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The best shot I ever made

Yep, right about here.

Yep, right about here.

Having one leg longer than the other is said to help you when chukar hunting. You’re often side-hilling a steep incline, the ground covered with loose rock. You’ve burned lungs and legs getting there, because the devil birds run up the hill, then fly down again. So you must as well.

The covey scrambled up a gully after watering in the trickle of creek at the bottom of the draw. We hadn’t seen enough to take a pass on this bunch, so up I went.

When the birds blew like a party popper at midnight, I was still trying to find a place for my left foot. As they scattered  above me, I spun on my right foot (conveniently perched on a round-bottomed rock) and pointed toward the lead bird, with hope propelling my gun mount.

As you probably guessed, recoil, rock and gravity combined. But as I went ass-over-teakettle I saw the bird stutter, spin, tower up, then drop straight down. By the time I scraped the gravel off my face, Buddy was back with the trophy, gently dropping it at my feet.

That was my best shot – the most memorable, to date at least. What was yours? Or your strangest, luckiest, funniest outcome … you do have one, don’t you?

This one, easy. Frozen, not so much.

This one, easy. Frozen, not so much.

Ice cream headache. Did you ever think your dog might have one?

If you train with frozen birds, he might. He’ll never admit it, but the outward manifestation might be lousy retrieves. Thanks pro trainer Larry Lee, for pointing out the obvious – to everyone, apparently, but me. I was lamenting the goofy way Manny would approach a frozen pigeon, then daintily pick it up by a wing and drag it back, sort of.

It was Larry who asked what I would do in a similar situation.  I pondered that. Now, so will you: open the freezer, pull out an ice cube and hold it between your teeth for oh, say the length of a 200-yard retrieve.

It’s no wonder Manny was less than enthusiastic. So was I. Carrying a pigeon by one wing isn’t easy.

More of this please ...

More of this please …

The traditional version comes at the wrong time of year. We are putting things away and reminiscing about past months when we are encouraged to reveal our hopes for the coming 12 months. Thanksgiving, Christmas, then poof! There they are, at the bitter end of our favorite time of year.

Instead, my resolution is to make resolutions for our “new year,” Opening Day. Record my dreams and dreads wrapped in blaze orange and dog hair in the weeks leading up to the fresh season. They started on closing day and marinated until the opener was an actual, real date on the new calendar circled in red. Then, aspirations for shooting, desires for favorite coverts and of course, miracles for our dogs are voiced over beers (or in our heads).

Mine? Trivial, some might say. Steadiness from Manny on covey flushes. Stamina from 10-year-old Buddy. New places and friends in the field. Some green among the thousands of acres of ash and soot here in the West. And hope, for a safe season, strong legs, happy dogs.

What are yours?

Acoustics and obedience

Monolith … and echo chamber

Whistle blasts, yells, nothing was getting Buddy back to me. It looked like he was actually running away – each command got the opposite reaction from what I wanted.

One more toodle on the whistle and the echo hit me in the face, the problem now quite obvious. Sound waves left my mouth, traveled the hot dry canyon and bounced off the massive basalt walls. That’s what Buddy heard. No wonder he streaked away – he was eagerly trying to please me but headed for the nearer source of the command – the rock, not me.

Wow, that sure changed the way I look at (er, hear) dog commands. Further experimentation showed that knolls, thick forest, even water will all affect what your dog hears, and where he thinks that sound is coming from. It’s a wonder they ever come back to us!

These days I’ll sometimes turn and call or whistle in the opposite direction from my dog so the original sound – and any echoes – are both coming from the vector I want him to take. Other times, lower volume precludes an echo. By default, my dogs have learned that a beep from their collar means the same as “here,” so that works also.

Now that I know this, my dogs seem to be much more obedient.

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.

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