Monday, September 15, 2014

Scenes from the hunt. Montana Sharptails and Hungarian Partridge.

Me and Pearl

Ace retrieving a Hun

Ace with a Sharptail

Shack cooling off

Cool rock

Cap and Ruby (lying down)

Big sky country. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Secret Recipe for Sharptail Fritters

Always start with a sterile work place.  The tailgate will work just fine. 

Thin slice the beast meat and add jalapeño pepper jack cheese. 

A slice of hot jalapeño pepper. The heat will disapate during cooking. 

Wrap with bacon. Yep, this ain't for pasty-faced vegetarians. 

Hold it all together with some responsibly grown toothpicks. 

Cook over coals next to a stream in Montana. 

Go get more Sharptail Grouse for tomorrow's lunch in the field. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

The reason for the season. Or: Playing or Hunting, it's your choice.

Years of planning and thought go into breeding for bird dogs.  My small program has, so far, produced two puppies for me. One, Pearl (below), is a product of that work. Smallish, at 31# of solid muscle, she's a thinker, and, at times, exeedingly bold.  This is her first bird hunt and first exposure to anything but pen-raised quail. The first cast out of the truck, I teamed her with her mother, Ruby, a fast, big running girl, who's very solid and forgiving of mistakes in her bracemates.  Pearl ran with Ruby for the first 30 minutes, at times out of sight, gaining some sense of how to hunt, where to look, what obstacles there were, etc.   After a bit, she came back to me and started quartering 40-80 yards in front with an occasional cast to check out interesting stuff, just like we practiced at home.  

About an hour into the cast, she whipped her head up turned left and started moving slowly deeper into the alfalfa. Finally, she locked up, tail high, head high.  "Whoa!" I said quietly.  She took a few steps and locked again. She was about 50 yards away and I was moving quickly through the alfalfa to get to her, keeping an eye on her, one for the birds, and a third eye on where I was stepping (!). "Whoa, girl!" I chided. Another step.....4 Sharptail Grouse jumped up 20 yards in front of her.  She froze, then stepped again, and another 5 Sharpies took to the air!  She broke and off she went. "I'll get one for you, daddy!" She yelled over her shoulder. I didn't shoot. 

A few minutes later, a very fired-up Brittany puppy rolled up to me with lots of wonder in her eyes and a sense of purpose in her heart.  It was 38 degrees, overcast and 10-20 mph wind from the north. It was a perfect day. 

We worked out of the alfalfa and in to the CRP grass, headed back to the truck. The boy in me wanted find those Sharpies and have another go at them. The tired legs said time for a break. It was another type of cover for Pearl, and she watched Ruby for a while before tackling it on her own. We moved along slowly, just enjoying the day. Suddenly, Pearl swapped ends and locked up, again!  This time, Ruby was 10 yards behind her and back her point, as well.  Thinking she might creep in again, I told her Whoa, but she didn't move a muscle.  I came in from the front right at her (the best set up) and had the bird trapped and Pearl could see me the whole time. About 20 feet in front of Pearl, a single Sharp got up and I dropped it. Pearl was on it when it hit, and Ruby was right there, too!  Jealousy took over and momma let Pearl take the bird. She picked it up and ran to me and put it in my hand!  Right there, in a CRP field on the Montana prairie, we had us a little "love-in", as I grabbed her and told her how special she was, and how proud I was of her.  True to form, she took it for about 10 seconds and looked at me and said, "There's more birds out here. Are we going to play or hunt?"

Ace retrieving a Sharptail 

The outfit

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The first hunt of the season. Scenes from a good time...

Walking in over a nice point.  Nothing can approximate the anticipation of the flush, to the truly addicted. 

The end result of the years of training and bonding is a harvested game bird. Of course, that is merely the physical outcome. The psychological result and benefits, for the dog and gunner, are incalculable. 

My 9.5 year old main man, Ace, retrieving a Sharptail Grouse to hand. Things only get better with age. 

Shack, 12 months old, (right), is getting a lesson from Pepper over a Sharptail Grouse, on the prairie of Montana. 

This was a cold, wet day and a hunters dream. Lots of birds, easy access and good dogs, young dogs. Today, it will still be cold, but perhaps not so wet. My other dogs issued the ultimatum, "Play Us or Trade Us, Boss!"   I'm starting to hear the rumblings of discontent from the back of the truck. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hey! Are you looking for this? A puppy does the job.

We arrived at our eastern Montana destination so early, we had time to put the dogs out for a quick run. The weather was perfect!  From the 90's earlier in the week, it was now 45 and drizzle.  Scenting conditions were never better and the wind made it even easier for my "first timers". 

This old bridge is one the mental landmarks I use to realize I'm really in hunting country!  

Ruby isn't pointed, buts she's winding something interesting. It turns out, a large group of Sharptais fed through this area. We went on to get them up a few minutes later. 

This is Shack. This blurry photo (I was so excited, I'm guess I'm lucky I even got a picture at all!) is his first ever retrieve.  Of any wild bird. He was on the ground working with me, by himself, getting his sea legs, when I noticed he suddenly locked up, then moved, looked around, looked at me, locked up again, then dropped his head- as 15 Hungarian Partridge  got up 10 yards in front of him!  I dropped one into the alfalfa and called him back to look for it. He made a pass by, doing 100 mph, and headed back out. I loved to see the excitement, but I wanted to find the bird, as well. After a minute or so, I looked up and noticed him nosing around about 50 yards away, then he jumped in, picked up the wounded bird and retrieved it to me!  Not bad, Shack!  That's a lot of good stuff happening in one cast for a pup!  

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Puppies, Debutantes and Coming Out Parties

Flyboy Ace's Black Pearl (Pearl)
A little over a year ago, Ruby came in season.  I got Ruby four years ago, after waiting two years, from Nolan Huffman in South Carolina.  She's a daughter of 32XCH Nolan's Last Bullet (frozen semen) and her mission, besides being an amazing bird and trial dog, was to breed with my Ace dog and produce a follow-on male and female for me.  Eleven months ago, Ruby whelped eleven puppies.  All thrived because she was a super mom. Six females and five males.  Really, the purpose for the litter, all those years in the making, was for us to keep a liver female.  Ace is liver.  Cap is liver.  Ruby is orange, but I'm partial to the liver Brit.  The biggest problem I had was picking the puppy, of course.  All but one of the liver females were identical. 

(Photo by Nancy Whitehead)

(Photo by Nancy Whitehead)

They all had the same head coloration as Ace and Cap.  Believe it or not, I had trouble telling Ace and Cap apart in the field.  So much so, that I put different colored collars on them! I really wanted a dog I could quickly distinguish from the others. Pearl had that all-liver head on her and solid body.  There was no doubt who she was when we scanned the pile of Brittany puppies.  And besides, she was a holy terror, aggressive and a real bully.  She never backed down from any puppy there, even though she was only three-quarters the size of the biggest.  I liked that.

Everyone has a different method when picking a puppy. Some great trainers say check out the parents, then close your eyes and grab a pup and go.  Others spend a great deal of time studying and making noises and playing and stuff.  I like bold movers and pretty dogs. Pearl fit the bill perfectly.  As she grew and matured she picked up the mannerisms I was looking for from the sire and dam.  She had the color, intelligence, run, and birdiness from Ace (NSTRA CH and Grandson of 32XCH Nolans Last Bullet) and the run and stamina from Ruby (who came from horseback stock on her mother's side and 2XFC Diamond Hill Dan). In short, all the bona fides aside, the bottom line is this: the lady can find birds and look good doing it. She is bold and inquisitive and listens to me.  She hits the bottoms and the pastures as easy as the cutovers- with grace and speed.  In about a month, she and the rest of the kennel will head out on our first traveling hunt of the year- to Montana for starters, then maybe Utah, Wyoming,  or Minnesota, or....who knows?  She will be in her own kennel getting booted up and wearing the Garmin- just like the big dogs...  

She doesn't know anything about her history or breeding or who her daddy was.  But, hopefully, she'll know what it feels like to get a snoot full of intoxicating Sharpie or Hungarian Partridge scent coming up the nose.  I see her frozen like a statue on the side of a coulee, with me easing up in front of her, just before the world explodes in feathers and shots and the smell of gunpowder. And another generation of bird dog has its "coming out".  

Friday, July 25, 2014

30 Minutes in the Life of a NSTRA Field Trial Handler

Recently, I participated in a National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial in Waverly, NE.  Normally, my field trialing takes place in Georgia, my home region.  However, since the hunting season was finished and our trial season was complete until September, and my two trial-ready dogs were still primed up, I figured to get one last week of competition on them.  Cap, 4 year old Brittany male, and Ruby, 4 year old Brittany female, were as ready as ever and hardened from 6 months of bird hunting and trialing all over the country.  They knew the game and were as solid as any dogs I've ever had the pleasure to own. 
NSTRA Champion Flyboy Ace's Delta Captain (Cap)
This particular trial was a bit different, being a "National Trial", one of 5 held throughout the year around the country. The entry field is capped at 128 dogs, many dogs are many time or multi-champions. Ruby and Cap were very close to their championships prior to this trial.  The work-ups to the main trial allowed us to run several "normal" trials and possibly pick up points toward a championship and that was a consideration, as well.
Cap First and Ruby Third
Elimination Trial
As it happened, Ruby had two third placements and Cap had a first placement during the elimination rounds.  Cap was only shy one first place finish for his championship, so, when he took the field for his Final 8 Brace run, he was a NSTRA Champion.
Flyboy's Ruby Deux (Ruby)
Photo by Nancy Whitehead
The Story:
We arrived a week ago, after a leisurely Memorial Weekend drive through the heart of America. Cap and Ruby knew the drill after a season of hunting.  We were rested and fit and ready to run.  The heat arrived about the same time we did.  Highs of 96 on the fields pushed the dogs to the water barrels and ponds more often and the handlers wore shorts and short sleeves and suffered through grass cuts and black flies.

 Shade was a commodity in short supply, but the clubhouse had a large covered porch that felt like heaven after a brace. After all those days of braces running two dogs and with generally good runs (one I wish I could forget, we were beaten so badly!), here we were at noon on Saturday a week later.  Ruby made the Final 16, but was eliminated earlier that day in a squeaker.  I was proud of her.  She never quit, never slowed down.  Cap made it through the 16, and he I were heading to the line one more time in the Final 8.

The Start.
Cap and me  in Background

Cap and I ran this particular field only once the entire week prior.  I told him not to worry, birds smelled the same on this field, the next field or 5 states over.  He told me "No sweat, Pops!  Just shoot 'em when they get up and follow me.  I got this thing nailed."  Lack of confidence was never a problem in the little guy. The judge said turn them loose, and I let him go.  Cap immediately turned left and hit full stride along the edge of the boundary.  The edge line cut left again, but he continued straight, into the field, full speed, smoking! I knew there was normally a bird close to the front, a "gallery bird", so I let him run. He made a loop to the left, in the corner, and, still at full stride, headed back to me hard along the edge line.  Not 15 seconds in to the brace, he was flying now, coming straight at me as I stepped in to the field, loaded my gun, stowed my lead and watched him.  About 20 yards away, maybe 3 yards in the field, headed straight to me, he pitched left, his rear end flew out from under him and he rolled over.  He came up and stood tall and still, pointed as proud as I've ever seen any dog! "Point", I yelled (perhaps a little too loud, since I heard the gasps from the gallery.  I'm going to say right now pride can be a downfall, but I was downright proud of that little dog right then!).  The shot and retrieve were normal and we had a decision to make.  Cap looked at me and I motioned to him in a direction that would take us directly across the square to the opposite corner.  The wind would be on our right shoulder.  Our opponent would be caught in the right corner, as well. Which is where he went off the line.  If we could get the bird in the middle or far corner and then come back left for another bird, that would be three birds out of five.  We would be sitting pretty good.  About halfway across the field, I noticed my opponent executing a retrieve in the corner. It was one to one.  As I looked up, Cap spun and locked up, "Point"!
He was a long ways away, but staunch and the bird obliged by holding until I arrived. Once again, the shot and retrieve were normal. This time I sent Cap into the large area remaining, in which no dog had been, the last corner.  He took off, and I looked for my opponent.  He was hurrying  across the center of the field for the same corner.  Both dogs were moving quickly now and it was really a race in the tall grass. No one knew where the bird was or even if there was a bird there, but we sure did act like it.  Cap spun first.  "Point", I yelled, this time with some gusto, since I was 50 yards from anyone and standing out on the Nebraska prairie watching my little guy run his heart out.  It took me some time to get to him again and, just before I did, I heard a shot and saw my opponent's dog running to a downed bird in the center of the field.  My bird flew and dropped for the retrieve.  It was three to two.  At this time, I pointed Cap at the other handler and we went with him. The reasoning was this:  If he finds another bird, I will get a back- I'm still ahead. If I find a bird, he will get a back- I'm still ahead.  In a "beat your brace-mate" format, the tactics changed somewhat.

We worked along together for a while until my bracemate spun around and made a beeline for the fence separating the two fields.  It didn't take a rocket scientist to deduce that he may have held a clue as to the whereabouts of another bird or at least suspected the location of a "crossover" bird from the other field.  He was ahead of me, but Cap was fast and got to the fence just about the same time as his dog.   Both dogs caught scent now.  The grass was easily four feet tall in the little slough and the dogs ran through the grass several times.  My opponent went in to the grass and called his dog in to the spot he suspected.  Cap was about 30 yards away and I was coming up fast from the center of the field.   "Point" he yelled!  It was three to three.  "Cap!  Here, boy!"  Cap came up fast to me, looked to his right and spun around in a point. "Back", I yelled!  He stuck it! I walked to him, knelt down and took his collar in my hand and told him I was really proud of him today! 

Our judge walked over slowly, got down on a knee, and looked the situation over.  He whispered to me, "Randy, I think Cap is backing the situation (can't really see the other dog, just the other handler) and I'm going to give you another chance at a back."  Judges make judgment calls, it's why they aren't called scorekeepers.  I said, "Are you sure, Judge?"  He nodded, and that was that.  We would not get any points for the back.  The score was three to three with 5 minutes remaining. 

We hit every corner, ditch, slough and clump in the next five minutes and when time was called we were at the opposite end of the field.  Our judge rolled up and asked if we wanted a ride back to the clubhouse, but Cap and I decided we would just walk back and soak up the day.  If this was the end of the run for us, I wanted to take the stroll back nice and easy and enjoy every bit of it.  We did a good job.  More importantly, my dogs did a good job.  We lost by 21 points difference out of over 1200.  We gave 'em a good scare!  We had a good time and had some laughs, some agonizing moments, some disappointments. Overall, the total experience was worth the travel and training and money.  After all, it really was about the people and the dogs....mainly the dogs.  
Cap after his run.

NSTRA is a great way to spend a day in 30 minutes with your dog.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Head to the Mountains for a quick break!

The heat settled in, the dogs sprawled in the shade, the pool felt like bath water and both the boss and I started thinking we needed a little "getaway".  "Bozeman!", I said. "Great," she said, "let's do it!"  Off we went to the airport and found out we couldn't get there from here- sold out. How about Billings? Sold out. Humm. Let's go to Phoenix!  No problem there, I thought, who in the world wants to go to The Valley of the Sun in July? Wait a minute, said the Boss, how about Denver? We can hit the mountains! Let's go!  Checked the bags. Held up in security and missed the flight!!!  Arghhh! The next three flights were full, but our bags made it to Denver without us. Finally, about 4pm, we joined them and we were on the way to the mountains!

We found a great trout stream. I could see the fish!

Rocky Mountain National Park. I never even knew there was one. 

Look at this big boy feeding right along the side of the road. 

This baby, bull Moose is growing by leaps and bounds. 

Winter Park and a Wine Festival-  a serendipitous coincidence! 

Here's a young bull Moose grazing by the road. 

Cow Elk and a calf. 

We ended up driving north from Steamboat Springs to Laramie, WY. We intercepted the old Overland Trail and followed it to Ft. Collins. The next day, we headed back to the farm. 

A three day siesta that really refreshed in a part of the country I'd never seen. Beautiful country, beautiful animals, streams and fishing. It doesn't take two weeks to recharge!  Grab the spousal unit and go!