Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Sandhills! Nebraska Prairie Chickens

The Sandhills-
The Nebraska National Forest (Really!)

What Are They?
Get this map!  It has the navigation you need.
 The Sandhills are a feature that covers nearly a quarter of Nebraska.  Looked at from a satellite, by Google Earth, they look like waves on the ocean- a vast ocean of sand.  Grass covers the hills now, but not far underneath is a fine sand as nice as that on many beaches.  The road pictured above is from the Nebraska National Forest.....if you want shade out here, bring your own tree! The roads up in the McKelvie National Forest aren't nearly so nice.  They are just two tracks through the sand.  I didn't have any trouble navigating either area in 4 wheel drive and good tires, but it's not for the faint-hearted. 
Plenty of water in the Sandhills
Where Are They?
If you find Valentine, NE on the map and look to the south, you'll see the area of the Sandhills.  I'm sure the area is actually much larger, but the public land huntable area is between Valentine and Thedford, NE, about 80 miles to the south. Most is private land, but the two National Forests and The Valentine Game Refuge are located in that area.  In addition, there are several Wildlife Management Areas by the State of Nebraska scattered throughout. 
The Sandhills
Prairie Chickens and Sharptail Grouse thrive in these grass hills.  The Chicken was on my bucket list and I was eager to find an area that had a decent huntable population.  They are all throughout this area.  It didn't take long, on the first day on the ground, for my Pearl to lockup on a brace of Chickens.  I dropped one and pulled to the other just as it rolled right and dropped below the crest of the grass covered dune.  Pearl made a great retrieve and put my first Prairie Chicken in my hand!
Pearl and Cap and my first, ever Prairie Chicken
We found that the two species were interspersed throughout the areas.  As a result, our bag pretty much was split between the two.
Sharptail and Prairie Chicken (and Pearl)
Shack taking a breather in a small pond.
Now, I'm no expert on PC or Sharps, but I used a 20 ga. 2 3/4" #6's and did fine.
3 of the 4 are ready to go (Cap, Pearl, Shack).  Ruby was up front and afraid to leave her seat for the picture!

The areas are huge and laid out in pastures for grazing.  The bad news is there's grazing, the good news is there are windmills everywhere.  In fact, I rarely used the water bottles I carried in my WingWorks vest.  I would plan a hunt from the truck by looking for the next windmill and working my way around the area in that fashion.  The map of the National Forest has all the mills on it, the fences, roads, etc.  Each mill is numbered, on the north side, and that's a huge help for when you aren't where you think you are (It happened to a friend- just sayin'.).  One could read the number on the mill and correlate to the map and find themselves- what a delightful conclusion!  Also, the roads are somewhat fluid (it being a sea of sand, and all) and I ended up completely missing a turn, checking the mill number, and getting back on track (two-track) that way.  I still do not know where I missed that turn.  When I go back, I'll find out.
Cap had 7 Chickens pointed. Ruby backing. 
The result. 2 more in the bag.
Historical Marker in Thedford, NE
I stayed in a motel in Valentine, NE.  There are few motels, generally, in the area.  Some in Valentine, Thedford and maybe a few other places.  There is camper parking in the area, as well, and that may be a good way to stay close to the areas.  There are some National Forest Campgrounds, too. 
Another Sharp and Prairie Chicken on the same cast.
I had a great time hunting the Sandhills. I'm already planning to stop again on the way back from South Dakota, in November!   Plan on looking for good grass and walking a long ways.  One cast, I walked 4 miles (the dogs ran 20) and found 7 chickens within 100' of the truck when I got back!  They are where you find them, I guess.  But, don't be dismayed.  They are there!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Snake Aversion Training- Cheap Insurance

Timber Rattler (Range throughout GA)
Snake Aversion Training, also known as Snake Broke, is mandatory for my dogs.  We hunt Montana in September and usually see several Prairie Rattlers every year.  Then the weather cools for Wyoming, Oklahoma, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Arizona, New Mexico and snakes aren't so much a factor.  However, January in New Mexico can have some pretty warm days and the Prairie Rattlers will come out of their holes to sun.  At least they are a little sluggish that time of year.  Snake Aversion Training is another tool in the box to keep our dogs safe when operating in snake habitat.  Along with the training, I give my dogs the Red Rocks Biologics snake vaccine with a booster every year.  Veterinarians in the West seem to be divided as to the efficacy of the vaccine.  However, I've decided in favor of using it, based on subjective stories from guys whose dogs have been struck by venomous snakes.  They think the recovery was shorter and the damage less after giving the vaccine.  My question is:  How would they know? That aside,  I've chosen to use it.  

Likely Candidate and her Lab
We hired a professional in the local area.  He is a certified reptile rescuer with the Georgia DNR. He travelled to Arizona one year to learn the technique from a Western Snake guy.  I have no doubt his method works, I've had occasion to see it in action.  Three years ago, in Montana on a hot day, I was hunting Pearl, my youngest female Brittany.  As usual, we were moving through the grass looking for Sharptails and Hungarian Partridge (Huns).  Pearl had just come in for some water and was moving away from me at an angle.  She made a quick move to the left then right and continued on her way.  As I approached the spot, I was still pondering the move, wondering what caused it- just as I stepped over a 5' Prairie Rattler! These dogs aren't taught to find snakes.  Like the name says, they are taught to avoid snakes.  Pearl did just that.  She was just over a year old at the time. 

The empty crate.  Not all crates have snakes- some do. You need to smell them. 
After a quick explanation of the routine, I ran my 4 Brits through the course.  This was a refresher for them.  I was pleased to find that they knew what to do.  They remembered their training from 3 years ago.  I couldn't get any of my dogs close enough to the snakes to warrant a correction.  Reinforcement was what I was looking for, and peace of mind for me.  God only knows how many snakes they avoid up in Montana every September. 
Correction to a dog that was inquisitive about the Timber Rattler.
After the dog shows he understands that snakes are to be avoided, a Rat Snake is released in the grass.  The handler is told to walk close to the snake and not to alert (simulating not seeing the snake).   This is the graduation to see if the dog really "got it".  Successful completion will have the dog avoiding the snake by a large margin- just like my little girl did in Montana a few years ago.
Completed Course.  Rescue dog a little more prepared.
This aversion training works.  It's more than just shocking a dog after finding a few snakes.  I most highly recommend the training from a qualified, experienced specialist.  After all is said and done, it won't make the dog bite proof, but it may be that one extra thing that saves his life.

Jason Clark's company.  Located between Atlanta and Macon, GA

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Watson and Ruby Puppies at 5 weeks

bird dogs and bird hunting
The 6 Boys

bird dogs and bird hunting
The 5 Girls

bird dogs and bird hunting
Fun picture of the Girls

This is shameless bragging and showing baby pictures! This litter was whelped 8 June 2017. Ruby did a great job with 11 pups!  All lived and are thriving.  We are at 5.5 weeks now, and they are close to being totally weaned.  Personalities are developing rapidly as I watch closely to pick a male from the group.  All these pups are sold, at this point.  The potential is there for them to be excellent field trial and hunting dogs. There were a few times I shook my head and thought, "What were you thinking?", but, overall, these critters are worth the effort. 

Many hunters and dog men from the past recommend getting a new pup when your youngest dog is 5 years old.  It is sound advice.  I'm only about 6 months early. This boy will take me well into my 70's.  I'm already looking forward to putting into him everything I've learned about training bird dogs! Even better, I know, without a doubt, I've improved the breed with this letter, as well. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Off Season Fun- Don't Let Them Forget and Get Fat

Pearl has a covey of Huns locked!
Montana Sharptails

Georgia NSTRA 2016 State Champion- Ruby
Top 4 2016 GA NSTRA

Hunting and Field Trialing your bird dog in the Fall is a payoff for what you do in the heat of the summer.  Too many times we let our best hunting buddy lie around the house, or kennel, soaking up the sunshine (or the biscuits) and figure it's time off and a reward for great hunt last year.  While that may be true, these animals are working animals, with the emphasis on "working".  

Once they are out of shape, it is such a pain to get them hunt ready.  I can remember, one year, when the opening day in South Dakota pheasant, dawned clear and hot.  The temperature made it to over 90 degrees that day, where we hunted! I was near Pierre, SD, and I remember taking great pains to ensure the dogs were in the shade and had plenty of cool, clean water.  Later, it was on the news, one hundred dogs around the state, a majority Labradors, died due to heat stroke! (https://www.in-depthoutdoors.com/community/forums/topic/dogs_69482/)  So, one of the things I concentrate on in the summer is conditioning and nutrition.  

Keeping them cool!

To keep them from bulking up over the summer I make sure every week to road my guys a few miles at least twice per week.  To make it a little more fun, I'll road two and let two run free. The run-free guys will follow or forge ahead, as suits them.  On hot days, we'll stop near my neighbor's lake and take the path through the woods to a little, cooling off swim. Some days I'll go with them, some I'll just wait at the 4-wheeler and watch the ripples on the lake as they splash into the water, swim around and return.  Usually that, coupled with reduced summer rations, will keep the pack from getting fat.  To reduce the food, I will feed only dry food (Royal Canin- Medium, or Victor Performance) and adjust it downward a little.  The exact amount is based on numerous factors, but I always start at the recommended amount on the package and go up or down depending on the individual dog. 
Cap backing Ace in Montana- Sharptails
Rather than go through the entire litany of training events, I keep the training to the 'skill' events. Backing, retrieving (water and land), and some obedience training.  Just like us, they tend to get rusty, and even lazy, after a while.   So, I will work one dog (or two dogs together) through backing drills and retrieving some shot birds or bumpers.  I will work on "whoa", "leave it", "here", "fetch", etc.  I'll try to keep it fun, short, and pleasant.  I know each dog, so well, that I can tell when they are tired, etc.  Rather than force them through a lesson, in the summer I will end on a positive note and head back to the barn. 
Ace with a Sharptail

Don't let them get soft and lazy, and, when September rolls around, and Montana opens up, it might be a good time to load up the F250, hook up the camper, kiss the wife and head out for some early season Sharptails and Huns.   Or, have the best conditioned dog at the early season field trial!

Monday, May 29, 2017

Totally Random Thought

The Oak

On the east side of my house, a huge oak tree stands sentinel. Hundreds of years old, it looks like the "Tree of Life" one sees portrayed in pictures and on t-shirts. It is strong, vast, perfect in shape- beautiful. I'm of the habit, in the warmer months, to read and study scripture on my deck in the morning. Usually, I'll be outside well before sunrise, coffee in hand, study materials on hand (my electronic pad). 

The natural order and rhythms of life around the farm will start before first light. Slow chirping of the birds, far off crows from the rooster down the road, then nearer chirping and warbling, barking from the dogs and buzzing from the Hummingbirds as they fight aerial duels for the nectar set out by my wife. The entire cacophony rises and swells as the sun peeks over the horizon into the outstretched arms of the old oak. I don't know what kind of oak it is. I know it's not a Live Oak. It may be a Pin Oak. Somehow, to become too familiar with it, to delve into its genetics and dendrology, would be sort of impolite. Not that I would think it needed to be "asked". No, it is not the Creator, nor is it "The Mother". It is part of the Creation. Although it is majestic, solid, protective, growing, alive, it is nothing more than a tree- a plant. 

The Oak

What the old, oak tree does is protect me and my house from the first rays of the sun. Garish, harsh and brilliant, the sun jumps up in the morning and declares the world "Open for Business"! It's hard not to smile when the sun appears. Perhaps rooted in man's basic fear that it might, just maybe, not rise one day, I feel joy in the morning greeting the sun. But, I'm not totally ready for the blast of honesty and truth revealed by the sunlight. The old oak tempers that assault and lets me adjust gradually to the new day. 

Eventually, the rooster crow fades, the birds calm, the dogs curl up and the sun rises above the oak. The day gets on with life. The oak grows one day stronger, bigger, more protective of me and my family- and closer to death. The old sentinel grows seemingly wiser, having seen another morning on the rise on the east side of my house.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The long awaited union....puppies on the way!

Photo by Nancy Whitehead

Watson and Clayton (handler)

Ruby and Watson puppies due mid-June. Watson is arguably one of the best, if not the best, Brittany in NSTRA now, and has been for the last few years. (See below) Ruby is my female and, while we compete in NSTRA with a lot of success (2015 NSTRA Georgia Region High Point Female and Fifth Place Georgia Championships, 2016 NSTRA Georgia Region Winner/Champion, 2017 NSTRA Georgia Region 3rd Place, 1XNSTRA Champion), she really shines as a bird dog hunting all around the country- 7 states, 10 species last season alone. This will be her third, and last, litter. I have 2 of her puppies, of my 4 total bird dogs. She's a smart, long-legged, sweet girl, who handles all her birds with class. Both dogs are Nolan's Last Bullet line. Ruby is a direct daughter of Bullet. Watson is a grandson to Bullet. Please PM me for more information. Males $1000/Females $1250 770-584-5085

Ruby and me- First Place in GA Region Championships

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Product Review: Garmin Alpha (after 4 years usage)

bird dogs and bird hunting
Handheld Alpha and Standard and Mini Collars
Along with my dogs, guns, shells and license, my Alpha is a mandatory piece of hunting gear.  The picture shows my outfit (minus one more standard collar).  I'm not exaggerating when I say I won't put a dog on the ground without it.  The peace of mind it offers is nothing short of amazing.  I hunted for 20 years with every tool used to locate dogs, from nothing but an eyeball looking for my dog, to a bell, to beepers, etc.  When the Astro 220 hit the streets, I was an eager consumer.  The Alpha has many advantages over the Astro.  I'm not going to compare models- go to the Garmin Website (https://buy.garmin.com/en-US/US/cIntoSports-c10342-p1.html) to do that- but I will relate a few things I've found over the years. One big advantage is it reduces the number of collars on your dog. I would use the Astro and also an ecollar.  The Alpha incorporates the ecollar and tracker into one unit. The smaller collar, the TT-15 Mini, has many advantages over the standard TT-15.  It fits my smaller female Brit (the standard TT-15 would not tighten enough to put the contacts on the dog's skin), and the smaller profile means it's lighter, as well.  Any replacement collars I buy will be Mini's.  The battery is slightly less strong on the Mini, but because I charge them constantly and keep them charged, that is not an issue with me.  The batteries will easily last as long as the normal 2-3 hour cast (17 hours for the Mini- depending on setup), and you can turn off the collar to save the battery, if you like (or change the update rate, or use the "sleep" feature of the Mini). I've never had an issue with battery life (except when I was too tired to charge it at night- then I plugged it in on the way to hunt and let it charge.).  

bird dogs and bird hunting
The Home Screen
Above is the Home Screen.  Every hunt starts here.  EVERY HUNT- no matter how long you intend to be gone.  The upper left circle says "New Hunt".  When you press that icon you will get a couple of prompts to 1.) Mark your truck and 2.) remove old dogs tracks.  Be sure and mark your truck.  There is nothing more pitiful than a hunter wandering around, lost, with $800 of sophisticated GPS in his hand, because he didn't  mark where he started.  I've seen it happen, just sayin'.  Also, removing old dog tracks doesn't mean you lose them, they are merely removed from the Map screen.  You can still move down the page, select Track Manager (the bottom right circle) and save all your old tracks and display them on the Basecamp software in your laptop. That is advanced gps-ing and you can learn about it later.  I have a friend who saves every cast and it's interesting to go back years later and remember the entire walk.  I do mark every covey, however, and keep the data on # birds, # shot, etc.  Also, I have a temperature attachment that records the temp outside when I do save the track, for future reference. 

Map Screen with a dog track on it. 
This is the Map screen you get by pressing the square map symbol on the Home screen.  It shows you and your dog(s) and their track.  It will also show roads, public land, way-points you put in, etc. Once, in New Mexico, I used the map screen to exactly follow my wandering track back to the spot where I thought I dropped an item. It accurately put me right on the piece of gear!  The next screen is the compass screen.  You get there from either pressing the lower right round compass icon on the map screen, or by going to the Home screen and pressing the upper right, round compass icon. 
bird dogs and bird hunting
Compass Screen- the one I use 90% of the time. 
This is the screen I use 90% of the time. It points to my dog and tells me how far away he is.  I mean, that's really why we bought this thing, right? It indicates when he is on point, as well.  When a dog points he will  show a pointing icon, but, in addition, I have mine set to vibrate and give off a beep tone.  Normally, either the beep or the vibration will be my first indication and then I'll grab the Alpha and look at the dog's location.  I'm aware of where they are, generally, so it's not a surprise.  But, those guys can cover some territory and I've been taken aback more than once.  My dogs will typically hunt between 50-500 yards, so this unit ensures I'll know when they locate birds.  Also, I like this screen because I have confirmation of the buttons for actuation of the e-collar.  Notice the very top of the screen, under the buttons.  You'll see Ruby, Cap Pearl and, underneath, a "T". The T means Tone and, of course, the dog's names.  As shown, I would be only running Pearl, her button is far right and her track on the map screen would be Purple. (Other options are Continuous, Momentary, Vibration, etc.)

bird dogs and bird hunting
Bottom right depicts a square icon to quickly go to maps.  Bottom left, pressing the House symbol takes you to the Home Screen.

Touching the Dashes in bottom center will take you to a menu for more good items.
When I first got my Alpha, I'd been using the Astro for many years.  I was worried about the touch screen with gloves (can be a problem, but you get used to it), and worries about unwanted inputs into the touch screen (can be a problem, be sure and check exactly what the screen says before using the e-collar!) when moving through brush and tall grass.  On the other hand, I put data "chips" in the handheld and, wherever I'm hunting, I have the public land, BLM land, BMA land, State Land, National Forest Land, and even private land with owner's names! And, it shows me where I am in relation to that property, so I don't trespass.  (www.huntinggpsmaps.com)   It's easy to keep charged- I just plug it in at the end of the day and it's ready to go in the morning.  If I move locations, I'll plug in the handheld while moving the truck.  It uses either a USB connection in to a cigarette lighter slot, or it has an adapter for use with a standard 110 outlet.  I have the charging cables all ready in my truck and plug everything in when I load my dogs and the units charge until I put them on another dog.  I don't recommend crating the dog with the collar on- the antennas make super tasty chew toys to a bored dog.  It only takes a minute for the handheld and collar to locate themselves again in the  new location.  They are already paired and stay that way as you turn them off and back on.

A really nice feature is the "Lost Dog" mode, I call it.  If the collar battery gets to less than 25% charge, the refresh rate (the rate that the collar transmits position to the handheld) automatically changes to every 2 min., thereby saving the collar battery.  As you drive around the country looking for your Pointer, you can watch the handheld.  It will point to his last known position and will pick up the collar again when you get in range (they say 9 miles, but that's under perfect theoretical conditions.  Still, it's a long ways.).  This isn't the default setting, so be sure and set that in the initial setup.  Speaking of the 2 min refresh rate, if your collar battery is getting low, and you know it and don't need the lost dog setting, you can go in and change the rate back to 2.5 sec (or whatever you want).  It's amazing how far a bird dog can go in 2 minutes!  You may think the unit is messed up and not following your dog- check the refresh rate first.  The shortest refresh rate on this unit is every 2.5 sec.  It works fine, but I wouldn't even mind a faster refresh rate than 2.5 sec. (Hey, Garmin, are you there?)  I mentioned how the handheld will vibrate and tone when a dog is on point.  Right now, the handheld emits the same tone for each collar (you select).  Wouldn't it be nice to have a separate "on point" tone for each collar?  Often, it would negate needing to look at the handheld to see which dog is pointed.  (That's another one for you, my GPS-engineer Garmin friends.)

So, should you buy one?  Most likely, YES.  I've only scratched the surface of what they can do.  They can send messages between handhelds (preset).  They have sunrise/sunset tables, preloaded cities, navigation, etc. The same stuff normal GPS units have.  Is fact, you can remove the tall antenna and use them as a normal GPS. It's going to take some sitting down with the manual and playing with it.  Walking along waiting for the pager to go off, you can scroll through the screens and browse.  When a bird or covey flushes, I like to use "Sight and Go" to mark where they landed (top right circle).  I also Mark (bottom left circle) every covey or flush, etc. and keep record of hunting trips all over the country for the last...many years. I highly recommend using this gear.  It is the class of the group.  It's reliable. It's accurate.   

Full Disclosure: I've not received any consideration from Garmin.

I heard the page. Now, how far away is she?