Tuesday, January 26, 2021



After many years, I was back in my good spot. Walking the trails discovered back in the 90's, when 40 to 50 flush days were common in this part of Wisconsin.  The urge to re-walk old ground is strong. As I age, the push to go back to the good, remembered areas grows.  Invariably, they aren't as I remember them, probably because the dogs aren't the same, or, most likely, neither am I.

This day, my friend and I had a nice sojourn through the forest. It was warm, headed to 75 degrees, and we chose a trail that crossed a road in the Chequamegon National Forest.  At first, I regaled Josh with tales of past dogs and adventures in the area, and finally, adventures on this very trail.  Pearl was working left and right of the trail, usually out of sight, as the trail was on a small ridge and the forest dropped off on either side.  The alert on the GPS beeped and interrupted my reverie. The GPS showed her 30 yards off to the right side, holding tight. I looked at the brush piled up on the side of the trail, and moved up and down the path until I found a way through.  Stepping up on the berm, I looked through the brush, down to the woods, and caught a glimpse of Pearl's brown body, head, and tail.  She was taut.  Taking another step down the berm onto the woods' floor, I reached for an alder branch to steady myself, just as a Ruffed Grouse flushed ten feet in front of me.  He headed deeper into the woods, his escape route already planned.  My experience indicated I had a half second, or less, to put a load of shot in the air.  After that, the bird would be around a tree, over a rock, down a drop off.   I didn't meet that requirement as I chased the bird with a load of 28 ga. 7 1/2's, and the boy was gone to safety.  Pearl rolled in looking for directions to the dead bird, and I had to give her the bad news.  She took the information stoically, gave me a withering glare, then turned her back on me and ran back in to the woods. 

We made the turn back to the truck after an hour and retraced our steps back out.  Nearing the junction of the trail and the road, where we parked the trucks, we kept closer track of the dogs, and listened for the sound of traffic on the Forest Service road. We were so close to the trucks, I unloaded my gun.  I hadn't seen Pearl in a while, so I looked down at my GPS.  She was pointed!  (Even though my GPS unit will beep and vibrate, my hearing is poor on one side, and sometimes I miss it.)  She was off to the right, down in a wet area. I told Josh, "Pearl's on point! 50 yards that way."  I reloaded as I walked to her.  No doubt about it, she was tight, and eating scent. Josh was to my left, just a little behind, as we walked into some tall, bright green marsh grass in this low spot.  Three birds came out of the grass, directly in front of me.  Two went to my left, directly in front of Josh, and one made the fatal error of flying straight away from me, headed for the closer woods.  I dropped him and swung on the other two, but they were gone.  Josh shot twice.  After Pearl handed me my bird, I sent her in for his. "Never mind," he said, "those SOB's fly pretty quick!"  I laughed, and said, "They do!  Real quick!"  He was a lefty, like me.  Those birds flushed right to left across the front of him - the worst set-up for a lefty.  I've seen him shoot. It was the birds' lucky day.  As we followed after the escaping Ruffs, Josh’s setter pointed a Woodcock, then another. By the time we made it back to the trucks, parked only a hundred feet away, we had a grouse and a woodcock in the bag.  It was time for a change of dogs and the midday siesta.  

After devouring some crackers and cheese, I put my two senior, male dogs down, Cap and Shack, and we headed up the other direction on the trail. Logging was going on, and the gate was open. The trail was widened to accommodate logging trucks and equipment. The temperature was now well into the 70's and what breeze we had was at our backs.  The dogs were panting after five minutes, and  we stopped at several stream crossings to let them water.  After about  mile, we turned back to the trucks with one more grouse in the bag, a result of some good work by all the dogs.  It was a long, hot walk back, and the tailgate was beckoning when the trucks finally hove into view.  
For a hot, humid day, two grouse and one Woodcock in the bag was a pretty good haul.  The sun was low, and the temperature was dropping as we sat on the tailgate and talked about the day, the dogs, and all the stuff of tailgate conversations.  Traditionally, at the end of the last day of an enjoyable hunting trip, I will discover an old container of a rare adult beverage under the back seat of my truck. Convention calls for the sharing of the beverage, as the highs and lows of dogwork, shooting, and chicanery are hashed and rehashed.   Josh mentioned he may be able to find something under his backseat, and, after an exhaustive search, produced a suitable bottle of amber liquid.  We scrambled for some containers, and ended up with a Yeti coffee cup and a slightly used Dixie cup.  No matter how rare the beverage, coffee-flavored cups seem to enhance the flavor, especially with legs dangling and the temperature dropping.  

Halfway through a recounting of the second grouse flush, we turned to look down the gravel National Forest road. We both heard a truck, as it moved slowly and rounded the curve close to our parked trucks.  It was a nondescript, four-door variety with the windows down, and the driver leaned out the window.  I waved, in the friendly, Wisconsin way, and he stopped in front of us.  "How's it going?" he asked.  "Pretty good.  We have a few in the bag.  Just finishing up," I answered.  "Would you like a beer?" he asked.  Not to be out-cordialed, I invited him to have a sip of whiskey.  "Whiskey?"  The truck shut down, all four doors opened, and four hunters emerged holding various empty containers, one of which was a recently emptied beer can.  Josh affably poured out suitable amounts of the rare, amber liquid, as we began the important ritual of recounting the hunt.  With six of us deep into the nuances grouse harvesting, we all turned to look up the trail at the noise of an approaching ATV.  A husband and wife pulled up. "Anybody need a beer?" the husband asked. "We have some whiskey," one of the road hunters offered.  "Whiskey?"  The ATV shut down as husband and wife hopped out with an empty Styrofoam cup and the ubiquitous empty beer can.  Josh dutifully poured a ample amount into their cups, and recharged the other containers, as well.  "That's it," he said.  "We have an empty bottle!"  Groans echoed through the forest.  "Wait!" I said, and jumped down to root around in the back seat.  "Here we go! I have no idea how this got here, but we aren't out of business yet!"  Cheers erupted in the nighttime forest.  The husband/wife team were quickly absorbed into the conversation, as the eight of us pondered bird hunting and bird dogs.  A refill or two later, conversation stilled as we cocked our ears up the same trail to hear a truck approaching.  It pulled up, idling, and a large man leaned over and asked, "Wanna beer?" "No, man, how would you like a whiskey?" the husband inquired.  "Whiskey?" as the truck shut down, and a lumberjack sauntered over with an empty McDonald's coffee cup. One fill-up and eight refills later, the conversations grew in volume and hilarity.  Finally, as the temperature dropped into the 40's, I grabbed the bottle for another round of refills, and it was empty. I announced the disaster, and, amid the disappointment, I took the opportunity to slide off the tailgate and walk around to the front of my truck, chuckling at our impromptu party.  The night was perfect.  It was cold, clear, and calm- and it was  getting noticeably quieter.  A minute later, I walked back around to the tailgate just in time to hear five doors slamming on two pickup trucks, and see the taillights of the ATV heading out into the darkness.  Josh and I looked at one another in a forest absolutely dark and quiet. We both laughed hard, enjoying the quiet moments at the end of our party in the grouse woods. Fellowship, friendship, grouse, and bird dogs. The ingredients for a memorable gathering came together like the eye of a hurricane, and dissipated quickly after the fuel ran out.
I wonder if the Boss would entertain our next pup's name to be "Whiskey"?  It seems to be an uncommonly powerful word up there in the Grouse Woods of Wisconsin.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Southwest Late Season Gambel's and Blues

 Late season desert birds, Gambel's and Blue Quail, can be a challenge, to say the least.  By the end of the season, in January and February, those runners have matured and become tougher, faster, smarter, and more wary.  Or they aren’t around anymore.  

I hunted both of my favorite southwest states this year- Arizona in December and New Mexico in January. While my Arizona hunt was OK, some of my favorite spots didn't yield any birds, at all.  It boiled down to looking for the habitat.  For me, I looked for water, grass, and cover (brush, bushes, cactus, trees, etc.). At night, I would peruse Google Maps and GAIA GPS looking for waterholes, stock tanks, creeks with water, etc.  Once you've spotted a few, they are pretty easy to see.  Dry creek beds and washes are also favorite hiding places for the Gambel's. 
Blue and Pearl found them in the Creosote

New Mexico, in January, yielded a lot of the same.  From some locals, I learned the rains were on time and plentiful in the spring for the hatch, but then the spigot was shut, and the rain quit. The hatch was excellent in many areas of the Southwest.  It is a banner year, in fact.
Cap and a couple of Gambel's

We finally discovered the secret of the dry wash. Those rascals like to roost in the safety of the washes, in the trees and shrubs and bushes.  They'll head out of the wash  in the early morning to eat seeds on the rocky hillsides, retreating to the washes to loaf during the day, safe from the avian predators, their primary danger. Early afternoon, they'll once again brave the edges of the washes to finally go back to the safety of the trees and shrubbery for the night. All of this usually on their feet.  To fly is to die (from hawks, falcons, etc.), so they would much rather run/walk to and from the food.  That said- check for tracks.  It's the easiest way to see if there are birds in the area. I always welcome a rain or snowfall, because it will wipe out the old tracks leaving fresh ones.
Looking for quail tracks is a great way to find birds.

This time of year, it can be very cold in them morning.  It was 12 degrees one morning at the motel, and the Brits were toasty in their kennels with moving blankets over the top of them and in the insulated topper on the back of the Beast. During the day, it went up to the mid-60's, and felt like a day at the beach!  One day, near the end of my trip, a wind warning was published for winds of 25+ mph sustained with gusts up to 45 mph.  It turned out to be my best hunting day for desert birds all season! The birds don't like the real strong wind, I think because the aren't able to hear predators.  I found the low areas and draws held birds all day long.  When we trailed a covey out onto the hillsides, they would flush back towards the washes, or to another wash.  They just didn't like the blowing wind.  
Blue and me on the side of a dry wash.

In the picture above, you can see the straight stock on the my new 28 ga. I was bound and determined to hunt with it all season.  I almost made it. These fast flushing and flying desert birds laid it on me, and I never seemed to be able to catch up! Also, after one day knocking down 14 birds and only recovering 10 of them, I began to question my gauge, shot size, dram equivalent plan.  I finally switched to the old, reliable 20 ga. SKB double, shooting high brass #6's, switching from 7 1/2's.  A broken wing on these birds means many times they will run down a hole, or be totally out of the area by the time the dogs arrive.  It's a lot like pheasant hunting in that regard. I know guys that shoot a .410 out there.  For me, a 28 ga. will be as small a shot as I'll use, and I'm  leaning towards using my 20 ga. on these birds.  I don't see any requirement for a 16 or 12, other than your personal preference.
Male and Female Gamble's Quail

One thing I like about this land is the lack of dangers to our dogs. The cold weather keeps the snakes in the ground, and while there are porcupines,  they are relatively few. Hunting the near the end of the trip, I had my gentle giant on the ground, Shack. He was covering the hills around some water holes, in the heat, and doing a great job. His pager went off after he was out of sight for a few minutes. So, I climbed to the top of a hill and looked toward him. He was locked up and looking like a million bucks 125 yards from me, near a shrub along a fence line. I started moving to him, when I saw a black shape take off away from him. Then, I saw a huge black shape run out of that shrub in the opposite direction from the first shape.  Javelinas! I yelled to Shack, and, thankfully, he turned immediately and came trotting back. I was thankful he wasn’t the kind to go after the peccary!  They can mess up a dog. 

Blue and me resting during a warm afternoon.

 The bottom line, for me, is the sheer pleasure of hunting these wily, tough birds. A few days, I didn't put any in the bag.  One day, I never saw a bird! We explored and looked for new areas, and that did not always pan out.  Rather than hunt the same area over and over, we drove the dirt roads with our GPS App designating the public lands.  Many times, doing this, we will discover a real sweet spot, after many hours and many miles and many days of effort.  It's then I  realize why I drive 25 hours to walk through the desert looking for these worthy adversaries.