Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Best Kind Of Tired

A trip to Montana

Sunnie backing her mother
Two years ago we had one of our beloved k-9 hunting and couch companions get sick and pass away before her time. My wife Angie, and I were in desperate need of a good setter puppy and after a few phone calls and text messages I was hooked up with Tim Powell (Long Hollow Setters)and Later Don Olsen(Ashuelot Sunset Setters). Don owned a lovely female setter out of blood lines I liked and had bred to Tim's setter dog that was out of lines I also thought highly of. The best news was that the pups were already born. After convincing myself and my wife that this was the litter we put money down on a pup. I did not know what a great friend I would make in Don, or what a great little dog Sunnie would be at the time. In the time since Don and I have emailed back and forth, talked on the phone many times, and Angie and I have visited he and his wife once. I send him pictures of Sunnie's progress and he sends me pictures of his pup from that same litter. It has been fun for both of us to watch littermates grow up, and develop.
    I had never driven eight hours to hunt birds before. My hunts are mostly less than two hours from my door, but hunting is getting tougher and tougher in my world. It is especially tough for one of my favorite birds to target the ring neck pheasant. So this year when Don invited my wife and I to hunt pheasants with him at his home in Montana we happily loaded dogs in the truck and made the drive. We arrived in town in the early evening, made plans with Don to meet up in the morning, and tried desperately to get some sleep. I don't travel well. I almost never sleep the first night in a strange place. We woke up to big sky country like this.
     In the morning we were greeted at Don's house by the welcoming smile of his lovely wife Marian. Don was off running an errand of some kind, but returned just as we settled in with a cup of the hazel nut coffee that I remembered at first taste from the last time we visited Don and Marion. We had never hunted with Don before, but Angie and I were both excited to start the day. We were joined by Mick a long time friend of Don's and former collegiate football coach. We dressed and prepared to go for our first walk. I was excited to see Don's two setters work. Sadie was his oldest. She was our dog Sunnie's mother. He also had a litter mate of Sunnie's that they had named Skye. We had our dog Tic, and Sunnie with us as well. I was also excited for him to see our dogs in action, and I was really hopping they would look good for him.
Don walking in on his dog Sadie's point
Don is a fairly tall gentleman with a pleasant smile and even more pleasant disposition, and he was proud, and eager to share with us the Montana pheasant hunting that had loved all of his life. I couldn't help but noticed he was holding a shotgun that was as old as I am, and maybe a bit wiser in the way of birds. It was an old 20 gauge savage pump that was probably made around 1970(so was I). The bluing was warn off, and it had little blemishes of rust up and down the barrel. The finish on the stock was thin and even nonexistent in most places from years of following dogs in search of long-tails. There was a small crack in the stock where wood met metal just above the pistol grip, but it only added character to the old gun. The gun is nothing special in the world of firearms, but when paired with his hands it looked like a work of art to me. I asked him how it was choked, and with a smile he said that he wasn't sure he had just always shot it that way. I left it at that. By now I was feeling a little awkward about my beautiful shiny Browning over and under and it's now seemingly overkill 12 gauge bore, but I pulled it from its case anyway, we put dogs on the ground and we were off into Don's world.

   The grounds Don hunts on are not much different than the ones I grew up on. Lots of ditch banks
of heavy grass, some cattail bottoms, and a few grass pastures that have managed to avoid being grazed at least until this point in pheasant season. We saw quite a few birds that first day. The dog work was good but not great, and everyone had a good time. We were able to take plenty of roosters, and a couple of Huns between the four of us. Angie and I were happy. I think Don had a nice time too, but I could tell he was disappointed in the bird numbers. Compared to what I was used to there seemed to be plenty. I understood what he was feeling though. Whenever I invite someone to hunt with me I want to show them a great time with plenty of game, and that just doesn't always happen. To me bird hunting isn't about how many birds are taken. Its about dog work. Its about long walks pondering this simplest of things or the most complex of things while basking in the warmth of breathtaking landscapes, and watching a graceful dog glide over the grounds. Its about the people you meet and getting to know them in a place of common interest. I hope I was able to get my thoughts through to him on this. Angie and I were feeling happy and blessed just to be here, and to do this.
Tic standing point over a rooster pheasant
    On the second day we saw fewer birds. We had opted to rest the young dogs, in favor of the older more experienced dogs. Don's dog Sadie and my pal Tic put on a veteran dog show of class and beauty pointing and backing each other many times. On one occasion Sadie turned in to obvious scent in a hay field and followed it 150 yards out to slam a point. Angie walked to it only to have a nice covey of Hungarian partridge explode from the alfalfa. She was able to connect on one. It was fun for Don and I to watch from afar. I was proud of Tic's work too, he has grown to be a great little bird dog. Tic always gives me eye candy. He is five years old already.
Angie holding up a nice rooster
  The third and final hunting day of our trip was another fairly tough day. We walked a long way before we found both of Don's dogs standing point in some heavy, thick, green grass that was bordered by some tall trees on one side. As we walked in Sunnie honored and it was a classic scene. A hen exploded as we got close and flew to safety. One or two more steps later everything came to life as roosters, and hens went in every direction. We each did our best to take what we could, and everyone got at least one. That would be our only chance of the day for pheasants, and it turned out to be the most exciting moment of the trip.
    Don had other commitments later that day so we returned to the hotel with tired legs and minds in the early afternoon. Angie had some sore feet, and I sat in a chair thinking about the last three days. Then it occurred to me, “I'm in Montana. My 3 day license isn’t expired yet. What the heck am I doing sitting here?” I got on the laptop and quickly found a piece of block management land that was open to public hunting. Twenty-five minutes later I had dogs on the ground.

Sunnie and Tic

    It was so nice to be alone in my element. As I walked and watched the tired dogs keep hunting out of love for the game I felt that bond that I hope we all feel with our bird dogs. I like to think that they were feeling it too. I was proud of them and was really enjoying watching them when Sunnie froze into a point on the edge of a hay field. She was so beautiful standing there. Tic saw her and backed, and I just watched in admiration. After a long pause I walked in. A young rooster jumped and flew straight at a the only house in the area. It was okay that I couldn’t shoot. It didn't bother me in the least to let him go and released the dogs. With a smile on my face and a new spring in my step I followed the dogs for another two hours. We found a several coveys of Hungarian partridge and the dogs really did a nice job. We harvested enough for a nice meal, and went back to the truck finally leaving well enough alone.

   Sitting in the hotel room later that night with a full belly, and my feet up I was so relaxed and content. I was exhausted from travel and hunting, but it felt great. I decided that this feeling is the best kind of tired.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Early October.

I had a great time hunting over the last five days. I have watched five beautiful sunrises. I never see a sunrise in my everyday life. I am at work hours before the world wakes up. I hunted two days alone, one day with Angie one day with Thomas, and one day with Kyle. I enjoy hunting with friends as well as hunting alone. I only hunted one day for ducks. I will wait until the mosquitoes die and it isn't too hot to walk out to the places I like to hunt before I hunt them again. It is more fun when the ducks are pretty. Right now many of them are still in their ugly eclipse phase. The nice thing about waterfowl in Utah is that there are 107 days. there is plenty of time to get after them.
On our upland hunts Sunnie was consistent throughout. She makes a few rookie mistakes at times and still bumps more birds than I am happy with but she gets a little better each time out. She is solid with stop to flush and solid and beautiful on point. I am very proud of Angie's two year old. She is going to have a great season.
Tic started rough, and acted as though it was his first season. He was bumping birds it is like he couldn't smell anything. He is like that every year. True to form, he woke up the last two days and was spectacular. He had dead to rights points on multiple Chukar, Huns, and Sharptails. I must admit I was starting to lose faith. I am glad I stuck with him and gave him a bunch of one on one time. I was tempted to leave him in the crate for the other dog many times. I'm glad I did I'm excited for the rest of the season over my now five year old friend.
I is great to be back in my world for the first time this season, and I am grateful for the opportunities that are afforded to me. I am seeing many more birds than last season at this time. It is going to be a great year!

Sunday, October 5, 2014


       The First Time
Jan, 2014
     Aside from ducks quacking in the distance, my paddle dipping in the water was the only sound. The moon was so big it seemed like something out of a cartoon. I remember thinking, so this is what they mean by a harvest moon. It was all I had to light my way and it was plenty bright. I had left my light in the truck. I knew I would not need it. I knew I would not see anyone else. My young dog that I called Bo was my only companion. Like usual he was standing up with his front paws on the bow of my two seat canoe style kayak and was making sure I was taking us to the right place. The small boat cut the shallow water in silence. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was meant to be here, meant to see this, to feel this, to be this, and right now. I thought of my duck hunter grandfather that I was never able to share a blind with before he died. I wondered if he had ever experienced the emotion that I was feeling. I jumped out as my boat slid into the alkali bulrush on the edge of a pond somewhere in the middle of Harold S. Crane WMA., and went to work quickly setting my 80 or so decoys leaving a hole in the middle. I had read somewhere that this was the way to get them to set where you wanted them to. I had never seen anyone use a spread this big so I figured I was really outdoing everyone. Lol I set Bo in the weeds where he was well hidden, smeared mud on my face, and was content to sit and watch the world wake up around me. As expected we were the only ones in the marsh. I watched wave after wave of Mallards, Gadwal and Pintail get up and fly to the north. I had no idea why at the time. I wouldn’t figure all that out until much later. I tried calling a little but nothing would respond. I soon got frustrated and sat silent as they flew over out of gun range. At around 9:30 I hadn’t fired a shot, and with nothing flying I was tempted to leave. After waffling back and forth for a while I thought about how much work it would be to pick up and paddle out. I finally decided to make a day of it, and so we sat, and sat. At around 11:30 a single drake Mallard appeared from no where and was checking us out. Trying to stay as still as possible I gave a timid faint quack on my duck call. To my surprise he changed direction.. I could feel the excitement fill my body and had to concentrate to try and calm myself. He flew past us and I gave a faint 'quack quack quack quack' greeting thing that I had practiced on my Lohman Bill Harper Pro-Model duck call until ill. I couldn’t believe he bought it, banked right into the hole I had left in the middle of my spread. In excitement I stood up too early and fired both barrels of my O/U somewhere in his general direction only managing to scare him away. I yelled something at the top of my lungs, then sat down feeling ill. I had not even thought of what I would do if it had worked. Lol. That was the first duck I had ever called in, and I had missed him, choked and blew it. Fortunately, my shame and anguish would be short lived. I would kill my four (4) duck limit that day with ducks I had beat with the call. A hen and two (2) drake Mallards and one (1) Gadwal if memory serves. Life has never been the same. I was hooked on working ducks with the call. That has been the only way I have wanted to hunt ducks since.
Me in 1993 Sadly, I don't have any photos of the actual hunt

    In another time it was a different game altogether. I didn’t know what the term pro-staff meant, some still don’t. I had no clue about mud motors, air boats, motion decoys, spinners or even all the camo patterns we have today. I’m not sure they were even invented at that time. I was just learning to decoy ducks and had been working my tail off to learn how to call a little bit. I had no real teacher,I didn’t know anyone that could call, but I guess a cassette tape was a decent surrogate. There was no internet, I think I had seen a computer or two but couldn’t even imagine that one could be of any use whatsoever. I had been brought up with the philosophy that duck calls were only good for scaring ducks. I believed this until I watched a guy work birds into gun range on a “blue bird” day the year before. We were also of the theory that very few ducks were killed on “blue bird” days at that time. Lol. That man, who I have never met and who doesn’t know me lit a flame in me that would grow into the raging fire of obsession. He changed my world.

I often find myself longing for that simpler time.


My Hell Hole
Aug, 2014

    I'm not much of a traveler, but out of necessity I find myself doing it more and more. It is usually about going to a calling contest or something like that, but I often get home sick and find myself thinking of places I would rather be. I recently found myself at Niagara Falls in upstate New York. I was sent to Rochester for work, but had a chance to ride over to the falls for an evening. I rode on that little boat that travels out in front of the thing and did the whole tourist deal. I was completely blown away by the power of the energy in the form of wind and mist that comes off of that thing. Nature is amazing no matter where you are. Still I long for home, and the world that I love so much. I guess birds of a feather do flock together because I met a very friendly local grouse hunter. We visited only briefly but were able to exchanged a few stories and talk about bird dogs a bit before we went our separate ways. It was really nice to talk with him, but it made me long for mid September and a very special canyon in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah.

Tom sitting at around mid elevation in the hole.
    It is a place my wife, and friends have affectionately called hell canyon because they feel its evil. Many go with me once but few go a second time. It is only minutes from a major city, and has been a treasure of a hunting spot for many years. My dad first took me there deer hunting when I was a boy, and it is exactly the same today as it was back then. In my life time I have watched most everything change. They call it development, but to me it is simply the loss of another playground. I see houses and roads and stores taking over what was once farm land. Nearly all the places I hunted as a boy are gone to “development”. It can be very depressing, and it seems to happen everywhere. That steep evil little canyon up there is the same as it ever was. Though physically challenging it is my favorite place to hunt forest grouse. They might not be the grouse of lore from the east, but they are the grouse I grew up loving. Usually the bag there consists of both blues, and Ruffed grouse. I have countless memories of dogs and friends in that canyon, but today one is really on my mind.
   was in Tic's yearling season. I had worked very hard to give my young friend every opportunity to find birds on his own. I left the older dogs home often to allow him to really learn and took him out at least twice a week on his own that first season. It was late September or maybe even early October when I started Tic down into that steep canyon for the first time. A fresh skiff of snow was on the ground and I knew from experience that this was good for our chances, but not my footing. The already melting snow made the whole canyon glisten in the morning sunshine. It has the most beautiful stand of deep dark pines on one side and short heavy brush on the other. The bottom of the canyon has a tiny spring running down it and the cover around the water is impenetrable. There are also Aspens, elderberries, some kind of red-orange berry that is common in the Utah mountains, and all types of leaves and buds that often turn up in the craws of a grouse. There is so much habitat that on the best days one finds birds many and often all the way through it from top to bottom. For one reason or another it is a place they congregate when the weather starts to turn. It is so steep that the blue grouse found up high in it only have to flap a few times before diving down the canyon and out of site. It is among the best places to be period.
    It is always interesting to watch a young dog learn about new cover and terrain. He had not seen terrain this steep or brush like this before, and I wondered how he would handle it. He struggled at first but adapted quick and was covering ground well in no time. His first bird encounters of the morning were not the best. He crowded a small group of blues near the top and then another group several hundred yards down from there. It is hard to not pull the trigger and harvest a bird or two like that, but I feel strongly that it is best to shoot only pointed birds for a young dog so I gritted my teeth and watched them fly away down the canyon like they were dropping off of the flat earth. I smiled as I watched Tic all excited and hopped up on bird scent. I found him very entertaining racing all over the place being young full of foolishness, energy, and enthusiasm. I waited for him to settle down a bit after the second birds jumped, and then started back down the canyon. We worked our way down to the upper edge of those dark pines. They have some nice thick brush on the uphill side of them that often holds both blue and ruffs. Tic was hunting that stuff when I stepped around a large pine and saw the tip of his tail still and high in the thick stuff. I was so excited to see my young dog standing like that. I got to where I could see him a little better and stopped to admire his beauty for a few moments. When a took another step birds went everywhere, and I was able to connect on one. It tumbled down the hill as I yelled “fetch Tic fetch” just like we practiced in the yard he brought the ruffed grouse up the hill to my hand. I made a huge deal out of it. We rolled around on the ground while I scratched his ears, roughed him up a bit and told him “good boy!” over and over. I remember
Young Tic on this hunt.
how happy and excited he was that he had pleased me that much. I ended up shooting three birds that day. One ruffed and two blue grouse all pointed by Tic that morning. He had several other bird producing points that I couldn’t get shots at. That was the first time he really looked like he knew what he was doing. I remember thinking Hmm he might just make a bird dog after all.


It's Good Just To Get Out
JAN, 2013
As a young hunter I remember being confused listening older hunters talking about hunts they had considered successful. Often they didn’t shoot much and I sort of figured when they said things like, “It was good just to get out”, or “you don’t need to shoot a bunch of birds to have a good time” that was just an excuse for being bad at hunting. This crazy notion that you didn't need to shoot birds just didn’t make much sense to me because after all we are there in the pursuit of birds. The ultimate goal is of course to harvest some for the table, and harvesting those birds is what makes the hunt fun and offers the reward of satisfaction. So in bird hunting shooting a bunch of birds is the very definition of success. Right?
Thirty years later I am one of three friends sitting on the banks of an Idaho stream in mid January. Blissfully unplugged, unchained, and out of cell service for a time lapse series that will become the last day of duck season 2014.
The bitter temps at or near zero kept our toes and noses cold in the early hours. The only thing that resembled movement was each of us taking turns periodically to go on short walks to warm up a little. There was no action. It was a little boring and cold. Not many words were spoken, but even in such conditions each of us seamed content with the situation. Experience had taught us that often good things would happen if we waited patiently and put in our time.
When the sun finally peaked down into the canyon our spirits were lifted with it's warmth on our faces, and the Goldeneye that had started to whistle by from time to time. A few made the mistake of trying to make friends with our fakes, and though I chose not to shoot, it was fun watching the the other guys harvest a few.
After lunch a bald eagle soared down the the canyon gliding close over the top of our hide with the brilliant back drop that only Idaho can provide. The very symbol of our country, it made me think of how lucky I really am to have been born here. To be able to sit with two friends in the sunshine under a blue sky just doing what we love. It is a great thing.
A flock of rarely seen Trumpeter swans flew by. We marveled at their beauty and song.
We had many hours of pleasant conversation talking philosophy on everything from food and hunting to family and life in general. I think all hunters become philosophers after a time.
Late in the day a few mallards started moving. It was exciting to think we would finally get some action. When the ducks flared we noticed what we thought were two hunters walking toward us. As they got closer we could see they had no guns. We took pause as we realize one of them had a fishing rod, and appeared to be a pretty girl. You just don’t see that every day in a duck blind. She worked her way up stream as her boyfriend crossed to the other side. It became obvious he was working a trap line. She was so sneaky getting close enough to pull out her phone and take pictures of the birds sitting on the water. They did not frighten or fly away from her. She took several wonderful shots of our decoys. We got a really good laugh at her expense when we casually stood up and said hello. She was so embarrassed. She could do nothing but laugh with us. We were entertained enough that it wasn’t a big deal that there were for the first time all day mallards in the air and we could do nothing about it. I don’t think she really knew what to do so she just stood there twenty yards outside our spread for what to us seamed like the longest time. After a while the boyfriend crossed back over and they wandered off the direction they came from.
At sunset it was getting cold fast so we picked up and got back to the truck as quickly as possible. The young couple we had seen earlier stopped by as we were loading to apologized for messing up our hunt. We had another good laugh about it all. She was really a good sport about the whole thing.

We were getting really hungry so we got back in the truck and headed in to town for some dinner. Entering the restaurant a young man who had noticed how we were dressed said “Did you have a good hunt?”. I didn't know what to say. As my friend answered I laughed to myself thinking I guess it really was good just to get out.