By Allen Crater

At home a friend will ask, “Been bird hunting?” You will say that you have, and when he asks,” Have any luck?” You will think of what you have held in your heart instead of your hand, and then answer that you certainly did — without a doubt.

This quote from one of America’s most beloved outdoor writers, Gene Hill, conjures romantic images of days afield with old double guns and English briar pipes while a well-bred bird dog zigzags through popple stands. Hunters don waxed cotton and wet wool. Notes of vanilla, nutmeg, and honey from single-barrel bourbon shared over a tailgate meet the nostrils. The slight decay of fallen leaves hanging on crisp air, and the rattle of spent shells in your coat pocket is audible.

What it may not immediately draw to mind is an inked-up former tattoo artist from Flint, Michigan.

But it should.

Jay Dowd

Jason Dowd, Jay to his friends, or Upland Lowlife by his Instagram handle, is a Michigan writer, grouse guide and celebrated pen-and-ink artist specializing in upland folk art. His commissions are in high demand, and his work can be found on the pages of Orvis and Filson catalogs, and adorning gear from brands like Michigan United Conservation Clubs, Pyke Gear and Scientific Anglers, and shotguns for Upland Gun Company.

Underneath the colorful collage of tattoos resides an old soul passionate about English setters, Parker shotguns, pipes and conservation.

I met Jay on a blustery January afternoon at the White Horse Tavern in his hometown. Much like the man himself, White Horse is an understated but wildly popular place favored by hardworking locals. We sat at a table near the bar with a couple of domestic drafts to talk about his life, love for hunting and art.

Much like Ruark’s “Boy,” Jason’s grandfather had the most significant impact on his life, and he has been hunting beside him since he could walk.

“I never met my dad,” he shares, “and my grandpa retired from G.M. shortly after I was born. So, I hung out with him a lot and that meant tagging along when he was working with his dogs and eventually hunting. Around seven or eight he got me an air rifle for Christmas, and I was his regular hunting buddy after that. When school let out, he would pick me up and take me up to his old farm where we would hunt pheasant, woodcock, and the occasional grouse. On the weekends, we would jump in his pickup, Merl Haggard on the radio and head up north to chase grouse and woodcock, and that is what I really came to look forward to.”

It’s difficult to say if Jason would first consider himself a hunter or an artist. The pursuits are inexplicably intertwined, like bird dogs and October days. The love of one drives the passion for the other — each an integral part of the whole.

“I’ve been into art as long as I can remember. My mom was a really good artist, and I used to look at all my grandpa’s old hunting and fishing magazines and draw my own versions. When I graduated high school, I started working as a tool maker. I was really into the music scene then — metal and punk — and started getting into tattoos. After 10 years, the machine shop I was working at closed due to the economic effects of 9/11. One of the tattoo parlors I frequented was looking for an artist, and I ended up apprenticing and then working there for the next 10 years.”

Jason began transitioning from one ink business into another when his daughter was born. “I’ve always liked the idea of folk art, and I happened to have some wood lying around, so one day, I just started experimenting with it.” Before long, Upland Lowlife was born, and, with the support of his wife, Jason’s stories in ink moved from tattoos to sporting art, and his career surged like a setter through the alders.

But make no mistake: If you try to contact Jason regarding a commission any time in the fall, you’ll likely get his voicemail or an “out-of-office” email response. Coming off his ninth season guiding, a simple wall tent pitched in the Pigeon River area serves as both his home and office from around mid-September through mid-November.

I asked Jason what constitutes a perfect day guiding in the grouse woods. “It’s that rare moment when it all comes together as scripted — amidst the controlled chaos that is upland hunting,” he said. “The right cover, a staunch point before an explosive flush and a double gun that does its work.”

I’ve yet to experience this moment of perfection in my brief foray into the upland world. I imagine it is much like locating a wary trout sipping dries during a Henny hatch. You tie on a Rusty Spinner fresh off the vice, making a perfect cast. The offering lands softly on the water, followed by a quick mend and a drag-free drift. You watch the take, electrified and time stands still as you set the hook and feel the heft of a solid fish on the end of your line.

Of course, the fishing comparison falls a little short — after all, it’s just you and the fish in that scenario. In the hunting world, there’s the infernal wild card — the dog. If you want to see a bird hunter light up, with either pride or frustration (or likely both), mention the dogs.

While his grandfather was a pointer man, Jay favors setters. “In 1995, I got my first bird dog, an English setter, from a guy named Jim Marti from Burnt Creek Setters in North Dakota. My grandpa was a shorthair guy then, but he liked my setter so much he got one too, and we have hunted setters ever since. I’ve had a few different types over the years. I currently have three Rymans from Firelight Setters, and I just got a pup out of the DNR line from Al Stewart. Before that, I had two Wicksall setters, a long and storied line written about in this magazine, Georgie and Ruthie. They were a great team; Georgie was probably my once-in-a-lifetime dog.”

While many of Jay’s commissions feature sporting dogs, he loves outdoor scenes the most, pulling inspiration from some greats: Jim Foote, Lynn Bogue Hunt, William Schaldach and AB Frost. He starts each drawing in pencil and later moves to pen as the image evolves. The shading, rather than color, providing the rich contrast that’s characteristic of his work. It’s a perfect metaphor for Jason himself. Contrast — an outdoor artist from an urbanized area with tattoos covering his arms, hands, and neck, wearing an old wool sweater, carrying a classic double, and smoking a pipe, or what he refers to as “the old-man esthetic.”

Jay Dowd

Jason’s life has been heavily influenced by his grandfather and his mentor’s group of old hunting pals — the traditions, history, stories and styles. Even right down to the books he reads. “I enjoy George Bird Evans, Burton Spiller, Corey Ford, and Col. H.P. Sheldon, but most of all, Gene Hill. I prefer Gene because he’s approachable, and never took himself too seriously. He reminds me of my grandpa and his buddies.”

I notice the matching shotgun-shell art on Jay’s hand and inquire. “It memorializes the last time I went grouse hunting with my grandpa, now 91, where he was able to shoot a grouse. It was 2006, I believe. He actually shot two that day, the last of the season. I think I was supposed to go on a date with some girl, but instead, I went out on a hunt with my grandpa. It was a perfect moment.”

There’s a hint of hesitation when Jason, the artist, considers his grandfather, a farmer turned successful automotive man. That crafting stories with pen and ink feels somehow less salt-of-the-earth than rows of corn or sturdy pickup trucks rolling off an assembly line — that maybe his passion will never represent the monetary gains often chased in today’s capitalistic frenzy. But, while I’ve never met Jason’s grandfather, I can almost hear his reply in Ruark’s Old Man:

Rich,” the Old Man said dreamily, “is not baying after what you can’t have. Rich is having the time to do what you want to do. Rich is a little whisky to drink and some food to eat and a roof over your head and a fish pole and a boat and a gun and a dollar for a box of shells.

Jay Dowd

By that definition, Jason is rich beyond measure and generously shares his wealth through art that transports us back to treasured memories in our hearts, if not our hands.

Allen Crater resides in Michigan where he enjoys chasing whitetail, trout and birds but you’ll often find him roaming the backcountry of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming come September. His work has appeared in several publications, including Solace, Backcountry Journal, Strung and Fly Fusion. He hosts and released his first book, Outside in Shorts, last fall.