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DSCF0278Oh, the memories this hat brings to mind. It has kept sun, rain, sleet and snow off my head. Misplaced pellets and many a sharp branch were thwarted. It’s been a fine workmate in the field, performing its job well for over a decade.

Ten years in the sun has erased any evidence of its vaguely military original color, it is now a mottled, wrinkled, generic “dirt.”

It is rumpled, blown off and landing in everything from mud and trout streams, horse apples and plowed earth. Crushed in pickup beds, stranded on airplanes, it soldiered on, patient in the knowledge I would rescue and refurbish it (to the extent I could!). Being kind, it has “character.”

It has seen four different dogs partnered with me in the field, each of whom has drunk from it, grateful for the water. Each left his own mark on that hat, a puppy-bite here, muddy footprint there, a drop of blood. There are memories of good times and special places, made more special for the dogs that shared them.

Sweat might be the most pervasive stain. After ten years of fishing and hunting, there is more of my DNA in its band than all the samples I’ve given laboratories.

Long floats on tumbling trout streams, arduous climbs, marches through corn and milo, solitary walks with old dogs are restored to crystal clarity when I hold this hat.`It has laid alongside me on barstools and barn floors in small towns throughout the west.

The crease was from a tumble in the lava rock chasing chukars. That dent was from a saddle horn it rested on after a soaking. The scrape on the brim came from an alder branch that would have blinded me had it not been for this hat. The original shape is lost to time and weather, adventures and foibles. The wavy brim an accounting of the ups and down of a life spent wading streams and wandering fields behind dogs. There’s pheasant blood, evidence of a close shot and closer fall. Alfalfa, corn, aspen and sage have all imprinted their scent over the years.

The purple stain inside is from blackberries, hot, tart and soft, plucked from thorny vines shading a California trout stream. Some even made it into pies but most were eaten on the spot.

Scientists are now able to pull faint sounds from the past from many materials, ghostly voices of that thing’s past. If they tore a sample from the brim and pressed “play” they’d hear panting dogs, crackling alder leaves, the brush of mountain mahogany and crunch of boot on lava rock. There’d be the boom of 12 gauge and pop of .410, wielded by old-timers and 12-year-olds, exuberant shouts and contemplative whispers about important things. But mainly, they’d hear panting. For like its owner, this hat has shared plenty of “face time” with canine hunting partners. Most are better company than humans who by virtue of carrying a shotgun call themselves “hunters.”

Every dog of mine has rested his muzzle on the crown of this hat, deep sighs and muffled yelps of pleasure washing over it as each dreams remembrance of that day’s hunt. If I inhale deeply enough I can smell Bill, Yankee, Buddy, and now, Manny. Only another dog lover could appreciate the melange of canine scents it holds.

In summer, the band is fleece, holding the flies that just didn’t work that day. They seldom find their way back into a box again, instead reminding me of their potential – maybe – on another stream on another day.

On September 1, the fleece is swapped for bright orange, for we can now roam coverts and fields for something that flies rather than fins in bright waters. Feathers from 17 bird species in 22 states have graced the band. I am grateful for every whispered sneak, the long cold stalks, the trembling points, all the flushes and rushes by our prey, thankful for each life given.

This hat has marked the last known location of dozens of shot birds, in hopes our dogs could work from there toward scent and stilled wings nearby. Sometimes, that’s what happens. Others, something else. Last season, a pointer peed on it.

It wouldn’t survive a cleaning, even if someone would take on the challenge. Not gonna happen: the sights, sounds, smells, the memories might wash away … and who would risk that?

Instead, it occupies a place of honor now, watching, listening, presiding over sleeping dogs whose night-time whimpers and trembling legs bely dreams of past hunts they shared with me, good friends, and that hat.

 

Take a kid “hunting”

Moral support for father and uncle, from two great kids

Moral support for father and uncle, from two great kids

They arrived ready to hunt … deer-antler slingshots made by their uncle at the ready. They were cousins, and their fathers were hunting with me at a local preserve, our annual “vamos a caza” day. My friends Nato and Franki grew up hunting in rural Mexico, first with their own slingshots, then firearms, and today with my shotguns while I handled dogs.

Do children belong on a hunting trip? Short answer: maybe. Long answer, below.

Geraldo, age 10, and Venezia, age nine, had the look that most kids have when they pile out of the car in the Disneyland parking lot. Their excitement was tempered by good manners, with handshakes all around and an eagerness to meet my dogs Manny and Buddy. Theirbarely-contained energy was contagious, and a long drive did nothing to diminish it. Questions and jokes shortened the journey.

Though they would be spectators today, these kids had a healthy respect for firearms thanks to their fathers’ careful instruction. A few rehearsals on who-stands-where-when, and Manny’s lead was unclipped. Fathers in front, kids with me, it wasn’t long before Manny’s tail twitched then stopped, and my earlier explanation of pointing suddenly became relevant.

Bird up! A quick shot by each brother and the pheasant was long gone. Laughs, hand claps and more questions: “Why is the gun so loud? Where did the bird go? How does Manny know what kind of bird it is?” Each was answered patiently as we moved, our group amoeba-like, toward Manny, frozen in the milo.

The brothers walked up the bird, waited a half-second longer this time, and the bird dropped. Glory was shared by both shooters, while a new level of curiosity about bird and shot was kindled as the retrieve was completed. Close-up looks, fingertip touches, even a delicate sniff to see what a dog knew that they didn’t – it was a classroom in the field.

The brothers walked ahead, sharing time in a way they hadn’t since our last trip. The cousins found empty shells of all the colors of the rainbow, doing their best to clean up and be good guests. Stories about those who made the red-yellow-green-purple hulls turned the walk into an adventure. The red ones made by a company also makes rockets … the green ones came from a company that made guns for Buffalo Bill … some were even true.

All their intent looking yielded other treasures. Thundereggs, a translucent quartz, what might have been an arrowhead. Each was oohed and aahed over, then carefully stored in a pocket.

There was never a whine or gripe, no complaints about being too hot or hungry … these were children you would gladly claim as your own.

Maybe you’ve taken kids hunting. Maybe you’ve had a different experience than this. Maybe I just got lucky.

Uneventful ... or was it?

Uneventful … or was it?

Well, how was your closing day? And don’t tell me how many dead birds ended up in your vest.

How did you feel … about that final day in the field, entire season, your hunting partners and dog? What went through your mind as you turned, opened your gun, and headed for the truck as shadows grew long and your thirst grew strong?

What did you learn?

My season was notable for many new friends. An open mind (and calendar) were the keys. Being “at large” means you’re available for opportunities. Serendipity. Kismet. Add a dog, a little blaze orange, and the odds are good someone will strike up a conversation. Where it leads is up to you.

People are generally pretty good in bird-hunting country. Anyone who likes dogs can’t be all bad, and if they like hunting dogs, they’re a lead-pipe cinch.

I think it was Kevin Bacon who first opined that we are all just six degrees separated from each other. Play who-do-you-know with a guy in a Pheasants Forever cap and it could be three degrees. A dog box is a platonic Match.com.

Oh yeah, back to closing day: fog as thick as a Sherlock Holmes mystery on the moors, I could barely make out the parking lot at the spot I wanted to explore. I counted the ghosts of five trucks in the soggy mist, contemplated losing my dog in the pea soup, then drove downhill to a favorite desert river. At least the breaks were below the fog line.

I parked at the mouth of a canyon that had shared valley quail with me when Manny was a pup. The level ground had no gifts for us this day, head-high sage silent but for the tinkling of the stream and clink of collar tags. There was nowhere to go but up – chukar country. We’d hunt until our water ran out.

Two thousand one hundred feet later, level ground again at the top of a promontory with a million-dollar view. A motivated wirehair coursed the bunchgrass and lava rock, glad to be traveling horizontally instead of vertically. His owner too.

A pause here, hesitation there. Head up, tail vibrating. Then, on again. A nose-down track through blackened sage trunks led to a point on a cottontail, but no feathers. On a plateau of broken lava, one night roost, long abandoned. Elevated hopes for a moment, then more searching.

The river, so far below, was always in view, like a recurring musical theme running through your mind. Memories of big trout and bigger steelhead filled the quietest times, not a bad thing. Sandwiched between rollicking whitewater and a ceiling of cloud, we were walking ground few had trod in recent times. No barbed wire, no rusted cans or cow patties.

And no birds.

We called it a day and began the arduous descent. Tiny waterfalls framed by emerald moss lightened our journey, we scaling rock faces and sliding down scree slopes to the accompaniment of gurgling streamlet. The mountain mahogany slapped and scratched, boulders rolled underfoot, moist ground slid underfoot and reminded us how far we were from civilization.

We made it back to the truck a minute just in time to get home for a shower and a movie. The drive allowed for reflection on the day – gratitude for safe returns (dog and human), a last visit to a favorite spot, and a season of fellowship. Maybe it was the best way to end a season.

Manny guilty football

Who paid for acquisition of, and management of, the place this mountain quail lives? We did.

Who paid for acquisition and management, of the place this mountain quail lives? We did.

A recent newspaper article finally pushed me over the edge … I wrote an op-ed for the paper that sums up my feelings – and maybe yours. The ignorance of so many so-called “environmentalists” and animal-rights supports is mind-boggling. If they understood the mechanics of wildlife management, well, read on …

Dylan Darling’s article of Dec. 29 on the decline of hunting and fishing license sales misses three key points: 1) When participation in these sports shrinks, all of Oregon’s wildlife loses. 2) Dwindling participation is only part of the problem. 3) There is a massive disparity between who benefits and who funds wildlife management in our state, and the nation for that matter.

Currently, hunters and anglers foot virtually the entire bill for fish and wildlife management at the state and federal level. During the Great Depression we convinced Congress to tax us with a “duck stamp,” to fund acquisition and management of federal wildlife refuges. We asked for – and pay – an excise tax on firearms, ammo, hunting vests, fishing rods and waders. When you see a new boat dock, songbird guzzler or wildlife viewing kiosk, you can thank sportsmen and women who probably funded it through these and similar mechanisms.

Almost annually, sportsmen and women consent to higher state and federal license, fee, and tag prices. This year alone, the cost of a duck stamp rose over 66 percent, an increase we were glad to endure. For almost a century, hunters and anglers have picked up the tab, and that’s before figuring in their massive contributions to conservation groups.

But other users of our forests, rivers, deserts and wildlife refuges pay a pittance, if anything, toward the management of public lands and wildlife. They are virtual freeloaders, riding the financial coat-tails of license buyers who fund management of songbirds, predators, endangered species, and everything else that swims, flies or runs through the trees.

In my book, it’s time those who kick into skinny skis, carry a camera, or pick up a paddle paid their fair share.

Why? The sad fact is, watchable wildlife, cute-and-cuddly critters, “charismatic megafauna”  … and the environments they depend … may well vanish without hunting and fishing license money. There are simply too many “takers” (non-consumptive users) and not enough “makers” (license buyers). If paddlers, skiers, and birders don’t step up to the plate,  their future outings may not include a breathtaking elk bugle or startling ruffed grouse flush.

Without hunting and fishing license sales, there would be little if any research on wolverines, wolf management, or protection of endangered suckers. All wildlife populations would decline further as habitat degrades and biologists take their place in the employment line. Sierra Club, PETA, and the Humane Society of the U.S. talk a good game, but they seldom put their money where their mouth is and certainly not at the level hunters and anglers do. Their shrillest fundraising campaign could never make up the deficit of plummeting hunting and angling license funds. Picket signs and protests won’t create buy critical habitat nor pay researchers’ salaries; sportsmen’s dollars do that.

If you ask mountain bikers, birders, kayakers, and backpackers, they’ll admit to enjoying their outdoor experience as passionately as anyone who waves a rod or carries a rifle. They’ll proudly share photos of gray jays perched on their hand, and mule deer fawns curled under a pine. But like the 30-something slacker still living in their parents’ basement, they simply don’t care who pays … as long as it’s not them.

It’s time to put up or shut up. Whether you’re vegan, pacifist, Buddhist, or Democrat, if you love our fish and wildlife and the places they live, you should be willing to finance their management. Save the philosophical discussion for later, when you’ve paid the price of admission.

Buy a hunting or fishing license or consider yourself a hypocrite. You might also try one of these wonderful sports and learn why so many are willing to invest so much.

Feel free to turn this into your own letter to the editor … or save it for that inevitable confrontation with someone who just doesn’t get it.

 

One of the semi-finalists

One of the semi-finalists

A record number of entries and votes were logged in the third annual “Fiocchi Friends” photo contest conducted by Fiocchi USA and Wingshooting USA TV.

Votes are now being verified and winners selected by a judge’s panel, with an announcement to be made prior to Christmas. High vote-getters and judge’s selections win Fiocchi gear, and their photos may be used in the Fiocchi 2015 catalog. One voter or entrant chosen at random will win a Mossberg Silver Reserve over-under shotgun. Some images will also be featured in a Fiocchi television commercial that begins airing in January.

Over 13,000 votes were recorded, spread among over 600 photo entries. The photo contest “shows how deep the bond is between bird hunters and their dogs,” said Scott Linden, host/creator of Wingshooting USA. “These dogs are true hunting partners,” he added. The contest was promoted via his show and social media, launching in July.

Dozens of breeds were entered, pointing and retrieving in water and the uplands. Some are funny, others poignant, with many showcasing the intensity and energy of canine athletes performing at their peak. A number of “just for fun” entries featured family portraits and even a “hunting cat.”

Fiocchi of America is based in Ozark, Missouri with sales offices in Boulder City, Nevada. Fiocchi manufactures a full line of handgun, long gun and shotgun ammunition for hunting, law enforcement, military and competition.

The official TV series of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Wingshooting USA is also the most-watched bird hunting show on television. She program airs on seven networks including Discovery’s Destination America.

Later in the day, head there.

Later in the day, head there.

As the day goes on and ground heats up, warm air rises from the bottom of draws, valleys, river canyons, creating an uphill or upstream breeze almost everywhere.

As the sun rises, hunt above and uphill from the best bird hideouts and you’ll help your dog intercept scent as he leads you along a ridgeline or down a draw.

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