Hunters in a Strange Land

Hunters in a Strange Land

It felt like tears streaming down my face but I couldn’t be sure if it was a guilty realization or simply a rivulet of cold rain. Either would have been understandable as I looked through the ceremonial smoke and across the misted shortgrass prairie of Eastern Montana. I had come to this ceremony cynically expecting a lot of native victimhood on display but once there, found it challengingly meaningful. But I get ahead of myself. This was an unexpected turn from a pheasant hunt on the Fort Belknap Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribal lands.

Why would seven biologists and businessmen travel 2 days with guns, passports, dogs, firearms, hunting gear and 4 x 4 vehicles to one of the most remote and un-populated blocks on the US map? The most game we could realistically hope for would be three 20-ounce birds per day in an area with less than a quarter of the pheasant density of the corn-belt. Read on; if you enjoy both hunting and shooting in out-of-the way places you may see the appeal.

The hunt starts with a road trip to Montana where we see health food has finally entered cattle country. Great coffee too

Most of the trip was conventional enough with diners, occasional cell phone check ins, some firearm paperwork at the border and an obligatory stop at Walmart for ammunition but when we moved onto the 900 sq mile Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, this hunt started to veer into another dimension. Our guide, Leon Speakthunder, if we could find him, was to meet us the next morning at his house, well, at a disputed family home located in a cottonwood grove in the heart of good pheasant habitat. This after we got our licenses at the Fort Belknap Fish and Game Office in a large metal building located in . . . well, there was no town. . . it was simply on the Highline (Montana Highway 2 & Northern Railroad line) that cuts through the Reservation or as the locals call it, the “Rez”.

We happily paid our $135 fee for at 3-day license Matt exchanged his wildlife department shoulder badge with the Conservation Officer on duty as we admired the mounted pronghorn and mule deer heads. They allow a maximum of 40 hunting groups per year and rarely get more than 10 so pressure is miniscule. Still, the cultural maze is not for everyone. As Canadians, we say “Indigenous peoples”; here people might say “Indian People”, We have Bands they have Tribes.

Since we had some time to kill before the hunting season opened on the tomorrow, we drove up to the hilltop cemetery and abandoned Catholic Church.

This pink stucco Cathedral was pretty swanky in its day I suspect.

This is where an alcoholic priest once sold the bronze church bell to buy booze. The bell never turned up again though this bell tower still stands unoccupied.

Graves from the 1860’s held remains of residents who might have remembered the last of the buffalo era.

Grave sites were locally adorned with mementos such as lariats; a child’s sun-bleached cowboy boots, colored stones caps and even an unopened bottle of Coors beer. Over one grave a vivid Plains Garter Snake slithered through the Bluestem Grass and Sage tussocks. This place has a serious vibe to it and overlooks thousands of acres of spectacular habitat from a bygone era. It would be an honor to be buried in such a scenic and meaningful place.

Beautifully, there was not a cow in sight and never did we see one. The wildlife have this place all to themselves with just the occasional reservation horse for company.

That background is all remarkable pheasant habitat

As we headed back to the Chinook Inn in Chinook, Montana, the inner 9-year old of Matt chanted “There is no nooky like Chinooky”. Boys! Such is allowed in all-men hunting camps the same way that girls at a batchelorette party are allowed a little recreational sexism. At least that is my justification and we would all have fallen back into line had there been women present. Really!

Of course, serious matters were well in hand too with master plans and mapping and even a little lawyering layered in. Here Richard and Ross develop a plan.

While not impressive on the restaurant napkin, it did the trick. Local intel!

Does that really say “Fantasy Island” and “Oxbowl of Despair”?

The Chinook Inn is not your usual motel. The small lot is filled with six 4 x 4 hunting vehicles, most with dog boxes on back. There is a 40 x 300 foot grassed dog run along one wall and the Blackfoot chamber maids whistled our hunting dogs to run down the hall and greet them. They actually knew the difference between a Labrador and a Springer Spaniel! This place caters to hunters and dogs are welcomed to stay in the room with you where they provide old towels for cleaning up muddy boots and paws. What most impressed me though was the turn-down service for the dogs and in this case a SOB too.

One is a legit SOB the other had to earn it.

Yes, there is a high speed train track 75 yards from the rooms and the place shows its wear but the hunter-friendly nature more than makes up for that. The bar is small the restaurant has basic fare with a small and pretty good Chinese menu addition, free coffee and a 6:00 AM opening hour. We didn’t complain.

The next morning we awoke, loaded dogs, inhaled a breakfast and went to find Leon. As we rolled into his yard, 8 pheasants ran for cover and his paint horses, looking very Indian, walked over to meet us as they stepped around a stretched lariat holding fresh venison dry-meat. Not the hallmarks of a white man’s abode.

Leon arrived at 9:00, did some greeting and waved us all off to the group’s well-known favorite spots — they have been coming here for 18 years. That was about the extent of his guiding.

Leon did managed to shoot an immature Harlan’s Hawk off a telephone pole with his 7mm Mag, pulled the talons, beak and a few feathers for sale to an ornamentation expert for Pow Wow dressage. When someone said “Hey, aren’t those are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act?”, Leon replied “Well it didn’t protect this one!”. The rules are different on the reservation.

This was a strange land. We walked the waist-high thickets of rose and milkweed, through irrigation canals fallen into disrepair, past invading Russian Olive groves, around cattail-choked sloughs, across thigh-high glades of rough bunch grasses whose names I didn’t know, all interspersed with fruit-laden snowberry and grass seed. This was the epitome of the abandoned weedy habitat preferred by Ring-necked Pheasants. In fact, I wondered aloud what might limit pheasant numbers and we decided it must be weather and some natural predation. Every 30 minutes or so the bounding dogs would get birdy and start circling and thrashing their tails in some covert as hunters readied for a flush. Over the morning’s course, hens, roosters and even a trio of white-tailed deer erupted and a few of the gaudy cackling cocks fell to shot, others sailed to freedom across rivers or expanses of fields. The habitat diversity and richness was spectacular with eagles, hawks, voles, coyotes, deer and even this surprised-looking Long-eared Owl in a Russian Olive thicket — look closely.

He seems to be saying “You aren’t Leon are you?”

A note about dogs and hunters is appropriate here. There are two broad categories of hunting dogs, though some will do a bit of both — pointing dogs such as the Weimaraner and Drahthaar in our group. We other hunters used flushing dogs including a Cocker Spaniel, Springer Spaniel and a trio of Labradors. It is hard to hunt different types of dogs together because once on point the last thing dog or hunter wants is some excited blundering Labrador to rush in and put up the birds. Consequently, we typically kept the styles separated but not here. Roxy, Scout and Badger all go different directions.

Acting birdy

Some pointing dogs will “honor” another dog’s point by offering a sympathetic point and some well-practiced flushers will queue on each other’s actions to tag-team pheasants into flushing instead of running through cover. Pheasants in dense cover use the sounds of their pursuers to evade them. When there are multiple threats being heard the birds often lose their nerve and fly, thereby allowing the hunter a sporting shot. Usually though, dogs hunted as a group start ignoring the commands of their masters and competing with the other dogs creating mayhem to everyone’s dismay except the pheasants.

Because my Lab Roxy is both a flusher and an 8-month old pup who had never seen an upland bird, I kept here clos to me and out of the way as much as possible. She actually shows some pointing instinct but I have no idea how to train a pointing Lab.

Lunch was at Deb’s Diner which has been owned by the perennial and unchanging Cheryl for the last 2 decades. It didn’t take the party long to slag each other’s credit history here.

Soon we were back at it at “Christians’ Big Cock Corner” — the site of a previous successful hunt. I began to notice that we never saw any other hunters though there were rumors that a large sporting goods store had commissioned a Malta, MT native hunter named “Babesy”. The other interesting aspect of this hunt was that fully half of the birds killed appeared to be large second year roosters judging by their >1 cm-long spurs (not a fully trustworthy indicator though). These areas are not typically heavily hunted but the pheasants are very wild as they have to avoid foxes, coyotes, badgers, eagles and hawks.

We ended the day at 7:00 PM, went back for a meal. The long suffering waitress learned everyone’s favorite drink order by the end of the first night.

Here Christian, Bernhard, “Mooneye “ Matt and Adam wonder when Richard will discover that Matt has found his eye glasses on the sidewalk as he wore his shooting glasses to hunt.

We had a nightcap and a little reading before sleeping the sleep of the dead

Next morning met with light rain and cooler temps which makes for excellent scenting conditions but more difficult walking as we had to push water-heavy canvas brush pants through dense wet cover. Still, more roosters fell. My curiosity went out to Dr. Bernhard Richter, a German lawyer whose previous pheasant hunting had been estate shoots at driven pheasants. He walked and wielded his double barrel 12 gauge admirably. When we asked Leon about driven shoots he said he could drive us around to shoot some . . . not our kind of driven hunt unfortunately.

Awfully big truck for just 6 pheasants

The day repeated with miles of walking and a diversity of shooting in wet conditions. Christian had a waterfowl license and took a teal and a hen Wood Duck, missed shooting at a snipe and enjoyed the mixed bag.

Scout as an 18 month old and Matt mentally closing in on a 12 year old!

This evening the dogs were showing the strain with sore muscles, some cuts and exhaustion. Of course my young retriever Roxy never really tired out but that is youth. What was fun to watch was her introduction to upland birds. Having mastered fetching and waterfowl basics, she gravitated to water but eventually started flushing pheasants, saw a few shot then keyed right in on trailing and classic animated tail wagging and rapid turning that hunters call “getting birdy”. This behavior is valuable to hunters because firstly, it allows one to move from a state of general awareness to high alert and focused readiness to shoot. Secondly, the dog will force the bird to fly instead of out-running the gunner and finally, will retrieve any shot birds that are in water, heavy cover or are crippled and trying to escape. A real conservation tool.

Roxy did lose a bird but made up for it by retrieving a hidden cripple Richard had shot only to find it was a mistakenly shot hen. There was some humor and ribbing that night over supper.

At supper I noticed a Park Service employee and an influx of attractive First Nations visitors checking into the Chinook Motel and when I inquired, they said they were Nez Perce tribal members in town for important ceremonies the next day at the site of the Chief Joseph surrender. They invited us to attend so we decided to do that as all our hunting gear was sodden and the dogs were in a state of exhaustion.

Day three dawned gray and raining. Our wet hunting options cementing our commitment to drive down to the Bear Paw National Park for the ceremonies.

The battlefield is a in a beautiful natural prairie grassland.

Unsure of the symbolism of the dark hand handing over the rifle.

Upon arriving we were welcomed to a barren grassy hilltop with a contingent of 40 Nez Perce Indians, us, a couple of white visitors/spouses and 4 Park Service Employees. The rain intensified as young warriors ignited a smudge fire, purified their blankets, pipes and began to smoke the pipe.

Maybe discrete photos were inappropriate. That dawned on me later.

There was some drumming and singing, A 3-pass rider-less horse ceremony, then an elder eloquently and seemingly fairly chronicled the events of this day 132 years ago. Today I checked out a book by Grant McEwan and he corroborates all of the key understandings of the battle. The weather was pretty abysmal but not as bad as the day of the siege.

A powerful honor ceremony of horses circling the crowd.

As we looked down into a bowl-like hollow we could make out small grave-like depressions; these were the defensive ditches where Nez Perce women, children and warriors hid for 4 days as 450 soldiers and scouts rained gunfire and cannon fire down on them, killing 150 of their number. It was heart-rending. This siege came after months of fighting along their 1700 mile evasive route from Washington, USA where white settlers were forcing them off their land. If only they had made 40 more miles, like some of their members did, they would have been in the safety of Canada. Their last days were horseless, burdened by many children and women, without winter clothing or shoes to brave the fresh snow and little to eat. Now they were surrounded however and to reach Canada, they would have had to run the gauntlets of both Cavalry gunfire and the passage through the lands of the antagonistic Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, both of whom had been hired by the US government to catch the emigrant Nez Perce. It was not surprising that even to this day the local First Nation’s Gros Ventre/Assinboine populace does not feel welcomed at this ceremony. Even if we think we understand the basics of white relations with the native residents, we are far far from grasping the historic complexity of inter-tribal relationships.

After accepting several rounds of the red clay ceremonial peace pipe with bowls full of tobacco and root, we took our soggy leave to start the 12-hour trip home, however, an hour into it we were stalled by a small sign that said “gun show” so we had to stop and look at the offerings. Perverse curiosity and some small knife and hatchet deals.

Interesting how easily one can just buy a rifle or pistol.

Scraps of news had trickled in about yet another school massacre in Umpagre, Oregon. Flags were already at half-mast at the US Post Office. There was poignancy in participating in the remembrance ceremonies of a 132 year old political genocide while living through a senseless massacre by a depressive and mentally ill individual all the while we were safety walking field and forest with shotguns safely pursuing delicious exotic chickens and subsidizing the tribal government and citizenry by a few thousand dollars.

Here at the Chinook gun show I saw the newspaper headlines for the first time while our own sporting arms with full registration at the border and carried under our training and safety assurance safely locked in our trucks outside the building.

The hunt at Fort Belknap is akin to going back in time to where land use is casual and leaves plenty of room for wildlife; where much history of First Nations ways is right below the surface. Around about the time the castles were being occupied in Bernard’s homeland, Matt’s family was living in a Polish Village and my ancestors were trying to escape English Monarchy rule, the ancestors of Fort Belknapians had never seen a European before. This is both a land strange to us and onelightly used. I would like to go back. I enjoy the hunting, am pleased to inject some cash into the tribal economy, and appreciate the different world views.

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Lee Foote

Southerner by birth, Northerner by choice, Casual person by nature.