Thursday, July 9, 2020

A Season Needed More Than Ever


My mind is already wandering to cool mornings in camp, as we prep to head uphill to search for blues. Admittedly, it is a bit premature, as the birds have just hatched and we had mountain snow in the past ten days.  Ripe berries and hoppers of the dog days of summer are weeks away. Regardless, there will always be a few blues in their reliable high-elevation haunts on September 1st.
With upland bird season just two months away, I am formulating a more deliberate list of hunting trips for the upcoming season than normal. I started a list on my iPhone of places I want to not forget about in the next 4-6 months, as I think of them. In other words, ideas gleaned while at work or during “conversation” with the wife. Some brainstorms involve new areas I have never traveled to, some out of state, a few here in Montana.  Old coverts that I have neglected the past few seasons for whatever reason are also on the list.

Nevada- is in the former category. Every year I attempt to make a late season chukar trip and every year a winter storm pops up as I pack up. I guess that shouldn’t surprise when trying to travel 12 hours, across three mountain passes in January, but this is the year. I swear.  The vast amount of public land is intriguing, as is the topography that appears much more hospitable than the Hells Canyon vert.

The Charlie M. Russell Wildlife Refuge – While I live only an hour from the western-most edge of the 1.1 million acres of public land, I haven’t hunted it much the past four or five years. While bird densities can be fairly low per mile on the CMR, it is truly endless walking for those that seek sharptail and sage grouse in their native range.   I don’t own a horse, but if I did, saddle up. I will also probably invite along a sage grouse rookie, so they can have a chance at checking off the big bombers from their life-list.

Wyoming Blue Grouse- Sure, leaving blues in my backyard to search for blues in another state seems foolish.  But, the satisfaction of finding birds in new country is always enjoyable.  Early September is the window for this hunt, as snow comes early in the high-country.  There was plenty of white stuff on the ground last September 15th when I promised the family a “camping trip” in the Cowboy State.
 
Blues are a great early-season opportunity - in any state
Minnesota Sharptail- Same. Montana has ample sharptail. Minnesota’s numbers are a fraction of Big Sky Country’s.  No matter, this is mostly nostalgia, to check on some of the grouse habitat that I first hunted in as a youngster.  I don’t think the peat bogs and birds have gone anywhere. It will be interesting to see if the countryside appears the same way that my memory paints it. I will already be back in the North Woods hunting ruffs and woodcock, so this can be a side trip.
Minnesota "chickens" circa 1985 

The usual favorites.  I have already made one trip to Idaho scouting for chukars and saw plenty of breeding pairs in new areas. This research combined with an off-season knee adjustment, makes chukar hunting a priority.  Wyoming chukar hunting is also decent and offers another late-season option when Montana is shut down. It appears Montana Huns and pheasants populations will be on the rise, so a few prairie road trips are also in the cards. Specifically, I noted a large, remote parcel that I discovered while hunting mule deer last November.  Flushing sharptail, Huns and a few pheasants while sneaking on deer may be annoying to some, but I was laughing the entire time. September can’t get here quickly enough.  

Chukar habitat, settter on point, public land. That's all. 


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Walking Your Way Into Birds......

is the only practice I vouch for and is really the only part of the hunt we control.   The adage isn't complex, but to what degree we take it, varies from hunter to hunter. It simply means the more you walk, the more birds you find.  As Yogi might have said, the mantra is 90% accurate, half the time.

But, the theorem was tested and failed a few times this fall, regardless how many times the boots hit the ground.

When asked by first-timers and bucket-listers hunting sage grouse, my reply has been consistent: find good sage in the eastern 1/2 of Montana and Wyoming, walk in a straight line until the dogs find a flock.  You will eventually encounter a group of bombers.

Well, that routine let me down one day this fall near Winnett, MT, an area that is the epicenter for endless sage range.  I left the truck one cool September morning,with less water than normal, assuming that the young setter Letti and I would find a reservoir holding some adequate liquid and/or we would quickly shoot our token sage hen for the fall.   I was wrong on both accounts. By 2PM, we had walked 6 hours straight, ran the well dry and only saw some grouse droppings.  The sage itself was healthy, very little sign of cattle traffic, but the birds were simply not in our swath. Could they have been 50 yards to either side of us? Yes. This day, eight miles was not enough and I had to get back to town for some less important task.

Kansas was also a bit of a puzzler this year.  Ryan and I were after bobwhite, something that is a novelty for us Montana types.  We hadn't been down to the sunflower state for a couple of years, but based on the bounty we had discovered two years prior, we were optimistic. Just walk the known coverts until we find a covey or two.  And we did. (The walking part, not the finding)  We literally walked from breakfast until darkness each day.  Our frustration (more for the dogs than us) did a nice job of masking the fatigue and sore feet.  Two coveys and two birds the first two days. One of us, never fired a shot the entire trip.  The other gent, fired four shots to kill the two bobs and one rooster.  The third day, we changed our focus to prairie chickens, but it was also a dud.  Walking definitely didn't reward us in southwest Kansas.
Kansas bird numbers were in the tank for us this fall. 

But, there were days where a long walk led me to the promised land.  I left the truck a couple of days in Wyoming this fall hunting new territory, not knowing if I was 100 yards or 100 miles from wild chukars.  When Letti eventually locked up, I knew I had found undiscovered chukar country and a covey that would not need to be shared with anyone, maybe ever.  The danger that day was when one covey lead me to another and I didn't know when to quit.  The harsh reality was I had a two-hour return hike ahead of me with about one hour of daylight.  But, at least I had walked myself into a few birds.

Chukar coveys in Wyoming can be miles apart.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Lewistown to Lewiston

Getting to the point is sometimes the hardest part


500 miles one-way.  Two mountain passes to cross. Two round trips in two weeks.  One with human co-pilot, one with only dog as co-pilot. Mix in some dreadful night-driving dodging deer and elk. Borderline crazy. Chukar crazy.

My L-town in central Montana is regarded and regurgitated by outdoor media as an upland bird hunting mecca. With sage grouse, sharptail, Huns, pheasants, blue grouse and ruffs all within an hour of town, there is a lot to like. However, the amount of access may not justify the hunting pressure or the notoriety. To prove my point, I have only hunted two half-days locally, spread out amongst 25+ days afield.  And the biggest drawback to Fergus County, Montana? There aren’t any chukars. 

I first shot wild chukars south of Billings, MT in marginal habitat about 15 years and three setters ago, on my third attempt.  I opened my over-under after four birds bagged as I didn’t even know the limit.  I assumed it was the same as Hungarians (eight), but wasn’t 100% sure.  No regrets as I look back, knowing that a four-bird day is respectable anywhere.  I mounted one of those first chukars, the catalyst for my current addiction.
This bird was close to dropping off the edge of the world

Fast-forward to 2019 and the challenge and pure sport of chasing these imported birds have not waned. So much of one’s success is determined by 1) your ambition level 2) quality of the dog work.  99.9% of the hunting occurs on public land so the barriers to access have been removed.  For those hunters that are looking for adventure, great exercise, tremendous scenery, majestic dog work and tricky shotgunning, chukar hunting offers all of it. 

Imagine your heart-pounding as you shift down into uphill gear, alternating your view from the ground to the dog to the ground and back to the dog.  She looks birdy, hunting deliberately toward a rock outcropping near the top of the ridge. You question if you can pause a second to catch your breath, but you think better of it, wanting to stay with the dog as she approaches the crest.  She does her part, locking up on strong scent, giving you time to try and find solid footing.  Just as your eyesight clears the horizon, the covey rise explodes, giving you milliseconds to pick out a single target, two if you are fortunate.   In good chukar country, this excitement is repeated throughout the day. Over the course of several hours, you will have taken a number of shots that didn’t connect, a few that do.  You will have fallen a few times, hopefully with only minor damage to both your gun and you.  Your evening is spent reliving the dog’s greatest hits, eating as many calories as you care to enjoy, hoping you can muster the energy to climb the hills again tomorrow.  Somehow you always find that reserve tank to return. Even when those hills are 500 miles from home.
Backpacking into birds. Where do you put your vest?



Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Halloween Is A Little Spooky



Growing up a stone’s throw from the border – Canada, not Mexico, Halloween was always the sad finish line to our upland season.  The weather always seemed to turn about that time, bringing snow and cold, sending the woodcock south if they hadn’t departed for unfrozen dirt already.  Deer hunting also took over then, so just like that, we switched from The World Series and Reeboks to things like Hockey Night in Canada and Sorel boots.
Living in Montana and having the means to travel, Halloween is now about midway in my bird hunting adventures. When you consider possible winter storms and white-knuckle travel, it might be a glass half empty though.  There is a trip to Kansas for quail in my future and hopefully a number of chukar trips west, as well.  I haven’t given up on Montana, either.  Late-season pheasant and Hun hunting can be solid, right until the closing bell on January 1. However, if we receive white stuff that can be measured in feet instead of inches, then checkmate, birds.
So far, the 2019 season has been fair to good.
Dad at 73 still getting after blues in the high country. 

The blue grouse numbers in September were about average, but slightly better than last season. The birds were really scattered, some dining on berries, others on hoppers.  Good for them to have options. Unfortunately, the season was over before it started, due to early snow (do I say that every year?).  Found some beautiful, new blue grouse ridges in Wyoming this fall.   Some of which you can drive to. Note to older self, when my knees are out of grease.
Montana pheasants had a great hatch it seems.  I have found birds in the usual pockets from central Montana to North Dakota. If only CRP came back…….
Huns are still fairly scarce throughout Montana.  Maybe a covey a day. Sharptail are doing just fine, they have been here since the buffalo. I wish the limit was three a day, nine in possession. Not the current four and sixteen. I never looked for a sage grouse this September. I do love their country.

Pheasant opener. Plenty of birds, despite the lack of CRP. 

A trip to the grouse shack in Minnesota was enjoyable, despite record rainfall there this summer/fall.  The forest floor was literally one third under water. The poor woodcock were limited in options too. Alders? Underwater.  River banks?  Heavy flow.  We did move a few in young popple and fern/jackpine habitat, but very few.  Letti the pup, did terribly on Timberdoodles for whatever reason. If she was only focusing on ruffs, well, she was successful.  Grouse numbers were surprisingly solid and almost out of whack with the 10-year cycle.  Oh, the Runners. I think ruffs have been in cahoots with pheasants, and are adding that skill to their bag of tricks. I watched a bird run, Letti relocating, numerous times until it finally flushed at 75 yards. What? I have hunted ruffed grouse in Minnesota for 36 years of my 48 and haven’t seen SOBs run like that. 

MN was wet. Woodcock didn't stick around. 
The Grouse Shack. Years of memories.


 If you haven’t already, hit the road and find the dog some birds.  November is here.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Treat Autumn As If It Were Your Last


  On a recent work trip, I ran into a gentleman at the Billings airport whom I recognized, but couldn’t quite name or recall how I should know him. Finally, upon our decent into a larger and less-friendly city, it jumped out at me. He was a bird hunter and sporting clays shooter from Billings that I had met about 15 years prior.  Al looked healthy, but so much older.  He had gone from vibrant and athletic to hunched-over and slow-moving. Ever misjudge how long ago certain events really were like I often do? It may seem like six years since I shot my first Mearns quail, but was actually closer to ten. I am planning for a 30-year-class reunion next summer when I could swear I was just wearing Zubaz and making a Duran-Duran mix-tape.
 One of my favorite saws is “Father Time is Undefeated”.  So, as we near the upcoming season, my mind is racing; how can I make the make the best use of my precious fall months? What trips should I put on the precious autumnal calendar? 

All Chukars All The Time. 
This is very applicable when one ponders the issue of aging.  Like elk hunting in the West, it is a young man’s game.  I know I can’t run uphill chasing a birdy setter forever, so I should be focusing on chukars even more than I do.  While I have shot the sporty buggers in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, I would really like to check off Oregon and Nevada this fall.  Or, do I make it an epic quest and try and hunt chukars in all states this fall?

More Time At Bird Camp.  
In my twenties and thirties, I had taken for granted Dad’s humble grouse and woodcock getaway in northern Minnesota. Today, its perks cannot go unnoticed: no hotels or restaurants to roll the dice on, endless public land and always enough birds to make things interesting.  If he was a millennial, Dad would also call it “his happy place”, which is worth cherishing too. 
Grouse Camp. Where the living is easy. 


Blue Grouse Early and Often
While I typically start hunting blues (yes, I know about the dusky-sooty discovery) September 1st because of the heat down low on the flat ground, it is time I respect the hunt for what it is:  ample bird numbers with decent dog work on thousands of acres of public land.  I plan to hunt Montana early in our usual coverts and then move on to Wyoming where a trail run last summer led me to believe that the Cowboy State has blue grouse dying of old age in some very wild places.
 
Blue grouse hunting. Big country, big views. 

Mixology. 
Of course there will be the usual trips to the quiet parts of Montana, looking for Huns, sharptail and roosters.  Hopefully, Montana Huns bounce back significantly, as last season they were few and far between. A day trip to sage grouse country for a bird or two may transpire some cool morning in September. Crossing over the eastern border into North Dakota will probably occur in mid-October, since I was “in the neighborhood”. A trip to Nebraska or Kansas is projected for that period when winter is taking hold in Montana and heading south makes good sense.  Speaking of south, Arizona or New Mexico is always on my radar, but never works out in January due to work obligations. Maybe this year.

Regardless, life is short, dogs’ lives are shorter and each autumn seems to be over in the blink of an eye.  Get out there and enjoy every opportunity you get.    
Hunt Huns when they abound. Weather dictates their numbers more than anything. 


Saturday, July 13, 2019

Be a Good Guest


Armed with the information-superhighway, more dependable vehicles and hopefully, more disposable income than our grandparents had, traveling to hunt birds continues to grow in popularity. Whether it is to check off a certain bird from our life-list or just get away from the boss at work or the real boss at home, many of us like to venture into different states.  Beyond buying a license and following the host states' respective rules, there are some other things to keep in mind as well. Some of these suggestions are obvious, some not.

The obvious you have heard before: don’t litter, don’t shoot from the road or from your vehicle, close any gate that you open. Hunters are often blamed for a lot of actions that we don’t commit, so if we can prevent that Taco Bell bag from blowing out of our truck let’s prevent it.  Many landowners ASSUME all hunters are road-hunters, so don’t perpetuate that stereotype by shooting a rooster along their driveway, regardless if you had a rough day.

Ranchers and farmers have also shared with me a few things over the years that bother them, some of which surprised me, some that make perfect sense.

While some ranchers love dogs and have a bunch of their own, it doesn’t mean they want to take care of yours.  Keep your dogs under control when you are around their farmstead, especially when their cow dogs are loose or if they have chickens or pets in a vulnerable area.  One rancher I talked with only allows one dog per hunter, two or three dogs total, on his ground at a time.  Sure, Ben Williams of Hungarian fame has made it vogue to put six or more dogs out, but some folks see that un-sporting.  “What chance does a bird have?” the rancher remarked. I was surprised that it was something that he even noticed. 

Don’t just close those gates, don’t block them either.  You never know what day the rancher will move cows or need to get at his bales.  Speaking of parking, don’t park in tall grass.  Things are often tinder-dry in late fall and if you knew how fast grass fires can grow, it would give you nightmares.  I have also heard a story about a hunter that lost his vehicle to a grass fire, along with his dog that was getting the afternoon off.  Dreadful.

If in doubt, don’t shoot anywhere close to buildings.  State laws vary on how close you can LEGALLY shoot in regard to occupied buildings or homes, but keep in mind, a farmer in his shop or his spouse working in her flower garden, especially downwind, will not know.  If the report is loud, he or she may think you are shooting the house-covey of Huns and meet you at your truck for a discussion.

Rain, snow = mud.  This is a tricky one, something I have been guilty of a few times as well.  Folks that live in the country have to use those roads on a daily basis.  They would rather we not rut them up, if we can avoid it. There are times when we get caught in something that we didn’t expect and if you travel across three states to hunt, we would rather not sit in the motel room all day watching college football. But, some days we would be better off staying on the pavement.

Lastly, a rancher told me while he butchers his own chickens and shoots a few pheasants every year, he doesn't like seeing bird carcasses or feathers blowing in the wind.  In other words, don't clean birds near roads, Walk-In sign-up boxes or some place where a farm dog could feast on a bunch of sharptail guts.    

As access to private lands continues to be important, is it imperative that we do our best to not give landowners any reason to close the gates for good.  The Dakotas, Montana, Kansas and other states have great Walk-In access programs.  But, each year a few of those are lost due to poor behavior. That is a terrible reason to lose a potential new favorite pheasant or sharptail covert.








Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Can We Just Hunt Already?

Better than the forbidden tailgate photo? Perhaps. But, someone still chirped about it when it was posted.



When did the study and discussion of bird hunting become bigger than the hunt itself? Waxing poetic is fine and it sells magazine articles. However, there should be some muddy boots, snoring dogs and some bird guts in a bucket after a long day too. Embrace the legacy of the hunt for what it is or else take up tennis and fly fishing. Here are some current trends that will probably come and go with a little luck.

Field-to-Fork. Prairie-to-Plate, etc.  Why is this a thing? Is it novel to shoot a bird, clean it and cook it?  We all have favorite recipes and we often experiment with new ones.  Hunters have been cooking their own game for years.  I guess it is a good thing that urban folks are embracing the hunt from a food perspective. But, I am not sure it needs a catchy name or corporate mission statement.

Pluck it schmuck.   Speaking of cleaning your own birds, I have seen some social media posts this past autumn calling out others who skin birds versus plucking them. “You are doing the bird and yourself and your family a disservice!” “Skinning birds is breaking game waste laws!”  Stop.  You just killed the bird, plucking it isn’t akin to catch-and-release fishing. We also know the difference in the final product and appreciate the advantage of leaving the skin on.  But, it also depends on the end game.  For roasting, yes, skin is in.  If you are making chicken nuggets out of your birds or a sweet-and-sour stir fry, it doesn’t matter.  If you want to pluck eight Huns, three pheasants and four sharptail after that long drive home from a banner day in North Dakota, knock yourself out.  I am skinning and grinning in that instance.

Fit-to-Hunt, Chukar Cardio Club, Feel The Rut Supplements……... I relate to this Olivia Newton-John “Let’s Get Physical” mission at some level. I am probably more skewed this direction than the guy that roads his dogs with an ATV and is carrying an extra 50 around his mid-section. But, if you are the same guy posting photos of yourself at the gym, this goes hand-in-hand with your narcissistic side.  Do you even lift bro?  I do work out nearly every day, some of which is at high-elevation, but no one else cares. Maybe the dogs do.  If you are in shape, they get to hunt longer. Staying in shape for hunting should be as routine as eating the birds you bag and doesn’t require a Facebook Group.

Instragram Judge and Jury.  Similarly to the plucking folks, there are a few strong opinions on the Internet, always quick to point out the injustices of the world, one being the dreaded tailgate photo. “Shameful”. “Barbaric”. “Unoriginal”.  I understand that stacks of birds can appear to some folks as wasteful and disrespectful. The truth of the matter is that tailgates are easy.  Often, birds on the ground or ones held up by hunters don’t show up well in photos.  For those of us that use photos as part of our hunting journals, there is some record-keeping advantage to those lined-up roosters and Huns. Looking back at my old photos of ruffed grouse hunts, I can quickly verify the peak years of the grouse cycle versus the bottom.  As far as being original, I am not sure there is anything original anymore.  The grouse/woodcock with a leather bird strap or pheasants hanging on barbed-wire, yup, been done. Often. While a tailgate photo may never make the cover of an upland magazine, it isn’t destroying bird hunting as we know it. Trust me, I love and respect those birds as much as you do. 

I am looking forward to the day where we can once again simply hunt for the love of the birds and dogs, not question someone else’s style or motives.   Unethical and illegal actions need to be addressed. There is no tolerance there. But, let’s not make our passion as hateful as politics and as complicated as an Ikea dresser.  Load up the dog, grab the gun and just go hunting.   
Next episode: The invention of the term Prey Drive and dog breeders’ love of it. Also, we search out the three upland bird hunters that do not have a podcast.

Dad and some ruffs circa 1966. Field to kitchen, if you will.