To Hunt is to Kill: Nebraska and North Dakota Pheasants

One doesn’t hunt in order to kill, on the contrary, one kills to have hunted.

-Jose Ortega y Gasset

There is a nauseating thread in upland bird hunting writing these days that the hunt really isn’t about the size of the game bag at the end of the day, but is really some sort of quasi-religious experience where we are communing with nature and bonding with our fellow hunters and our dogs, waiting for some sort of epiphany to occur out in the field.  I first saw it start to crop up in the blogosphere, but it has since bled over into magazine and newspaper articles.

It sounds to me like an excuse used by people who aren’t hunting smart and hard or by state game officials when they aren’t properly managing habitat.  The drought this year has led to almost all of the CRP land in southeastern Nebraska to be hayed or grazed, leaving hunters with very few options to chase roosters nearby.  The general agricultural climate of eastern Nebraska as a whole, with grain prices as high as they are, has become an annual limiting factor regardless of the weather conditions for the year.  We can’t ask farmers not to farm, that’s their job, but the Nebraska Game and Parks needs to consider expanding their current pheasant stocking program to all wildlife management areas in the Lincoln-Omaha area.

You didn’t know that NGPC was stocking pheasants?  They claim it is for the youth hunting weekend, but we suspect that it is a pilot stocking program looking to salvage what is left of upland bird hunting culture in the urban part of our state.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: NGPC has no problem managing several fish hatcheries and openly stocking fish.  Heck, I get updates on Facebook when they stock trout and exactly where they do it.  Stock more pheasants in southeastern Nebraska.  How did they get here in the first place, did they fly from China?!? (That’s a rhetorical question of course.  The current rooster-bearing states were stocked many times in order to establish a sustainable population.)

Here’s a shot of a rooster that we planted in April on a friend’s land along the Platte River in Cass County, where we have never seen pheasants at all before, Charles and Sam harvested him last weekend.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, Sam, and the first Nebraska rooster from Saturday

I know that NGPC and Pheasants Forever think that the sole focus needs to be on habitat, but if there aren’t any birds to manage habitat for, then what is the point?!?  We were so excited for our friend, Matt, who took our oldest female griffon Sue out last Friday to some of the WMA’s that had been stocked.  He got his first limit of roosters ever and was completely ecstatic.  Tell him that the size of the game bag doesn’t matter.

Which is why Charles, like many other “dog men”, take the dogs north for wild bird training for a week each year.  All of the kumbayaing over hunting spirituality in the world doesn’t replace sheer grit and determination to give your dogs the most wild bird contact possible each year.  Charles has chosen North Dakota as his annual destination.  One of my fellow griffoniers brought his two dogs out to Montana from the east coast and didn’t realize the huge learning curve that it takes to get a dog educated to the behavior of particular upland game birds, the wily rooster pheasant especially.  They took one rooster over a few days, then he boxed his dogs and brought out the guide’s dogs.  Over the guides dogs they took several roosters and some Hungarian partridge too.  Appreciation of the dew on the grass and the wind on your face doesn’t give the dogs that education.  Getting up before the sun comes up on day 4 of a pheasant hunt, stinking because you haven’t taken a shower the whole time, stiff and sore from the physical exertion and because you’ve been sleeping in the back of your SUV is not fun or religious.  But it is necessary.  Just like killing.

Sam and BB with the birds hanging at the end of day 2 in North Dakota.

I’ve been known to cry over getting skunked on a day.  I’ve felt guilty as hell when my dogs have worked their asses off tracking a rooster, then pin it down with perfect double points, only to have me wreck it on the shot.  The dogs hate it too, you can tell they get upset with me.

 Although ancient hunters recognized the religious and spiritual nature of the hunt, they did so in order to increase the size of their harvest.  In the fall and winter, we all still look up at the constellation Orion at night and hope he blesses our efforts.  But to succeed is to kill.  There is no way around that with hunting.

Charles and the dogs’ bird total from 3 days in North Dakota: 2 ducks, 3 sharptail grouse and 8 roosters. They took a few more before they packed up and left the following day.

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A big mixed bag: October in the Sandhills

A cold north wind welcomed us to hunting sharptail grouse on the Thursday before duck opener, easily blowing 30, if not 40 mph and the air temperature never peaked the 40 degree mark on the day.  It was a pretty brutal start considering that when we left Eastern Nebraska the evening before, it was 70 degrees.  I hadn’t even packed my kids jackets, let alone my winter upland gear, so I had to tough it out in my hunting shirt/t-shirt combo.  Luckily a person warms up quickly stomping around the dunes and running after birds.

I’ll admit that I was whining and not wanting to get out of the truck at first.  I whined my way out of the usual first spot and asked if we could scout for ducks instead.  As we were creeping around a pond looking to see if any ducks had arrived, we noticed some sharptails running down the road.  We thought we had ourselves an easy pick, so we backed up around a dune and unloaded our gear.  Of course we wouldn’t need the dogs, the birds were just 15 feet away, right?

I think we chased them for a good 30 minutes and got up 3 or 4 times before they were flushing close enough to get a shot, even though they were flying into the monstrous wind.  Ryan and I got off a few Hail Mary cracks on the edge of range before Charles put the first one in the bag.  I captured his retrieve in the first half of this video (the second half is from me on Saturday, but we’ll get to that part later).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4XgYQOzM8c

As we had been walking for a good hour and had left everything unlocked, I made a bee-line back to the truck while the guys chased the rest of that group, with Charles taking one more.  Once we got back, secured our things and brought out some dogs, we took a brief hike into some nearby dunes with Charles taking his third bird in no time.  Ryan and I had no hard feelings that we didn’t take any on the day and were ready to head back to town to get out of the wind and cold.

Sue, Mae and BB are excited that dad shot some grouse.

Friday’s weather was less windy and warmer, we decided that we wanted to split up, so we headed to a spot that I had navigated on my own before and it had cell phone coverage so that I could communicate with the guys.  We set out to make it a “short grouse hunt”, as we had an early Saturday planned for ducks.  About 45 minutes in I busted up two way out of range, chased one down and bumped it up out of range once and within range again, but blew the shot.  The bird went way north, over a fence and near a giant dune covered with sumac that I had been curious about.  So breaking the rule of staying in the fence, I crossed it to chase the bird.  I bumped it a couple of more times way out of range.  I was coming up on the 2 hour mark in the field and thought I had better turn around and head back towards the truck.  When I got in view of the spot where I thought the truck should be, I couldn’t see it, but knew I was on the western fenceline with the gate where it was parked, so I followed the fenceline south, knowing that the guys were probably in that direction anyway based on the gunshots I had heard earlier.  Just as I started to panic that I was lost and in despair because I had gone three hours and not shot a bird, I spotted my other dogs off in the distance, so I headed in their direction.  I heard the sound of the guys’ voices and a grouse soared about 15 yards in front of me in a perfectly steady left to right flight, just like station 2 at the skeet range.  I missed the first shot, but nailed it hard on the second one and Sue delivered my quarry.

When I met up with the guys, they had also just harvested their birds, Charles had 2 and Ryan had 2.  So much for the short grouse hunt, three hours later.

Ryan, Charles, Charity, some sharptails and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

Ryan, Charles, Charity, some sharptails and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

We set out early Saturday morning, as we wanted to attempt to sit over decoys for a bit.  For me, sitting over decoys is a like a bad day at church, boring and painful.  We got our decoys set up on a pond that we thought would be good and hid in the cottonwoods.  There were a couple that swam over and a couple that flew over, but nothing in range that was on the wing.  We gave it an hour and a half, then packed it in to go jump hunt.

The first spot we hit was a network of small potholes that we had looked at a number of times, but had never taken the time to get out and work.  I worked one side with the guys on the other, with Sam on heel to do any retrieving.  They got into a nice big flock of teal, Ryan got one green-winged and Charles two blue-winged.  I took a shot as some flew by on a return trip, but they were out of range.  Charles came into a small group of grouse up on the hill next to the ponds and harvested one of those.  It was a productive new spot!

We loaded up and headed into familiar territory, but while we were on our way there, passing through the area that we had hunted grouse on Thursday, there was a dead sharptail in the sandy rut of the road.  Charles got out and picked it up and it had been shot.  I had put a pellet in one of those birds in my Hail Mary shooting on Thursday and it just so happened to decide to die in the road that we drove down two days later.  What are the odds?

We began working along a creek that we’ve spent a lot of time hunting in the past with lots of success.  I got into some teal, but missed.  Charles got into some mallards and was able to get hens on two separate jumps.  I shot a grouse, while we were trying to sneak up on a flock of teal and captured it on video (the second half).  The video doesn’t show the 25 teal that bust out of the pond, but that’s what happened when I said “sorry”, plus you can tell that Charles was mad.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4XgYQOzM8c

After I scared up that flock of teal, we had one more opportunity at a flock in  a pond surrounded by small willows, but Sam decided to be naughty and break away from heel, scaring them away.  So no ducks on duck opener for me.  Then Charles started in on the snipe, here’s the video of the first one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7r_TYujq8TA

At that point, we had been out in the field for 8 hours and I was ready to sit in the truck.  The boys set out to work another branch of the creek for a couple of more hours.  Charles harvested 3 more snipe and a rail.  Saturday was an epic day for Charles, giving him a new personal record one-day bag to beat: 3 blue-winged teal, 2 hen mallards, 1 grouse, 4 snipe and a Virginia rail.  All of the birds on the day were retrieved by Sam, with the exception of the grouse that I got myself.

Despite the drought, the grouse population has held up in good numbers and they are reporting a record-setting year for ducks further north.  I doubt we will make it back out to the Sandhills before the migration is over, but I’m hoping we can get out to the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska for some more duck action.

Charity, Charles, Ryan and Sam (the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) with Saturday’s birds

Next weekend, Charles, Sam and BB will head to North Dakota for the first pheasants of the year and some more ducks.  They will be in ND from Saturday through Wednesday and I plan on training Charles on running my equipment, so hopefully we can get some good pictures and video (but it is very possible that we’ll just get phone and pocket camera pics).  Also next weekend duck and goose opens in the eastern part of the state, so I might have to strike out on my own on Saturday to try for a Canadian goose.

Hope everyone else out there is having a great season!

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No Deal on Early Teal

On the opening Saturday of early teal season, Charles and Charity hustled the kids to the babysitter as soon as she would take them and headed to a friend’s pond to make their first attempt at sitting over decoys for the little ducks.  Sporting their hip boots and limited camouflage, they hauled their “dove buckets” (the camo-covered insulated 5 gallon buckets with the butt pad on the lid) over into a patch of sunflowers.

Charles and Sam sit in the sunflowers waiting for teal

The pond sits on the south shore of the Platte River, just a couple of miles west of the confluence with the mighty Missouri.  Their spot was on the southern end of the pond, with a little peninsula jutting northward out into the water, where Charles set up about five decoys on the point.  They sat on the western side of the peninsula, with their backs to the rising sun and another 5-10 decoys out in front of them.

They watched the big ducks and geese move along the Platte as the air grew warmer.  Canadian geese flew overhead.  Shots rang out along the river to the west of them, but they didn’t see any teal flush away from the sound of the reports.  A couple of mature bald eagles flew from the river and an immature perched in the tree above their heads, eyeing the decoys for awhile before moving on.  Charles worked his teal call every now and again, while his trusty retriever Sam laid next to the bucket, as still as he could be but nervous with excitement and attentive to his master’s every move.

The doves teased them, moving around in nearby trees and shrubs, but they sat patiently for the ducks.  A flock of turkeys came out of the woods on the north side of the pond to pick grit off of the beach, while a pair of wood ducks sat lazily in the pond nearby.  Herons and cormorants took their time moving from shore to shore, picking at little fish.

Then, like the Air Force Thunderbirds working an air show, a flock of 15 blue-winged teal flew fast and high over their heads.  “There they are,” whispered Charles, “don’t look at them!”  But it was too late, as Charity’s face and glasses were already pointed at the sky, watching the teal zoom out of range.  Charles worked the teal call a little as they watched the flock disappear into the distance, paying no mind to their feeble attempts at fooling them to land.  And as fast as it had begun, it had ended.  That was the action for the day, without a shot being fired.

They tried changing spots, moving into a tall patch of ragweed that made them both sneeze their heads off, but nothing made the little ducks appear again.

Charles has been back nearly every weekend day since, with no luck.  He was able to bring home a handful of doves and get Sam to tree a couple of coons, but no little ducks.  Recently, he’s been spending some time scouting the southern bank of the Platte river for an easy access point to get on to the sandbars, but it is a bit challenging since the southern side of the river typically has the main channel.  Pack up the canoe with layout blinds and head into the river to set up on some well established sandbars?

Sam’s double coon treeing

With snipe to be chased and big duck season coming on in a few weeks, time is running out on solving the early teal problem this fall, but you can bet it is something that they’ll think about and study for the next year and try some new tactics in 2013.

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Nebraska Sandhills Opener 2012

The Nebraska Sandhills

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Charles, Charity and the dogs started opening day at the usual opening day spot, which is a half-mile wide, flat valley with a set of high dunes to the north, running east to west, and a set of shorter dunes to the south, also running east to west.  Charles was assigned the higher northern dune set and Charity the southern set.  This is the first year that they split up in 13 years of hunting together and will probably continue to hunt this way.  Charity’s pace is about half that of Charles’s, so the ability to determine their own speeds was the first reason.  The second reason is that running four dogs puts too much pressure on these skittish birds at once.  So, Charity took the older females, Mae and Sue, and Charles worked four year old male, Sam, and eighteen month old female, BB.

There are various ways to pattern a dunefield when hunting grouse, but Charity selected a straight up an ambling criss-cross pattern for opening day, starting on the southern, low dunes walking west to east, then turning back, walking a bit higher going east to west, then back again in the high chop going west to east.  It was in the high chop an hour after starting out that she flushed her first single sharptail just barely out of range, firing shots that didn’t connect.  A few steps later, a group of four got up at seventy five yards, flying off of the highest dune in the southern set, disappearing out of view to who knows where.  Despite being a bit ragged from each having a litter of pups this summer, Sue and Mae sprang into action once bird activity began.  They covered the highest dune to check for stragglers with no success and the descent down the eastern slope began at a frantic pace.  So frantic that both dogs and hunter marched right past the sharptail that cackled up behind Charity, so that she had to take the 200 degree shotgun swing for the double-barrel attempt.  She saw it wobble and descend, sending the dogs after a retrieve.  Sue happily retrieved the first grouse of the season for team Versatile Hunter and it was captured on her new head-mounted video camera.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBoTg3pINGk

Meanwhile, Charles was working the taller northern dunefield, also starting from the west and working his way east in a meandering zig-zag pattern, making sure that either he or the dogs were covering any possible grouse territory in the complex.  As he ascended into the target area, a random group of doves flushed off of a high dune and he couldn’t help himself but to harvest one.  Not long after he heard the reports of Charity’s missed shot and her success following shortly thereafter, he descended from a dune peak and looked down onto a small flat amongst the choppy hills.  Three grouse busted at seventy-five yards, as if they sensed something, but not necessarily imminent danger as they merely popped up and over the next slope.  As soon as he entered the marked zone of potential landing, one got up and he shot it at close range straight on, with BB nearby for a quick retrieve.

After Charity and the older females watched the cattle hustle off of the pond on the eastern end of the dunefield and head for the windmill a couple of miles to the northwest, they stopped for a water break before continuing their criss-cross pattern, back to the west on some of the lower dunes, then finally crossing back eastward on the flat right next to the dunes.  Charity has taken prairie chickens out of there in years past, but there was nothing to be seen this year.  Once she finishing fully covering her assigned area, she and the dogs crossed the valley to meet up with Charles to get the update of his one grouse and one dove in the bag, but he had more ground to cover and an idea where birds were in the high chop.  Charity followed the low dunes towards the west and stopped again at a windmill for a break, noting the lack of doves at the spot.

Charles headed northwest from the windmill into an extension of the same northern dunefield that he had been working all morning.  He marched his way to the extreme northwest corner and worked his way back and not soon after he reached the endpoint and began hiking back, the dogs got birdy and three grouse flushed within fifty yards, which is in range for Charles even with a twenty gauge.  He took one out of that group and while BB was on retrieve, another flushed even closer.  His shot merely clipped the wing and the bird began to run.  Luckily, catching running wounded birds is one of Sam’s specialties, so while BB was delivering the first bird, Sam put the lockdown on the attempted escapee to round out Charles’s limit for the day.

The sun was arcing higher into the azure sky and getting uncomfortably warm to continue trekking.  It was time to return to the truck, which Charity couldn’t see from the windmill but knew it was to the south.  She wandered a bit off track, farther east into the valley than she needed to go, but eventually caught sight of the vehicle and made it back just in time to meet up there with Charles.

At first they had it in their mind to sit for doves, but after scoping their two best spots and seeing nothing, they opted to sit out doves this trip and wait until their return to the Missouri River Valley, where they are plentiful this year.

Charles shows off his opening day limit back in town, with BB and Sam, Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

Charity is back in town with her first sharptail grouse of the year, assisted by Sue and Mae, Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Day two started early again this year, at the “big hill”, the one over by the “hard road”.  As there aren’t many landmarks to speak of in the sea of grass, they are forced to come up with their own for navigational purposes.  The valley between the two dunefields was much narrower than the previous day’s, only a few hundred yards, but it was a similar approach with Charles covering the northern side of the valley and Charity the southern.  Charity decided to use a figure eight pattern on this area, starting at the south and working eastward towards the middle of the dunes, using the highest peak as the centerpoint of the figure eight, then covering the north side of the dunes.  It took her an hour to cover the first curve of the figure eight, stopping at a windmill for a brief break, taking a couple of sips of water.  She then continued south, then turning westward to continue her figure eight pattern, back to the high dune as the centerpoint, then covering the north side, completing her figure eight.  In two hours of hiking, she didn’t even see a flush in the distance.

Charles took his normal approach into his assigned area and not long after starting to work it, he watched BB run over a dune out of sight and she didn’t check back in quickly like she normally would, so he headed in that direction.  Three or four grouse came sky charging away from where BB was last seen, straight towards Charles, with BB in hot pursuit.  In order to work on steadiness, Charles elected not to reward bad behavior and chose not to shoot.  He marked their likely landing zone back to the west and pursued.  Not five minutes later, the dogs started acting birdy and were tracking hard, but once again charged the flushing birds, so he opted out of shooting once again.  He did finally get a point out of BB, which is an anomaly in the dry Sandhills, as scenting conditions are basically nonexistent.  Charles “whoaed” Sam into honoring BB’s point, then began to kick around the hill trying to flush the birds.  But the wind was playing tricks and blowing the scent of a flock from the top of one dune a hundred yards away over to the top of the dune where the dogs were pointing, so the birds saw the motion and activity of Charles trying to find them and flushed way out of range.  As he stood at the top of the ridge, he heard the chortling of a large group of grouse over in a dune range that they had never hunted before.

Charity and Charles met up and headed back to the truck for a bit of a break.  Charles reported that he heard distant cackling coming from a north/south running set of dunes that they had never worked before, a half-mile across the valley, off to the west.  They decided to each take one end of the field, Charity to the south and Charles to the north, zig-zagging to meet in the middle.  Charity made it up and into the dunefield and her dogs found a group of three in a pocket of knee-high sumac.  She fired off a downhill shot, but the birds were just out of range.  As she headed off to take chase, she all of a sudden lost all energy, felt dizzy and her heart was racing.  All she could think was, “There is no way that Charles could find me, let alone drag me out of here and I’m not sure the truck could get up here.  I’ve got to get back down to the valley so that at least if I passed out he would be able to see me”.

Charles ascended the northern end of the new hunting grounds, just making the climb when seven or eight birds broke unexpectedly soon.  Most of them headed deep into the high chop, but others oddly enough headed for some trees on the edge of the dunes.  He made his way toward the trees, not usual sharptail grouse habitat, and sent the dogs in to run them out.  Sure enough the grouse came running scared out from the trees, then flushed as they came to the prairie edge at about fifty yards out.  A pellet found its way to a bird on the shot, but it wasn’t down for the count and sailed into the distance.  The bird knew it was in trouble and flushed again at fifty yards, but was hit hard this time and Sam had no problem bringing it in.

They marched higher into the chop, bumping a mule deer buck and a jackrabbit, but BB and Sam knew better than to chase those.  Not long after, three grouse got up, then a fourth was a bit slower on the jump that Charles put his bead on and harvested, with Sam once again delivered to hand.

Charity stumbled a few steps at a time back towards the east, sitting down frequently and feeling lucky when she heard Charles shooting just to the west of her, then him finally seeing her stumbling away from the hunt.  Her pride wouldn’t allow her to tell him that she was having trouble and was hoping that she would be able to shake off the spell and resume hunting.  But after a good 20 minutes of cramping and stumbling and feeling like Gumby, she accepted defeat and just wanted to get back to the truck.  Of course, that was when birds got up within her range, but even though she took shots, there was no way that she was focused enough to hit anything.

The birds that she missed raced right past Charles, well within range, but he too was feeling the effects of dehydration and was unable to focus on the task at hand.  With two in the bag and the day getting warmer, it was time to go.

They were both coming out of the dunefield at the same time, he with two in the bag and she just happy to have made it out without a medical incident.

Monday, September 3, 2012

As normal for day three, the alarm rang forty-five minutes later than the first two days.  Everyone dragged to the truck, sore and tired.  But luckily the fresh spot is full of birds and everyone loosened up with the excitement of immediate action.  This is a very wide dunefield and they elect to both travel east to west, with Charles to the south and Charity to the north.  Charity takes her first and only bird of the day within 10 minutes of leaving the truck.  The bird got up front and center, but she failed to disengage the safety at the first shot attempt, but then recovered in time to get a shot off as it veered over to her left.  She wasn’t sure if it connected, but swore she saw the bird waver as it topped the dune, so they headed back in the direction of the truck.  Mae found the bird and licked the blood and feathers, hesitating a bit on the retrieve.  She was called off of the bird and Sue was sent in.  The strong natural retrieve is Sue’s greatest gift.

Simultaneously, Charles enters his area, pushing another nice mule deer buck out of his resting place and hits the jackpot not long after, putting up a flock of 12 grouse, which was the only large group of the whole trip.  The birds head east, the opposite direction of our intended march, but birds don’t follow our puny human plans, now do they?  As he comes into the marked area where he thought they landed, the dogs loop to the west of the dune and he elects to go east, hoping to pin the wily critters down.  Out of nowhere, Sam starts barking, which is never a response to birds.  While Sam is barking his head off (which Charity could hear in the distance and was hoping everything was okay), a lone grouse flushes behind Charles that he quickly swings behind and kills, marking the bird down and leaving it lay to figure out the source of Sam’s anxiety.  Just as he turns back from the bird to look at Sam and his yucca problem, BB emerges from behind the plant with a face full of porcupine quills.  Charles pinned BB down and pulled out quills from her face and paw, while Sam continued his barking but learning the porky lesson long ago, Charles was confident Sam wouldn’t tangle with it.  Once he released BB from her operation, she immediately went and found the bird for the retrieve while Charles called Sam off of the barking spasm.

Charity continued west through the dunes, having a few groups of 3-4 get up both in and out of range within a span of a half hour, but the shots didn’t come together.  She spent another hour heading west towards a couple of windmills and a lone tree, but saw nothing.

The team of Charles, Sam and BB eased along the southern ridgeline that Charity had covered to the north and pushed birds into.  One got up that he missed, but a second bird jumped that he put a pellet into.  It soared a hundred yards away, but it was obviously hit because one leg was hanging limp despite its efforts to escape.  They worked over to where it was down and BB found and pointed it, but the bird hadn’t given up the fight.  It flushed again and with a close range going away shot, Charles had no problem bagging it.  They worked their way further into the area that Charity had busted up and a grouse charged them out of nowhere, flying up over a dune straight at them.  Needless to say, Charles’s limit was taken care of in that salvo.

Despite the remote location, they were within cell phone range and Charles texted that he had his limit and was coming to get her.  She made her way to the windmill by the lone tree and he drove the truck to pick her up, just in time to head back to town to fix the kids some lunch.

Charles shows the neighborhood boys, along with son, Conrad, on left, how to breast out a sharptail grouse

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

                As Charity’s family babysitting time had expired, plus there was make-up homework to help the kids with and laundry to do, Charles headed out to “Prairie Chicken Paradise” on his own.  He was making his way out to the paradise, in an area that used to surprise us when birds got up, but we’ve been surprised enough years to now know that a flock resides in these very low, almost nonexistent dunes on the way to our usual hunting grounds a mile and a half away from the road.  It was there that he took his only bird of the day, with unknown numbers jumping right into the sun, he instinctively fired at the sound of the wingbeats since he couldn’t see and was able to put one on the ground between him and Sam.

They made their way back to the deep dunefield that has consistently produced for us throughout the years, but not a flush was to be had.  BB began tracking hard, so since there seemed to be nothing else going on, Charles and Sam followed along.  BB was tracking a coyote, who jumped up and ran, but Charles was in no mood for fur and called the dogs off to head for home.  It was time to enjoy the company of our family and good friends in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Despite the long summer drought and unseasonably hot conditions, Charles, Charity and the dogs were able to have success on their traditional sharptail grouse and prairie chicken opener by relying on proven approaches to covering ground and relocating known coveys that they’ve hunted for over a decade.

Preparing the trip’s harvest for the freezer, minus 2 grouse that were already consumed.

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Pheasant Fest 2012: Gone to the Dogs!!

Charles and I attended Pheasant Fest 2012 in downtown Kansas City, Missouri last weekend and were not prepared to go back to dog school.  We figured the dog highlight of the weekend was going to be the Bird Dog Parade that kicked the event off on Friday, but boy were we in for a surprise.

The best thing about the Bird Dog Parade is that for the most part, these are not show dogs.  They may pee or poo on the plastic runway.  They may give their owners a hard time.  It is just fun to see gundoggers do their best at showing off their prized possessions.  And I’m not making fun, my daughter Cordelia and I walked our male Sam in last year’s parade in Omaha: http://omaha.com/article/20110127/NEWS01/110129697#a-parade-of-bird-dogs-for-omaha (We are slides 3-5 on the slideshow link and show up :26-:30 on the embedded video).

Here’s a slideshow of my photos from Bird Dog Parade 2012 in Kansas City:

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After the Bird Dog Parade, we spent 98% of the weekend glued to the Bird Dog Bonanza Stage, primarily with the famous Smith family, consisting of 85-year old Delmar, son Rick and nephew Ronnie, as well as Tom Dokken (inventor of Dokken retrieving dummies that we use for training), Jim Moorehouse and Bob West.

Rick Smith, Bob West, Jim Moorehouse, Delmar Smith, Ronnie Smith and Tom Dokken at Pheasant Fest 2012

Rick Smith, Bob West, Jim Moorehouse, Delmar Smith, Ronnie Smith and Tom Dokken at Pheasant Fest 2012

Chad Love of Field and Stream agrees with us that Delmar Smith is the World’s Coolest Man: http://www.fieldandstream.com/blogs/mans-best-friend/2012/02/delmar-smith-2012-worlds-coolest-man  We were blown away by his “75 years of Dog Training” talk, which ranged from the mortality rate of litters in the past, the inconsistency in performance of dogs in the past, how to flight train pen-raised birds, what he looks for in breeding stock, to how he trained coyotes to behave like bird dogs.  He was as funny and lovable as any gundog grandpa could ever be and we hope to see him again.

Delmar Smith speaking at Pheasant Fest 2012

Delmar Smith speaking at Pheasant Fest 2012

Equally impressive were Delmar’s son, Rick and nephew, Ronnie.  Charles and I had been talking about participating in the HuntSmith dog training seminar program for quite some time, but the experience of listening to Rick and Ronnie first hand share their extensive experiences with training and fixing dogs left us in awe and ready for more.

To have dog trainers say that they can fix gun shy says it all to us.  There are numerous dog trainers who say that gun shy cannot be fixed, but if these guys can do it, they are truly the real thing.

Rick Smith and "Breeze" Pheasant Fest 2012

Rick Smith and "Breeze" Pheasant Fest 2012

Ronnie Smith Pheasant Fest 2012

Ronnie Smith Pheasant Fest 2012

I’ll be writing a more in-depth analysis of the knowledge from the Bird Dog Bonanza Stage in the near future, but wanted to let everyone know that we had a doggone good time at Pheasant Fest 2012!

 

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That’s a wrap: Season 2011-12

It had been awhile since I’d been able to break away from the home and kids to join Charles in the hunting fields, but Saturday, January 28th was on the calendar as a hunting date, in observance of the last weekend of the season.  We left town around 5 AM with our sights set on the Kansas border in hopes of pheasants, quail and prairie chicken.

We hit a 200+ acre field around 8 AM on a sunny but chilly morning and walked from east to west through a nice blend of big bluestem and indiangrass.  Within 15 minutes Charles and the dogs put up a hen pheasant, a good sign!  About 5 minutes later, Mae made a direct approach to a clump of grass to the south of me, next to the road, and locked up on point.  Sue and BB followed to the clump, all honoring Mae and pointing to back.  It was all girls on this clump of grass and I gave it a swift kick.  The clump of grass growled at me and I screamed!  I called the dogs off in fear of a skunk, but a big raccoon crept out of the grass and went over the road onto property that we didn’t have permission to hunt.

The southwest corner of the piece we were walking looked promising and we turned towards the north to continue our quest for game.  BB locked up on point right in front of Charles.  Another raccoon!  Charles called all the dogs in to work on their raccoon fighting.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffons Raccoon

The four dogs take on the raccoon

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Raccoon2

BB faces off with the raccoon

Our inspiration for getting involved with furred game comes from a few different directions.  Charles has always been drawn to using the dogs to their full versatility, but has been egged on by his participation in the forum on http://www.versatiledogs.com/.  I’ve made friends online with griffoniers in Germany and Finland who also use their dogs for furred game.  Here is a picture from my friend Jenni in Finland of her dog holding a supikoira, also known as a “raccoon dog”:

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Supikoira

A griffon from Finland holding a supikoira. Photo by Jenni Ruotimo

I have to admit that watching the dogs fight the raccoon was scary as they each took turns chewing on the snarling, biting, scratching beast.  Once I saw that our side had taken some injuries, I told Charles to call the dogs off and shoot the coon.  BB took a bite to the ear and Mae to the nose.  They are all healing fine now, but the chaos of the fight was a little unnerving at the time.

We continued north along the western border with a scraggly treeline: perfect quail habitat.  I never even heard the flush, but it couldn’t have been 10 minutes after the raccoon fight that Charles had a single quail flush and it was quickly placed in the bag.  The treeline border was thoroughly searched with no quail covey found so we turned back east once we reached the northwest corner.  The dogs were all acting gamey, so we retraced our steps a few times in that corner and spooked up a rabbit that Charles bagged.  Sue didn’t hesitate in retrieving it at all, game is game!

The field eastward had a slightly sloping hill with some treelined waterways, so we scoured those for the quail covey, with no luck.  The northwest corner of the property was wooded over, so we inspected it, then crossed to the eastern side of the woods.  Right on the property boundry at an intersection between field and wood and cropland laid a pile of deadfall trees.  One of those places that always has something in it, so we approached it very aware.  Covey flush!  Around 15 quail jumped up and flew back behind me toward the woods, I lined up a shot as best I could following the excitement and surprise, but failed to connect.

The area was searched thoroughly for a good hour, but we never found the covey again.  We expect that they must have slipped on to the other property.  There were a couple of more lockups by the dogs and resulting hen flushes, but no other legal game to be bagged.

We had some lunch and hit a few more fields with no results.  Charles was out the entire Sunday and saw absolutely nothing.  We took it as a sign that game and hunter alike were ready for some time off from each other.

Raccoon quail and rabbit

The final day's bag: raccoon, quail and rabbit

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Coon Picante

As any reader of this blog may ascertain, versatility in the field is an attribute that I admire.  Yes, the purity of working a quail off a point defines refinement and poise.  However, witnessing a dog hammer a gritty furbearer plays to primal instincts.  There is something about uncertainty and perhaps a little fear that makes one’s senses buzz harder than any other expirience.

My hunt last weekend covered these bases from soup to nuts.

The day started out as many.  A few bird hunters rising early, linking up and embarking on a reasonable jaunt into the hinterland of Nebraska.  We had access to a friend’s beautiful  family farm that is a combination of crop and CRP.  Regardless of what you hear, our farmers really do care about the land.  The farm we hunted on Saturday could easily be pulled out of the CRP program, but Marv’s father enjoys ecological diversity.  He has invested the time, energy and foregone income into insure that his place has the complexity to support wildlife.  We were the fortunate beneficiaries of this truly conservation-minded attitude.

Our first push resulted in some great dog work, with points and all the excitement that goes along with them.  This time they were all hens.  No complaints here.  It is heartening to know that next year holds promise.

As we worked through the final patches of cover on this side of the farm, the dogs demeanor changed and they became “wolfy”.  There was a clump of very thick grass that border the corn that drew them in like a magnet.  They buzzed into this area and semi-locked up, high headed and intense in a way that feathers can’t elicit.  After a season of hunting, I knew this wasn’t a bird.  Sam pushed into the vegetation and immediately squared his haunches.  Now any bird hunter gets a lump in his throat when he sees this….please don’t let it be a skunk!  Fortunately, it wasn’t.  I’d like to think that after a particular encounter with Mr. Stinker, my lead dog has learned his lesson.

Sam lunged forward, them sprang back revealing a very irate coon.  Pissed off coons have a specific screech that makes the hair on your neck stand up despite the fact that you may be packing enough heat to end things quickly.  I urged both dogs to engage…and it didn’t take much from me to convince Sam and BB to set on this “mini-bear” like he had insulted their mother.   After the initial round of thrashing, the coon rolled on his back, giving him more opportunities to scratch and bite his canine aggressors.   BB, a 10 month pup, thrown off by this tactic, but Sam was only stimulated.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon with raccoon

Sam and BB engage with the raccoon

The two mortal enemies went at it again.  Worried that my best friend was getting more than he was giving convinced me to step in and give the coon a stomp.  I did just that and Sam took full advantage of the distraction.  Before the coon could square up for another round of biting and scratching, Sam grabbed him by the throat and neck.  The “death shake” commenced.  Sam whipped Mr. Nest Raider around enough to completely incapacited the varmit.  When he was done, the unfortunate furbearer was out of commision for good.  A quick slice of the coon’s throat from my Leatherman ended the encounter permanently.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon fighting raccoon

Sam takes on the raccoon

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon fighting raccoon

Sam thrashes the raccoon

From that point, we moved on in search of more game.  Our efforts were rewarded soon afterwards in the form of a solid point by BB and Sam that resulted in a nice rooster.   Back to the “purity” of bird hunting.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon pheasant and raccoon

Charles and Sam with the raccoon and rooster. Photo by Ira Hughey

We moved on and hunted for another 45 minutes before deciding to move back towards the vehicles and lunch.  On our way back we moved a covey of quail which warranted a quick tromp through a brushy waterway looking for singles.  This effort was rewarded with a set of very staunch points by the dogs and a quail in the bag for my friend, Ira.

After a nice lunch of beef soup and a grilled cheese in the nearest town’s only full-service watering hole, we hit a couple of other spots with no results other than strained tendons.

The day ended with the sweet satifaction of watching versatile dogs, in the fullest continental sense of the term, do what they were truly designed to do….point birds and engage fur.

Hunting is what you make of it.

And coon picante is on the menu at the home of the Versatile Hunter.

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