Saturday, October 24, 2020

2020 Hits and Misses

 September 1- October 10

How will we remember the 2020-2021 hunting season?

One expects the first two weeks of the Montana season to be hot and dry. Often smoky. But, this fall, conditions of Hades lingered all the way to pheasant opener. The days trekking up high for blues were productive, but by noon, water bottles were empty and the dogs were looking for shade. Salt was rubbed in the wound even more when an October fire struck said blue grouse coverts. Time will tell if that high-elevation habitat is altered forever.

Based on my days afield, sharptail seemed to be nearly recovered from the drought of 2017, while Huns aren't quite there yet. On second thought, sharptail were more abundant than any season since 2007.  (I would still like to see a 3 birds/day limit and 9 in possession) I never did hunt sage grouse this September, with most of my excuses revolving around snakes, warm temperatures and more snakes.

The smoky, dry September conditions hindered dog work to some extent.

October 10 - October 23

Pheasant opener was played according to Hoyle.  The birds had a good hatch and we had our bag limits early each day. Dog work was good, allowing us to pick out mature birds and avoid any heckling over juveniles that were lacking color. Only the pheasant opener can become amateur hour when other hunters drive past your vehicle and deliberately cut you off on a coulee. Cooler heads prevailed when the final showdown occurred, but man.......

Other than that, the opening weekend was full of good laughs, good food and good weather. The dogs were machines, doing what they were bred to do.  And, Brian ended his shooting slump too, which had been on the books for a decade. Give or take. 

Can you come home Sunday after hunting pheasants?  I have had contact with some Covid-positive people.....And just like that my trip to the grouse shack in MN was cancelled with one simple text from my wife.  Dad claims the birds were already on the downhill slide, but I think he was just trying to talk me off the ledge.  Next year. 

Now, as of October 23rd, we have a foot of snow on the ground in the middle of Montana, two feet in the mountains.  It could be a year to hunt more chukars in Idaho and Nevada or look for elk in the hills. Time to put away the flatlander boots and dig out the stiff-soled ones. 2020 isn't going away easy, so why should I?

Pheasant opener is always a social event, as much as a hunting trip. Covid didn't change that.

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.