Tuesday, February 5, 2019

End-of-Season House Cleaning

Letti's first Hun that she pointed and retrieved in September.  I am glad I didn't miss. 

My unfinished basement, where my unfinished den is adjacent to the incomplete home-gym, shows a season of neglect.  September 1st through January 31st to be exact.  After each upland adventure, I would quickly unload the truck, clean and package birds (if I was so fortunate) and hurriedly stash my hunting gear and road trip-leftovers downstairs. After five months of this run-and-gun behavior, the basement looks like a combination of a college frat house and a rummage sale.

So, a very small part of me- very small- is almost glad the 2018-2019 bird season is over.  Time away from family, a console full of gas receipts and hours of driving lonely roads in the dark does takes its toll.  After a quick analysis of my hunting journal, a few aspects stand out.


Misses

Montana Huns.  The report of their demise was not greatly exaggerated.  Poorest Hungarian year in twenty years according to my records.  A terrible drought with very low brood numbers in the summer of 2017, followed by a long winter, played a role in poor numbers this season.  Pheasants were OK in Montana, sharptail were also down, but not as severely as Huns. Surprisingly, the blue grouse were off by about 50% as well. Very few juvenile blue grouse were bagged compared to adult birds.

Eastern Idaho Chukar.  I had thought chukars in the eastern side of the state would have rebounded from their wipeout after the wicked winter of 2016-2017. When biologists tell you that 90% of the birds were lost to winter mortality, pay attention. I like to think I can always walk my way into birds and a good hunt, but not this time.

Minnesota woodcock and weather.  I was about a week or two late for the peak of the woodcock flight at at the grouse camp.  Fortunately, the ruffed grouse had rebounded from the dip the previous season. Unfortunately, an early October snowstorm locked things up for most of my hunt.

The pup's retrieving.  Needs work, as her mouth was a bit rough on birds. But, I hadn't worked a lick on retrieving, so more my fault than hers.

Grouse were up in Minnesota. Unfortunately, we had a foot of snow during my trip.

Hits

Wyoming Chukar.  Could be a sleeper state.  To be continued.

Kansas Walk-In lands.  Program continues to grow and supports a lot opportunity for both pheasants and bobwhite.

Idaho California quail.  Chukar get my attention, but lower on the mountain, the valley quail are a lot of fun. And they never weight down your vest, even with a limit.

The new truck camper.  Waking up in bird camp, not having to check out of a hotel room or pay pet fees was pretty slick.  While I had to be careful to not get the rig stuck or in an area with low-clearance, it was a treat to come back to the truck at noon, heat up some coffee and fix a hot lunch out of the wind. Napping wasn't allowed. OK, just once.

The 28 gauge.  I continue to shoot the smaller-gauge gun more, my 20 less and less.  I seem to shoot the gun better;  probably as simple as it being lighter and faster.  There are some fringe benefits as well: shells weigh less in the vest and I am a digging fewer pellets out of each bird.

The pup's natural ability.  I bought the Ryman setter mostly for her engine.  I wanted a work horse, not a race horse.  Her nose is good, her temperament is gentle.  I look forward to the next chapter with her in just seven months. 


Counting up the shots taken for the season. The numbers aren't as important as the memories.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Flyover States Road Tripping


Our  secondary goal was to only spend money in towns with less than 5,000 people.  In Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and Kansas, it is fairly easy to do.  The primary goal was to hunt wild bobwhites on public lands or state-sponsored Walk-In parcels of private land. The latter goal of putting young dogs on birds was much more important than the former, but both are closely linked to making a road trip enjoyable.

While gas is typically more expensive in a one-pump town, we found gas to be more economical in Broadus, Montana than in the energy hub of Gillette, Wyoming.  Go figure.  Sure, taxes are a big part of petrol, but it really doesn’t make sense. Gas prices ranged from $2.79 to $2.05.   $2 a gallon is almost bearable, even in the GMC truck that guzzles gas like college guys drink free keg beer. Not spending any money on motels offset the higher fuel expense.  The nightly pet fees were one of the final straws when deciding to camp instead of looking for the nearest Motel 6. Leaving dogs in a truck in a strange parking lot was never an option in my book. 

I justify food costs by stating that you have to eat wherever you are.  With the new pickup camper, I always have the fridge and stove within walking distance, so I seem to be eating more home-cooked eggs for breakfast, followed by gourmet hot dogs at lunch. One thing I really look forward to on out-of-state adventures is dining out with the locals in these small burgs.  The folks are closer in dress and beliefs than what I would encounter in Omaha, Denver or Kansas City.  They know we are visiting from “down the road a spell”, so they inquire, wanting to know our story.  When the answer to the question is Montana, they aren’t often offended, usually surprised we left good hunting to find good hunting. If they still don’t believe our rationale, then we just explain that we are trying to avoid our wives and then they give us that smirk of acceptance. A couple of things I have learned about these caf├ęs over the years are: 1) don’t order seafood no matter what the special is 2) the farther south you go, the better the Mexican food is (thanks Captain Obvious) 3) don’t assume they take debit cards. Cash is still king in small towns. 


The hunting wasn’t bad on this December journey.  However, Day One was a complete loss, as winds gusted from 35 – 55 mph all day.  Typically on a road trip, 20-30MPH is manageable, as you are fairly pressured to get out in the field. Not ideal, but a little windburn never hurt.  55mph is impossible, no matter how tough you think you are.  Even scouting Nebraska and Kansas Walk-In areas by vehicle was tough. Dust was blowing, birds weren’t showing. Good thing for XM radio and good coffee. 


We did get into bobs right off the bat on Day Two. They were dug into heavy cover early in the morning, clearly haven taken refuge from the previous day’s hurricane-force blasts. The coveys we saw were all large and healthy and sat tight for the young setters.  By avoiding the same dreaded population centers, we seldom saw another hunter.  We never did see another blaze-clad person afield, only a few driving the highways, pulling their Jones Trailers from their motel to a nearby field.
The dog work was good, shooting was mediocre, the small town living in the flyover states couldn’t be better. 



Monday, September 24, 2018

Bird Hunting In A Digital World

A great day of Hun hunting with Dad and dogs. No questions please. 


It was before my time, but I am guessing old-school scribes like Ted Trueblood didn't receive snotty emails or scolding messages through social media.  If he wrote an article for Outdoor Life, it was probably months, maybe years before it was published and someone took the time to mail him a letter to a NY office building. Those days are dramatically different from today's instant gratification, immediate reporting, Instagram-Tweeting culture.

 I have often chided those folks that have to share a photo of every meal they eat outside of their home or the dudes from the gym announcing to the cyber world that they are at the gym. No days off bruh!  Well, many of us bird hunters are just as guilty. If you spend a little bit of time on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat, (Snap the kids like to say) you will see plenty of autobiographical updates from the field.  

First double on Huns!  Limited out in two hours!  Best dog work South Dakota has seen!  You get the idea.  I am guilty of certain facets of the above, hopefully not quite as vain. With more exposure and more followers/friends/fans, comes more compliments and more criticism.  If you continue to post tailgates full of chukars or sharptail, people want to know more.  And you can't blame them. 

Last season, I provided information to a "father-son, bucket-list, dream trip" request on where to find their first sharptail grouse in the Treasure State. When they (it ended up being father/son and two buddies of the father) struck out, they also lashed out.  At me. Turns out, they couldn't read maps and I didn't warn them that rain makes muddy roads.  Sorry, I guess.  More recently, I was asked about Montana prairie bird numbers and based on 20 years of records, I responded that this year's bird crop  was below average.  After I had posted a photo of a very modest day with the pup's bag of two sharptail and three Huns, the same individual felt I was being dishonest.  I was about to explain myself, describing the number of miles walked to see one flock of sharptail and two coveys of Huns, but then I said the heck with it.  I had grass to mow and a few birds to clean.  Very few. 

A recent post by a fellow blogger, remarked about the sudden increase in traffic in his blue grouse coverts.  But, as an advocate for his passion in print and photos, is he making his neck of the grouse woods more crowded? Don't we need to keep hunter numbers strong for the continued health of our sport? If social media promotes hunting in a favorable light to the next generation, then our intent is just. However, Not In My Back Yard is real and we are all guilty of wanting to share our passion, just not share our opening day pheasant slough or ruffed grouse grove.






Monday, June 18, 2018

Expectations vs Reality

June 1st just passed us by. Which in Montana, means bird eggs are cracking, the rain is going to dry up and ranchers are haying like it is going out of style.  Usually.  Not this year, where the countryside is green and Minnesota-lush. We have had nice, consistent rains which keep watersheds awash with wash and keep the ranchers in the coffee shops instead of in tractors putting chicks in peril. So, it should be a heckuva bird year, right? Too soon to tell. A lot can happen between our nation's birthday and the Upland Bird Holiday of September 1. But, expectations are fairly high. About a 7 out of 10.

The pup is 4 months old today.  With two months of training, plenty of trail runs in the mountains and access to wild birds out the back door and front, Letti should be a setter puppy prodigy. Her pedigree was worthy of a drive home from Kansas and the best dog food one can find in an Uber-free village this size. She seems to be a quick-learner and her Ryman genes appear to be less spastic than my previous Llewellyns. Expectations are about an 8 out of 10.

The little guy in the house that shares my surname and shiny dome will be one-year-old September 30th. Mom has to nearly fight for custody with our two grandmas that live in town, competing to change his diapers.  My Dad hunted more than most bachelors when I was a toddler, so that trait needs to be passed down to the next generation, I believe.  And, work will be slow, with no conflicts with travel from Montana blue grouse season through Hun and sharptail season to Minnesota ruffed grouse season to Montana pheasant opener through Idaho chukar season in January. I will be able to get away at least 45 days this fall because I deserve it.

Expectations, about 3 out of ten.

Bring on September!





Friday, April 27, 2018

My Next Best Dog


          
   I pulled into the driveway at home, mid-afternoon Monday.  I had left Firelight Kennels in Kansas the previous morning, so I was punch-drunk from driving, not quite sure what I was seeing.  But, after watching the pair of Hungarians waddle off into the lawn, I smiled and said “Welcome to Montana Letti!”.  Throughout the long, tough winter, I hadn’t seen a Hun since November, but they reappeared this April day to welcome our new setter pup home.
              With every pup comes unbridled hope and optimism. We forget what little brats they can be, only expecting the best traits that our previous bird dogs offered.  It is easy to fast-forward in our mind to their first point, their first blue grouse, first woodcock and so on.  Ideally, the birds have a great hatch this spring, CRP is fully-funded by Congress and work allows ample time to get in the field.   Will it be my best dog ever? Hard to say. With each dog we gain more experience training a pup and have more disposable income to travel to the birdy haunts we have learned over the years. Outside factors such as weather, habitat and wildlife regulations can make an impact.  There will never be five-bird limits again on woodcock or a four-month long season on sage grouse. The thick, endless CRP of the pheasant belt in the Nineties might not ever be duplicated.  But, there will be birds to hunt somewhere. Letti will have a good life. I guarantee it.



Monday, February 12, 2018

OK, This Is Another Sad Dog Story

Tess locked up on a Montana rooster, Abby honoring. 

I have been crying a lot lately. Not from another dismal showing by the Vikings in the big game, but from something much more meaningful.  Part of the family is gone, 12 years of my life or 26% of it, has been officially been written.  Marriage, loss of a grandparent, the start of a new business, the sale of a business, a new career, a new house, another new career and the birth of my son, occurred in that life span. The recent breakdown originated this weekend as I grabbed a package of blue grouse out of the freezer. It was marked September 3rd and brought me back to a day when both of my girls were with me, hunting near timberline, on a mountain ridge in central Montana. I was enjoying a meal without them, one they had a big part in.

I lost my English setter Abby in September. Heart-attack or stroke, ten minutes into a quick Montana sharptail hunt. Not the worst way to go, but still sudden and painful. She was my younger hunting partner and at age 11, she was going to get me through one more season, before a pup joined the team. Tess, she was 13 heading into this season and was mostly retired.  Heck, she was slowing down in the fall of 2015.  
Abby backing Tess, with a sharptail in her mouth. 


Shortly after Abby died, the vet said the cause for Tess' lack of appetite and constant cough was a combination of a mass in the lungs and lymphoma.  He might have said more, but I was numb. I wasn't really listening, too busy feeling sorry for myself and for Tess.  One to six months was the best guess.  Some steroids and some love were my only hope. 

Tess made it longer than she should have.  I went from trying to shoot one bird over her in September to being to enjoy her hunting blue grouse, ruffed grouse, valley quail, pheasants, chukar, sharptail and Huns, albeit at a slower pace for just a few hours per outing. But, I would take it. We had a great fall together, chasing daylight in her career, appreciating every minute of her life. 
Tess with a soft-mouthed Hun. 


Losing two beloved bird dogs in less than six months isn't something that I would wish on anyone.  But, it almost needed to be that way.  They were a team for the past decade. Man, did we hunt. 45 days a fall, in a number of states, on a number of upland bird species.  We fished mountain lakes together and trail ran in the summer. Tess and Abby waited patiently every morning to share my leftover milk from my cereal. Like a couple that had been married for decades, when one passes, the other soon follows. 

Thanks girls. You are making me cry again. 

The girls on their one-and-only bobwhite hunting trip to Kansas. 

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sometimes We Just Need To Hit The Road

I tried to convince someone to join me on my next sojourn across the West. But, I didn't try too hard.  Dad was offered first, but as he ages he doesn't enjoy strange motel beds or long drives.  It is unfortunate, as he has the young pup that could use the experience. Also,  Dad and I have the good fortune of sharing many memorable trips together whether it was on his first chukars just a few years ago or my first pheasant decades ago.

Other folks I invited had commitments.  Some seemed justified, some seemed lame, at least in my eyes.  Regardless, twisting someone's arm to go hunting is never a good thing.  Most of all, I really enjoy solo road trips to clear the mind and see new country.

The obvious benefit about traveling alone is being 100% in control. You can eat at the same greasy spoon three meals in a row if you choose, your sleep revolves around your schedule not around unwanted snoring and there is no one to fight over the satellite radio stations.  Most folks I know would want to put up with my unorthodox mix of Garth Brooks, the NHL network, Studio 54 Radio and the BBC.

Absolute quiet is also good therapy at times. Driving across the flyover states is often quite mindless. Just a man and his thoughts. I keep a small notepad handy as I expand on my to-do list which usually includes mundane tasks around the house that have been neglected due to the bird season which began September 1st. That list may or may not include such duties as splitting kindling for the wood stove and spending time with my wife. The only time I really lack a co-pilot is when I am tiring from driving at night. Or when I pull up to the gas pump.  "I got this one," I enjoy saying to myself.

Many of us admit that as we age and become more set in our ways, we would rather hunt alone than hunt with someone who we clash with.  Those we avoid includes cheapskates, spot-stealers, slow-walkers , drunkards and shoot-low-over-the-dog types. I also like to hunt alone for their benefit.  While hunting tried-and-true coverts is practical, exploring new territory is half of the adventure. But, with that reward of finding a hidden pheasant slough or Hun homestead, comes a lot of empty miles and hours lost. If I am alone, I only feel bad for the tired dogs, not myself.  I recently took a co-worker chukar hunting to the Idaho-Oregon border country, some of the roughest country around.  After a long drive on icy roads, thousands of feet of elevation gained each day hiking and very few shots fired, he readily accepted the offer of an early exit home on day three.  I enjoyed seeing new ground, habitat that was bordering on too steep for hunters and too dangerous.  But, we did see chukars, so I will be back.


I recently departed Montana over the holidays for an area void of snow, seven hours away and with only a 13-year-old setter with lymphoma in tow.  My immediate family gave me that cock of the head that said, "What? Why?"   But, most fellow bird hunters know why.  The off-season is long, dogs don't live long enough and sometimes, maybe 1 out of 4, the open road to new country leads us to that bit of heaven that we yearn for. It was the final road trip for my setter girl Tess and seeing her do her thing one last time was something you cannot put a price tag on. She ate mostly table scraps, slept  in bed with me each night and rode in the truck seat next to me.  I drove on icy roads most of the way home, but I would do it all over again.