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.

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-  https://youtu.be/f6nlipXdB6s.

Click here to read the BLOG post- http://www.abirdhuntersthoughts.com/2015/06/dog-boots-need-them-or-not-which-brand.html

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.