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.