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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.

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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 fail. At a minimum, 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.

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Pay attention; you'll learn something.

Pay attention; you’ll learn something.

Shut up. Listen carefully. Trust your dog. Live in the moment. These are lessons it took a ruffed grouse and woodcock hunt to remind me why we go hunting.

Is is relevant to any bird hunter? Hell yes.

Your dog is your best hunting partner. When he’s virtually invisible in the trees, you’ve got to know he’s working for you. If not, head back to the yard for more training.

When pup – or your partners – are working (or for that matter, out of sight or right next to you), pay attention. You’ll hear new sounds, learn from the woods, and you might see a pileated woodpecker. It’s how you find your dog, too.

But most important is the low-level adrenaline rush that starts when you leave the truck and only ends when your head hits the pillow that night: Where are the dogs? What was that roar – a flush? Is pup on point? Where? Where am I? Woodcock or grouse? The anticipation preceding every step, every stumble, branch cracks and leaf crunches is inestimable.

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Ho ho ho.

Ho ho ho.

Before New Year’s Day, there’s another holiday. We hope, we wish, we make lists and check them twice, and it all culminates with the requisite gift-giving and receiving.

But as we discussed a while ago, our hunting life – and mental calendar – marches to a different drummer.  So if we’re going to make hunting-season new year’s resolutions, we might also make a “Christmas” list. It’s not very long around here, but it is full of important items …

A functional tether for my collar transmitter and GPS. Wicking underwear that doesn’t stink after a couple washings.

A good hatch. No more forest fires. Healthy dogs. Friends I haven’t met yet but will, in a diner somewhere in pheasant country. Cool weather when the dogs are on the ground,  but warm enough to hang around a campfire at night.

That’s the extent of it. What’s on your list?

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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?

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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.

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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?

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