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I have a confession to make. I am not a gun geek. To me, they are tools. I live for bird dogs, so if it’s history, heritage, performance or aesthetics, that’s where I make the emotional and financial investment.

That said, guns are an integral part of my chasing-after-dogs-and-birds life. If after a tail-stiffening point, I don’t shoot a cackling pheasant as it towers skyward, I’m disappointed and my dogs are devastated. Guns are the ticket to a wild ride that gets better every day.

Shotguns become currency in my world, and while not at the level of Bill Gates, I am lucky enough to be able to give some away in hopes of cultivating the love of hunting in others. My first “real” gun went to a down-on-his-luck printing press operator whose only firearm had finally shaken to pieces. When we next talked hunting, his downcast eyes said it all: it was over for him. I hope he’s still jump-shooting ducks off that river we both love, with the shotgun that had gathered dust in my safe.

My brother was a reluctant co-star on one of my TV show episodes and at the end of that day, I gifted him the over-under he’d borrowed. Thousands of sporting clays rounds, my first pheasant, and two loyal dogs were like deep scratches on the stock of that sleek American-made beauty … memories that will never be erased. We will reunite next fall in the field, is my promise to my brother and that shotgun.

At a shooting clinic, a young high schooler was missing more than hitting, surprising for a “natural,” as I’d been told. She was trying hard to learn from a master, shoot better and represent her school proudly, but was hampered by an ill-fitting and malfunctioning shotgun. I lost sleep that night, thinking about her long soul-searching drive home, the after-action report to her coach and teammates, and her slackened hopes for competition in the coming school year.

I sent her one of mine. An elegant Italian over-under that deserved better than I could ever offer. Intricate engraving, the lines of a sports car, I hope it served her well; asked her to pay it forward when she got her next one and give it away – again.

Shotguns from television sponsors have become prizes in my ongoing effort to recruit newcomers to our sport. Often, they’re lent to youngsters on their first hunt. Each helped tell a story, about mothers and sons, rekindled childhood memories, of brothers and friends, teens and middle-aged beginners. I’m hoping those firearms are helping create life-long hunters and conservationists – who then recruit their own new hunters.

I have visitation rights to the only shotgun that I might regret having given away: a Spanish side-by-side that served me well for almost a decade. Functional like a Ford F-150, no bells or whistles it was built by craftsman to be “workmanlike.” I carried it up countless draws in chukar country, dinged it chasing quail, Huns, pheasants and ducks. It suffered indignity after indignity, including a failed attempt to learn to shoot left-handed when a friend and I bent the stock.

Light and whippy, it was the gun I learned to really shoot with, one lesson tallied 1,000 rounds in a day. I hit more than I missed that day, and was indebted to that sublime example of Basque metalworking for many birds pointed, then retrieved, by four different dogs.

But I’d moved on, was using “better” guns by the time my hunting buddy asked about it while we caught our breath on a desolate mountain top. Sure, it was in the truck. It was the third string on that hunt, should my two “good” guns fail. The look in his eye, the longing he had for a gun that had been his companion as much as mine in those scabby hills, well, that said it all. And he was left-handed.

Twice a season, we meet again on some scabby piece of the West. I re-acquaint myself with that example of simple elegance, usually as the gun, me, and my friend are huffing and puffing up another volcanic slope in pursuit of chukars. He shoots it much better than I ever did, which I guess is proof it is now in the hands of its rightful owner.

Taking good care of my guns, even if they’re only a means to an end, makes sense. They are then ready, willing, and able to serve their higher purpose: helping others in their own pursuit of birds and beautiful places in the company of good friends and family.

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Use it or lose it. A follower pointed this out recently, as yet another reason to spend time and effort exploring those private lands enrolled in states’ walk-in hunting access programs. But there are plenty more, including price (free), availability (millions of acres), habitat (some good, some not), and sometimes, less competition from others than on “public” land.
Those topics will have to wait, because this essay is about exploiting these treasure-troves to ensure your success. Here are ten tips on making the most of “walk-in” land.
1. Plan ahead. Most states publish hard copy booklets and online versions of their maps in about August, once all the rental deals with land owners are consummated. Google “walk-in hunting (state)” and you’ll likely find the page.
2. Many states publish updates as the season opens, so double-check.
3. Spend considerable time studying those maps in relation to your potential “home base.” You might consider choosing your HQ based on the concentration of walk-in areas. Study Google Earth too, for a better feel for the lay of the land, terrain, crops and cover.
4. Call the state agency that administers the walk-in program and talk with the local biologist in your chosen area. They might clue you in to the better areas, time of year to hunt each, and current conditions (burns, harvest, snow cover).
5. Scout early, if you can. Nothing beats boots on the ground. I’ve avoided flooded fields and unharvested crops (access prohibited until completed) simply by driving past some areas the day prior. Seek out alternate parking areas unless restricted.
6. Pick nearby alternate areas. If someone beats you to the area you have somewhere else to go. One spot doesn’t play out, go to the next. More time hunting, less time driving.
7. Phone the landowner or sign in as required. In some states, that’s how they are compensated for use of their land.
8. Start your hunt close to the edges. Often, crops are adjacent and game birds will likely spend some time there. You might ambush them coming or going. If you bust birds, they will more than likely fly into your hunting area, not out.
9. Be mindful of ammo restrictions. Sometimes, you’re hunting waterfowl country and may need non-toxic shot.
10. Choose the road less traveled. Find the marginal cover – most hunters won’t bother working that hard. Thickets, tree rows, lighter cover, swampy stuff … birds are often pushed into that stuff by other hunters.
11. Go later in the day and season. Most hunters are home by early afternoon – and once the snow flies. The golden hours prior to sunset can be very productive. Give covey birds time to re-gather for the night, or you may not find any next season.
Privately-owned open-to-the-public real estate is a big part of the land inventory hunters enjoy. The bureaucrats who administer it track usage, and make many of their decisions based on it. Take advantage, be respectful, be safe, and good luck!
When you go:
  • Take that hard copy of the hunting atlas just in case you don’t have cell service.
  • Fill up your gas tank at every chance. Don’t ask why I know how important this is.
  • Order your dog food here – you may not be able to find it in a small, rural town.
  • Get the OnX chip for the U.S. or your chosen state.

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I became a bird hunter because I watched my first wirehair work a field, putting up a pheasant hen after a solid point. I’d never owned a gun before, but decided if he would do that for me, the least I could do is shoot the bird for him. Little did I know that was the start of a (late) life-long series of dazzling performances by a series of magical dogs I was privileged to observe. Lucky for me, the relationship continues, and the awe I felt from that first point returns every time I send a dog into the field.

Any excuse for sharing time with a dog is legitimate. But for me, it is clear: we become a team linked by DNA, a modern version of a prehistoric wolf pack coursing the uplands for sustenance – literal and emotional.

In the digital age we pretend to communicate with gadgets. The talking we do at each other via smartphone is shallow, ephemeral and self-centered. Contrast that with the deep genetic link between hunters. Words are unnecessary when instinct guides predators linked by common purpose.

I’m honored when my dogs invite me to share this primitive thrill, accepting me as equal, calling on the most basic of instincts to feed our pack and sustain our souls. We are one, thinking and acting as a single being with a single goal, to find prey. The act is violent and primitive, ugly and beautiful, the most complicated transaction in the universe: lives taking life to sustain life.

Neither of us will starve if we aren’t successful in the common definition of the term. The size of our bag is a sidebar to a bigger story: flow of adrenaline, deep passion, panting and slobber, the tang of sage and if we are lucky, the coppery smell of blood.

Our dogs tolerate human missteps and bad shots. They put up with poor noses and slow, creaky joints in their human packmate. At the end of the day they ask little except a warm place to sleep near their hunting companion, forgiving missed shots and misplaced anger.

We should be flattered.

[Why do you hunt? Comment below, or better yet drop me a note here to be on an upcoming Upland Nation podcast on the topic.]

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

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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!

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