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Sharptailed Grouse Hunting Opener and Other News

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Reservations and Breeding Plans

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

Sharptailed Grouse and Dove Opening Day: September 1, 2013

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

Wirehaired Pointing Griffons Hunt Sharptailed Grouse

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

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

Sandhills Dove Hunting 2013

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

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

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

Pupdates

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

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

Ed6mos

Ed at 6 months chillin’ on the deck

Ed hanging out in the house

Ed hanging out in the house

Ed and his toy pheasant

Ed and his toy pheasant

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

Chester on point

Chester on point

Another shot of Chester on point

Another shot of Chester on point

Chester retrieving

Chester retrieving

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

Whiskey thinks that crocs make great chew toys

Whiskey thinks that crocs make great chew toys

Whiskey peeking out from his blanket

Whiskey peeking out from his blanket

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

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

Pupdates and Hunting Season in 2 days!

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I’m supposed to be packing for the annual trip to the Sandhills for the September 1st dove and grouse opener since we’re leaving tonight, but I just had to get these pictures out before I got too distracted by hunting season!

This is Zoey, she is 6 months old and is out of Sue and Sam’s last litter that was born early this year.  Jimmy has been doing great work with her down in Oklahoma and is shown here perfecting her water retrieve.  Rumor has it that she’s going off to waterfowl school, but she’s definitely got the basics down!

Zoey water retrieve at 8 months

Zoey water retrieve at 6 months

Another shot of Zoey retrieving a dummy

Another shot of Zoey retrieving a dummy

Zoey also looks cute just laying around the house…

Zoey chilling on the kitchen tiles

Zoey chilling on the kitchen tiles

Zoey's sweet face!!

Zoey’s sweet face!!

Thank you so much to Jimmy and Sandi for all of those great pictures!!

I swiped this picture off of Facebook, but I didn’t think that Deborah would mind.  Whiskey is from Sue and Sam’s “A” Litter from 2010, so he is 3 years old now and lives out in Nevada.  Here he is with his little Lab buddy Ruger who is holding him down and giving him a tongue bath.  Too funny!!

Whiskey getting a bath from Ruger

Whiskey getting a bath from Ruger

Thanks Deborah for capturing such a hilarious moment!

Hunting Blog

For the last couple of years I’ve been posting our hunting stories on to versatilehunter.com, separate from this here kennel blog.  I have to talk to Charles this weekend and see if we want to continue on that URL or if we want to consolidate our presence here on the kennel blog.  I also used to be active on Twitter under @VersatileHunter, but just really hit a wall with trying to keep everything updated.  Then to complicate things, I’m also going to start hunting blogging for Lion Country Supply.  So I’ll probably be writing my first draft either here or on versatilehunter.com ( there is also a button to up at the top that says “Hunting Blog”), then write a final draft for LCS.  Plus I’d like to start really honing my writing to where I’m submitting articles to magazines.  So please bear with me as I decide where I’m steering this whole writing ship.  I’ll let you know sometime next week where things are at so that you can keep up to date with my blathering.

So wish us luck up in the Sandhills, I will be wearing my GoPro, so hopefully I’ll actually hit something to show you on YouTube:)

Mid-season Slowdown, Pupdates and Happy Holidays!!

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After the big hunting trip to North Dakota for Sam, BB and Charles, filling the game bag has taken a pause.  It isn’t that we haven’t tried!  Charles went out for deer the first two weekend in November on our friend’s land on the Platte River and saw deer but didn’t have any good shots.  Our freezer is full of birds anyway, so I think he was really just getting out of the house.  The latter part of November and the first part of December he’s gone out for ducks, pheasants and quail, with very few sightings and no shots.  There were two weekends where he drove 3 hours one way (in different directions), even going down into the Flint Hills of Kansas, but still no luck.  We are hoping that when the snow finally comes (we’re at a historical record for days without snow), that we might be able to come across a few roosters, but are really looking forward to our planned grouse hunt on the Sunday before Christmas up in my Nebraska Sandhills home.  For the most part we’ve given up on Eastern Nebraska this year and are going to turn our attention to getting Sam and BB trained up to take a shot at some legs of the AKC Senior Hunter test over the course of 2013.

Looks like we’re getting closer to breeding with Sue and I suspect that Mae won’t be too far behind.  I won’t have an exact calendar of events until pro-estrous (bleeding) actually starts, but there are definitely changes going on and I just have to keep watching.

Yet despite our slow time here lately, things appear to be going well in other parts of the country with our puppy owners!  Aaron of Ohio and “Pepper” from Sam and Sue’s 2012 “D” litter (age 6 months now) posted an update on our Facebook page saying:

Pepper, aka Derry, from the D litter is doing very well. We worked her on quail in a call back pen all late summer and early fall until the quail “went native”. On Monday we decided to shoot over her for the first time after a fair bit of work with a starter pistol. She pointed and retrieved two chukars with no concern for the gun fire. She trailed a wounded bird to a groundhog hole where it escaped. She is also doing great in the house.

It’s so exciting to keep up with all of the pups and how they are doing, knowing how much joy a good dog brings to the home and field.  Randy and “Roxy”, from Sam and Sue’s 2011 “B” litter, out of Utah are having an outstanding year.  Randy wrote:

Man, has the light ever came on with Roxy.  She did all that could ever be wanted while hunting Iowa, North Dakota, and Utah this year.  Best all around dog I have ever had in the 50 years of hunting.  I will attach a few pictures.  Thanks you guys for making my hunting career come together.

Click on any of the photos to enlarge:

Randy, Roxy (18 month old Wirehaired Pointing Griffon female) and company after a great day in the field

Randy, Roxy (18 month old Wirehaired Pointing Griffon female) and company after a great day in the field

Randy and Roxy (18 month old Wirehaired Pointing Griffon female) had a great time in North Dakota!

Randy and Roxy (18 month old Wirehaired Pointing Griffon female) had a great time in North Dakota!

Another great day for Roxy (18 month old Wirehaired Pointing Griffon female)!

Another great day for Roxy (18 month old Wirehaired Pointing Griffon female)!

I really love the last photo of Randy and Roxy because aside from being absolutely gorgeous, it’s a great shot showing that she looks exactly like Sue’s head on Sam’s body.  Of course, having a hunter say that you’ve given him the best hunting dog that he’s had in 50 years of hunting makes a person feel like a million bucks!!  But that is our goal!!

Cliff down in Oklahoma and his pup “Belle” out of Sam and Mae’s 2012 “C” litter, which is 9 months old now, are having a great time thus far in Kansas and Oklahoma:

Wanted to give you a quick update on Belle.  We’ve been out every week since the season opened in OK & KS.  I had to work the weekend of Nov 10th & 11th, but that was just as well  because it was so warm and windy.  Belle & I hunted the following Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning in KS.  Saw very few pheasants (no quail) and bagged the only one I shot at.  That was Belle’s first pheasant.  Attached is a picture of us with #1.
 
The following weekend in KS we got 2 more pheasants.  The Saturday after Thanksgiving we hunted Kansas once again and got into a covey of quail and bagged 2 birds.  Belle as having rock solid points and also found a bird that had been hit and flown a considerable distance to which we only knew a general location.  With the quail, Belle made the connection that she was to bring them back to me, so she now brings the birds back to me in addition to fetching the paper daily.  So far the hunting reports across the state of Kansas are what I have experienced.  The bird population has been severely impacted.
  
Yesterday was opening day for pheasants in OK.  When I got up it was 59 degrees and windy.  The high got up to 76.  I should have had my OK limit (3 roosters), but missed the easiest shot of the day Crying face.  We saw a good number of birds, but with the weather most flushed far ahead.
 
Overall, I am very pleased with Belle’s performance.  Responds to commands, hunts close, has a great nose, does not flush birds wildly, and has learned to hold point and to find and retrieve downed birds.  I just need to keep giving her the opportunity to hunt so that we can refine her skills.  I have attached additional pictures.

Cliff and Belle (9 month old female Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) with her first pheasant

Cliff and Belle (9 month old female Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) with her first pheasant

Belle (9 month old female Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) and the Oklahoma opener game bag

Belle (9 month old female Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) and the Oklahoma opener game bag

Awesome success, Cliff and Belle, so happy for you!!  It gives us hope that there is still upland bird hunting to be had out there since honestly, we’ve been in a bit of a funk about how things have been going lately.  I have pictures from the 1990’s of Charles and our Brittany “Sheaf” going out every weekend and getting a limit of pheasant here in Eastern Nebraska.  It really hurts my heart that those days are probably gone and we’re going to be stuck with three options: 1) extended bird hunting safaris to the Nebraska Sandhills, North Dakota and other states with sustainable bird populations 2) joining a hunt club 3) buying and planting our own birds on the local dog training wildlife management area or on a friend’s land.

Okay, back to something happy for the holidays!!  Joel and Jenn from Kearney, Nebraska shared this picture of Roxy’s brother, Mowgli, from Sam and Sue’s 2011 “B” litter.  He looks like he enjoyed the snow that they had out there!  What a face!

Mowgli (18 month old male Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) chillin' in the snow

Mowgli (18 month old male Wirehaired Pointing Griffon) chillin’ in the snow

Keeping in the holiday spirit, Sal and family in New York were kind enough to mail us a Christmas card with a cute photo of Belle’s brother, Chester, also from Sam and Mae’s 2012 “C” litter (9 months old):

Merry Christmas from Chester (9 month old male Wirehaired Pointing Griffon)

Merry Christmas from Chester (9 month old male Wirehaired Pointing Griffon)

Many thanks to all of my puppy owners for making this blog fun to put together and read!  You really go out of your way to take the time to send us great photos and write-ups and it is appreciated more than I can ever express.  We put a lot of time and love into our puppies, so it is a big warm fuzzy to see that loving spirit carried on in their lives in their forever homes.

Wishing all hunters and lovers of griffons, our puppy owners, friends and family the Merriest of Christmases, from Bluestem Kennels and the Upchurch family!

"Not a creature was stirring..." Clockwise from top left: BB, Mae, Sam and Sue.

“Not a creature was stirring…” Clockwise from top left: BB, Mae, Sam and Sue.

First breeding of year complete!

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To reserve a puppy from one of our spring 2012 litters, please call (402) 682-9802 or e-mail bluestemkennels@cox.net

We are pleased to announce that our first breeding of the year is complete between our 3 year old male, Sam, and our new 5 year old female, Mae.  Sue was anticipated to come into season first, but Mae surprised us.  Mae and Sam bred from January 9-11, therefore pups are expected March 13-15.  Hey game birds, “Beware of the Ides of March!”, new hunting puppies will be here!

Hunting photos of Sam can be found on our “About Us” page (I have yet to load this season’s, but they can be found on the individual blog posts containing the hunting tales on bluestemkennels.com [pre-10/01/2011] and versatilehunter.com [10/01/2011-present]).  His pedigree is a link at the bottom of the “About Us” page.

Mae came into our home on December 3, 2011 from That’s My Point Kennels in Wheatland, ND where she had successfully whelped and nursed 3 previous litters and was known as “Aspen” http://www.tmpkennels.com/ As you can see from the previous owner’s website, she was raised with young children.   At the age of one, she successfully scored a Prize II on her Natural Ability Test from the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA).

Mae's Natural Ability Test Results

Her AKC/NAVHDA pedigrees also spoke of her potential for us.  Her sire, Marquis Georgeous George hails from French import blood and the prestigious Herrenhausen kennel.  Barbara Young of Herrenhausen is an AKC and International Conformation Judge, therefore she knows and breeds good dogs.  The dam, Full of Grace, is out of the famed Fireside blood.  Fireside’s Spontaneous Combustion won 3rd place in the sporting group at Westminster last year and was the first Wirehaired Pointing Griffon ever to place at WKC.

Mae's AKC Pedigree

The hunt testing results and the strong conformation background in the pedigree drew me to “Aspen”.  She was the Butcher family’s companion in the home and field, therefore even though I was nervous about bringing a new member into our pack, I thought that these things put together boded well for “Aspen” being a good match for us and our breeding program.

I made the following YouTube video this morning of all my dogs running in the yard, just as a visual reference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSb7jdZXPz8

Mae has thrived in our home and in the field.  Not even a week after bringing her home, we had her out on planted hen pheasants for training:

(Click on any of the photos to see a larger version)

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Mae working the field on December 9, 2011

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

One of Mae's points 12/09/2011

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Another point on 12/09/2011

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Charles walks into Mae's point

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Mae retrieves on 12/09/2011

After our first training day with planted birds in a controlled environment, we felt comfortable enough to use Mae to assist in guiding at Pheasant Haven right before Christmas.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Sam (front) and Mae (back) with the hunters on 12/22/2011

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Sam, myself and Mae guided a hunt on 12/23/2011 also

The afternoon following the December 23rd preserve hunt, we were on the road for the Sandhills where we busted up some cattails with the whole gang, Mae included, on Christmas Eve:

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Mae on the left, with the rest of the pack, Charles, and the Christmas Eve Sandhills pheasant

Wirehaired Pointing Griffons

Charles and all four dogs on the dunes

We spent a couple of hours on Christmas Day chasing grouse with Mae and the rest of the pack, but didn’t find any.  We’ll be back for them in September!

Our last outing was on January 2nd with some chukar and quail from a game farm that we had never used before and wanted to try out.  It is important for newer dogs to get individual training attention when they are usually braced (in pairs) or ran as a pack.

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

One of Mae's points on 01/02/2012

Charles shoots one of the chukars over Mae on 01/02/2012

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Charles walking into one of Mae's points 01/02/2012

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Closeup of Mae's point that Charles was walking into

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Double chukar flush over Mae and Charles 01/02/2012

Wirehaired Pointing Griffon

Mae had more than one retrieve on 01/02/2012, but this was the only photo that turned out well

Even though we’ve only had Mae a limited time, we are confident in her ability to produce quality puppies for our kennel and contribute to our development of the breed.

I will close with a picture of the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon breed’s founder Edward Korthals.  This was taken in 1891 when he was presented the German Kaiser’s award for breeding.  I use this photograph as guide for the dogs that I will continue working to create.  Mae fits into this perfectly.

Korthals and his prize specimens

To reserve a puppy from one of our spring 2012 litters, please call (402) 682-9802 or e-mail bluestemkennels@cox.net

Another busy week

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

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

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

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

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

The Duke at 6 months

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

Hunters walking the thick grass

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

One of the sons shoots a gorgeous rooster pheasant

Sam retrieving a rooster pheasant

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

The hunting party and birds

Family picture with the birds

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

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

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

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

Labor Day 2011: The new grouse opener in Nebraska

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles sets up dove decoys on a windmill

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

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

...to the hand!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sam puts on his "A" game

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

Ryan Tompkins hunts the open spaces of the Sandhills

Sue, Sam, BB and Charles covering terrain

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

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

Charles taking Sam's retrieve to hand

Charles kicks it into gear in the high country

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

Hunters, dogs and Sunday's birds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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