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.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Hunting Naked

I will never find myself in this situation again. 

I have muttered these words under my breath more than once this fall. Due to complexities at home(a baby boy September 30th, an unexpected passing of my younger dog and my new setter pup being adopted by my father due to reason #1) I found myself with very limited dog power come early October. Tess, the 13 year-old setter has been limping along, having been diagnosed with lymphoma and has good days and bad days.  I have shot a few "last birds" over her, including blue grouse, ruffs, Huns, pheasants and sharptail.  If she doesn't wake up tomorrow morning, her final season has been blessed.

I  should be old enough to not allow emotion to trump practicality.  Driving eight hours with a 13 year-old setter to hunt chukars in the most rugged uplands in the US? That makes no sense.  But, like we always do, we justify our bogus decisions with alternative facts.  People can travel for hiking trips, right?  The weather is abnormally nice for November.   I can get into chukars by simply walking farther and faster, even if Tess is unable to perform. Sure. 

Bird hunters rarely arrive in a new area and find instant success with a covey behind every turn. In fact, we often find ourselves driving around with maps and a GPS, hunting for a spot to hunt.  This expedition was no different and finally by 9AM, we were headed uphill. It wasn't quite T-shirt weather, but I have learned to avoid overdressing on the ascent, so we had stripped down to our baselayers.  Tess was with me on this maiden voyage and seemed to be fairing alright as we went up one ridge and down another.  Unfortunately, we didn't move any birds in this first five mile up and down and Tess was finished for the day.

You don't drive across two states to only hunt three hours and sit in a bar watching football.  And, I wanted to be in this country. I needed to feel the burn and see the views.  Like any other addiction, I had to catch those darn chukars on top. Chase them up to the ridges and be lucky enough to find a few in range as I wipe the sweat from my brow. Not having a dog on the ground would be different, but not impossible.

You know how the story ends. Birds flush at inopportune times, when one isn't ready. And in chukar country, that time is often.  Instead of going where a dog's nose leads you, the simple path of least resistance is taken.  Even with a dog, we never know how many birds we pass by when hunting big country of the West. Without a dog, that number increases tenfold. Maybe more.  The phrase, A Walk With A Shotgun comes to mind. My Dad's description of "free exercise", also is applicable when a hunt is nearly fruitless.

But, perhaps the worst aspect of hunting without a dog, bordering on unethical, is when recovering game.  I watched my partner, an energetic fellow who was on a mission to shoot his first wild chukar, wing a bird at 40 yards below him. I did my best to hustle over and play the role of retriever, but without any easy path to him, I wasn't much help immediately. We searched for over 30 minutes, working various figure-eights around his cap, but to no avail.  Silence overcame both of us, knowing that while one bird doesn't not equal extinction of the species, but it sure felt like it. Keenan was upset and I should have known better.  The odds of a well-trained dog finding the bird are high.

Denny Green, the late football coach had a classic line years ago when he tersely stated, "They are who we thought they were!" Well, bird dogs are what we know they are.  Irreplaceable in the field and without them, we are really just going through the motions. 

I will never find myself in this situation again.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Not Another Sad Dog Story - I Promise

I have read enough dog memorials and other reflections on the painful loss of a hunting dog that I choose to skip them, if I am tipped off. It isn't out of a lack of compassion or empathy for a fellow hunter, but more of a defensive mechanism on my part.  I have lost many dogs and it is always difficult. For the majority of us who do not have kennel-only dogs, but dogs that are at our side day and night, the loss is definitely similar to losing a family member.

Losing Abby was sad, but there was plenty of celebration and appreciation along with her death.  Abby also died while hunting, an apparent heart attack, just ten minutes into a morning walk for sharptail in central Montana.  She literally tipped over mid-stride and did not suffer at all.  We all have had hunting dogs that have endured a long illness, gradually losing function and quality of life. Decisions around those illnesses are much more difficult and often delayed. How many of us would prefer to pass away while doing something we truly love?

On the drive home, I assumed that the next step was cremation, which I had done with previous setters whose time had come. But, when my mind was pondering on where I should spread her ashes, the options were nearly limitless, complicating my decision.  Abby, and her older sister Tess, had shared hundreds of days afield with me, in many locations.  Blue grouse, sharptail, pheasants, sage grouse and Hungarians in Montana, grouse and woodcock in Minnesota, quail in Kansas, chukars in Idaho and Wyoming and ptarmigan in Colorado.  Abby and I averaged about 45 days each fall together, often sharing a bed and a corn dog on the ride home.  I decided that I would bury Abby on my property, under a Ponderosa tree, allowing me to visit her grave in perpetuity.

Abby was a quirky little girl.  She pointed shadows and bugs on the wall. But, she was steady on point, so why mess with that?  Abby also had a fairly annoying habit of carrying shoes around the house, which was a pain when you wanted to leave in a hurry, but were missing one shoe.  Again, she was the best retrieving setter I have had, so what the heck.

Abby was 11, which is on the older end of the spectrum for a hunting dog. But, she was the younger of my two setter girls, so I was leaning on her to be my primary hunting companion this fall. She was showing some signs of slowing down this September, especially on long, tough climbs for blue grouse. I blamed a lot of her sluggishness on the unusually warm weather, but now I know the problem ran deeper.  Her last bird was a blue grouse that she pointed for me in the Little Belt Mountains.  That is another reason that this tale is not sad, but a celebration of a bird dog's life.  Her greatest passion was the same as mine: hunting wild birds in wild places. Abby had a great life.  Nothing sad about that. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Introducing Toby

Outside of a newborn baby, nothing can excite (and disrupt) a household more than a new puppy. After a year of researching Ryman setter breeders, getting on a waiting list and a long flight home to Montana with a whining pup under the seat, Toby the English Setter is home.

Perhaps more than any other, there is a lot of variation in the breed. Why the classic Ryman variety, vs. the more available Llewellyn and field trial stock? Mostly range and speed.  Having had both the 40 pound firecrackers and the 65 pound plodders, I have seen the trend with the small-frame,  big-running dogs running faster and wider. My preference is for an all-day hunting dog, not a 60-minute field-trial sprinter. On many blue grouse and chukar climbs, you leave the car at 8AM and return at dark.

Yes, training can dictate a lot when it comes to range and biddability. But, you can't make a race horse out of a plow horse. Genes are a big part of it.  If I only hunted Huns on the prairie, I wouldn't mind a pointing dog 800+ yards and occasionally out of sight.  But, when you also hunt ruffed grouse in the Midwest and blue grouse in the high country, a compromise is needed. Since the 80s, my Dad and I have had a variety of setters, mostly good, with a couple of stinkers in the mix.  All of this is good bar discussion and comes down to personal preference.  Just don't get me started on the Cover Dog moniker. Don't we all want a cover dog?

Back to Toby.  Toby comes from well-planned dog genes, a product of Firelight Setters in Kansas and October setters of Idaho.  Both large frame breeders, with beautiful ticking, Toby would look the part in Norman Rockwell or on a George Bird Evens dust jacket.  The fact that both breeders are avid bird hunters, on on wild birds, is an added strength.  Toby will see his share of sharptail this fall.  And, if he develops as expected, he may get a shot at some woodcock and ruffs, Huns, chukar and bobwhite too.

As far as the household being disrupted, a late September baby boy will need to play nice with the setter pup.  To be continued.......