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Someone asks about that dog box in your truck … the guy in line behind you is also wearing blaze orange … a window sticker of your dog breed prompts a conversation. Somewhere, some time, you’ve had an experience like that. All of a sudden, any barriers there were, fall down. If not an “instant friendship,” at least a cordial potential relationship develops for a few moments until the bank teller calls you to the window.

The old saw goes like this: actor Kevin Bacon once claimed that everyone in the world is only six degrees (of 360) apart from everyone else … we all share something that could bring us closer together, if we only knew what it was. If Bacon’s theory is sound, once we step out in the world with a dog in the passenger seat, it drops to about two degrees. If it’s a McDonald’s drive-thru and you order a plain hamburger for him, there are no degrees left as the gal in the window asks what breed it is.

In a sordid past of multiple careers as musician, teacher, fly fisher, political operative and newspaper editor, I simply can’t recall similar experiences. In your world, maybe it’s different whatever your “day job.” But there is something unique about our passion. It might be our primordial origins – we fed the tribe back in the day. It is indisputably the trans-species connection when we team up to find game, the division of labor between man and dog, with success only possible when a carefully-choreographed pas-de-deux is flawlessly executed. It is hard to contain one’s enthusiasm when explaining that magic.

What do you do when someone taps you on the shoulder and asks “what kind of dog is that?” Most fellow hunters I know will open wide and have a hard time condensing the discussion to a reasonable length!

In this realm, social media is a blessing and a curse. We “know” a lot of people. But do we really? Are Facebook friends true friends? That’s hard to say. Unfortunately, many are … until they aren’t. You’ve seen the feeding frenzy that ensues when politics (or dog breed, the Second Amendment, dog food, or football team loyalty) enter the debate. The ugly side of zero degrees of separation are on full display.

But for the most part, it’s the other way around, whether among our fellows in the sport or “civilians.” We’re on our best behavior in public, because we are anyway. Or because we know we’re on display and viewed as representative of everyone who owns a dog or wears blaze orange. You may have your own motives, but whatever it is, we have a chance to share our love for the field, the hunt, and our dogs.

And maybe make a new friend.

Who can argue with giving thanks all year round? But this is the time of year when it comes to the fore. If you need motivation, consider that gratitude has direct, personal benefits including better physical and psychological health, reduced aggression, and higher quality sleep. (I have yet to find any data suggesting it will help my shooting, but still searching.)

We’re lucky – every day, we play with dogs and walk around in beautiful places, often with good friends and family. So, considering what we do for fun, what are you grateful for?

(And if you’re willing to share, I’m doing a special Thanksgiving Upland Nation podcast on the topic featuring your calls. Send me an email with your phone number – I’ll be reaching out on Tuesday, Nov. 26 from 5-6 p.m. Pacific time and will put the podcast up on Thanksgiving Day.)

Your gratitude could be for a loyal dog, new hunting partner, even being able to walk the fields, considering your knees (hah!). Just recapping my last week I have plenty – maybe it’ll help you get started:

– A week of walk-in hunting in Kansas, where the birds were not exactly blackening the sky, but were plentiful enough to keep men and dogs occupied. The communities we visited were full of welcoming people with deserved pride in their community – I’d share a Thanksgiving table with any of them.

– Flick kept his weight on – a rare occurrence in a wired-for-hunting Type A dog. Usually, a long day in the field and you can count his ribs from 50 yards. (Wish it was that easy for me!) I used every trick in the book on this picky eater, with hotel “free breakfast” deals the clincher. Scrambled eggs are now his favorite kibble enhancer.

– Careful preparation also kept Flick’s feet healthy. Check me, veterinarians: soft, flexible pads handle rocks and rough country better than hard ones – fewer cracks and less peeling. A product called “Pad Heal” was the ticket, easy to apply with a brush (Flick thinks every spray bottle contains a hissing rattlesnake).

– Our training is about where I would expect for Flick’s age and my woefully-inadequate “expertise.” His retrieving is not polished, but at least shot birds were delivered “to foot.”

– We dodged dicey weather, too. Yucky stuff surrounded every hunting/TV day but on the days we needed it, the sun shone.

Now it’s your turn. What are you thankful for? Keep it within the hunting/dog sphere (save the rest for around the table on Thanksgiving Day). Comment below and on the special Thanksgiving podcast – email me with your number here, and stand by between 5-6 p.m. Pacific time on Tuesday Nov. 26. Then, listen starting at noon on Thanksgiving Day, here.

Oh, and thanks.

Okay, okay, I get it. Willy-nilly broadcasting of a bird-hunting honey hole is verboten. A few personal stories from podcast callers have convinced me there is a slight chance of finding a place trashed, over-run, shot-out … well, you get the idea.

Want to listen to the podcast? Go here.

I also understand how hard it must be to share a spot you found “on your own.” But how else is someone going to see early success if nobody will help them? Maybe not your best place. Maybe not everyone. But sometimes, some people, some areas. If we don’t help others become hunters, we are doomed. Purchases of guns, ammo, licenses, and Pheasant Forever dues are what fuel conservation. No hunters, no purchases, no conservation. Period. End of sentence.

Facts are facts: the biggest reason people quit hunting is they can’t find someplace to hunt.

Think about your own introduction to hunting: did you really, truly, accomplish every single bit of it on your own? Nobody helped you, ever? A parent? Sibling? Scoutmaster or neighbor? If you can truthfully claim to never having any help finding hunting spots, more power to you. At the rate we’re going as a hunting community, some day, you’ll be the last guy there. Don’t forget to turn off the lights and lock the gate. And keep your expectations low, because nobody will have managed the cover or the game birds as it declined.

How about a new set of rules – thanks podcast callers – that you can use and adapt to your own situation … while still recruiting and encouraging newcomers? Some suggestions:

– If you’re being shown a place, ask if you can share it before you go. If you’re showing someone that spot, be clear as to your expectations before you take them.

– Stay off the Internet (or online forums, Instagram, etc.) with your location-specific information. Watch those photos and identifying tags.

– Vet your “guests” carefully. If you know them well, trust them, and they are safe and ethical, they will probably keep the spot close to their vest. Go with them if you are doubtful as to their trustworthiness.

– Are you the “guest?” Ask if you can go back, and if you can bring others.

– A quid pro quo is okay, and may be a good way to see how sincere your “candidate” is about sharing and caring for the land.

– Have a few “giveaway” spots (with some likelihood of success) for those you’d like to encourage but don’t know well. See how they handle the opportunity; maybe they’ll become a hunting buddy.

– Been the beneficiary of a hunting-spot tip? Go back once, maybe twice, and limit your take. Then, invite the benefactor to hunt one of your spots.

– Encourage newcomers by teaching them to find their own spots. Acquaint them with the resources, agencies, programs (WIHA, for example). Show them – in the field, if you can, what good habitat looks like.

– There are plenty of ways to get people out there without giving a latitude/longitude. A county, highway,

– Don’t call those who share “idiots.” How does that create a better habitat? Or encourage people to hunt?

– In most cases, it’s not “your” spot, nor are they “your” birds. If what you’re really bitching about is others who hunt where you do, you’re just selfish.

– Newcomer? Yeah, do your own homework. Then, pay it forward.

It’s a start. I’ve seen the light. Any more “rules” you’d suggest? Make a comment!

 

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.

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