Sew What?

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Franken-gus

We saw lots of birds last Friday, but they were really jumpy, and – whatever the reason – the dogs couldn’t or didn’t hold them. I sprayed plenty of lead over the landscape (something I pretend doesn’t bother me, but it does, although obviously not enough to cause me to do anything about it, yet). But nothing fell except the shells. A change from the previous several outings. No worries, though. I really don’t mind getting skunked, aside from letting down the dogs.

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Peat’s hole

I do mind, though, getting back to the truck and seeing my dogs with gaping wounds on their bodies. Actually, I only noticed Angus’s “hole” in his side (we found Peat’s hole later that night). I’m not sure what caused these wounds, but it’s Angus’s second 20+ stitch job in the last month. The first was stray barbed wire laying on the ground along fencing, which is more common than I’d expect. The second, last week, was either barbed wire again or some pretty stout bitterbrush branches that had been broken and turned into spears, probably by cattle. I’ve run into skewers on bitterbrush plants, and have a scar on my thigh from it puncturing my Cordura nylon upland pants.

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Nightshirts to keep mutts from licking wounds until we can get them to the vet

angus_tshirt Almost all the terrain we hunt is “multi-use” public land, which means we share it with cattle grazing operations. Except for a few remote areas in Hells Canyon, cows have trod most of the chukar terrain I’ve hunted anywhere. Rarely have I simultaneously shared bird habitat with cows, which might just be coincidental but it’s just worked out that way. I keep the dogs away from them, and don’t shoot too near them. And I’m not blaming cows or grazing for my dogs’ injuries; I understand the dynamic here. And I’ve never worked fence so I’m not faulting anyone for leaving barbed wire on the ground (although I have a friend who has lots of unkind words about this, since his dog has been to the vet many times from lacerations caused by stray wire). Anyway, we’re out of the chukar game for a couple weeks until the dogs heal and Angus gets his stitches out.

Brittany and Hungarian partridges
Angus doesn’t love the vest. Tough.
Reflective chest protector on Brittany
Angus reflecting…

I’m sure others have experienced run-ins with wire and brush injuries, so I’m curious to hear if any readers have special monitoring strategies to keep their dogs out of harm’s way. For me, at this point in the season (now that it’s colder), both dogs will be wearing nylon vests protecting their chests and flanks. I just got Peat his own; a $40 vest is a lot cheaper than 20 stitches (we’re up to almost $500 this season on stitches for Angus). Hopefully the vests will prevent another incident this season. But when it’s hot, in the early season, vests aren’t an option, so I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on “protection” during the early part of the season.

I guess I should feel lucky I don’t use dogs to hunt bears or mountain lions: while the vet was working on Angus he told us about some of the hounds he sees that have tangled with bears. One dog has a couple steel plates in its arm from a bear biting clean through it. My only worry about that level of injury is with some of the bigger traps out there (which we’ve been seeing more of in Hells Canyon the last couple of years).

Thanks

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Thanks to the birds, to my dogs, and to my truly awesome wife

A couple of amazing days in the field: the season seems to be getting better and better. We are thankful for the birds whose lives we have ended and whose meat will nourish our bodies and whose memories and feathers escaping to remote corners of the garage remind me of the severity of this pastime. Not that it balances out exactly, but as some kind of penance, we make sure to keep our wild bird feeders at home full of seed.

On Thanksgiving Day, we tried a new spot that looked like it might hold birds. It did. Two days later, we tried another new spot and hiked our longest hunt yet. Today, the dogs are paying for it, especially Peat, who tore a toenail down to the quick. I’m starting to feel I understand what habitat to look for that will hold birds: sage, bitterbrush (or “buckbrush” as they call it in these parts), rocks, and east-facing slopes. Oh, and another probably very important feature: low hunting pressure.

Today I set out to make a video of just dog action from the previous two hunts, and I ended up with one of my longest videos yet. I won’t apologize because I love watching it, and hope you enjoy it, too. And to the grayish Toyota Tundra that drove by and stopped while we were unloading: next time just keep driving, or at least offer us a beer!🙂

The Curse

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4th grade Kid

In October 2013, when he was in 4th grade, The Kid went chukar hunting with me, and it was his first time looking for galliformes to shoot in the hills his family’s run cattle on for generations. We hunted a bunch of times that season, but I never managed to get him in position to get a good shot at a chukar. He never lost hope, though.  He always wanted to go again.

The next season, 2014-15, was a bad bird year, and we got out together a few times, once doing an epic climb in hot weather off of Brownlee. But still no chukar.

2015-16 was a weird year for birds, and for us with Peat. The Kid joined us a few times, doing another couple brutal climbs. He did get close toward the end of the season, managing to catch up to a solid point by Peat and missing on the rise, probably because of the shock of seeing 20 birds take off and not being able to pick out just one.

So three complete seasons, no chukar. The jokes about me being the World’s Worst Chukar Guide had worn out a while ago. And then early this season, he texted me, “The curse is broken!” I got excited, and honestly felt a little jealous it wasn’t with me, and then I learned it was a Hun he’d shot. I told him, “The curse ain’t broken ’til you bag a chukar!” (Just to be clear: I have nothing against Hungarian partridge.)

So we went out on Saturday. I had mixed hopes; we were headed to a place I’ve been seeing loads of birds, but they move around a lot in a big area so sometimes it’s a bunch of hiking and not much action. And even if we did run into lots of birds, in the past it’s been hard to get him into position for a good shot.

40 minutes into the hike, and no birds. The Kid walked the ridgetop while I paralleled a ways below. Angus and Peat were up there with him. I looked up and saw him moving quickly toward what must have been pointing dogs. A covey of chukar burst, two shots, and then, “I got one!”

The Kid's first chukar
The Kid’s first chukar

The curse, for real, was over. Before the end of the day, The Kid had three chukar, and got to experience numerous points, long relocation creeps, some incredible retrieves, and the complete experience of chukar hunting, along with the satisfaction of knowing it is possible, that all the work and effort and patience is worth it.

Not a bad achievement
Not a bad achievement

I feel obliged, though, to add a kind of caveat here, with the talk of “the curse,” and the focus on killing a chukar as somehow essential to enjoying chukar hunting or being a “real” chukar hunter. I know many of you who read this blog would agree that it’s not so much about how many birds we get as what we get to experience along the way. Some of my most enjoyable little things have come on chukar hunts in which I came home empty-bagged. Still, it’s important to recognize that the objective is to kill birds, and that until you achieve the objective at least the first time you can’t know whatever that feeling is — and it’s different for all of us — that distinguishes hunting (of any kind) from hiking or sightseeing. Call it a right of passage or whatever, but that first kill does matter. There’s also something about challenging activities, and hard work toward a goal, and the satisfaction of achieving that goal; chukar hunting is one of the most challenging things I’ve tried, and I know The Kid, with his three-plus years of not-giving-up-ness, understands that satisfaction now. I’m honored to have been a part of it. Today, his mom texted me, “You’ve created a bird monster.”

Oh well. There are worse things in the world, right?

Here are some photos of hunts we’ve done together over the years (most taken by Leslie McMichael).

Our first chukar hunt together; I hogged that bird but wanted him to hold it
Our first chukar hunt together; I hogged that bird but wanted him to hold it
He started right off keeping up with me
He started right off keeping up with me

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Showing him how to dispatch a Hun
Showing him how to dispatch a Hun
7 below zero with a screaming wind-chill. Good times (and no birds).
7 below zero with a screaming wind-chill. Good times (and no birds).
Older brother (middle) came along once and said chukar hunting was for the birds
Older brother (middle) came along once and said chukar hunting was for the birds

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Scrambling down some typically treacherous footing
Scrambling down some typically treacherous footing
And heading back up again
And heading back up again
Refusing my request to trade my fontina-prosciutto panini for his peanut-butter-and-Cheeto sandwich on Wonderbread
Refusing my request to trade my fontina-prosciutto panini for his peanut-butter-and-Cheeto sandwich on Wonderbread

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Blue jeans turned sludge brown as a result of being his retriever
Blue jeans turned sludge brown as a result of being his retriever

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He probably thought he'd go chukar-less until the cows came home
He probably thought he’d go chukar-less until the cows came home
The day he got his Francchi
The day he got his Francchi

 

Stellar

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Stellar (“star” in Latin)

Stellar weather blessed us for a visit from out-of-town family and friends last weekend. My brother, who introduced me to bird hunting many years ago (thanks, dude), joined me and Leslie in a couple of my favorite birdspots. The next day, friends of his (and now ours) joined us for a wonderful hike with shotguns.

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The land

I’m proud of the places we have to hunt around here — all public — and want to share them with people I like and care about, or as Leslie likes to quote from my extemporaneous narration of a recent video, “…with people I like and dogs I love.” It’s the sharing of it that intensifies my enjoyment of my favorite pastime; when I go alone, or even with my immediate family unit (Leslie, Angus, and Peat), it’s wonderful but different than the rare occasions when special people to me can see and appreciate the beauty and thrill of our “backyard” outings. It’s really the sharing that matters. It’s not, “Look what I have”; it’s more like, “Look what I wish you could share with me all the time because it’s such an incredible aesthetic, athletic, human, animal, and natural experience; it keeps me going, gives me something amazing to look forward to because you never know what it’s going to be like except physically demanding and visually stunning — we might get birds, we might see some excellent dog work, we might see other wildlife, we might learn something about ourselves…” To me, you couldn’t ask for more than to be able to share this incredible experience with others you suspect might get something similar out of it.

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Dogluck

My brother enjoyed the hunts we shared, which made me happy, partly because he introduced me to this activity 20 years ago by loaning me his Sears & Roebuck 20-gauge shotgun with a built-in adjustable choke to look for ruffed grouse to shoot in ground-growing juniper patches in southwestern Montana when I was still a cat person. I can still remember when we met up after a day of hunting — me for grouse and he for pronghorn — and how happy he seemed when he saw the several birds in my hand.

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Zeke teaching my brother to read

He also introduced me to dogs through his first Brittany, Zeke, the best bird dog — upland and waterfowl — that ever lived (a scientific fact; I have pictures to prove it). Saying “He introduced me to dogs” is like a blind person describing seeing the world for the first time after gaining vision: there is the ecstasy of discovering new beauties and the horror of some harsh realities, like destroyed shoes and favorite furniture and — we all know — deciding to end a treasured companion’s life.

Hun in the hand
Hun in the hand

My brother liked what our dogs provided, which really pleased me, since — if you’re familiar with this blog — you know it’s been a journey-and-a-half. Sharing the land and the dogs, both sources of pleasure and, yes, pride, was a gift to me. There were lots of birds, he shot well (better than I), and we all had fun. He and his wife had their old Brittany (13 years) with them, although they kept him leashed most of the time so he wouldn’t run himself to death out there.

Party
Party

The next day, with three more people, we made a hunting party of 7. I knew we wouldn’t see the frequency of birds of the previous day, and the hiking would be tougher, but the weather was gorgeous and the terrain stunning, and everyone loved the 4 or 5 hours we were out there, looking, laughing, falling, stalking, waiting, and shooting. The whole thing was stellar.

Here are videos of the first and second days, respectively.

Good Days Afield

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Good evening

The last couple of weeks hunting with the dogs, and Leslie, have been swell. They’ve also been some of the most beautiful I’ve witnessed, perhaps a (very minor) upside to global warming. And we’ve seen lots of birds, which has made the dogs happy, which makes me happy, even with my typical streaky shooting. Friday after school, for example, we went out for a rare evening hunt, saw lots of chukar, and I shot 0-8. The next time we went out, yesterday, 7-7 (which included a 2-for-1 on the last shot).

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Rabbit brush?

But it’s getting to be less and less about the shooting and more about watching Angus bounce back from a serious injury and Peat develop into a phenom. Friday was Angus’s first run in the field in two weeks, and he did well but covered less ground than normal; Peat outran him by a half-mile – the first time Peat’s run farther than his brother. Sunday, both dogs ran their PR, and again Peat bested Angus by a wee bit. Both dogs found birds – 5 coveys in the first hour. Fun.

 

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One of the best days, unless you’re a partridge

Hunting solo with Peat while Angus was recuperating was a very good thing. Earlier in the season, Peat was letting Angus do the hard work, watching him from above, and then moving in to back Angus’s points. But when he found himself out there on his own, it was like watching a kid who’s just been given the keys to the ice cream parlor: he’d go wherever he needed to to find birds, and he did it, sometimes ranging out close to 200 yards, whereas before he’d stay within 50 yards. So yeah, I feel pretty grateful for how things are shaping up with Peat, as well as for Angus’s recovery and – at 9-1/2 years – his still-excellent work and condition.

Curiously, though, Peat is letting Angus outdo him on retrieves; yesterday Peat brought back just one of the 7 birds I killed. He still seems to have a tough time finding downed birds, something I hope to see improvement in. But at least he’s not assaulting Angus and stealing birds from him any more!

So here’s a longer-than-usual video, mainly because of the increased action of late. Enjoy.

 

 

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Peat and his take

 

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Cow elk
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Water dogs
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Mouthful of feathers

 

What do you do with your birds?

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Aged birds ready to go

For the past five years, at the suggestion of a biologist friend of mine who’s been bird hunting since the days of the Ottoman Empire, I’ve been aging my birds in the fridge for 2-3 weeks. I put them in my bag during the hunt, stick them in the garage fridge when I get home, and don’t do anything at all to them until I clean them after they’ve aged. I don’t gut them. And, I’m ashamed to admit, I usually just breast them when I finally set out to clean them. I have two reasons for this: one, I’m lazy, and two, my wife won’t eat the birds if they’re on the bone; since she doesn’t eat red meat and can’t share deer and elk with me, I want her to at least get the game birds into her system. I suppose I could save the legs for my own personal use, but often they’re the  most shot up part of the birds I hit. In any case, I do have a pang of guilt disposing of the legs. I don’t plan on remarrying, so I’ll deal with the guilt unless someone has a brilliant idea to help me out here.

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Irony: a store-bought chicken breast thaws next to truly organic grouse, chukar, Huns, and quail

After I’ve breasted the birds, I put the meat in a colander and rinse them off, getting as much of the embedded feathers from shot, and the shot of course, as well as the bloody parts out of the meat. When cleaning them after they’ve aged, I can tell a big difference between the birds I used to clean immediately: the aged birds’ meat is extremely tender, as it should be. After rinsing, I lay the breasts out on paper towels, pat them dry, and then package them with a vacuum sealer.

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Birds, and a yeast starter for an IPA

I forgot to mention that I almost need an IPA when cleaning birds. Check out my Recipes page for some of the ways we cook these delicious things.

What do you do with your birds?

Not just for the birds