Sometimes potential ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. Right? Isn’t that the Billy Beane story line? Peat’s got tremendous potential, but can we survive him? That’s the latest question around here. Angus is sick of him. He’s wearing us out. But in the morning he’s the sweetest thing since evaporated milk, and he just wants to play (usually much too roughly) at all other times. Peat humps and batters Angus, and Angus has begun shaking in terror when Peat barks, which is often, and at ear-splitting volume. Lately, Angus retreats to the bedroom when Peat’s running around during playtime, and I shut the door. Last night was the first night in Angus’s life that he didn’t come sleep on the bed. I assume it’s because of Peat. I feel for the old dog (even though he’s only 8). Often I feel like an old dog. I am an old dog (although I’m younger than Angus in dog years).
I wrote two emails this evening offering Peat to some people. I didn’t send them, but they’re ready to go. We work with Peat every day on basic obedience and retrieving, but it’s painful and painfully slow progress. Often I feel like Sisyphus. Our dogs are family members, pets, they sleep with us, they ride inside wherever we go, which is not how all hunting dog owners relate to their canine partners. But that’s how we roll, and Peat’s lopsiding our wheels more than we’re used to. More than we enjoy. This whole saga makes me feel like an idiot. I am an idiot. I wrote a post about that not too long ago.
Still, we’ve had some great experiences with Peat, and we’ll still go no matter what happens with him. But in a way, he’s made me wonder which is bigger for me, chukar hunting or my bond with my dogs; they’re intimately connected, but it’s a question I’d never pondered until now. I’m not sure what I think about that. Anyway, here’s a little of what we’ve seen the past couple of weeks in our confusingly beautiful pastime.
Well, I’ve been working with Peat on retrieving nearly each day for the past couple of weeks. I got him to the point where he’d retrieve the bumper (with chukar wings duct taped to it) without any assistance from the check cord. Then I got him to do it without the rope. All of this was in my yard, mind you, and most of the retrieves were bribed with treats. But he made fast progress.
In the meantime Leslie has been working with Peat every day on basic obedience, and we just started doing e-collar conditioning with him. He’s responding well.
Then my brother and his youngest son, a senior in high school, visited over the weekend for some chukar hunting. On Saturday, true to my word and a small shred of common sense, we did not take Peat. We did a big hike and saw plenty of birds, but shot miserably (especially me). Still, it was a gorgeous day in a spectacular spot. I wished we could have taken Peat, but it was good to have Angus by himself. Near the end of the hunt, my nephew and I found ourselves on a ridge looking across at another ridge full of so many chukar calling that I thought I was dreaming. I was fried, but he said, “We have to go after them!” I told him to go for it, take Angus, and I’d watch. My brother was hunting down a different ridge.
My nephew is a standout middle-distance runner, and he took off to the bottom of the draw, into the shadows, and then up the brilliant, emerald green, sunlit face opposite me. He climbed it like it was flat, and Angus zigzagged his way up in front. They got to some rocks and I could see Angus stop, and he’d scurry over, and then shoot. Angus bolted to a spot, grabbed a bird and brought it back to him. They did it again, and then continued up. This is a movie I’ll watch over and over until I lose my memory. It’s already a classic.
The next day we hunted in a different area before they had to head back home. We took Peat, as well as Angus. I was worried, but we all knew the risks. We climbed up a long ridge and got to some rocks at the top on a slope facing the sun. Angus got birdy and headed down into the rocks, and pointed. Peat crept just behind Angus, and when the chute they crept down narrowed Peat and Angus were side by side and then stopped. A single chukar went up and my brother and nephew knocked it down. I’d moved below them, and came around a rock to see Angus and Peat playing a gentle tug of war with the chukar. “Oh no, here we go again,” I thought. Angus looked more determined not to let Peat have it than he’d been on previous occasions. The odd thing is that both dogs appeared to be concerned not to damage the bird. Finally, Angus let go of the chukar and I expected to see Peat dash off down the hill with it. Instead, he turned toward me, ran right up to me and dropped it at my feet! His eyes and face almost looked as if he were apologizing for taking so long to do this. Needless to say, I was ecstatic, and praised him prolifically.
After that, we split up; Leslie and I went with Peat and my brother and nephew went down different ridges with Angus. At the bottom we all joined up again and found a covey of quail in the shady, snowy, brushy draw. We knocked down a couple, and Peat retrieved one of them to my brother (I was down at the bottom of the draw).
Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe not. I’m still working with him. He didn’t do so well in the yard today (I didn’t include treats, and it was a different dummy). We still have a ton of work to do, but I’m happy with the luck, or progress, or whatever it was, on Sunday.
It meant a lot to me to have those two days with my brother and nephew because they got to see one of the most miraculous things about my world – the tremendous scenery of Hell’s Canyon on a bluebird day in November after a little snow, lots of birds, good dog work, and all on public land where we basically had the place to ourselves. Sharing that with people I care about, and whom I know appreciate it in similar ways, makes life rich.
Knowing I shouldn’t be taking Peat hunting until he’s “ready,” I took him anyway. He’d demonstrated some troubling tendencies that needed to be dealt with: obviously, running off with stolen birds, but also busting and chasing birds, and appearing on the cusp of learning the joys of hunting for himself. My first Brittany, Glenna, was a masterful hunter for herself, which caused me to quit hunting until she died.
Still, I took Peat out yesterday, with Angus and Leslie. Leslie had the leash, and I thought she’d be able to control him if Angus got birdy. The problem with this idea was that as soon as we set out, Peat sprinted an arrow straight course for 200 yards across a boulder-strewn field and stopped on a dime. He was pointing. I mean, he literally jumped out of the pickup and sprinted straight to a covey of Huns. It took him fifteen seconds. Angus was birdy, but doing his normal quartering. Peat had him beat by several minutes. I hustled toward Peat. As I neared, he actually turned his head toward us, almost as if to say, “What took you so long, and exactly what am I supposed to do now?” Just before I was within range, the birds busted, and Peat followed them and would not come back.
So Leslie leashed Peat and wrangled him back to the truck. I’ve been working with him, trying to do a force-retrieve, which has revealed to me the extent of his stubbornness (see the video below). We’re starting to collar-condition him, too, so we can gain control over this diamond in the rough. I mean, his nose is staggeringly good, his athleticism and prey drive are phenomenal, and he is figuring out what the game is. But this was his last hunt, probably for the season. It breaks my heart to leave him at home (which I did today), but I’m trying to think of the investment.
So I got to hunt with Angus alone today. Leslie’s staying home and exercising Peat, so I apologize for the dearth of winning photos and video. I miss her company on our hikes, too. But Angus found seven coveys today, Huns and chukars, and did some good retrieving work on crippled birds. It was windier than Trump at a Knucklehead Convention, but my old boy crept his way in on everything. He’s limping a bit after our journey today. It’s sad to think of him being past the halfway point. It seems like just a year or so ago we discovered this pastime together. Time flies when you’re chukar hunting.
So, I hope I can stick to the plan of working with Peat every day and keep him from the field. So far he’s making quite unremarkable progress. I won’t hold my breath.
After last week’s lament on discovering I was shooting cross-dominant, I went out and shot three doubles on beautiful points by both Angus and Peat. On each one I got the end of the barrel on the bird and a little voice said, “It will fall.” And it did. The only misses I made were on the last covey, which Peat had found on his own and must have been locked on them for at least 5 minutes. He was up the hill from me, and I was trying to keep an eye on Angus who was roaming around well upwind. But since Peat was solid I started moving up the hill toward him. When I got within about 15 yards of Peat I started to doubt him, but I kept moving. At ten yards, the birds launched, Huns, and that little voice was doing something else, probably writing a press release about Peat’s impressive point.
I’m getting used to the Garmin Alpha with Angus. Yes, I have gone to the dark side, as Chris pointed out. It has reduced the stress of wondering where Angus is, and has already produced a few points I wouldn’t have seen without it. It might also be making me younger, because for some reason I seem to be hiking more miles and elevation gain than I ever have. Ponce de Leon should have checked into one of these numbers.
I went out again on Sunday with The Kid. We hiked our butts off on the same ridge I hunted the day before, but lower down. Excellent habitat, tons of cover, greenup, and rarely hunted. At the top Angus and Peat pointed one covey, and it held long enough for The Kid and me to get in good position. The birds went up and we each shot, but neither connected. We hiked another three hours without seeing any birds except for a few way down low.
My reputation as the world’s worst chukar guide, when it comes to The Kid, is pretty safe. He’s got a great new gun of his own (which he bought with some of the cash he won for winning Grand Champion Steer at the fair; not bad for an 11-year-old against all comers!), and I’m feeling the pressure. The line, “We’ll get ’em next time,” is getting old. I’m just grateful he wants to keep trying. We will get them next time.
Yeah, rain! Had a great weekend hunting in Hell’s Canyon. Lots of birds, lots of greenup, gorgeous fall colors, plenty of dog action, good friends, warm-ish weather. Yes.
The first point I’d seen from Angus in weeks and weeks yielded a nice covey of chukar rising from bunch grass, just 30 minutes into the first hunt. And, wowee, I knocked down a bird with my first shot. Angus quickly retrieved it but Peat stole it from him, ran off with it, and ate it. Despite seeing at least eight more coveys that weekend, on great points by Angus (and backing by Peat), I went 0 for 14. Or something like that. Here’s a little clip…
But who cares? What I like best about this activity is watching dogs get birdy and point. The rest is falling action, so to speak (not literally, at least with my atrocious shooting; I recently discovered I was left-eye dominant and since I shoot righty I might have an excuse, but then how do you explain going three-for-three on a single covey, twice – long ago, though…).
Another thing I really like about chukar hunting is getting with friends who understand it, have the patience – with themselves, with me, with their dogs, and with the difficulty of the endeavor – to enjoy it with sincerity.
And the other thing I love about it is having my wife come along, even though she doesn’t pull the trigger, except on the camera. More than her great photos and video, her company, her sensibility, her appreciation for the venture and adventure of it, her advice which is almost always much better than my ideas, and her patience with me, are all more than I deserve.
Oh, and did I mention that I fall deeper in love with the landscape every time I go out?
One of the things I most like about chukar hunting is that it provides endless chances for me to set new standards of idiocy, to epitomize increasingly precise definitions of moron, and to share these achievements as perhaps some kind of penance or verbal self-flagellation in the hope that I might one day afford a ticket, third class as it most probably would be, on the Clue Train.
Not that stats matter all that much, but they help illustrate what I’m talking about here. The last six times I’ve sought chukar to shoot I’ve hiked a total of 22.35 miles, ascended 5,715 feet, been in the field about 24 hours, driven about half a million miles, fired all of three shots, and hit one itsy-bitsy chukar chick, which I miraculously recovered in an all-out sprint against a determined Peat (let’s hear it for small victories). After a great opening weekend, this season has stunk for me and it’s mostly because I am an idiot. Here’s why.
Mainly, I choose to hunt when it’s 80 degrees, and then get angry that my dogs can’t find any birds. That’s like hiring a blind person to be a photo editor. A dog needs a few molecules of moisture for its amazing nose to detect with any accuracy birds’ scent. It’s been so dry when I’ve forced Angus to hunt that I swear I hear him squeak when he lopes by, or maybe he’s cursing me under his breath like Popeye did to Brutus. If I’m frustrated, Angus has got to be homicidal. I’ve seen Angus point twice this season. He’s trying, but I’m not letting him run around until it’s so hot that he can’t go two minutes without bee-lining back to me for a drink. I don’t know why I don’t learn better. I wasn’t going to go out again until it cooled down and we got some moisture, but yesterday Peat was driving me crazy while I tried to grade papers and I finally said, about 1:30, “Hey, I have an amazing idea, dogs: let’s go chukar hunting.”
So I drove about 75 minutes in 80 degree aridity on powder-dust, washboard roads and set the mutts loose in some of the bleakest terrain I could find. It was so hot my lightweight, wicking upland pants began fusing with my epidermis. The sun was so high in the sky the only shade anywhere was under my pickup. Even north-facing slopes contained no escape from the sun, and the only few blades of green grass grew scantly at the bases of a few tall bunch grass tufts in a wee tight ravine, at the very bottom of which, unbeknownst to me because of the tall sage and bitterbrush hiding him, Angus pointed three of what were surely the most poorly hydrated chukar on the planet. I learned this only after hitting the shock button on his e-collar by mistake, which no doubt caused Angus to flinch and the birds to bust out of range. Idiot move.
The day before, while on a drive when it was, yep, 80 degrees, I insisted on getting out of the truck with Angus and having Leslie pick us up “at the bottom.” This was Hell’s Canyon, which is pretty big if you haven’t been there; its “bottom” is bigger than Beyonce’s after a bon-bon binge. Anyway, I thought there had to be chukar down there, so I took off with Angus and Leslie drove off. I’d never been to this area, but could see the water way down below. More than two ankle-thrashing hours later, after finding no birds, we hit the road but had zero idea where Leslie was because one of our radios was dead (because, um, I’m an idiot). We walked for about a mile before she found us. She waited politely for Angus and me to get our sweat-soaked bodies situated before telling us that she saw hundreds of chukar along the road, all the way down to the bottom.
This idiot thing isn’t new, either. Four years ago, I did this:
I know what to do. I just don’t do it, and I really can’t explain why. That makes me an idiot. At least.
It’s so dry in chukarland that finding birds, easy on opening weekend, has become tougher than gristle on roadkill. In three days of hard hiking up, across, and down some very good looking habitat, we witnessed a total of five or six coveys, most of which busted wild. With temperatures in the mid-80s continuing through this week, and no precipitation forecast, it doesn’t look like next weekend will be any better.
Still, getting out is better than staying home. A friend with a year-old Pointing Griffon made the long drive to our area for his first taste of chukar hunting. He and his dog did fabulously, with Talisker making the only point on the first day. We saw a few more birds the second day, both high and low, but only managed one pointed covey and a couple birds. Rob and I will remember the rock-bound chukar laughing themselves silly at us while we stumbled down the talus slope in defeat.
The next day, which was the first time I’ve hunted chukar for a third straight day, saw the return of The Kid. If you’ve followed this rag for a while, you’ll know I’m in danger of becoming the World’s Worst Chukar Guide when it comes to hunting with this intrepid youngster. I’ve dragged him up and down some horrendous stuff in search of his first chukar. He’s seen points, wild busts, false points, short, medium, and long creeps, gotten a few shots off, and watched me miss plenty of times. But he has still yet to bag a chukar.
So I was determined to change that last Sunday. We hunted some new ground that looked promising. After hearing a group calling up high, we put the sneak on them, which turned out to be the most difficult single pitch climb I’ve ever done, more than 1,000 feet in an eighth of a mile. But we did it, and found some nice old sheds right at the peak, which prompted The Kid to deduce we were the first folks up there in at least a couple years. Despite being a bit beat up from a football game the previous day, The Kid matched me step for step. It won’t be long before I’m telling him to slow down and wait for me.
We slowly worked down and across, following Angus and Peat (who managed this outing without any trouble). Soon Angus got birdy, and then locked up in some tall grass on a steep decline. The Kid and I both got in good position on either side of Angus. The chukar eruption that followed was sizable, but neither shooter could pick a single bird to shoot. All escaped. Out of water, we opted not to chase, and – aside from one long Angus creep on evaporated birds – that was that.
There are lots of birds out there. We couldn’t find many in three days of hard work. We need rain. So do the birds. Pray for it.