Monday, December 15, 2014

Old Dad, New Tricks

Chukar hunting. Young man's sport. Chukars. Devil birds. Chukar country. Unforgiving. 

My Dad is an avid reader of sporting literature. He has heard all about the trials and tribulations of chasing the imported, red-legged bird in steep country.  Last January, when I proposed a trip west, he declined, citing his bad knees and the fact that father time had promoted him recently to age 67, without his permission.

This December, at 68, he thought it was time to give the Devil Birds a shot.  It didn't take a lot of encouraging.  Heck, he shot an elk on public land the Friday of Thanksgiving.  We left town that morning and had the entire elk back in his garage by 6PM.  As in packed out. On our backs. In quarters.  So, his fitness level wasn't a problem.  In fact, he is in better upland shape than a lot of my 43-year-old peers.  Being stubborn and Scandinavian doesn't hurt.

He had a lot of questions as we started planning this adventure.  20 gauge or 12 gauge? Double or auto? 7 1/2 shot or 6?  Valid questions from a veteran wingshooter. All I could suggest was to go with the gun he carried all autumn (20 gauge double) combined with his heavy reloads of an ounce and an eighth of 7 1/2 shot, followed by an ounce and an eight of sixes in his second barrel.

Friday morning found us doing what he expected to do.  Taking off a layer, as we toiled uphill, breaking a modest sweat, despite the temps being below freezing.  Thirty minutes later, Dad was a chukar hunter.  His big boy Blue was on point on the next ridge east of me.  I sat down on a rock and watched everything unfold.  A covey rose, I saw two birds fall and then heard the muted shots a couple of seconds later.  Not a bad start.

We made the most of our beautiful December day, making two long walks so I could swap setter dogs at lunch.  Dad and I ended up with a nice mix of Huns and chukars, good dog work from canine veterans and decent shooting.  The second day we awoke to fresh snow, which changed the game slightly.  We slipped and fell a few times, each putting a new ding in our walnut stocks.  The birds were still there, not afraid to take us uphill, where the snow was even deeper.

Dad and I had a long ride home to reflect on the glorious sport of chukar hunting.  We both wondered out loud how many years we had in the field, whether or not all three dogs would be able to hunt the rough country next fall and what we would do differently next trip.  Discussed chukar hunting compared to other species. Pheasants? Love 'em, but not as sexy right now. Ruffed grouse?  Still king, but only chukars can rival ruffs for public land access.

Dad introduced me to grouse and woodcock hunting 30 years ago.  Now I finally got the chance to return the favor. I bet he joins me next trip as well.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Chukar Lessons 2.0

Having only had a half-dozen chukar hunts under my belt, I am still learning each time I leave Montana for chukar country.  Some of that learning is painful, some of it is just relearning things I should know from 30 years of wingshooting.

Winter driving. I knew I had to get over three mountain passes on my trip west.  I knew they were ice-covered. And two of the three were. This really wasn't learning any lessons, but strictly a reminder that we are now in winter travel mode. Mix bad roads with darkness and deer and elk on the road and I was glad to have arrived at my motel.

Dog paws.  No matter how much I hunt in Montana from September 1 until chukar time, there is no way to get the dogs' paws conditioned.  In fact, I am writing this blog entry in a motel room, when I should be hunting.  Yesterday's 8A.M. to 3P.M. shift on rock and ice, took its toll.  I could have rotated one dog midday, but I knew I would be gone from the truck too long. Now Abby needs to be carried outside to do her business and Tess isn't much better. I am hoping a day of rest and the addition of dog boots, which I have never had success with, will get us through Sunday. 

My feet.  Even though I was hunting south-facing slopes, I still had a good deal of snow and ice to deal with.  Shame on me for not trying a newer pair of books on snow before strapping them on hundreds of miles from home. It seems like that every so often, I get a pair of boots where the soles are super-slick on snow, despite appearing to have an aggressive sole. These were one of those #$%&*!@ pairs.  My frustration was nearly comical at one point.  If the landscape had any slope to it, and it did, it was as if I was standing on ball bearings.  In 7 hours, I probably fell ten times.  I had another pair of boots in the Toyota, but I was too stubborn to give up my precious elevation that I had gained. Also had packed some ice-cleats, but they were also in the car.  

Shells.  I had been lulled into my normal Montana routine of grabbing 12-15 shells in the morning and restocking at noon. That is plenty for a three-bird pheasant limit. Not chukars, for Pete's sake. I finished my hike with one shell in the hole. Dumb.  Running out of shells should be a good thing. See the following paragraph.

Shooting.   I shot horribly.  Wasted shells on long shots, when the birds were getting up just beyond my 28 gauge comfort.  I also admit to flock shooting more than once.  Why?  I have hunted Huns enough to usually be the know-it-all to tell others that their frustrations probably stem from flock shooting. For some reason on this hunt, I had a heck of a time picking out one chukar.  

Enough of the whining.  I hunted behind my setters in beautiful country, saw plenty of chukars and one covey of Huns.  Saw elk, mule deer and bighorns.  It wasn't a perfect day, but it was still pretty darn good.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Season 2 Is Underway

Having always lived in the northern tier of states, around Halloween is typically when the weather is apt to catch you off guard in regard to one's outdoor pursuits. Seems like just yesterday, I was carrying a gallon of water for the dogs, trying to catch sharptail midday under the shade of Russian Olives and buffalo berry bushes.  Birds were gutted immediately and placed in the bird tray (isn't that why cooler companies give you that clunky, rack that is often in the way?) of the ice chest.

Just like that the days are now kaput at 4:30PM and and the mornings are cold, not cool.  I have never been a guy that is keen to shooting gloves, but now gloves are a must, just to keep the fingers in working condition at 15 degrees.  Hunting pressure has already diminished from the chaotic pheasant opener and the southern dog trainers that show in Montana in August, have headed south like waterfowl, worried that the cold weather will stiffen up their grits.  Whatever they are.

This past episode, just a week past the Halloween threshold,  we even mixed in some duck hunting, thanks to Ryan's griff, Kruz, who retrieved our  mallards and redheads. Timing the major cold front, which used to be a called an Alberta Clipper, but now goes by the moniker of Polar Vortex, geese and ducks were showing up in impressive numbers.   Of course we hunted some pheasants and sharptail, to give the setters some action too.  We hated to even take a lunch break, since the daylight was as precious as our appetites.  The first pheasant hunt after the snow always seems to catch the roosters off-guard too, as a few more birds decide to choose door #1(sit tight) vs. door #2 (run like heck until I run out of cover).  We paid the price as our three-hour drives home, took us five hours, due to the snow and ice-covered roads.  Maybe those southern boys are smarter than we are.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Quick Trip to the North Woods

It is always advised to never leave birds to find other birds and that is always the trouble with heading out of state from Montana in October.  But, I hadn’t been to MN to hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock since 2012 and my Dad had been reporting “average” bird numbers from his stay in the Northland since early October. Most importantly, my two setter girls were now age eight and ten, so every fall is now even more cherished.  
It also helped that I had hunted nearly 20 days already in Montana this season, including blue grouse, sharptail, Huns, sage grouse and pheasants, so I didn’t feel like I was leaving as much behind. In fact, I managed to sneak in an hour pheasant hunt before crossing into the chaos that is the Bakken oil field of North Dakota. It was a memorable, quick hunt as we chased a dozen or so already-ware pheasants around the half-section, combined with one covey of Huns that Abby had nailed in the far corner of the public parcel.
I had picked up my good pal Ryan along the way, so along with his setter and his Griffon, we had ample dog power for just three days in MN.  Again, I was able to make the most out of the final hours of daylight upon arriving in grouse country and was strapping on beeper collars by 3PM. The girls nailed a woodcock, just minutes into the hunt, so they hadn’t forgotten what Timberdoodles smelled like.  We also moved five partridge and I connected on two, one of which sat tightly in a fern-filled clearing, while the dogs moved in very cautiously. An easy shot on ruffs, in an opening, doesn’t happen very often.  I arrived back at the truck at dark, with a sense of peace,  with the pressure already off.  Five birds in a three-hour hunt, with good dog work, made the trip a success two hours into it.  Having older dogs is both a blessing and a curse; they are in their bird hunting prime and hunt at a perfect gait for ruffs, but I also know that their time in the field is coming to an end, sadly.

Overall, it was a good trip to Minnesota. Having hunted the area since I was a kid always helps. Some coverts are still productive after all these years, some are too overgrown and new honeyholes are appearing, as well.  The woodcock were more elusive than expected and Dad felt their numbers may have peaked in early October.  The grouse are still in the trough of their 10-year-cycle, but were definitely in huntable numbers.  Ryan and I returned to the Big Sky State with our two-day possession limits after three days of hunting, so we couldn’t complain that the birds were down too much.  There were a few woodticks around, but the mosquitos were gone, which is always a plus.  Dad and I didn’t get to hunt  together as much as I would have liked this trip, but with other guests in grouse camp and a total of ten dogs included, sometimes arrangements get complicated.

Some random thoughts from the trip:
We saw fewer people “road hunting” from trucks, but the number of folks driving ATVS EVERYWHERE was disappointing. We encountered one slob that ignored a road-closed sign and when I yelled at him, he explained that it was closed unfairly and didn’t care.
We timed the leaves perfectly; the woodcock we may have missed by a week or so.  
I won’t travel to MN again during the annual teacher’s association break. The long weekend is always the busiest in the woods.
I didn’t take enough photos this trip.  I did spend a lot of time wearing my GoPro, but only ended up with a few decent videos. The brush is thick enough to crawl through as it is, without that darn thing on my head.
We brought plenty of food.  Too much.
The older the guests are at the cabin, the more valuable ear plugs are to help drown out the snoring.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Last Sage Grouse

I awoke in eastern Montana, three days into a sharptail and Hungarian safari, and I knew I had different work to do this day. It was the final day of the new, more-restricted, sage grouse season in Montana.  For most of us bird hunters, we don't make a living shooting sage grouse.  The most birds I have shot in a season the past five years was two males, and that was only because I had seen three large flocks of the native birds that October day. But, now the dialogue has changed. Dramatically. In fact, Montana FWP had originally proposed canceling the season completely this fall before introducing a 30-day hunt, with hunting also limited to certain counties.  (I will discuss the politics and biology topic of sage grouse hunting in a later post.  In a nutshell, I agree with a conservative, very restrictive season (one or two birds annually???), but a complete closure is a knee-jerk, political response.)

So, my mission was obvious. I would head back west until I reached one of the counties that was open to greater sage grouse hunting.  My MO when hunting the big "boomers" is pretty standard: find a large   sage flat, with sage brush that is tall enough to hide birds, and partially hide the white setter dogs that are looking for them.  Then I walk. And walk some more. Some folks feel they do better when hunting close to water or when sneaking on the birds in a coulee, amidst a flat.  This parcel today contained both attributes, although they really didn't play a factor in the game plan.

The first point of the day, resulted in a meadowlark, which made me pause for a millisecond.  But, just a few minutes later, the dogs were locked, and began to creep, which is typical for scenting running birds.  I tried to hustle into place, but a dozen or so sage "hens" flushed wild.  I was a bit disappointed in my lagging behind, but had an idea of the direction they flew.  When the dogs became birdy again, I picked up my pace, but to no avail. They again flushed out of ethical gun range. Since I hadn't planned on hunting this majestic bird when I left home three days previous, I was content just packing my 28 gauge. So, while I had  enough firepower for Huns and sharpies, the Ruger was a bit on the light side for 4 pound sage grouse.
The chase continued for another hour.  In a straight line, into the wind.  The day was cool and damp, with a light mist/rain, so scenting was perfect for the dogs. I could have done without the heavy gumbo accumulating on my boots, however.
Finally, on the fourth flush, I felt good about a shot on a straggler. It was still a 40-yard shot, but I connected and Abby was there to grab the bird before it was able to hide or walk away.  It was such bittersweet event.  I was very proud of my two, veteran female setters, who simply did their job perfectly.  The hunt took place on public land and I never saw another human until I returned to the paved highway.  Unfortunately, I knew that this might be my final sage grouse hunt forever. Forever. That is pretty powerful.  As most of us would attest, we aren't players in this game for the shooting, the killing. We simply appreciate this part of our sporting legacy, of hunting a native bird, in big, open country, just as settlers did 200 years ago.  I hope I am repeating this same story next fall, but if not, I will relive this final sage grouse hunt until eternity.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Old Blog Is New Again

This is a new blog, which really is just a continuation of an old blog. The old blog was sold. With a previous business venture. No hard feelings. In fact, since the business was sold, I have hunted more, which is the whole point, isn't it?

This post will be short.  Just a few photos from the start of the 2014 upland season.  I have birds to clean and need to start packing for the next road trip.

Dad. Season Opener.  Avoiding the heat by heading up high.

Dogs doing what they do best. 

The fruits of eastern Montana.

Not a lot of competition on these hikes.

When you are 67 and hunting up here, you deserve a hero pose.