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.......

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Orange Army

I received this photo today via a constant contact email from a conservation group.  Credit to YoTut/Flicker.

My first reaction was of concern for the dog.  My second thought was if that is the only bird hunting I had left to do, I think I might take up golf instead. 

I understand pheasants that run during late season, corporate outing ass-kissing, hunters paying for success, etc.  And, I also know the reaction to my criticism: we need to stick together as hunters.  Sure, we do in most cases. I concede this is hunting to most folks and there isn't much unethical about it.  Heck, the dog might be having a blast (just as long as it doesn't get blasted). 

I hunted with a party of 12 once in college. We pushed Southwest Minnesota CRP fields with a handful of hyper flushing dogs.  I can recall about six or seven shots whenever a bird flushed.  When the second hen was shot (they were not legal fare) I sneaked off to my Chevy Blazer and found my own place to hunt. No thanks.

What say you?  Do you enjoy these large groups?  Are you a driver or poster?  Would you let your dog cast side to side in front of a large group, possibly with strangers?  

To each his own.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Still Learning Stuff

 I find it both fascinating and encouraging that after 32 years or so of trying to get a shotgun pointed at a flying, wild game bird, I am still learning.  I am not sure if the chess masters learn every possible move within the game, but they must see a lot of the same tactics over and over.  At least the master checkers players, I would assume.  Tic-tac-toe for sure. Regardless, if we knew everything that bird hunting had to offer, it wouldn't be as exciting and fresh.

Now that I am OFFICIALLY done hunting for this season (I considered the final weekend of the Nevada chukar season last weekend), I can reflect on what transpired, both good and bad.  I managed to fit in a little bit of work around a lot of driving, many nights in cheap motels and a lot of hours in the Toyota listening to a balance of election bickering, fantasy hockey talk and new Chainsmoker songs on XM radio.

Woodcock. I finally conceded that the woodcock hunting around our grouse camp in Minnesota will never be as good as it was back in the late 80s and early 90s.  Sure, you can time the flights just right for a couple of days and feel like the birds are everywhere.  We moved plenty of woodcock in October to feel good about shooting a few that the old dogs had nailed, but it wasn't like the good ol' days, when the season opened on September 1st, the limit was five a day and guys shot a box of shells before noon.  No wonder all of our dogs went deaf at age eight.

Speaking of deafness, it is making an appearance. Oddly enough, it showed up in my Dad at age 70 this fall and by golly, I can tell that my hearing in my barrel-facing left ear, isn't as good as my leeward right ear.  Not a major deficit yet and no, I haven't worn ear protection bird hunting. Shooting skeet yes, but not afield.  I may regret that, sooner rather than later.

Wild Bobwhite. Nearly extinct.  Release birds only.  All on private land. Texas.  Habitat loss.

I have heard the doom and gloom, since I was old enough to read outdoor sporting mags.  I had no desire, nor the money to travel to Texas or Georgia and pay to hunt quail.   But, with a little guidance from a quail-crazy friend, some good luck, and one foot after the other, I had a great Kansas trip hunting bobs.  They were just as dog-friendly as grouse and woodcock up north and it was a special hunt as my two old setters were a perfect team. My only regret is that I didn't take Dad.

Chukar.  My chukar addiction was not quenched this fall, whatsoever.  I only had one real chukar trip this fall and I wasted a lot of time in new spots and previously successful areas were not as bountiful as previous years.  Other trips were cut short due to winter weather or bad roads.  I learned that the season can be pretty much over with one heavy snowfall. I don't mind hunting in snow, but at some point, you start to feel for the birds and the dogs.  It has been a long winter in parts of Idaho, Utah and Nevada and I hope spring comes early.

I learned that not everything from California is bad.  California / valley quail are pretty neat birds.  It is common in Montana to cringe, whenever the California moniker is used, but when a wintry chukar hunt forced me to veer south into the quail country of southern Idaho, I fell in love with the little bird.  In fact, my 13-year old setter Tess, finished her season, and possibly her career, bringing me back a valley quail that I could not find in the brush.   I was proud of her and was able to check a bird off the life list.

As of now, the bird season in Montana is only six and a half months away.  I can't wait to enter another season and learn a few more things.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Can't Always Tough It Out

Should have stayed south.  I was into some valley quail in southern Idaho before New Year's. There was some snow on the ground, but not enough to tire the dogs or make the hunting impossible. The motel was cheap, there was plenty of public ground nearby and a relaxing hot springs next door. But, the plan was to work my way north and get into some chukars, a bird that I can't stop thinking about. I knew there was more snow than normal across most of central Idaho, but I was OK with it.  When things get tough........

Long story short, the hiking was miserable.  The snow was so deep that Abby walked in my tracks.  I had packed snowshoes, but the sidehills were just to steep for them to work.  I saw very few birds and those I did spot, simply walked away.  Hopeless feeling.

Regardless, it was good exercise in beautiful country.  I am afraid that this is the end of my hunting for the year. I also worry about the long winter ahead for many of the gamebirds in parts of Idaho and Montana.  I won't get into the debate of whether or not we should hunt birds when winter is starting to take its toll. That discussion is going on in another blog that many of us follow.  All I know is that my hunt today wasn't fair chase.  At least not fair to me.  The chukars kicked my butt all over the mountain!

Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Old Dogs New Birds

I had been planning a road trip out of Montana the second weekend in December, looking to hunt chukars in either Oregon, Idaho or an even more distant Nevada.  As is often the case in December and January, a large winter storm can change plans quickly. But, for us stubborn bird hunters that cannot get enough, I had to find an alternative plan to heading west.  Hunting in cold and snow is one thing, but 8 hours on icy roads is another.

All autumn, I had read good reports of quail in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas and when I looked at the forecast, the temperatures in Kansas were in the fifties for the duration of my five day weekend. I dreaded a 1,000 mile trip to hunt three days, but once again, I dedicated my mission to two old setters that deserved to hunt somewhere.  Mileage, motels, gas and a nonresident license all add up quickly, but no one knows what next season brings for birds, dogs and us.  

I still managed to find icy roads in both Montana and Wyoming, so I didn't complete the journey in one day.  But, I knew my aging dogs would limit my time in the field anyway, so getting a later start that first day, wasn't too alarming.  With the beauty of technology, I was able to order my Kansas hunting license and download the Walk In hunting atlas to my Iphone, all why driving through busy Denver traffic. (Just kidding. I did it in my motel that evening. But, Denver traffic was horrible. And the Kansas Walk In map app is awesome) By, 9AM Saturday morning, I was hunting in a shirt and without gloves, while my friends back home were shoveling snow off their sidewalks.

I missed the first chance at quail due to a terrible case of anxiousness.  Both barrels were emptied to no avail.  But, my entire trip was made just a few minutes later, as I shot a double over my 12 year-old Tess, when the birds decided to sit tight and even fly my direction.  I gave Tess a quick hug and took the five-ounce bird from her jaws and had Abby find the second.  It was a great start to a trip that was fairly ad-libbed.

My assumption on how this trip would unfold,  would be to find some pheasants scattered amidst the private lands open to public, walk-in hunting. I assumed I would find an occasional covey of bobwhite if I burnt enough boot leather.  I was hoping to add the bird to my life list, as I had only shot Mearns quail roughly 15 years earlier.   As it turned out, this would end up being a bobwhite hunt first, with pheasants more of a ancillary discovery.

I shot very poorly, but it was often a case of the yips, combined with the excitement of abundant coveys  and good dog work.  Once I decided to focus on quail instead of pheasants, I left my 20 gauge in the truck, dumped 28 gauge shells in my vest and shot markedly better with the lighter, faster over-under.

The hunting and the terrain was very gentlemanly, just like I had read for years in the high-society sporting magazines. While my setters were in good shape for their age, the Kansas terrain benefitted them greatly compared to the chukar hills of the West.  I had never imagine that I would be able to cough up enough cash to have a southern plantation hunt, so to find huntable, wild bobwhite populations on land open to the public, was a very pleasant surprise.  My truck odometer and bank account both took a serious hit, but the odds of returning to Kansas in the future, when Mother Nature is unfriendly in the northern latitudes, are very good.  Long live bobwhite quail.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Step One: Admitting You Have A Problem

Around Montana, you still see the billboards, both amateurish and commercially-made: Meth-It Only Takes Once. Not sure if that is only a scare tactic or if the toxic mixture is really that addictive.  I haven't tried it and will take their word for it.  

I have taken the chukar drug the past five years and I am pretty much focusing my life around the exciting little devil.  While I am not calling in sick to work or stealing from relatives to take another hunting trip west, I am constantly researching where to look for the sporty partridge next. Oregon? Snake River Canyon? Northern Nevada?  There seems to be plenty of options.

Have I had a banner year thus far, with plenty of shooting and great dog work?  Not really. With the purchase of two separate 3-day nonresident bird licenses, I could barely feed my bowling league team, if I was on one.  In six days, two of them were skunkings; as in no birds seen, no shots fired in 7 hours of hiking. One frustrating day I hunted in fog so thick I couldn't see my close-working dog.  Oh, my beloved 20 gauge that I was given during the Reagan Administration as a gift for my 16th birthday? I fell and busted it. The forearm came down directly on a melon-sized rock and it exploded into four pocket-sized pieces. (If a hunter swears out loud in the sage brush sea and no one hears him, was he swearing?) We had packed a backup shotgun, but that doesn't mean we wanted to use the darn thing. 

The hunting itself can make a masochist out of you.  Unlike pheasants, there isn't any of that private land or fence B.S. to hassle with.  Chukar hunting success is often strictly a case of your team, dogs and humans, and how much effort you want to exert.  That extra effort to stay with the dogs when they are in creep mode separates the Dwayne The Rock Johnsons from the Kid Rocks.  If you are 40 yards from your pointing dog that is currently in POINT MODE and the birds flush 40 yards in front of said dog, then you are strictly observing.  Occasionally they hold forever, often they tease. If that covey glides back down the same dreadful slope that you just sweated through your non-flatbill baseball cap to climb, guess what? Yes, we are doing back down.  And then back up.  Why do you think some crazy SOB runs ultra-marathons, instead of the pedestrian 26.2? The greater the effort and challenge, the greater the reward. And the more your hunting partners snore at night.  

Shooting ain't usually easy. But, this also what makes it rewarding. My feet seem to get tangled up while chukar hunting on rocky sidehills, the birds are usually diving downhill, picking out one target can fluster the most avid birdhunter and they aren't sharptail.  These are smaller targets that get out of Dodge. After these past two trips, I reserve judgement for any other chukar hunters out there.  I don't care if you shoot limits, carry a 10 gauge autoloader or run six pointers at once.  There just isn't an easy way to kill those buggers.  If there was a Babe Ruth of chukar hunting, he or she would be tall and lanky, probably a endurance athlete of some kind, a sporting clays champion, retired, single, and just wealthy enough to keep good tires on the truck.  I guess that leaves Babe Ruth out, for most of the reasons mentioned. The rest of us just have to keep hiking uphill and burning powder.  

Monday, October 17, 2016

The King is still King

Maybe I demand too much. Multiple species, in two states, within a week.  How difficult can it be? She is ten years old for Pete's sake.

I don't recall this trouble last year, but then again, I didn't go right from Montana pheasant opener to grouse and woodcock camp either.  A bird is a bird is a bird. Smell the bird, point the bird. It isn't rocket surgery, as my college buddy used to misspeak.

The trip started from central Montana where I leave roosters for more roosters and much better access.  Lewistown is a bird hunting mecca where most of the pheasant ground is tied up to Bozeman-based guides and we are left with slivers of public land. But,  enough of that whining. My eastern Montana pheasant opener is a tradition since the 90s, otherwise known as the era of Guns and Roses, Zubaz and Stroh's beer.  I miss the Zubaz the most. The hunting is easy, the bird work is more like training and the afternoons are spent hunting Huns or sharptail once limits are had.  I used to get a tribal license or cross into North Dakota for a fresh, new limit of birds in the afternoon, but that was when I was younger and more was always better.  Unless it involved Stroh's.
Pheasant opener with the boys. Tradition or competition?

I departed Montana, seeing a bunch of birds in North Dakota along the way.  Doesn't anyone hunt the Bakken anymore? With empty oil fields and fairly quiet roads, it seemed like the pheasants in western ND were going to waste. I will keep that in mind for later.  I encountered snow-covered roads in mid-Dakota, but that was par for the course.  When I finally hit grouse camp at dusk, I was doubly impressed.  The leaves were about 80% off the trees and Dad was on the porch pointing to a grouse in a tree next to him, eating mountain ash berries. That was a good sign. By morning, there were two ruffs, fighting over berries.  Even better.

Despite Dad being a 70-year old wingshooter, our first morning hunt turned out to be a five-hour jaunt, in his typical fashion. One bird leads to another, one covert connects to another.  We moved plenty of birds and had good dog work from Blue and Tess, a team of 12 year-olds that know their stuff.  They don't compete, they honor each other flawlessly and they don't crowd ruffs. We moved about 11 birds and bagged five.  Not a bad start to a trip.
When the grouse are coming to us at the cabin, the peak of the cycle is getting close.

In the afternoon, I let Tess rest, giving Abby, the "youngster" at ten, the floor. To cut to the chase, so did she.  She bumped a woodcock and a grouse like she was in a hurry to see the things fly.  I grew up in hawthorne and alder country and can bust brush with the best of them. But, I had a heckuva time getting to her beeper in time to get a shot off.  Day two was a little bit better, but I still felt like Abby was creeping in on the King when she didn't need to.

Many dog men have said hunting running roosters will ruin a pointing dog.  I have never bought that theory completely, but I was wondering if the pheasant chase we did a few days earlier, did have an impact on my seasoned setter.   I admit, there are a few times over Phez Opener 2016, where I encouraged Abby to break point. A bird was locked up tight, in thick cover and wouldn't budge.
OK, Abby! Ok.
There are also those running roosters in CRP which encourage chasing, relocating and more chasing.  We are nearly trying to create a flushing dog out of our pointing dogs.  That is not what you want in the grouse woods.

Day three was better. I think Abby was slowing down and treating ruffs with the respect they deserved.  I had to leave that afternoon, but one bird will haunt me for another 12 months:  Abby's beeper was going off in a distance and she wasn't moving a muscle. I made it over to her and saw the gray phase grouse on the ground.  I reached for my phone/camera as the bird flushed, giving me a shot that I could have made, but failed.  Dad would later kill that bird. My bird. Abby's bird. Truly the King of Gamebirds.

Abby, Tess and Blue with their Day One bounty. Oh, and Dad likes a neat stack of firewood.