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A big mixed bag: October in the Sandhills

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A cold north wind welcomed us to hunting sharptail grouse on the Thursday before duck opener, easily blowing 30, if not 40 mph and the air temperature never peaked the 40 degree mark on the day.  It was a pretty brutal start considering that when we left Eastern Nebraska the evening before, it was 70 degrees.  I hadn’t even packed my kids jackets, let alone my winter upland gear, so I had to tough it out in my hunting shirt/t-shirt combo.  Luckily a person warms up quickly stomping around the dunes and running after birds.

I’ll admit that I was whining and not wanting to get out of the truck at first.  I whined my way out of the usual first spot and asked if we could scout for ducks instead.  As we were creeping around a pond looking to see if any ducks had arrived, we noticed some sharptails running down the road.  We thought we had ourselves an easy pick, so we backed up around a dune and unloaded our gear.  Of course we wouldn’t need the dogs, the birds were just 15 feet away, right?

I think we chased them for a good 30 minutes and got up 3 or 4 times before they were flushing close enough to get a shot, even though they were flying into the monstrous wind.  Ryan and I got off a few Hail Mary cracks on the edge of range before Charles put the first one in the bag.  I captured his retrieve in the first half of this video (the second half is from me on Saturday, but we’ll get to that part later).  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4XgYQOzM8c

As we had been walking for a good hour and had left everything unlocked, I made a bee-line back to the truck while the guys chased the rest of that group, with Charles taking one more.  Once we got back, secured our things and brought out some dogs, we took a brief hike into some nearby dunes with Charles taking his third bird in no time.  Ryan and I had no hard feelings that we didn’t take any on the day and were ready to head back to town to get out of the wind and cold.

Sue, Mae and BB are excited that dad shot some grouse.

Friday’s weather was less windy and warmer, we decided that we wanted to split up, so we headed to a spot that I had navigated on my own before and it had cell phone coverage so that I could communicate with the guys.  We set out to make it a “short grouse hunt”, as we had an early Saturday planned for ducks.  About 45 minutes in I busted up two way out of range, chased one down and bumped it up out of range once and within range again, but blew the shot.  The bird went way north, over a fence and near a giant dune covered with sumac that I had been curious about.  So breaking the rule of staying in the fence, I crossed it to chase the bird.  I bumped it a couple of more times way out of range.  I was coming up on the 2 hour mark in the field and thought I had better turn around and head back towards the truck.  When I got in view of the spot where I thought the truck should be, I couldn’t see it, but knew I was on the western fenceline with the gate where it was parked, so I followed the fenceline south, knowing that the guys were probably in that direction anyway based on the gunshots I had heard earlier.  Just as I started to panic that I was lost and in despair because I had gone three hours and not shot a bird, I spotted my other dogs off in the distance, so I headed in their direction.  I heard the sound of the guys’ voices and a grouse soared about 15 yards in front of me in a perfectly steady left to right flight, just like station 2 at the skeet range.  I missed the first shot, but nailed it hard on the second one and Sue delivered my quarry.

When I met up with the guys, they had also just harvested their birds, Charles had 2 and Ryan had 2.  So much for the short grouse hunt, three hours later.

Ryan, Charles, Charity, some sharptails and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

Ryan, Charles, Charity, some sharptails and Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

We set out early Saturday morning, as we wanted to attempt to sit over decoys for a bit.  For me, sitting over decoys is a like a bad day at church, boring and painful.  We got our decoys set up on a pond that we thought would be good and hid in the cottonwoods.  There were a couple that swam over and a couple that flew over, but nothing in range that was on the wing.  We gave it an hour and a half, then packed it in to go jump hunt.

The first spot we hit was a network of small potholes that we had looked at a number of times, but had never taken the time to get out and work.  I worked one side with the guys on the other, with Sam on heel to do any retrieving.  They got into a nice big flock of teal, Ryan got one green-winged and Charles two blue-winged.  I took a shot as some flew by on a return trip, but they were out of range.  Charles came into a small group of grouse up on the hill next to the ponds and harvested one of those.  It was a productive new spot!

We loaded up and headed into familiar territory, but while we were on our way there, passing through the area that we had hunted grouse on Thursday, there was a dead sharptail in the sandy rut of the road.  Charles got out and picked it up and it had been shot.  I had put a pellet in one of those birds in my Hail Mary shooting on Thursday and it just so happened to decide to die in the road that we drove down two days later.  What are the odds?

We began working along a creek that we’ve spent a lot of time hunting in the past with lots of success.  I got into some teal, but missed.  Charles got into some mallards and was able to get hens on two separate jumps.  I shot a grouse, while we were trying to sneak up on a flock of teal and captured it on video (the second half).  The video doesn’t show the 25 teal that bust out of the pond, but that’s what happened when I said “sorry”, plus you can tell that Charles was mad.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4XgYQOzM8c

After I scared up that flock of teal, we had one more opportunity at a flock in  a pond surrounded by small willows, but Sam decided to be naughty and break away from heel, scaring them away.  So no ducks on duck opener for me.  Then Charles started in on the snipe, here’s the video of the first one: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7r_TYujq8TA

At that point, we had been out in the field for 8 hours and I was ready to sit in the truck.  The boys set out to work another branch of the creek for a couple of more hours.  Charles harvested 3 more snipe and a rail.  Saturday was an epic day for Charles, giving him a new personal record one-day bag to beat: 3 blue-winged teal, 2 hen mallards, 1 grouse, 4 snipe and a Virginia rail.  All of the birds on the day were retrieved by Sam, with the exception of the grouse that I got myself.

Despite the drought, the grouse population has held up in good numbers and they are reporting a record-setting year for ducks further north.  I doubt we will make it back out to the Sandhills before the migration is over, but I’m hoping we can get out to the Rainwater Basin of Nebraska for some more duck action.

Charity, Charles, Ryan and Sam (the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) with Saturday’s birds

Next weekend, Charles, Sam and BB will head to North Dakota for the first pheasants of the year and some more ducks.  They will be in ND from Saturday through Wednesday and I plan on training Charles on running my equipment, so hopefully we can get some good pictures and video (but it is very possible that we’ll just get phone and pocket camera pics).  Also next weekend duck and goose opens in the eastern part of the state, so I might have to strike out on my own on Saturday to try for a Canadian goose.

Hope everyone else out there is having a great season!

No Deal on Early Teal

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On the opening Saturday of early teal season, Charles and Charity hustled the kids to the babysitter as soon as she would take them and headed to a friend’s pond to make their first attempt at sitting over decoys for the little ducks.  Sporting their hip boots and limited camouflage, they hauled their “dove buckets” (the camo-covered insulated 5 gallon buckets with the butt pad on the lid) over into a patch of sunflowers.

Charles and Sam sit in the sunflowers waiting for teal

The pond sits on the south shore of the Platte River, just a couple of miles west of the confluence with the mighty Missouri.  Their spot was on the southern end of the pond, with a little peninsula jutting northward out into the water, where Charles set up about five decoys on the point.  They sat on the western side of the peninsula, with their backs to the rising sun and another 5-10 decoys out in front of them.

They watched the big ducks and geese move along the Platte as the air grew warmer.  Canadian geese flew overhead.  Shots rang out along the river to the west of them, but they didn’t see any teal flush away from the sound of the reports.  A couple of mature bald eagles flew from the river and an immature perched in the tree above their heads, eyeing the decoys for awhile before moving on.  Charles worked his teal call every now and again, while his trusty retriever Sam laid next to the bucket, as still as he could be but nervous with excitement and attentive to his master’s every move.

The doves teased them, moving around in nearby trees and shrubs, but they sat patiently for the ducks.  A flock of turkeys came out of the woods on the north side of the pond to pick grit off of the beach, while a pair of wood ducks sat lazily in the pond nearby.  Herons and cormorants took their time moving from shore to shore, picking at little fish.

Then, like the Air Force Thunderbirds working an air show, a flock of 15 blue-winged teal flew fast and high over their heads.  “There they are,” whispered Charles, “don’t look at them!”  But it was too late, as Charity’s face and glasses were already pointed at the sky, watching the teal zoom out of range.  Charles worked the teal call a little as they watched the flock disappear into the distance, paying no mind to their feeble attempts at fooling them to land.  And as fast as it had begun, it had ended.  That was the action for the day, without a shot being fired.

They tried changing spots, moving into a tall patch of ragweed that made them both sneeze their heads off, but nothing made the little ducks appear again.

Charles has been back nearly every weekend day since, with no luck.  He was able to bring home a handful of doves and get Sam to tree a couple of coons, but no little ducks.  Recently, he’s been spending some time scouting the southern bank of the Platte river for an easy access point to get on to the sandbars, but it is a bit challenging since the southern side of the river typically has the main channel.  Pack up the canoe with layout blinds and head into the river to set up on some well established sandbars?

Sam’s double coon treeing

With snipe to be chased and big duck season coming on in a few weeks, time is running out on solving the early teal problem this fall, but you can bet it is something that they’ll think about and study for the next year and try some new tactics in 2013.

Tales of the Rooster: North Dakota 2011

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Saturday, October 15th

We arrived at our cabin in North Dakota around 2 PM on Saturday and artist Carl Melichar of Countryside Art Gallery in Mayer, Minnesota was there to greet us.  Carl has taken an interest in painting all of the hunting dog breeds possible and he has yet to paint a Wirehaired Pointing Griffon.  After settling into camp, we all loaded up into the truck to head for the field.  We started off in a light drizzle into a swampy creek area that was full of hens, but not a rooster to be found, so we switched into a hilly area.

Charles and the dogs working a hill

About half way through the set of hills, our male Sam gave us the body language that there was a pheasant nearby, on a run up and over the hill.  As we crested the hill, we closed in on a clump of bushes.  With three dogs and three people, the rooster had no choice but to fly.  Charles put a few pellets in it and the rooster flew back to the other side the hill.  We once again closed in on him, he flew and I hit him hard at about 10 yards.  Although I’ve been hunting grouse and ducks for over a decade, this was my first rooster.

Charity and her first rooster

Sunday, October 16th

A good roost field was scouted with brome grass cover, bordered by sunflowers and corn.  Out we went right at sunrise, along with Carl and his video camera.  I stuck to the edge of the field along the farmer access path, while Charles waded through the prime roosting area.  The dogs were very birdy and gave Charles some great points that he was able to get close enough before the rooster felt the pressure to fly.  He had a couple in the bag within 15 minutes, with retrieves courtesy of Sam (he’s a bit of a hog, but the other dogs got some in later in the trip).  We moved up out of the flat and on to the top of a set of hills, where we got into some hens and another rooster getting into Charles’s sights.  I was busy reaching for my camera when another couple roosters got up that I missed.  We continued working the set of hills for another hour, seeing plenty of hens, but it was time to get Carl back on the road to Minnesota.  We were within 50 yards of the truck when our six-month old BB locked up on point.  I was too busy watching the big dogs and walked right by without noticing.  Charles walked into her solid point and he screamed, “Rooster!!”.  I once again biffed the shot, but it was awesome to see that six-month old BB was totally in the game and not afraid to point a bird on her own.

Charles helping Carl get some shots of Sam

Charles and his Sunday pheasant limit

We got Carl back to the cabin and on the road home to Minnesota, then set out on a few hours of scouting.  There was a recently harvested cornfield, with a small pasture to the side and a few tiny ponds in the middle of it, so Charles thought these would be great places to get me on to a few more roosters.  As we were walking towards the ponds, we bumped one out of the edge of the pasture that was a little out of my range.  The first two ponds held nothing except a fast snipe which there was no chance for a shot at.  We skirted what we thought was just a swampy area, but boy were we surprised when the whole bird game changed.  It was actually a large pond complex filled with hundreds of gadwall ducks that we inadvertently jumped (or bumped!).  We called the dogs in to sit by us with the hope that some of the ducks would circle back around.  Sure enough, we got our chances and Charles bagged two, with me double-barreling one.  Sam and Sue worked up the retrieves while the remaining ducks in flight landed farther down the pond complex which was inaccessible on foot from where we were.  We considered loading up in the truck and heading to where we could get access, but Sue was acting like she wasn’t feeling well (we’d caught her with a dead snake in her mouth earlier, so it was hard to tell what she’d eaten), so decided to call it a day.

Charity's Sunday afternoon gadwall duck

Charles's gadwall duck double for Sunday afternoon

Monday, October 17th

The roosters had their alarms set early Monday morning following the non-resident opener and were already leaving the roost when we hit the road.

"Run for your lives!"

With the road roosters as a sign, we should have called off our AM roost jump, but went for it anyway.  We worked the flat and hills for a good hour and a half, seeing nothing.  It was a great field that should have held something in the morning, but we had seen a truck there in the evening and those hunters must have busted it up as the birds were trying to roost, so the birds went elsewhere.

Charles settled on a large set of windbreaks with cut wheat in between the trees and surrounded by cornfields for our afternoon of hunting the loafing grounds.  He decided to run Sam solo, as the treeline was a thick, tight area and too much dog power could work against us.  It was a slow process, one of us on the west side of the treeline and the other on the east, with the dog working the east side, as the breeze was out of the west.  I didn’t have a good shot at the first rooster that flushed on my side, as he went up and over the trees.  We switched sides for the second treeline and I saw a rooster flush out of the cut wheat and back into our treeline.  Sam first pointed the bird in the trees, then I squeezed into the brush to make a racket and push him out to Charles.  Crunching. Wingbeats.  Thwack!  45 minutes into our march, Charles had the first rooster of the day.  We worked another couple of treelines, seeing nothing.  I was in my heavy winter gear, as the morning had started cold, but it was noon now and the temperature had gone up probably 30 degrees.  “This gear feels like it weighs about 500 pounds,” I told Charles.

“Just one more treeline to go,” he said.

But when we reached the north end of this treeline, he noticed a little creek and some bushy clumps that looked promising.  The dog pointed into the first bush clump and up went the roosters.  I hit one but not hard enough, so he hit the ground and took off on a run toward the cornfield 75 yards away.  Luckily, Sam isn’t afraid to grab a live one, and he chased him down and retrieved him live for me.  Sam then set out for the one that Charles hit.  The weight of the gear on my shoulders had become too much, they were pretty stoved up and I couldn’t reach around my back to stuff the rooster in my game bag.  “This gear is killing me!” I screamed.

Charles was not happy with my volume, as he knew there were other roosters nearby sitting tight and there were plenty that flushed and relocated.  So we stopped, much to his chagrin, reduced my gear load and continued.  We didn’t take 10 steps when another rooster jumped out of the same set of bushes that Charles nailed, rounding out his limit.

We walked down the hill away from the bushes into an oxbowed creek.  I decided to cut across the oxbow instead of following Sam like I should have, letting a rooster bust for the cornfield out of range.  We headed up into another bush clump, where I walked into a perfect point from Sam.

This is where I have to pause the story and rant about my gun.  I really shouldn’t, it is a beautiful Browning Citori Lightning over/under 12-gauge that we won at this year’s Pheasants Forever Heartland Chapter #491 banquet (the stock is too long for Charles, so it’s mine now and he shoots the SKB).  The one feature that I am struggling to adjust to is that the O/U switch is a left/right push to the same button as the safety.  Well, if I bump the O/U switch and it isn’t fully locked into one position or the other, the safety won’t release.

So, I pull on this rooster that is in easy range and I fumble because my safety won’t release.  I completely lost my cool and believe I ruined my pheasant mojo for the rest of the trip because of it.  We worked the last treeline, but I was so out of the game that I missed another 2 or 3 roosters.  I didn’t even feel like taking pictures (a sign of when I’m really not with it) until after we went to town for lunch and I cooled down at camp.

Sam and Charles back at camp with his Monday rooster limit

Charity and Sam with her last rooster of the trip

We had considered hanging around the cabin the rest of the afternoon, but after all of my frustration, I didn’t want to allow myself to get into a funk.  We decided to return to the duck pond that we had discovered the previous day, this time from the opposite side.  At first we tried to be sneaky about it and creep as close as we could to the pond, but the land next to the pond was complete swamp and not conducive to standing around or sneaking.  We opted for the bum rush to see if we could get some to circle back around.  Once again, hundreds of ducks busted up and I blammoed until my vest was empty, but didn’t hit anything.  Charles managed to hit a female canvasback duck, a first for us.

Charles and his canvasback duck with Sam, Sue and BB

Closeup of the female canvasback duck

Tuesday, October 18th

Tuesday morning we skipped the roost jump, opting for sleeping in.  I then made the mistake of taking a prescription strength, horsepill sized ibuprofen with my coffee in hopes of relieving the stiffness in my neck, shoulders and back.  Charles had picked a little pond in the middle of a harvested cornfield, thinking that it held loafing promise.  We had driven in on a minimum maintenance road a quarter of a mile from the main road, took about 10 steps out of the truck, when Sam and BB locked up on a small clump of swamp grass on the border between the cut corn and the pond.  Charles walked in on it, flushed a rooster and took it down within 2 minutes of leaving the vehicle.  For some reason the shock of the discharge of his firearm sent me into a spell, which I knew right away was an overdose of ibuprofen.  My heart and head pounded, I was almost too dizzy to walk and my stomach was a knot.  I tried hard to stick with it, seeing that BB and Sam again were locked up on the cattails next to the pond.  Two flushes, two shots, splash, splash.  I was so out of it, I thought that he had shot a duck and a rooster, but it was a double on roosters.  I wished that I had my camcorder in my hands instead of my gun.  Sam rounded up the water retrieves, he did pretty fast work on these, as he’s finally realizing that it is easier to slow down and use his nose in the water, instead of quickly swimming and running the banks.  “Time for lunch,” I said, not wanting to clue Charles into the fact that I was hating life at the moment.

“No, there are more birds here,” he pushes on.  So, I stumble 20 yards down the pond into some swamp grass.  I see the birds running, I see the dogs pointing, a rooster flushes right in my face and there was just no way I could focus.  Finally, I tell Charles what is going on, so he takes my gun and we walk (I stumble) the 50 yards back to the truck.  I got enough food and fluids in me to counteract the effects, then just curled up in the truck the rest of the day while Charles jumped ducks with no luck.

Charles's personal record limit in 10 minutes on Tuesday

Wednesday, October 19th

I was back in business Wednesday morning and we were sure to be at it up and early for a roost jump.  It was a large brome field with low, rolling terrain, surrounded by standing corn and cut wheat.  Charles took his first bird within 15 minutes of getting out, which was a good sign for what the field held.  A lone sharptail jumped in front of me within range, but I hesitated in identifying it in time to get a good shot off.  The dogs locked up on point that Charles and I squeezed in on.  The rooster flushed about 10 yards away, where it could have been either person’s shot.  The rooster charged me, flew right at my face and I missed.  He flew between us and I swung at him on the other side of us and I missed again.  As the rooster was making his exit from range, Charles pulled up on him and got it (Damn!).  We continued toward the corn and saw a flock of sharptails fly into the other end of the field, probably 200 yards away.  It was nice to see, but not what we were after, since we chase those frequently in Nebraska.

We turned back towards the truck and walked until we were almost there when all three dogs lock up on point.  Charles wrapped up his limit that day in about 45 minutes.

Sam, Sue and BB with Charles and his Wednesday limit

As planned, we headed to town for lunch to meet fellow griffoniers (that’s what Wirehaired Pointing Griffon people are called) Tom and Susan.  They opted to leave their griffs, Mr. Favor and Zephyr, at home to let our three dogs work.  We returned to the hills where I took my first rooster of the trip, and walked to where we spooked birds the first time.  All three dogs were closing in on a tall grass and weed patch in the dip of the hills.  I walked into the middle of three solid points, kicking the ground as I went.  I saw what I thought was a scrubby bunch of short grass that they were all locking down on and I nearly kicked it.  “Porcupine!!  No, Sam, no BB, no Sue, get off of it!!”  The big dogs have played porky’s game before, so they didn’t bother with it much more.  Six-month old BB lingered over it momentarily, looking inquisitive, but seemed to know not to dive in (especially since mom was having a cow).

Just over the hill was the magic bush, where Charles peppered the rooster in the butt on day 1.  I made the mistake of wading in, when I should have scooted around the brush.  The rooster flushed, but I was too mired down in twigs to get a good shot off.  So we marched toward where we saw him land, on the last high hill before the truck.  I was walking about 10 yards down the slope from the crest, when I saw Sam lock on a perfect point.  I knew it was that rooster again.  He alighted towards the standing corn across the road below and seemed to just float away.  I’m shooting too low, not leading them with the gun, birdwatching instead of putting my head on the gun and shooting.  Another disappointment for the dogs, they seemed to look at me like, how could you miss that?

We had given that area a pretty good shakedown and it was time to put Susan and Tom on to some birds, so we went to a creek bottom down a steep minimum maintenance road.  Tom had two birds and Susan had one within a matter of 20 minutes.  The most exciting part was that BB found and started to retrieve Tom’s second rooster, but Sue thought she’d be a bully and finish bringing it in.

Sue brings in the rooster. Photo by Susan Davy

Susan and Tom with Sam, Sue and BB

Charity, Charles and the dogs. Photo by Susan Davy

Charles had reached his pheasant possession limit that day, so in order to have one last hunt in the morning and be in good standing, we had to cook some pheasant that night.

Possession Limit Pheasant Camp Chili

3 pheasants, deskinned, deboned and cut into 1 inch cubes

2 packets of white chili seasoning

1 bottle of water

1 can of northern white beans

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

Heat cast iron skillet over camping stove or fire.  Pour vegetable oil into skillet and add pheasant.  Cook the pheasant over low heat for 5 minutes, stirring frequently until browned.  Add seasoning and water.  Simmer over low heat for another 5 minutes, add beans.  Allow to simmer on low, stirring frequently until the beans are hot.  Serve with corn chips.

Wednesday evening bird total prior to plucking and packaging

Thursday, October 20th

For the last morning out before the road home, we opted to return to the field where we had hunted with Carl on Sunday morning.  As we pulled in to park the truck, we could see 15 roosters and hens scurry across the farmer access path into the freshly harvested sunflowers.  I opted to walk 10 yards into the harvested sunflowers while Charles walked the farmer access path, with a fence surrounded by thick grass between us.  Once we let the dogs out, young BB went berserk because of the number of birds.  While Sam and Sue held pretty close and pointed up a rooster for Charles in the grass, BB burst ahead and busted up 5-10 roosters and and twice as many hens way out of range.  On her way back to Charles, she popped one up my way, but I’d long since lost my pheasant mojo.  We cut up into the grassy flat and low hills where Charles had harvested birds on our first excursion into the field.  True to form, he took another one and I missed another gimme shot.  It was getting close to the time we wanted to pack up, so we headed back to the farmer path.  Over at the homeplace on the far side of the sunflower field, the hired men were firing up the tractors to finish up the harvest and we had high hopes that we’d at least see one more rooster for Charles.  “Where are the dogs?” he asked me.

“Right there,” I pointed into the grass along the fence, on the other side next to the harvested sunflowers, “and they’re all on point.”

Charles hopped the short fence, walked into their points and got his limit for the day, just in time to go home.  I didn’t even take a picture, I was ready to pack up and go home on several levels.

Adventure isn’t always fun or easy, frequently it challenges you to improve your skills.  I will be spending plenty of time at the gym and the skeet range between now and next season.  I will not be defeated by the rooster.

“Yeah, they’ve come to snuff the rooster.  You know he ain’t gonna die.” -Alice in Chains

Nebraska Duck Opener: A Versatile Hunting Weekend

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You know that it’s that special time of year when you’re driving through the dark at 8:30 PM and the farmers are still in the field harvesting grain.  Another late night run from the Eastern Nebraska metro to the Sandhills for three die-hard duck jumpers.  Charles and I were joined by one of our usual hunting buddies, SSGT Ryan Tompkins, who returned from Army deployment in Afghanistan earlier this year and is also an Iraqi Freedom veteran.  Since duck didn’t open until Saturday, we enjoyed sleeping in on Friday and getting out into the dunes close to midday.  The grouse don’t care what time we show up.

Almost as soon as we started hiking, we bumped a pair of sharpies at about 200 yards.  We figured that if we chased them long enough, we would wear them down and get close, but this pair really led us on.  One and half hours and three flushes later, they totally gave us the slip.  “I am not spending my whole day chasing two grouse,” I told the guys.

They agreed.  What we originally set out in front of us as a nice, easy day took a tone of seriousness as we marched deep.  The wind out of the south was fierce, so we set our faces towards it and placed our bets on them sitting either on the north side of the dunes or down in little bowls.  As we climbed higher, a pair jumped up in front of Ryan and he brought one down.  Typical to the long process of grouse hunting, our first bird of the day was two hours into the trip.  We continued southeast into some high chop, expecting to see something but didn’t.  As we came to the eastern end of the dunefield, Charles suggested that we come down from the heights and swing back west low on the flat to the north of the dunes, as this was prairie chicken country too.

As we strolled back westward on the flat my mind was not on birds.  It was hot, windy and at this point we’d been on the march for three hours.  Two chickens jumped in front of me and I was admiring them drift over the little hill, as the guys are yelling, “Shoot!!!  Shoot!!!”  I took Hail Mary shot just as the bird was cresting the hill and it went down hard in a poof of feathers.  I called my six-month old griffon puppy over to me for a retrieve attempt and she gave the downed bird a solid point.  I gave her the fetch command and she started to scoop the bird into her mouth, but in her hestitation, three year old Sam came in and snagged the retrieve.

I was very satisfied with my big male prairie chicken and knew that if I decided to stay with the guys that it would be anything but an easy day, as Ryan and I each had a bird in the bag and Charles had nothing.  My slow walk back to the truck was marked by the sound of the guys’ gunfire.  The easy route was through a valley filled with ponds, so as I was dodging some wet spots on the side of a dune, I pushed up a group of about 20 sharpies.  I cracked off a couple lackadasical shots, but didn’t connect and didn’t care that I hadn’t.  Wanting to be sure that the guys had more birds, I went back in their direction to give a report of this new flock.

When I met up with them, probably an hour after I broke away and headed towards the truck, Charles had his limit of three and Ryan had gotten one more.  Charles got to see one of his favorite sights, which is when both of our two adult dogs have birds in their mouths.  They were all satisfied and ready to call it a day.  We figured that between all of our flushes, we had seen 40-50 birds that day, which is more than we had seen any day all grouse season.

Charity with her prairie chicken, Charles with a limit of three sharptails and Ryan with two

The opening day of duck season came early, as it should.  We chowed on a large McDonald’s breakfast and hit the road.  Our first jump came on a set of potholes, chock full of snipe.  Charles called us off of the snipe, for fear of scaring any ducks that may be resting in the puddles.  Only fifteen minutes out of the truck, we spotted a duck-like flutter in the water.  In a flush of little ducks, all three of us each got a blue-winged teal.  Such pretty little ducks, teal are definitely one of my most targeted.  Unfortunately, the snipe had scattered as we made our way back to the truck, but a random dove found its way into my sights and I decided to take it.

The second pond we jumped has been a “problem pond” for several years.  Either we jump it with nothing sitting in it, or we roll up on it in the truck only to have ducks everywhere.  As it is a pond that we know well, we went tactical on it, with BB and I sneaking up on the west side and the guys with Sam on the east.  Crouched on the banks in the grass, we signaled to one another that we were ready to jump.  So in we went.  The first flush was a big group of teal.  Ryan and Charles each took one of those.  As they searched for their downed ducks I made my way down the bank, missing an easy shot at a beautiful drake woodduck, which made me mad for the rest of the day.  Took down two coot, then headed back to the other end of the pond to see how the retrieves were going.  They were still short a duck, so they asked that I head back to the truck for the more methodical dog, Sue.  Slow working Sue took no time at all to find the missing duck while Sam tracked down my two coot in the water.

On we went to the creek that we were going to walk.  The entry point is a large pond, so we snuck into that.  Ducks everywhere!  I took two, Charles took two and Ryan took one.  We had to stop, collect Sam and Sue’s hard fought retrieves and identify what we had in order to be sure that we weren’t violating any waterfowl regulations.  All five were ringnecked ducks, the first that we had ever taken.

We worked our way down the creek and I busted another flock of teal.  I was sure that I had wounded one, but it wasn’t retrieved until a couple of more flushes of it, an hour or so later on our way back down the creek.  It’s amazing to watch a dog aggressively seek out a bird that was downed so long ago, without dogs we never would find a bird like that.

Ryan took a couple of more cracks at coot, but a herd of cattle had worked their way down the creek in advance of us, so where we thought there would be dozens of ducks there was nothing.  We worked the area for another hour or two with no results.  It was our usual Saturday steakhouse night, so we were ready to head back to town, clean up and go out for some beef.

Ryan's 2 blue-winged teal, 1 ringnecked duck and a coot, Charles took 2 blue-winged teal, 2 ringnecked ducks and a coot, Charity's 2 blue-winged teal, 2 ringnecked ducks, 2 coot and a dove

We headed out early again Sunday morning for some new territory.  The ducks had obviously been shot at previously, because in addition to terrain challenges (lack of cover) we had no chance at ducks for four or five ponds.  There were five coot taken that day, which Sam worked very hard to retrieve.  We even went so far as to try to belly crawl for 30 yards through cow pies and cacti, but still busted a flock of mallards way out of range.  It was a full day and a full weekend, so we were ready to head back to camp for some grouse fajitas.

Although our last day felt like a bust, looking at the weekend as a whole there was no reason to complain, as a successful versatile hunting trip had been achieved.

On our last day, each of the guys took 2 coot with 1 for the gal

Easy Grouse Fajitas:

6 grouse breasts, sliced thinly against the grain of the meat

4 packets of fajita spice mix

1 can of beer

A sliced red bell pepper and a sliced green bell pepper

Tortillas

In a bowl, mix sliced grouse breast strips, 1 can of beer and the 4 fajita spice packets.  Marinate for two hours.  Place a small amount of oil in the skillet, evenly spread a handful of the grouse breast strips and cook to medium rare.  Do not overload skillet, cook strips in 3-4 batches.  Set meat aside to cool while you sautee the peppers and warm tortillas.  Serves 6-8

Coot Vindaloo:

The cleaning of the meat is the most important part of this recipe.  The skinned and de-boned coot breasts should be free from visible fat and “silver skin” (transluscent whitish thin layer of fat that covers many game meats, such as venison) and should also be washed in cold water to get rid of excess blood.

Vindaloo is a very spicy Indian dish and should not be attempted by those with weak palettes.  Also keep in mind that it is a two day process, so start a day before you want to eat it.

Day One:

Breasts of 4-6 coot

1 pod of garlic

3 inch piece of ginger root

3 teaspoons prepared mustard

2 tablespoons cumin

2 teaspoons coriander

De-bone, de-fat and wash the breasts of 4-6 coot, cube into 1/4 inch pieces, set aside to bleed out a bit while you prepare the spices

Shred ginger root with a fine grater.  Crush and finely chop garlic pod.  Mix in a small bowl with the rest of the spices, adding vinegar to create a fine paste.  Drain the excess blood off of the coot cubes and rinse one final time.  Mix coot in the spice paste, then place in a glass jar and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Day Two:

10 dry red chilis

1 medium white or yellow onion

1 tablespoon of butter

1/2 teaspoon of tumeric

Jasmine or Basmati rice

Naan bread (optional)

Roast the chilis in a skillet.  Once roasted, place chilis in a mortar with a small amount of vinegar and grind to a fine paste with the pestle; set aside.  Start the jasmine or basmati rice per the directions on the bag.  Finely chop onion.  Place butter in a skillet over medium heat and brown the onion until transluscent.  Add tumeric to the onions and cook briefly.  Add your jarred coot meat and the chili paste.  Cook covered on very low heat until the meat is done, typically 5-10 minutes.  Once the rice is cooked, plate a serving of rice with a serving of the meat mixture on top.  Eat with a side of Indian Naan bread if you choose.  Serves 4

North Dakota: Day 1

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When I talked to Charles on the phone at 5 PM and he told me about his success in the field, I told him to take the picture before the sun went down.  Somewhere in North Dakota, hanging from a tree in the dark are two gadwall ducks and a sharptail grouse.

A little too late for a good shot...

He called while I was cooking supper and he knew not to call back and interrupt the premiere of “Sherlock” on Masterpiece Mystery, so I don’t have the details of the hunt.  The full text of his e-mail about the birds was as follows:

“Not bad for a short afternoon hunt.  1 sharptail and 2 gadwalls.  A double on the ducks.  Skeet pays off again.”

If you are not familiar with gadwalls, here’s the page on the Ducks Unlimited website describing them: http://www.ducks.org/news/1069/duckofthemonthgadwal.html

We’ll see what they come across tomorrow!

Pupdate, Litter 2010: Alpha Male “Whiskey”

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The pups will be six months old on the 30th and our good buddy, Pete, out in Nevada gave us an update on Spring 2010 litter’s alpha male without us even asking.  I will be getting e-mails out to my other owners over the weekend to try and get other pictures and updates, but this is enough to make a dog mama proud!  Thanks, Pete!

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Whiskey’s first water retrieve at 6 months

“A little update on Whiskey.  Chukar opener was on the 9th and was one of the most disappointing in years. I only harvested 9 birds in three days. Whiskey was outstanding. It rained all week and birds were scattered and if it weren’t for the dog I would have come out of that hunt with no Chukar. We retrieved every bird that I shot and a half dozen for one of my hunting partners that didn’t have a dog. All birds that Whiskey  recovered for my hunting partner where done on scent alone. We got into the Quail on Sunday and Whiskey was hunting with two older very accomplished dogs and my 6 month old pup performed like it was his 5th season.

Last weekend was Nevada waterfowl  opener and since the Chukar hunting was so bad I decided to give the Ducks a try. I have had Whiskey in the water several times retrieving dummies but he has never even seen a duck before Saturday. After only hunting for a few minutes Saturday morning I dumped a pair of huge mallards at first Whiskey was not crazy about retrieving something that almost outweighed him but after dragging the first pair of ducks back to me by the wing he was hooked on Duck hunting. Sorry for the lack of pictures, like a big dummy I left my camera at home for the chukar opener and only had my blackberry for duck. I promise better pics in the future. Whiskey is doing great on all of his verbal and e collar commands and is picking up hand signals very fast. We are still working on holding point, he is creeping on birds but for 6 months old I am amazed on how well he is doing. On the home front Whiskey is a terrific companion and one of the funniest personalities I have ever seen in a dog.

Whiskey is making me look like a genius.  Just get these dogs on birds,  teach them commands, and socialize them properly and 90% of the battle is won. There is so much potential with these dogs, I was kinda dreading this hunting season, breaking in a new dog but I can’t wait until Friday when I throw all of my stuff in my truck and get him hunting again (5 weeks in a row now). Pheasant season opens in November.”

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Whiskey’s first duck hunt — he looks like Sam Jr. to me!

Sandhills Duck Opener 2010

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It was a very rainy Saturday morning in the Sandhills, with plenty of hunter activity due to antelope and duck season being open simultaneously.  We started out heading into a normally productive grouse dunefield, but our efforts were thwarted by a large scattered herd of cattle.  Essentially, we spent our first hour and a half of the day pushing cows around some high dunes.  I have been doing lots of urban hiking these days, working on the 7th floor of a high rise, so I was feeling pretty good about keeping up with the crew.

We stopped at a couple of ponds on our way to a creek that we wanted to jump shoot, but didn’t see anything except truck tracks on the road.  With my new level of fitness, I was relegated to pushing the far sides of the ponds.

The rain continued to come down, so that by midday, most of our gear was pretty well soaked through.  We walked this creek for a mile or so, when the dogs went on point.  When we walked in to flush a bird, nothing came up.  It was a skunk and I spotted it first.  I raised my gun and asked Charles if I should shoot it, but he took the liberty.  Of course, we shoot the skunk and 40 yards over, a group of four ducks gets up and flies away.  So we continue our march down the creek and see nothing for a couple of miles but a green heron.  The next single duck to get up was way out of range.

The creek petered out, so we turned back around to head for the truck for a break.  We got a few good points from the dogs on some porcupines.  We’re checking in with our Native American friends to see if there is a viable market for porcupine quills, but the porcupines are safe for now.  The dogs have had some valuable past lessons in the pain of porcupines, so they only pointed them and didn’t mess with them this time.

Luckily, I had brought a change of pants, because I learned from our last rainy adventure in the Sandhills, wet brush-buster pants weigh a ton.  Right as we get back to the truck, I spotted a pair of birds flying over my head and I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  I should have just taken the shots, but I had to turn and ask Charles first, “Is that a snipe and a dove?!?”  Sure enough, it was a snipe and a dove, flying together right over my head.  I shot at them and missed.  It felt like a beginning of a joke, “There was a snipe and a dove flying together one day…”

I changed my pants, fed the dogs a funky old fried chicken thigh from the truck and we started back on what was starting to feel like a death march to me.  We trudged a couple of more miles down the creek and saw nothing.  Now, I have some pretty hardcore hunting boots, the kangaroo skin Cabela’s kind, but even they were no match for rain, swamp and a few unwieldy creek crossings (also known as just walking through the creek).

Since we knew the creek was empty, we headed up into the dunes to try to find some grouse.  We had one get up for us, way out of range.  I was starting to feel pretty dizzy at this point and had fallen behind Charles and the dogs considerably.  The winding creek in the valley, the wind in the grass, rosehips on the stem…it was all just becoming a pseudo-psychedelic blur of nature being high on my own endorphines.   I was on my own (Charles knew that I was aware of the location of the truck) and began hearing voices.

I caught up to Charles and the dogs talking to two men on an ATV.  The ATV guys reported that three other guys on individual ATV’s had been through the valley earlier trying to hunt for antelope.  Hence the lack of game.

Back to the truck we marched.  Finally the rain had stopped, after six hours of hard hunting in the rain.  After a few miles of driving along the trail, we split off to try a pond that we knew existed over in some trees a quarter mile or so away.  What we didn’t know was that in between the road and the known pond was another, smaller pond that we drove up on and blew a flock of about 7 ducks out.  There were some curse words flying on that one.

I made one last attempt to jump shoot the pond, but by that time, my feet were raw, I was soaked, my muscles were sore and my hands were going numb when I was holding the gun.  I was done.  I went back to the truck and let Sam and Charles try for that pond.  Still nothing.

Down went the gun and I grabbed my camera.  These shots were taken while I was standing on the road barefoot about 50-75 yards away.

 

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Charles and Sam sneak in for a jump

 

 

Ducks

Too many eyes...the flock of ducks gets up out of range

 

 

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Sam and Charles heading back in

 

 

ATV hunters

Charles has a second visit with the ATV chaps

 

I really want to insert a diatribe here about how guys on ATV’s ruin the good time of the foothunter, but I will save that for another day when it isn’t hunting season.  There are more hunting tales to tell.

Saturday we were skunked.  Literally.  All we shot was that damn skunk.  What really impressed me was that the spirit of the dogs never wore down.  The picture of Sam and Charles returning up above was after 8 hours of rainy hiking with the dogs quartering.  Sam still wears a doggy smile on his face and is full of spirit.  These hunting Wirehaired Pointing Griffons are truly amazing athletes.

We didn’t drive six hours to go home with nothing, so Sunday morning I sent Charles and Sam out on their own.  Sam and Charles stalked a creek through very thick cover, with Sam working the oxbows while Charles walked the straightaways.  The stream was backed up with beaver dams in spots.  The first group of six wood ducks got up and Charles shot a young drake.  Sam didn’t see the duck drop, so Charles gave him the “fetch” command so that he knew to search.  He retreived the duck from the far side of the creek and swam back to Charles to deliver to hand.

They continued to work down the creek, avoiding the herd of deer.  A drake and a hen got up out of range at the end of a narrow clearing.  The stalk continued, working the bank and creek bottom close together.  Another group of five wood ducks flushed from the creek and Charles picked the mature drake out of the flock to harvest.  Once again, the duck landed on the far side of the creek where Sam had to search hard to retrieve.  Sam did require some direction on the retrieve, but he worked hard to find the bird and once again delivered it to the hand.

Due to the dense vegetation and the lay of the land, they yet again came upon another flock of wood ducks by surprise.  Charles shot a hen and again it landed on the far side of the creek, in heavy brush.  The “fetch” command was repeated and Sam really got it at this point.  He didn’t require any location direction, retrieved the duck, and crossed a beaver dam to the hand.

I was very happy to see them return to the house with a full game bag after the comedy of errors we had on Saturday!

 

Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

Sam, Charles and three wood ducks

 

This weekend I will be recovering from yet another hard hunting trip of getting skunked, while Charles and Sam head out for Eastern Nebraska prairie chicken.

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