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North Dakota Trip, AWPGA Nationals, Nebraska Pheasants and other news…

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When you go three weeks without blogging, stuff piles up, so I apologize if this seems a bit like a random barrage.  What most people come to my website for is to find out about new litters, so I suppose I will start there.  Mae is starting to have changes and Sam wants to be in the kennel with her, so by the looks of things we will have a breeding between them within the next month.  So, let’s project that they breed at the beginning of December; that would have puppies being whelped at the beginning of February and going home at the beginning of April.  This is all just my somewhat educated guesstimation and by no means guaranteed.  Mae is 6, so I suspect that she will have a litter around the same size as last year, which was 4.  BB (who lives with us) and Velma (who lives with a friend) are set to have their first litters this year.  They should come into season anytime between now and April.  I will not breed after late March because any pups after that would interfere with being able to take a summer vacation before school starts for the kids and hunting season starts for us.  Right now I have 12 reservations with deposit and other folks trying to decide.  I could have anywhere from 12-30 pups if all goes as I plan, but it isn’t up to me.  Feel free to call (402) 682-9802 or e-mail bluestemkennels@cox.net if you would like to discuss things further (I know I still have a couple of callbacks and e-mails, so bear with me another day or so to let me get those returned).

October 19-24 Charles, BB and Sam met up with Lou, Murph and Midge in North Dakota for a pheasant/duck hunt combo.  Also along was deer camp friend, Ozzie, and Lou’s father, Lew (AKA Lou Senior or Old Lou).  They saw some stuff.  They shot at some stuff.  They stayed in a cabin and cooked on a Coleman stove.  I’ll spare you the second-hand details and get down to the bird totals and photos.

Saturday, October 19, 2013: Charles and Young Lou got 3 sharp-tailed grouse.

Sam brings in the sharpie retrive with BB on backup.  Photo courtesy of Oscar Hollenbeck

Sam brings in the sharpie retrieve with BB on backup. Photo courtesy of Oscar Hollenbeck

Sam bringing the sharpie into Charles.  Photo courtesy of Oscar Hollenbeck

Sam bringing the sharpie into Charles. Photo courtesy of Oscar Hollenbeck

Young Lou, Murf, Sam, BB, Midge, Old Lou, Charles and the sharpie

Young Lou, Murf, Sam, BB, Midge, Old Lou, Charles and the sharpie.  Photo courtesy of Oscar Hollenbeck

The day's stringer of sharpies back at camp.  Photo by Charles

The day’s stringer of sharpies back at camp. Photo by Charles

Sunday, October 20, 2013 – skunked

Monday, October 21, 2013: Charles got 2 roosters

Charles and the first pheasant of the trip.  Photo courtesy of Oscar Hollenbeck

Charles and the first pheasant of the trip. Photo courtesy of Oscar Hollenbeck

Tuesday, October 22, 2013: Charles got a rooster pheasant and a mallard hen late in the day.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013: Charles got one rooster

Thursday, October 24, 2013: Young Lou got two roosters (no photo available)

Random pic of Lou cooking since there is no pheasant pic.  It snowed Saturday night, so this must be Sunday morning.

Random pic of Lou cooking since there is no pheasant pic. It snowed Saturday night, so this must be Sunday morning.

The trip was more about the memories and the time spent together than the bird totals anyway.  I hope that the guys enjoyed themselves even without game bags overflowing.

The griffon masters

The griffon masters

As Charles was driving home from North Dakota, Cordelia and I were on the road to the American Wirehaired Pointing Griffon National Specialty in Greeley, Colorado.  We missed the fun hunt, specialty show and annual meeting, but managed to see the supported entry show on Saturday and go to the banquet.  We also had an awesome sojourn into Boulder to shop and eat on Pearl St. and do some hiking in Boulder Canyon and at the Flatirons.

Cordelia and Charity in Colorado for AWPGA Nationals

Cordelia and Charity in Colorado for AWPGA Nationals

It was great to catch up with some griffoniers and talk dog nerd talk freely.   AWPGA National Specialty 2014 is on for Kennebunk and Union, Maine from August 25-31.  In addition to the events held this year in Colorado, they’ve got the Korthals Cup back on and there will be AKC and NAVHDA hunt testing opportunities available (in place of the fun hunt), and an interesting grooming and handling seminar.  I hope to make it out, but it is cutting it awfully close to the opening of dove and grouse Sept. 1.  I encourage any and all griffon enthusiasts to join the AWPGA and attend a specialty, so much fun!  Here are Susan Edginton’s photos of this year’s specialty dog show, if you want to check those out:

http://sedgintonphotos.photoreflect.com/store/ThumbPage.aspx?e=9111641&g=1ZZR001G02

Last weekend also had plenty of excitement!  Charles and Matt went out on Saturday in search of rooster pheasants and actually found some!  Nebraska Game and Parks planted 4000 pheasants this year on public land across Eastern Nebraska (finally).  If you’ve read my blog during pheasant season over the past few years, you know how much I like to whine about the decline of pheasants in our part of the state and how much NGPC needed to stock.  Well they have heard the desperate pleas of the hunters and “did us a solid” (as my kids would say).  The Pheasants Forever Rooster Road Trip party took 17 pheasant out of Northeastern Nebraska in one day off of public land.  We are very excited for this pheasant season in Eastern Nebraska, now that we know that we actually have a chance.  Both Matt and Charles took their limits and Charles got a quail too.  In total he said that they saw 20 pheasants and 50 quail.

Mid-day bag in Southeastern Nebraska

Mid-day bag in Southeastern Nebraska

End of day bag.  One of Matt's roosters somehow got away.

End of day bag. One of Matt’s roosters somehow got away.

By the time they pulled into the driveway, it was dark and the kids and I were in the middle of dinner, so no great photography went down.  Sorry.

On the same day we found out that our new male was born!!  He will be coming from Bourg-Royal Kennel in St. Lambert-de-Lauzon, Quebec, Canada, the same kennel as BB.  Different parents, both French imports.  We are very excited to bring him home around the first of the year!

Cristal and the 4 puppies: 1 male and 3 females

Cristal and the 4 puppies: 1 male and 3 females

Announcement in the last Griffonnier with the parents' credentials

Announcement in the last Griffonnier with the parents’ credentials

And the blog post wouldn’t be complete without some pupdates.  Here’s Midge (who went on the North Dakota trip), from Sam and Mae’s 2013 “F” litter with a big haul of pheasants from Montana.  Charles said she is a hard charging little dog with a great coat and lots of prey drive.

Midge and Montana Pheasants

Midge and Montana Pheasants

Midge’s older sister TracHer from Sam and Mae’s 2012 “C” litter has been having a great season up in North Dakota and is showing off all her skills.  According to Susan, “Gorgeous day today….we limited out 50 miles from home. TracHer retrieved 4 of the six birds, one in water with cattails.”

18 month old TracHer on retrieve of a North Dakota rooster

18 month old TracHer on retrieve of a North Dakota rooster

TracHer on left with Tom, Susan with Zepher (griff unrelated to my dogs) and their friends, the week prior to the close-up photo

TracHer on left with Tom, Susan with Zepher (griff unrelated to my dogs) and their friends, the week prior to the close-up photo

And one of my first dog babies, Whiskey from Sam and Sue’s “A” litter 2010, took his girl Andi out on her first duck hunt out in Nevada.  They did so awesome and I love how much Whiskey is Sam Jr!

Andi, Whiskey and some ducks

Andi, Whiskey and some ducks

Well, that pretty much wraps it up for right now.  Charles and I are heading out on Saturday in hopes of some pheasants and ducks.  We are still debating about where, but it will be pretty close to home.  I’ll keep you posted.  Until then, stay warm, winter is coming!

Nebraska and North Dakota Pheasants

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One doesn’t hunt in order to kill, on the contrary, one kills to have hunted.

-Jose Ortega y Gasset

There is a nauseating thread in upland bird hunting writing these days that the hunt really isn’t about the size of the game bag at the end of the day, but is really some sort of quasi-religious experience where we are communing with nature and bonding with our fellow hunters and our dogs, waiting for some sort of epiphany to occur out in the field.  I first saw it start to crop up in the blogosphere, but it has since bled over into magazine and newspaper articles.

It sounds to me like an excuse used by people who aren’t hunting smart and hard or by state game officials when they aren’t properly managing habitat.  The drought this year has led to almost all of the CRP land in southeastern Nebraska to be hayed or grazed, leaving hunters with very few options to chase roosters nearby.  The general agricultural climate of eastern Nebraska as a whole, with grain prices as high as they are, has become an annual limiting factor regardless of the weather conditions for the year.  We can’t ask farmers not to farm, that’s their job, but the Nebraska Game and Parks needs to consider expanding their current pheasant stocking program to all wildlife management areas in the Lincoln-Omaha area.

You didn’t know that NGPC was stocking pheasants?  They claim it is for the youth hunting weekend, but we suspect that it is a pilot stocking program looking to salvage what is left of upland bird hunting culture in the urban part of our state.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: NGPC has no problem managing several fish hatcheries and openly stocking fish.  Heck, I get updates on Facebook when they stock trout and exactly where they do it.  Stock more pheasants in southeastern Nebraska.  How did they get here in the first place, did they fly from China?!? (That’s a rhetorical question of course.  The current rooster-bearing states were stocked many times in order to establish a sustainable population.)

Here’s a shot of a rooster that we planted in April on a friend’s land along the Platte River in Cass County, where we have never seen pheasants at all before, Charles and Sam harvested him last weekend.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon, Sam, and the first Nebraska rooster from Saturday

I know that NGPC and Pheasants Forever think that the sole focus needs to be on habitat, but if there aren’t any birds to manage habitat for, then what is the point?!?  We were so excited for our friend, Matt, who took our oldest female griffon Sue out last Friday to some of the WMA’s that had been stocked.  He got his first limit of roosters ever and was completely ecstatic.  Tell him that the size of the game bag doesn’t matter.

Which is why Charles, like many other “dog men”, take the dogs north for wild bird training for a week each year.  All of the kumbayaing over hunting spirituality in the world doesn’t replace sheer grit and determination to give your dogs the most wild bird contact possible each year.  Charles has chosen North Dakota as his annual destination.  One of my fellow griffoniers brought his two dogs out to Montana from the east coast and didn’t realize the huge learning curve that it takes to get a dog educated to the behavior of particular upland game birds, the wily rooster pheasant especially.  They took one rooster over a few days, then he boxed his dogs and brought out the guide’s dogs.  Over the guides dogs they took several roosters and some Hungarian partridge too.  Appreciation of the dew on the grass and the wind on your face doesn’t give the dogs that education.  Getting up before the sun comes up on day 4 of a pheasant hunt, stinking because you haven’t taken a shower the whole time, stiff and sore from the physical exertion and because you’ve been sleeping in the back of your SUV is not fun or religious.  But it is necessary.  Just like killing.

Sam and BB with the birds hanging at the end of day 2 in North Dakota.

I’ve been known to cry over getting skunked on a day.  I’ve felt guilty as hell when my dogs have worked their asses off tracking a rooster, then pin it down with perfect double points, only to have me wreck it on the shot.  The dogs hate it too, you can tell they get upset with me.

 Although ancient hunters recognized the religious and spiritual nature of the hunt, they did so in order to increase the size of their harvest.  In the fall and winter, we all still look up at the constellation Orion at night and hope he blesses our efforts.  But to succeed is to kill.  There is no way around that with hunting.

Charles and the dogs’ bird total from 3 days in North Dakota: 2 ducks, 3 sharptail grouse and 8 roosters. They took a few more before they packed up and left the following day.

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!

Nebraska Sandhills Opener 2012

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The Nebraska Sandhills

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Charles, Charity and the dogs started opening day at the usual opening day spot, which is a half-mile wide, flat valley with a set of high dunes to the north, running east to west, and a set of shorter dunes to the south, also running east to west.  Charles was assigned the higher northern dune set and Charity the southern set.  This is the first year that they split up in 13 years of hunting together and will probably continue to hunt this way.  Charity’s pace is about half that of Charles’s, so the ability to determine their own speeds was the first reason.  The second reason is that running four dogs puts too much pressure on these skittish birds at once.  So, Charity took the older females, Mae and Sue, and Charles worked four year old male, Sam, and eighteen month old female, BB.

There are various ways to pattern a dunefield when hunting grouse, but Charity selected a straight up an ambling criss-cross pattern for opening day, starting on the southern, low dunes walking west to east, then turning back, walking a bit higher going east to west, then back again in the high chop going west to east.  It was in the high chop an hour after starting out that she flushed her first single sharptail just barely out of range, firing shots that didn’t connect.  A few steps later, a group of four got up at seventy five yards, flying off of the highest dune in the southern set, disappearing out of view to who knows where.  Despite being a bit ragged from each having a litter of pups this summer, Sue and Mae sprang into action once bird activity began.  They covered the highest dune to check for stragglers with no success and the descent down the eastern slope began at a frantic pace.  So frantic that both dogs and hunter marched right past the sharptail that cackled up behind Charity, so that she had to take the 200 degree shotgun swing for the double-barrel attempt.  She saw it wobble and descend, sending the dogs after a retrieve.  Sue happily retrieved the first grouse of the season for team Versatile Hunter and it was captured on her new head-mounted video camera.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBoTg3pINGk

Meanwhile, Charles was working the taller northern dunefield, also starting from the west and working his way east in a meandering zig-zag pattern, making sure that either he or the dogs were covering any possible grouse territory in the complex.  As he ascended into the target area, a random group of doves flushed off of a high dune and he couldn’t help himself but to harvest one.  Not long after he heard the reports of Charity’s missed shot and her success following shortly thereafter, he descended from a dune peak and looked down onto a small flat amongst the choppy hills.  Three grouse busted at seventy-five yards, as if they sensed something, but not necessarily imminent danger as they merely popped up and over the next slope.  As soon as he entered the marked zone of potential landing, one got up and he shot it at close range straight on, with BB nearby for a quick retrieve.

After Charity and the older females watched the cattle hustle off of the pond on the eastern end of the dunefield and head for the windmill a couple of miles to the northwest, they stopped for a water break before continuing their criss-cross pattern, back to the west on some of the lower dunes, then finally crossing back eastward on the flat right next to the dunes.  Charity has taken prairie chickens out of there in years past, but there was nothing to be seen this year.  Once she finishing fully covering her assigned area, she and the dogs crossed the valley to meet up with Charles to get the update of his one grouse and one dove in the bag, but he had more ground to cover and an idea where birds were in the high chop.  Charity followed the low dunes towards the west and stopped again at a windmill for a break, noting the lack of doves at the spot.

Charles headed northwest from the windmill into an extension of the same northern dunefield that he had been working all morning.  He marched his way to the extreme northwest corner and worked his way back and not soon after he reached the endpoint and began hiking back, the dogs got birdy and three grouse flushed within fifty yards, which is in range for Charles even with a twenty gauge.  He took one out of that group and while BB was on retrieve, another flushed even closer.  His shot merely clipped the wing and the bird began to run.  Luckily, catching running wounded birds is one of Sam’s specialties, so while BB was delivering the first bird, Sam put the lockdown on the attempted escapee to round out Charles’s limit for the day.

The sun was arcing higher into the azure sky and getting uncomfortably warm to continue trekking.  It was time to return to the truck, which Charity couldn’t see from the windmill but knew it was to the south.  She wandered a bit off track, farther east into the valley than she needed to go, but eventually caught sight of the vehicle and made it back just in time to meet up there with Charles.

At first they had it in their mind to sit for doves, but after scoping their two best spots and seeing nothing, they opted to sit out doves this trip and wait until their return to the Missouri River Valley, where they are plentiful this year.

Charles shows off his opening day limit back in town, with BB and Sam, Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

Charity is back in town with her first sharptail grouse of the year, assisted by Sue and Mae, Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Day two started early again this year, at the “big hill”, the one over by the “hard road”.  As there aren’t many landmarks to speak of in the sea of grass, they are forced to come up with their own for navigational purposes.  The valley between the two dunefields was much narrower than the previous day’s, only a few hundred yards, but it was a similar approach with Charles covering the northern side of the valley and Charity the southern.  Charity decided to use a figure eight pattern on this area, starting at the south and working eastward towards the middle of the dunes, using the highest peak as the centerpoint of the figure eight, then covering the north side of the dunes.  It took her an hour to cover the first curve of the figure eight, stopping at a windmill for a brief break, taking a couple of sips of water.  She then continued south, then turning westward to continue her figure eight pattern, back to the high dune as the centerpoint, then covering the north side, completing her figure eight.  In two hours of hiking, she didn’t even see a flush in the distance.

Charles took his normal approach into his assigned area and not long after starting to work it, he watched BB run over a dune out of sight and she didn’t check back in quickly like she normally would, so he headed in that direction.  Three or four grouse came sky charging away from where BB was last seen, straight towards Charles, with BB in hot pursuit.  In order to work on steadiness, Charles elected not to reward bad behavior and chose not to shoot.  He marked their likely landing zone back to the west and pursued.  Not five minutes later, the dogs started acting birdy and were tracking hard, but once again charged the flushing birds, so he opted out of shooting once again.  He did finally get a point out of BB, which is an anomaly in the dry Sandhills, as scenting conditions are basically nonexistent.  Charles “whoaed” Sam into honoring BB’s point, then began to kick around the hill trying to flush the birds.  But the wind was playing tricks and blowing the scent of a flock from the top of one dune a hundred yards away over to the top of the dune where the dogs were pointing, so the birds saw the motion and activity of Charles trying to find them and flushed way out of range.  As he stood at the top of the ridge, he heard the chortling of a large group of grouse over in a dune range that they had never hunted before.

Charity and Charles met up and headed back to the truck for a bit of a break.  Charles reported that he heard distant cackling coming from a north/south running set of dunes that they had never worked before, a half-mile across the valley, off to the west.  They decided to each take one end of the field, Charity to the south and Charles to the north, zig-zagging to meet in the middle.  Charity made it up and into the dunefield and her dogs found a group of three in a pocket of knee-high sumac.  She fired off a downhill shot, but the birds were just out of range.  As she headed off to take chase, she all of a sudden lost all energy, felt dizzy and her heart was racing.  All she could think was, “There is no way that Charles could find me, let alone drag me out of here and I’m not sure the truck could get up here.  I’ve got to get back down to the valley so that at least if I passed out he would be able to see me”.

Charles ascended the northern end of the new hunting grounds, just making the climb when seven or eight birds broke unexpectedly soon.  Most of them headed deep into the high chop, but others oddly enough headed for some trees on the edge of the dunes.  He made his way toward the trees, not usual sharptail grouse habitat, and sent the dogs in to run them out.  Sure enough the grouse came running scared out from the trees, then flushed as they came to the prairie edge at about fifty yards out.  A pellet found its way to a bird on the shot, but it wasn’t down for the count and sailed into the distance.  The bird knew it was in trouble and flushed again at fifty yards, but was hit hard this time and Sam had no problem bringing it in.

They marched higher into the chop, bumping a mule deer buck and a jackrabbit, but BB and Sam knew better than to chase those.  Not long after, three grouse got up, then a fourth was a bit slower on the jump that Charles put his bead on and harvested, with Sam once again delivered to hand.

Charity stumbled a few steps at a time back towards the east, sitting down frequently and feeling lucky when she heard Charles shooting just to the west of her, then him finally seeing her stumbling away from the hunt.  Her pride wouldn’t allow her to tell him that she was having trouble and was hoping that she would be able to shake off the spell and resume hunting.  But after a good 20 minutes of cramping and stumbling and feeling like Gumby, she accepted defeat and just wanted to get back to the truck.  Of course, that was when birds got up within her range, but even though she took shots, there was no way that she was focused enough to hit anything.

The birds that she missed raced right past Charles, well within range, but he too was feeling the effects of dehydration and was unable to focus on the task at hand.  With two in the bag and the day getting warmer, it was time to go.

They were both coming out of the dunefield at the same time, he with two in the bag and she just happy to have made it out without a medical incident.

Monday, September 3, 2012

As normal for day three, the alarm rang forty-five minutes later than the first two days.  Everyone dragged to the truck, sore and tired.  But luckily the fresh spot is full of birds and everyone loosened up with the excitement of immediate action.  This is a very wide dunefield and they elect to both travel east to west, with Charles to the south and Charity to the north.  Charity takes her first and only bird of the day within 10 minutes of leaving the truck.  The bird got up front and center, but she failed to disengage the safety at the first shot attempt, but then recovered in time to get a shot off as it veered over to her left.  She wasn’t sure if it connected, but swore she saw the bird waver as it topped the dune, so they headed back in the direction of the truck.  Mae found the bird and licked the blood and feathers, hesitating a bit on the retrieve.  She was called off of the bird and Sue was sent in.  The strong natural retrieve is Sue’s greatest gift.

Simultaneously, Charles enters his area, pushing another nice mule deer buck out of his resting place and hits the jackpot not long after, putting up a flock of 12 grouse, which was the only large group of the whole trip.  The birds head east, the opposite direction of our intended march, but birds don’t follow our puny human plans, now do they?  As he comes into the marked area where he thought they landed, the dogs loop to the west of the dune and he elects to go east, hoping to pin the wily critters down.  Out of nowhere, Sam starts barking, which is never a response to birds.  While Sam is barking his head off (which Charity could hear in the distance and was hoping everything was okay), a lone grouse flushes behind Charles that he quickly swings behind and kills, marking the bird down and leaving it lay to figure out the source of Sam’s anxiety.  Just as he turns back from the bird to look at Sam and his yucca problem, BB emerges from behind the plant with a face full of porcupine quills.  Charles pinned BB down and pulled out quills from her face and paw, while Sam continued his barking but learning the porky lesson long ago, Charles was confident Sam wouldn’t tangle with it.  Once he released BB from her operation, she immediately went and found the bird for the retrieve while Charles called Sam off of the barking spasm.

Charity continued west through the dunes, having a few groups of 3-4 get up both in and out of range within a span of a half hour, but the shots didn’t come together.  She spent another hour heading west towards a couple of windmills and a lone tree, but saw nothing.

The team of Charles, Sam and BB eased along the southern ridgeline that Charity had covered to the north and pushed birds into.  One got up that he missed, but a second bird jumped that he put a pellet into.  It soared a hundred yards away, but it was obviously hit because one leg was hanging limp despite its efforts to escape.  They worked over to where it was down and BB found and pointed it, but the bird hadn’t given up the fight.  It flushed again and with a close range going away shot, Charles had no problem bagging it.  They worked their way further into the area that Charity had busted up and a grouse charged them out of nowhere, flying up over a dune straight at them.  Needless to say, Charles’s limit was taken care of in that salvo.

Despite the remote location, they were within cell phone range and Charles texted that he had his limit and was coming to get her.  She made her way to the windmill by the lone tree and he drove the truck to pick her up, just in time to head back to town to fix the kids some lunch.

Charles shows the neighborhood boys, along with son, Conrad, on left, how to breast out a sharptail grouse

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

                As Charity’s family babysitting time had expired, plus there was make-up homework to help the kids with and laundry to do, Charles headed out to “Prairie Chicken Paradise” on his own.  He was making his way out to the paradise, in an area that used to surprise us when birds got up, but we’ve been surprised enough years to now know that a flock resides in these very low, almost nonexistent dunes on the way to our usual hunting grounds a mile and a half away from the road.  It was there that he took his only bird of the day, with unknown numbers jumping right into the sun, he instinctively fired at the sound of the wingbeats since he couldn’t see and was able to put one on the ground between him and Sam.

They made their way back to the deep dunefield that has consistently produced for us throughout the years, but not a flush was to be had.  BB began tracking hard, so since there seemed to be nothing else going on, Charles and Sam followed along.  BB was tracking a coyote, who jumped up and ran, but Charles was in no mood for fur and called the dogs off to head for home.  It was time to enjoy the company of our family and good friends in the Nebraska Sandhills.

Despite the long summer drought and unseasonably hot conditions, Charles, Charity and the dogs were able to have success on their traditional sharptail grouse and prairie chicken opener by relying on proven approaches to covering ground and relocating known coveys that they’ve hunted for over a decade.

Preparing the trip’s harvest for the freezer, minus 2 grouse that were already consumed.

Hard Hunting: Sandhills Pheasant

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Late season hunting is always hard, or at least harder than those magic days in October.  The birds are educated and the dogs have to work through thinner, drier cover.  You walk the same coverts, but the results are not the same.

My partner for this hunt was Charity.  She’s my wife and one of the most dedicated “field agents” out there.  One has fewer friends when the days get shorter and the walks get longer.  You need these people if serious bird hunting is your game.

My wife Charity and our dogs Sam and Mae after guiding a hunt on Friday the 22nd

We set out on Christmas Eve with the Yule-tide hope of Sandhills pheasants.  These are a different flock of bird.  They are miles away of any cornfield.  In fact, they have never seen a plowed acre.  Nor have they ever dined on any plot of land disturbed by man.  Food plots are foreign to them.  These birds eke out a living on the edges of wetlands and fill their crops on the particulate matter of swamps, bugs and wild-sunflower seeds.  While these birds are not robust by pheasant standards, they are wild.  Very wild.  They survive in a niche no sharp-tail would tolerate and no prairie chicken would accept.  If one were to transverse the wilds of Eurasia their cousins would be waiting, but only briefly.

Our first push circumnavigated a popular duck hunting marsh in north-central Nebraska.  I’ve sat in a duck blind here, only to have a rooster stalk me and cackle “good-morning”.

Working the frozen marsh

However, today they were sparse to the point of nonexistent.  With Sam and Mae we covered every likely haunt with no results.  Aside from some good dog work and a flush from a hen that was impressive in her strength and speed out of cattails that were thick as any mess you’ve ever seen or waded through, we got nothing but a good workout from this endeavor.

We moved on to another spot after crossing a frozen lake that, while populated by ice fishermen, was eerie.  Moaning, popping ice is not fun to cross.   But after walking 3 miles through semi-marsh, you take the most direct path to the truck if the opportunity presents itself.

Crossing the ice

Our next push was easy at first and very obvious.  A strip of willows through a frozen marsh, with hawks cruising the area, can only mean birds.  We dropped all four dogs.   They pushed to the west and as we approached the edge of the frozen lake this slough fed, birds began to break.   At first it was two hens, but then a rooster broke cover.  He cleared us, but his friend wasn’t so lucky.  Rooster #1 sailed a quarter mile away.   His partner was stopped cold by a load of steel 4’s.  After the retrieve, Charity and I swung the line by 180 degrees and followed the first legal bird of the day.  This time the wind was at our backs, so the dogs had to shift their game.  The ranged out and worked back to us through the thigh high sedges and cattails.  We pushed a half mile, but this bird was not to be shot.  He broke and sailed onto a private piece of ground.

A hard-fought Sandhills pheasant

Christmas afternoon we returned to the same spot, but decided to hit the dunes for grouse.

Searching the dunes for grouse

Over two hours we covered four miles, saw deer and a coyote, but no birds presented themselves.  It was a beautiful afternoon.  Clear skies and 50 degrees days in late December can’t be ignored.

Hard hunting is what it is.

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