Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Swan Song

#abirdhuntersthoughts
7 weeks old-Ruby


It was 92 degrees. 
 
Once again, I was in the middle of a CRP field, just off the end of the International Airport runway in Great Falls, MT.  Joined by 40-50 of my NSTRA (National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial Assoc.) friends,  I was there to compete with my bird dogs before I headed out for a week to ten days of bird hunting  on the Montana prairie.  It was the end of August.  August!  And, it was 92 degrees.  Somehow, spending most of the long summer in Georgia, I  missed the part about it being real hot in the heartland.  In my parochial, shortsighted vision, I think I assumed anything north would be cooler.  (The background laughter is distracting.)  The heat was all that more penetrating, because the sun was beating mercilessly on anything crazy, ignorant, or trusting enough to be outside the shade. That included handlers, judges, dogs, field marshals and spectators.  Shade was sought and hoarded.  Cold water was trading across the board for fizzy drinks.  A cool breeze was heavenly.  Wet heat, dry heat. It's all hot. The difference is the shade.  In low humidity, when you are in the shade, if you stay calm and collected, it may even feel comfortable for a few minutes. Shade and a breeze made life possible.  

Of the five bird dogs I carried with me, two were already NSTRA Champions, Cap a three-time Champion (3XCH-derived by points and placements), and Ruby a two-time Champion (2XCH). Cap was retired from NSTRA, he had nothing to prove or gain by running more field trials.  At ten and a half years old, he would be my top hunting dog as long as he wanted.  Ruby was even a little older than Cap, by just a few months, but she needed three more points (3 pts.-first, 2 pts- second, 1 pt.- third) for her third championship.  She was healthy and running, and she was, far and away, the smartest dog I ever owned. 
At least twice in the past, I saw her run straight to a spot she worked for a bird earlier, but didn’t produce it. Then, she would point and I would get the bird up. Both times were in the last few minutes of the brace. Both times, it was a bird that enabled us to advance to the next round. 

 I thought she deserved another championship.  One more championship would also qualify her for another award, when coupled with her two victories in the 2016 and 2019 Georgia Region NSTRA Championships.  She was the only Brittany to ever win that trial- and she did it twice.  At seven and nine years old.
 
As we walked to the line, Ruby bounced around and pulled on the lead. With some dogs, I would insist on them walking at heel.  It was a safety issue.  They are big, strong dogs, and they could trip me up or cause me to slip on muddy ground.  So, I took a few days, and added "Heel" to the list of commands they know.  But Ruby, at 34# soaking wet, wasn't a problem.  I always figured her antics were like a Sumo wrestler banging his chest and psyching himself up for the contest.  Ruby was excited.  I let her get more excited.  

We were in the 15th brace, out of 16 total braces for the day.   Ruby had a good run on the other field, and was currently in second place over there.  I knew second would gain her two points, and we'd need to wait for another trial.  I was hoping her second would hold up though, and I could get at least a third with her on this field, then I'd have all the necessary points for her third championship.  And her retirement.  
 
The dog who currently held first place did good work earlier in the day.  He had four finds and retrieves, good ground coverage and obedience scores.  I noticed he lacked a score for his back, most likely because he never had the opportunity, since he found four of the five birds planted before the brace began. 

At the line, Ruby steadied.  I unsnapped her lead, but held onto her collar.  We both waited for the lead judge to tell us, "Turn 'em loose!" The other dog, and handler, were to our left.  The wind was right to left, coming out of the greater portion of the field. The command was given, and I let go of her collar.  She shot out, full speed in a few strides, straight ahead, then turned sharply to the right, into the wind. I took a few steps, loaded my gun, stowed my lead, and started my watch, all the while watching Ruby.  She went out about 100 yards and began a long, looping turn to the left right back at me.  I knew to walk slowly, because she was now looking for the "gallery bird", as she passed me and made another loop to the right, having swept the area off the line in a "figure 8" pattern,  I felt confident, at that point, we hadn't left any behind.  I learned to trust her nose.  Of all my dogs, she is the one I trust the most.  
 
(Photo by Nancy Whitehead)
 
#abirdhuntersthoughts
3XCh Flyboy's Ruby Deux

 
I named her Ruby Deux, or Ruby #2.  My first Ruby was an English Setter from years gone by.  Ruby Deux was fast.  Lean and long-legged, and she was always fast. At 8 weeks old, after I picked her up in North Carolina, the week before, I took her on a walk to the barn to meet the big dogs and start her awareness of the world around her.  We sniffed the big dogs, and, without saying a word, I started walking out of the barn and along a tree line down to the creek about a third of a mile away. I glanced back and smiled as she noticed me missing, sighted me, and came flying along my track.  She passed me up and ran out about 20-30 feet in front. moving from right to left.  Still not saying a word, I waited until she moved out a little farther, then I stepped into the treeline and hid.  Usually, the pup will notice I'm gone, start to panic, and I'll magically reappear to "save" them.  They learn to know where I am at all times.  That little game reaps huge rewards later on when they are running a ridge line 300 yards out, and I see them glance over towards me.  Or, I can't see them glance at all, but they will swing by 50-100 yards away, keeping me "in sight".  

Ruby, however, played the game a bit differently.  She turned, noticed I was nowhere to be found, whimpered once, reversed course and took off at full speed back up the trail.  She went by me like an orange blur. I called to her, but she didn't even blink.  All I saw was the tail end of an 8 week old Brit pup, hauling her fuzzy butt back to the barn! I took off running, trying to catch her, but she was going away by the time she reached the barn.  She ran right to the pen with the big dogs, grabbed some water from the bucket, and laid down.  By the time I arrived, she was panting, but not hard.  At least she was glad to see me.  He little stub tail was going a mile a minute.  I could only think it was the horseback breeding of her mom coming out.  Ruby was a runner.  She liked it.  Later, she lived for the wide open stretches of the grasslands.  Her dad was Nolan's Last Bullet, a 33X NSTRA Champion, and a multi-National Champion and in the Hall of Fame, a master at the game of NSTRA, but her mom was a horseback trial bird dog, a runner. 
 
Ruby and me



After cleaning the field in front of the start line, Ruby took off again to the right, into the wind.  She swept back and forth, cleaning huge chunks of grass of any birds.  Five minutes went by, then ten, and I was beginning to get concerned.  We had 20 minutes left. We covered a good portion of the field, and had zero birds on the card!  Approaching the boundary, I didn't need to say a thing to her.  She hit the mowed strip and turned to the left to work the corner of the field.  I thought perhaps she needed some water, so I raised my whistle and started walking to the flag indicating a water barrel.  Right then the judge yelled, "Point!"  I snapped my head around, and smiled as I saw her 50 yards away, still as a statue.  I flushed the Chukar, shot it, and she retrieved it to my hand.  I told her, "Good girl!  Get in, Ruby!", my command to get into the water barrel nearby.  I pointed the direction, and she headed that way until she saw the barrel and jumped in. She didn't stay long, only a few seconds.  Energized, she took off, down the back boundary, breeze at her back.  She worked back and forth, fast, full strides, until we got to the very back corner. It was 20 minutes into the brace now- ten minutes left on the clock.  I could tell she was tiring in the heat, she slowed and looked at me, as if to say, "Boss, I've done everything I can think of, and I'm not having any luck.  You got any ideas?" Yes, I did. "C'mon, girl," I said.  I turned back into the wind, and headed back across the field, on a different line now, one that crossed close to another water barrel. She passed me by, tongue out, slowing, but still game.  "She's about out of gas," the judge said. "Yeah, she is, judge.  She might have given me all she has today.  POINT," I yelled!  The instant before, Ruby spun around and pointed, about 30 yards ahead.  I moved as quickly as I legally could to her, scanning for the bird.  Her back legs were shaking, but that nose was steady, eyes locked on a shrub not far off, and she was "eating scent", mouth slowly opening and closing.  The bird was there, and tried to escape by flushing behind me.  I heard the wings, turned and dropped the bird.  Ruby was on it in a flash and dropped it in my hand.  Five minutes left in the brace, I looked toward the water barrel, back towards the gallery, and decided she needed water more than anything.  I whistled her back to me.  She turned reluctantly, slowly, and started back.  POINT!  "Move!" I thought to myself.  The bird popped up, and flew directly at the judge.  "Safety," I yelled!  The bird flew out of bounds (we get an average score for that retrieve.).  
 
Three birds on the card now and four minutes left.  "Ruby, get in, girl!", and I pointed to the water barrel.  It was important to make sure she was cool for the last few minutes.  A very successful trialer once told me, "Randy, don't let her run out the clock if she's hot and not smelling anything!  Make her get in the barrel and hold her there.  Put water on her belly, chest, and head.  Make sure she's soaked!  Then, let her finish out the run with a working nose, and a strong stride!"   She jumped in the barrel, and I put my gun down, and wet her underside, head, and face.  After 30 seconds, I sensed a renewed energy in her.  "Let's go, Rubes!"  She jumped out of the barrel, and immediately became birdy!  POINT!  I only had a minute or two left, so I move quickly to the bird.  I saw it running on the ground!  It saw me and changed direction- "Flushed bird, Judge!"   "You got it," he said!  The bird took off right then, and I dropped it.  Ruby was on it, and slowly brought it to me, and placed it in my hand.  I knelt down, and stroked her head.  "I am so proud of you, Ruby Deux!  You've got all the grit a dog can have," I told her.
  
The last ones standing.  You know you won.

 
We had four birds on the card, with only seconds left in the brace.  So little time was left, I didn't even check my watch.  I expected to hear the judge call "Time!" any second.  I stood to get my bearings, and heard someone say Point!  It wasn't us, so I looked left, and there was my bracemate on point 40 feet away!  "Ruby! Here," I yelled!  She started to me, then past me, saw the other dog, and froze.  "Back," I shouted!  "You got it, Randy.  It wasn't pretty, but it was a back."  "Time," said the judge.
 
Laughing, I walked to Ruby and knelt beside her.   I pulled her to me.  Her scoring was over.  Four finds, four retrieves (one a safety), and a back.  In 92+ degree heat, at ten and a half years old.  I took her head and breathed in her nostrils, and tucked her under my chin.  She let me catch her this time, and sank into me.  I'll never forget that time we spent in that open field, me kneeling down, holding my dog, Ruby submitting and letting me love on her.  "That dog has a lot of heart, Randy.  I was proud to see her work.  Good job!" said the judge as he rode by.
 
Ruby won  the trial by 11 points.  Her other field's standing did not hold up, and she was fourth.  Her win gave her the three points needed for her third Championship.  She is now retired from trialing, and concentrates entirely on bird hunting, with the occasional growling roll-over of the new pup, Blue, from her last litter.  "Don't give me any lip, Junior! When you get two Region wins and three championships behind your name, I might listen.  Until then, shut up and learn!" 

That's my girl. 
 
 


Friday, August 14, 2020

Public Land! A Unique Blessing

 

    I loaded the Beast one more time- dogs in the back in their crates on top of the bed slide, and even one more crate on the back seat, now that I'm taking all five of my Brits with me.  They will rotate through the passenger seat during the three day trip to Montana.  I swear they know when it's their turn. If I forget, or I'm rushed and can't remember, I can scan the crates and the one who's up next will let me know it's his or her turn- usually vocally. The camper is loaded, tires new, propane topped off, generators serviced, refrigerator packed.  I'm ready for a 2000+ mile drive to hunt birds, one of many I will take this year. 

Montana Sharptail Country

Almost every trip, I will hunt public land.  Meaning: anyone with the proper license can hunt the same land.  Many states have programs in which bird hunters can hunt private land that is available for the public through various programs, and I include that in the public land category.  (E.g., Montana Block Management, etc.).   But the vast majority of the public land I hunt is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land or State land (State of Montana, State of New Mexico, etc.). 

I realized I just take this blessing for granted.  It's always been there for me, and I assumed it would always be there. But, this privilege is almost unique to our country. Unique in the world!  Remember, the game animals in this country are owned by the public, not the landowner.  When taken into account with other facts, such as great roads, motels, gas stations everywhere, vet care in every town, sporting goods stores, gun stores, ammunition stores, truck repair, and safe, stable living conditions and no requirement to check in or report to the government, or cross through checkpoints, etc., this resource is a one-of-a-kind on this planet. And, it's available to any citizen.
  
Chickens, Sharptail, Roosters on Public Land 2019


What other countries have a system like ours?  Europe would be the closest to our system, but they've relegated themselves to a system of private ownership that is expensive for the common man and exclusive.  What about Asia, Africa, etc.?  In many locales, I'd be concerned about driving, much less hunting.  The availability of accommodations, fuel, and land make hunting in those areas problematic.  Yes, hunting can be done, but it's Public Hunting for (relatively) free, and safety that we are considering. South America and Central America have plenty of game birds, but once again, we are stymied by the availability of Public Land.
 
Perhaps the closest I've found to our system is in Australia and New Zealand. Australia has a vast amount of land available- millions of acres- regulated by each state.  Citizens are encouraged to hunt invasive species, especially rabbits, camels (?), dogs, and others (it's an interesting list!), but also, there are several types of quail, pheasant, ducks, etc.  Also, New Zealand has almost a million acres of public land available to hunt, and an outdoor lifestyle is common in one of the most beautiful countries in the world. So, this country isn't totally unique (and I apologize, in advance, for any areas I missed), but when all the conditions are tabulated, I believe we have a resource second-to-none. 
 
 

Shack and me. North Dakota 2016

How much land are we talking about? Well, here's where it gets interesting.  I'm loaded and heading to Montana. How much land, in Montana, is available for me to run my dogs?  (I'm excluding any private land, including Block Management Land.)  Montana has a little more than 30 million acres of public land.  Ponder that.  30 MILLION acres.  Sure, a lot of that is vertical, or not suitable in one regard or another.  Some is even landlocked by private land with no public access and therefore not accessible to us.  (A continuing bone of contention in many states.)  But, that's a lot of land.  More than all five of my Brits can cover in a day.   Some states, like Wyoming, have even more land available (31 million acres), Nevada (53 million acres), and, finally, Alaska (271 million acres).  The top 12 states have 558 million acres of Public Land (358 million acres, excluding Alaska).  The total for the United States is 697 million acres.  Two thirds of a BILLION acres of land for anyone to hunt in this country.  A half BILLION acres  excluding Alaska- the numbers are truly staggering! .  
 
Being a flat-lander from Georgia, I'm often asked if I'm "hunting private land?".  The answer is "yes and no".  The land I hunt may be private, but it will be open to the public through one program or another.  Or, it will be outright public through BLM or other Federal or State program. Generally, in the East, a bias is given towards private land, in that it's assumed it will hold more birds, less pressured birds.  Perhaps.  But, like I tell friends, the limit on pheasant is three roosters per day. How many do you need to shoot at to get three?  Besides, I try to find public land in which the bird populations are close to the private land numbers.  It's not hard to do. Remember, it's perfectly acceptable to access BLM land on the other side of fencing, State land when not in standing crops, etc.  You should visit the  Bureau of Land Management website and learn the rules.  There are many BLM offices in every western state, where you can access detailed maps for a nominal fee. 
 
Blue Grouse Country Wyoming


When I reach Montana, my biggest problem is not access, it's sorting through what's available- a good problem to have.  As I stand and look out on a prairie so vast it is disconcerting to some, I remember to take time and thank God I was born to this country, the greatest on Earth.  I encourage you to do the same. 

#abirdhuntersthoughts #endlessoctoberbook #flyboybrit #turnemloose

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

#1 Bird Hunting BLOG

I just received notification that my bird hunting BLOG is in the Top 10- #1 is what the list shows! While I am curious as to how the list was developed, I'm happy with the results. 

https://blog.feedspot.com/bird_hunting_blogs/


End of a good day in New Mexico 2019


Intro to Woodcock for Blue 2018


Two tired Chukar hunters- me and Cap 2015

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Lewis and Clark- Following the 'Corps of Discovery'





#abirdhuntersthoughts
Route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
Cap ran well.  He was a year and a half old.  He was out of Ruby, F/Brit, and by my Ace dog.  I picked him out of her first litter of 11, because he was a terror to the others.  Pushing and growling to get a nipple, nothing slowed him down.  He was one of the bigger pups, but, as a full-grown dog, he weighed between 35# and 38#.  Such a pleasure to hunt and trial, I always knew, when we left the starting line, we had a chance to win, or, if hunting, we would find birds.   


This field trial was unusual, because it was held in Asotin, WA.  At the end of the Georgia trial season, well after all the states’ hunting seasons closed, I wasn’t quite ready to hang it up.  Cap was winning, and I wanted to see just how good he was.  My sainted wife and I boarded a Delta jet in Atlanta and flew to Spokane, WA to run a Northwest Region NSTRA field trial.  We, the humans, missed the connecting flight in Minneapolis, but the cargo, Cap, made the connection, and blithely sailed on alone to Spokane.  We spent the night in Minneapolis and were on the first flight out the next morning, arriving mid-morning in Spokane, eager to find and rescue the Capper. (Delta was very good about keeping us updated.  We expected him to be boarded near the airport- their policy. Also, I put my cell number, in permanent ink on the outside of the kennel.  Just in case.)  When we got off the airplane, we were met by an employee, who asked us, “Are you Cap’s parents?  Follow me!”  I wondered if there was a problem.  There was indeed.  It seems she was the next person on the list to take Cap outside for a walk, and she was a little upset.  She’d waited all morning, excited to get to play with him- and here we show up! We were in no hurry, at this point, so she got her wish.  Cap was down in the bowels of the airport, in the Delta Operations Center, in a small room with water and comforter, and his kennel open. They’d been walking him and playing with him all night.   I was very grateful for their concern.  He commented to me, “Flying is a blast, Boss!  We should do this more often.”    
 
#abirdhuntersthoughts #gearthatworks #birdhunter #flyboybrit #drtims #espamerica #nextmilemeals
Cap and 2nd Place Trophy

Later that day, we found the trial grounds, and prepared to have some fun. Cap did not disappoint. On one field, we didn’t do all that well.  On the other, he had four birds and retrieves, and was in first place until the very end, when he was bumped to second place by another dog with a better run.  We met some fine people and very nice bird dogs up there.  After the trial in Asotin, WA, we drove to Lewiston, ID (just across the Snake River and state line from Clarkston, WA), and drove down the river valley a bit before climbing out up to the plains. Leaving the next day, I noticed an historical marker.  It told the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the Corp of Discovery passing this very spot in 1805 going West (outbound), and 1806 going East (return).  In fact, the cities of Lewiston and Clarkston received their names from the expedition.  I was fascinated.  I read their journals years before, and I noticed on many hunting trips and vacations the various historical markers nearby.   



Over the last 30+ years, or so, I’ve covered a lot of this country with bird dogs in tow.  I haven’t made it all the way to the Pacific, yet, or even into Oregon or California.  I think Oregon will happen.  I’d be very surprised find a California hunting license in my wallet.  Maine calls to me, and I think, within a year or two, I will be following a Brit along a logging road in the northeast corner of Maine in October.  I miss the Ruffed Grouse.  The past few years have seen my guys concentrating on some “niche” birds, such as Blue Quail, Mearns Quail, Sharptail Grouse, Prairie Chickens, and Sage Grouse.  Few of those prairie species live near the Great Northwoods, and I think it’s time I visited them again. 



Looking at a map of 15 years of GPS waypoints,  I noticed several clusters of points marking the map.  One waypoint might mean a single, or it might mean coveys year after year.  It might mean great Sharptail cover, or it might mean, “Here be Sage Hens!”  Only I would remember all the points and what they mean.  Some days, I will call up a random point, look at the data, and remember the day, the dog, the birds, my companion, and the point, shot, and retrieve.  I can easily pass a lot of time doing just that.  I call it research.  My sainted wife calls it daydreaming.   



I was doing some serious “research” a few years ago, when I noticed a definite pattern in my waypoints.  Not all of them, certainly, but enough that I could make out a trend.  Starting near Kansas City, a bunch of them worked their way north, up past St. Joe, Omaha, Sioux City, and Yankton, Pierre, up to Bismarck, and still  further north and west to Poplar, Wolf Point, Billings and points west.  The waypoints marked birds, dogs, motels, restaurants, and more birds.  But, mainly, they marked bird work.  Thirty-plus years of bird hunting loosely focused on what looked to be the Missouri River.   



I looked closer and more in depth, and I discovered a large amount of my hunting is/was done within an hour, or so, of the Missouri River and the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803.  Thomas Jefferson was the President.  We (United States) had just acquired the Louisiana Territory from France for the princely sum of $15,000,000.  Don’t confuse the name of the newly acquired land with the present State.  The newly-purchased territory ran from New Orleans all the way into Canada, north of Montana. Talk about not knowing what you’re buying! The country had no clue- many thought it was all desert.  Jefferson bought 827,000 sq. mi. of territory from France- essentially, the entire Great Plains of the United States.  This is now the bread basket of the world- the most fertile soil in the world, with topsoil loam, in places, 30’-50’ deep! In order to discover what he’d bought, he sent Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on an expedition called the “Corps of Discovery”.  They traveled mostly by boat, and mostly on the Missouri River.  Some travel on the Mississippi, Snake, Columbia, Yellowstone, and Milk Rivers was required, too.  They started in August 1803, barely two months after the approval of the purchase by Congress.  They returned home in January 1807.  Their journey is well chronicled by Lewis and Clark, in their diaries.  They are funny, tragic, exciting, and amazing stories, all at the same time.  The first time they saw a Grizzly (they thought it was a fable the Indians would tell them.) is a humorous account of being chased into the river to escape.  They were very lucky to not be killed.  It took 4 shots, at least, to bring the monsters down.  This was out on the prairie, the native habitat of the Grizzly.  There are many volumes written about this amazing journey, and I enjoy reading about it, again and again.  


It is hot.  "Why do I do this," I grumble to myself?  It’s because I spent all summer cutting grass, painting fence, training dogs, and other chores.  Now, it's September, a month that only has a few things to recommend it- my bird hunting season starts, my birthday is on the 3rd of this month, and it’s next door to Glorious October.  On the first day of September, I turn the Beast to the north, loaded down with dogs and the camper. On the third day of the month, I click the wisdom counter and age another year.  On the 4th day, my season officially starts with a dog on the ground in Montana.  
It was 45 degrees for the morning sunrise, 90 at 4pm, and 60 at sunset. It’s a climate we learn to work with, incorporating a short nap scheduled at noontime, resting in the shade somewhere, windows open and breeze blowing through the truck.  Then, in the afternoon, we put more dogs out as the temperature cools off, and the sun lowers towards the mountains.   
 
#abirdhuntersthoughts #gearthatworks #birdhunter #flyboybrit #drtims #espamerica #nextmilemeals
Ruby

This day, I put Ruby out on a likely looking patch of BLM grass, surrounded by cut wheat fields. We were north of Great Falls.  Over the weekend, we competed in a field trail just off the end of the Great Falls Airport, and, now, we were off to do the real thing.  A few hours north, the terrain is rolling to flat.  The roads are gravel, the houses are few, and BLM, State Land, and Block Management land is plentiful. I look for BLM land while driving between Block Management areas.  Today, Ruby took to the grass like a champ, and I followed her, not really knowing what was over the rise. She ran well, and, after 30 minutes, we’d worked our way to the southern end of the BLM patch, and made the turn west to loop around back to the truck.  You never know what might happen on these casts.  Many times, nothing happens- you just had a “nature walk”, as a friend refers to a dry cast on the prairie. But, as my ability to spot habitat improved, my nature walks turned into some really fine shooting. I watched Ruby swing by me and head for the top of a rise. Just as her rear end dropped out of sight at the top, her gait faltered.  Something got her attention.  A few seconds later, her pager went off on the GPS, and “something just got my attention!  I moved over the low rise to find her staunch, nose into the wind, just a few yards from some thick grass.  “Easy, girl,” I said, just as 10 Sharptails rose up 20 yards away!  Her retrieve was flawless.  I shared some water and a little love, and she was on her way again.  With a few more birds in the bag, we arrived back at the truck ready for a long drink and short nap in some shade.  Another successful cast on the prairie- another way-point marked, and another track chronicled and saved.
  

My hunt with Ruby occurred less than a mile from the track made by Lewis, as he and other men departed from the homeward trek in 1806 to see if the Marias River would go all the way to the northern boundary of the Louisiana Purchase (near the Canadian Border).  They turned around to return to the main expedition after 3 days camping at what they called “Camp Disappointment”, since they realized the river would not go all the way.  The local Blackfeet Tribe was becoming increasingly hostile to them.  At the Two Medicine Fight Site, hostilities erupted over an attempt by the Blackfeet to steal guns, then horses.  At least one Indian was killed (possibly two), as the Blackfeet made off with some horses.  Lewis determined to get out of the area as fast as possible, so they drove their horses as hard as they could back to the Missouri, east of the Great Falls, and the safety of the Corps.  As I hunt that area, I can see in my mind, the men riding hard, and looking over their shoulders, hoping to drop off into the Teton River bottom, cross over and up the other side before they were set upon by the Blackfeet.  They made it safely.   

#birddogsandbirdhunting #abirdhuntersthoughts #gearthatworks #birdhunter #flyboybrit #drtims #espamerica #nextmilemeals
Ruby, the First


Back when online meant AOL for email addresses, there was no social media, and everyone was gingerly tip-toeing around this newfangled Internet thing, I discovered a CompuServe site devoted to bird hunting.  It was more a chat room, as we would refer to it now.  A guy on there was encouraging bird hunters to go up to his father-in-law’s farm in Eastern Montana.  He said they had pheasant, Huns, and Sharptail Grouse.  We agreed on a price for a week (As I recall it was $200, about the price of one of my shotguns.), including a place to stay (the old farmhouse), and all the hunting we wanted on several thousand acres of river bottom.  It was planted in wheat, and was cut by the time I arrived.  It was bordered by the Missouri River to the north, sort of between Wolf Point and Poplar.  To the south, he had wheat, already planted and cut, up on the flat prairie above the bottom.  For several years, friends and I returned and hunted the farm.  We got to know it very well.  The current family homesteaded the land many, many years ago. Pictures of cowboys, and horses, dust, and family hang on the walls.  The stories of survival in bad winters are still very real to them, now the third, fourth and fifth generation farmers/ranchers.  My wife accompanied me on her first hunting trip to this farm.  She shot her first pheasant there, over a point by Ruby (the first), my English Setter. After she shot that bird, I put it in her bird bag, and we continued on behind Ruby and Rocket, my Brittany male.  I happened to look up at her back, as I was following, in time to see a rooster head slowly emerge from her bird bag and look underneath her arm to see where we were headed.  All I could think was that bird was going to jump and try to make a break for it, and probably scare my wife to death!  Trying to not laugh, I said, “Hey, honey, how about we stop and give the dogs a rest?” As I came up behind her, I reached over and eased the, now very alive, big rooster, out of her game bag, dispatched it, and re-deposited it back in her vest.  Tragedy averted and a memory made.  We still laugh about that to this day.  Many fine days, we wandered the coulees, watching the dogs (pre-GPS) root out the Sharptails and Huns.  One day, not far from the ancient Indian Buffalo Jump, on a trip that thankfully did not include my wife, my best dog, Ruby was gone.  I buried her on the edge of a bluff over the Missouri, surrounded by wheat, grass, and birds.  I haven’t been back. 


In 1805 on the westward, outbound, journey, the Corps of Discovery passed no more than 1000’ from the old farmhouse on that Montana ranch, eager to get to the Rockies (which they had no idea were as big as they are) and the ocean beyond.  In another journal entry, east of the farmhouse, they marveled at the confluence of the Yellowstone River, arriving from the south.  They sent men a few days down the river that flows, now, through Glendive, Miles City, and beyond.  Much farther down the Yellowstone River, Clark, on his return journey, wrote about Pompeii’s Tower, a large prominent rock, in his journal “The Indians have made 2 piles of Stone on the top of this Tower. The nativs have ingraved on the face of this rock the figures of animals &c. near which I marked my name and the day of the month & year.”  That bit of graffiti, left by Clark, is the only known visible evidence, of the entire journey, remaining today.  Farther west from the Yellowstone Confluence on the Missouri, on the outbound leg, they stopped at the confluence of the Milk River It got its name because of the grayish silt gathered from the soil in its 721 mile journey from the Rockies in northern Montana, into Canada, and back to the confluence with the mighty Missouri. 


Near Wolf Point, MT, Clark killed the largest Grizzly that they encountered.  Lewis’ note:  “Capt. Clark & Drewyer killed the largest brown bear this evening which we have yet seen. it was a most tremendious looking anamal, and extreemly hard to kill notwithstanding he had five balls through his lungs and five others in various parts he swam more than half the distance across the river to a sandbar & it was at least twenty minutes before he died; he did not attempt to attact, but fled and made the most tremendous roaring from the moment he was shot.”  The group encountered Grizzly starting around Mobridge, SD all the way through to their camp on the Clearwater River in Idaho.  The majority were seen in Montana, along the Missouri River. They killed 43 of the monsters- many times in self-defense. 


Interestingly,  the the normal range and habitat of the Grizzly Bear is on the prairie, in the river bottoms.  There was a hit movie, The Revenant, about Hugh Glass, back in the early 1800’s, and his mauling by a Grizzly, and his subsequent survival.  The movie showed a lot of mountains, etc.  The actual, historical spot of the mauling is 15 miles south of Lemmon, SD (on the border with ND). It’s 500 miles to the Rockies from there, but only 60 miles from where The Corps of Discovery sighted their first Grizzly.  I always thought Grizzlies were in the mountains, but now I see that’s where they were pushed.  As their population recovers and increases, they are moving out of the mountains and out on to the prairie, once again.  I hunted up against the Front Range in northwest Montana a few years ago, north and west of Great Falls.  The little town I stayed in had to shut down their municipal golf course for 3 weeks that year due to a sow and 3 cubs that hung around the area.  Another time, a few years later, Bob joined me to hunt the area.  Our plan was to bird hunt a few days, then go just inside the Front Range and fly fish a few rivers to cool down and give the dogs a break.  One day, I finished early on the prairieBob was hunting a different area.  It was hot, so I loaded the dogs and we drove 50 miles to the mountains, to an area I’d heard held Ruffed Grouse.  It had a nice trout stream, as well.  It was a beautiful drive across the prairie, looking at the imposing line of mountains coming up.  The road kept heading directly into the flat wall of mountains, until, finally, I saw a canyon and the road joined a nice-sized creek. Driving the gravel road, I saw the cold, clear creek water and knew this would be some good fishing, but first I wanted to check out some likely Ruffed Grouse habitat. As I drove, I became uncomfortable.  I stopped several times to water the dogs, and each time I was nervous.  The day was sunny and clear.  It had cooled to the 70’s with just a light breeze, but I was uneasy about something.  Finally, I turned around and headed back downhill.  I pulled into an empty Forest Service Campground, on the creek but still in the mountains, to let the dogs out and cool them down in the water.  Once again, I was nervous, impatient with the dogs, and looking over my shoulder.  After just a few minutes, I loaded them in the crates, slammed the tailgate, and drove out of the campground to the main gravel road out of the mountains. I felt relieved to get out of there.  It was a creepy, hair-rising-on-the-back-of-the-neck kind of experience.  I’m not normally so sensitive to my surroundings, and the experience impressed me. I met Bob that night at the campground and told him he could go fishing, but I would not set a foot in those mountains until something changed
  

After the trip was over, two incidents occurred that year within a few miles of my episode. The first one was a mauling of a Forest Service bear biologist.  As I read it, she was in a creek, facing upstream, standing still, when she was attacked by a bear from behind.  She never heard him coming.  She managed to get her bear spray out and spray the bear (and herself).  Finally, the bear left.  The biologist recovered.  The second incident occurred well out on the prairie, not far from the road I drove to access the mountains.  A pheasant hunter’s German Shorthair  came flying back to him out of a brushy area.  Hot on the dog’s tail was a Grizzly.  The dog ran up to the hunter and through his legs.  The bear looked up, lost the dog, but saw the hunter (I’m sure she said, “You’ll do!”) and attacked.  The hunter shot the bear three times and it turned and ran back the way it came.  Authorities were called and found a dead sow Grizzly near a tree with some cubs at the top.  Sadly, none of the parties (bear, dog, hunter) did anything wrong, and three cubs were orphaned.  


My point is: the Grizzlies are moving back out on to the plains.  It might be a good thing to take some precautions.  We can debate the gun versus bear spray issue all day.  What I know is: I can, for sure, cover an area with that spray and not miss, and it works. (I carry both handgun and bear spray, but have made up my mind that I’m reaching for the spray first.) 
  

Father east, along the Missouri River and the path (both out and back) of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, some of the finest bird hunting in the country borders the river.  North Dakota wheat supports good populations of Pheasant, Sharptail Grouse, and Hungarian Partridge.  Then, the river bends south headed for South Dakota. 
 
#birddogsandbirdhunting #abirdhuntersthoughts #gearthatworks #birdhunter #flyboybrit #drtims #espamerica #nextmilemeals
Shack pointing, Cap backing

Shack, Brit/male, and I left our other hunting friends, and headed out to explore a vast Montana Block Management area.  It was hard up against North Dakota, and it produced all the species, every year.   Today, I headed out to the edges, just to see what was there.  Shack and I drove oil service roads to the turn-arounds, then back to an intersection, and off again in another direction.  Finally, we spotted a good patch of grass with a pond.  I put him down and he took off. I moseyed over to the pond to look for tracks.  I made it half way around the water.  I saw Hun tracks, Sharptail tracks, and a larger track I didn’t recognize. Suddenly, Shack’s pager went off.  I checked the GPS, and noted he was 350 yards to the East.  I climbed a small hill that gave me a view well into North Dakota, and there he was- a small, white dot stopped in the Sage. The ground was hard with minimal brush, so it wasn’t long before I came up behind him. I moved a little off to the right to get a clear path to shoot, and to let him see me coming.  His mouth was moving just a little.  He was “eating scent”.  That was a sure sign the birds were close. I scanned upwind, took a step, and 10 Sage Grouse lumbered into the air.  I thought, “How can someone miss a bird that big?”  Shack was on the dead bird immediately. I chuckled a little and gave him some encouragement, when he looked somewhat surprised at the size of it, but I didn’t move toward him.  He struggled a bit, but finally got the big bird off the ground and brought it to my hand.  Sage Grouse are big, majestic birds.  They are fun to see walking through the sage, heads moving above the tops of the bushes.  A big Boomer (male) is the monster of the Prairie Grouse. They are just as big (and heavy) in the game bag on that long walk back to the truck, and they just don’t taste good.  In Montana and Wyoming, at least, they are plentiful, especially Wyoming.  I’ve bagged my share, and enjoy going along with friends to hunt them, but I’m not tempted to harvest them anymore. A few waypoints in the list point to Sage Grouse.  When I go back to those areas, occasionally I will slide in there to put a new pup on a different bird, and it’s always good for a little comic relief to see how they react to the earth-shaking launch of a grumbling of Sage Grouse. 


On November 2, 1804, the (Lewis and Clark) expedition stopped for the winter. Just southeast of present-day Stanton, ND, Lewis wrote, “This place we have named Fort Mandan in honour of our Neighbours.” Clark “fixed on a place for to build a fort and Set to work.” As described by Gass, “the huts were in two rows, containing four rooms each, and joined at one end forming an angle. When rasied about 7 feet high a floor of puncheons or split plank were laid, and covered with grass and clay; which made a warm loft. The upper part projected a foot over and the roofs were made shed-fashion, rising from the inner side, and making the outer wall about 18 feet high. The part not inclosed by the huts we intended to picket. In the angle formed by the two rows of huts we built two rooms, for holding our provisions and stores.” After the winter, they departed for the Pacific on April 7, 1805.  


A few miles north of Bismarck, ND is the “Double Ditch Site”- actual evidence of Indian occupation and a large town as far back as 1350 B.C.  Clark noted “an old Village on the S. S. and the upper of the 6 Villages the Mandans occupied about 25 years ago this village was entirely cut off by the Sioux & one of the others nearly, the Small Pox distroyed great Numbers.” Smallpox, introduced during the American Revolution (approx. 1775) by French/British soldiers operating with eastern tribes, went on to decimate the western tribes.  Some accounts say 80% of the Native Americans died from smallpox and whooping cough for the children.  Whole tribes vanished. By 1793, Captain George Vancouver, sailing along the coast of, now, Washington and Oregon, wondered where all the people were. They found villages empty.  There was plenty of food and clean water, but the entire section of the country was devoid of human life.  He wrote, “By some event, this country has been considerably depopulated, but from what cause is hard to determine.” Vancouver wrote. All the evidence, he believed, indicated “that at no very remote period this country had been far more populous than at present.”  Smallpox and Whooping Cough wiped them out. 

#birddogsandbirdhunting #abirdhuntersthoughts #gearthatworks #birdhunter #flyboybrit #drtims #espamerica #nextmilemeals
Cap and me


I looked for Cap. The GPS was beeping, arrow pointing due South, 250 yards.  The particular Hunter Walk-In Area was way out, generally west of Pierre- a little dot on the state map of areas.  But, it was a honey hole.  Sharptail Grouse and Prairie Chickens just loved this grassy little spot, surrounded by crops and rangeland. It wasn’t hard to imagine that there were two leks on the parcel, Dancing Grounds for the Sharptail Grouse and Booming Grounds for the Prairie Chickens.  The parking spot was just off the gravel county road, and we could see some trees (!) indicating water to the east, grassy hills to the south, and cut grass that was baled extending to the north.  Upon first sight, this little piece wouldn’t draw one out of a hundred bird hunters.  We were lucky to obtain some advanced information about the area (read: someone told us.).  Earlier, our party of 6 hunters left the trucks, divided into two groups and walked along, generally following 3 dogs.  My wife and I started out together, down a grassy slope with only Cap on the ground.  He ran like only a master in his element could run.  He worked at speed today.  The grass was only mid-calf high, the temperature was just above freezing with a north wind of 10 mph, under clear, blue skies.  Runny noses and numb fingertips always make for excellent bird hunting.  Cap worked farther and farther away, down into the draw, then to the creek bottom and then he cut right, to the south, and disappeared. His GPS pager beeped, so I told my wife, “He’s on point!  Let’s hurry down there.  There will be something there.” By the time we found him in the small creek bottom, he was still intense- tail at 12 o’clock, eyes glazed, and eating scent.  I knew a bird was in front of him in the cattails.  The problem being there were pheasant here, as well. Pheasant season was closed.  Usually, it’s not a problem, but hen pheasant, to the untrained eye, can look a lot like a Sharptail Grouse when they come busting out of the grass. Hens are usually quiet, but Sharps are normally chuckling.  I told Shelby, my friend’s wife (they just joined us), to go in and I’d be right behind her to call out if it was a hen pheasant, but it was probably a Sharptail or Chicken.  She walked up in front of Cap, gun ready, and the big bird came boiling out of the brush and headed directly away from her- a perfect set up.  Her gun came up, and she leaned into the gun.  Her first Sharptail.  “No,” I yelled! “Hen! Hen! Don’t shoot!”  She pulled back just as the bird started chuckling at us, and I realized my mistake. It was a dream set-up, over my best dog, and I blew the call.  I’m not real sure Shelby has forgiven me to this day.  I got a scathing glance from Cap, too, but he’s seen me do dumber things in his 10 years, and he just put his nose in the air and started working the creek. 
  

It took all of 5 minutes, or less, and his pager went off again-250 yards away.  I didn’t have him in sight, although there was nothing growing higher than a clump of bushes right on the fence marking the edge of the area.  I hurried along, knowing there were birds in here.  Singles aren’t common with Sharptail Grouse, unless they’d been broken up earlier, and I knew we were the first on that piece of ground that day. I had my GPS in my right hand, walking fast, and I must have walked right past him.  I went up a grassy slope, and the needle turned 90 degrees and pointed back down the hill right at the clump.  By now, he’d been on point for quite a while.  Time expands when a dog is pointed.  2 minutes seem like 20 to me. I scanned the brushy area, and noted the boundary line fence.  I looked over the fence, too, hoping to not see him on the other side, and thankfully it was pretty bare over there with no dog. I moved on down the hill into a classic loafing area for Sharps- bushy brush surrounded by tall grass, all of it swaying in the breeze.  I still couldn’t see anything of him, though, not his brown head or white-tipped tail.  Finally, Sarah, from the other group, pointed and said, “There he is!”  I saw him.  Head high, tail high, staunch.  He was right where I’d been looking.  He was downwind of the brush pile.  I could see into it now, and the dirt was tramped down from birds.  I walked up, offset to the right, and kicked the shrubs.  Nothing came out. “OK,” I said, giving him the release command. He went in to high gear; nose down, tail flailing away.  Then, just on the edge of some knee-high thick grass, he froze.  “Got ‘em,” I thought! 10 Sharptails rose up trying to catch that stiff wind.  9 of them made it, and Cap brought me the one that stayed behind.  “What a good job, Cap,” I told him!  And he took off again. I watched him, quartering the wind.  I checked where everyone was, and took a step- right next to a Prairie Chicken! There was no doubt it was a Chicken, he was close enough to fan my face as he struggled for altitude.  The gun came up, and the sun hit my eyes, the wind threw me off, those cheap shells had slow primers, a dog ate my homework, I whiffed both shots on a straight line, going away bird!  Worse, it was right in front of my 5 hunting partners.   

By now, it was time to head for the truck, so my wife and I started the long trek back across the creek and up the grassy hill to the road. We separated by about 50 yards, as I elected to check out an area not on a direct line to the truck. I looked up the hill and kept an eye on my wife as we moved generally in the direction of the truck.  Then, I saw Cap lock up 30 yards in front of her.  She looked up and waved me over to her.  “No,” I shouted Do it like you’ve seen me do it a hundred times.”  So, she walked by Cap, ready to shoot.  I was close enough to get a picture to I laid my gun in the grass, and reached for my camera.  Just as I straightened up, two Sharptail flushed less than 5 feet away.  I dropped the camera, and I reached for my shotgun, but the birds were long gone by then.  My wife was still moving to her birds I frantically looked for my dropped camera.  She walked right into the center of a Sharptail chorus! 15 birds got up all around her, lead flew and I prayed for good shot, but they chuckled off over the horizon.  I guess she did exactly as she’s seen me do a hundred times.  I didn’t get the picture.  Aside from one unlucky Sharptail, We did very little damage that morning, although we saw numerous Sharptail Grouse and one very lucky Prairie Chicken.  There were very few situations that I did not muddle up that morning in South Dakota.  I found myself as the outcast.  At least until lunch on the tailgate came around.   


In Ft. Pierre, SD, just across the Missouri River from Pierre, the State Capitol, the Lewis and Clark expedition encountered the Lakota Sioux.  Captains Lewis and Clark designated a sand bar thirty yards in front of the mouth of the Bad River as the place for the council. A shade was erected near a staff flying the United States flag. At about 11:00a.m. Grand Chief Black Buffalo, Chief Partisan, Chief Buffalo Medicine, and about sixty members of the Teton band of the Lakota Nation arrived for the council. Ordway wrote they “came flocking in from both sides of the [Bad River].”  The meeting did not go well.  The Bad River confluence with the Missouri is marked today with a small park.  In 1804, it was a major meeting place for the Sioux. Clark wrote, “As soon as I landed the pirogue, three of their young men seized the cable. The chief’s soldier hugged the mast, and the second chief [Partisan] was very insolent both in words and gestures . . . declaring I should not go on, stating that he had not received presents sufficient from us. His gestures were of such a personal nature, I felt myself compelled to draw my sword, and made a signal to the keelboat to prepare for action. At this motion Captain Lewis ordered all men under arms in the keelboat. Most of the warriors appeared to have their bows strung and took out their arrows from the quiver. Grand Chief Black Buffalo then took hold of the rope and ordered the young warriors away.” Black Buffalo saved the day for the expedition.  They came very close to being attacked by an overwhelming number of Lakota Sioux.  

Today, just upstream from Pierre, is a dam on the Missouri, forming Lake Oahe, a huge watershed for the surrounding states.  Pheasant and Sharptail Grouse are abundant along the shores of the lake, all the way to North Dakota.  Going southward on the river, from Pierre, it bends to the east, then south, all the way to the Nebraska border, then east again, then south to the Iowa/Nebraska border, and down along the Kansas and Missouri border. 


I had numerous hunting adventures, on both sides of the river over the years.  In Nebraska field trials, Pheasant and quail, Iowa Pheasant, and Kansas Quail and Pheasant over 30 years and numerous dogs, we followed almost the same course as Lewis and Clark.  Their expedition was significant in its impact on the country, and on the Indigenous population.  They discovered many unknown species, including the Grizzly Bear and the Prairie Dog.  At the time considered, by some, as a failure, since they did not find a water route to the Pacific, we can now see how they impacted not only the local tribes of Indians, but also the national consciousness about the size and scope of the young country. Settlers and explorers began the drive to the West. 


On a somewhat less important scale, my travels through the areas along their route produced memories of vast, hot, cold windy, hilly, flat prairies covered by young and old dogs, long tails and short tails looking for the Prairie Grouse. Appreciating what the men endured, I now can stop and look around, and remember the escape from the Blackfeet, the encounter with the Lakota Sioux, the salvation by the Clatsop tribe, and the acceptance by the Mandan.  I can also visualize their concern with the loneliness and vastness of plains, and, most of all, their complete self-dependence. 
Cap is still with me.  Ten years old, now, with a little arthritis, one bad eye from a spine he took in New Mexico, he has gained a few pounds and slowed some.  I think if you talked to him, he would ask, “Are you talking about me, or the old guy that shoots for me?”  He always did have a little impertinence about him.