Monday, January 19, 2009

Winding Down

I love to hunt new spots. The idea of taking what you have learned over time and applying it in a new scenario is very appealing, especially when you succeed. It makes me more willing to take risks, to hunt a spot that doesn't look particularly good from the road, or to explore places that aren't visible from the road at all, but perhaps look birdy on a topographical map.

I started at one such spot Saturday morning. The huntable land was exceeding a section and had two creekbeds running through it. I decided to hunt one creekbed to the boundary, then jump over a wheat field and hunt the other bed back to the truck.

Hunting the first creekbed produced some pheasants from the wheat field on the edge, but no quail. Hunting the wheat across, crossing fingers for chickens...

The other creekbed produced no birds; both had been grazed pretty hard and there wasn't much cover at all. Oh well...I bet only a handful of guys, if anyone, hunted that land this season. Back at the truck it was chow time.

I looked at a few other spots and nothing caught my eye, so I decided to hunt the tried and true for big birds. Here, Ike pointed birds, and held staunch as two flushed from the backside of the cover. When I arrived there was one hen remaining.

Then he started tracking another, which ended up being a rooster that got tired of running and flushed well beyond the dog.

Here, Ike points a covey of quail that landed in a thicket after Sage found them feeding along a creekbed.


Sage scales the tallest mountain in Kansas and enjoys the view...

On Sunday I decided to again explore for some new stuff. We did find one roost here, but were unable to locate the covey.

Ike after what must be his one-hundredth barbed-wire injury. At least this came during a retrieve...

I think he's pointing an empty bottle of Jack Daniels here...but moving on we found some new coveys for our efforts. I only got to hunt a little bit because my knee was killing me and Sage woke up carrying a leg. But I'm really interested to continue exploring this new area.

School is out for...ever.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two Weeks: Texas, Day 2

Chuck's friend and son had gone home the night before, and the other folks planned on running some puppies, so Wes and I were going to hunt on our own. The previous day we had found birds where a road crossed a creek bed and hunted the creek one direction; we planned on hunting the creek the other direction.

We got a late start, and with some wrong turns on the gigantic lease we saw more than we planned. By 11am we were ready to put Ike on the ground. At the motel I wrapped his feet in vet wrap in anticipation of putting duct tape on top of that, to help cure the footsore issues. When I pulled him from his crate I found he had pulled off and eaten most of the vet wrap. Nice. So I re-wrapped him and taped his feet with the most expensive gas station duct tape I've ever bought. I have Lewis boots for him, but his front feet are larger than his rear, so I need to get another set for a more comfortable fit; I've actually never had to use them before.

The weather was much cooler, probably around the freezing point when we started, and there was a nice breeze. We started in the direction where we found birds the previous day and planned to loop back across the road the follow the creek in the other direction. Doing only walking this day, I really became familiar with the hazards of hunting in Texas...everything is pointy and trying to stick you...jumping cactus is the worst. There must be some sort of chemical on the end of their spines, because they poke through your brush pants like hypodermic needles and the sting lasts for a while. Leather gloves came in handy negotiating the cover.

As we hunted up the creekbed, Wes is credited with the first find; a covey erupted from the base of a mesquite tree as he walked by. He opted to watch them down instead of trying a rushed shot, and we did get some birds up; can't remember if we had dog work or not.

We circled back across the road and found this...

I'm thinking "now we're in business." But, it turned out to be a nice buck. Not the first time it's happened, either. Ike made a nice cast in the direction of the deer and went on point again.

This time it was birds. He tried a relocation and some birds went, and here's a video clip of another relocate attempt. I whoa'd him to keep him from putting up what I thought was going to be the rest of the covey. He found them later.

It was wierd. We'd get a point, relocate, maybe three or four birds would get up, and then he'd find the rest of them. I think birds were running from us and the sparse scent of just a couple birds was throwing him off. On covey number three he figured it out without any mistakes. In this picture, he is surrounded by birds; we probably caught them feeding.

Over the next couple hours Ike found four coveys and there was some singles work. One thing I will say, singles are a lot tougher in Texas. The birds almost always run like crazy, and these aged birds wouldn't let you, or a dog, get very close before they'd flush. But the shooting was fast and fun; just as we were finished hunting singles from one covey we'd find another to play with.

We never made it far from the truck and we were able to circle back and get Doc who quickly found a jumpy covey as well. Then, Doc pointed, and during a relocation Ike got in front and pointed. Only instead of little birds, it was a brace of feral hogs that, thankfully, ran in the other direction. After that, we heard some birds calling and made our way in their direction, and Ike pointed them from a good distance.

From there we tried hunting the edge of the bottom back.

And then I found this...

With a long drive home ahead of us we packed it up early and headed home. The Garmin told me that in about two and a half hours of hunting, a footsore Ike covered 21 miles. When I got home I found multiple cactus thorns buried deep in his pads. I was very impressed with his toughness and ability to adapt to the conditions.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Two Weeks: Texas Quail Hunting, Day 1

Last spring I was watching K-State try to put a second lick in a season on KU's basketball team when my phone rang. It was Chuck Wilson, Ike's breeder, dog man, quail enthusiast, and the proprietor of White Rock Kennels, located in Waco, TX. He was calling to check in on Ike as other pups out of that breeding had been doing very well, and he was interested in having a look at Ike for a potential breeding. Nine months later we sealed a date to hunt quail on Chuck's quail lease southwest of Wichita Falls.

My buddy Wes and his setter accompanied us through two days of hunting in Kansas beforehand, and then the two days in Texas. We met up with Chuck and a friend of his, their two sons, and dog trainer Keith Hickham, just south of Wichita Falls. We awoke early and arrived at the lease as the sun was rising. They do quail hunting a little different in Texas and it was pretty amazing to see the material investment. Right now I'm kicking myself for not taking some pictures of the setup, impressive as it was. Before I could even collar both my dogs, Chuck and company made magically appear about 20 dogs, mostly setters, from his trailer and K-Mule boxes. While on the chain gang they took some water in the cool and dry desert air; it was going to be a warm one.

A few minutes later and we had loaded 8 dogs in the K-Mule with Ike and another on the ground. Chuck, Keith, Wes, and myself all rode in the K-Mule while the other three volunteered to walk. At first I figured the three volunteers were eager to shoot some birds, but later I figured out they just wanted to do their walking during the coolest part of the day. Can't say I blame them.

Chuck had only hunted the lease one other time, on the opener, and only managed to move a few coveys of birds. He reported the cover as being thick and very green. This time the cover looked great and I was very optimistic. The K-Mule navigated the cactus and mesquite while we hunted the edge down a drainage. We followed in the Mule about 80 yards behind the walkers, Keith keeping a sharp eye for his sylish dog on the ground, and I for Ike. After a while Ike made what Chuck called a "look and see" cast to the front and over a hill. I was able to rattle off his range using the Astro, "he's over three...approaching four...beyond six..., there's 700 yards..." Eventually he got to another drainage and hunted that down to rendezvous with us again. It was apparent he was footsore from already hunting two days, and with the warmer weather he got put up after only 45 minutes or so. No matter, we had plenty of dogs to run.

The morning produced only a couple coveys despite plenty of legs on the ground; even when we found birds, the hot and dry conditions hampered any decent dog work. When we broke for lunch I had to put on the A/C in my truck, and the high reached a scorching 82 degrees! Sound familiar?

We returned after lunch and loaded some fresh dogs in the K-Mule and decided to look at some new cover--might as well, this pasture was 8,000 acres, so we could afford to be picky. The one thing all the coveys we found in the morning had in common was that they were near water, close to the lowest of the low terrain. So, we used that knowledge to focus our search.

One thing I should mention, out of the 20 or so dogs that Chuck and Keith brought along, the vast majority were less than 3 years old. Neither of them picked up a gun the entire time; it was their complete focus to get young dogs into birds. We all have our motivations for hunting birds, putting in the time, money, emotion, etc. It was obvious Chuck's big payoff is when puppies win, when they put it all together, sort hot from cold scent, point, relocate, hold steady, and the bird is put up and shot. I like to see it, too. I wish I could hunt a puppy every season, just to watch the progress and, finally, the big payoff. There's nothing like it.

Hunting the drainages offered some challenges. The biggest was navigating the K-Mule to where we wanted to hunt. There were plenty of small ditches just a couple feet across, cut by the rains throughout the years. They were deep enough to prevent the K-Mule from crossing, so we'd get to one and end up going uphill until we could get across. However, we did find a larger ditch that we were able to cross, simply amazing machines.

The tactic of hunting the creek bottoms paid off and we were able to move a few more coveys that afternoon, although the conditions remained tough for dog work, and it became obvious bird numbers were well below the norm. As we were riding the Mule we came across an interesting tree with a prickly pear cactus growing out of it.

The forecast called for a cold front to sweep through that evening, and Wes and I were amped for conditions that were closer to what we were used to in Kansas. We would have them...

Friday, January 9, 2009

Two Weeks: Part V, Lesser Prairie Chickens

For the past couple of years I've always wanted to try to hunt the lesser prairie chicken and the scaled quail in Kansas. Both can be found in the southwest part of the state. Because of a very bad dought in extreme SW Kansas, I decided to leave the scalies for another time.

Lessers are supposedly in a bad way in most of their native range, having lost ~90% of their habitat to agriculture, oil and gas development, over-grazing, and pesticides. Texas limits the hunting to landowners, and by permit only. In New Mexico you have to win a lottery type drawing to hunt them, and I don't beleive they can be hunted at all in Oklahoma. Sounds grim, right? Well, I am happy to report that numbers are, at least local to where I hunted, pretty good. And I found a decent motel for $29 a night. That's a double bonus!

Because the weather was to be warm, I arrived on the scene before legal hunting hours for a little scouting. The first spot seemed a little over grazed so I decided to keep looking. On the way four chickens flew over the road and landed in some CRP.

I got out of my truck and I could hear chickens booming all around me, in nearly every direction. To the north I could even see some birds feeding in the winter wheat field. I observed them for a while and tried to take some pictures; I've Photoshop'd the best one here and you should be able to make out four birds.

I decided to look at the first spot one more time, and on the way back I flushed two more feeding in a cut milo field. I was very surprised to encounter these kinds of numbers, especially so soon. Another look at the pasture and I still wasn't impressed so I moved on. I hunted two smaller pastures with no encounters and it was quickly getting warm and I had forgotten to fill my water. If you ever run out of water, find a church. They always have an outdoor spicket, no one usually asks any questions, and if they do they are happy to help and do anything they can to point you in the right direction.

So, water refilled we drove to another spot. The scenery was pretty amazing, at least for Kansas.

Ike, being the wider dog, got the call as he had the previous two fields. We set our course into the wind towards a windmill that would hopefully have water in it to soak the dog. Well, it didn't. But being the pesky tinker type I figured out that if I climbed halfway up and released a lever I should be able to get some water. Shazaam! Dog wet, windmill off, and wind picking up I decided to change tactics. I had been hunting the ridgelines, basically all the high stuff, I know chickens like to be able to see a long ways. Because of the gusting winds I opted to hunt the low areas between hills, like little waterways. This change produced birds almost immediately. We'd hunt up a waterway, then at the top hop over to the next water way and hunt down. Nearly every one held birds, although they were spaced about a mile of walking apart. The birds were extremely wild, although on two occassions had I not spent both barrells on Hail Mary's I could have bagged a late flusher. As much as I hunt chickens, I really ought to know better. The second time I nearly hit the bird with my empty hulls as I threw them in frustration.

Oh well, I'll be back. Tired puppy...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Two Weeks: Part IV, the Southwest

With a couple days to burn between Christmas and New Year's, and nice weather on the horizon I decided to explore a part of the state I had yet to hunt this season, and target a bird I had yet to pursue, ever. I'd hunt quail in some notably different terrain, as well as the lesser prairie chicken. So, after sleeping in I pointed the truck down I-35 and headed to the southwest part of Kansas. The forecast for the next two days was for highs in the mid-50's, a nice breeze, and plenty of sun.

Usually the dogs ride under the topper in their crates, but this time they got to ride in the cab. I enjoyed the company, and kids waved from minivans while navigating all the red lights through Wichita. Having a dog riding shotgun is also nice when you're trying to drive and eat a Chipotle burrito; clean up crew.

That evening I ran both dogs for an hour or so at a familiar spot and found two coveys of quail, and a few pheasants. The big birds always managed to keep a cedar between the dangerous end of my shotgun and their escape. Here's a look at the terrain, shallow rolling hills, cedars, prairie grass, and thick plum thickets here and there.

The weather was actually a bit hotter than forecast, highs in the low 60's. They went through 2 liters of water quickly so we didn't get to hunt as long as I would have liked. But, we found some birds for our effort.

When my dogs are young and still hunting close I make it a point to make them hunt the thick stuff, especially for quail. While running the edges is important, sometimes coveys will hunker down in the middle of a large thicket, so the dog needs to hunt those. I guess this time Ike wanted payback, so he pointed, and made me crash my way through the thicket to put up the birds. But, upon doing so they weren't there. Maybe they had run, but he found them in some grass a short ways away. I still think he did it on purpose.

I always find myself taking pictures of roosts. I don't know why bird hunters do this, because they're essentially pictures of...well...poop. But I've seen it before and I'll probably continue to do it myself. I found this one just after Ike pointed that covey. If I find a roost in the field, I might take some extra time to thoroughly work the area, because the quail are probably close.

This exact tactic paid off for me later the next day. First I saw this (probably the largest quail roost I've ever seen)...

And then I saw this...Ike with another find.

And now on a single...

Next, lesser prairie chickens.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Two Weeks: Part III, Finally with Pictures

I finally broke down and bought another camera, pretty much the updated model of the old one. It's a Canon SD790IS. I like it; fast, somewhat compact, big screen, takes nice videos, simple, etc. Anyway, I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

This is Sage pointing one of the five coveys of quail I'm convinced this particular piece of WIHA holds. Hunting quail alone is a tricky proposition; they are always on the opposite side of the plum thicket, hedge row, etc. I did manage the one bird that flew into the opening left to right; didn't find any singles.

Here's a picture of the chickens I've been writing about. This time they flushed as soon as the dog made it over the hill, a long ways away. I counted ~65 birds this time. You can see one in the tree in the lower right.

Their tracks were everywhere in the pasture.

They flew to a cut bean field, and I tried to approach them again. They flushed way wild, although the dogs still detected their scent in the field. You can see two chickens in the tree tops on the left hand side.

Two Weeks: Part II

The morning after my trifecta I slept in a bit and then accompanied a good friend to breakfast at the new greasy spoon in town. Being a Sunday, the after church crowd of a small town was in full effect and it was pretty busy. Despite not actually being from this small town, I sure did see a lot of people I knew having their breakfasts. I love that you can still get two eggs, bacon, hash brown, toast, and a cup of OJ for less than $5. Charming, really, especially when the waitress knows everyone's names.

I headed back to the spot where Ike found the quail and the chickens on Thanksgiving morning wishing they would hold again, only this time I'd keep the camera in my pocket. I started at the south end this time; hopefully the stiff artic breeze would alert Ike to the chickens' location before we had to crest a hill and blow our cover. Late season chickens can be jumpy, especially if they've been pressured. Ike made a nice early cast into some CRP and the Astro told me he was on point. I thought it could be pheasants, but I saw some deer running away, so I decided to wait him out since we were here for chickens anyway. Five minutes later and he was still on point 450 yards into the CRP. I snapped a pic of the Astro's screen and got to hopping the fence. The Astro directed me right to his location and a pair of roosters erupted skyward, and like the day before I dropped them both. Elated, extatic, all of the above. I reached into my pocket for my camera to document my second double in two days, and like the transmitter and GPS, it was gone. I walked between that spot and where I crossed the fence three times and was never able to find it. A real bummer, it had some good pictures on it. More than anything else I wanted the card out of it. More bittersweet, I guess.

We returned to the pasture ground with a heavier game sack and worked our way across so that we'd be directly downwind of where I thought we'd find the chickens loafing about. Before we could make our turn north Ike went on point again, now in a bottom area below a man made pond. I snuck below the canopy of the trees and found him pointing in an area with literally no ground cover, just bare dirt with a few horse apples littering the ground. Maybe a squirrel or a rabbit? Ike will point just about anything. He relocated through the thicket and slammed on point again. I walked to his side and peered at the ground, thinking that if ever I was going to see a covey of quail bunched up ready to bust this would be it. A minute passed and I never found anything. One step and I was surrounded by quail exploding from the ground just in front of Ike, absolutely huge covey, maybe two dozen birds. I can't believe I never saw them, they were right there! Ike found one single that jumped in the wind and I missed badly. They landed mostly in some private ground so I pulled him off to get after those chickens. We worked north and I found a couple roosts, but no birds.

We worked into the breeze and when we were circling back to the truck the chickens lifted off the ground quite a ways from where they were last time. Ike was not in the vicinity, and they flew into the wind right over me. I couldn't resist and knocked down another mature male chicken. Had I managed one of those quail it would have been two slams in two days, with two pointed doubles on pheasants. I hunted a new spot, two sections of pasture, hoping for more chickens. But despite a long walk the wind beat us up pretty bad and we weren't able to move any birds. Oh well.

More to come...

Monday, January 5, 2009

Two Weeks: No Work, Lots of Play, Part I

Today is the first day I've reported for duty since December 19th. Frankly, I'm both sad and excited to be back; it's nice to catch up on the blogs I read, and the general happenings in the world. Alas, this is not a business or current events blog, so I'll get to the bird hunting directly.

The past month or more has been bittersweet; it seems that for every extraordinary event something happens to bring me back to reality. On Thanksgiving morning I stumbled across a real gem, a piece of public ground holding pheasant, quail, and chickens. In just more than an hour Ike had finds on two coveys of quail and one covey of about 30 chickens. I only managed three or four quail, and the chickens flushed with the camera in my hands. Still, a great find close to a place where I spend a lot of personal time.

The next day I was invited to hunt some ground in western Kansas with my neighbor and his in-law's family. The land is owned by two brothers and is farmed by the region's Pheasants Forever Chapter president. So, needless to say the policies and farming practies utilized on these lands are favorable to game birds and bird hunting. There's plenty of CRP with standing milo strips, buffers along crop edges, and even strips of CRP running along the terraces in wheat stubble fields. It was a great hunt, with a couple inches of our first snow on the ground. Birds were holding unbelievably tight and they were plentiful. I always get nervous running my dogs in front of folks, especially in "walk and block" situations, because they are bigger going and will freely relocate on running pheasants, which inevitably results in a bumped bird or two. But Sage completely exceeded my expectations, and we shot many roosters over him, several I could have caught with my hands as they were buried in the thick, snow-ladden CRP.

On the second day, after the family headed out of town, I was given the run of the place and we took advantage. Sage quickly put a rooster and two quail in my gamebag and it was Ike's turn. We hunted the wheat stubble field with the strips along the terraces. I could see him running along the edge several hundred yards ahead of me when he started the point and relocate dance that can only mean running pheasants. He'd trot along the edge low and then stop, his body and tail would rise with the scent until he stood tall, and I could see his mouth and nose trying to chew and taste the birds. Then he'd break and creep low with the tail sweeping back and forth like a windshield wiper, and he'd pause again. Eventually Ike stopped and stood long enough for me to close the distance, all the while thinking "this is it." I saw one bird make a run for it into the stubble and I put him up. I pulled the trigger as he sailed right to left and a second bird flushed right in front of Ike, who will often stand through the flush. The first bird crumpled in air and I swung on the second with the remaining barrel. I managed to break a wing and knew we were in for a chase when he langed legs down and head up in the stubble. Ike has never been a stellar retriever, but he will surprise on occasion. Imagine my shock when he flew past me, first bird in mouth, and completely linebacker'd the second bird. It was my first pointed double on pheasants, something I hope I never forget.

With three pheasants and two quail in the bag before noon, I decided to relocate to another part of the state to attempt something I have never done before; quail, pheasant, and chickens all in the same day. When I got there I noticed my Tri-Tronics transmitter and Garmin Astro were missing. I emptied the truck and they were nowhere to be found. Reluctantly I put Sage and Ike down. They were tired anyway, and I didn't think I'd lose them in the open country. A few minutes into the hunt Ike went over a hill towards a milo field and remained gone for a few minutes. As I was doubling back hoping to find him on point a covey of quail sailed lazily over my head and landed in the pasture. And shortly behind them was Ike. I like to think he pointed and held them for some time, they got nervous and ran off and then flew into the pasture. Sage gave me some great singles work, and it was the quickest four quail of my life. Of course, shooting quail in sparse pasture ground is a lot easier than plum thickets, hedge rows, or mesquite country. But we were here for chickens, so I pulled the dogs off the quail and we hunted on. Ike ranged and pointed several chickens that never let me get close enough. Then I saw some birds coming back from feeding to roost. We crept to the area and Ike pointed a bird that again flushed out of range. Ike stood through the flush as I approached and a second bird flushed, and I had my trifecta. A brilliant mature male. I didn't have a limit of anything, but I'll remember it as one of the best days.

EDIT: I forgot to metion that I drove the two hours back to where I was last hunting and I found my transmitter and GPS along the side of the road where we ended. They must have fallen out of the truck while I was loading up.