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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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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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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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Just finished a fun interview for the Project Upland podcast. Enjoyed every minute because host Nick Larson let me spout off on multiple subjects at length! Cheaper than therapy, podcasts may be the new Primal Scream.

One topic we discussed and I’ve done speeches on before is (as I’ve been told) a little politically incorrect. But now that “R3” is all the rage (recruit, retain, re-activate) and we are trying to save our sport it deserves more attention, again. I won’t go into the reasons we should be boosting hunter numbers – that’s a subject for another day. But who we recruit deserves scrutiny.

I’m not against trying to turn urban dwellers, youth, Millennials, minorities, women, single-parent households or anyone else into hunters. More power to those making that effort. Every dollar they spend on gear begets excise taxes that pay for habitat and wildlife management. Good on ’em.

But sheesh, folks, the lowest-hanging fruit is ready to drop on our unsuspecting heads like Newton’s apple: people just like us.

Think about the barriers to hunting that every outlying demographic has: tough to get to hunting areas, lack of disposable income, little free time, prevalent anti-gun/anti hunting culture, no dog, little knowledge and nobody to introduce let alone sustain a pro-hunting effort with them – a “coach.” Imagine trying to drag a Millennial from his parents’ basement, confiscate his phone, put a gun in his hands, make him walk ten miles and kill something. The odds are not in your favor, are they?

Instead, think about your neighbor, co-worker, the guy who sits next to you in church, a fellow Rotarian.

Same values, similar age and income, more free time (empty nest), and as your friend he’s (she’s) interested in many of the same things you are. For all I know, he’s asked about your hunting trips, your dog, what quail tastes like.

Bada boom, bada bing.

Take the hints. Offer a hunting trip (or an observational opportunity sans shooting). You’ve got the dog, the gun, the ammo, the spot. You two already get along. Chat about all the things you have in common on the drive, plus safety, how dogs work, what to expect, how you’ll cook anything you actually hit.

What are you waiting for?

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