Do you remember how to operate one of these? GPS will fail. Maps are always there for you.

Do you remember how to operate one of these? GPS will fail. Maps are always there for you.

I’ll never forget watching someone’s tent wheeling its way across the blustery desert because the guy ropes were tied with granny knots. It was another reminder of the practical value of basic outdoor skills. Spending a chilly night under the stars was probably a valuable lesson to that hunter!

As with most things in life, there is usually a right way to do a task, and a number of wrong ways to do it, then re-do it. Even if you were a Boy Scout, useful skills and indispensable knowledge have a way of falling out of your mental filing cabinet. Some of them might save a life, or avoid serious injury. Others are simply helpful and will make your day afield – or training your dog – more productive or enjoyable.

Wayfinding: 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.

Stay warm in a sleeping bag: Wear dry sleeping apparel – the clothes you wore all day are full of your perspiration and will wick all the heat from your body. Eat or drink something warm before bed (I prefer hot buttered rum). Wear warm socks and a stocking cap. Buy a sleeping bag that has enough room in the foot area – toes compressing insulation are a sure route to misery.

Use a sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold ground or air circulating below your cot. Put a waterproof ground sheet (vapor barrier) under you or your tent to prevent bone-chilling moisture from seeping into your sleeping bag. If it gets extremely cold, wrap yourself in another vapor barrier (leave room for your head to ensure you can breathe!).

Drive a muddy road: Go slow. Avoid braking as it will lock your wheels and you’ll slide. Use a low gear and four wheel drive. Look ahead on the road to anticipate a good “line” and maintain momentum. Move steering wheel left to right as you negotiate ruts – the tire tread will grip the rut walls. Avoid sharp steering wheel movement and turns – the weight and momentum of your vehicle will carry the day, not tires on a slick surface.

If you get stuck, more weight on the drive wheels might generate additional traction. Put your friends in the truckbed over each wheel. Place branches, brush, floor mats or small rocks in front of drive tires to create some traction. “Rocking” back and forth by going from forward to reverse gears might get you out, but spinning wheels at high speed just digs you deeper. Sometimes, all you need are a few inches of movement to get out of a rut – a small log, shovel handle or other lever pushing on the bumper might be enough.

Break up a dog fight: Never grab dogs by the collar – you are not strong enough to keep two fighting dogs apart for very long and a fighting dog has no regard for even the best of owners and could inadvertently bite you as you reach for him.

With two people, one person grabs the back legs of each dog and pulls them in a backward-circular motion like a wheelbarrow. This makes the dog sidestep with his front feet or fall, so he has little incentive or ability to bite you. Do not release the dogs – keep pulling them into separate rooms, yards, etc.

If you are alone, find a leash, loop it around the waist of one dog by threading the clip end through the hand loop. Pull that dog to a post, pole or other secure object and tie the leash to it. The fight, of course, will continue. Then, grab the other dog by the back legs and circle as above, isolate it in another yard or room. Release the tied dog only when the other one is safely isolated in a secure location.

It's all packed the night before.

It’s all packed the night before.

We are down to the wire. For most of us, the opener is a matter of days away, with all the joys and trepidation that come with the start of a new bird hunting season. We’ve waited, planned, practiced, anticipated, maybe dreaded, everything from the alarm clock’s buzz to the smell of Hoppe’s Number Nine, to the post-hunt celebration.

Okay, I’ll say it: kind of like Christmas Eve.

But ensuring a fantastic opener takes more than trusting to luck. Relying on a wing and a prayer is not a strategy. Orchestrate your first day afield to ensure a safer, more enjoyable start for you and your dog. Here’s how:

Gear: Like any athletic event, half the game is in your head … familiar gear and mastery of it creates a level of confidence in both hunters. Shoot the gun you shoot best, even if you bought a new one last year. Then, pack a spare shotgun and extra ammo. Are you wearing your broken-in boots and lucky hat or vest? You’ll have plenty of time to dial in your new stuff but on that first day you want to feel comfortable literally and figuratively. Ditto for the new e-collar or GPS, or at least bring the user’s manual.

And you packed it all into your truck last night, right?

Place: Who doesn’t love new hunting spots? The joy of discovery is addicting. But to start the season on the right foot, hunt a spot you know. Again, you will be more confident (read: shoot straighter) and you’ll have a better chance of finding birds (read: happy dog). If you simply couldn’t resist the siren song of a new covert, you’ve already done your research, talked to the regional biologist and brought that topo map, right?

People: You invited the right hunting partner – the one who helps buy fuel and brings a spectacular lunch. He guns while you handle the dog if necessary, holding off when you are working on steady to wing and shot. He knows not to shoot bumped birds if that’s your preference. You’ve already secured permission to hunt private property or “open to hunt” lands. You’ve left a responsible party with a note of your destination and a map of the place. They know when to call the sheriff if you’ve not returned.

Dogs: To enhance performance and stamina, and guard against the risk of stomach twist, you didn’t feed him this morning. You will run him through a quick drill of obedience and field commands before you unclip the lead. He gets to run solo for a while, free of competition and distraction from another dog. You’ve brought plenty of water for him, and a high-fat snack for quick energy in the field. And please, please, promise you’ll carefully monitor his behavior in the opening-day heat. When the guns are cased you’ll give him a nose-to-tail check for cuts, seeds in eyes, broken nails, etc.

It looks like a lot, but you’re in it for the long run. In many states, bird season is four or five months long. As the saying goes, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Might as well make it the right step, in the best place, with a good partner and a dog that will be able to work for you all season.

A few run-throughs before opening day ensure a productive start to the season.

A few run-throughs before opening day ensure a productive start to the season.

You’ve picked your opening-day destination, purchased ammo, got your license and cleared your calendar. You’ve been busting clays for weeks to ensure you’re ready when that first bird towers into the sky. But what about your dog?

Trained or tyro, your four-footed companion could use a tune-up before that first hunt of the season. Whether you’ve trained all summer or usually trust to dumb luck on opening day, be fair to your dog and begin a short a refresher course now.

Consider incorporating these activities into your dog’s daily regimen in the weeks before you head for the woods, marsh or prairies.

  1. Every session, whether training or exercise, starts with a quick drill through some basic obedience skills. When the season starts, we continue this practice the moment the tailgate drops. My dog heels, gets a “whoa” command or two (you flusher guys can “hup”), and is called back with a “here.” It reminds the dog that hunting is work, and I’m the boss.
  2. We often neglect what I’ll call “alternate commands” until hunting season. Whistles and hand signals aren’t really necessary in most training situations, but could be vital – even life-saving – in a bird field. Run through them a few times in the weeks before you head for South Dakota.
  3. Re-introduce birds. I don’t care how much experience a dog has, if his last bird contact was closing day, I hope you carry a rabbit’s foot, cross yourself, and light a candle at church. Stage-manage a few flushes or points in the yard and training field. Use a checkcord for insurance. Your dog’s memory will be re-kindled, he’ll be starting on the right foot. Don’t forget to add gunshots – they can trigger disobedience as much as a rooster rattling into the air.
  4. Ditto retrieves. We start on the training table, moving quickly from bumpers to birds, then blinds. We focus on fundamentals at every step so each pre-season execution is close to perfection. When you pile out of the truck, his memory is of a well-executed “fetch” instead of the sloppy one of closing day.

The early season is full of stress: travel, new faces, new places, altered daily routine, you’re your dog’s feeding schedule. Most stress is based on fear of the unknown. You can eliminate much of that for your dog, and thus for yourself, with these basics before you turn the truck key at dawn on opening day.

Read on, because this might change your mind …

GPS will fail. Maps are always there for you.

GPS will fail. Maps are always there for you.

“Don’t leave home without it” was a popular advertising catch phrase a couple decades ago. While originally for a credit card, as a bird hunter’s maxim it still holds true. Over the years, I’ve forgotten shotguns, sleeping bags and on a particularly hectic day I almost left a dog in the front yard. Starting on the long drive following one of those debacles, and then over the years on my blog with help from fans (thanks everyone!), I created what is now the “Ultimate Upland Checklist.”

If you’ve ever left your ammo languishing on the porch or beer in the fridge, this list is dedicated to you. NASA doesn’t launch a space flight without a checklist, neither should you start a hunt without the confidence that comes from knowing you have all the necessary gear. When the nearest town is 254 miles away and your dog is bleeding, I hope you will see the wisdom in this document.

A free download of the whole list is available here. Meanwhile, here is a sampling of some of the gear you might not have thought of … but should.

For your dog:

He's ready ... are you?

He’s ready … are you?

Our dogs often get short shrift when it comes to so-called “luxuries,” but think about how much better he’ll perform if he is safe, well-nourished, warm, dry, and rested. Bring a high-fat, low-volume supplement for quick in-field energy. Dogs process fat like we do simple carbohydrates. A full gut not only impedes performance, it brings some risk of bloat and stomach twist. Carry something that delivers a lot of fat calories and little bulk.

Tie-out stakes give dogs a change of scenery and a chance to safely stretch their legs at lunch stops or final destinations. A big envelope contains a “Lost Dog” kit including records of his microchip number, photo, license number and flyers to post in the area with your cell phone number prominent (add a home or local where cell service is spotty). Duct tape is the cheapest dog boot you’ll find.


Folding lawn chairs make campfires more comfortable. A vapor barrier under your tent floor adds ten degrees of warmth by preventing moisture from seeping into your aging bones. Zip-style plastic bags hold dog snacks, cleaned birds, choke tubes and those wild strawberries you found along that grouse ridge.

On to the hunt:

If you’ve ever been 143 miles from home with a broken firing pin, you know to pack a spare shotgun. A soft gun case or sock protects my shooter when I’m too lazy to break it down for stowage in a hard case. Stash a spare truck key somewhere on the vehicle and a partner. A headlamp trumps hand-held flashlights while plucking, cooking and answering Nature’s call in the wee small hours (pardon the pun).

For the record, everyone should be carrying the “ten essentials”: duct tape, paracord, map and compass, waterproof matches and alternate fire starter, space blanket, aluminum foil, water purification tabs or filter plus container, whistle and multi-tool. Find a spot in the truck for chargers, 12-volt adapters and user manuals for all your electronics. No explanation required, right? Add reading glasses if you’re over forty.

Your own kit:

You’ll be the envy of bird camp when you break out a boot dryer. Brush chaps are handy when you need them and easy to stow when you don’t. A real bandanna of silk or rayon (from a western or ranch store) performs as a neck warmer, pot holder, sling, bandage, and sweatband. “Town shoes” are like wearing pillows on your feet after a day in the hills, and add a touch of panache to your big night out in Hobson, MT, pop. 214.

Your vehicle:

The newest generation of rechargeable jump-starters will fit in a glove compartment. Last season, I learned the hard way that even the most up-to-date GPS may not have your destination in its database, so pack paper maps. A recovery or “jerk” strap takes you from zero to hero when someone else’s truck is stuck in a ditch.

Why not bring it?

You may not need all of this gear, maybe not even most of it. But when I’m not making television shows, I often hunt the darkest spot on a night-time satellite photo of the continental U.S. It is an unforgiving landscape, where everything scratches, bites or stings you, and a false step could be your last. In that desolate place, you are farther from a hospital (and a Starbucks) than anywhere in the lower 48. I’d rather bring it and not use it than limp, shiver or bleed while wishing I had.

So download the list (here), customize it to meet your needs, and the next time we pass on the highway, we’ll both be headed toward a birdy covert rather than home again to grab those gosh-darned tent poles.

From last week’s trip … learn more about this fascinating bird and how to hunt it.

Never thought about that!

A lot easier when temperatures are low.

A lot easier when temperatures are low.

Even on his best day, Manny is a so-so retriever. But we came 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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou make lists, check them twice … and no, it’s not Christmas, it’s the opening of bird season. Pile stuff in a corner or right into the truck, check off the last training goals. Make plans, book trips. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

Here are 13 reminders that might come in handy somewhere in the field or along the way. Have a great season!

– If your dog is licking all the medicine off a wound, put something tastier on another accessible part of his body.

– As the day goes on and ground heats up, warm air rises from the bottom of draws, valleys, river canyons, creating an uphill or upstream breeze almost everywhere. As the sun rises, hunt from above the best bird hideouts and you’ll help your dog intercept scent as he leads you along a ridgeline or down a draw.

– Do you own a TriTronics Upland G3 Special? Turning on the beeper remotely from the collar is sometimes a sketchy situation. Try this: once you’ve pressed the button on the beeper to turn it on, hold the collar so the prongs on the battery unit face the base of the beeper. Then hit the green button on the handheld transmitter to turn it off.

– The best bedding in an outside dog kennel or house is grass hay. It breaks down slower than straw and makes less dust. Cedar shavings are pretty strong-smelling and might impact a dog’s scenting ability.

– Remove the entrails of shot birds immediately after they’re retrieved to help them cool quickly. In wintry conditions, stuff some snow into the body cavity. Scuff a hole in the dirt and bury the guts – unless your dog is riding in the back of the truck – bird innards are fart fuel.

– When fogged-over shooting glasses leave you stranded in a pea-soup of your own making, turn your hat around. Put the bill in back where it won’t catch your exhaled breath, hang around your glasses, and condense on the lens.

– Burning eyes and fatigue are common early signs of dehydration in humans.

– Having trouble opening that barbed-wire gate? Can’t get the post into the wire loop? Before you pull the gate toward the post that’s anchored in the ground, stretch the top strand of the gate wire by pulling from the middle to stretch it. If that doesn’t help, make sure you’ve put the bottom of the post as far as possible into the wire loop located at ground level. If you’re lucky enough to find a short pole anchored by a length of wire to the nearby post you’re trying to reach, loop it through the gate and apply some leverage.

– All the modern electronic gizmos we take outdoors these days are worthless without instructions, so pack them in your kit as well. Don’t forget your reading glasses either (equally useful when doctoring dogs).

– If you carry one of those Mylar “space blankets” in your survival kit, check it every year for age-related rips. I opened mine once and found that every fold had become a full-length tear. Luckily, it was at home, not in the woods on a cold, rainy night.

– Permethrin is the most effective tick spray, if you use it right. That means applying it to your clothing before you venture out. Hang, spray, and let dry for at least two hours before you put it on. In formulations for clothing, it is not appropriate for dogs.

– Warm up by fueling your internal furnace. Carbohydrates burn fastest, proteins slowest. Best is a snack food that offers both for sustained energy.

– Buy a bandanna. Silk or rayon, get the big ones that real buckaroos wear, available at farm supply and western stores. Keeps your neck – and the rest of your body, in turn – warm. A multitude of other uses around camp from sweatband to oven mitt.

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