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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!

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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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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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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

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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.

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By Scott Linden, Wingshooting USA TV

You’re a dedicated hunter. Or field trialer. For all I know, you do agility too. Maybe, all of them … plus a bench show once every while. When you need a boost, it’s easy to guzzle a Red Bull, or stop at Starbucks. Maybe it’s a Snickers bar. And if you’re smart, you’ve been going to the gym regularly.

But your dog can’t do any of those. And on the second day of a hunt or at call-up time in a field trial he needs a boost. But none of your go-to solutions will help, and may even hurt, your dog’s performance.

I hunt chukars for fun and have learned the hard way. When you’re in the middle of nowhere, you and your dog are on your own.

Of course, good physical conditioning is first. You are developing an elite athlete. Get him in shape and he’ll hunt longer and better. But when “go time” comes, what you put into him – and when – is critical.

Out there in the field, you both are at the mercy of your physical fitness and fuel. It’s too late for the former, but as for the latter, here’s what I do. It might just help you and your dog, too.

  1. In the bowl

Alright, what do you feed your dog?Any two hunting dog owners will probably offer three opinions on the subject. With the dog food industry constantly changing along with their products, it pays to stay on top of things. Ingredients, formulas, additives, all are worth a long look. Consider some things I’ve learned:

Hunting dogs need protein. At least 30 percent. In most high protein dog food formulations, fat will usually run in the 20-22 percent range and it’s critical for energy (they use fat much like we use carbohydrates – more on this later). Some of us feed higher ratios of each, but a discussion with your vet, and careful monitoring of your dog’s waistline are in order before you go much above those ratios.

Grain, or grain-free? Hunters have been feeding corn and wheat-based food for decades to good effect. Talk to your vet if you’re concerned about grain. There are plenty of other carbohydrate sources, from potatoes to rice and most food will have one or more that fit your dog’s needs.

If you plan to ramp up the fat and protein pre-season, start feeding the good stuff at least 60 days prior to the first hunt so all the nutrients have time to positively affect muscles, skin and bone.

Good protein sources include the various fresh meat or fish meals, “real” meat, fish, or eggs. Lower-quality and less-digestible (more waste) versions include meat and chicken byproducts, bone meal, corn and other grain products. If you find your dog has frequent ear infections, rash, or is constantly scratching, consult a vet and look at food allergies (often, a protein source or grain) as well as the other causes.

  1. When to feed

Just as important as what you feed is when you feed. There are simple mechanical reasons not to feed your dog the morning of a hunt. An empty gastrointestinal tract has nothing that could rattle around in there.

Try this experiment: Take off your sock (representing your dog’s stomach and intestinal track), drop your car keys (ersatz “dog food”) into it. Hold it horizontally by it’s top and toe, and the dog food will settle in the heel. Then jiggle it, swing it back and forth, whip it around a little like a dog on the hunt would. Jump a fence or two. All that weight will make the sock swing, bounce up and down, and possibly even twist. Veterinarians call it gastro volvulus and it is often fatal.

Your dog’s athletic performance is another concern. Studies by Purina and others have shown than a dog with food in its gut runs slower, is less agile, and has less stamina than one hunting on an empty stomach. Run a marathon after gobbling a pizza, and you’ll get the idea.

Another good reason: the gut is not using the body’s finite amount of energy to digest food when it could be fueling active muscles that are chasing birds.

  1. During the hunt

No guilt trips here, because your dog’s metabolism is unlike yours. Sending your dog into the field without breakfast will have no ill effects. Unless he’s got other health problems, he won’t develop “low blood sugar,” which is really called “hunting dog hypoglycemia.” The symptoms are disorientation, weakness, and, in some cases, seizures taking place generally after one or two hours of vigorous exercise and usually avoidable by limiting feeding in the morning, and offering protein during the hunt.

Because dogs get their version of instant energy from fat, if you can’t resist giving Gunner something during the hunt, offer a high-fat snack that won’t fill his belly (minimizing the risk of stomach twist). You can make your own, or simply offer him the innards of your sandwich. The problem is, even the greasiest corned-beef sandwich only has 19% fat. (If you’re reading this, you know there is a much better solution – my Dog Energy Bar.) The key is low volume, high fat to keep the belly as empty as possible.

Of course, you can’t go wrong with offering water frequently – it keeps a dog cool as well as hydrated, facilitating blood flow to the muscles where it replenishes red cells and maximizes stamina. Make life simple on both of you by carrying a bota (wine skin) or the modern equivalent. Teach your dog to drink from it just like you, so there is no need to drag a bowl or sacrifice your hat as a substitute.

  1. After the hunt

What dog food brand you feed, I’ll leave to those who inhabit the online chat rooms. It’s the other stuff you put in your dog’s belly at the end of the day that might be the difference between a boot-polisher and a superstar the next day.

A number of studies (on sled dogs and bird dogs) and some long discussions with research vets and field trialers have convinced me that what you do at the end of the hunt day is critical if you want maximum performance from your dog the next day, and the next.

Unlike during the hunt when fat is critical, your objective at the end of the day is to give your dog’s muscles the cell-repairing glycogen (a carbohydrate) they need. Done right, research shows your dog’s muscle cells can achieve up to a 95% recovery rate overnight. Based on current science and practical experience, here’s a strategy:

  1. Immediately after your dog is done hunting (within 15 minutes) provide water mixed with maltodextrin (see package directions for dosage). Maltodextrin is a tasteless white powder (a derivative of corn) that a dog’s body converts to glycogen. One brand I like is “Glycocharge.” It’s liver flavored and quite palatable to a dog, I’m told – no, I didn’t taste-test it!
  2. Do not add it to food. The fat in dog food inhibits the uptake of the nutrients in the maltodextrin. Waiting to feed also minimizes risk of stomach twist.
  3. Feed your regular dog food 90 minutes after the water/maltodextrin is ingested.
  4. I’ll feed another dog-food snack just before bed to make up for some of the calorie loss from skipping breakfast. That gives a dog a good eight hours to process a bellyful and as you know well, empty the leftovers first thing in the morning. He’s ready to go without extra “baggage.”
  5. Want a superstar on four legs the next day? Bed him down in a warm crate on a thick, soft mattress or plenty of grass hay that prevents bones and joints from contact with hard surfaces. How would you hunt if you slept on the floor the night before?

CAUTION: Unlike humans, dogs shouldn’t “carbo load.” High-carbohydrate diets can contribute to a condition called “exertional rhabdomyolysis,” or “tying up,” which causes muscle pain and cramping, watery stool and dehydration. Feed a dog food that is “complete and balanced,” little if any junk food, and you shouldn’t have that problem.

Do you have more questions about the Dog Energy Bar? Nutrition information, how it works, and why, are all available at www.dogenergybar.com.

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Hard to get mad at him. It’s probably “operator error.”

At the time, I thought it was a red herring … an excuse … a pro trainer’s nomenclature to make us feel um, well, less professional than them. But time and time again, I am reminded (and often humbled) that “place learning” is, as Millennials say, now a thing. Probably has been forever, if you harken back to your own training experience. Are you familiar with the term?

The basic concept: A dog learns a command on the training table. Give the same command on the ground, or in a different yard, or another time zone, and it may have been given in a foreign language. I’m a slow learner, but eventually I do learn that you may have to start over, or at least backpedal a bit. Maybe you, too, have learned this from the cruel mistress of experience.

More so (in my experience) in the agility, obedience, Schutzhund and other non-hunting dog worlds, it’s one reason trainers recommend a dog be trained in so many different places. The number varies, but the concept is sound: a dog associates the command with the location. Only by “re-training” it in other spots does he finally, accurately, do what you want no matter the “place.”

For many it’s the best reason to send their dogs to a prairie “summer camp.” Or, a pro trainer. Or, to attend training days. Anyplace (else) is better than the same-old, same-old.

I was jarred into remembering this simple concept again today – maybe I need to practice dog handling in more locations! Flick is a rock star, steady to wing-shot-fall anywhere within 100 yards of his training yard. Our yard adjoins public ground, where we train a lot. For steadiness, Flick’s “bailiwick of excellence” is about a football-field’s length from my back fence. There are trails and abandoned dirt roads clearly defining that space, but I didn’t believe it was as obvious to him until an experiment today.

Having learned the hard way in recent days, I planted one pigeon within the zone of compliance. Result: as expected, a textbook point through the downed bird … even a bonus retrieve to hand. Chest puffed and head held high, I hied him across the old road where I secreted another bird in a shrub. Flick worked into the scent cone, crossing the dirt track, from familiar territory into the danger zone. The point lasted all of a few seconds and then all hell broke loose. The only good news was, Flick didn’t catch the bird.

So we weren’t set back to Square One. But we are starting again at about Square Three … checkcord and half-hitch, stage-managed so yours truly is always holding or stepping on it to ensure compliance. I can’t be lazy and plant birds at my convenience – longer walks are the order of the day – but with luck Flick will remember most of his training when he’s in new territory.

So next time it seems like your dog has been replaced by an evil twin, don’t necessarily blame him. Blame your location.

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