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How do you celebrate the hunt?

Once the dogs were put up and watered, twice in Kansas this week I pulled out my bottle to toast the day. Neither hunt was “epic” in the sense of clouds of birds. The shooting was “meh” too. But the entirety is what made it worthy of a 12-year-old Scotch from Speyside: new friends, dazzling habitat variety, generous sharing of knowledge, a lot of fun, hard working dogs.

First distilled in the 1400’s, uisge beatha means “water of life.” To many of us some 600 years later, whisky still fuels conversation, reminiscences, admiration. And not just because it’s 80 proof.

It’s a simple tailgate ritual. Paper cups, a little toast to the day and the dogs, maybe one more for friends gone to better fields and more cooperative birds where all the dogs are steady.

That’s when the fellowship begins. A small gesture like pouring and sharing primes the mind and cracks open the heart. Memories – recent and long-lost – are rekindled. A favorite dog, the place you shot your first bobwhite, it doesn’t matter. Opening up is what counts. You learn a little about your companions, the place, their dogs, and ultimately about yourself.

For you it could be beer, a meal, coffee, a soda or a cigar. Great dogs, new and old friends, the experience of beautiful places deserve acknowledgment, don’t they?

My light, fruity, Speyside whisky opens up with a drop of water in the glass, brightens a bit. It tingles the tongue without the bite so common in others from Islay, the lowlands, even the highlands. There’s a trout on the label, another of my passions. And nobody has stopped at one taste – it’s the best first whisky I’ve ever served.

What’s your poison? For me, a “wee dram,” a little ritual … and camaraderie often results. To life!

It’s the meat of the season here. Whether yours is just starting or well underway, maybe you can relate to a brief accounting of mine, so far.

It’s been a fall chock-full of what defines “why we hunt” in every survey I’ve ever asked you to respond to. Sure, birds and plenty of them. But so much more.

One hunting friend is a big fan of the mobile app OnX Hunts, marking everything from elk wallows to covey flushes and shot birds. He also marks what OnX calls “Sasquatches.” Those are spots on the map that look tempting from behind the wheel at 80 miles an hour, that bear further inquiry. I’ve been in search of my own Sasquatches all season, purposely avoiding tried-and-true honey holes for new adventure. I’ve found prospectors’ cabins, oases in the desert, chukars on level ground, buckaroos’ willow corrals, in stark landscapes where Natives have trod for centuries – and still do periodically (did I mention the pictographs?). It’s working for me – how about you?

Killing birds and eating them? A fantastic culmination to the hunt. But between the packing and the unpacking, there’s the people. Stars aligned on every trip so far, where I’ve made new friends, re-acquainted with old ones, and met some memorable characters. Each has enriched my life – are you keeping your eyes open for those kind of opportunities?

“Carpe’ diem” is Latin for “seize the day.” But even on a long-distance, well-planned excursion (add TV crew and it’s almost like moving an army), there is room for spontaneity. A brief stop, longer conversation with someone at a gas station, buying a beer for the guy on the next stool … you never know what will come of it. New hunting spot, access to private ground, unfamiliar dog breed, all have come from having no expectation but for a little fellowship.

Strong bird populations in many places are a pleasant surprise. Most stunning has been the number of Huns in hardscrabble places that are more akin to rattlesnake habitat.

Two-year-old Flick has also dazzled me well beyond his age and abilities. I won’t take most of the credit, but his training apparently “took.” Long, steady points, retrieves to foot (versus “to hand” – we’re not quite test-worthy), stunning endurance, and even a water retrieve on camera. As Wayne and Garth said “I’m not worthy.”

People, places, a good dog and a few birds. What else is there to life? You tell me!

He walked, alone, in the cathedral stillness of the shelterbelt. We’d hung back, me and my camera operator, to let Ben gather his thoughts on this, his first bird hunt. We did it again as the trees opened to a field of waist-high grass, gathering the rest of our party on the dirt road and ultimately cheering as he doubled on ringnecks, solo.

It was a study in what the shooting and hunting “industry” (yes, that’s you, me, and us) now calls “R3,” Recruit, Retain, Re-activate.

Ben was part of the first “R,” and should be a case study in how it works, a lesson here for all of us. Bruce, his across-the-street neighbor, was an avid hunter unlike Ben’s father. An 16-year-old baseball player who plans to be an Army Ranger, he pitches in when something heavy needs lifting, or there are too many groceries for one person to carry. In the course of that neighborly behavior (if only it was more common!), he was acquainted with Bruce’s dog, taxidermy, and passion.

Soon, Bruce was taking Ben to the range, teaching firearms safety, ethics, and shooting skills. Ben had his challenges – right-handed and left-handed conflict that I can relate to, sports and academic distraction, teenage life in general. But he persevered, and so did Bruce. If you’re ever taught someone to shoot, you know of the hills and valleys, the roller-coaster ride of triumph and frustration.

When Bruce won my CZ-USA “Take Your Friend Hunting” contest, there was no question who was going with him to Grand Ciel Lodge in Plankinton, South Dakota. Permission granted, travel arranged, and Ben’s first pheasant hunt would soon be a reality.

The day dawned cold and crisp, blue sky and puffy white clouds. My camera operators were ecstatic, and so were we. Dave Miller of CZ-USA (fresh from another world record-setting effort with four youth shooters) transferred Ben’s clay-target skills to wingshooting; the rest of us laid plans. Bruce’s teaching manifested in safe, skillful shotgunning by Ben, polished by Dave. Then, we were into the field.

It wasn’t long before Brad Boisen’s two Braque Francais skidded to a halt, then cat-danced down a soybean row. Hand on his shoulder to ensure a safe gun mount and swing, I urged Ben ahead of the next point. A stillness in the air … then three roosters cackled skyward.

You know what happened next. And it didn’t include a retrieve. But so it goes – who wasn’t as rattled by their first pheasant flush?

Initial jitters over, we re-grouped and skirted standing corn, finding a point here, a bird there, and a lot of holes in the air as everyone including our newbie dialed in a new CZ “all terrain” gun (you’ll get your preview soon), new birds, and an adrenaline overdose.

What Ben was thinking when he made his solo forays, we’ll never know. Do you remember your first hunt? I can tell you one thing. He’s now a hunter.

Even the blind hog finds the occasional acorn, and we get it right some times, introducing newcomers to our world. That’s the lesson I took away from our visit to Grand Ciel. Bruce’s lessons could be our own: be visible, open and frank about your hunting lifestyle. Interested kids, neighbors, friends, co-workers will inquire. Be situationally aware, sensitive to their questions and interest in your weekend plans, your dog, your wild food.

I know it’s hard as giving up your secret spots, but share your knowledge, tell stories. Like Freemasons, the interested ones will ask more questions, including if they might join you. Then, it’s about firearms safety, skills, ethics, and practical application of each on trips to the dog-training yard, range and into the field. Most will wash out, some will stick.

Forever.

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Wet and wild

If you listen to my podcast or watch my TV show, you know I’m big on public access. When I ask you in my Upland Index survey, you say finding suitable hunting grounds is the biggest challenge – and threat – to our sport. So, to the vocal dismay of some I tell you where to go and why.

Nope, you’ll never hear about latitude and longitude nor exact starting points. But you will have enough to go on, to start your own adventure and boot-leather investment. Case in point:

One of the biggest pleasures I get – in addition to finding birds on public land – is meeting and talking with fellow hunters. In that same survey, you tell me that is high on your list of reasons you go, too. Cabela’s brings me to their Pheasant Classic opening weekend in Mitchell, South Dakota to do just that. Two birds, one shot. “Scotch double,” say the clay shooters.

One of the joys of hunting South Dakota is, they know what side their bread is buttered on. They make it easy to visit, find accessible land, and even buying a license is one of the better online experiences of state wildlife agencies. Get the app or glom onto the hunting atlas, find the brown/green/blue spots, and go hunting.

South of Mitchell, state highway 37 puts you into six or eight parcels, from a few dozen acres to a whole quarter section.  But this story is about the hunt, not the hunting spot. Noon is the start time the first week, and Flick was beyond ready as the clock struck twelve. Damp, drizzly, but not enough to bitch about, especially after three days of driving and two days of retail.

Manny remembered his training, investigating every scent and objective on the quarter section we found. Head up, head down, covering ground nicely, with enough pauses to get my juices flowing. Of course, you know the problem: within minutes you’re already envisioning a quick find, steady point, and slow-flying bird that you put on the ground with a single, skillful shot.

It wasn’t quite that simple. Points in shelter belts went unanswered by this shooter. Points at 100 yards ended in wild flushes as I thrashed through CRP that was head-high and ankle-grabbing at the same time.

We rounded the circle (I like big round hunts – the wind is in your favor three-quarters of the time) and a bleep told me Flick was stopped within 40 yards. He was still on point when I caught up, but once I was in the picture he began tracking. Slow, methodical, head down and clearly on something.

That something was a rooster that had outrun Flick and I. Lesson learned. Wild roosters are not going to wait for a human holding a gun to catch up. I would stay closer to my dog. A couple more versions of the same, and things came together. Beep. Flush. Bang!

Good dog.

Bang! Fetch! Gulp!

I hope you’re having a fantastic season so far. We are off to a good start, with camaraderie, beautiful places, and some success finding birds. Now, if my shooting would match!

Flick is meeting or exceeding expectations so far this season in all but one category: retrieving. As you may recall, I’m experimenting with a gentle version of “force breaking,” without ear or toe-pinching, and e-collar vibration as the strongest “stimulus” when needed. He was pretty good about opening his mouth to take bumpers and birds as a youngster, which is what the pinching thing is often about. Once learned, and associated with the “fetch” command, things progressed smoothly.

We moved to out-and-back, off the training table, new locations, retrieving after tossed dead and ultimately shot birds … all with minimal problems. But on last weekend’s chukar hunt, the wheels came off. The few shot birds I put on the ground were a crap shoot. Would he bring it back? Run off? Both, then try to swallow it? All of the above, at one point.

Maybe you’ve been there.

It finally hit me. The “X” factor was my hunting partner Tom, and his dog Ruby. What I hadn’t trained for was a hyper-excited dog (Flick) working with “competition.” As a predator, he’s ready, willing, and able to keep his prey from others … simply by swallowing … sometimes, preceded by a few crunches. I was reminded of a previous dog and a club “fun” day that was anything but, when another dog tried to take Bill’s quail. Gone in sixty seconds … urp.

Well, we’re back to about Square Three now, working on that last few steps of delivering in spite of other dogs and people. I’m hoping it’s the happy ending to a pretty good training experiment, but I’ll let you know.

This blog post outfitted by Cabela’s

This particularly dry and hot (for many) early season, this advice first mentioned in my book is worth a re-read …

Even on his best day, Buddy’s a so-so retriever. But we’ve come to an understanding. On certain days, he, and most dogs, would rather share a kennel with a poodle than fetch. It’s not disobedience, funny smells, or early-onset Alzheimer’s’. It’s the heat.

Dogs cool themselves by panting. They can’t sweat, so it’s all about internal air conditioning, heavy breathing. Plug that system with a hot, dry, feathered obstruction, and it shuts down.

You can yell, scream, coax, and threaten, but you’re wasting your time. The self-preservation instinct trumps any training. So I cut my guys some slack when the shooting – and the temperature – are hot.

Be safe out there.

“Sit!” And I mean you.

Sitting or lying down will help keep your dog in one place for a little rest … better still if you do the same.

Early in the season, we’re “warming up” in so many ways. Dogs are applying skills honed over the summer, we are testing our shooting abilities once again. All those lessons learned during the off-season are being put into action … or are they? Sometimes, a friendly reminder of the more subtle aspects might help. Here’s one:

So, you made it to the top of that chukar hill. Or battled your way through that dog-hair thicket in search of ruffies … and now it’s time for a breather. You sip some water, swap stories with your buddy, maybe nibble a snack.

Your dog paces back and forth, circles you both, slaloms between our legs, and just won’t sit still. He looks, beseechingly, at his hero (you) for direction, a command, something that gives him purpose for the next few minutes. But you’re fully invested in a joke involving a duck, a rabbi and a waitress.

Eventually your dog wanders off unnoticed, and when you’re dropping shells into your shotgun he’s nowhere to be found. When you eventually do find him, he’s worn out because he didn’t rest when you did.

The solution is simple. “Sitting still” starts with sitting. And I’m thinking that maybe a dog isn’t convinced you’re resting unless you’re sitting (or lying down, but that may be going too far). That’s what he does, his littermates did, his pack does. It’s body language in its simplest form. Doggy see, doggy do. Or doesn’t, if you’re not sitting.

So find a tree to lean on, or at least a dry spot to plop yourself down. Your dog will too. It might take a leash to keep him there, but you brought one, right? Offer him water, maybe a snack too. Pick a shady spot if it’s warm, wind-sheltered nook if it’s cold. Once he’s stopped panting, he’s rested and cooled off, ready for the next covert. And you know exactly where he is.

This tip brought to you by the Dogtra T&B DUAL 2-dog training collar. Learn more here.

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