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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

Spring training!

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Happy First Birthday, Bluestem “A” Litter, on April 30th!!  Here’s Winston’s 1st birthday picture, he lives on an acreage outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Thank you to Kelvin and Nancy for the picture!

Winston from our "A" litter at 1 year old

I also received some pictures from one of my new owners of a “B” litter puppy.  “Roxy” (formerly known as Bess) lives out in Utah with Randy and Pam.  They are very happy with her progress and surprised at how fast she is learning.  Once again, many thanks to them for the photo contribution:

Roxy of our recent "B" litter checks out the wing

Roxy on retrieve to Randy

Roxy points the wing

Roxy on water retrieve

While we’re talking water, Monday and Tuesday of last week were 95+ degree days here, so I took the opportunity Monday afternoon to take the big dogs out for some swimming practice and see if we could get our new puppy “BB” in the water.  Water practice is not only fun, it is vital for the dog’s desire to water retrieve waterfowl during hunting season.

Sue and Sam take a dip

BB takes her first swim

BB heading back to shore

The water was still pretty cold even though the air was warm, so our time in the water was limited.  Swimming is an instinctual behavior for dogs, therefore you can’t introduce them to water too soon after picking up a puppy from a breeder (weather permitting).

As a follow-up to the wing work that we’ve been doing in the house, BB got into her first live chukar on Saturday.  I used the same technique on BB that I just used on the litter of puppies.  I put the chukar on a bird harness attached to a leash, I then used my puppy training pen (a 5 ft. x 10 ft. area that I created with metal fence posts and snow fence) to get the puppy to focus on the bird.  I first hold the bird in my hand and put it into the puppy’s face, then slowly give more and more leash, until the bird can move about pretty freely (run and flap) within the confines of the pen and my leash.  Naturally, at first the puppy is apprehensive about this strange new creature, but the scent from the training wing made it somewhat familiar.  By the end of the 10 minute session, BB was chasing and pouncing on the bird with vigor!  This is a good first step to get a new puppy excited about birds.

BB a little apprehensive at first

It didn't take long for BB to get aggressive with the chukar

Spring training isn’t only something for the dogs, it is important for humans too!  When it comes to upland hunting, we have to do our part to ensure success also.  Dog training and handling are very important, but the hunter’s shooting skill and physical fitness are also key.  We’ve been spending a few weekends a month at the local skeet range tuning up our skills with the shotgun, in preparation for hunting season (which is only 3 1/2 months away).  If you can’t hit the bird, then the dog doesn’t have anything to retrieve!

Charles walking back to station 1 to start a new round

Charles smashes the high bird on station 7

Those are the happenings over the past week at Bluestem Kennels!  We will have a booth at the Bark for the Cure Cancer Walk on Saturday, May 21st from 9 AM -12 noon at the Lied Activity Center, 2700 Arboretum Dr. in Bellevue, Nebraska.  If you would like more information about the walk or would like to register for the walk please see their website at https://sites.google.com/site/rflthunderingherd/bark-for-a-cure-cancer-walk  We will be there to talk Wirehaired Pointing Griffons, versatile hunting dog training and just for some good canine fellowship!  Hope to see you there!

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

 

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!

 

Pheasant Haven hunt, December 19, 2010

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The hunting cabin and pond of Pheasant Haven

Yesterday was the perfect day for a hunt: not too cold or windy, with moist air; perfect scenting conditions for the dogs.  As some of the hunters had brought their dogs, Charles worked Sue with the large group of gentlemen in the morning.

The orange army departs

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Sue with her high-style point

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Sue retrieves a colorful pheasant

The orange army on the move

I wish I had gotten a better photograph on the next shot because it was some incredible dog work.  One of the hunter’s white Spinone Italiano is on point along with Sue, followed by the preserve’s yellow lab coming in for the flush.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Amazing dog teamwork!

I now understand the value of the flushing dog in these situations.  As foot hunters, Charles and I typically do our own flushing by walking up into the dog’s point.  At the preserve, the hunters would rather not walk in to flush and it isn’t safe for the human guide to do the flushing, therefore the flushing dog is needed.  It looks like in the near future we’re going to be shopping for a female AKC Cocker Spaniel to take on that job!

After a successful morning well-spent on the hunt, we took a break for cheeseburgers at the bar in Elk City, then returned to Pheasant Haven for an afternoon hunt with Sam and a grandfather/father/son trio.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Sam with his low-style point

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Another solid point from Sam

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

The father-hunter walks in on Sam's point

I was thrilled to finally take my first hunter/dog/bird photo yesterday.  They are terribly difficult to set up and take.  The pheasant is difficult to see, as it is flying away near the top of the frame and camouflaged by the grass.

My first hunter/dog/bird photo

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Sam on retrieve to Charles

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Grandfather and grandson walk into Sam's point

Charles and Sam with the bird total

In hindsight, I should have organized the large group and their dogs to pose with the bird total, because Sam and Charles certainly can’t take all of the credit!  It is a learning process for both the dogs and the people to take on this guiding business, but it gives us great pride and joy to be able to share our passion for hunting with great dogs!!

http://www.pheasanthavenlodge.com

Guiding Hunts at Pheasant Haven

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Bird Total from Day Two of guiding at Pheasant Haven

Charles, Sam and Sue were recruited at the end of November by Scott Bruhn of Pheasant Haven hunting preserve (http://www.pheasanthavenlodge.com/) in Elkhorn, Nebraska as guides.  As the dogs were strictly wild bird hunters prior to this experience, I was a little nervous that they would “trap” the cage-raised birds (this is when the dog catches the bird in its mouth following the point).  For this particular two day outing, chukkars were used.  The birds were of a good quality and  did not allow the dogs to get sloppy.  They also ran across a number of “scratch” (previously released) pheasant which made for some added fun and action.  The dogs are used to locking up on unforgiving wild grouse and pheasant, which made for some stylish points on the slower-moving planted birds.  Sam and Sue were run separately  to give the gunners plenty of time to walk up on the point and prepare for the shot.   This event was a lot of fun for the dogs, as it isn’t everyday where a dog get to point 100+ birds.  They also did a terrific job of retrieving for the two days they were on the job, November 30th and December 1st.  Scott runs a nice operation and is talented at releasing birds in way that simulates wild bird hunts.

There was a second guide on the hunt running a Vizla, who is active in the National Shoot to Retrieve Association (http://www.nstra.org/), which is essentially a competitive field trial organization.  Doing a side-by-side comparison of Sam and the NSTRA Vizla, Charles feels that this may be another dog sport organization that we would like to investigate and potentially participate in.

Charles and the dogs will be back guiding at Pheasant Haven tomorrow, with me joining them as blogger/photographer, so I’m looking forward to getting some good shots and stories to post next week.

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