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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.