By Nick Simonson
I’m a fan of end-of-the-world movies, particularly those incorporating the zombie genre into their plot. There’s something that piques my interest in those scenarios where nothing is left but a handful of hardy survivors taking on what remains of a hardened and structureless society of scavengers scraping by amidst the hordes of mindless cannibalistic ghouls. I wonder if I’d make it that far – six months, a year, or longer – in such a situation, but I figure probably not. I’d likely get tetanus from a rusty fishhook in my own tacklebox during the first week and hardly live through the beginning of the end.
Many times, somewhat unfortunately, I let my love of the genre creep into my worldview as well. During the Covid-19 pandemic, while others were hoarding toilet paper, I was stockpiling Daredevle spoons, four-inch twister tails and all my favorite crankbaits just in case the real world quickly descended into a scene from The Walking Dead, and I’d need to be catching the plentiful pike from a nearby prairie slough as sustenance for me and my family.
With upland numbers buried in a trough created by lack of habitat and a couple of 100-year droughts this fall, I found myself wandering the hillsides for sharptailed grouse recently, wondering when my nature hike would turn into an actual hunt, or if this was just the beginning of the end for my favorite outdoor pursuit. Sadly forced to abandon a former favorite forty of public-access acres, seeing the yellow triangle signs had been removed, and the grass reverted to a dirt field upon arrival, I went to a nearby sprawling backup, knowing the long walk would take me straight up until lunch time. Aside from a couple scraggly young hen pheasants, the first four miles of the trip produced little more than an additional calorie burn for the day, and a solid coating of sweat down the front of my long-sleeved t-shirt, which was quickly becoming too warm for the sunny morning. Making the turn, I caught the red shine of the topper on my pickup truck, and figured it was another 25 minutes back to the starting point, as I held back the last slug of water from my lab’s thirsty lapping under the bottle for one more refreshment before we made it to the full blue jug in the bed of the vehicle.
The southwest breezes produced little scent in the well-covered hillsides as we went up and down the small gullies that drained into the main basin of the valley. Each spot looked more promising than the last, but none produced any action from my dog’s tail as he began to feel the heat of the day growing overhead. An eighth of a mile from the truck we began our descent, and I wiped the sweat from my brow as Ole side checked a small gust coming down the decline and through a set of berry patches which are a usual haunt for sharpies, but were empty of anything but green leaves and silver fruit. Calling him over, I produced the bottle once again and he caught just about every drop as I apologized for the actionless morning. After finishing, he scent-checked the wind, bluffed a couple steps into the berry patches and continued beside me in the direction of our vehicle parked on the approach a few hundred yards away.
As we went down around three leafless bushes, the earliest on the trek to drop their cover and exhibit autumn’s bleakness, I began to think about how the upland hunting world would end. Habitat would disappear due to societal demands, climate change would alter weather patterns, droughts would be more frequent, while vicious winters would return and in the climax of an era at its terminus, the hills would be silent. The idea that tetanus from a boot snap or vest button would likely get me first added to the dreariness of the thought, despite the warm sunny autumn day building around me.
It was a notion that was suddenly replaced by the whir of white wings and the chuckling laugh of a trio of sharpies rising up from the leeward side of the hilltop into the wind, the back one giving me a perfect angle for a surprised shot. I dropped it as another trio rose, and I missed a rangy poke with the second barrel of my 20-gauge scattergun.
Collecting the downed bird at the top of the hill, my dog and I crested and sent up another pair of sharpies and I fanned on the back one crossing right to left after a rushed reloading. With the blast, another pair burst from the berry patch at the top of the swale and my second shot missed the mark. Dropping another pair of shells in, I headed off in the direction the first group flushed and crested the next rise, angling away from my truck. A group of four more sharptailed grouse chuckled as they took flight into the wind, and I picked the slowest-moving bird off and Ole made the retrieve.
What would have been a 200-yard walk back to the truck turned into a winding half-mile sprint from hilltop to hilltop as each rise held birds hiding just out of the reach of the wind. I shot poorly in the excitement but was happy to have seen the three dozen birds prove to me that they were far from at their end in the sprawling public hunting space. The experience lifted my spirits, and visions of a birdless environment were put on hold, along with those of life-threatening infection or roving zombie hordes.
Despite the numbers being lower, the general struggle hunters have found themselves in for access, quarry, and habitat, and the uncertainty which the future always holds, hope and birds remain. We’re far from the apocalypse on a societal scale, or from the end of the world in the microcosm of upland hunting; and with every season where things seem just a little farther from the “good ol’ days,” opportunities to find success remain, optimism abounds, and the best moments can still come at the end of a long, quiet walk…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Hard Earned Pair. The author’s lab Ole with a pair of sharptailed grouse picked up from an exciting finish to a long trek through the uplands. Simonson Photo.