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So, what’s the best approach for you, the bird, and Buddy?

Here’s a lesson I’m learning almost weekly this time of year. Maybe you, too. You trudge up the hill to find your dog on point. He’s steady. Birds cooperative. Until you take over, that is.

Once he’s pinned a bird, I try to help Buddy do a great job handling it. I approach from at least an oblique angle, not striding right past. He’s less likely to break point. If I can, I get birds to hold instead of run by squeezing them between Buddy and me.

Want another reason to approach your dog from the front? He’s not right under the muzzle blast and it’s deafening effect. That way, he’ll have one less excuse for not hearing my commands. Even when I miss. Which is often.

In this country, rush hour is a herd of whiteface cattle who refuse to stay in their own lane. There are more cows than people here, so we usually yield right of way to them. Besides, what’s the rush?

enchanted canyon on the horizon

Through the windshield: enchanted canyon is at the end of this asphalt rainbow

It’s easy for me to say, when I actually choose to end my hunt early because it was so good.

I don’t mean a vest overflowing with birds, not even close. But enough, in the right places. Dog work to match. Both left a satisfying heft in the bag and the mind.

A creek bed thicket offered one covey of valley quail, a bird dropping into a small forest of alders and willows only Buddy could negotiate, dropping it gently in my palm. A single against the steeply dropping bank, again, only found thanks to the marvelous canine nose I’m privileged to feed twice daily.

No, this trip ended early because the senses were sated, all of them, in very special ways.

I pointed the rig north beyond familiar canyons and draws, looking for new coveys. My eye turned west, drawn to a brilliant yellow vein of aspens snaking downstream, tracing a small creek’s route out of a towering rock cleft straight from Lord of the Rings. The road ended at the lava gateway to this mountain range, and we hunted every inch of the watercourse.

Not a single wingbeat interrupted our visit to this enchanted place, and after the fact, I’m grateful. Yellow, gold, red and amber leaves formed an unbroken ceiling above and covered the desert floor. The stream bottom was similarly paved, deserving of a magazine cover (and me without my camera!). It was as a Narnia-like world, where fantasy meets reality, and you’re not quite sure which is which.

But my camp was still miles away. A small desert lake, void of anglers this time of year, was my destination. I reveled at the chance to cherry-pick my spot, and headed for the far side. The tallest fault block mountain on the continent dwarfed our little camp. A fan of bare sand forms my personal beach, and soon a fire is crackling and the Scotch is poured.

Buddy roams, unfettered by neighbors or responsibility. He doesn’t quite know what to do, unleashed and free, so stays close to me and the warming fire. Together, we watch a flock of Canada Geese graze in undulating lines toward the lakeshore, stalked by a coyote. He hides, they move, he creeps, they adjust the distance. Eventually, the geese prevail, reaching the water, well fed and safe for the time being.

From both ends of the lake, mule deer materialize in ones and twos. Soon, two dozen are drinking. At the far south end the dominant buck emerges, four points on each side, regal in his aloneness. Stars soon carpet the sky, a few shooting, all sparkling.

In the morning coffee’s sharp jolt kindles a brief memory, leading to the only logical conclusion: how could you top that?

Are you a slob hunter?

Your mother doesn’t live here. Clean up after yourself.

Way back in the deepest recess of your formerly-adolescent mind, you heard that cliché in reference to your bedroom. Below the Farrah Fawcett poster, amongst the model cars (or maybe an X Box) was your dirty laundry. Or a pizza box, unfinished homework, candy wrappers or more likely all of the above.

DSCF0017But today it’s your spent shotgun shells on the ground.

Just like dirty socks in as a kid, you left them where they fell. Just a couple, forgotten in the excitement of a covey flush … or a double on jinking bobwhites (yes!).

No big deal. Until the birders visit next spring and surmise that all hunters are slobs. Or the local PETA chapter on their summer solstice drumming-and-sweat-lodge outing. Then, those empty hulls are just garbage.
Trash. And hunters are too, damned by the bright, shiny evidence shouting to the world that we are all gun-toting yahoos without regard for anyone or anything else, including our environment. Our coverts.

Those empties are no longer plastic and brass. They are an embarrassment to sportsmen – a condemnation of every one of us, a glinting example of our carelessness and disregard for others.

I’m reminded of a sign I saw above a locker-room door years ago: Our reputation depends on you, me, and us.
How about a more selfish reason: piles of shucked ammo show me where your honey hole is. And another: common courtesy. You wouldn’t be invited to his next barbecue if you dumped crap in your neighbor’s yard. Why dump it in our collective yard? Fellow hunters are your neighbors on public lands.

We have enough challenges: to the Second Amendment, finding ammo, continued access to public land, dogs that forget their training. And while we can’t sway rabid anti-hunters, we have plenty of chances to keep the non-hunting public on our side. The ones who vote, and stand up at public meetings. The folks who write letters to the editor and testify at game and fish department hearings.

So pick up your trash and someone else’s. Because if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Your choice.

Up here, a saved step or two is worth thinking about.

On this morning’s training walk with Manny, I was reminded of the importance of how we choose our steps … and why. Hope you find something useful here:

“Walk This Way” is more than an iconic rock tune (the original version by Aerosmith, whose lead singer Steven Tyler, by the way, has been a bird hunter in the past.) Ambulating with some care husbands your precious energy and maybe save a trip to the emergency room. Where I hunt, in the darkest spot in the lower 48, both of those are good enough reasons to think before I step.

It starts with minimizing the strain on your thigh and calf muscles by stepping over, not on top of, obstacles such as logs and rocks. Each upward stride is like climbing stairs, taxing some of the largest muscles in your body and lifting virtually your entire body’s weight each time you summit a downed tree.

If you must negotiate a boulder field or rocky slope, you’re safer stepping to the low spots. You have less chance of twisting an ankle or breaking a femur because you’re carefully, deliberately putting your feet where they’d go the hard way in a mishap. And by not “topping” rocks, whether they’re securely anchored or loose as bowling balls is immaterial to your delicate bones and joints.

On steep uphills, say in chukar country, conserve energy with the slight rest your muscles get as you lock your knee at the apex of each step. Your legs’ skeletal structure supports your body weight for a microsecond, giving oxygen-rich blood a chance to flow back into relaxed muscle tissue. And for some reason I tend to stomp on each uphill step, adding injury to the insult of taunting chukars mere yards uphill from me. If you do too, step lightly instead.

A long day weaving among the trees and shrubs will seem shorter if you weave less. Even if it seems a bit out of the way, walking in longer straight shots with fewer twists and turns, alleviates stress on hip and knee joints and the muscles that activate them. Over the course of a 10-mile hunt, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the absence of pain.

Finally, the U.S. Army has convinced me that shortening your stride just a few inches is wise.  Among recruits, it protects against hip and pelvic injuries. For we hunting civilians, too. Here’s a bonus: on crusted snow, you may find yourself “postholing” less.

Shhhh! Results of a quieter, more observant human.

Shhhh! Results of a quieter, more observant human – and dog.

I think we all agree, the basic idea is to shoot birds over your dog’s point. But if you sound like the circus coming to town, you’ll scare away every bird in the county. Game birds may not be as spooky as whitetails (sharptailed grouse might get close), but they are still very cognizant of predators and the sounds they make. So stuff a sock in it.

I’ve snuck within inches of birds by treading more carefully and taking the jingle-jangles off the dog’s collar. Even though I own a dozen e-collars most times I’ll go unplugged. I try to ghost my way through brush, not bulldoze it down. Commands are by hand, not voice or whistle. My footfalls are those of an elk hunter, not a linebacker.

Sure, I like Monday-morning quarterbacking yesterday’s game as much as the next guy, but when my mouth is shut, my eyes seem to open wider. I enjoy more of the dog work, catch on quicker to his birdiness, savor the scenery and shoot more birds.

Wait for it ... until well after the hunt, that is.

Wait for it … until well after the hunt, that is.

Just as important as what you feed is when you feed your hunting partner. There are simple mechanical reasons not to feed your dog the morning of a hunt. An empty G.I. tract doesn’t hold anything that could rattle around in there.

Try this experiment: Take off your sock (representing your dog’s stomach and intestinal track), drop your car keys (ersatz “dog food”) into it. Hold it horizontally, and the dog food will settle in the heel. Then jiggle it, swing it back and forth, whip it around a little like a dog on the hunt would. All that weight will make the sock swing, bounce up and down, possibly even twist. Veterinarians call it gastro volvulus and it is often fatal.

Your dog’s athletic performance is another concern. Studies have shown than a dog with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one hunting on an empty stomach.

Another good reason: the gut is not using the body’s finite allotment of energy to digest food when it could be fueling active muscles that are chasing birds.

No guilt trips here, your dog’s metabolism is unlike yours. Sending your dog into the field without breakfast will have no ill effects. Unless he’s got other health problems, he won’t develop “low blood sugar,” because dogs get their version of instant energy from fat.

If you can’t resist giving Gunner something during the hunt, give him a high-fat content snack that won’t fill his belly. You can make your own, or simply offer him some of your salami sandwich (just the meat). There are plenty of commercial versions out there in tubes, droppers and blocks. The key is low volume, high fat to keep the belly as empty as possible.

You can’t go wrong offering water frequently – it keeps a dog cool as well as hydrated. Make life simple on both of you by carrying a bota (wine skin) or the modern equivalent. Teach your dog to drink from it just like you, so there is no need to drag a bowl or sacrifice your hat as a substitute.

Go away from your catchline, then come back toward it when the sun sets

Go away from your catchline, then come back toward it when the sun sets

While a GPS can be a lifesaver, map and compass skills will bail you out when batteries, weather, memory and wits fail. At a minimum, you should know how to find a “catchline” that will lead you back to a known location.

Study, then bring along a copy of a map of the area you will hunt. Make note of a stream, road, ridgeline or other long, relatively straight feature in relation to where you park or make camp. That’s your catchline. You will hunt away from that location, and as long as you know which direction you went in relation to the catchline, you’re home free.

Example: I’m camped along a river that runs north-south. I hunt away from camp to the east. When I want to head back, I simply walk west until I reach the river. Camp is either left or right along my catchline. If I’m really smart, I’ve overshot camp on purpose (say, to the north) so I know to walk south when I hit the stream.

See you for happy hour?

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