Sad to say it’s over. For now. What a season! Ended up with a gorgeous day yesterday, lots of birds, even hit some, and Peat made several flawless retrieves and was a joy to watch. Angus had stepped up his game the past several hunts, and finished strong yesterday, too, with a marvelous retrieve of a Hungarian partridge that landed in the creek way, way down there. Here’s a video of the last few hunts. Stay tuned for Leslie’s 2015-2016 highlight film.
When I was 37 I moved to Boise, Idaho, where I knew nobody and didn’t have a job. I rented a house, my first time living in a house since I left my parents’ house after graduating high school. It was a small house, with a small backyard closed in with a white picket fence and a one-car detached garage. Six months after moving in, I’d skin my first deer in that garage, my experienced younger brother driving from five hours away to teach me how to do it. My right index finger bears a scar from one of my slips with a sharp knife. That night, we grilled some of the meat and ate it with his wife and two boys.
I shot that deer with a friend of mine who was also on his first big game hunting trip. We stayed at my dad’s cabin in eastern Idaho, which I’d visited nearly every summer since I was 10, and whose existence and setting served as the primary reason I chose to move to Idaho. I wanted to hunt birds and big game as a resident because it was much cheaper, and Idaho had lots of public land and our cabin. Boise was a big town and I figured I could get a job and make a living.
It was a big change for me, and scary. I was lonely at the beginning when I was trying to figure out what I’d done, and why. The frame made sense to me, but the canvas was still blank. I bought a bird dog puppy from a backyard breeder in Mountain Home, my first dog, a few weeks after arriving at my rented house. The girlfriend from whom I was slowly separating helped me move from California, she helped me unpack, helped me buy sundries from Target, helped me absorb the weirdness of moving ten hours northeast. But she left after a couple weeks, and I got the puppy to stamp some kind of seal on my new life.
Glenna challenged me. I read the book my brother had used to train his remarkable first dog of the same breed. It sort of made sense, but the puppy didn’t, and I wasn’t a good trainer. A scar from her baby incisor on my left palm, near the thumb, reminds me of her jubilant puppy play. A decade after getting her, during which time I rarely hunted with her because she ran too big and hunted for herself, she was buried in my brother-in-law’s yard in the mountains not far away. Dave dug the hole, which, empty, looked excessively deep and wide, but just barely held her and her first toy, a stuffed cougar the size of a burrito. Dave had lots of experience digging dog graves, with several interred nearby. I dropped dirt as gently as I could on Glenna while my three-year-old dog Angus ran around, seemingly oblivious. I didn’t understand what I clearly saw.
Those first new months here, I told myself that this is my new life. I still tell myself that, despite all that’s happened since. It’s been sixteen years. There’s still the fluttering in my stomach, and the questions. And the images. The one that haunts me, the one that is among the richest and brings back smells and shapes and a certain humidity, is the sight of Glenna, white and orange, sitting upright patiently and eagerly from young puppy to full-grown dog in the middle of the green grassy backyard, bordered by white pickets she could easily have leaped over but never did, late in the July afternoon heat, fragmentedly shaded by huge catalpa and silver maple trees, waiting and looking and watching for a glimpse of me coming home from work on my bike.
The snow it is a-comin’. Stayed home today, and probably tomorrow. Gave me time to show Leslie how iMovie works, and she made this cool video of some fun dog-work:
Last weekend we got to take The Kid out again, but he’s still in search of his first chukar. He got a couple shots off over a nice point by Peat, but no cigar. Still, it was a gorgeous day out of the fog shrouding our wee valley to the east of Hells Canyon.
Also, I have a new Q5 Centerfire Upland Vest (Quilomene), which can be seen in the latter part of the video. I’ll give it a thorough review next fall after I’ve had a chance to put it through its paces. The first outing with it was good.
Chukar hunting four years ago, at 49, I jumped off a rock because for a moment I thought I was 18. It didn’t end up well. Sometimes it seems age is the only thing. Yesterday, age took center stage on a series of steep, rocky, muddy, bunch-grass-covered, sunlit desert hills. My aging butt trudged slowly up and down them trying to follow my puppy and my old-man Brittanys.
While climbing, I was able to keep the dogs on the north-facing, frozen slopes so that when we reached the top we could reverse direction into the prevailing wind and work down the open, sun-drenched south-facing terrain. On the way up, Peat, the puppy, found and pointed two small “bonus” coveys. Angus was elsewhere. Near the top, Peat ascended with considerable interest in a straight-ish line while Angus progressed in his typical quartering fashion, and on a more northerly vector than Peat. When Peat stopped, rigid, stretched motionless I boogied up to him, then crept ahead. After a few yards a super-covey of at least 50 chukar burst right in front of us.
On the way down, Peat found and pointed two more groups that Angus did not, one of which Angus ran across without busting. I winged one bird, which sailed nearly half a mile, landing in a bitterbrush. I hustled both dogs down there, and Peat tracked the running partridge (and brought it straight back to me, thank you very much!).
In people years, Angus is nearly 63, (the “new 53”?, my current actual age, which feels like the new 73). He’s had a rough go this year with the new, young, annoying blood, and he’s still kind of grumpy about it. In the middle of the season I realized he’d lost quite a bit of weight, so we increased his food. Finally, thanks to post-hunt Vienna Sausages and elevated kibble levels, he’s not quite so bony in the hips.
After today, I can’t help wondering how well the best nose I’ve had the pleasure of hunting with these past six seasons (I didn’t hunt with him until he was three) is working. Peat clearly outdid him on the olfactory score. While I’m thrilled with Peat’s progress, I can’t help resenting at least a little bit the “out with the old, in with the new” feeling it gives me. I’m sure that everyone who works with more than one dog at a time experiences this. It’s my first go-round with it, and makes me see from yet another angle my brother’s advice long ago to avoid having two bird dogs simultaneously. Not trying to start something here, mind you, just Vienna Sausages for thought. Aged ones.
And what might Angus be thinking? The reality of it is that he’s probably looking for birds, as always, and really excited about it. He still looks enlivened by the activity, and never looks happier than when doing this. Peat sometimes focuses too much on Angus and that has got to bug him, having to shuck and jive to escape Peat. But I wonder if he noticed Peat outperformed him today, and I wonder what he thought about it. I hope he’s just lying at my feet now resting up for the next hunt. I’m sure that’s it.
Peat’s got a long way to go, but I actually hunted with him today for the first time. Here’s a bit of footage from the past several weeks of the dogs working; the first section is on a trail during a walk, hunting prohibited, with lots of grateful quail. Enjoy.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many chukar in one day as I saw yesterday.
I also have never seen so many chukar and took so few. Zero to be exact. Not for lack of trying: in 3 hours we hiked about 3-1/2 miles in the snow, climbed 2,000 feet, shot 12 times, all in the 35-40+ yard “wing-and-a-prayer” range. Yes, the birds were busting wild, but also – like Tucker’s Chukars’ Larry wrote recently – it was just really tough to get close to a pointing or creeping dog.
After driving to burned-off spots in Hell’s Canyon for the past several weeks, places which have been hunted hard by many people (judging from shells and footprints, and the frustrating commonality of wild busts), I thought it would be a good idea to take the boat on Brownlee and find some promising ground where birds might not have been pressured so much. That made for a pretty chilly start, but after surveying several spots from the reservoir, we motored into a bay which looked like it would afford a good hunt for two people starting in opposite directions and working toward each other. After tying up the boat, though, I noticed bootprints in the snow, probably from the day before. I’ve never felt crowded or annoyed by the hunting pressure on Brownlee, or in Hell’s Canyon generally, and I’ve yet to run into another chukar hunter in the years I’ve been doing this. But it struck me as pretty ironic that my plan to find some untrammeled ground had obviously failed despite the extra effort of taking the boat (it was 10 degrees when we left), especially since I’d noticed no boat trailers at the main put-in the last three weeks. Sure, we could have relocated and found a spot that hadn’t been hunted, but it was very cold and windy and we wanted to get moving.
Which we did, and soon were into lots and lots of day-old bird tracks in the snow. I was amazed to find chukar tracks heading up deep snow drifts to the top of a snow-covered ridge, all of which led to a cluster of big sagebrush. A pair of bald eagles soared overhead against the slate sky. I dislodged a large herd of mule deer as I neared the peak, and then, hunkered even deeper into the bowl, an even bigger herd of elk. Oddly, the bird sign got fresher the farther up the ridge, maybe the result of the hunting pressure from the day before, or maybe just one of those mysteries for which this bird is famous. Or infamous, depending on your perspective.
Finally, Angus kind of pointed. Snow seems to have a weird effect on his nose; maybe this is true for all pointing dogs. He’s either way, way extra cautious or completely clueless in it. I can’t draw any conclusions and have no theories. I’m sure there’s a good scientific explanation for his erratic work, but I don’t know it. Sometimes, though, it works out, and on this one I actually got into a decent position for the bust, which was uphill slightly, and – as was to be the case all day – came in at least three waves of birds, followed by one or two singles farther down the slope. I missed all three shots, none of which was high-percentage as the birds were tailing around the curvature by the time I drew a bead on them. Okay, not a bad start. Birds at least.
I chased the remnants of that first covey deeper into the snow toward the termination of the bowl, hoping to send them back down in the direction of my buddy hunting below me and back toward the water. It didn’t work. The birds just kept busting wild and going higher up and eventually out of the drainage altogether. So I turned around and headed toward the undulating, frozen but (treacherous) open south-facing slopes and began seeing lots of sign. In fact, I have never seen more chukar poop scattered over a large area than in this drainage. Most of it was a couple days old, but all was pretty recent. I’d only seen a small covey so far, but knew there had to be larger numbers somewhere.
They were lower down. I started getting into them about halfway down from the top. Angus was birdy all the time. His tail stump must be sore today from all the oscillating it did yesterday. But the birds were either in totally open ground so it was nearly impossible to sneak up to them, or wedged in spring crevices that amplified our traverse so that they busted before we even knew they were there. Still, every crack held birds, and I must have seen at least 250 chukar during the last hour of the hike. It’s nice to know there are so many birds this late in the year, and I hope they fare well over the winter and into the critical spring season. Think good weather thoughts if you have a moment.
With a month left in the season, it’s hard to imagine much more, or any, decent hunting given the weather we’ve had and will continue having. But I believe I’ll test it at every chance.
After watching the Fish & Game videos and learning that a snare trap can kill my dogs if I can’t get the cable off, I decided I now need to carry a pair of short-nose cable cutters along with all the other crap in my vest. Aside from the fact that they’re ridiculously expensive ($65 on Amazon; Harbor Freight didn’t have anything similar, and I found a pair of knock-offs that were made of aluminum), my pack is starting to get heavier than I’d like. So I thought I’d weigh out everything and see what others have in theirs in case I’m carrying too much, or – gulp! – not enough.
Here’s what I’m working with:
Badlands Vest: 2 lbs., 14 oz.
100 oz. hydration bladder & hose, with sleeve: 5 lbs., 10 oz.
Garmin Alpha GPS handheld with belt clip: 9.2 oz.
Garmin Delta transmitter (for Peat’s collar): 3.9 oz.
1 box 12g shells (2-3/4″ Rio 7-1/2 shot,1-1/8 oz lead): 2 lbs., 5 oz.
Leatherman “Wingman”: 6.8 oz.
First aid kit: 14.3 oz.
Baby aspirin (for Angus): .5 oz.
Vaseline in a container (cheatgrass deterrent for dog ears): 1.1 oz.
Panasonic Lumix camera: 7 oz.
Smart phone: 6 oz.
Wallet: 3.9 oz.
Spot Gen3 emergency beacon: 4.1 oz.
6′ dog leash: 6 oz.
Snacks for me & dogs: 10 oz.
Felco C7 cable cutter: 12 oz.
Total weight: a little over 16 pounds. The above doesn’t include extra clothes or gloves or hat. When I pulled everything out of my vest I was surprised to find that I had a total of 31 shells in it, extras – including 6 steel #6 shells – stashed in various places. Better to have too many than not enough, but out of the above items I think I might pare down the number of shells I bring with me. I think the most I’ve ever shot was 19 times in one hunt (and that was an epic day: 0 for 19).
Items I should think about adding? Headlamp? Fire starter? Lighter? More food? Most of my hunts last between 2.5 and 5 hours. I like my vest but have often wished it had larger pockets so I could carry more clothing and maybe a little more food, but this setup has worked well for me the past several years. I’d love to hear from anyone about something I’m a total idiot for not bringing along… As I’ve already established, I am an idiot when it comes to these birds.