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Like a phoenix, chukars rose from the ashes

Like a phoenix, chukars rose from the ashes

As I huffed and puffed my way to the top of a lone, rocky butte in northern Nevada, my wirehair Manny slammed a point. Tail quivering, nostrils flaring, his bugged-out eyes followed my move to the base of a lava outcropping where a cloud of valley quail scattered in all directions.

It wasn’t what I was expecting – this was chukar country after all – but most surprising wasn’t the species that flushed, but the fact that the entire butte, excepting those giant volcanic boulders, was cloaked in two feet of snow.

It was the most recent lesson involving unlikely habitats, many we simply drive past, written off for one reason or another. Whether it’s “natural” disaster, weather, or even past experience that crosses spots off our list, maybe it’s time to re-think our tried-and-true rules. Here are five examples:

I opened the season in my go-to canyon. Unfortunately, a devastating prairie fire had blackened the walls from the summit to the slim band of riparian area on each side of a gurgling stream. When I couldn’t find Manny, I pulled out the GPS. Before I could hit the “dog” button, chukars rattled their way through the streamside willow thicket, rocketing downstream. One fell to my snap shot, cuing another covey to launch from the next bend upstream. Fortunately, the slow learner in that bunch came my way, and soon Manny was delivering both to hand.

A 100-year-old hardwood shelterbelt in northeast South Dakota resembled a Louisiana bayou, four inches of water covering the rich black soil. But that’s where the dogs found every ringneck – splashing ahead of the Labs, battling the gnarled branches as their wake subsided. With nowhere else to hide, they were willing to risk wet feet rather than the hordes of orange-clad pursuers in the adjacent fields.

Deep in a Nevada range we slogged our way across a bleak, featureless snowfield toward the next draw. That small fold in the landscape offered protection from the howling wind, some bare ground, and we hoped, some chukars. Before we could get 25 yards into the football-field-sized expanse, a covey ran across what would have been the 50-yard line, well ahead of our dogs and our guns. We found others in similar locations, hunkered on a foot of snow they couldn’t possibly scratch through for feed.

A drenching rain forced us to shelter under an overhanging cliff in southeast Oregon. Dave’s pocket rocket Missy (half beagle/half Lab) didn’t cotton to our wimpiness, continuing to course the muddy slope below us in the maelstrom until chukars burst into the air. The stunted sage offered no shelter from the storm for them … were they traveling to better digs?

We once slogged our way up a desert canyon gray with ash from a range fire. Only the crated dogs’ frantic behavior clued us in to the chukars scattering like, well, ashes in the wind. We were out of the truck in record time, dogs so scent-drunk it was more like a Keystone Kops episode than a hunt. Only when the dogs were finally corralled could we kneel to find the tiny green shoots of cheatgrass thriving in the nitrogen-rich soil. That’s what was in the crop of every bird we shot.

Every season, I add another example to my mental checklist of upland birds and habitat anomalies. I well remember sitting in a crossroads bar as the old timer in all seriousness muttered “birds are where you find them,” chuckling to myself at his naïveté’. That well-worn boot is now on the other foot.

I guess this little story could be boiled down to a few simple lessons:

1. All birds won’t leave an area unless conditions are dire – epic fire, drought, man-made disturbance, overgrazing.
2. If there’s food, water, or roosting cover at some point, there is also a chance birds will visit, at least temporarily.
3. Hunting or predator pressure will sometimes drive birds to territory they would normally shirk.
4. In early season, water trumps almost every other factor. Find a stream, stock tank or pond and it can become a bird magnet when temperatures skyrocket.

Think hard and long enough, and I’ll bet you can recall a similar experience. The pro guides, local yokels, books, videos and seminars will put you in the right place 90 percent of the time. But that other ten percent? Those birds are where you find them.

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Want to get up here? Start working on it now.

Want to get up here? Start working on it now.

By my calculations, it’s only about 120 days until we can start chasing birds again. With the opener come all the joys and trepidation 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. Some has to wait until the night before, but some you can start working on now.

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. Now is the time to learn your way around your stuff. Then, you’ll be shooting the gun you shoot best, even if you bought a new one in the off season. Get to know that spare shotgun, too. New boots? Break them in now, when you have plenty of time to dial in your new stuff. On that first day you want to feel comfortable literally and figuratively. Ditto for the new e-collar or GPS, figure out all the bells and whistles now, so you can manipulate those buttons with your eyes closed.

Place: Who doesn’t love new hunting spots? The joy of discovery is addicting. But to start the season on the right foot, start doing your homework now. Often, it’s best to start the season hunting a spot you know. You will be more confident (read: shoot straighter) and you’ll have a better chance of finding birds (read: happy dog). If you simply can’t resist the siren song of a new covert, do your research, talk to the regional biologist now, when he is a little less harried, and hang that topo map on your office wall to study. Now’s the time to secure permission to hunt private property or “open to hunt” lands.

People: You might have an opening weekend tradition – I do. I invite the right hunting partner – the one who helps buy fuel and brings a spectacular lunch. He guns while I handle the dog if necessary, holding off when I’m working on steady to wing and shot. He knows not to shoot bumped birds. But the selection process takes a while and might be done best with some “practice” during dog training season.

Dogs: No baseball player skips spring training. No football player shirks the weight room. Neither should your dog (or you, for that matter). Make a list of what you want to fix from last season, setting both training and fitness goals. “If you’re dog’s fat, you need more exercise” is an apt cliché, not matter how hard you plan to hunt. Fit hunters handle opening day heat better, can hunt longer and more efficiently. Oh, so can your dog. Mobilize some buddies and meet weekly to work on pointing, retrieving, 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.

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From neutering to roughhousing with your pup, you've got questions and I've got answers.

From neutering to roughhousing with your pup, you’ve got questions and I’ve got answers.

Thanks! I think I learn as much as you do when we talk via Facebook, Twitter, or when you ask questions on your contest entry at wingshootingusa.org so many of your questions are universal, everyone faces the same challenges at some point in their life with dogs and bird hunting. Maybe you’ll save yourself – and your dog – some headaches by reading these.

Q: I have a GWP puppy that loves water. She runs down to the lake every chance she gets. Splashes around, drinks her fill, wades into her chest, but will not swim. I have tossed bumpers, balls and toys etc., but she just jumps around and barks.

A: Try real birds and get ready for one motivated swimmer.

Q: At what age is it the best time to spay or neuter your dog?

A: Most research suggests you wait anywhere from six months to 18 months, to ensure the hormones “down there” have a chance to work their magic on a dog’s body.

Q: What is the best method to convince your children to not undo your dog’s training? Every bit of progress seems to be undone, for instance, by the kid’s uncontrollable urge to play tug of war with the dog, etc.

A: Train your kids too. Get them to help in your training and it might have more relevance to them. They’ll have to deal with their misdeeds.

Q: Is it easier for a dog to understand two commands “sit” and “stay” or is it easier to teach a single command for sit and stay by just saying sit or in spaniel circles hup?

A: I like to keep it simple. A dog should obey the command until released or given another command. When he “sits,” he sits, until told to do something else.

Q: Scott, I live in the big city and own a young GSP. What do you think is the best way for me to keep my dog in shape for hunting? Not only physically but also her bird finding skills?

A: Running alongside your bike (attached via a rig like the “Springer”) would be good for physical conditioning. Even a small backyard can be used for fundamental bird contact, especially combined with a long drive once a week to a spot where you can let your dog stretch out and find birds in a more natural setting.

Q: Is it OK to “rough house” with my dog while playing with him or does that hurt his discipline?

A: I do it occasionally, but not as often as I used to. I’m becoming a believer in “pecking order,” and that requires discipline on the human’s part as well as the dog’s. A dog that learns he can “play fight” with you is one step away from jockeying for the position of top dog.

Q: What are your thoughts on hybrid breeds? I have hunted with a lodge that breeds the GSP to Labs. The result is a leaner, faster retriever, and one that will point and or flush wild pheasants. I was hesitant to obtain one of the pups until I worked with one this early preserve season.

A: I guess if you want a dog that flushes sometimes and points other times that would be the dog for you. I prefer a dog that I can count on to do one or the other consistently.

Q: Do dogs stay on the scent of a bird better when their nose is wet?

A: Great observation. I think so. More humidity, period, helps a dog scent better (scent molecules “stick” better to vegetation and the ground). A nose that is damp collects more scent; nostrils (where dogs’ scent receptors are) that are damp are able to use more of those receptors.

Q: Is there a quality dog food that helps to limit the shedding of hair and the amount of gas that the dogs pass?

A: On the shedding question, probably not. See a veterinarian to make sure it’s not a medical condition like thyroid imbalance. On the gas question, yes. Causes are often: 1) overfeeding any ration; 2) too much fat; 3) too much protein; 4) a protein source that your dog is not able to metabolize well. Check your dog food’s nutritional content and adjust one or more of those variables.

Q: I don’t understand how you know when to shoot when the bird is far enough away after the dog flushes it. I have a feeling the dog is going to get hurt (shot).

A: Congratulations on having some awareness of the dog when shooting! As far as height, the general rule is don’t shoot a bird unless you can see daylight between the bird and the ground. As far as distance, only practice will make you comfortable with knowing “shootable” distances of 15-35 yards. So, go hunting more often.

Q: I noticed while watching the show that you place a piece of tape on the left eye of your shooting glasses. I believe it’s because your left eye is dominant and you shoot right-handed. So here is my question: Why don’t you learn to shoot left handed?

A: I’ve tried, and failed. Twice. The tape is not a perfect solution, but I don’t mind missing birds (as you have probably observed on the show).

Q: I have two Brittany’s, full brothers same litter, one will almost always lay down when backing and stand when first to point until I’m standing beside him. Then he may lie down. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but it doesn’t bother me too much as I just hunt and do not field trial. Are there any suggestions on correcting this? He is a little timid when corrected very much, but he is a hard hunter.

A: You’ve probably identified part of the problem: he’s a soft dog that fears harsh correction … maybe you came down hard on him a few times when he wasn’t steady on a bird? Maybe instead of correcting him for flushing a bird, work on praising him when he whoas for the same bird? He may staunch up if he’s feeling good about the work he does for you.

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Clarity applies to your hands as well as your voice.

Clarity applies to your hands as well as your voice.

Dogs are sort of color blind. The anatomy of their eyes is different than ours, so they see yellow and blue, but no red as we do. Why? Canine eyes have fewer cone cells than we do, according to veterinary ophthalmologists. There is an upside; dog eyes have more rod cells than our eyes, enabling a dog to see better than we do in low-light conditions.

Those same sort-of color-blind eyes are superior in another way: they are built to detect moving objects more quickly than static ones. It’s logical. Moving things, prey. Motionless things, inedible. In the wild, a canid that can’t tell the difference could starve. You’ve probably seen this phenomenon at work. Dog, dozing in the yard. Squirrel, nibbling an acorn. All is quiet. Squirrel finishes his snack and scampers for a tree. Dog chases.

Knowing this, why not use motion to better communicate with your dog?

Probably by accident, I found that hailing my dogs from a distance with a raised hand was useful. But waving it back and forth got much better compliance. When I shared this revelation with a trainer friend of mine, he offered his own success story. Young dogs retrieve to hand better when that hand is opening and closing, a la’ making a fist. They power toward him as if he had a bigger bird in his hand than they did in their mouth!

Watch a retriever trainer, and you’ll probably see him throw an imaginary baseball in the direction he wants his dog to go. An eager Lab, sitting enthralled, follows his arm, does an about face, and streaks down a line behind him where a dead duck awaits his retrieve. Training a young dog to “come,” you’ll often have success if you run away from him.

Like many, when I’m training to a marked retrieve I’ll put my hand, karate-chop style, in my dog’s line of sight pointing at the dead bird. Just before I send him, I’ll give my fingers a little wiggle to make sure he’s looking straight down that line.

In the field, when I’m asking my dog to move left or right with arm signals, I’ll often start with my arm overhead, then arc it down to point in the direction I want him to go. Or, I’ll use “jazz hands” – wide open, fingers spread, and then wiggle the whole hand a bit. Sounds silly, but it works … and after all, we’re looking for clear communication between you and your dog, not an invitation to be on “Dancing with the Stars.”

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Nice photo, except for one little thing. Can you find it?

Nice photo, except for one little thing. Can you find it?

The ubiquitous mobile phone has turned everyone into a film producer or photographer. That’s a good thing, because it gives us a cornucopia of memories to share, re-live and savor. But some images and video are better than others, begging for a replay or social-media share. Let’s look at how to make yours more likely to make that category.

We’re not talkin’ art here, simply creating better snapshots or home movies. If you want to make a statement, go to film school. If you want decent shots to share with friends, read on.

  1. Fill the frame. After a few establishing shots to create a sense of scale (tiny guy at the foot of monolithic cliff), set up your shots so they are pretty much full of your subject: guy holding bird, dog with bird in mouth, two guys high fiving … leave out most of the background.
  2. Most shots are more attractive to the eye if they are a bit asymmetrical. Put the main subject just a bit to the left, right, or toward one corner up or down. Remember on point-and-shoot cameras that you’ll have to focus on your subject before you de-center it. With most, that’s done by pushing the shutter release down halfway while pointing at the subject. Often, the object being focused on is surrounded by a graphic frame in the viewfinder.
  3. Push up the hat brim. The eyes really are the window to the soul, and if they are invisible due to shadow, your photos have less personality. Ditto sunglasses.
  4. Eliminate extraneous stuff: cigarettes, soda cans, gear, people in the background, and anything that looks like it’s popping up from your subject’s head like a tree trunk or fishing rod behind him. Same for items in the foreground – I was just given a set of photos by a “pro” where a woman’s head is popping out of my belly! Hold dead birds with a bit of respect.
  5. Shoot at least one “insurance” frame – or more – just in case. Light changes, the flash works (or doesn’t), eyes blink, dogs sneeze. Back in the day in the newspaper business, we used to say film is cheap compared to re-setting the shot, but bytes are even cheaper.

Videos look more professional if you frame the action and hold the camera stock-still. A tripod, monopod, shooting stick or anchor of any kind (even against a tree trunk) is better than nothing.

Most times, avoid following your subject with the camera (or God forbid, by literally walking behind or alongside him). Let him walk into and out of the frame instead. Minimize zooms as well. If you want your subject to talk to the camera and be understandable, get close enough so the onboard microphone can actually record him. If you must “pan” or “tilt,” (move camera horizontally or vertically) make it slow.

Now, go make some magic!




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Hard-earned tips and tricks

This is about the time of year when we start making to-do lists for next season, based in large part on the goofs, gaffes, errors and omissions of last season. Maybe some of these tips will help …

Activate the remote reliably by holding so the prongs face the base of the beeper.

Activate the remote reliably by holding so the prongs face the base of the beeper.

– 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.

– Sports shows – especially on the last day – can be a bargain-hunters’ paradise, whether you’re shopping for gear or a guided trip.

– You might have better luck getting a lost dog returned to you if you change the information on his collar tag. Leave his name off – fewer bad guys are interested in stealing a dog whose name they don’t know because he will be less likely to respond to the thief’s commands. Avoid engraving “Reward,” then your phone numbers on the tag. It could encourage ransom requests. Instead, put “Requires daily medication.” Good-hearted folk will work hard to return your dog, and baddies will avoid a dog that might cost them money.

– 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.

– Chukar hunters should be loath to give up altitude. If you are finding birds at one elevation, stay there, sidehilling to cover ground. Unless there’s a good reason, don’t follow escaping birds down the hill only to have to climb it again.

– 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.

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I am grateful to everyone who has taken me hunting: friends, club members, professional guides, dog trainers, outfitters, and lodge and preserve operators. From each, I’ve heard fascinating stories, seen some incredible country, and gleaned bits and pieces of information that I now share with you.

Save his hearing! Get ahead of him before you shoot.

Save his hearing! Get ahead of him before you shoot.

Next time you are lucky enough to be invited hunting, be sure to savor the experience, not just for the birds in the bag but for the knowledge and insights you’ll have gained. Acknowledge the provider appropriately with a quid-pro-quo, something in a bottle, or a heartfelt “thank you.”

I wish I could thank everyone personally. You know who you are, and please know that I appreciate your contributions to my, and now many others’, hunting experiences.

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

– Use small bits of uncooked hot dog as your food reward when training pup. Dogs swallow them after one quick chomp so aren’t distracted from your next com

mand by noisy, crunchy chewing. They also emit quite an aroma so have long-distance reward value.

– Want another reason to approach your dog from the front? He’s not right under the muzzle blast and its deafening effect. He’ll have one less excuse for not hearing your commands.

– When training a complex command, start with the last part and add the other parts in reverse order. When you get to the beginning, it will be a downhill ride.

– 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.

– Sports shows – especially on the last day – can be a bargain-hunters’ paradise, whether you’re shopping for gear or a guided trip.

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