RALPH BARTHOLDT: Unnatural landscapes are natural places for game

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We hunted the railroad rights of way mostly for hare, ruffed grouse and the occasional pheasant that tucked itself into the brambles and sumac, and then flushed up cackling with all the color of autumn.

As youngsters, sometimes with guns too big for a grow-in fit, we let loose as piously as pushing the bow on a violin.

The shots rolled out, and the shells ejected in a symphony of ear-bending percussion — and probably powder burns, however inconsequential, on tender hands and arms.

Red and green shell casings flipped into the air and the perfume of burned powder rippled around us like the counter at Macy’s, minus the lipstick.

If the bird didn’t fold like a sweet, September postal package that the dogs rushed out to retrieve, it kept going.

And it spited us.

Cluck cluck.

A couple distant cackles, short and to the point, drifted toward us as the pheasant disappeared into the distance on wings pumping then gliding, as it sought a hideaway more quiet and secure.

For the reason of birds, railroad rights of way were boss.

Once at Harrison, I stood on the tracks of Union Pacific and flushed three birds from the railroad brush that were gulped one at a time by the setting sun, as a yellow dog looked at me forlornly and then at least pretended to look for the birds.

They weren’t there.

My swing was off, and besides, they had scared the heck out of me as they tumbled into the aspens of the former Springston mill site.

The railroad tracks aren’t there either, anymore, but the railroad hump survives as a bicycle trail and state park. Its right-of-way extends out to 300 feet in places that are off limits to gunning for birds.

In most places where we live these days, the land is changed and the unnatural changes — railroad grades, roads reclaimed by trees, planted orchards whose homesteaders are long gone, taking all but the trees, and clearcuts, those places where the trees are taken — are often where we find the birds and deer and elk we’re after.

Rip rap is another one.

A fishing guide who once tested my sanctimony by asking what I thought of the big boulders placed by backhoes to keep river banks in check, gleefully responded to my approval of them with the words, “They sure do fish!”

And they serve better than the old Nash Super 600s, Pontiac Chieftains or Streamliners that line the banks of some streams in the West. Granted, there have been sizeable rainbows caught in the vicinity of submerged, riparian car bumpers.

The guide had us fish the bubble line along stretches of rip rap that fell from farm fields into the river; shards of white granite as big as recliners that predictably held fish. They hammered the streamers, or the nymph and dry fly combinations we tossed at them.

The most impressive feat was watching this guide, a kid from New York who was fishing his way to Alaska a river at a time, tie a blood knot with two hands on the oars and the line in his teeth while bouncing through rapids.

I have not mastered the skill.

A friend who guided us on a hairy part of the Yellowstone was intent on duplicating the trick at the cost of his attention span.

His hands left the oars, and we careened into a sweeper, a dead tree fallen across the river just high enough to knock everyone from the boat.

We all stayed dry, but paid with a $300 fly rod that broke, in three places, and $100 fly line that didn’t.

I still have the rod’s cork and the reel.

We should have fished the rip rap.

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached by email to rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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