Saturday, December 28, 2019

Late Season Utah Huns

I cringed with each step as it broke through the crusted snow. The quieter I tried to be, the louder the crunch. "I will never get close enough to shoot, and she has been on point for a very long time." I thought. I paused and looked down at my GPS to see that I still had 40 yards between Sunnie and I. Soon I came to a southern exposure that was dotted with lava rock. The black rocks were bare, and I was able to hop from rock to rock in relative silence for the last 30 yards, but Sunnie looked unsure when I got there. I wondered if the birds had already flushed. I released her with a tap. She took seven or eight steps and locked up again. Now my heart raced, and I quickly returned to rock hopping. I passed her with the anticipation killing me. I took one more hop, and while in mid-air, the ground erupted with the familiar chirps along with the thunder of many wings in unison. I tried to set my feet quickly but rushed my first shot missing completely. My second barrel caught up to them, and one of the trailing birds fell victim to the edge of my pattern. It hit the ground running toward cover while my usually reliable setter chased the covey. Huns have always had a way to push her crazy button. She returned shortly, and at hearing the dead bird command made short work of running down and retrieving my cripple to hand.

A brisk wind stiffened my smile as I admired the bird in my hand. I was pleased on so many levels. A
week before, Sunnie had slipped on an icy mountain face and slid 30 feet down and came up lame. I worried that she might have re-injured the CCL that she partially tore a year ago. Fortunately, she improved to the point that I wanted to test her. Watching her chase that covey put my mind at ease. This hunt was along shot at best. Earlier that morning, deep snow prevented me from getting within 10 miles of the area that I wanted to hunt. So as a last resort, I called a landowner and got permission to hunt a spot I hadn't walked in a long time. It was where I shot my very first hun at 16 years old. This bird was a descendant of the coveys that I chased when my hair was long, and my boots were without Gortex. The birds fell on hard times twenty years ago, and after several years of bird-less walks, I finally gave up hunting there.

I put the bird in my game bag and started crunching my way in the direction the covey flew. I was happy with one bird, but there were at least 20 birds in the covey. Certainly, taking another bird or two for dinner would be okay if I could find them again. It wasn't long before Sunnie found them again. I relocated Sunnie several times, but this time they played it differently. They spread out and ran across the hard surface and flushed one or two at a time just out of range. Most of them left the property. I stood giggling like a fool for having just been worked by a group of small birds when a straggler flushed at my feet. I released a load of 7.5s from my bottom barrel that produced a puff of
feathers and Sunnie was quickly on the retrieve.

Two birds in this nostalgic place? I was delighted. Memories of old dogs and friends raced through my mind as I made my way back toward the truck. I was so lost in thought that I was startled when my point alarm went off again. "No Way!" I thought. My Handheld said that my girl was on point at two hundred and sixty yards. I was so excited that I covered the first two hundred like I was on horseback, but as I got closer, the crunch of my steps caught my attention again. This time there weren't as many rocks but I closed the final distance as quietly as I could. Sunnie stood confident and motionless like I have seen her so many times. She still had blood on her face from the last retrieve. I
walked passed her with the respect that she has earned. I put one foot down and then another, each one more unnerving than the last until finally, another big covey exploded from the cover. This time I was not frazzled by their timing, and each barrel killed a bird clean. "Fetch!" I yelled while I fumbled with shells. Just as I got one in the bottom barrel, up came the straggler. I closed my gun and brought it to my shoulder in one motion. The gun followed my eyes to the bird, swung past it, and with a pop, the final bird of my Utah limit fell to the snow.

Such a beautiful day in a special place.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Dad's Superposed Hunts Again

Several years ago, my dad passed his 1953 Browning Superposed on to me. Unfortunately, the gun was really well used. The stock was broken at the wrist, and there was a chip missing from behind the trigger guard.  The worst part is that it had a small bulge in the bottom barrel near the choke. Some of my friends urged me to leave the gun as it was, and though I strongly considered this, I wanted to put the old Classic to use. I didn't want it to sit broken in the back of the safe, never to be seen again. First, I had to make sure it was safe to shoot. I sent it to a shop in AZ. The guy there put on a secondhand stock and repaired the bulge. When I got it back, I shot clay and hunted sharptail and chukar with it a couple times. On one occasion, shooting clay, a friend pointed out that the action really should be rebuilt.

The gun isn't worth much money, only had sentimental value, so I was in turmoil about what to do. I even considered buying a used Superposed in excellent shape just like it. However, it just wouldn't be the same. I decided to suck it up and send it to the Browning service center to have the action rebuilt whatever the cost. Well, long story short, Browning completely restored it. Dad's old gun came back beautiful beyond belief. It is as good if not better than new.

Some guys would put it in the safe as a keepsake. I strongly feel that this gun, dad's gun, is meant to hunt roosters, so hunt roosters it will.
The same gun completely restored

I had been waiting for a trip to Montana that I had planned to break out Dad's old Superposed and hunt pheasants with it. When circumstances caused my trip to be canceled, I decided to take the gun out pheasant hunting here in Utah. After all, that is what dad did. He hunted Utah pheasants with it for most of his life.

The sound of the truck tires rolling on the gravel road surprised a young rooster that flushed as I pulled up to the property that I had planned to hunt. The bird flew across a plowed field and landed in a ditch bank several hundred yards away as I parked the truck. I strapped GPS collars on Sunnie and Snaps before carefully pulling dad's old gun from the case with gloved hands. I closed the door and cautiously opened the action of the new old shotgun. It was almost intimating to have it in my hands. I was afraid I might scratch it. I remembered that the great John Mosses Browning designed it to use, so I slipped two Browning BXD #5s in the chambers and reverently closed the gun. I heard a quiet angelic ring when the gun locked.

Sunnie and Snaps went right to work in the ditch that the rooster had landed in. The ditch had cottonwood trees and thick tall undergrowth along the length of it. The foliage that had been fed all year by well-timed rains and water from the ditch had grown so tall that I couldn't see over it. This was going to be a problem if a bird flushed out the other side. In most places, I wouldn't be able to see to shoot. The dogs showed no concern about this. They worked the tall cover methodically, and I was pleased to watch my young dog work so well with the accomplished, Sunnie.

Before long, I noticed that Sunnie looked birdy, and then suddenly, Snaps did too. However, before they could figure the old rooster out, he flushed out of range. He cackled, and I saw him only for an instant before he ducked behind the thick trees to disappear forever. I assumed this was the bird that I had seen earlier. "Well, he was no fool," I thought as we continued.

Hunting pheasants in Utah is tough, and I knew that bird might very well be the only rooster we would see. With this in my mind, I pushed on. Only a minute or two went by before the alarm on my GPS went off, indicating that Sunnie was on point across the ditch. I found a place to cross, but before I saw her, a single hen rocketed from the cover from where the GPS said she was standing. I didn't have time to think before my point alarm went off again. This time it was Snaps who had made his way 93 yards down the ditch to find point while I was distracted. I followed the My Tek 2.0 handheld toward Snaps.

Sunnie arrived before I did. Though I couldn't see her in the dense cover, the GPS indicated she was on point. I was sure she was backing as I made my way through the thick brush, trying to get a visual. I wondered how I ever found a dog on point before I had a tracking collar. I saw Sunnie first, but she appeared to be pointing. I moved quietly to my right toward her, Dad's old gun ready in my hands. My mind was full of anticipation and worry. I was wearing leather gloves, and for some reason, this concerned me more than the thick weeds and brush that I couldn't see out of. I seldom wear gloves and never leather gloves, so I was unsure how the trigger would feel. I took another step while adjusting my grip on the gun. Startled, my heart skipped a beat as a Rooster erupted from the cover just inches from my left boot. I only saw it once as it raced through the thick stuff. Instinctively my experience hunting grouse kicked in, and I threw a reflex shot at the bird. At the report of the gun, Snaps jumped. That was the bird he had been pointing. All hell broke loose as I could hear birds flushing and cackling all around me. It was so frustrating because I couldn't see a single one.

I shook my head, "This is why people use flushing dogs for pheasants. If I had been standing outside of the cover, I might have had a chance." Just then, it occurred to me that I had shot and wasn't sure if I hit the bird or not. I yelled, "Dead bird, Fetch!" as I worked my way out of the cover.

I tried to imagine where this bird might have fallen if, by some far fetched chance, my shot had connected. There was so much going against me. I was not comfortable with dad's gun. It is heavier than my other guns and is choked too tight for that kind of shooting. The light of hope faded with each passing moment, and I fully expected the dogs to find nothing. Then I saw the brush stop shaking wear Sunnie had been searching. Could it be? I took a chance that it was my fallen bird.

"Dead Bird, Fetch!" I yelled again. The undergrowth again started shaking, and the rustling weeds were now moving slowly toward me. The foliage parted as Sunnie broke through packing the rooster. "Good Girl! Good Girl, Sunnie!" I said with excitement.

I thought about how many times that has happened to me hunting ruffed grouse. You snap a shot at an escaping bird, and you aren't even sure if you hit it until the dog completes a search. Excitement raced through me as she brought the bird across the ditch and gently set it in my hand. I scratched her head while I praised her, and Snaps came rushing in to join the celebration of teamwork.

As I stood up and placed the bird in my pouch, memories flashed through my mind of my dad shooting pheasants with this gun. I could remember one of his shorthairs pointing a rooster on a ditch-bank much like this one. I could also remember the time he missed. I thought he never missed. I thought about what the gun looked like resting over his shoulder, and the small central Utah towns that we used to visit every fall.

I sent the dogs hunting, and we were off again. All I could think about was all those birds that I couldn't see. That must have been every bird in the area. You just don't find late-season birds in those numbers here that often. I tried to think about the direction they might have flown in and where they might have gone. Over the next several hours, we checked every area I could think of without even raising a hen. This was more normal.

It was getting warm. I took off my long-sleeved shirt and put it in my game bag. I watered the dogs and sat on the hill, considering where to walk next. My hands were sweaty inside the leather gloves, and I was tempted to take them off. I had promised myself I would not get the oils from my hands on this gun, and so I didn't harbor the thought for long. Instead, I stood up and sent the dogs off hunting.

There was one more place I thought of. It was a small isolated cattail slough at the edge of a valley that was just below the hill I was on. It had produced birds for me before, and it was on the way back. I had not dropped off the mountain yet when the dogs arrived at the slough. Sunnie locked up on point immediately. I hurried off the steep slope to get there as fast as I could. Snaps looked birdy too. He had not seen Sunnie yet. When I arrived, she started to look unsure. I didn't stomp around for long before releasing her. Both her and Snaps were dead set that there was a bird there someplace and their excitement escalated. The two dogs worked the scent intelligently and then simultaneously pointed.

"That poor bird is in trouble," I thought. I took two steps, and a very young late-hatch rooster flushed from the point and quartered off to my left. Time stopped as I tracked the young bird with the old Browning. The gun was natural through the swing, and when I pulled the trigger, the young bird crashed to the ground dead. I opened the action releasing the spent shell and aroma of burned powder. I don't remember yelling fetch, but Snaps returned to me with the young bird. I had reached my daily limit of Utah pheasants with dad's old gun. I felt proud of my dogs as I started back fulfilled.

It had been quite a journey to this point, but the gun was in its natural state as a bird gun again. I enjoyed it very much, and I can't wait to take it for a walk again.

See below for a few more pictures of the gun.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

For The New Bird Hunter/Bird-Dogger

Bringing up a young pointing dog that is expected to grow into a wild bird dog can be challenging. The first and most important ingredient is a supply of wild birds. Unless you live in the middle of one of this worlds remaining wild bird paradises, this is going to be a problem. If you have spent your life hunting game birds you might be fortunate to know of a few spots that are within driving distance of your house that can be of use to get that young dog into the necessary wild birds.

What if this is your first dog and you are just starting out in the wonderful world of upland bird hunting? You likely lack the necessary knowledge to find good wild-bird locations as well as the understanding of dog training that will be required. You knew the dog was an essential part of upland bird hunting, so you bought a young pup. Maybe you had a young dog, and the bird hunting was an afterthought. Or if you are lucky, you have had a mentor that got you interested and will share his or her knowledge to help get you going. Even if you are that fortunate, you have still have the cards stacked against you as a first-time bird dog owner and rookie hunter.

I was fortunate to have been introduced to many beautiful and wild places as a boy by my father and stepfather. Having lived in the same area my entire life I've been able to learn those areas and like others continually explore new spots piling up a mental database of areas that hold wild birds of different types. These areas have become crucial for the development of every young dog I have brought up since I was a teenager. I hope I can give you some ideas on how to get your young dog into birds and maybe find a great hunting area or two in the process. The best thing I can tell about wild birds, in general, is spend some time, don’t be afraid to drive, and don’t be hesitant to go for a walk. Look for birds when you drive always.  When you walk, look for sign. Droppings are a sure sign there are or have been birds in the area. The morning after a fresh snow is an excellent time for exploring. You can see tracks, sometimes even while driving down a two-track dirt road, and maybe just maybe you can even track your young pup into a bird contact. Once you do find birds remember everything you can about the situation. And try to answer as many questions as you can. Finding consistent bird areas is the goal. This is going to take time, but once you have a few go-to places, everything else will be easier for bringing up the pup.

7-month-old Sunnie, pointing wild chukar on the knoll
One of these go-to places that have helped me bring up dogs for as long as I can remember is a little knoll of public property that is stuck right in the middle of miles and miles of private land. It is about an hour drive from my house. When I was 12 years old, I was with my brother, my Stepdad, and his brother Chad, we stopped there to hunt rabbits on the way to their family's farm. I don’t think they had any idea there were birds there, I certainly didn’t. When I was first old enough to drive, I had a young shorthair pup, and I went there to have a place go for a walk and run her. That is when I discovered there were chukars on that little knoll that no one associates
1-year-old Tic pointing chukar on the Knoll
with chukar habitat. As I matured and gained a better understanding of how to be successful in bird hunting, I learned the importance of the wheres, whens, whats, and whys. There are many questions that aren’t always easily answered like, what are the birds eating? Where are they getting water? What are they doing here? Why are there birds in an area sometimes but not others? The answer to the last question for this particular little knoll is what made me understand it. It is a wintering area. It is the best chukar habitat containing a south-facing slope in the area. So naturally, some birds from a nearby mountain range congregate there after snow falls and the south-facing slopes burn off. Gaining this knowledge has meant I have a consistent place to take a puppy in the winter time, where I know there are birds, and I know within close proximity where they will be every time. It is invaluable knowledge.
Year old Tic getting some mentoring from
Jimmy and Molly on the Knoll

I've never seen another footprint on the knoll, and the birds like to stay on the hill so I can follow them around with the pup getting lots of reps. It's a big advantage to be able to let the young dog make mistakes and learn from them in this environment. If I am careful not to overpressure and the weather is permitting, I can take a puppy back all through the winter giving pup that crucial exposure. Over the years Bo, Jimmy, Molly, Tic, Sunnie and now Snaps have all gotten a great start here. This is a place I can shoot birds for the dogs during hunting season, but I have to be careful to manage my covey. There is only one. If there are 30 birds in the covey, I can shoot 5 only so many times before the covey numbers get low enough that I have to stop. Some years there are only 15. Maybe I just shoot one or two sometimes when the pup shows exceptional work on them. It not necessary to kill every bird the pup points for him. The finding and pointing is the work I am interested in. These places are rare but if you look, ask yourself a lot of questions when you do find birds, and can come up with answers you just might find such a place. This has been a gem of a spot. It all started when I found birds there because I went for a walk.

I think it is necessary to shoot some birds for the pup.  However, I believe the repetitions finding and pointing birds are the most important. Most of us live in the suburbs. Here in Utah and I would expect many other places as well. On the edges of town, there are industrial parks and undeveloped land that is just sitting full of weeds and overgrowth that we call bird habitat. These areas are in city limits, and it would be illegal to shoot there. There is nothing wrong with running a dog as long as the situation is safe for that. Some places might require permission from the landowner to do so, but in my experience, it's easier to get permission to train a dog on land than hunt there. If you ask respectfully and let it be known you are training a young dog that will be under control, I think you may be surprised. This gives you a place to put the dog on wild nonpressured birds out of nesting season often times close to home. It is a very inexpensive approach and one I have used all my life to get a young dog on wild birds. Here in Utah, it is most often Pheasant and California(valley) quail that live in these areas on the edge of town or on remaining isolated habitat in the city. Once you have had enough reps on wild, you can always go out of town and shoot a few pen-raised birds to keep the pup going in the right direction.
Snaps carries a pen raised chukar

So what if you are failing entirely on the wild bird approach and need another answer? Liberated birds are the next best thing. By liberated, I mean pen raised birds that have been out for a while. A recall pen or Johnny house is an excellent tool for this. However, most of us don’t have a situation where we can have a recall pen sitting on 30 acres of ground that would give us access to liberated quail. So we have to find other ways. One approach that I have had success with is by developing a relationship with someone that runs a bird club. These put and take facilities release a bunch of birds over the course of a season, many of which get away from the party hunting them. These birds often end up on the fringes of the property and can offer a dog trainer opportunity. The trick is to get that opportunity opened up to you. You might have to buy a few birds or pay for property access. See if you can make a deal to run the dog without shooting anything for a few bucks without interfering with business. I am not a fan of hunting a young dog on set birds right out of the pen at these places. A guy has minimal control in this situation, and a pup that decides to break and catch a bird finds his behavior instantly and positively reinforced by the bird in its mouth. This can cause you a ton of work later when the dog no longer wants to point. If this is your first dog, it's work you don’t yet know how to do. If you must use set game birds buy them and set them yourself so you know where the bird is and can set up a situation where you have more control with a lead a barrier or something. Having the ability to give your pup exposure on these escapees can be a wonderful resource if you can make it happen. Don't give up if you fail at the first club. It may take some work to make it happen.

This brings us to pen raised birds. Why don’t we just bring our future wild-bird dog up on set pen raised birds? Well, many folks do, and pen raised birds are better than no birds at all. Dogs that have been brought up this way often struggle when asked to hunt wild birds for several reasons and that is our a goal, a serviceable wild-bird dog. Pen-raised birds allow a dog to pressure. So as the pup tests his limitations, he learns he can get very close. I’ve seen dogs put their nose right on the bird when they point. Most species if not all wild birds will not stand for this and will be gone the second the dog gets too close so when a dog learns on wild-birds, his limitations are kept in check.  Pen-reared birds are expensive they are either shot, caught, or fly away usually after one or two uses. They are a costly way to get a pup reps and offer more opportunity for a puppy to start down a wrong path than do wild birds. I don’t in any way think they are useless. I use pen raised birds a lot. And I use them to enhance the training that my pup has basically given itself from wild birds. I also use homing pigeons for certain things along the way. Wild birds are still the single most important tool in raising a wild bird dog. Many well-bred dogs become very serviceable bird dogs with nothing more than exposure to wild birds.
Tic mentoring young Sunnie at the knoll Ducks and Chuks

Now and then there are huns on the knoll

Young Tic and Moll

Jimmy and Young Molly at the knoll. Ducks and chuks!