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Happy Birthday, Manny

Another good job.

Another good job.

Today is your fourth birthday, Manny. And as many have said before, that’s about when a wirehair actually matures enough to be a good hunting partner. Actually, you’ve been a good hunter since your first season – not disciplined, untrained – but still, a joy to watch.

Lately, though, it is clear you have evolved into a strong bird dog. “Honest,” as some put it. Maybe this year we’ll find a spot on the calendar for our NAVHDA Utility Test, which you are undoubtedly ready for.

You’ve matured in important ways. You follow direction well. You handle birds right. You’re tolerant of your great-uncle Buddy, almost ambivalent (and that’s a good thing).

In other ways you’re still a pup. Your look at life is energized, a wide-eyed innocence that makes every day, every bird a pleasant surprise. Bird contact starts with a high-speed tail wag, and I know when it stops, so will you … holding as long as I need. And that’s a good thing too.

Your fans have watched you grow up on the show, I hope they‘ve learned as much as I have from training you. Maybe their dogs benefited as a result.

When I picked you up at ten weeks, your dark face and darker coat stunned me. I’ve learned to appreciate it – unique, easy care and just different enough from most wirehairs to remind me that you are a special dog.

Bon voyage, puppy

If I ever put my dog on an airplane, I hope that guy is on the baggage crew.

If I ever put my dog on an airplane, I hope that guy is on the baggage crew.

The cliché is, you can tell a lot about a person by how they  treat a dog. I guess it’s a cliché because it is fundamentally true.

A long layover in the L.A. airport was softened a bit by the show outside our window in the Alaska Airlines Board Room: planes taxiing in and out, the hustle and bustle of airport doings from refueling to baggage loading. That’s where it happened.

A tug pulling a baggage cart parked alongside a jet,  plastic dog crate the only cargo. The loading crew all seemed to find a reason to saunter past, pausing to stoop down and give the pup a greeting. Eventually, the entire blue-clad squad had gathered enmasse at the box, including a massive crew member who could have been a sumo wrestler in his free time.

And that’s when it happened: the hulk of a man, who could load the passengers single-handedly let alone suitcases, squatted like a new father, supplicating in front of the kennel. He made goo-goo eyes and offered a finger through the mesh door for a doggy kiss, a finger that was so thick it wouldn’t go farther in than the first knuckle. He gently picked up the crate, and carrying it like a Ming vase placed it lovingly in the hold.

I couldn’t hear a thing through the thick glass and I doubt the dog could on the busy ramp. But that mountain of a man said something to that dog in what was probably a gentle, comforting voice as he bade the pup farewell. I think we both felt better, ready for our journeys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s your signal?

Is it that first shopping trip?

Is it that first shopping trip of the season?

Hiking in the desert, of all places, it hit me when I noticed the dried leaves carpeting the sandy ground. Last fall’s remnants kindled anticipation of this fall’s hunts. Wrong leaves, wrong place, but the die was cast – I’m ready for hunting season.

What is your trigger-tripper? A training milestone? Weather change? Test season? Youth hunt?

Something pushes you over the edge, inescapably heralding the Most Important Time of Year. But do you know what it is? And if you don’t have one, you have several months to pick one.

Go.

For me, it's all in the dogs. How about you?

For me, it’s all in the dogs. How about you?

… about bird hunting?

Yep, we talk a good game about the wonders of the natural world, cycle of life, camaraderie, miracles large and small performed by our dogs. But if you had to narrow it down to a single, specific item that would stop you from hunting any more if it were absent … what would it be?

The reason we go

The reason we go

Protein is not the prime objective for Wingshooting USA TV viewers when they take to the uplands in search of pheasant, quail and grouse. That’s one revelation in show host Scott Linden’s fourth annual “Upland Nation Index,” a national survey of his viewers. The languishing economy might prompt big-game hunters and waterfowlers to make meat for the pot a priority; in fact, a recent more general survey identified a rising trend among hunters going afield primarily to supplement their pantries. But Linden says for upland bird hunters, food isn’t their primary objective.

“Watching my dog work” is the main reason Linden’s fans go hunting, according to his survey. With over 33 percent of Wingshooting USA viewers owning two or more dogs, that shouldn’t be surprising. And while that may be a full house for some, 28 percent of Linden’s fans are planning to buy another dog soon, say respondents.

“Being with friends and family” is the number two reason viewers hunt, being in natural surroundings ranks third, and “bringing home food” ranks dead last among choices in the Index. Speaking of priorities, Wingshooting USA TV fans live, eat and breathe shotgunning and bird dogs. When they’re not hunting, their principal free-time activities are dog training and clay target shooting (42 percent each).

Where are they going in pursuit of their passions? Forty-five percent hunt public land almost exclusively. Forty-two percent hunt private land via one of the landowner access programs or by asking permission, and the remaining 13 percent hunt primarily on preserves.

Linden’s fans are a restless lot too. Fifty-six percent plan to hunt outside their home state, with South Dakota the prime destination (25 percent of all out-of-state trips) and Kansas capturing the interest of another 17 percent.

The Upland Nation Index surveyed 1,700 viewers of the Wingshooting USA television program in January, 2013. The margin for error is plus or minus five percent. Wingshooting USA is the most-watched upland bird hunting show in the U.S., airing on seven networks including a debut on Discovery Channel’s Destination America this summer. It is the official TV series of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Who cares? Why bother?

_09B7155Do you want to be the last bird hunter?

I love pulling up to a promising covert and finding nobody else parked there. So do you. To know with confidence that you’ll be the first – possibly only – one to hunt a field that week, immeasurable.

We all long for untrammeled ground … “first tracks” to use a ski analogy, when we open the tailgate and let the dogs out. Who doesn’t want to believe the birds are plentiful and naïve, will hold for our dogs, fly high and slow when we walk them up?

But what if that was always the case? What if you never saw another soul in the woods or on the prairie, because you were the last bird hunter?

Someone is fervently hoping it will come true, that they’ll be the last to inhabit this “ideal” world and be the only ones, getting all the shots, finding no footprints.

I wouldn’t want to hunt with him.

But we may all see a situation almost this dire in our lifetime, if you believe the pessimists in our midst. If you read the magazines or are a member of an upland conservation group, you know our fraternity is at risk of extinction. There are fewer new hunters coming on and more going out, usually by dying. We are an aging population, we bird hunters. And too many of us are a tad too selfish – relishing the situation described above – to bring on the next generation of uplanders.

Okay, maybe not selfish, but defeated, discouraged, disillusioned. I can’t blame them.

The almighty dollar usually trumps CRP payments and conservation easements. Ethanol is a wicked competitor, fueling the plowing of marginal ground for a few more bushels of corn. Deer hunters waving dollar bills will keep grouse hunters off a lease; the price of ammo will stop a 16-year-old from picking up a shotgun, as will a PETA lecture in kindergarten. The pressure of peers who don’t hunt, lack of a father figure, onerous regulation of gun ownership and even ammo restrictions have thinned our ranks. Bird populations are devastated by blizzard or drought, or nesting habitat is mowed early for another cutting of alfalfa.

The “barriers to entry” as statisticians call them, are numerous. But none are insurmountable. Unless you’re selfish. Or a quitter. Or brain-dead.

Why bother taking a friend, kid, spouse hunting? What do you get in return? Here’s my list … you can probably come up with more reasons:

New hunters’ license dollars fund management of habitat and game populations. Your neighbors, PETA members, and the Defenders of Wildlife might talk a good game, but only hunters put their money where their mouths are. When license money evaporates, don’t look to taxpayers to pick up the slack. So unless you plan to quit hunting the very day your state outlaws it, every new recruit ensures access and a modicum of managed game to chase.

New hunters are fresh and energetic, ready to pick up the banner and fight for conservation. We all burn out, and without new troops joining the battle against habitat destruction, the front lines will collapse. Oil companies and wind energy syndicates will claim victory.

New shotgunners who understand scientific game management can advocate for it among their non-hunting, anti-gun peers. Sensational claims by the anti-hunting cabal are best countered with cold, hard facts related by knowledgeable outdoors enthusiasts.

Those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. That includes gun control. The anti-gun crowd pooh-poohs the fundamental reason for a Second Amendment, but you shouldn’t laugh. You don’t have to pick up a textbook to learn that many tyrants modern and ancient started their reign of terror by disarming their citizenry. The death of gun rights starts with excessive government meddling in your personal life, an “imperial presidency” ruling by fiat not representation, marginalizing those with unpopular views. It is fueled by a sheep-like tolerance of more and more unreasonable encroachment on our rights. Whether it’s Big Gulps or Obamacare, a slippery slope might be around the next bend in the road.

We should fear any president’s desire to take away the last resort we have available for opposing a corrupt regime. Ask the Syrians fighting for freedom right now, or the Jews of 1930’s Germany, if you think that notion is silly and antiquated. Unarmed citizens become subjects. New hunters become Second Amendment advocates.

A kid who knows and understands guns is a safer kid. He handles one with respect in the field and knows what to do when a gun is found where it shouldn’t be. That kid is less likely to be a danger to himself or others. When the bad guy does break down his front door, that kid – or adult – might just stop a rape or murder. If some nut job is drawing a bead on your daughter at the mall, a fellow shopper (and hunter) shooting back might save her life.

Hunters are part of the circle of life. They have a realistic view of where food comes from and what is involved in making meat. Shotgunners take personal responsibility for some of their sustenance, and in this cynical world that makes for a more authentic life.

Shooting straight, find your way back to camp, starting a fire, cleaning a bird, training a dog are all skills that teach important character traits: overcoming hardship, accomplishing something tangible, self reliance, accountability. You won’t find those on the agenda at a public school. “Manliness” is scorned these days, but when the dam breaks or the woods catch fire, I hope there are hunters (and Boy Scouts) around to help.

Hunting is a direct link to our shared history. It has a body of literature that is beautiful. It is our connection to grandparents and our distant ancestors. Hunting is part of our DNA, and ignoring that suppresses a visceral element of our personhood. A new hunter becomes part of the chain, a standard-bearer for all things worth remembering including our hunting heritage.

Finally, a new hunter might take you hunting when you’re too old to venture out alone. Recruits will listen to our stories around the campfire, and pass them on. They will be our legacy, just as are pristine streams, wild places and thriving game populations

Now, go make a new hunter.

What makes a hunter?

Young, old, how do you bring them into our world?

Young, old, how do you bring them into our world?

Congratulations. My viewer survey tells me you took newcomers on their first hunt hundreds of thousands of times in the past year. But how do you get to “yes” when you’re scheming to invite a novice into the field, become a member of our fraternity?

Feasting is a way to celebrate our outdoor experience. It closes the circle of life, celebrates the tribal origins of our sport, and justifies our current rationale – we are obtaining food, among other things. Sharing organic protein with a non-hunter is a savory recruiting tool. Yep, hunters are the original locavores.

I started hunting when I watched my newly-purchased puppy point a pheasant. Wow, if he’d do that, the least I could do is learn to shoot! If I had a nickel for every non-hunter I’ve induced to take a long uphill walk in chukar country because they could watch dogs work, I’d have a lot of nickels.

Have you ever challenged a clay shooter to try the “real thing?” I wonder how they would react to an invitation to quit pretending and join you in the grouse woods.

Anglers are another source of new hunters. In fact I was casting a fly long before I shouldered a shotgun. Already familiar with some of our challenges, they might be suitable candidates. Or are they, with the catch-and-release ethic, for example?

What gets kids away from video games and social media? Hooked on make-believe games of full-auto guns and car chases, could a youngster make the transition to recoil and real blood? How would he/she explain that to his eighth grade social studies class?

Think back to your own introduction … or your introduction of someone else. What pushed you – and them – over the edge? What turned you/them into a hunter? Give it some thought, then go do it again for someone else.

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