Thursday, July 24, 2008

Out for a Stroll with Bob

Quail used to be very common in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. Now, it's a pleasant surprise just to hear one calling on a warm spring day. In all the time I've spent down there fishing, I've seen more roadrunners than quail. So, it was a nice to catch this fella crossing a country road, probaby on his way back to the lady friend.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More Bikejor and Other Training

I've been trying to bikejor with the dogs every other day or day and a half, with free runs on the off days. We've had some serious heat the past few days, so I've only been free-running them at a local dog park, nearly every day. Sage gets in a good bit of swimming there, as well. I think they were in pretty good shape to begin with, but I can certainly see an improvement in toughness of their pads.

The dog park also offers me an opportunity for some reminders on the virtues of "whoa." I like my dogs to think that "whoa" means "birds." So, as they're careening off the terraces hunting the thicker grass, if I see a robin or meadowlark in the grass ahead I'll whoa one or both. He or they will stop with their noses in the air trying to pick up the bird. Usually after a moment they'll catch the bird moving in the grass. I'll walk in and flush the bird. I let them find plenty on their own, as well, but they don't let them get too close, so the way it usually works is they'll wind them from a ways off, stop, and scan ahead for the bird. I like that it's making my older dog more cautious, because he's been kind of a all-or-nothing hard charging kind of bird dog.

Friday, July 11, 2008

On Hunting Chickens

My favorite gamebird (for the time being) is the greater prairie chicken. I particularly like their behavior around pointing dogs, their habitat, and the niche of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem (and folklore) that they fill.

Ted Gartner made the following comments regarding the prairie chicken in a blog post recounting last season's opener:

"For the uninitiated, prairie chickens are the quintessential native upland game bird of the prairies. They roamed the central part of the United States long before the more gaudy, noisy, and ubiquitous pheasant was brought to our shores from China.

"Prairie chickens inhabit vast expanses of rolling grasslands, mostly in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. As such, pursuing them requires a comfortable pair of hunting boots, rangy but disciplined bird dogs, and a healthy dose of optimism."

I have probably only dedicated a dozen or so days over two seasons hunting chickens, but it didn't take long for them to carve a place at the top of my totem pole of upland bird worship. If thinking about chickens was a paid profession, I could turn in two 40-hour timesheets every week. As Ted mentions, they mostly inhabit tallgrass prairie land in the northern half of Tornado Alley. In Kansas, most of the native grassland fell victim to the plow long ago, which has seriously reduced their range and population. However, there are certain parts of the state where crop agriculture didn't strongly take hold, mostly because of the limestone just a few inches under the topsoil. This layer effectively caused the preservation of some native prairie, because the shallow rock didn't readily allow the ground to be worked with farm machinery. In these areas, I find chickens in pastureland still teeming with native grasses, flowers, and other food sources--although chickens will readily fly miles away to feed on crops.

As you can see, the vast expanses of land and sparse cover allow an independent dog to range far, probing the front and flanks for scent. And when he does locate birds, he can be seen from long distances, making the approach all the more endless and antagonizing. The younger birds are likely to hold for a point in the early fall, and they aren't predisposed to running, although with chickens it's not out of the question, either. The right situation can mean pointed covies in November or December, like this past Christmas Eve. Usually, these covies are rather large.

Their erratic flight isn't strong, and their death comes easily with a well placed pattern of #7.5's. But these birds are neither tame, nor weak. They can detect a hunter's presence and flush wild hundreds of yards away. And they can survive the harsh winter storms that leave pheasants and quail frozen in snow drifts. Simple, and nearly archaic, in appearance, they are known mostly for their wild and extravagant mating rituals.

I'm going to miss hunting them this September, that's for sure.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Really Really, Really Ridiculously Good Looking!

"Sage, Ike, over here! Who are you wearing?"...."Ike, show us Blue Steel!"..."Sage, when are you going to drop Magnum on us?"...the public attention has been almost overwhelming! Last night I caught a paparrazo digging through my trash.

You're probably wondering what the heck I'm talking about...last summer Garmin (a Kansas City based company) released news that they had been developing a new GPS device that allowed hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts to keep track of their hunting dogs via a handheld device. I had the opportunity to be one of the field testers, priviledged to playing with the unit before it's release for sale to the public. Recently, Garmin released the second generation of the portion that goes on the dog. This time, Sage and Ike got to take part in a photoshoot for the newer version. You can go to the Astro's minisite at, and click on the "bird dogs" section to view the various media. Sage can be seen in the "Getting Started" and "Image Gallery," and Ike is my movie star in the "Video" section.

Here's Ike showing his "letigra" pose, which a little softer I think. He uses it mostly in post-hunt hero shots, as well as shoots taking place in tropical settings, like in the Sports Illustrated: Bird Dog Swimsuit Calendar.

On a serious note, we all had a great time working with the folks at Garmin; they're all top-notch. I'm sure in the future I'll have some reports or reviews about using the Astro with the new DC30 collar. I also plan to use the data we can gather to try to learn more about how our dogs cover the ground, how weather or small injuries or terrain can affect their run and productivity. We also stand to learn something about the birds we hunt...the terrain they're more likely to inhabit during different times of the day, population density, and much more. This fall in Montana there will plenty of opportuntiy to do so.

Wild Birds in Motion

I've only been hunting for seven years, over dogs for six, and only over my own for three now--a relatively short span. So, I've taken heavy preference to using wild birds to train my dogs, as opposed to more formal training with liberated or planted birds. The latter carries with it the much higher probability that the inexperienced trainer could make a mistake that creates a significant setback in a young dog's training.

Also, after hunting with someone new, I get to puff out my chest and answer "yes" when asked if I've trained my dogs myself. Little do they know, as this really proves is that I'm capable of driving my dogs to the birds, and keeping my mouth shut as we look for them. The birds do the rest.

Here, Sage points a hen pheasant during a spring run in central KS:

Taken on the same day, Ike also finds a hen, and Sage is honoring.

You can clearly see the difference in style between Sage and Ike, and I think their respective breedings play the biggest part in this. Sage came from a breeder in the northeastern US, and is likely intended to be a "grouse dog," whatever that is. His lines also have much closer ties to European dogs, which explains his tendency to crouch low, or "set" when on point. On the other hand, Ike was intended to be a field trial dog, and it's no secret the trialers like a high and straight tail.

Sometimes it's fun to have someone else flush the birds for you...

Anyway, I hope to get many more clips like this later this fall.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Right Mix

Through some romantic connections I've secured hunting access to an unlikely piece of ground in central Kansas. No, it doesn't have a million pheasants like some places in South Dakota, or several covies of bobwhites like west Texas. But, a few things do make it special.

In the fall of 2007 I hunted, several times, a plot of Walk-In Hunting Access land just a few miles from this spot. The setup couldn't have been better. A full quarter section to hunt, half of it cut milo, the other half CRP, and bordered by a tree-lined creekbed. Always with both of my setters on the ground we only ever moved a couple hens.

Back to the "the right mix." On the morning of Thanksgiving Day in 2007, I ventured with the landowner to this spot for a quick hunt. He had it leased out already, but eagerly took me there anyway. We assuaged our ethical reservations by agreeing to only shoot birds that the dogs managed to pin and point, and that would hold for our approach. We walked up several cattail-filled draws and hit the mother-load with a group flush of about forty pheasants. Sage did manage to point a hen on the edge of the thick cover, but that was it for the dogwork.

How could this land support such a large population of pheasants? It was only a quarter-section of flattened milo stalks, with a creek bed cutting through it. Bordered to the north and south by pasture ground; it didn't seem any better than the piece of public close by. More on this later...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Bike

I had scanned Craig's List and Ebay for a few weeks hoping to pick up a deal on a used mountain bike, preferably a Trek or Gary Fisher or Cannondale. I think with the summer season the prices were inflated for what was out there, so I decided to bite the bullet and try to pick up a new '08 model. The local Trek dealer offered to cut me a deal with respect to MSRP on a 4300 so I pulled the trigger. Total impulse buy, oh well.

I like the ride, although I think it needs some fine tuning. The front deraileur rubs in 3rd, and sometimes the rear sticks going from 6 to 7. I'll eventually add a more-comfortable-for-gravel-roads seat, a water bottle holder, and both front and rear lights for safety's sake.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Bikejoring - A Work in Progress

I've decided that in my inaugural post I'll just jump right in. Hopefully things will move quickly enough at first that this entrance will be easily overlooked.

So, I have two young English setters, Sage and Ike, 3 years and 2 years old, respectively. Still puppies for most purposes. This fall we're going on an extended bird hunting trip to Montana. Typically our season starts fairly lightly, hunting prairie chickens for a weekend in Kansas around the 15th of September. But this season we'll be starting a bit earlier, and will be hunting for almost two weeks straight. In order to have dogs that will not only last the long trip, but be productive as bird dogs (finding plentiful amounts of birds), it's important that we undertake an active physical training regimen to prepare not only the cardiovascular system, but the muscles, and pads of the feet.

To that end, the Kansas summer weather can be downright oppressive. The temperatures, even nighttime lows, don't allow for extended off-leash runs of an hour or more. Anything less isn't terribly beneficial. So, in the interest of time savings and applicable benefit, I decided to purchase some roading harnesses and use resitance training (roading) to whip the pups into shape. Basically, the dogs pull against a resistance, which effectivly compresses a longer free-run into a shorter period of time. Being a single guy and having no access to an ATV, I ruled out using my pick-up and opted to explore "bikejoring."

For the uninitiated, bikejoring is a little known sport in which dogs are used to pull a rider on a bicycle. A modification on the more popular skijoring, I can't find much written on the subject. Really, only two sites and a blog I found have useful information. Here are the links:

In the past week I've dived head first into this endeavor, purchasing an expensive mountain bike, the harnesses, and associated tack. So far I've worked each dog four times and have learned through trial and error (my favorite method) some of the finer points, which I plan to expand upon later.