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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Nothing To Brag About

There has been some name-calling recently among some of the wingshooting bloggers.  The monikers of braggart and poser have risen. Well, to avoid being called the former, I should reveal how I recently came home with my tail between my legs from a recent Colorado outing.  I spent over $1000, drove over 1,200 miles and came home with one bird. That bird was a lowly blue grouse, a species that I could have bagged over my lunch hour at home. (oops, that sounds a bit like bragging)

My plan was to drive the 12 hours south, to look for ptarmigan in Colorado.  It was definitely a bucket list bird, one of those trips you just can't put off for another year.  With seasoned 10-year old and 12-year old dogs, I had wished my interest would have taken hold a year or two sooner. It would have also been nice to take along my Dad, who hunts as hard as anyone at age 70, but it wasn't meant to be.  I decided to leave town alone, only with Abby, the younger setter.

I got to Aspen late Saturday afternoon, without enough time to scout the area.  I had some leads on areas to explore, more less a direction to start, not with GPS coordinates from someone else who had the good fortune of ptarmigan sightings or kills.  I didn't bring binoculars either; I wanted this to be a true bird hunt, with the dog doing the bird-finding and me doing my part with the 20 gauge.

Heading to my Rocky Mountain High, I knew just a few important details: ptarmigan were mostly above 11,000 feet in elevation, roughly 350 birds were harvested annually, and often they were found in wilderness areas.  The last detail meant that all dogs were required to be on a leash.  I cheated and grabbed a really long leash, a 30 foot check cord, but what a hassle that would still turn out to be.  I was in decent shape from running all summer, but I was more worried about Abby's paws, as a lot of our hunting would be in sharp, unforgiving rock.

Like a football coach's playbook, day one was according to plan. I drove to the highest pass possible, about 12,000 feet above sea level and took off with plenty of liquids, beef jerky and a sandwich.   My usual MO is to keep walking until I find birds.  The walking wasn't bad.  The bird finding proved to be difficult.  I hunted up to about 13,400', back down to 11K, and up again. I told myself if they were still in their brown plumage, maybe they were hiding in rocks near ridgelines. Nope.  The lush willow and tundra ground cover seemed inviting.  More food, more insects for young birds.  They didn't seem to care of any of that business either.  I don't think I ever cussed so much that day. Not because of the hiking or lack of birds, but because of that #$@$!*& check cord which would repeatedly get caught up in the boulders or stunted trees.  Who makes these rules anyway? I walked from 8AM-2PM and called it a day. With one ten year-old dog, I knew I couldn't run her into the ground on the first day. I returned to my vehicle, confusing some tourists that were appalled that I was hunting in their nature preserve. I wanted to tell them that this wasn't Yosemite National Park, but I bit my tongue and headed back to my over-priced Aspen hotel.

Day two was more of a bust than day one.  I had taken a lead from a local who had seen birds up a certain drainage a year or two earlier.  The road I chose never came close to tree-line and became a two-track nightmare before I turned around.  The wild goose chase ended up costing me three hours of my second and final day in CO. I returned to my previous day's destination, hunting in a different direction from where I parked the Toyota earlier.  I was an hour into my walk, when thunder from a cloud at my very elevation spooked me back to the car. Being on the top of a bald ridge at 13,000+ feet was the worst possible place to be.  Game over.  Checking ptarmigan off the list wasn't meant to be.

When the quick-moving storm passed, the blue grouse I did shoot gave me a split-second of excitement when Abby became birdy. But, I knew I was too low for it to be a ptarmigan.  I also saw a good-sized black bear, but most importantly, I saw a high-altitude bowl that I vowed I would return to some day.  Unfortunately, that day will be when I am one year older, most likely with a dog that is just learning the ropes.  While in the short term I regret my lack of success from a cost-benefit perspective, I look forward to the challenge again some day.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Serious Planning

Seems like a waste of time, at the very least, a waste of bandwidth.  But, for some reason, I already have a bit of the fall fever, even though the Montana upland season doesn't open until September 1st and western chukar seasons don't open until later.  Regardless, I have been easing my pain with checking a handful of webcams from around the country, just taking a peek at the habitat, seeing if Minnesota ruffed grouse country looks too wet or just right, checking to see if chukar country has completely dried up yet or much worse, burned up.  I don't ever expect to actually see birds parading by the camera, but if I did, well, that would make my day. Maybe I would screenshot the image, Snapchat, tweet, or something else that seems really techie and cool. So far, things are looking good.

The planning phase is already in high gear.  I have marked days on the calendar, warned my employer and spouse that certain dates are non-negotiable.  Last fall, I used the excuse of aging dogs to get afield every possibly moment. I did pretty well, hunting about 50 days in four states. But, if you consider that was over the course of six months, I could have hunted more. Should have hunted more.  Now, with my same two dogs approaching ten and twelve, my rationale for hitting the road is even more solid.

Montana blue grouse and Idaho/Wyoming/Oregon chukar are at the top of my list again. The endless public land hiking in rugged, beautiful country keeps me awake at night.  Abby, the youngster at 10, may be my only dog on the ground for those long treks, unfortunately.
I will probably spend five or six days in MN  hunting grouse and woodcock, as that is more forgiving ground to hunt and Tess can partake in shorter hunts if needed. I missed the bulk of the woodcock flight last year, so I hope I time it better this year. I also hope I don't have another timberwolf encounter mid-point. That could have been the tragic end for one of my setters.
I have added Colorado ptarmigan to my fall agenda.  I guess the P is silent? I really don't know what to expect, except for the fact that you hike uphill, take a left, continue to hike uphill and then the birds are only a couple thousand feet in elevation above you.  Should be interesting, but again, I don't think my old girl can safely accompany me on those all-day hunts.  

Sure, I will hunt Montana pheasants, sharptail and Huns plenty. Might even take someone out to shoot their bucket-list sage grouse. But, those birds don't offer the mystique and the challenge of the others right now.  And, I can hunt them next season, when my dogs are really old.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bird Hunting Is Cool

Without a doubt, fly fishing is en vogue. Has been for quite awhile. It doesn't hurt when someone like Brad Pitt has a starring role in a movie where he has great hair and good skill on the water, neither of which I can offer.  If you look online, you discover endless videos, blogs and digital magazines with bearded, PBR-drinking hipsters landing trout in exotic locales such as British Columbia, Alaska,  Argentina, and Belize. (don't confuse hipster beards with Duck Dynasty beards. the former is well-trimmed, the latter ain't) Attend any local fly fishing film tour event and you see a whole lot of Simms and Subarus.

Bird hunting has never really had that demographic.  The average DIY upland bird hunter from my view is usually Bob Whitebread, the middle-aged teacher who hunts on the cheap, packs his lunches and buys his field loads at Wal-Mart. Bob isn't afraid to walk all day for a few chances at wild birds on public land.  Bob is a lot like my Dad who was a county worker his whole life and will go to his grave never having paid to hunt pheasants and wouldn't step into a Starbucks, mostly out of fear of not knowing how to order.

Age is also a big part of the traveling bird-hunting crowd that we all know.  Starting in about 1991, when I was limping to western ND from college in MN to hunt pheasants, I realized I was always the youngest bird hunter in the cafe's and $35 motels.  Youngest by a long shot.  Now that I am in my 40s, I am still often shortest in the tooth in upland circles.  I know- be careful what you wish for.  One day I will wake up and wish I could keep up with those whippersnappers in their 50s.  As we know from our dogs, life flies by.

The wingshooting scene might be evolving. Bird hunting is gaining steam as the grass-root, outdoor-active, organic-food,  sporting tradition that it is.  Michael Keaton is a bird chaser.  This past fall, Andrew Bourdain filmed an episode of his travel show in central Montana. Peyton Manning is reportedly a bird hunter, when he isn't setting NFL records.   And, when you get time, check out the work that Project Upland is doing.  The great video is being produced with the Ruffed Grouse Society in conjunction with hipster beards.

What does this mean? Is it good for the future of bird hunting?

I think it is. While many of us would rather not have more people show up to pheasant opener in Smalltown, ND, USA, we do need more hunters in our ranks overall, especially from urban areas.  There are many Hollywood elites or big city dwellers that think fly-fishing is a beautiful art, but view any form of hunting as cruel and barbaric.  If we can bridge that gap with a trendy, nouveau generation, than I am all for it. Even if they are cooler and younger than me.

Project-Upland-Partridge-Country-600x320.jpg (600×320)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Big Basin

Since the upland season was closed in Montana and there was too much snow in my Idaho haunts, I had to look elsewhere for my bird fix.  This time of year I am fairly busy and I was approaching Madoff type financial waste in hotels, gasoline and nonresident licenses, so I could have easily stayed home. But, when I look at my setters' aging, sad eyes, I couldn't stay home.
It left me with Utah or Wyoming chukars. Wyoming was an easy drive, Utah about a day's drive.  I chose the Cowboy State and got out my maps, hopped on the internet, and devised a plan.  Basically, all of my resources said the same thing: there are chukars scattered throughout the Bighorn Basin. Before you SMH, as the kids say, for my possible hot-spotting, look on a map. The Basin is roughly 10,000 square miles and not all of it screams chukars. In fact, in two January trips there, I spent equal time driving as I did hunting.  It took me quite awhile to realize that the Idaho/Oregon chukar habitat that I was looking for, doesn't really exist in Wyoming.  Instead of looking for 45 degrees slopes which rose from large watersheds, I was settling for gradual ridges, with occasional stock tanks and creeks that probably were dry most of the summer.  Cheatgrass was still present, as were scattered sage brush and rocky knobs which we chukar hunters have seen chukars scamper over in our dreams. 

I saw just enough birds to give me that fire of wanting more.  I won't give Wyoming a 10 out of 10 for chukar habitat or upland hunting in general. Sure there are pockets of great pheasant hunting, healthy numbers of sage grouse and good mountain grouse hunting. But, overall there is a lifetime of arid range land that requires a lot of sifting through.  I don't mind walking miles between coveys of Huns or chukars.  But, if one is having more dry runs than fruitful walks, you begin to question if this is the best use of your time and your dogs' paws.   The birds I shot were in far corners of the Basin, in some fairly nondescript habitat. Now, as February sets in, I won't have another chance to explore and learn more until next season.  Maybe I head to Utah next weekend. That season does remain open until February 15th........

Friday, January 8, 2016

Yes, I Am Seeing Somebody Else

       900 miles on the road, three nights in a motel, 7 hours of hunting. If you do the cost/benefit analysis, it would prove to be a poor choice of a New Year's weekend, both fiscally and time-wise.  But, I would do it again in a heartbeat.  In fact, I spent the past two evenings, studying maps of chukar ground in Wyoming and Utah.  Oregon is too far, Montana numbers too spotty to expect a good hunt.  My wife thinks I am nuts, but in a cute way.  I think.

Speaking of the Mrs., she finally came with me this past trip to Idaho.  She didn't explain herself, but I am quite sure it was to check up on on me.  Seven trips to chukar country the past couple of years, often by myself,  all in wintry weather, without a full limit of eight birds ever captured.  Something was amiss.  So, when she said she was coming along to check things out in this state that was suddenly better than Montana, I had to accommodate her. 

Leaving at 6AM, the morning after New Year's hijinks was the first test. And she was ready to go, without a complaint. Freezing fog in Butte made for some white-knuckle driving conditions, but she kept the faith.  When the Toyota's console read -20 below at the mountain pass on the border, she simply said, "This is too cold to hunt, right?"  

Overall, the hunting trip was a compromise.  We wined and dined, did a lot of hot-tubbing and hot-springing and did some hiking.  My hiking with guns and dogs was limited to about two hours a day.  Some of it was fairly difficult. Almost dumb.  I looked hard for south-facing slopes and tried to pattern the birds based on snow depth, maximum sun exposure and food.  That equation was more complex too, as I found some birds on the canyon roads, some at the top of the mountain in 18" of snow.  The latter birds I really felt sorry for as I could almost run them down in the fluffy powder. My setters also had to work harder than normal, but our days were short.  

When I wrapped up the hunt Sunday, I felt it was time to admit the season was over.  Laura had tagged along, pretended she enjoyed seeing what it was like on the chukar mountain and took some video.  But, it was more work staying upright than it should have been.  Now, less than a week later, I am not so sure.  If my dogs and I all get a vote, it is probably unanimous that I study those maps a little more.