Saturday, April 27, 2019

Pearl's Chicken

Pearl with Sharptail and Prairie Chicken


Pearl is my little sweetheart.  She’s a liver colored, 35# (soaking wet) female Brit.  She and her litter-mate, Shack (orange/white male Brit) were from an awesome cross of my Ace dog and my Ruby female.  I really bred the litter in order to keep a female, by Ace, to breed in the future.  As luck would have it, Ruby whelped 11 puppies, all healthy and promising to be extremely good gun and trial dogs. With 11 pups on the ground, I chose Pearl as the female I would keep, because she was 1) aggressive and bossy, and 2) her coloration was different, with an all-brown head, I thought looked beautiful.  Also, I had an eye on an orange male, and I eventually kept them both.  As it turned out, I made the right decision. 

This part of the Nebraska Grasslands is a great place to hunt.  It is  a Federal National Forest divided into pastures, each with a windmill on it.  I always thought that was funny, since, if you wanted to get under a tree for shade, you’d better bring one with you.  The water level is just below the surface, and the windmills are plentiful, so water isn’t a factor in this area.  Because cows are grazed in the various pastures, sand spurs are a problem and my dogs need boots every cast.  The rolling hills look just like waves in the ocean when seen from satellite, and that is really what they are- waves of sand driven by the near constant winds in the area.  The history of the area is fascinating.

 
 
Fast forward 5 years to a Prairie Chicken hunt in the Grasslands. We pulled into an area I knew held Prairie Chickens.  It was warm and windy, with a glaring sun.  I decided to hunt Pearl.  It seemed the flashier and bolder dogs always got the call, but today was her day.  We booted up and I took a few steps south from the truck looking toward the top of windmill in the distance, and she took off.  She is a spry and quick dog, and fun to watch.  When she points, it is head high and tail high, a classic pose and very pretty to see.  As I loaded my gun and chose a path through the dunes, she disappeared over a tall dune in the distance.  I saw her run along the crest for a bit, and then dip down into the bottom again. She was in sight perhaps half the time.  Using the GPS tracker, I was unconcerned with her getting lost.  She was a very experienced girl, and I only used the tracker in order to be notified when she went on point.  After 20 minutes, her pager beeped.  She was 250 yards in front, not near a tank (for water), so I knew she was pointed.  I kicked in high gear and had to cross two high dunes to get to her.  Moving fast in the sandy soil is work, and after about half the distance, I was huffing and puffing and beginning to sweat. I kept my eye on the last ridge, hoping to see her pointed on this side, but she was on the other side on the downhill (south-facing) slope.  I glanced at the GPS again, then looked up to see 30 chickens fly off to the west from behind the last dune.  Right on their tail feathers was my little girl- baying like a coon dog!  I gave her the benefit of the doubt, assuming they had flushed on their own and she hadn’t pushed them up.  But, I wasn’t absolutely sure. 

Pearl's First Prairie Chicken
I toned her back into the county, and we took another tack to the west.  We were heading in the general direction of the flushing chickens, but I had no illusions they remained in the area.  She came in for some water, and we had a little chat about steadiness on point.  She rolled her eyes and said I was being overly dramatic.  Just be there next time I point, and you’ll bag one of these bad boys, she said. With that, she headed out again- full throttle, head up, searching for scent.  A short time later, during one of the rare times I actually saw her working, she was covering the near-side of a brush-covered dune, about 150 yards away.  I was admiring her movement and watching as she slowed down and retraced her steps, head down on the ground.  She was birdy.  The wind was in her face.  We were on the downwind side of the dune, and she was about halfway up, working just below a patch of low-growing, woody brush. She’d slowed down to almost a walk.  Her head was pointed up the dune, into the brush.  Suddenly, she froze.  Head high and her little tail sticking straight up.  There were birds in the brush, and I hustled down the face of one dune into the bottom before starting up the dune she was on.  I was walking fast, scanning the brush, looking for movement.  Suddenly motion caught my eye, and I saw that little Brit jump right in the middle of the brush patch! At least 20 Sharptail Grouse blew out of there.  She went after them, barking and baying like a Bassett after a rabbit.  My hand fingered the Alpha controller, as I pondered the best way to address this recent innovation in our bird hunting technique.  I was angry, miffed, concerned, livid, irate, and annoyed, but, above all, experienced enough to know that popping that little witch right now would not solve problem. I toned her back, once again, and headed for the nearest windmill for some water, and to give me some time to cool off.

This time, there was no mistaking she was in some serious trouble.  Tone of voice, body language, and lack of affection, is as effective on her as a smack on the hindquarters with a pine top. We rested a while.  The whole time, she was trying to squirm her way into my lap, as I sat in the sand in the shade of the stock tank.  I just pushed her away, and regaled her with stories about the way her new owners would probably tie her to a tree in the back yard and feed her Ole Roy. 

After cooling off a bit, we headed north.  She took one last dip in the tank and took off after me, passing by and getting in front.  I watched her as she cut the dunes across the wind, maximizing the effectiveness of her nose.  She seemed a little slower and more methodical, but it was probably my wishful imagination.  I was thoroughly disgusted with her, and me, as well.  I was questioning my training methods, my dog breeding, Pearl’s ability, and generally feeling pretty sorry for myself.  Up ahead, I’d see her come up out of a bottom, cross over a dune and head down the other side.  I was dreading her finding more birds, jumping in and flushing them and reinforcing her poor behavior.  After a while, I was pretty much mentally finished for the day.  I blew the whistle and headed for the truck.  She came in, took some water, and looked up at me with those bright eyes, happy tail wagging, ready to get back to the serious business of bird hunting. “Ok,” I said, “we are going to the truck.  Try to not flush every bird in the area! I still have few dogs that will act like real, pointing bird dogs and not flushers. I’d like to leave one or two birds for them.”

  She took off ahead and dropped out of sight off the top of a dune. As I got to the top, I glanced ahead and saw the silver of the Beast about mile away.  It can’t get here too soon, I thought, just as the pager went off, once again.  I glanced at the screen and noted she was about 200 yards off to my right. Excitement kicked in and I took a hard right and stayed on the crest of the dune, walking as fast as safely possible.  I got to the end of the dune, started down, and saw her halfway up the next dune at the base of another bushy area.  “Oh, no!” I thought, “Here we go again.”  I actually slowed down at that point.  There was no sense in killing myself, just to have that raggedy-eared, stubby-tailed witch bust the birds up before I get there. I looked again, and she was still holding- taut and intense.  I gained some hope and began the ritual of approaching my dog on point- moving out to the left side, scanning the area for danger areas, dogs, hunters, checking my gun was loaded, noting the sun position, wind direction, and watching the area in front of her.  All the tension departed, as I moved into the low (shin high) brush, anticipating the flush.  I was past her now, and she was a brown and white statue- eating scent, eyes glazed over.  One more glance at her, and sensing the wind direction, and I knew where the birds were.  I took several rapid steps to them and two chickens blew out of the brush, heading up the dune.  The Fox was on my shoulder before I could register it, and the left bird dropped. I swung to the right-side bird, just as he banked right and dove over the dune-top and down the other side. (A maneuver I’d used back in the Navy, centuries ago.)  Pearl was on the dead bird like a shot, and brought it down the dune and put it in my hand.  I took it, admired the bird with her, gave her some water, praised her, and told her to go find the other one.  She took off to do just that. She found not only that chicken, but a Sharptail, too- all over solid points, with excellent retrieves.  By the time we made it back to the truck, the sun was close to the horizon, the temperature was dropping rapidly and we were both tired and happy.

My little Pearlie is my girl.  I do love that little dog.  She can be a handful, at times.  But, I’m lucky to have her.  She knows it, too.  I can only imagine what and when our next adventure will be.  When it does happen, I’m sure she’ll keep me guessing, as I promise her I’ll give her away for half a bag of Ole Roy if she doesn’t straighten up and fly right!









Tuesday, April 16, 2019

An Audio Story- Dances with Wolves (From "Endless October")



Well, this a little different. My latest book, Endless October, is currently on Amazon (click here to go to Amazon).  In an effort to get the stories out there, I recorded one of them for my podcast, A Bird Hunter's Thoughts- Turn 'em Loose.  (click here to go to the podcast). My long suffering wife suggested I make an audio book, as well.  I'm not so sure about that, but here is one of the stories, recorded by me.  

It's about my dog, Bo, a male setter I had the privilege of working with for 13 1/2 years.  Bo was a Georgia Quail dog.  He was big running, fast, smart, and bold.  He never did adapt well to the thick, Wisconsin grouse woods, but we did have a few memorable days in the Great Northwoods.

I hope you enjoy the audio of one of the stories....

Click here for Dances with Wolves

Friday, March 8, 2019

A Good Day At The Trial Grounds. The Georgia Region Elimination Trial

brittany win nstra trial national
Ruby and Randy


The weekend started out like any other, although the importance was, perhaps, a little farther up the scale.  The NSTRA trial season in Georgia (National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial Assoc.) starts in September and finishes in the spring, usually March or April.  This year, our final trial for the  season was on the weekend starting March 1, 2019. That Friday, we all met near Ball Ground, GA at Gary Garrett's Farm, Gold and Grass Farm, to begin the festivities.  

bird hunting and bird dogs
Thank you, Gary Garrett!
To qualify to run the final trial, The Georgia Region Elimination Trial, a dog must already be a NSTRA Champion or he must have placed in a NSTRA trial during the trial year. It's called the "Elimination Trial" because it is the first step in eliminating dogs, all over the country, to send on to a another trial to determine a National Champion. It is also used to determine a local, or Regional, Champion. 

I had 4 dogs qualify to the Regional this year.  Ruby (9yr Brit/F), Cap (8yr Brit/M), Shack (5yr Brit/M), and Pearl (5yr Brit/F).  Ruby and Cap are multiple champions, Shack and Pearl are still coming up, but both had finishes throughout the trial year.  

Pearl was eliminated, during her first brace, when she picked up her first two birds.  Her Elimination Trial lasted less than 4 minutes! It took me longer to do the "walk of shame" off the field, than it did for her to disqualify.

Cap, Ruby, and Shack performed better and made some "cuts" (after a run, only a certain number of dogs advance- they "make the cut").  But, later on, Cap and Shack didn't make the cut, either.  (To be completely truthful, Cap didn't make the cut because I, the handler, made a mistake, and cost him a lot of points.   He was one dog below the cut line.  Shack decided to not listen to me (again, my fault, and a training issue) and passed up a back to lose the points necessary to make the cut.).  So, by noon on Sunday, the only dog I had in the fight was Ruby. 

From a 44 dog start, by noon on Sunday we were down to 16 dogs.  After a few more braces, we cut it to the Final 8, then Final 2.  Ruby kept finding more birds each run!  By 5:30p, it was Ruby and a very powerful  male Setter from Tennessee. The final brace would be on a huge field, with twice the number of birds, and for 1 hour.  This would be her 4th run of the day, 6th run of the weekend.  She was fit. She was always a lean dog, and I keep her in shape with roading and proper nutrition.  But, she also just turned 9 years old. After several braces, she started a slight limp in her right front leg, from a touch of arthritis.  I rested her and the limp disappeared. She was ready.  

The rain finally quit, as we went to the line, but the ground was soft and mushy.  The field was very large and had fingers extending off either end to smaller fields.  It called for a little handling to determine the best plan.  Off the line, I had a great plan in my head.  But "great plans never survive contact with the enemy" (Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Multke 1800-1891), and today was no exception.  Ruby immediately turned right and took off, full speed, into a fescue field. Normally, she would quarter back and forth, but right then she was running straight line through the fescue, heading uphill to one of the little fingers!  I decided to let her do her thing, and just tried to keep up.  One, two, three- she found three birds in full stride following a track through the green fescue.  Another one back in the adjoining field in tall broomsedge put us up to 4.  I had to get her back to the main field (I heard my bracemate shoot several times, and I was getting nervous.) So, I whistled her up, and directed her back to the big field.  A few minutes later, with her well ahead of me and the judge following her closely on an ATV, she locked up in a big clump.  5 birds on the card now.  I knew a likely location where another bird might be, and I headed that way.  But, Ruby was one step ahead of me still, perhaps she remembered running this field a few years ago.  I saw her way ahead, turning left around some trees with the judge on her tail, headed to the likely area.  A few seconds later, the judge yelled "point!".  It was our 6th, and final, bird.  The old girl had done it.  Again.  For the second time (2016 and 2019), Ruby was the Georgia Regional Champion.  

Ruby (me), Izzy (Gary Drinnan), and Bee (Gene Pritchett)

You can listen to the podcast with its surprising ending.  It is Episode 3 of the podcast "A Bird Hunter's Thought- Turn "Em Loose".  Give it a listen, like, share, and Subscribe.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Mama Moose: Growing up Alaskan

Cow and calf Moose
When I was 16, a friend and I were squirrel hunting outside Anchorage, not far from what is now Alyeska. Our plan was to walk through the fir trees with .22 pistols and watch and listen for squirrels. It wasn’t a great plan, but it was better than no plan. 

We were separated by a hundred yards, or so, and were acting all grown up and manly, as we hunted. I rounded a big fir tree and saw a cow moose lying down, facing away from me. I knew enough to know I had no business being there, and I was sure the girl was calving. And, I knew that a cow moose will kill a grizzly that comes near her new born calf!  I didn’t stop, blink, or hesitate more than a millisecond. I turned and ran as fast as a healthy, thoroughly scared 16 year old young man could move. I had hell on my heels, and I could hear her coming behind me. Her feet were pounding, and she ran right through saplings, grunting, and breathing hard. My only chance at safety was a dead fall  50 yards ahead of me. 

Expecting to feel a hoof in my back at any second, when I got in range, I literally jumped through the air, over a huge downed fir tree log and under a pile of alder brush someone had piled up. I kept pushing further down into the pile until I was on my back, under the fir tree log, wedged in the 8” space between the log and the ground. I was hugging that tree like it was my girlfriend! My face was turned to the brush pile where I came in, cheek pressed to the rough bark. My pistol was in my right hand, and it was as quiet as I ever heard it in the woods. 

It was eerily silent except for a heavy breathing sound six inches from my face. I slowly turned my head to the left, and looked right into the big eye of a seriously pissed-off cow moose, with her ears laid back, and her front lip exposing some big teeth. She pawed the ground trying to get me, but the logs and sticks protected me. That’s when I heard my buddy, Vince, laughing. He was safely up a tree a few yards away, and thought this was all terribly funny. To this day, I think he waited to start laughing until he knew I wasn’t dead, but I’m not real sure on that point. But here I was, on my back, wedged under a downed fir tree with mamma moose trying to kill me. 

5 hours later (actually, maybe 10 minutes) she was still there. Just as mad. Finally, I managed to transfer my pistol from my right to left hand, by feel, over my head, without dropping it. Then, I put that muzzle just in front of her nose and fired. The bullet wouldn’t hit her (although, I was kind of hoping for a lucky shot to hit my buddy, Vince, the jerk. Still laughing his head off.), but she’d feel the blast. She did jerk back, and it took all 6 shots from that Ruger revolver, but she finally gave me the stink-eye, one more time, and headed back where I found her. I gave her quite a while to settle down, and I slid out the back of that brush pile.  We shrugged the incident off, and moved to another area to continue our hunt.  I am more scared now, in the re-telling, than I ever was then.  Growing up in Alaska was heaven-on-earth for a kid.   We learned a lot about hunting, fishing, and sports outside.  Cuts, bruises, broken bones, getting lost and getting found again were part of every summer day.  There were few rules, but we’d better not be late for dinner.



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.