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Missouri Early Teal

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After work on Friday, Charles and I headed down to our friend Bill’s spot in Northwest Missouri to try our first shot at early teal.  Although the reports were not good and the weather hadn’t really cooled down enough to move the big flocks, we figured it was worth a shot even as a scouting run for snow goose later in the season.  All of the land surrounding Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge is privately held, so you either have to know someone who owns land, connect with a guide who leases land or belong to a duck club in order to hunt this area near Mound City, MO.  We pulled into town around 7:30 and met up with Bill, who gave us some background information about the area.  The most interesting thing for me was learning about the duck club culture, which is very similar to how a golf country club operates: a large (like $50k) startup membership fee, then a couple grand a year for dues.  Many famous coaches and athletes are a part of the clubs that show up mostly for the bigger duck season and snow goose.  Early teal is a slower season for the area, as there are just not that many folks coming in for a one-species hunt.

The cabin we rented was about 7 miles southwest of Mound City and only a couple of hundred yards from the 10 acre marsh and pond that we would be hunting.  As we pulled into the driveway on Friday night, an opossum crossed in front of our vehicle.  We knew it wouldn’t be long for the dogs to find it, but hoped that it would move on quickly so we wouldn’t have to deal with a dead critter.  So much for that, because it wasn’t 15 minutes later that Sam showed up with it dead in his mouth.  One less nest raider prowling in the night and good fur hunting practice for them.

BB on left and Sam with the opossum

BB on left and Sam with the opossum

Saturday morning, Bill, his son Cole, his friend Frank and Frank’s 14 year-old son Luke came out to the cabin and we all trudged out through the dense fog to the pond prior to shooting hours.  Although we were 20 minutes before shooting hours started, we might have had a better chance had we gotten there earlier, as a flock circled our head a couple of times as we walked in.  Bill went out into the decoys to turn on the mojos about 10 minutes prior to shooting time and a flock of 15 landed right behind him, then swam in front of him, getting spooked up when he returned to shore.  Luke and Frank sat to the left of me at the top of the pit blind and Charles sat to the right, with Sam and BB on a lead.  Bill and Cole sat behind us without guns.  A pair of the teal came back and landed on Luke’s side, so right when shooting hours opened, his dad had him flush the ducks off of the water and took his shots.  One of ducks clearly landed in front of us in the pond, the other appeared to fly off.

Fog in the bog

Fog in the bog

A flock of about 15 came in not long after and Bill called on us to shoot as they were about 4 feet from landing on the water.  This was my first time on a pit blind hunt over decoys, so I was glad that he told us when to shoot because I didn’t know whether to let them land, then flush them up or shoot them on the way down.  I squarely hit one of the ducks and fired a second shot into the flock.  Luke and Frank also took shots, but Charles really didn’t have any clear shots at that point, so he abstained from firing.  BB and Sam brought back the 2 ducks that we could see clearly in the water in front of us.  We continued to sit, but as the sun rose and the distant shooting at the clubs to the north held steady for awhile, but then began to fade around 9 AM.  We let the dogs loose to see if they could find anymore ducks and BB pointed one dead in the millet, then retrieved it.  So that brought Frank and Luke’s total to 3 and I had 1.  About 9:30 AM Luke and Frank decided to head back to Kansas City, while Charles and I were ready to try our hand at hunting the sora rails that we saw flitting around the swamp.

Luke, Frank, Charles and I with our teal

Luke, Frank, Charles and I with our teal

Charles and I weren’t quite sure how to approach the swamp and the sora rails at first.  We walked around the edge of the swamp on the levee hoping that BB would wade out into the swamp looking for them.  But she had never hunted sora before.  We did get lucky and Charles shot one of the edge of the swamp, but BB really wasn’t quite sure what she was looking for, so I waded out into the swamp to guide her.  At that point, we just decided to wade around the mid-calf deep water between the millet strips and see what would happen.  About 2 hours later, BB had become the sora master, both pointing and retrieving the tiny birds, about the size of a skinny robin.  BB also found an additional teal that had been taken in the flock salvo in the morning, so since I was the only one who had shot at the teal out of the two of us, it went on my tag.  Charles bagged 6 sora rails and I shot my first ever that afternoon.  I think the first bird of a particular kind is always super exciting, so I had my first teal from the early season and my first sora in the same morning.  We really had a blast on the sora hunt, as we had never waded through a swamp to hunt before.

Charles out walking the swamp for sora rails

Charles out walking the swamp for sora rails

Close-up of the sora rail harvest

Close-up of the sora rail harvest

Charles, BB and I with the harvest

Charles, BB and I with the harvest

Bill was really disappointed that we didn’t have the teal numbers to take limits both days.  I think that is sort of the standard in that part of the world when it comes to waterfowl.  He told the story of the record 1100 snow goose harvest by one hunting party in the conservation season (when there are no limits).  That seems a bit wanton to us.  We’ve been hunting long enough in various places to know that you don’t always know what you’re going to get, if anything.  That’s why it is called hunting and not just killing.  So we sat again Saturday night and saw one flock fly high over our heads, and again on Sunday morning, when we saw nothing.  There wasn’t even much shooting coming out of the duck clubs Sunday morning, as the night had been warm and the morning was sunny.  The ducks were sitting over on the refuge and had no reason to move.

We are excited to have made a connection down in Northwest Missouri and we look forward to returning for big ducks and snow geese!

Pupdate

TracHer had a great time at summer hunting dog camp in Wisconsin!  She is around a year and a half old and is from Sam and Mae’s “C” litter 2012,  TracHer is back home in North Dakota now and getting ready for hunting season!

TracHer working out in front of her trainer

TracHer working out in front of her trainer

TracHer holding steady after the flush

TracHer holding steady after the flush

Bringing back the big retrieve.

Bringing back the big retrieve.

Doing great on her water work too!

Doing great on her water work too!

Thank you Susan for sharing the terrific photos!!

We have opening of Nebraska High Plains ducks the weekend after next, then a couple of weeks later Charles will be guiding some old friends from New York on ducks and pheasants up in North Dakota.  BB’s breeders, Renee Fortier and Gilbert Tremblay, are coming all the way from Quebec to Lincoln for German Wirehaired Pointer nationals next week, so I will head down and visit them on Thursday.  Somewhere in between high plains duck and the North Dakota trip is BB’s second shot at the UT test.  At the end of October, the same day Charles returns from North Dakota, I leave for AWPGA nationals in Colorado.  So we’ve got lots of dog excitement coming up and I’ll sure to keep you posted.  Best of luck in the field to all of my fellow hunters out there!!

Sharptailed Grouse Hunting Opener and Other News

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Reservations and Breeding Plans

At this point, I have taken 10 reservations with deposits for my Spring 2014 litters and continue to get interest daily.  Even though I am planning three litters (from Mae, BB and Velma), I won’t even start breeding for another three months or so (which puts whelping 5+ months away and homegoing 7+ months away).  I just want everyone to know that I am a bit hesitant about taking additional reservations right now.  If everything goes as planned, I could have 12-20 puppies in 2014, but I just don’t know right now.  Feel free to call (402) 682-9802 or e-mail bluestemkennels@cox.net if you have any questions.

Sharptailed Grouse and Dove Opening Day: September 1, 2013

Charles had a great opening day of grouse in the Nebraska Sandhills on Sunday, September 1st.  We set out into the northern dunefield of our usual opening day spot.  Our “usual opening day spot” consists of two east-west running dunefields with about a mile wide valley in the middle.  I let Charles, Sam and BB head deep into the dunes, while I waited behind at the truck with Mae.  Once they were out of sight, I set off eastward into the rising sun.  I was probably 100-300 yards south of Charles and clearly heard one shot about 15 minutes into our walk.  I had a single bird get up to my left about 5 minutes later, but I missed the shot, which was the only one I had on a grouse all weekend.  Not long after I heard another single shot.  Charles and I met up at the eastern fenceline of the section about 45 minutes after we had started and talked about what we had seen.  He had seen a few large flocks of grouse and had 2 in the bag, so we headed up into the northeastern corner of the section to make sure that we had covered everything, then turned back around to go west towards the truck.  Once again, Charles was to the north of me in the higher dunes and I was working the southern edge.  Sure enough, not 5 minutes after we parted ways, I heard another single shot.  I went over to him and he had his limit of 3.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffons Hunt Sharptailed Grouse

Sam, Charles and BB with their limit of sharptailed grouse on opening day 2013

We worked for another hour walking westward where he had seen the larger groups, but we didn’t see a single grouse.  We then set up our decoys at a windmill and sat for doves for an hour and a half or so, each taking one, but it was too hot to sit the whole day, so we headed back to town to spend time with the family.

Sandhills Dove Hunting 2013

Charles and Charity with the obligatory one dove each to start the season

The following day we set out into another spot that has been an annual producer for us.  I walked for 3 hours and Charles walked for 4 and neither one of us saw a single sharptail, which is very odd.  Some folks say it was last year’s drought not leaving enough cover for nesting, others say they were killed in the massive summer hailstorm that hit the area, but all I know is that they have been in this spot for 15 years and they weren’t there on Labor Day.  We called it a hunt midday on Monday and headed out to the lake with friends and family.

Charles has spent the last two weekends working with BB on the duck search and retrieve for her second shot at the NAVHDA Utility Test in October.  This coming weekend we will be heading down to Missouri to try our hand at the last weekend of their early teal duck season.  Sam is usually our main duck dog, so he will have to hang back back at the truck while BB finally gets her chance to be the waterfowl star.

Pupdates

Got a message and photos from Bob in Minnesota about his pup Ed, from Sue and Sam’s 2013 “E” litter.  Sounds like he is doing great and has some fun adventures in store for this season:

Ed is a big boy and tipping the scales just shy of 60 pounds on his 6 month bday.  He is loving our weekend camping trips to the lake and is a hard charger in his water work.  In fact he gets close to the lake and will rip the leash out of your hands to go in while carrying his bumper.  Last weekend he pointed 2 grouse sitting in the woods near the lake on one of our walks.  Ed is looking real nice on his points but still is breaking so I have some more work to do.  He is retrieving to hand and I am hoping that continues when hunting season begins here in MN.  I have taken a break the past week on training as we have been having triple digit temps up here and it is just too hot.  Ed will be heading out in mid September for official gun introduction and bird and gun association.  Out pheasant season starts on October 12 here in MN and then we are headed out to North Dakota on November 6 for our first North Dakota adventure of the fall.  Thinking trip number 2 will be in December but that will depend on the weather and how he does this fall on our other outings.

Ed6mos

Ed at 6 months chillin’ on the deck

Ed hanging out in the house

Ed hanging out in the house

Ed and his toy pheasant

Ed and his toy pheasant

16 month old Chester from Sam and Mae’s “C” Litter of 2012 lives out in New York and has been practicing hard for the upcoming season with his owner Sal and trainer Hoss.  He’s pictured here at a Hudson Valley NAVHDA Chapter training day.

Chester on point

Chester on point

Another shot of Chester on point

Another shot of Chester on point

Chester retrieving

Chester retrieving

And handsome three year old Whiskey out in Nevada from Sue and Sam’s “A” litter of 2010 has been caught by owner Deborah being very silly these days.

Whiskey thinks that crocs make great chew toys

Whiskey thinks that crocs make great chew toys

Whiskey peeking out from his blanket

Whiskey peeking out from his blanket

As always, thank you to the puppy owners for taking such fabulous photos and sharing them with us!!

I just talked to my eyes on the sky down in Missouri and he said that with this warm weather there aren’t many teal flying, but this coming weekend is the last one of the season, so it is the only shot we’re going to get on this particular season.  Since we’ll have our Missouri license anyway, I see us heading down there for some other waterfowl seasons this year too since it is only an hour and a half away.  So wish us luck and we’ll keep you posted!!

A Day for BB

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Saturday brought us BB’s first solo wild bird adventure in the field, on a snipe hunt with Charles.  It is good for the six month old pup to run with the older dogs to learn the ways of the game, but it is essential that she also be allowed to hunt independently.

As there has been a warm spell up in the northern area of the flyway, the migrating snipe were not yet noticed, just the resident population that we last hunted at our snipe swamp in Southeastern Nebraska.  Charles and BB put up several snipe, but he passed on many shots since the birds start out flying so low to the ground, it is often a risk to the dog.  He also didn’t want to shoot birds on the edge of range, as he wanted an easy “hunt dead” for BB, so that she would not get discouraged.

BB has mastered the art of the search, knows bird scent, gets birdy and points.  Right now we are still working on the retrieve with real birds, as she will mark the bird and pick it up, but not yet bring to hand reliably.  She will retrieve a dummy or dokken to hand without fail in the yard, heck, she’ll even retrieve our 2 1/2 year old’s stuffed animals when he throws them with the fetch command.  It is all just part of the process that we’d like for her to work through naturally within the next few months of hunting, knowing that with her griffon instincts she will put the pieces of the yard training and the field work together in due time.

BB's first wild bird after a long day in the snipe swamp

Another busy week

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Charles and I started the week chasing Southeastern Nebraska prairie chicken.  As the population in the area is somewhat sparse, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission limits the number of birds harvested to three the entire season, from September 1 to January 31, and a hunter must obtain special tags to harvest in this area.

We spent five hours of our Saturday walking in a drizzle and didn’t spot a single game bird of any kind.  Our intention was to return to the field on Sunday, either for prairie chicken or the last day of early teal, but we were rained out.

One of our puppies from this year’s litter, Ben, was out in the South Central part of the state and had some great luck on sharptails out there.  Ben is our top prospect for a mate for our 6 month old Canadian import girl, BB.  Great job, Ben, and owner, Nate!

Ben, Nate and Nate's father with the grouse harvest

A visit was also paid to us by another puppy from this year’s litter, Duke.  He is growing big and there are plans in the works to get him out on some birds with our guidance before his November pheasant hunting trip to South Dakota.

The Duke at 6 months

On Monday, Charles guided another successful preserve pheasant, chukar and Hungarian partridge hunt.  The hunting party consisted of two native Nebraska gentlemen along with a father and two sons from Long Island, NY.  We had a wet start after an early morning rain, but by 9 AM the sun had emerged, so that the grass and our soaked clothes were completely dry by the time we wrapped up mid-afternoon.

Hunters walking the thick grass

The father shoots a chukar, while Sam points another bird on the ground

One of the sons shoots a gorgeous rooster pheasant

Sam retrieving a rooster pheasant

Sam does a water retrieve on a pheasant shot over the pond

The hunting party and birds

Family picture with the birds

An interesting aside about a native bird that we encountered on our hunt.  In the wetness of the morning, we flushed a few sora rails in a densely vegetated, low, wet spot.  As they are in season and we had a Nebraska licensed hunter on one of the guns, he harvested one of the sora rails.

The sora rail’s flight is best described as “dumpy”.  They don’t fly very fast or far when they flush and are easily recognized: fatter than most song birds, black body with a yellow, triangular bill and long, greenish legs that hang down when they fly.  Sora rail hunting is most popular in the Northeastern Coastal areas, where they often use small boats to hunt them in seaside marshes.

The hunter didn’t have any desire to take the sora home with him, so we brought the bird home to add some tasty bites to our meal for the evening.

Caleb, age 2 1/2, practices his hunter pose with the sora rail

Reflections on Snipe Hunting

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Sam, Charles, Sue and BB with 4 snipe, a teal and 2 doves

The habitat of the snipe is nothing that I had ever expected.  As we wandered our way down the path through the cattails, I kept my eyes sharp, looking for the zig-zag flight of the long-billed swamp bird.  Yet my vigilance was wasted in those areas of dense swamp cover and we eventually wandered into a 20 acre flat, recently grazed by cattle.

“This is where it gets interesting,” Charles warned.  We split up to cover opposite sides of a small creek that ended in a cattail marsh.  I mistakenly headed once again into dense cover, thinking that the sneaky birds would tuck themselves into the reeds.  I was sinking quickly into the mud and got my rubber boots stuck, just in time for an incoming snipe, who landed in the distant short grass.  I was able to extract myself from the mud and we walked towards where we saw the bird land.  He jumped up way out of range, but it became obvious that we were dealing with a resident population, as they did not want to leave their 20 acres.

We worked over the creek half of the plot, spotting a few more snipe getting up out of range.  Our favorite technique for birds that won’t hold tight is to tire them out, flush, then follow, flush, then follow, until they are too tired to be overly flighty.  There was no luck to be had in that half of the small territory, so we headed towards the area where the flushed birds landed.

In a spot that we had covered, next to the tiny creek in tightly grazed grass an unexpected snipe popped up with its classic, “screeee, thwicka, thwicka, thwicka”.  Aside from its larger size, the call of a fleeing snipe is the one sure way to tell it apart from a killdeer.  The chosen path of the snipe is frightening for the hunter, as it begins by flying very close to the ground, at the same height of the dogs and sometimes right among them.

The bird flew clear of the dogs and Charles made the shot, with Sue on retrieve.  Right after that, a dove flew by me in range and I watched it go, choosing to focus on trying to get my first snipe.  Another shot was fired from my husband’s gun and he took down the dove, with Sue doing another great job on tracking the small bird to deliver to her master.

Our walk continued towards a small pond, where all heck broke loose.  Charles quickly bagged another snipe in the flat next to the pond and while he was busy with Sam’s retrieve, the crazy swamp creatures were zig-zagging all around above my head.  I missed several shots on snipe, while a couple of teal busted out of the pond.  Charles was lucky to be close enough to the pond to take one of the teal, which landed in the water still alive.  The injured teal made its way towards the cattails on the edge of the bank in an attempt to hide from the encroaching dogs, but Sam was able to snatch it out of the water.

Close-up of a snipe, with a blue-winged teal in the background

The pond was completely shaken down, so we decided to head back to the creek area we had already covered.  I was in a hurry to cross the watery thread and thought I spotted a muddy area that was dry and vegetated enough to handle my crossing.  Epic fail!  I was immediately sucked thigh deep into the mud, both legs.  Charles was still trying to give me hand signals as to which direction we were going and began to walk off into the distance, so I had to shout him down to come and hold my gun so that I could attempt to remove myself from the gluey muck.  I wiggled and squiggled, but my cheap rubber calf boots were not budging.  My only choice was to leave the boots in the mud and concede defeat to the snipe swamp, pouting my way sock-footed towards the truck.

Defeated by the swamp

Not wanting to wander too far in my socks or ruin Charles’s hunt, I stood on the edge of the 20 acres as he walked back and forth with the dogs, taking two more snipe and one more dove off in the distance.

My adventure ended in the style of a proverbial snipe hunt, as defined in Wikipedia, “…also known as a fool’s errand, a type of practical joke that involves experienced people making fun of credulous newcomers by giving them an impossible or imaginary task.”  Yet I am intrigued by this interesting hunt and unusual habitat.  I will be purchasing some hip boots before I try this again, but am sure to be back and better prepared.

If you are interested in reading more tales of snipe hunting from around the globe, check out Worth Mathewson’s rare book Reflections on Snipe.

Labor Day 2011: The new grouse opener in Nebraska

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If and when the chickens and grouse are forced to make a last stand, Lord forbid, the Sandhills of Nebraska will hold their monument.

–          James B. Kellogg, American Field magazine, December 5, 1959

It was us versus the 19,000 square miles of the Nebraska Sandhills, with their wily prairie chickens and sharptail grouse Labor Day weekend.  Charles and I arrived at base camp midday Friday, made some quick sandwiches from our cooler provisions, made sure the dogs were fed and watered after their long ride, then headed out into the dunes in search of birds.

It was probably around 80 degrees when we finally unloaded and geared up for the field.  Then the march began.  It never fails that around an hour and a half into the up and down, hot, heavy breathing, heart pumping afternoon that we get our first sight of them.  It was two lone sharpies in front of me and on my worst shot, the “going away over the hill”.  Of course, I missed.  We continued for what seemed like a long time, but it probably wasn’t.  The dogs were starting to feel the heat of the day, so we had turned our walk towards the truck, still looking for birds.  There was a shadowy figure in the distance standing on top of a dune.  It didn’t move for a long time, but finally started to come our way.  It was a fellow hunter, of the older generation.

“I flushed a group of about fifteen right up there and they must have landed just north of where you just walked through, I was surprised when you didn’t come through them,” he reported.

Thus began a big loop, starting straight towards the east, then circling north.  As we completed the loop, heading south right in front of this old hunter, a lone sharpie jumped up and we both shot our two shells, with Charles making the hit.  We were busy admiring Sam’s retrieve and failed to reload…only to have six to eight more birds flush up around us, with their cackling “caw-caw-caw-caw-caw” heckling us.  Charles was able to load some shells in time to get one more, but I stood there dumbfounded.  I’m sure the old man was laughing to himself, but he never shared that with us.  Sam had his mouth full of bird already, so Sue was finally able to get in on a retrieve.  Once the two birds were in the bag, he asked if we could take our dogs through an area that he thought he had put a bird down earlier.  There was not a bird to be found, but I was out of water and headed back to the truck.  Charles and the old timer continued to walk the field for another hour or so before calling it a day around 6 PM.

Sue, BB, Sam and Charles with their two Friday sharptails

It was storming at base camp around daybreak Saturday morning, so we lingered longer than we usually would.  Our old friend and fellow hunter, Ryan Tompkins, joined us that morning for a cool, but windy walk.  We worked a valley, starting on the southern dunefield side of it.  The north wind was very strong, so we pushed our way farther south into the dunes, expecting the birds to be sitting out of the wind.  As we reached the far east end of the valley, we turned into the north wind to cross the valley’s flat, when a sharptail jumped up in front of me, trying to fly away into the wind.  The wind launched the airborne bird straight above my head and I took a shot, seeing the feathers fly.  The bird went down and as soon as Sam got on top of it for the retrieve, it popped up again, catching the wind and floated to the south, over the hill.  I mismarked the bird and headed to the next hill over, but lucky Charles and Sam headed to the right spot.  Charles flagged me down from my fruitless search with my bird in his hand.

We continued our push across the flat of the valley, up into the northern dunefield, working our way into a break where Charles had taken birds a number of times before.  There are often times 100-200 yards between hunters and the dogs typically stay with Charles, so it isn’t unheard of for a hunter to bump into a flock that we have to chase down.  As we worked our way back west into the northern dunefield, Ryan flushed up a group of six grouse.  I was pretty confident that they had just popped over to the southern side of the hill, so we headed in that direction.  Sure enough, we got into the flock again and Ryan nailed a bird.  We called in the dogs to retrieve and were very proud when our six month old BB found and marked the bird.  She’s still a little wary of having big birds in her mouth, so it wasn’t a retrieve, but finding the bird in the vastness of the Sandhills, before her field-hardened compatriots Sam and Sue, is an accomplishment in and of itself.

We again had pushed the flock westward and again we marched them down.  It was only 200 yards away when we found them again and Charles took his bird, with Sam on retrieve.  Our search continued westward: up, down and around the high chop of the dunes, seeing nothing additional, and we pushed through the yuccas to the truck for a midday break.  After our long, well-deserved lunch, we pushed for an hour and a half through the sand bluestem, poison ivy and wild rose bushes with no luck.  By 3 PM, we voted for a switch to dove hunting.

Charles sets up dove decoys on a windmill

Our favorite windmill was occupied by other hunters, but we moved on to another choice spot, which later seemed to be the better choice, considering that it had shade and our first choice did not.  We keep the dogs boxed up during the shooting of the doves and only bring them out for retrieving assistance.

BB's first retrieve on a dove, just small enough for her little mouth

...to the hand!

Charles took the day on doves with a total of ten, combining sitting around the windmill with the decoys and pushing the weedy outer rim of the blowout for flushes.  Ryan and I split the remaining four doves on the fourteen dove total, with me spending the majority of my time sitting over decoys and Ryan splitting his time between flushes and sitting.  7 PM rolled around quickly and the local steakhouse was calling our names, so we packed it in for the night.

Saturday's bird total from Ryan Tompkins, Charity and Charles Upchurch, Sue, BB and Sam

After a long day on Saturday, we rolled out of bed a little late once again and headed into some territory that we haven’t normally worked.  The dunes were very steep and rugged on our westward push, giving us a serious challenge even in a cool and still morning.  When we stopped to take water an hour and a half into the hunt, I told the guys that the grouse were going to show up soon for sure, because I was getting angry.  Lo and behold, not fifteen minutes later, Ryan bumps a flock of eight up and over the hill towards the north.  We both thought for sure they had cut towards the west when they went over that hill.  The complex that they had landed in had two sets of north-south running dunes, with a valley in between, so, we chose to push the valley and the western set of hills, spending a good hour or so finding nothing, first working our way north, then back south.  The eastern dunefield was the only place left for them to be hiding and we swept it from the south going again back north.  Dipping down into a low spot not much longer after our northward hike began, I pushed the flock over the hill, taking a shot at my dreaded “up and over the hill”.  I thought I had a decent enough aim on one particular bird that I should have put a few pellets in it, but it didn’t go down.  I saw Ryan hit one hard and sent the dogs after it, with Sam taking the retrieve once again.  The three of us regrouped and continued north to where we thought the rest of the flock had headed.

Out of nowhere, Ryan shouts at me, “Hey, here’s another one flapping!”

I whistled for dogs for a minute or two with no response, as Charles had marched west looking for some other stragglers of the flock.  Sure enough, I had peppered the bird and we were just lucky enough that Ryan came up on it while it was still flapping.  He bagged it and we continued on, unable to see Charles and the dogs working the singletons to the west.  When we all met back up fifteen or so minutes later, he sure enough had his bird.

It was midday Sunday and once again we each had one bird in the bag.  Both the dogs and people needed water and a rest, so a windmill was calling our name, but we just didn’t know which one.  We picked one at random, with a stock tank full of wayward toads and box turtles.  I think Charles and Ryan spent twenty minutes pulling drowning toads and turtles out of the tank.

Toads in need of rescue hitch a ride on the box turtle's back in a stock tank

But daylight was burning and we wanted to get back to town in time to cook dinner, so we once again geared up for the field, expecting another long march, which would probably end fruitless with the limited time that we had given ourselves.

Sam puts on his "A" game

Yet this spot surprised us, with a family group busting up only a half-hour into the hunt.  They were slow to rise, with Ryan taking a double and myself shooting one bird in the first flush of five or six.  As Charles was busy taking retrieves from Sue and Sam, the remaining eight birds flushed as we all screamed profanity with unloaded guns and the distraction of retrieves.  With so many birds in the field and being satisfied with two birds down (and being relatively close to the truck), I decided to switch my gun for the camera.

Ryan Tompkins hunts the open spaces of the Sandhills

Sue, Sam, BB and Charles covering terrain

We continued to move towards the direction where we saw the first group flush, thinking that we would find them broken up, only to have Ryan get into another tight group of thirteen.  Ryan hit one to finish out his limit and everyone could tell that Charles was out of guiding mode, ready to turn on the juice.

Sam retrieving Ryan's last bird, with Sue backing him up

Charles taking Sam's retrieve to hand

Charles kicks it into gear in the high country

I followed along taking pictures for another half-hour, but struggled to maintain the ramped up pace after a long few days.  I headed back to the truck while Ryan walked with Charles and the dogs as he finished out his limit, which only took forty-five minutes with as many birds as we had encountered within a relatively close area.

Hunters, dogs and Sunday's birds

Driving home, we discussed all of the different recipes we would be trying with our bird meats upon our return home, ranging from pastas to curries.  The final nightly ritual of dinner and bird cleaning stretched later than it should have, with long drives ahead of us in the morning.

The Sunday sharptail grouse lineup in the dark, prior to cleaning

The older hunter that we spent time with on Friday was the only other grouse hunter we saw the whole weekend, which is part of the reason that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has extended the season earlier to Labor Day weekend, from its prior September 15th-ish start date.  There just aren’t that many people willing to put in the hard-trodding hours that it takes to get grouse.  It isn’t easy anymore, not like when there were market hunters at the turn of the last century shooting 500+ birds a day to sell back east.  Grouse in the Sandhills is the hardest, hottest hunting that we do all year, but despite the sweat and sunburns, we come back every year for the challenge and camaraderie.

Thank you to the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for giving us more time to have our fun!

If you want to know more about the history of grouse hunting in Nebraska, check out the following links:

A cool slideshow of old-time Sandhills grouse hunts: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ngpc/sets/72157627193902108/show/

The full “History of Grouse Hunting” article from Nebraskaland by Jon Farrar (which I credit with my opening quote and some of the facts in the conclusion):

http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/nebland/articles/hunting/GrouseHunting/index.asp

Guiding at Pheasant Haven: February 20, 2011

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A cool, moist day for a hunt.

Everyone wondered if we were in for rain or snow as we set out Sunday afternoon in search of pheasants and chukars.  For the first time, the owner had completely turned over the reins for this hunt and it was just Charles, Sam and I on the property with the hunters.  It was three generations of a family from a rural southeastern Nebraska town by the name of Geneva: a grandfather and great-uncle, the son and the sons-in-law, and most importantly, the grandson.

The flushes all came in singles throughout the property.  We hunted for a couple of hours, took a water break back to the cabin, then set out again for more birds for another hour and a half.  It was getting up towards supper time when we finally parted ways.  The weather cooperated and so did the dog.  The best part of the day was to see the anxiousness and timidness of the young lad melt away, turning into joy and excitement for the sport.  This was confirmed by his dad, as we all left and shook hands, he stated that his son told him, “Dad, this pheasant hunting is fun!”

A chukar partridge flushes between two hunters.

"Nothing like a good clean kill."

Charles and the youngest hunter.

A hunter walks into Sam's point.

Another chukar goes down.

Sam retrieves a chukar.

A rooster pheasant in flight.

A rooster pheasant upon impact.

The youngest hunter requests to carry a pheasant.

A happy young hunter, what it's all about!

Three generations of hunters: grandfather, grandson, son.

The hunters and their quarry along with Charles and Sam.

Late Season Pheasant Hunt

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It isn’t very often that we get to enjoy a pheasant hunt in well-established native tallgrass prairie in Southeastern Nebraska.  We’re not the only ones.  In the 1960’s 140,000 hunters bagged about 1.4 million pheasants annually in Nebraska.  These days, the annual count is around 50,000 hunters and 200,000 birds (Hendee, Omaha World-Herald, 01/23/11).  Speaking to other Nebraska hunters this year from across the state, pheasant numbers this year have been up from recent years past, but obviously nowhere near the level of the mid-20th century.

Our hunt last Saturday was in some amazing habitat on private ground east of Lincoln.  It was a cold, windless winter morning, ideal for keeping the roosters held tight in the thick grass.  The air was moist and slightly foggy, perfect scenting conditions for the dogs.

The SE Nebraska combination of windbreaks, crop fields and a smattering of prairie.

Nate, the landowner, begins working the fields

Sam and Charles make their way through the big bluestem

We headed east, away from the farmstead, pushing through some thick cover towards a small cattle feedlot.  As we neared the break between the prairie ground and the feedlot, Nate saw a flock of hens flush to the north.  I saw one rooster fly into a windbreak at least 40 yards out, then Charles and I both saw another rooster spook way out of range.  I’ll admit that we were all probably a little too chatty about what we had already seen and not focused on keeping quiet for any other roosters nearby.

The guys thought they had seen a rooster land to the south in a bit of a marshy area, so we pivoted as we came to the feedlot and began to work our way through some tough swamp weeds.

Busting through some weeds

Walking down a waterway

Sam running on the left, Sue visibly pregnant on the right

As we worked our way back west out of the swampy area and into the grassland, the dogs both started acting birdy: retracing their paths with their noses to the ground, Sam sneaking lower to the ground, Sue holding her head high, circling and searching.  Finally, Sam’s beeper collar starts to make the loud, sharp beep, telling us that he’s on point.  Charles walks right in for a close flush and takes the rooster.

Stay focused! The rooster takes the impact, but unfortunately my auto-focus thought I was taking a picture of that piece of grass

Sam presents the gift

The rooster!

We continued to push southward into the corner of the property, then made our way west, working a treeline on our way.

Checking back in: that’s pregnant Sue on the left with the frosty face

Following the take of the rooster, we worked the field for another hour or so, with no further sightings of pheasant.

Arriving back to the farm

The pose: Nate with Sue, Charles, Sam and the rooster

 

Puppy Update: Whiskey and Geese

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Whiskey from litter 2010 and Geese

Pete and Deborah sent over a great photo and e-mail on Saturday that I just had to share:

Pete just emailed me Whiskey’s newest experience!!
They are hunting on the UC Ranch which is about 3 hours east of Reno…Pete said that Whiskey didn’t actually RETREIVE these geese…Whiskey couldn’t pick up the birds because they were as big as he is…he had to drag them to Pete!
Besides being an awsome hunting dog, Whiskey continues to entertain us daily with his endless energy and golden heart…he doesn’t tollerate being ignored and when it’s play time….it’s play time!!  He is the smartest, sweetest, most loveable dog we have ever had!!
Hope all is well with you…we will continue to send pictures!!
Take care!!
Deborah

Guiding at Pheasant Haven January 9th

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The snow began to fall on Sunday morning, but it wasn’t enough to deter the hunters of Pheasant Haven Hunting Acres in Elk City, Nebraska (www.pheasanthavenlodge.com).  Charles and the dogs guided their third hunt on the preserve, with myself on hand as co-handler of the dogs, guide assistant and photographer.

We began the day running both Sam and Sue, which led to some very fast shooting and more retrieves than we could keep up with at times.  There were points where we had to stop to let the dogs catch up on picking up the shot pheasants on the ground.

Charles takes a retrieve from Sue while looking out for Sam working a bird

Sam on retrieve

Sue happily checks back in

We stopped around 11 for a lunch of pheasant breast and mushroom stew, then went back out with Sam for a second sweep of the property.

Walking the fields at Pheasant Haven

Sam brings in a rooster

Sam on point

Hunter walks in on Sam’s point

Sam gives Charles another perfect retrieve

The hunters, 24 pheasant, Sam and Charles

Your reporter in the field, posing with the birds

In 2011 litter news, Sam and Sue completed breeding at Christmas and she is showing obvious signs of pregnancy.  We anticipate whelping towards the end of February.  The puppy application is ready and has been sent out to the 30+ individuals expressing interest, with more calling and e-mailing every day.  I am excited to raise these pups and get them into some excellent hunting homes!

 

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