Oct 10th

Whitetailed Demons

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Something is wrong with me.

Any other sane bird hunter would have packed up and moved to the interior where the bird numbers and density are greater. But I’m entrenched in the Kenai and I can’t get away from it.

I’ve shot a Whitetailed Ptarmigan already. I’ve seen where they live. I know their confounding habits. I know that if I want to bring another one to hand on the peninsula it will require I burn legs and dogs on hikes as high as I can go without rope to assist.

I came to Alaska with grand ideas of multi-species game bags. Designs of days afield where I could just break open the shotgun and stroll back to the truck while letting birds fly free because enough powder had been burnt.

Those plans are long gone. Replaced with obsession and insecurity.

Though I want this to be about the upland birds and what it takes to hunt them, it’s become apparent it’s as much about me.

Whitetail Ptarmigan play dirty. It’s definitely part of what makes them so maddening. It feels like the hike to get to them, to fractured rock in the cavernous back rooms of a mountain should be enough of a challenge. But if you find these pale ghosts, that’s when the fun really starts.

The dogs and I had hiked to an amazing lake, one of so many with the clearest of water that takes on a turquoise glow when it congregates after falling from the snowpack above. It seems all these bowls hide similar jewels from those unwilling to make the ascent. The scene opens before us at the final few steps after climbing through the saddle. The lake appears and the peaks surrender a token of their scale. But arriving here as a bird hunter, it’s tough to be fully taken with the view. There’s always somewhere higher, a distraction.

And these Whitetail live at the farthest reaches, not one step below, at least not this time of year, not here.

Why can’t I just go inland where the birds abound? I guess I don’t want to be lucky. Anyone can be lucky. My first ptarmigan could have been a fluke, and I need to know it wasn’t. I’d rather hike my legs off than be left feeling I can’t make it happen. Insane.

The rest by this lake and the view grows stale because I can see the next ridge line. I know that if there are birds on this mountain, they are up there. Or they are on the precipice above that one. Or the next. It doesn’t really matter at this point. I’m going and the dogs stretch their legs in agreement. They feed the madness, but at least they are just bird crazy.

We hike onward. Upward. Agonizing exertion. And it feels good.

The route to the next ridge narrows to a goat path snaking between a sharp wall and a 100′ drop. I reign in the dogs. It’s just one of the many places on these peaks where the possibility for mishap creeps from back of mind into reality. It conjures the rarest of thoughts… please, don’t let there be birds here.

As if on command, Rio the setter freezes at the bend above Wyatt the lab and I. Her head is craned into the breeze, tail high.

They are here.

A plan. I need a plan to get out of this with everyone in one piece.

But the birds read my thoughts and flush wild. This covey of 10 have no interest in a plan. Rio bales off the cliff in pursuit, and Wyatt runs to join. He shoots me a wild-eyed glance to make sure I’m game then dives over the edge. He’s misread the terror on my face. And there’s nothing left but action.

The dogs have made the leap successfully, a controlled fall down one face, and now a climb of the opposite to rejoin birds above. I scramble to close on them wishing I had the benefit of their four legs in this terrain.

We weave in and out of boulders. Points. Running birds. Flushes perilously close to dogs. Long, ill-advised shots. Repeat. It’s hunting through a labyrinth of rock on a 40 degree slope.  The ptarmigan fly just far enough to draw us deeper into their lost world by dangling shreds of hope. Never over the horizon, just over the next set of granite daggers.

I boulder to some higher ground to escape the grind. With the altitude comes an angle. A single bird holds a fraction too long, flies just a few inches too high, doesn’t keep the flusher between us. At the snap of the trigger it falls. Wyatt runs to retrieve and it’s the contrast of angelic wing against dark jowls that I will see in my sleep for days to come.

We start the hike back to the mundane, flat ground. And the demons recede into the crevices of the mountain and are quiet. For now.


Black Lab and White Bird 

Dec 3rd

Bird Hunting Amid Spun Tales

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Kansas Pheasant Hunting

Every year in Kansas we hear funny stories about birds and hunting. Maybe it was the full moon, the start of the whitetail rut or the dismal bird forecasts that contributed to tales of the extra nutty variety this season. We hunt from a small town that resides in a county with a population just over 3,000. If one person shares a story it is guaranteed to be known in all corners by the end of day.

On the third day of the season in Kansas this year we were informed by one of our local friends that he had spoken to a group of out of state hunters while driving home on back roads. He inquired how the hunting was going with a response of “not so good”. This group of hunters then proceeded to share their theory for the ringneck population decline: the deer have been eating all the pheasant eggs………… That likely bears repeating because this might be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard about declining bird populations. The deer are eating all the pheasant eggs according to this group of non-resident hunters.

While at the local gas station the attendant let us know that she spoke with a hunter who had witnessed a marauding band of killer turkeys that rounded up a group of juvenile pheasant into a circle and proceeded to kill and eat them. The gobblers then headed off in apparent search of their next victims.

Complaining over the loss of 95% of their birds, the owner of a local restaurant informed me that his adult son had gone out last week and killed three roosters (this would have been a week before the season started). Upon cleaning the birds he found there was little to no meat on them and they were unfit for eating. He concluded, the entire pheasant population has contracted a disease and the Kansas DNR is covering it up.

A hunter staying in the same motel was happy to inform us if we get in a situation where we need to buy birds, there’s a great guy just west of town who charges $175 for a four bird limit. And If we call ahead he’ll put them out and show us exactly where to hunt.

I’ve hunted in Kansas for the last 20 years. For the last decade my dad has joined this adventure. Over that time we’ve developed lots of great friendships with residents we see year-over-year. We tend to hunt the same general vicinity which gives us a pretty decent annual view of what’s happening in the broader ecosystem when assessing bird populations.

Ringneck numbers in Kansas have been on the decline for the last few seasons. The hard winter of 2010-2011 accompanied by the extremely wet spring seemed to be the initial blow. This was followed by a severe drought the summer of 2012 and drought conditions throughout the bulk of spring and summer this year. These dry conditions seized a large portion of the center of the country prompting the USDA to allow a massive swath of emergency haying of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) — see the map below.

The pheasant numbers in Kansas were lower than I have ever seen. But let me assure you this isn’t a mysterious disease or egg-eating deer. Everything is being bailed: milo stalks, wheat stubble, CRP grass. In the area where we hunt many of those bails are being sold and trucked to other areas of the country even harder hit by drought. Combine this rampant bailing with the generally high prices of grain. We’re seeing more and more areas that were previously enrolled in CRP now being planted. And we’re also seeing fence lines and trees being bulldozed to gain even more area to plant.

As much as we enjoy a good story, the tale of pheasant decline across the midwest is pretty simple: lack of cover.

So we’ll be hoping for a mild winter across the center of the country this year. And then we’d like Mother Nature to serve up decent moisture that allows the prairies, pastures and crops to thrive. We don’t chase bird forecasts so we’ll be back in Kansas next season to visit our friends. We’re in search of memories afield that have very little to do with bird numbers. And if I’m ever in a situation where I need to buy birds, I’ll go to the grocery and pay $2.99 per pound.

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CRP Haying Map

Oct 14th

Quest for the Sage Grouse

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Three Llewellin setters hunting together for the first time are on point. It’s taken 9.5 miles of walking across rolling Montana sage to get this dog circus to this grand finale. Yet somehow my new hunting buddy Jory and I walk past without even noticing. I suspect his male setter Ridge has lead the discovery because he seems to be the only one with any energy left. But the ladies Sage and my Rio have crept in to back, all three dogs in a 10 yard circle confirming the inevitable.

Blame the unseasonable heat and resulting dehydration. Blame the welcome distraction of trucks now coming into view or the aching feet. Jory and I are lost in the story swap of other days afield. Something has made these pointing dogs invisible to us. Until the Sage Grouse, now sufficiently nervous from our ignorant behavior, begin vaulting to wing and Wyatt the black lab who has been heeling us out of exhaustion sees birds, taps one last energy reserve and closes to flush whatever lies in his path.

3 setters and a lab

Long shots. It’s just too early in the season to be making them. But I fire two wayward shells at the nearest and biggest grouse I can pick out. Not a single feather is cut as it puts full girth behind wing beats, comes to full speed and disappears with its friends over the horizon.

With Wyatt nipping at the tail feathers of a bird late to the flight plan, Jory draws the same result with his salvo.

And the silence that sets in after shells are spent comes from the realization that my quest that started three years ago has come to this. A blown opportunity on a bird that may have very few left. A decision by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) is looming. The Sage Grouse could become the next recipient of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) label, joining a list that seems to never relinquish members.

The largest grouse species in the country has tormented me over hundreds of walking miles. Many Sharptail and other winged relatives have fallen along the journey, but the Sage Grouse has eluded all efforts.

Now to come this close, just outside good gunning distance. My shotgun feels heavy from the mixture of adrenaline and disappointment coursing through weary arms. I need to bring one of these birds to hand. I believe holding one will somehow make me understand whats happening with this species, will put it in the language of upland hunting which I understand best. I need to be a part of the history of this great bird before all that is left is history.

Luckily there are people like Tim Griffiths from Natural Resources Conservations Service and Sage Grouse Initiative Coordinator who can help frame the Sage Grouse into a broader perspective. The population has plummeted from millions to about 200,000 from the loss of intact sagebrush grasslands in 11 western states and Canada where its range has been reduced by half. Contributing factors and proposed solutions can be a gauntlet that gets complicated. There are no easy answers to put this bird back on the climb. And this is the West where ranchers and oil men carve a living from hard work; easy answers are frowned upon and rarely net real results.

There are only a handful of states where Sage Grouse can still be hunted. Most have very brief seasons, permit drawings and extremely conservative bag limits. Montana is one state with a significant population of birds that doesn’t seem to be under the same pressures, and allows hunting during the months of September and October.

But the truth is very few people actually pursue the Sage Grouse. Most hunters cite the flavor of the meat as the prime reason they won’t target them.  Hunting has never been considered a factor in the population decline. From discussions with Tim I learn that habitat fragmentation is the largest enemy of Sage Grouse. A number of studies have shown that Sage Grouse are a migratory species with journeys ranging from 10 to 250 miles. Put a few dozen oil wells or a subdivision in the midst of one of these migration corridors and the grouse will abandon the area.

Most folks who live outside of the traditional range of the Sage Grouse are unaware of the debate currently brewing out West. Much of this part of the country is basking in the red hot economy created by the oil and gas boom. And even more of it is part of a tradition of ranching and grazing on massive tracts of private property and millions of acres of federal lands. The Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI) has identified 186 million acres as traditional habitat — 60% of this residing on federal land, 40% private. That’s nearly a third of the contiguous US land mass. If this amount of natural resource falls into restriction and regulation brought on by a ESA listing, you can be certain the rest of the country will feel the impact acutely.

But outside of all the gloom and doom, let’s look at the some of the things that SGI has accomplished since inception in 2010. What attracted my attention most and brought me to contact Griffiths is I recognized a new vibe in their conservation efforts. SGI is a highly targeted and science-based landscape approach to proactively conserve Sage Grouse and sustain the working rangelands that support western ranching economies. Conservation practices are designed to be win-win solutions addressing threats facing both Sage Grouse and rangelands.

Griffiths explained in detail how a custom grazing system can be implemented to the mutual benefit of rancher and wildlife alike. I’m no wildlife biologist, but I found it mind bending and contrary to so many of my preconceived notions of livestock. I have hopes that similar grazing practices will find their way into other public lands. Some other things that SGI has accomplished:

  • Conservation easements were secured on 242,000 acres to maintain large and intact working ranches in some of the highest Sage Grouse abundant core areas. These actions anticipate a 2/3 reduction in bird loss as a result.
  • Additional hiding cover increases Sage Grouse nest success by 10% within 2.1 million acres of grazing systems implemented.
  • Tripled the chance of maintaining populations by removing 200,000 acres of invasive conifer in core habitats and prevented a loss of 60% of the available forage.
  • SGI prevented 2,600 fence collisions by marking or moving 500 miles of ‘high-risk’ fence that reduced bird strikes by 83%.

No one who understands the facts and potential impacts wants to see an Endangered Species listing, all for selfish reasons of course. But in this case the selfish motives may actually work in favor of the birds. That’s why I have hope.  SGI is working with all the major concerns — ranchers, oil and gas, hunters, conservation groups and states — to find common solutions which will benefit them and wildlife. Instead of preaching from an ivory tower or regulating economic and private interests into oblivion, they are working with biologists, scientists and landowners to find real solutions with measured results. It is refreshing and a model for future conservation efforts.

There’s no doubt that the birds that just escaped Jory and I have benefited from work that SGI has headed up.

As the pack of Llewellin circle long from winged excitement, I call Wyatt back to the original location of the flush. My gun has been reloaded without thought, just muscle memory from so many days afield. I’ve learned over years of pursuit of prairie species that often a bird from a covey believes they can outsmart predators without expending the energy of flight. Just hold tight, let the melee of a dozen birds taking wing distract and divert the pursuer then let ‘em pass right by.

These are the times it pays off to have a hard-headed lab that reads body language and knows your thoughts before you do. As if on cue Wyatt runs his nose into the one hold out bird.  I’ve closed the distance and wait just long enough for the bird to clear his darkness  before snapping the trigger. The grouse folds and Wyatt is upon it. I drop to both knees. The end of this journey is overwhelming and it takes my breath away. Jory is there with congratulations and a high five that returns me to my feet.

I call for Wyatt to bring up the bird, exhaustion has him taking his sweet time. I let him savor the moment too.

Jory and I hunt together multiple times on this trip to Montana and our crew of dogs eventually settle into a rhythm. Though unseasonably warm the Sharptail cannot avoid the dognado and many come to hand. But the highlight of the trip is the Sage Grouse now tucked into the corner of my cooler, quite possibly the only one I will ever shoot. Respect for the bird, respect for conservation efforts makes me question whether I will ever pull the trigger again. But the heft of the largest grouse in the country is something I hope others will get to experience in the future.

And now I owe Jory an assist on an elk pack-out because he led me to this bird. Why he still hunts 4-legged beasts when he lives in the heart of bird country with two setters is something I will never understand.

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Visit the SGI website to see some great photos and videos of Sage Grouse. And be sure to like them on Facebook to stay up to date on their efforts.

Sep 3rd

Kicking Off the 2013 Upland Season in Montana

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

IMG_4021small.jpg

When you are about to drive 1500 miles to hunt birds, the last thing you want to do is forget something. Rural Montana isn’t the easiest place to find gear that you left behind.

Because it’s the first hunt of the year, I try and pack over the course of a couple weeks. Sounds crazy, even to me, but it is a proven strategy. I’ll start making a pile in an unused room, garage or sometimes the dining room table. As the departure date draws nearer the pile grows in size. You never want to forget the big items: gun, shells, dogs. But it’s the little things that gnaw at you once you’re on the road: dog bowls, training collars, power cords, hunting boots, upland vest. Things you aren’t going to find in a General Store or gas station can be problematic when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

That pile of gear serves as a visual reminder of the upcoming trip and every now and then I’ll walk by it and a lightbulb will go off to add an item not yet included.

The bulk of Montana has managed to stay clear of the drought which has ravaged much of the west this summer. The other reason we decided to start the hunt in Montana this season is Sage Grouse. After years of studies the US Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to make a ruling on whether to add Sage Grouse to the endangered species list. If that happens, the ramifications for millions of acres of federal lands considered Sage Grouse habitat could be interesting to watch.

There is no doubt that Sage Grouse numbers have been on the decline. The debate currently revolves around why the populations have dropped. Many believe it is a symptom of habitat fragmentation. Being a bird hunter, not a biologist, I don’t have the answers. I can only hope that somebody smarter than myself can come up with a solution to stabilize these birds.

I’m in Montana to find Sage Grouse on what could be the final opportunity to chase this majestic bird and hopefully bring one to hand.

Rio, the Llewellin setter, is now in her terrible twos. The hope is that she skips right past terrible and picks up where she left off last season. And our ol’ faithful black lab hunting buddy Wyatt will be plodding along this trip too. Watching a pointer and a flusher working together has become one of my true joys of fall.

Here’s some video clips from the start of the hunt.

Apr 29th

Shotgunning Comes Full Circle

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

Ultimate Upland - Filson - Tractor

Three decades ago my dad put a shotgun in my hands. We’d setup on the old farm hill with the hand trap and shoot clays until our shoulders were sore and cases of pigeons emptied. Then we’d go down in the pasture, pick up the unbroken clays, return them to the top of the hill and shoot some more. I’ve never had a professional shooting lesson but believe I’ve had the best shooting instruction available anywhere.

And a few years ago my nephew Zach began getting that same instruction on the same farm hill from the same man, his grandpa. The hand trap has been replaced by battery powered which is now towed up the slope with a lawn tractor. But the lessons are the same: be safe, shoot often, have fun, but listen and learn from a man who has put more rounds down range than most small armies. Needless to say, Zach has grown comfortable with a gun in hand.

Ultimate Upland - Filson - Shotgun

As part of our Off-Season Odyssey I thought it would be interesting to pit pupil against pupil. As we drive cross country on Zach’s spring break we’ll stop whenever time allows to shoot sporting clays and hone the shotgunning skills sowed by my dad. After eight hours driving we get our first opportunity to stretch our legs and burn some powder at a clays course in Illinois.

Zach has sprouted into a young man. His reactions times will be faster, his vision better. He’s on the front end of life, the upswing. Whereas I’m fighting to stay on the right side of the hill, he’s coming of age. Needless to say, I have concerns. This is the first time I’ve had a shooting stick in hand since the close of wild bird hunting season. I don’t want to be outshot by my nephew. It’s too early for that. But the possibility is real.

Ultimate Upland - Filson - Shotgun Vest Sporting Clay

It’s apparent these friendly shooting matches are just a microcosm of the purpose for this road trip. As much as I hope to broaden Zach’s horizons, there is also a growing desire to define my own legacy. There has to be something that an uncle can still offer, some nugget of experience, of expertise, that can still awe a teen. Maybe that’s besting him in sporting clays, exploring amazing new places or just driving infinite hours to stick to a self-imposed itinerary on a road trip few would attempt in this timeframe.

After the first couple shooting stations, I’m grateful some of the symptoms of youth are still at hand: small lapses in focus, and a reluctance to try the proven path. It’s these things which keep me at a small shooting advantage. But there is also foreshadowing of rounds to come – stations where my nephew whips me handily and forces me to lug the dreaded shooting bag to the next. Each round of sporting clays we shoot, the margin of victory is tight, but more importantly we both improve our own scores.

Whether it’s shooting at the foot of the Rockies, off-roading at Big Horn Canyon, peering over the rim of Crater Lake or bouldering at Devil’s Tower, I find comfort in remaining relevant. And watching Zach grow up seems less a threat than a privilege.

We complete the 6,900 mile Off-Season Odyssey loop returning to the exact same sporting clays course where it kicked off ten days earlier. A legacy of shooting that began over 30 years ago with my dad’s passion for the shooting sports has come full circle as well. What Zach will do with his love of the outdoors and shotgunning is up to him. But I expect he’ll pass it along in his own way and own time and the legacy will continue. And one day, hopefully in the very distant future, he may actually be able to best his uncle’s score.

Big Thanks to Filson for sponsoring our Odyssey.

And thanks to Wolverine BootsSportDOG and Benchmade for sending gear to test on the journey. 
Mar 13th

Highlights From the 2012 Bird Hunting Season

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

It seems like eons ago when we were climbing to 12,000 feet in the Ruby Mountains in pursuit of Snowcock. But it was just a short six months since we set off to start the 2012 bird hunting season. Now that wild bird hunting in the lower 48 has ended I sit here reflecting on what we accomplished last year.

Sandhills
A large part of me hates seeing the season close. But I confess there’s also a small piece thankful for the break. I appreciate the time the off-season allows to assess strengths and weakness and to plot how to continue expanding the sport of bird hunting.

This year we managed to hunt public lands across seven states sharing the field with some great Ultimate Uplanders. The introduction of Rio the young Jornada Llewellin in her first hunting action seemed to dominate our adventures. Puppies afield are great mirrors into a bird hunter’s psyche; they test your patience, reveal your flaws and can make you a better hunter. I think Rio did all these things and it was great be back in the game with our first pointing breed since the loss of our GSP Finn.
 
Opening the season with mind blowing vistas of the high dessert is tough to beat. Scaling peaks with Wyatt the black lab in Nevada followed by similar hikes in pursuit of Ptarmigan in Utah gave new meaning to ‘tough hunting’. Time spent camping and hiking with new friends, lifting Wyatt over truck sized boulders, utter exhaustion followed by moments of exhilaration from elusive long flushing birds made September unforgettable.

Loosing Rio in the expansive Nebraska Sandhills and watching her worldview transform with the freedom that comes with miles of uninterrupted running was quite a sight as well. Nebraska National Forest also offered the first view of the negative impact of the drought across the bulk of the Midwest. Birds were hard to come but young dogs have much to learn beyond just finding fowl: barbed wire, proximity to gun, cactus, porcupine, and sleeping in tents were all part of Rio’s lesson plan.

Luckily when we moved on to the grouse woods of Wisconsin the drought was no longer an issue and Rio could focus on pointing. Old scent, new scent, woodcock, grouse, songbirds…. nothing was safe from the pup’s glare. We worked to readjust ranging from open prairie to the thick North Woods where Rio finally scored her first bird.


 The pursuit continued into Michigan where Rio was introduced to hunting with other dogs via our friends from the Saltville crew and the larger than life Britney Starr who helped to bring our very first Timberdoodles to hand.

The annual hunt with my dad in Kansas is one I look forward to most. This year regardless the drought and low bird forecasts it promised to be entertaining because it would be Rio and Wyatt’s first joint hunt. Dad got to share in my vision for the future of our hunting; running both dogs each with their own style and strengths, allowing them to follow their calling. And Dad finally connected on a wild Bobwhite ending a multi-year curse. It was a great 30-yard crossing shot that reminded me of decades of shotgunning under his tutelage.


I hunted South Dakota late in the season to chase wise old roosters. Something I dare to even mention, Rio learned to circle long, get in front of running birds and hold them. I witnessed it on multiple occasions and have not whispered it to a soul. Is it possible this dog could be that good?  The first instance I thought it was a fluke, the next I got the shivers. This isn’t something I’ve trained; I’m not even sure it can be trained. This is something she has learned to do – or maybe it was a happy accident. Time will tell.

Ultimate Upland hosted the second annual Longest Rooster Tournament which had hunters across the country posting photos of longtails on their Rooster Rulers©. The winning bird was harvested in New York by Ultimate Uplander Doug Banks – 42″ tip-to-tip. We’ve had requests to expand the tournament to other species next season and are evaluating how to proceed.

For the second straight year we travelled to the SHOT show to review new products for the upland industry. The highlight of Las Vegas this year had to be the triumph over Britney Starr in the Birdhunter Battle of the Sexes. We’ve had numerous requests to expand the battle next year, so there’s a good chance she will bring a ringer to attempt capturing the title.

We finished the year right back where we started, here in North Carolina. Both dogs have searched high and low over the last six weeks for the fabled southern appalachian Ruffed. Though we tripled the number of flushes from last season, across four different peaks, we were still unable to bring one to hand.


The signs of spring are now creeping in on us. The dogs are bored. The shotgun is sitting in the corner in need of deep cleaning. For each of the past two seasons I’ve spent over a 100 days in the field with the dogs. I’m thankful for Blackwood Pet Foods and the other sponsors who help us pursue this dream of bringing Ultimate Upland bird hunting to the masses. Plans for next season are already taking shape: train harder, hunt bigger, go further. Along the way we’re going to share our passion for this sport with all who will listen. Booming wings erupting from dense cover is a rush that everyone needs to experience.

Dec 20th

Kansas Bird Hunting in Perspective

By Ultimate Upland Lodge

I make the annual pilgrimage to Kansas to reunite with old friends and family.  It reminds me of where my passion for bird hunting was first kindled.  Because this year was no exception to the rule, Kansas seemed like the right place to bring together our young Jornada Llewellin Rio with our veteran flusher Wyatt for their first joint hunt.

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An inexperienced puppy afield is a great mirror into a hunters reality. Rio reflects how much my hunting style and perspective has developed. We typically bring a new pup into the family every five years and because so many things change unnoticed during hunting seasons over time, Rio is a breath of fresh airWhile older accomplished dogs tend to blend in, covering for mistakes and making you better on days when you’re just average, Rio shows how much older I’ve gotten. She tests my patience. One minute, she hangs on my every word acting as if she understands verbatim while the next she feigns deafness to any coaching. This pup runs wild and acts crazy when I feel anything but. She looks for birds in places I know they are not, and then finds birds there to spite any wisdom I presume to possess. 
 
Rio poses even more of a challenge because she’s a pointer, and Wyatt is a flushing lab. When this season started my first inclination was to hunt them separately to establish a different set of rules for Rio. However, she has proven to be focused and steady on point, earning her stripes during my Nebraska trip and a subsequent North Woods hunt with other dogs. As a result, I’m upping the ante by turning her loose with my dozer Wyatt. I know fully what to expect of him and he’s hunted with pointers before. The whole prospect still causes some butterflies. I’ve gotten far too accustomed to running a single dog. 

The conditions in Kansas are bit discouraging this season and I’ve prepared myself for the worst. The drought has decimated the cover. Most landowners have been forced to cut and bail the land enrolled in the CRP programs. Though it is still designated public walk-in for hunting, lack of cover makes most plots unfit to shelter birds. Early bird forecasts were up from 2011 when the hatch was drowned with record spring rainfall totals. But now it has swung to the opposite extreme. This year grains underperformed and were harvested early along with the cropped native grasses leaving few areas for pheasant to hide from aerial predators. The normal steep learning curve for the young birds has become even more treacherous. However, this is what hunting public land is all about; take the conditions we’re given and try to make lemonade. 

It is the 10th season dad has joined us in Kansas. This spring he saw Rio train and has an idea of just how much ground she can effortlessly cover. In contrast when you’re over 70 years old I’m not sure anything is physically effortless anymore. I know he’s nervous that the pack might outrun him and his titanium knee replacement. So this hunt I’m putting dad in charge of tracking Rio. He’s going to carry the SportDog Tek GPS transmitter so he can see when she’s on point. Really he’ll be able to see where she is at any time because of the collar’s seven mile range. This eliminates any fear of losing her. She’s free to range too long, get lost and then find her way back to us. It is the best way for young dogs to gain confidence and begin understanding the value of proximity to the gun. Pairing the old man and the young dog should be great for everyone.

Decades of Kansas experience and learning from mistakes have shown us the light. Gone are the days of running on tilt across fields, yelling at dogs, hoping to close distances on roosters bolting out the other end of the field. Now we hunt small and smart: We still cover lots of ground but try to focus on the smaller areas within fields that we determine most productive. I like to pit our dogs and skills against the smartest wild birds we can find. The birds will win their share of these battles, but we will win our share as well. Many hunters get caught up in the heft of the game bag which is a losing proposition. Inevitably there will be days you don’t shoot a limit. Instead we strive for memories that we’ll recall for years to come and they rarely have anything to do with limits.
 
On the third morning of this 10-day hunt the phone rings. My Aunt Pat, dad’s sister, suffered a heart attack and was undergoing a cardiac cath which would reveal the severity and next steps. We were 1,000 miles away. There’s not much to do but prepare to make the drive to Ohio. But until we get the results of the procedure we’re in limbo. Depending on what they find this may be our last hunt of the year. 

Cardiac issues hit very close to home in our family; Dad has survived quadruple bypass, multiple procedures and complications over the years. We’ve become good friends and are on a first name basis with his cardiologist — which is both reassuring and disconcerting at the same time. So when his sister has a heart attack it immediately brings a massive weight to bear and I could see it on his face. But I convince dad we should take our phones and hunt one last field while waiting for Aunt Pat’s results. A walk on a brisk morning can help clear heads. 

The dogs seem to sense the gravity. They hunt with purpose from the moment I drop the tailgate. We’re walking into the wind with the sun still low on the horizon at our backs.  It’s the golden hour and everything has that amber glow. Birds have been hard to come by to this point in the hunt. I know dad really isn’t even thinking about hunting. But Wyatt and Rio are intent on bringing him back to the moment. A couple of hundred yards into this cover Rio begins creeping and pointing.  Wyatt runs in and flushes a rooster in front of me and I snap off a shot and fold it. At the report pheasant begin boiling everywhere. I’m standing in the middle of a rooster eruption. I can see dad from the corner of my eye soaking it in as more birds rise and I break open the action, reload and continue to shoot. 

The points and flushes extend the length of this new field forcing smiles to return to our faces. Just as we make the turn to head back with the wind the text comes in that Aunt Pat has had a successful procedure with minimal damage to her heart. The fears fully retreat to the dark recesses. When we return to the vehicle dad makes a call to confirm the good news as I begin to clean the birds. 

Some memories are sneaky and weasel their way into stories recounted year over year. But this is a memory that I know immediately will become a part of our hunting legend. These roosters, this hunt will be remembered as part of a miraculous bountiful field in a year of depressed numbers. A hunt where distraction was desperately needed and nature heeded the call. We often give nicknames to locations where we hunt and this new spot has become Aunt Pat’s Place.

The rest of the week is a true bonus since our hunt could have been over. We add plenty of other tales to recount. Rio ended up pointing her first covey of wild quail this year in Kansas. Hunting with Wyatt has given her new confidence and she stops pointing songbirds. And Wyatt sees how keen Rio’s nose is and begins keying in on some of her points giving hope that one day this contrasting duo will attain my vision. In a year when all our local friends said there wasn’t a pheasant in the county, we never went a day in Kansas without seeing a bird.   

More importantly this hunt reminds me that all our days afield are a gift that lend perspective to the other events of life. There’s not a day in the field where I want to take this for granted. Cherish the moments chasing birds with family, friends and dogs.

And we’re so blessed and thankful to have sponsors like Blackwood Pet Foods who recognize our goals and support our vision for upland hunting’s significance. 

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Oct 10th

Longleaf Plantation: Shooting in Style

By Rita@HGM
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Here is a link to a blog post I did on our shooting trip to Longleaf Plantation in southern Mississippi.  http://www.HeritageGameMounts.com/longleaf-plantation-shooting-in-style   

I would have posted it all here, except I am tech challenged how to copy & paste!
Sep 14th

Getting Over the Snowcock Curve

By Ultimate Upland Lodge
There is definitely a learning curve anytime you try and hunt a new species in a new area. No amount of research or reading can truly prepare you the same as having boots on the ground. Of course all the ground in the Rubys points uphill.

With Snowcock you hear tales of hunters rounding a corner on an established trail yards from the car, shooting a double and returning to the house in time for brunch. I say hogwash. If that has ever happened I want photo evidence, a sworn affidavit, an official inquiry, a witness -- any or all of the above.

The highest elevation you can get a vehicle in the Rubys is 8,800 feet at the Lamoille Canyon parking lot. That is easily 1,000 feet below where I have seen Snowcock sign over the last two weeks of hiking. Why would a group of birds that has all they need to thrive at altitude drop down out of the stratosphere for a visit. The answer is they don't.

Obviously I don't have the whole game figured out just yet. You have not seen me with one of these birds in hand and I can guarantee there will be hundreds of photos if  I am ever so fortunate. But I have managed to solve some substantial pieces of the Snowcock mystery.

Tomorrow morning I'll put all that I've learned over the last two weeks to work. Based on what I brought, how I trained  and what I've seen it will be the last best chance for me to shoot one of these birds this year. If it doesn't all come together then I'll adjust my approach and continue the lessons on a future trip. Either way it has been an amazing hunt.

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Sep 10th

Climbing for the Birds

By Ultimate Upland Lodge
Maurice and I punched through the ridge line at 10,500 feet mid-morning with Wyatt the black lab in tow. The massive boulder fields and talus slopes are tough terrain for a bird dog. We climbed over a small crease and arrived at a rare sight, a piece of flat ground extending 50 yards to the base of a cliff. I joked  to Maurice "it sure would be nice if the birds were on one of these flat spots."  No sooner had the words left my mouth and the flash of wing beats erupted from the rock wall.

One day ago, I had met Ultimate Uplanders Maurice and Dave in the Lamoille Canyon for the first time. We had been conversing online for a number of months about making an attempt on Snowcock. Dave is a hardworking father of four young kids (soon to be five). Maurice is a retired lumber man from Idaho who spends five months out of the year traveling with fly rod and firearm in search of outdoor adventure.

Dave is the local knowledge. But when talking Snowcock hunting there just isn't much reference material available. The one thing everyone knows is that they are in the upper reaches of the Ruby peaks. Beyond that how to best hunt them is mainly speculation and rumor. Most say that the birds will descend from the protection of the cliffs at dawn and then feed back uphill as the day progresses. What elevation they descend to, how long they remain, what they are eating.....nearly any scrap of information which might be helpful for hunting is unverified or nonexistent.

The initial plan was to hike in and spike camp at a high mountain lake, stay for a number of days, spot and then stalk these birds much as you would a large game animal. After climbing to the top of this bowl and then hiking around the backside, it became clear that the elevation showing the most sign of Snowcock started around 10k . We quickly deduce that the issue is not finding the birds so much as finding areas at that altitude which are accessible. The bird sign we find  is old, the huntable areas too limited; this initial pack in is not going to give us the best chance to ambush a Snowcock. And just that fast a plan we've discussed for months is rendered useless.

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The scramble begins to cobble together a new game plan which will get us into the birds based on this new information gained from firsthand legwork. We now know that a climb of 3,000 vertical feet is the minimum just to get you to the playing field. Then you still must have enough energy and accessible area to continue the pursuit from there.

Since Maurice has just one day left to hunt we let him make the call on the next hunting area. Besides being the shortest of time, he likely has the most experience pursuing game. I won't reveal his age but I will tell you that the Social Security checks are going to start arriving soon. Despite the setback of a triple bypass surgery last year, sheer will and  a passion for bird hunting have brought him back to an astounding level of conditioning .

At Maurice's direction we select a new cirque to conquer at first light. I estimate an ascent of 1,500 feet in the first half-mile and then we know there will be an additional 1,000 just to find out if the birds are in the area.  It looks like a massive undertaking for a day hike. Though I've been conditioning seven days a week for two months, I have some doubts. Dave takes one look at that first half-mile and determines that we are insane and vows to hunt a different day.

Wyatt was so stiff from the previous day's climb that I'm not sure he's up for the task. But when he sees the shotgun leave the car the will to hunt trumps any aches. He will not be left behind. After a night of restless sleep, I tighten down the boot straps and we head uphill.

Just over the rim we begin flushing Blue Grouse. There are plenty of opportunities to shoot, but we are holding out for Snowcock. Wyatt flushes a bird 30 yards to my left where there is a single pine obstructing my view. I get to see two wingbeats as it heads toward the cliff. I pull up and swing the shotgun through the left side of the tree and snap off a shot. The bird doesn't clear the other side and I hear Wyatt go in to retrieve. And then I see another bird flush and don't even mount the gun. They are Blues. Though I'm happy to have shot my first Sooty Grouse, I was hoping for Snowcock.

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We continue to climb and about the time we run into Mountain Goats we also start seeing bird sign and finding Snowcock feathers. They have been here, and in good numbers.

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But now we are at that uncomfortable edge between the desire to shoot a bird and the desire to return. There are areas up here where you have to weigh access versus safety. Wyatt has been a champ bouldering and climbing, but there are spots in these mountains I will not take him for fear that he would chase a bird off a precipice. Maurice can reach some of these spots without us. After talking it over he heads around a spine and disappears. Then we hear the echo of a shot.

It takes a while for Maurice to pick his path around and back down to us. I can't wait to see the Snowcock come out of the game pouch. But it never does.

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We flushed more than 24 birds over these last two climbs. Mostly Blues, a random Chukar and at least four, what we believe to be honest to goodness Himalayan Snowcock. They jumped well out of gun range from one inaccessible peak and coasted to the next while calling out to us.

We walked down the hill with a couple grouse, an extremely tired dog and awesome memories. The Snowcock have won the day but have also given up lots of knowledge that we'll use on the next hunt.