Friday, September 26, 2008

Part II: Warm Welcome

A short drive from Valentine found us in southeastern Montana, where we both had our sights set on sage grouse. Neither of us knew how much longer they could be a huntable species, so we focused intently on the opportunity to take these birds that are much like pteradactyls--large and pre-historic in their appearance.

Ted has killed nearly every species of upland bird available in the US over Dottie, but he needed a sage grouse. So Dottie and Sage, the veterans, got the call. After fifteen minutes we were about to head out to the truck when Sage located birds far to our flank. As he attempted to relocate he put up several of the bombers. We collected our dogs and were able to find the young birds just over a hill, where we both took our first sage grouse over Sage and Dottie's shared find. A little ways further into the sage and I had my limit of two. On our last push towards the truck, Sage made a long forward cast with the wind at our backs, and located a solitary juvenile in some grass. One hour and two limits of our first sage grouse, not bad!

Now for 70 miles of dirt road on our way north. We were warned to be careful of rattlesnakes; this one was on the road basking in the afternoon sun. No rattlesnakes were harmed during this vacation. This was actually the only one we saw the entire time.

Eastern Montana is extremely beautiful in it's simplicity, vastness, and scale of agriculture. Not to say all of it is wheat wheat and more wheat. That evening we hunted some rougher stuff and were able to find a few sharptails with Ike and Vegas. Lessons learned: 1) there can be a lot of mosquitos--even in arid Montana, 2) prickly pear cactus aren't easily extracted from the roof of a dog's mouth, and 3) you get what you pay for when it comes to most everything, motels in this case.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Montana and Back, Part I: The Sandhills

Friday, Sept 11, 7AM

Arrived at Ted's house with Sage, Ike, Doc, and gear...pouring rain. We both got pretty wet loading up the truck and trailer. As we hooked up the trailer, we discovered the lights were not working. I had already spent four evenings trying to fix the failed wiring, and eventually replaced everything. It worked fine on my truck at my house. We tried a couple things, but didn't want to tear into it in the downpour, so we packed a digital multimeter and some electrical tape and decided to hit the road and fix later. In messing with the wiring, I got completely soaked and had to change clothes. We were on the road by 8 AM.

Five hours of driving in the rain and we were in Grand Island, NE. Lack of options and wanting to push on, we stopped at Wendy's for lunch. What a horrible experience--that's all I'll say. The plan was to park in the Wal-Mart lot and fix the trailer, but when we left Wendy's I noticed the lights were working. Nice! On to Halsey, NE.Road warriors...

We decided to hunt the Nebraska National Forest on the way to break up the drive and get the dogs a taste of the birds they were to encounter in Montana.

Before any "hotspotter" fingers are pointed, I'll explain something. The forest is well known, hunted by quite a few folks already, and frankly is very tough hunting. We worked hard for the birds we took, covering many miles in the sandy prairie, up and down hills, sweating and tired the whole time. On top of that, the dogs had to be flawless on birds for us to be successful. Not may people have the mettle, physical and mental, or the dogs for this place. We spent the Friday evening scouting, running dogs, and shooting any doves that we encountered. We didn't see any grouse, and I was concerned we were in for a tough day tomorrow. We stayed in Thedford and had dinner at Stub's. They don't have mashed potatoes in the evenings, only for breakfast. Huh.

Ted and I were up well before first light the following morning, and I think I lost a filling on the broken up asphalt road into the forest. I'm sure the dogs had a headache. My Ike and Ted's Vegas got the first call of the trip. We both had high hopes for these two. I expected Ike to be the dog of the trip because of his wide range and reliable nose. He's also the toughest dog I've ever hunted behind. Vegas had lived in the shadow of Ted's other dog, an older pointer, but he had been hunting them seperate last season and she was becoming a strong bird finder, and she was already the best "dead" hunting dog we had in our trailer.

The ground and vegetation was heavy with dew from yesterday's rain. In just a few minutes we were soaked to our waists, and Ike was actually cold and shivering. Not long into the hunt I took this picture...

The sandhills is the most surreal place I have ever hunted. Because the terrain is so uniformly dynamic, you can easily get turned around, even with a GPS. Early in the day we used the sun to keep track of our heading, but as it rose we depended heavily on the GPS to keep us pointed in the right direction. This flat spot offered our first sharptail encounter, a bird that flushed wild ahead of Ike just as he established point.

Then we started to connect in this low area; both Ted and I were able to put sharptails in the bag on account of Vegas; my first sharpie!

We also each took sharptails at the top of the ridge following the draw. There seemed to be no discernable pattern to the birds. They were high, low, in flat and in hilly areas, sun and shadows, too. On the way back to the truck Ike pointed a large covey spread out in a flat area from quite a distance. They broke, and of course I wasted my two barrels on the first birds that got up, and was empty for the birds I nearly stepped on. By now, I should know better.

We re-dogged with Doc and Bode. Doc belongs to my buddy Wes, and Bode is the Garmin DC30 coverdog, owned by Ted's friend Bronson. I have no idea why these guys trusted their companions with hooligans like us. We struck out in a different direction from the truck and were quickly into more birds, several flushing wild ahead and far to our flanks. Doc did point one covey, but again they broke too soon. I think the high sun and the heavy winds had them skittish.

One nice thing about the sandhills is that there is at least one windmill in sight from every peak, so you can water your dogs at nice intervals. But, the cows like them too.

It's important to keep your dogs watered, both from a hydration and scenting standpoint.

After the heat was too much, we turned our attention to prairie dogs. All the shots we took with Ted's .223 were over 200 yards. There were a few close calls, but no kills.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

82 Degrees in the Middle of November

I've come to learn that there are as many bad days afield as good days. Makes sense, I guess. If you were to hunt a hundred days, and then rank them with regard to the total experience, the relativity of it all would put about 50 days as being above average, and the remainder below average. All of which beat doing anything else in the upright position.

To clarify, I think weather does as much to make for a bad day as low bird numbers could. Bad weather could mean excessive snow, rain, but usually it's just too damn hot. Last November I struck out with two buddies for four days of hunting western Kansas. The first two days produced daytime highs of 75, and the third day was 82! And then, of course, the fourth day was cold and humid, high in the 50's, and very very windy. The trip, as far as birds and weather were concerned, was nearly a bust. We shot a few birds each day, and there were some high moments I'll never forget, but it wasn't the early season trip for which I hoped--uneducated pheasants, large coveys of quail, and maybe the first snow. We still had a great time, and I attribute that to good company as much as anything else. I guess my point is, even on a busted bird hunting trip, you could and should have a good time. Maybe do something you wouldn't normally do. Hit up a local pub and mix with the locals. Whatever.

My first recommendation...

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The New Garmin DC30

I've been running one of the new DC30's for a couple weeks now, and this past weekend ran two in "hunting situations." In short, the system works pretty well. There are, however, a couple things that you, the pointing dog enthusiast, can do to make the system work better for you.

1. Change the alert setting to tone 6 (EDIT: TONE 8). I think this particular tone is the easiest to hear, as it's a longer chirping sound.

2. Keep the Astro 220 handy. That does not mean in a backpack, hunting vest, etc. I keep mine on my chest, mounted to the strap on my vest. This gives you quick access to the screen, and allows you to hear the alert of a pointing dog more easily.

3. Change the dog type on each DC20 or DC30 to "pointing dog." I've noticed that in the Auto mode it can sometimes tell me a pointing dog is sitting. In "pointing dog" mode, it could report a defacating or resting dog as pointing, but at least then you get an alert. In the Auto mode, if it reported a pointing dog as sitting, the alert would not be sounded.

4. Be sure to pay close attention to the compass in the "dog" screen. If the arrows seem to be indicating any sort of inacurracy, then be sure to calibrate the compass. It only takes 30 seconds, and can be done quickly in the field while your worm burner is making a long cast down a treeline. Properly calibrated, the unit is very accurate, scary accurate, and has walked me right up the nose of pointing setters in thick cover. I have a few more pheasant tails in my fly tying bin to show for it.

The above being said, I expect pracitcal range for an eastern type bird hunter to be around 500 yards, depending on the countour of the land. I haven't found that heavily wooded areas decrease the range, but hills do. I put the DC30 on a dog while bikejoring, and even with a clear line of site (no trees), the Astro lost contact after we crested a hill 700 yards away. On the prairies, I have tracked dogs beyond 900 yards with the DC20 before I got them turned, and the DC30 should be better.

I think the newer unit should probably be more durable, the only possible weak spot being the antenna. However, it is long and thin, and I think will stand up to any wear and tear my dogs could ever expose them to, and Ike consistently hunts the early season with blood all over his face and chest--that's just the nature of the beast when you put together a hard-running dog with thick cover.

Kudos to Garmin for making the end of the nylon collar pointed. It makes working with that thick nylon much easier.