By Al Schultz
I watched the little spaniel alternate between the crop stubble and tall grass along the edge of a harvested field, nose to the ground. The sky was overcast as if an impending storm was brewing. A breeze added to the fall chill carrying the sweet aroma of grass and cut hay mingled with sage. Fall was in full splendor and the grass and stubble were vibrant in hue from bright yellow and gold to brown and gray. Cattails rustled in the breeze where the earth remained moist. I glanced down at the old Winchester Model 12 .16 gauge shotgun in my hands. It had been my dad’s and his dad’s before him. I probably paid as much as it was worth to have it restored, but it was priceless. I had waited two long years to get it back and this was its first hunt since its return.
My mind wandered as I walked, watching the dog work. I recalled the first bird I ever shot, a male ruffed grouse. It happened with this very gun during my first deer hunt with my dad, his friends, and my uncles. Everyone had returned to camp, taking a siesta during the heat of midday. A longtime family friend named Fred Thompson and I went looking for grouse. I always liked Fred and we became close spending every hunting season together until his untimely passing. When I was a boy, he treated me like an actual hunting partner, and even better, his idea of lunch was a bag of Snickers candy bars, which he never seemed to run out of. We flushed my first grouse that day and I somehow hit it. I can still picture that bird and Fred beside me coaching me.
Now holding that gun in my hands over four decades later, I reflected on how sad I felt when the gun became mine and how sad my father must have felt when it became his. We each took possession with the passing of our fathers. As I walked through the field watching the spaniel search for birds, many wonderful memories of Dad came flooding back. I remember most fondly our walks through the fields and woods together. I thought of the hunting camps and of all my uncles and family friends. Most of them are gone now, yet they are vividly alive in my memory. Those men instilled in me a love for the outdoors and all its creatures and an unquenchable passion for camping, hunting, fishing, and sharing of the experiences with other family and friends. Somewhere along the line for me it became less about full stringers and filled tags and more about “experiencing” the outdoors, hearing the elk bugle, the turkey gobble, the honk of the geese, and watching the dogs work. I relish the explosive burst of a grouse from cover or sharp tails rising one after the other.
My thoughts were interrupted when the spaniel locked up into a rigid point, her eyes riveted to the side, muscles taut and quivering. Even the breeze seemed to still and with it the rustling of the grass quieted. “Steady… steady,” I softly spoke to the dog. “Hon, Kayci’s on point,” I exclaimed to my wife, Emily, 20 yards or so to my left. I glanced over and observed as she readied her Ithaca double .20 gauge. I stepped toward the dog, “get ‘em up” I urged her. Kayci, our Brittany Spaniel, lunged into the tall grass flushing a marvelous rooster pheasant. He cackled as he rose and broke to my left towards where my wife stood waiting. I savored the scene, wiling it into slow motion. The bird’s colorful plumage contrasted dazzlingly against the gun metal gray of the sky. Em followed the bird and let loose with one barrel followed immediately after by her second. The first shot was a little above and behind the bird, but the second connected well. Kaci retrieved the bird back to me as our son watched over my shoulder, where I carried him in a backpack, wearing bright orange ear muffs over diminutive foam ear plugs to muffle the sound of our shots. I smiled wide. He had just turned one only two weeks before. Our whole family was here and I imagined that my dad, uncles, and all the old boys from our shared hunting camps were watching this now. We got a few more pheasants on that hunt and the old .16 gauge accounted for a couple of them.
We were hunting the Double Barrel Ranch in Rockford, WA and had just begun one of our annual family “Cast and Blast” trips. These trips shared with family are exciting and wonderful. When I was just a little boy, I recall similar trips tagging along behind my dad, collecting the freshly spent purple .16 gauge shells and the odor of burnt gunpowder in the empty hulls. Dad generally used Federal Game loads which, in a .16 gauge came in purple shells. I was barely 3 years old and those spent purple hulls were my greatest reward at the time and loved collecting them. I remember struggling to keep up while Dad and his brothers roamed the fields and forests. I remember they crossed a barbed wire fence and Dad watched as I scraped my scalp on the barbs trying to step through like the men. I remember feeling ashamed for crying in front of the men after. Now I’m carrying my Dad’s .16 gauge as my son tags along behind. It’s fascinating to me to think that scene has played out for three generations in my family with this same shotgun. Wyatt reminds me of his daddy many years ago who equally loved tagging along with the men, developing a deeply ingrained appreciation for the wondrous beauty of the animals, and the land they inhabit. I recall returning to my grandparents’ home after these trips and being placed on the kitchen counter, feet dangling over the edge, as my grandmother prepared the rabbits and pheasant for dinner. I learned at a young age how to prepare meat. I remember watching as the men reverently held a fallen bird or rabbit, how carefully it was cleaned and prepared for our meal and how much the family enjoyed the meals and the gathering together around the table.
Joe Biggs runs the impressive operation at Double Barreled Ranch, consisting of 3,000 acres of choice habitat of agricultural fields, timbered slopes, brushy draws, and tall grass. The Ranch offers guided and unguided hunts, sporting clays, and a variety of game birds, including pheasant, chukar, quail, and turkey. We often kick off our Cast and Blast trips pursuing pheasants at this ranch. Joe Biggs and company never fail to deliver a rich family experience and you can count on lots of flushes. What keeps me coming back is Joe’s attention to every detail and commitment to provide an incredible experience.
Next stop was Lake Chelan, WA. While it is well known for its spectacular apple orchards, huge beautiful lake, and wineries, Chelan, WA is also home to some of the finest wild upland bird hunting in the northwest. We camped at Lake Chelan State Park, where a stream filled with bright red spawning Kokanee salmon added to the fall beauty. Over the next couple days we hunted the nearby public wildlife area. Kayci put up a couple more roosters, several coveys of California Quail, and some Hungarian Partridge. Our son Wyatt took it all in from his perch on my back, keeping his comments to himself for the most part when dear old dad missed, but laughing gleefully at his best friend Kayci working her way through the brush. Kaci is too cute when she proudly returns a downed bird, head up, and prancing. It makes my wife and I smile to see and our little boy delights at her antics.
After meandering through Eastern WA in search of a variety of upland birds and fly-fishing the revered Rocky Ford Creek, known for its hard-fighting, behemoth Rainbow Trout, we headed to Valier, MT. Jody and Bonnie Field own the several thousand acre Field Ranch and have been friends of mine for many years, always welcoming us to hunt their wild game birds each fall. We’ve shared many hunts, but this year was especially rewarding because his nephew was back from the Marine Corps and able to join us. The weather cooperated with light snow, blue-bird sunny days, and lots of birds. We managed to find plenty of roosters and several sharp tailed grouse, as well as a few coveys of Hungarian partridge. Sharing the hunts with these dear friends and our family is a blessing. The fact that we got into birds was only icing on an already delicious cake. Wyatt loved being with the “big boys” and couldn’t have been happier when Kayci retrieved the birds to him. We flushed a good flock of sharp tails towards Jody and his nephew, both excellent shots, who dropped five out of the bunch.
Our family resumed the “cast” portion of our trip, hooking up with Flathead Lake Charters on Flathead Lake in Bigfork, MT. Despite not arriving during an optimal time of the year, dismal weather, and choppy surface conditions, the crew got us out and into some incredible Lake Trout fishing. Emily and I each caught trout in excess of 2 feet long and had a wonderful time. We took turns entertaining and holding Wyatt within the cabin while the other braved occasional rain squalls, hooking and landing huge trout.
A few days later we joined up with First Cast Outfitters based out of Craig, MT to fly fish the Land of the Giants portion of the Missouri River. We couldn’t have asked for a better day. The wind had stopped and the river’s surface spectacularly mirrored the the surrounding cliffs and scenery. The fly fishing was incredible. Wild rainbows and huge brown trout lurked in the pristine water and acted as though they were starving. Early in the trip, Emily hooked into a beast brown. When she finally managed to bring it near the boat it rolled on the surface, looking to be nearly all of 30 inches or better, and dove again for the depths of the river having no further patience for the game. The huge brown snapped the tippet without slowing and continued on its merry way with the latest in streamer fly apparel firmly embedded in its upper lip. Throughout the day, Wyatt was taking in the whole experience and even caught a nap in the belly of the boat without a single one-year old meltdown. Our guide hauled us ashore for a delightful streamside lunch and then we resumed our journey drifting through the Land of the Giants. We were awestruck by the spectacular scenery. The guide service was competent, courteous, and amazingly accommodating with a one year old. The fishing, incredible! We spent a glorious day on the river together, taking it all in.
This year’s Cast and Blast was the best I’ve had and I hope to make each coming trip even better. I love experiencing it all as a family and making memories our children will treasure for the rest of their lives, as I have treasured the moments and memories family and friends have shared with me throughout my life. The memories from my childhood and young adult life have become even more precious to me with the passing of the seasons and the passing of traditions, shared experiences, and lessons to my family, sons, and next generation. Nothing is finer.