Saturday, October 25, 2014

South Dakota 2014 Opener, Or: Road Hunters, It's a Family Tradition!

The Grasslands
At the last minute, I loaded up my Jones trailer, which can hold everything I own, hooked it up to the back of the Beast and headed out to Pierre, SD for Opening Day of pheasant season.  I know there are  hunting rituals all over the country- deer opener, grouse opener, and, for the masochistic maniacs, the Chukar Opener.  But, the pheasant Opener in South Dakota is a BIG DEAL.  I found that out when I called to ask about a room at any motel I could find.  The Super 8 in Pierre had rooms and was reasonably priced.  The all-pavement, parking location left something to be desired when dealing with 6 dogs, but, after all, this was a last minute thing. 
Dennis, Rick and me
We arrived Friday (Opener was Saturday) and quickly headed to the National Grasslands south of Pierre to search for Sharptail Grouse and Prairie Chickens.  It's a vast, undulating sea of grass.  The birds are there, but, today so were the hunters.  In fact, we saw several outfits of hunters camping in the Grasslands- who knows how long they'd been there? By the time we arrived, our areas had been hunted several times, I'm sure.  We did get close to a Prairie rattler coming out of a Prairie Dog hole, but that's about all the wildlife we saw that day.
Ace, Cap, Shack Looking for a Cackling Pheasant
The next day, we got up early and headed out of town to some Hunter Walk-in Areas.  We found a few likely areas, parked and proceeded to spend 2 hours waiting for the noon opening time to hunt pheasant.  (After the first week, it changes to 10am for the rest of the season.)  Our chosen area was snuggled in between two huge fields of standing corn.  The day would warm up fast, so we knew the birds would probably stay in the corn all day- there was no reason for the birds to go back in to the CRP grass where we could hunt them. But, we managed to find a few stupid ones still in the grass and we had some success.  In fact, we also saw Prairie Chickens in the same CRP field.
Shack and his first pheasant pointed and retrieved! 
Over the next two days, we jumped around some and ended up on some private land over near Okaton (west of Pierre). We saw a lot more action as the dogs spent some time chasing the ditch chickens and got the idea of how to hold them.  Shack, above, went in some tall grass and his Alpha beeped me.  He was pointed!  I took a few steps and several roosters came out of the tall grass.  Most of them made it to safety.  One dropped back in the grass and I yelled, "Dead bird, Shack!"  I still couldn't see him for the tall grass, but just a few seconds later, he came bounding out of the tall grass with a rooster in is mouth.  It was beating him with wings and trying to spur him.  He sprinted to me and handed the bird over. Then, he headed back out to the grass and more birds. He will be a good one. 
Ace, my main dog, took to a long ditch full of cattails.  He and a Lab hunted up and down along the sides and pushed in to the center a few times.  After about 10 minutes, I noticed the noise stopped from his pushing around in the brush.  Then, I heard the pager from my Garmin Alpha (don't leave home without it!) and checked the direction and range.  I made it to him, pointed into some of the thickest stuff yet.  He was locked solidly with the countenance I know from almost ten years of hunting over him. There was a bird....right there! I kicked and stomped and got nothing, but Ace was staunch, swearing to it.  I kicked and stomped some more and the cattails moved off to Ace's left and finally 2 roosters took off for the standing corn.  I dropped one solidly and Ace took off for the retrieve.  

Ace and Ditch Rooster
He's an old pro and not much gets away from him, anymore.

You know, I hunt all over the country.  And I meet hunters and farmers and just plain folks.  By and large, I enjoy them.  Usually, they live a long ways from anywhere and they are resourceful, independent, honest and a pleasure to be around.  Almost always....

Shack and Rick and I were working a CRP field that bordered a gravel road.  It was about an hour before dark.  Across the road was standing corn.  Most pheasant hunters will see the ideal setup to trap a few roosters in the CRP.  We were working into the wind, as well (what a concept! It seems we are always hunting with the wind up our backs.).  All the planets seemed to have aligned! Shack just found his first bird and made a fantastic retrieve and were were edging down the field anticipating more action ahead of us, along the road. A truck came down the gravel road and passed us.  He got maybe 1/3 mile past us and stomped on the brakes, slid to a stop, and all four doors opened and four individuals with shotguns jumped out, ran in to the CRP field and started shooting! Birds flew and dropped and people ran to pick them up, got in the truck and drove off.  I was a bit chagrined! I mentioned it to my hunting partner and we agreed they were a bunch of jerks.  We kept working the same direction, letting the dog work.  About 10 minutes later, it happened again!  Different truck, same place.  The birds must have been crossing from the corn to the CRP right there. I was, by now, amazed at the lack of ethical behavior by these ....hunters!  We turned back to the truck and talked about other things.
Long Walk to the Truck
A short, but great trip for learning and busting up pheasant.  To drive a day and a half, hunt 3 and half days, then drive a day and a half home, is tough on this old body, anymore. I enjoyed Pierre thoroughly.  The Grasslands need some study, but they are impressive! The public land hunting is adequate, but very crowded on opening weekend.  I think the better time to hit the roosters would be in November or even December.  Don't worry about numbers going down, hunters cannot harvest enough to make significant reduction.  What previous hunters will do, however, is make the birds smarter and more wary....but that's why they call it hunting! 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Wisconsin Color and Early Season Grouse (or: I Hear 'Em, But Can't See 'Em!)

After a week, or so, in Montana, I got the urge to visit my old haunts in Wisconsin.  Several years ago, we decided to move our Ruffed Grouse hunt from Wisconsin to Minnesota.  We found the same trails, terrain and streams along with fewer hunters and lots of birds.  A few years of that and I wondered how it was going back on the old trails that I'd been stomping for almost 20 years, in Wisconsin.  I checked with the long-suffering spousal unit and offered that while on the drive back from Montana, I would stop in Wisconsin for a day or two.  Since it was on the way, anyway, I'd be working my way home.  She said, "Sure, Mighty White Hunter (her affectionate name for me), I'm certain you will tell me it's on a Great Circle Route direct to the farm!"  That sounded like permission to me. 

I drove to Phillips, WI, in the heart of Chequamegon National Forest and checked in to the Red Pines Lodge.  (A great place with several units and friendly owners and dog kennels for grouse hunters.)  The next morning was Opening Day for Ruffed Grouse.  I was eager and ready to go!  The dogs were rested and restless.  The older ones knew what was up.  This wasn't their first rodeo and they recognized the smells and the area.  The pups were excited, because they were pups.  

I went to my favorite Hunter Walking Trails and put out my experienced dogs.  The cool of the morning gave way to a warm and humid afternoon.  With that, the gnats and mosquitoes came out.  

We worked along the trails and it was a thoroughly pleasant event.  We flushed several grouse along the trails, some over points and most not.  The most common scenario was this:  I would walk along the center of the 10' wide trails, gun ready, watching the dogs or where I thought the dogs were.  Occasionally, I would check the Alpha to make sure Ace or Cap didn't head out on a "walkabout".  (There are wolves in this area and an overnight bird dog could make a nice snack for the pack.  Check the Wisconsin DNR website for information.)   After a bit, just when I would be admiring the leaves, or planning another trip, or remembering a fine point from the past, a thundering roar would erupt from the side of the trail! I would swing and mount the gun just in time to see a brown or gray blur flitting through the thick leaves, on its way to safety.  Ruffs don't give you much of a shot on a good day, but with the leaves still up, that window of opportunity is shorter still.  

Sometimes, the bird would fly right at me and I would spin around for the going away shot.  By the time I turned and got settled, I would see the tail feathers disappear into a green and orange wood line followed closely by #6 shot. A miss!  Again.  19 flushes in three days.  12 pointed, 8 shot at, none in the bag.  

Usually, the conventional wisdom is to arrive the second week of October.  The leaves are thinning by then and sometimes they're even down. It makes a big difference when tracking a Ruff, knowing you might have another half second! 

Some lessons learned: Breakfast at any cafe is suitable and there are three or four on Main St. in Phillips.  I ate lunch in the woods, usually a sandwich from the local Capps grocery store.  Dinner is problematic- usually the restaurants are secondary to the bars with small salad bars and fried everything else.  Cheese is King and beer is the Queen in the Great Northwoods. Park Falls has a nice family restaurant with good meals throughout the day- an easy drive from Phillips.  Don't lose your dog!  The wolf population is real and is growing- even in Minnesota.  Early in the season, shoot bigger shot.  I shoot a 20 ga. 6 shot when I need to penetrate leaves and branches.  Later in the year, when there's not so much in the way, I go to 7 1/2 or 8 shot. Bear hunters are out in the same area using dogs to track the bear.  I stop and talk to them all the time and see their dogs occasionally.  I have had no problems with their dogs and mine, but they are out there.  (Most wolf kills, to this point, that I've heard about, have been bear dogs.) It's very easy to get turned around in the woods.  Maintain your situational awareness, take a compass heading before leaving any trail, use GPS, mark the position you left the trail,  check the sun to help you find your way back.  You WILL get turned around when chasing after a flushed bird, especially on an overcast day!  Keep the big picture in your head. (This advice may seem funny right now, but you can be lost and only 10 feet from the trail. Don't step a foot off the trail without marking something to help you find it again.)  If birds are tough to find, find a stream and walk up one side of it, right along the edge of the Alders, cross over and some back down the other side. Don't take a shortcut, unless you KNOW there is not a muskeg swamp between you and your destination.  The Forest Service office is in Park Falls- they have lots of good maps.  Buy a Gazetteer for Wisconsin (a map of the state) that shows the public land areas. 

If you really want to hit it early in the season, you'll have some great walks in the woods interrupted by some great action lasting less than a second.  The color I saw was magnificent and I spent 5 days total in the area and would have stayed another few days, but my kitchen pass expired.  I turned the Beast south and headed back to the Georgia September.  To my mind, Ruffed Grouse hunting in the Northwoods is the most challenging bird hunting there is in the U.S. (Chukar hunters may dispute that call.)  It takes a special dog and a unique hunter to make the perfect team to hunt Thunder Chickens.  If you think you can do it, head to the Chequamegon National Forest in Wisconsin.  And, I recommend waiting until the second weekend of October. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Dog Food, the Dilemma! Updated 9/26/2014 Update #3

I think it is important to say this:  I am not advertising for RC.  I'm not endorsed or compensated in any way.  In fact, I only know who the regional rep is because I got a blanket email from her saying thanks for using RC. I am a member of the Breeder's Club, which enables me to get the product at a slightly reduced price delivered to my door.  I was a member of a similar "club" at Purina, as well. 

Original Post:

Here's the rub.  I know of a great dog food that does everything I want it to do.  It's high energy, low stool volume, super for the coat and the dogs attack the dry kibble.  The problem is the price.  I pay $46/37.5# bag.  I can drive 50 miles and pay $36, but if I'm going to feed this product, I will buy it at my local feed store.  I've tried Loyal Performance, by Nutrena.  The price is better, the dogs love it and the energy level is high, but their coats are dull. I tried Black Gold.  Price is good and the dogs like it, but the stool volume is large and the quantity to feed is much more than the premium feed.

So, I went to the Internet and Googled "the best dog food", that was a lesson!  Every brand had a DVM testifying to the greatness of the product.  Every page had do's and don't's in feeding dogs.  Every site said to beware of all the other guys! Chicken meal ain't real chicken, only diseased animal innards are sent to dog food, dogs need meat and offal and... fresh is best!

C'mon my friends, in all the vet schools we have in this country, someone  has researched the best way to feed hunting dogs. What is the answer?  I guess the fact that it is a multi-Billion dollar industry doesn't help the flow of usable information......

What do you feed?  Are you happy with it?  Would you recommend it?

Update 12/29/2012

After much research and trials and first hand investigation, after being satisfied with one brand and then seriously disappointed with yet another recall on that brand, I've settled on a brand I think incorporates all the features I think are important.  Royal Canin.  For my dogs, Brittanies, I feed Royal Canin Medium. I've had them on this feed for the last two hunting trips and all the field trials this year.  I put them on the high powered feed RC Endurance (I think) for one hunting trip, but for the cost and hassle of getting it, I went back to the Medium, which I can get a the local PetSafe Store.  None of the stuff is cheap, but with my four main dogs, I think it is OK.  The result is healthy dogs with healthy, shiny coats, less tartar on the teeth, small stools.  And, I'm only feeding them between 2 and 3 cups, depending on size....per day!

Update 2/17/2013

Now, having put a full year of travel, hunting, trialing and training on my dogs while feeding Royal Canin Medium, I can say with affirmation this is an excellent kibble.  I did notice the coat sheen, the endurance and the small stools.  For my dogs, I feed between 2 and 3 cups per day- a little more on trips. I travelled nearly 15,000 miles on hunting trips and perhaps half that for field trials.  Through it all, they loved the kibble and it kept them going- with no additive. I say all that to say this: Royal Canin may not be the best fit for you, but don't settle for the cheapest stuff.  Do the homework and find them a good quality feed that will keep them energized and add years to their life!

Update 9/26/2014

It's been two years with my dogs solely on the RC Medium Adult.  The results are the same- great energy level (for competition and hunting), coats are glossy, endurance is excellent.  I have changed my formula somewhat, in that on hunting trips where the dogs are running hard 2-3 hours per day in heat, snow, rain and over rough and vertical terrain, I will feed them the Puppy Blend for medium dogs.  "Medium" doesn't mean anything other than the size of the grown dog.  The Puppy formula is 30/20 blend, which I think has more energy available.  Interestingly, I think the RC vets would challenge me and say the RC medium has everything they need and the Puppy kibble may not have the best balance of minerals and vitamins, etc. (I went to a meeting with the RC development team and vets, and that was the message.  The feed is specific and complete.)  However, I wanted the extra energy and I didn't want to use any additives and my dogs are only on the puppy kibble for the duration of the hunting trip- usually 2-3 weeks- and then they are back on the Adult.  I don't feed any additives.  I don't water the feed.  I wait 20 minutes after feeding and then give them all the fresh, clean water they want.  (Apparently, that is the best method for the dogs to obtain all nutrients.  Actually, research has shown that if the dog is fed within 30 of completion of exercise, he will get 90% of the nutrients in the feed.  The numbers may be off some, but you get the drift. That is not practical for me as I feed at the end of the day- 5 dogs at once, but it is the best way.)

I've also learned this.  There are MANY good dog foods out there.  This one works for me.  If anyone tells you there is only one way to feed your dog, be skeptical.  A very good, not too expensive, feed is Purina.  They also are one of the only companies with their own research and development department.  They can afford it.  A lot of the research in to athletic dogs and their nutrition comes from Purina.  I have 8 dogs- 5 are athletes.  I can afford to feed whatever I want, so I'm willing to pay more.  Many, not all, times you get what you pay for.  I'm watching the price of feed skyrocket.  I'm convinced a lot of that price increase is due to increased demand due to increased awareness by the consumer. In other words, if it's trendy and a "hot" item, the cost per pound will increase. Notice I said "cost per pound". Purina and RC started inching the price up AND decreasing the size of their bags.  Originally, with Purina, at least, they were using a 50# bag.  It's down to 37.5# now. RC is down to a 30# bag (35# for the Breeder's Club).  Like I said though, if you find a good feed that does what you want and your dogs THRIVE on it, go ahead and get it.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Do You Journal? Or: Have we hunted here before?

I started keeping a journal pretty soon after my first bird hunt. I fell into it easily since I was keeping a running journal everyday, so I was used to the routine. My wife bought me this fancy one a few years ago, but I've used notebooks, pads, pen and paper, pencil...anything I can write on.
The thing I really like is the way I can open to any page, any book, read a few lines and suddenly, I'm there again. The smells, weather, dogs, hunting partners. The good stuff, the mundane stuff and even a little bad stuff- all of it daily and duly recorded for posterity. 

At a minimum, I like to know where I was, what dogs, who I was with, how the dogs did, the weather. Now, due to technology advances, I like to put down the distance the dogs ran, the number of birds they point/flush/retrieve. I will put down the motel and phone number, any names I can remember of people I met and phones numbers. Also, any comments I had during the hunt with a particular dog. Remember, a diary should contain all the information you need to relive the days- good and other. I've found, that over time, I pretty much remember the good and forget the other stuff! 

By looking at these few pages, I'll be able to remember when I ran my puppies for their first, long cast in the grouse woods!  

Get ready for some fireside reading now, while you are still logging entries. The day will come when you will be unable to follow a bird dog up the coulees, across the prairie, through the grouse woods. Consider it like a retirement account. Invest now and reap the benefits later!!

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 breast meat and add jalapeƱo pepper jack cheese. 

A slice of hot jalapeƱo 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, with Sharptail Grouse

Ace, cooling down after a long cast and The Beast of Birdin'

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".