shot, then picks up his brace and tucks it into his game pouch. “Do you have a recipe in mind for tonight?”

“I was salivating like Wile E. Coyote the second Zeke went on point. How about that Mallard you shot last night as an appetizer, with a huckleberry reduction over the top? Then a Hun ragout for the main course?”

“How many birds does it call for?”
“Five is perfect,” I say, “which means you’re up.”

At that, we press ourselves up from the warm rock and let Zeke drag us via his invisible leash back toward the Pleistocene, a time decidedly without game bird limits but also without Le Creuset baking dishes, the likes of which I will employ later that evening to help compose a simple dish I’ve come to call “Peasant Food”: a passel of breasts and legs marinated in olive oil, salt and pepper, lemon, cayenne, and fresh thyme, then browned and left to simmer in the cast iron with chopped onion, tomato, garlic and crushed red pepper. The whole deal gets dumped into a hot pan for a Balsamic reduction-flash before being plated.

Later, while walking down the mountain in the dead calm afternoon, I lose track of Zeke. I don’t run a GPS collar on him in this mostly open country and can usually locate him without much effort, but today it requires several minutes of searching and backtracking and scanning. Eventually we find him, by the sound of his breath, on point in a shallow swale. Jowls flaring in rhythm with his heaving rib-cage, he stands otherwise completely staunch. Nick looks at me; I shrug and take out my phone, readying the camera. He closes his gun and walks toward Zeke, from under whose nose soon flushes a covey of four Huns. He mounts his gun and swings, then pulls off and breaches the Beretta as the birds vanish into the horizon, the moment itself — the point, the flush, the light in the grass — answering the question of enough.

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