Thursday, January 24, 2019

Old Roads

bird dogs and bird hunting

We see them, if we look. From old southern wagon trails, sections now paved and named, running through green hills and long-abandoned plantation fields to depressions lined with oaks that shaded Sherman’s troops on their March-to-the-Sea. To Indian trails marked by the signal oaks, bent as they grew to mark trails and water holes and campsites. Even deep depressions made by hundreds of rolled tobacco bales making their way to the port cities of the Old South. In western states, there are wagon trails with ruts still visible, and bridges with pilings showing just above creeks and streams with names like “Blood Creek” and “Muddy Stream”. The Natchez Trace winds its way through hills and over fords of rivers and memories of resting stations with names like “She Boss” (named because the Indian man would point to the white woman and say ‘she boss’), up in Tennessee. The ruts and indentations still visible from the thousands of wagons struggling to the port city of Natchez, Mississippi. Ranches west of Old Man River and the Big Muddy, in family hands for hundreds of years have gentle, sloping access roads carved out so that a team of horses could make the inclines to the ‘big house’. Usually, the old road is bypassed now, because we have hundreds of horses harnessed under the hood and brute force is the way of modern transport. We use huge machines go to straight up over the hills now. The old roads are dangerous and curvy and limit our speed, they say. Perhaps they are right, since the crosses marking the last minutes of life are clustered on the curves. In the Snake River valley of Idaho, narrow, gentle paths run from the caprock to the water, now disused and mostly forgotten.
bird dogs and bird hunting
Nebraska Sandhills

In South Dakota, old wagon train trails are marked as points of interest, parts are paved since they are still the best way to get to Rapid City rapidly. All with the gentle slope to convenience mule or ox-drawn transport. The desert Southwest holds on to their old roads the longest, it seems. A lack of rain means tracks a hundred years old seem like they are merely disused and not totally abandoned. In New Mexico, after crossing from El Paso, the modern highway bulldozes its way across the bleak landscape until it hits the mountains and pushes its way up through peaks. The old roads are still visible, cut from the rocks, weaving back and forth, crossing old bridges, sometimes with a bit of paint still on the centerline- now fenced off, and employed as resting places for cows and coyotes. Wisconsin and Minnesota, in the Great Northwoods, home to Paul Bunyan and Babe, the blue Ox, hide their old roads in new growth woods. They would follow the train tracks, rails now long gone, built to haul the huge trees to the sawmills in nearby mill towns. Some are still in operation. The roads are merely flat, gentle, overgrown depressions now, home to Ruffed Grouse, Elk, Bear, and Gray Wolf. The western coast of Oregon, where towns were isolated except by boat, has roads carved into the rocks above the crashing waves of the Pacific, in order to access their nearest neighbor up or down the coast. They are still visible when they are high enough to escape the constant scrubbing from the Pacific. 

bird dogs and bird hunting

My kids grew up listening to me discuss three things on road trips. Shortcuts, ridgelines, and old roads. All of them are related. Many old roads followed the crest of ridges (ridgelines) and were often the fastest way to get from place to place. Old Indian trails often followed the ridges. They were widened into roads, by settler’s wagons, and often were discovered as the best way for the railroads, who looked at hills as a challenge to be avoided, and would always take the least incline possible.
I look at the old roads and wonder who traveled them, and why. Sometimes, it seems like such a waste to discard the work and sweat that went into their surveying and construction. But, I’m thinking those thoughts as I whiz by at a speed that covers a day’s wagon train ride every 10 minutes. So, maybe I just answered the question.
Still, there is something sad about an old, cutoff piece of road. We are saying to thousands of past travelers, “You went the wrong way. Look, this way is much faster!” There’s a sadness and dejection to an old road still winding through the trees or hanging on to the side of a mountain. “I’ve served my purpose, did my job, and now I’m set aside. Maybe, they’ll need me once again.” Maybe. Or, like Route 66, it will be marked and remembered, from Chicago to LA, and celebrated by the children of the children that actually passed over the asphalt in the family station wagon, the “way in back” seat facing rearward. 

bird dogs and bird hunting

Keep an eye out for “the old road”. They are easiest to find out West, traveling through the mountains.  And, when you find one, imagine an early automobile, or a wagon piled high with possessions, struggling up the hills, carrying a family wide-eyed with amazement at the scenic countryside so foreign to the land they left behind.  The old roads connected us.  They made us a country.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Reaching for the Slam

Southern AZ Mearns Country
Each time I load up and head to Arizona, I'm already smiling.  It's a hard two days, sometimes two and a half days, to get to Tucson, but the country is so stark and honest, I think it's beautiful. This December (2018) was no exception.  I dragged my camper to NM and dropped it with a friend who kindly put in hookups near his barn.  Since it was raining hard in Mearns country, I stayed for a few days and hunted Blue (Scaled) Quail.  

New Mexico never disappoints.  Good years, bad years, cold years, hot years, it's what you expect.  Over the years, I've been rained on, hailed on, snowed on, blown over, sunburned, frozen, and everything in between- that's New Mexico! The birds are just as hardy. Having a drought?  OK, the covey sizes are small...but, there still are coveys.  Having a banner year?  OK, you can walk in any direction, and you will find a covey within 200 yards.  Blues are fast, tough, and will run like the wind until you force them to fly. Many bird hunters will not hunt them, because they don't typically hold like a bobwhite. I think they are missing out.  It takes some thinking, scheming, and good dog work to really be successful.  Although, I know several guys that hunt them without dogs and do quite well.  
Blue (Scaled) Quail
Pearl and I put out at a place I call "Quail Valley" from past years hunting the area. Right away, she was birdy, running through the mesquite with purpose, nose on the ground, then, nose up in the air.  She kept working up to the side of the bowl shaped depression, and I kept trying to get her back down in the grass, where there was at least some cover for the birds.  There weren't going to be any birds up on the sides where the cover was very sparse.  Mumbling under my breath, I was marching through the sand, when she locked up about 50 yards from me.  I picked up the pace, by now, and swung around her by 10 yards, aiming for a point 20-30 yards in front.  A single popped up and headed for safety, but the Ithaca Model 100 SKB 20 ga. dropped him easily.  Pearl  made a nice retrieve to hand and she headed out again along the side of the bowl. I was marveling at how these birds can disappear in almost NO cover, when one flushed from almost underfoot and sped away.  Then, I understood, I we were in the midst of a feeding covey. Pearl pointed again- another single in the bag.  Once more she pointed, and the single blasted away, but a double from behind her went the other direction.  I dropped the single and swung on the double, but it was a sucker shot since I had to swing almost 180 degrees to even find the retreating gray blurs.  

Pearl and 3 of her 4 Blues that cast.
We eventually moved out of that covey and started working back to the truck. As I called her to me and took the picture, I noticed she kept looking to her left as I was setting things up.  Just as I released her, she tore off to her left, S-turned a few times and locked up about 75 yards away!  On the rise of about 20 birds, I dropped another one and she put it in my hand.  A few yards later, she pointed, and as I was walking in on her, the bird blew up behind me, from a mesquite bush.  I heard more than saw it, so I let it go.  It was a good afternoon in the desert. 

The next day, it was time to continue on to Arizona and a date with the Mearns in the southern Arizona mountains (elev. approx 5500').

Male Mearns Quail
I love the Mearns Quail.  Hunting them is like trout fishing.  They don't live in ugly places, so it's a pleasure to walk the gullies and ridgelines, even if it is challenging staying upright over the volcanic rock, at times.  Another added benefit to Mearns hunting, is that my dogs do not need to be booted like they need to be in the desert.  Overall, hunting in Mearns country is beautiful, and pretty easy.  this year, the numbers are down, but better than last year, for sure.

After two days of Mearns, I turned to the north and went searching for some Gambels Quail in the desert.

The Beast parked in typical Gambels habitat.
We were back to boots, once more, as we navigated the rough, rocky roads north of Tucson.  4 or 5 different types of cactus covered the ground.  The birds use the cactus for food and for protection. I've written about boots before: click here to view the video about the boots-

Click here to read the BLOG post-

Texas Boots from motorcycle inner tubes.
I put my other girl on the ground, Ruby.  She made a methodical cast and found two coveys.  I harvested one bird from the first covey, but the second covey was a little wiser. They flushed out the other side of a mesquite bush, from the thick grass.  I heard them go, but only saw gray dots on the horizon.  Next, I moved to an area I hunted several years in the past.  It was way back in, down a stream bed, over a rocky trail, and through a gate that's seen better days.  We pulled up to a dry water tank surrounded by a substantial corral.  I booted my 18 month old pup, Blue.  He came off the tailgate and immediately went into hot scent mode. His body was crouched, tail moving like a buzz saw, running with sharp turns, and barely controlled enthusiasm.  After 5 minutes of this, he spun and locked down hard on a clump of grass. I kicked but it was empty.  I reached and tapped him on the head, and off he went, again.  Twenty yards away, he spun and locked up again!  This time, the bird blasted out, and I dropped him on the second shot.  Blue released at the shot and chased the falling bird.  Unfortunately, he ran right into a large patch of cactus. He yelped and jumped back into a cholla cactus, yelped again and finally stopped to bite at the pieces of cactus stuck in him.  I grabbed my comb I carry for such an event, grabbed his collar, calmed him down, and flicked the cactus off with the comb.  Then, I told him to "Fetch it up!"  He moved with quite a bit more intention this time, avoiding the cactus and moving to where the bird dropped.  A retrieve to hand finished the work.  It was his first wild quail- a Gambels!  

Blue and his first bird.
The next day, we traveled back to New Mexico to spend a few days trying to find some bobwhite quail.  I've been into them before, but haven't been successful in the past few years. If I could get one in the bag, I would have harvested all four species of Southwest Quail. 

On the ranch.
We were invited to a ranch right up against the Texas line.  It had not been hunted, and it held bobwhites.  Let's go!, I said.  At only 100,000+ ac., I'm not sure we would have enough to hunt, but we decided to give it a shot, anyway.  

Perfect habitat!
We searched all over that ranch, but only found 4 coveys of Blues. The attempt at the SLAM was over. For the second time, I was stymied by the Bobwhite- of all the species!  Ironically, I kill probably500+ bobs every year working dogs and field trials.   I guess it's only right. 

Thursday, October 18, 2018

One Cast (Of Many) in the Grasslands

Point and 2 Backs

One afternoon, we put out on a large patch of Hunter Walk-in Area near Pierre.  Mainly flat with a little roll, the land was a sea of grass.  It was obviously an old alfalfa field, as we could see the stalks and plants pushing up through the grass, providing food and cover for the Prairie Chickens and Sharptail Grouse. I started with Cap (Brit/M/8) and Shack (Brit/M/5) on the ground- my most productive team.  Hunting partners, Matthew and Shelby Puckett, had 11 year old Abby (GSP/F) down.  

Shelby and Shack

Abby struck first with a very nice point!  Cap and Shack strolled in, from two different directions, and backed her.  We all knew we had something waiting for us, and Matthew did his best to flush them, but either they ran out from under the dogs or this was old scent. We moved on through the grass. About 40 yards later, the grass parted and a chicken blasted up, right at my feet!  Instinct took over as the 5.8# AHFox 20 qa. hit my shoulder and a load of 6’s went his way. Sweet shot!  And the bird pitched forward into the grass.  An instant later, the blast of another set of wings, to my left, sent another Prairie Chicken up and away! He made a fatal turn to follow the the first bird, and the Fox barked one more time, followed by a tumbling bird into the grass.  A Double!  My first on Chickens. 


Shelby and Matthew and Shack  and Abby moved off to the south as Cap and I covered another section of the area. Thinking we may have left a bird or two back at the tree line near the trucks, I swung around and headed back.  Cap was on his game (he’s rarely not) and with 8 years’ experience, I knew, if they were there, he’d find them.  Sure enough, he slammed a point just outside the stand of trees, in the cut alfalfa. It’s always amazing to me how these birds can disappear in no cover.  As I approached, this guy gave me no chance. He blasted out before I could get closer that 50 yards. No shot there, but Cap was still birdy, and I was anxious to limit. A minute later, Cap, tongue lolling and working slowly and carefully along the edge of a drainage ditch, eased into a point.  There wasn’t a cupful of grass right in front of his nose. But, I knew my dog, and I always honored his point.  Besides, I’d just scored a double!  Two fat chickens in the bird bag would soon be joined by a third. Then, I could return to the truck (“Yeah, I’m back a little early, but, then, I limited, you know. Let me tell you all about it....”).

Cap and 3 Chickens

Needless to say, this bird was already in the bird bag.  I glanced around to clear the area, and I noticed Matthew and Shelby coming in from the south. Also, Sarah and Jesse were standing by the trucks.  Perfect. Witnesses!  (What pilot doesn’t like an audience?).  Talking to Cap and easing around him, on his left so he could see me closing in (he lost the lens in his right eye), I moved to the tuft of grass. No more than two steps away, the grass blew apart and a laughing  Sharptail blew up and straight away!  The Fox hit my shoulder, as I envisioned easing the bird into the crowded bird-bag.  The old 20 ga. barked twice and a shocked silence surrounded an embarrassed, overconfident, 68 year old, traveling bird hunter as the sharpie chuckled away into the distance.  Laughing, I thought, “Thank you Lord for, once again, showing me my misplaced pride.  But, did it need to be in front of so many witnesses?” He was silent on that one.

It was an awesome day on the prairie with good friends and great dogs.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

South Dakota Prairie Chickens (and Sharptail Grouse)

Cap and 3 Prairie Chickens

Normally, in October (the best month, by far, in the calendar), I would be in the Ruffed Grouse woods.  This year, an epic downturn in grouse populations hit the Northwoods.  After an earlier trip to Montana produced lots of walking, driving, and worn out dogs, but few birds, I decided to find somewhere, anywhere, that had good populations of something.  The South Dakota Grasslands fit the bill.  Prairie Chickens were on the menu!  The Grasslands are south of Pierre (pronounced "peer"), SD.  They are a huge,vast sea of grass, and they are managed for Prairie Chickens.  The population this year is high, but don't get the idea it's like hunting pheasant in a good year, where every bunch of cattails has 100 birds. 

Cap backing Shack who has 4 chickens pointed
These are prairie birds.  They've adapted to look out for trouble.  They'll be up on the sides of hills, or even on the top.  Many times, they'll see you coming, and they'll launch off before you get within 200 yards.  That said, with a good population, there were many young birds, and this cruel world is a tough taskmaster.  They hung around a little too long and tried to hide from the dogs- bad mistake.

Matthew approaches a point by Abbie with Cap and Shack backing.
It wasn't all sweetness and light, however.  I managed to get stuck in the South Dakota snot they call wet dirt.....twice!  The first time was on a day that was 30 degrees with 30-40 mph winds.  After almost being blown off the road while crossing a slushy patch west of Pierre, I hightailed it back to town, and decided to hit a spot I know in the Grasslands.  I drove south from Pierre, all the while checking the temperature and watching the wind.  I turned in, crossed the cattle guard, and immediately, both axles sank into the ruts!  I was still moving, but didn't feel right.  I was in 4WD and was moving along pretty good, but I was very concerned about getting back out!  After 1/4 mile, that was all the Beast could take.  She sank down, and we were going nowhere.   I ended up calling a local friend.  I knew the ribbing would be intense- and it was.  He drove in the grass down to me, and pulled me out of the ruts.  Once on the grass, I was good to go.  I was there 4 hours, the day was shot, I was cold and hungry.  So, I took David and Angela Healan of Spring Creek Ventures out to a steakhouse dinner. (

David pulled me out of the track, back on the grass.
The second time, I was following two other trucks down a mushy road.  I was following to close for the "absolutely no braking" conditions.  Ahead of me Jesse and Sarah Gomes slowed to kick off their traction control. The only escape I had was into the ditch.  Actually, it wouldn't count as being stuck at that point, since I had great traction in the ditch and waited for them to get rolling again.  Once clear, I pulled back onto the road.  BUT, I didn't have enough speed to get all the way up out of the ditch and avoid a drainage culvert under the road.  I stopped short with my right front wheel almost hanging in space.  I managed to pull it back a little, but that wheel was too far down to pull out.  Finally, Matthew and Shelby Puckett unhooked their dog trailer and came slip-sliding back to look for me. I told him to go past me, turn around in the ditch, and get close enough to back up and pull me out.  It worked like a charm.  10 min later we were hunting!

Sarah's dog, Dan, discovered the wonderful world of porcupines.
Not long after that, Dan, Sarah's dog, took a shine to a porcupine in a cattail surrounded pond.  He was pitiful while we pulled the quills out.  But, he was back to hunting quickly after that.  Tough dog. I always carry some type of pliers, just for this eventuality.
Cap, Sarah, and Abby and a limit of Chickens
We saw a lot of excellent shooting (some other) and loads of incredible dog work over the 5 days.  In the end, we had worn out dogs, birds in the bag, muddy trucks, and enough memories to last until next year.

Jesse and Sarah Gomes, Shelby and Matthew Puckett
Shelby and Matthew with some chickens
Sarah and Rye- one of those "wow" dogs.
Shelby and Shack
We were there the week prior to pheasant season opening.  It was quiet, peaceful, and traffic free around town.  Saturday, the resident-only pheasant season opened.  Prior to that, we never saw another outfit or hunter.  It was a great time to go visit the Grasslands.  Just be sure to carry some needle-nosed pliers in your vest and chains in your truck.  You just never know when you might need them. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Montana Opener 2018

montana hunting bird hunting bird dogs and bird hunting
Sharptail and Hun cover
The Opener!  Every year, at the end of summer, I'm ready to go.  There's a little boy hope in me that, perhaps, it won't be so hot this year.  Maybe a cold front will swoop through and give us a week of perfect hunting weather before the 90's come back.  It was not to be.  The weather was seasonally hot.  Since I  judged, and competed at a NSTRA field trial in Great Falls the first three days of September, I was well aware the local weather would be cool at night and warm to hot during the day. 

montana hunting bird hunting bird dogs and bird hunting
Shack getting some love for his work.

The trial served as a warmup for the dogs.  They use Chukar for the trial, and it's always fun to see the first few finds from the various dogs.  The older one's will roll into the point with practiced nonchalance, "Here he is, Boss.  Pretty much smells like a Chukar.".  The younger guys may stutter a bit, but will recover well as they lock up, "Crap, Boss!  This one smells pretty good!  It smells big.  I hope you're ready!"  Either way, they get to transition from pen-raised birds to something a little more exotic.  Overall, my dogs (I only ran Shack and Cap, the two males, in the field trail) did very well.  I was very pleased with the results (3 Firsts, 2 Fourths) over the two days they competed, but I was more pleased with the non-tangibles of obedience, style and headwork.  

Cap backing Shack backing Scout (not shown)
We moved north and hit the ground early the next day.  As predicted, it was a cool morning, but heated up fast. The hunting was on Block Management land, Open Fields for Upland Birds land, and State and BLM land.  If you go to Montana without a way to identify all these types of land, you'll be hurting yourself.  Sometimes, you'll be heading to a nice piece of Block Management when you'll see some really nice habitat.  Checking the map, you notice it's State Trust Land, and open for hunting.  It might be the next great honeyhole.  

montana hunting bird hunting bird dogs and bird hunting
Pearl on two Sharptails
In the old days, books mailed from the state and maps from the BLM office littered the front seat of the truck with notes scribbled in margins with phone numbers, directions, names, etc. and with circled areas to hunt and others to avoid.  In the modern era, I still have the paper, BUT I also use GPS technology.  There are several apps out there for iOS and Android that will make your hunt way more enjoyable.  I have evaluated two and you can read about them here.  
Hunt montana bird dogs and bird hunting
Pearl's bird.

The routine varied little over the next few weeks.  Up before light, on the road after coffee, in the field as the sun came over the hills, break at noon, nap in the shade, back in the field around 5 for a few more hours, back to the camper after dark. I'm always asked about snakes- Prairie Rattlers.   I, personally, saw no snakes.  My hunting partner saw a few and had one Prairie Rattler strike at one of his dogs with no contact.  We usually see a few every year, but this year I never saw even one.  I did, however, have one medical emergency. Pearl had a discharge and seemed to be feeling poorly, so I took her to the local vet.  Pyometra was diagnosed and she was spayed the next morning.  Diagnosis was confirmed, and my vet and the local vet agreed that we probably saved her life.  "Don't let the sun go down on Pyometra!" was what my home vet told me.  When we opened her up, I saw why.  Google it.  Don't mess around with it.  

Hunt montana bird dogs and bird hunting
Ruby and her 2.
So, for the 2018 season, here are my impressions of the sharptail (and Hun) season in Montana.  It's a very poor year, statewide.  You'll see pictures of dead sharpies and Huns here.  The total number of birds I harvested for nine days on the ground, hunting hard, was 8 Sharps and 2 Huns. I felt lucky to have bagged those.
Hunt montana bird dogs and bird hunting
Cap and Shack had a good morning. 4 Sharps and 1 Hun.
We hunted west, north to Canada, and east to the Dakota line.  I talked to landowners, ranchers, vets, and even a FedEx driver- conditions are perfect, the bird numbers are very poor.  I'd even hazard a guess that they are worse than last year.  Just to be clear, I feel confident that I know how to hunt these birds, and I know where to go.  There are "pockets" of birds, where you might see several large coveys. But, overall, you'll see much fewer than normal.  I wish it were different, but it is what it is.