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Posts Tagged ‘chukar hunting’

I’m on the left. The ones on the right deserve all the credit … or dog treats.

Time to address the 800-pound gorilla once and for all. Please bear with me while I drill down on an issue important to all of us: where we hunt on Wingshooting USA. Thanks for reading the entire essay before commenting. Shouldn’t take but five minutes, once you find your reading glasses 🙂

I hunt over 30 days per year on public land, walk-in areas, etc. for wild birds. On private ground, another 20 or so. Add in the places we go to make the TV show and you’ve got another 20 or so, about half wild and half liberated/early release/pen raised birds. Given the chance, you might do much the same. Why?

Because if I’m to believe what you tell me in the annual Upland Index survey, it’s all about the dog work. All other things being equal (including hard-flying birds no matter where the eggs came from), we live for a quivering, tail-stiffening point or hard flush by a perky spaniel. Incredible scenery, excitement, and camaraderie are right up there, but hands-down …

… it’s about the dog.

So, no birds, no TV show. If you tell us you’re willing to watch 21-1/2 minutes of guys walking around not shooting at birds, with all due respect, you’re a liar. I won’t insult your intelligence. I’ll take the financial hit and pay for more days in the field in hopes of finding a few birds.

Yep, I’m a lucky S.O.B. Wined and dined, guided and shown the good spots at world-class lodges. And some, not-so-world class. But they are a part of our sport, and deriding “white collar” hunts simply because you can’t/won’t go is a reflection of your worldview, not the people who go there. “Those people,” whomever they are, have more in common with us than they don’t have. (I know, there are exceptions, and I’ve shared a table or two with them! It explains my fondness for Scotch.)

But who among us doesn’t relish the dazzling display of a fired-up four-legged hunter living his dream? It’s not the thread count on the lodge’s sheets that defines our passion.

That said, here are some harsh realities of TV hunting:

TV is like sausage. If you like it, don’t watch it being made – or paid for.

Time is money: I choose the best camera operators because you deserve it. Watch all the bird hunting shows and decide for yourself, but I think it’s worth it to have two shooters who understand what we’re there for: your benefit. Excellent camera angles, lots of dog-level footage, drone shots … and a lot of other things my guys do that others don’t. I’m happy to send them a big check at the end of a trip.

My crew is paid by the day, whether they’re hunting, driving, flying, watching the rain fall. The longer we have to hunt, the more expensive that episode becomes. Others may do it differently, but you can probably see the difference when you watch. You are worth the extra expense.

Knowing there are birds, even if I can’t hit them, is a producer’s security blanket. You may not see many retrieves when I shoot, but you’ll be able to watch the dogs.

As producer, I pay for all that other stuff, too: flights, meals, lodging enroute, editors, rental cars, background music, fuel, advertising sales trips, the other editors who make the commercial spots, even the voice talent in those spots! Ditto for social media, sportsmen’s show booths, writing, promotion, office rent, etc. Nobody (except me) works for free.

I am glad to reach for my wallet, because the talent of all those folks is what gets Wingshooting USA on the big networks and into your home. No matter who your daddy is, you can’t simply write a check and be on Discovery, NBC Sports, Destination America or the other major networks. The bigger the network, the stricter their production standards, or all those other guys would be there.

Then I gotta buy the air time on the networks … in advance … hoping to find sponsors who send enough checks to cover my overhead and maybe chip in a little profit for my 401K. Nobody gets rich in our cottage industry, and two out of three years are break-even or worse. Many producers have taken out second mortgages, cashed in pensions, quit their day jobs, burned through their inheritance, bought a jacked-up truck, put their logo on it, and failed.

(Mythbuster: there are very few producers who actually get paid by the outdoors networks any more. I was lucky enough to be one of them early in my career, but that model evaporated when network boards were re-populated by bean counters and lawyers instead of sportsmen.)

Enough pathos. Wouldn’t you rather watch great (and even my not-great) dogs finding birds?

This is the place.

Beautiful, eh? Take a number and pull out your wallet if you want to shoot here.

Red tape. What is your impression of your motor vehicles department? Post office? That’s what we’re up against trying to make a show on public land. To hunt where the birds are on Bureau of Land Management, National Parks, and most state-owned land I must buy a permit.

Ironic, isn’t it? I gotta pay to hunt on land owned by you and me … if someone with a camera is walking alongside me. And it’s not cheap. On a recent shoot, for me and two cameras (no tripods – that’s extra) the daily cost of a permit was the same as George Lucas would pay to shoot the next Star Wars installment. On a recent shoot, I spent 37 hours working on the permit. When I was making a fly fishing show, the bureaucrat wanted me to put an “X” on every spot we might set up and make a few casts … on a 20-mile float trip. What’s your time worth?

And if you think the post office is slow, try this: sometimes, the bureaucrats who hold your financial fate in their hands often wait until you’re on the plane (and my well-paid camera operators are on their second drink!) before they actually issue the permit. Is that how you’d expect someone to treat paying customers like you?

Does every TV show follow the rules and get permits? Not my problem. I do, so most of Wingshooting USA’s episodes will be on private ground.

Hey, I’m just like you. Long for wild places. Crave the challenges of finding wild birds. Can’t hit the broad side of a barn with a 10-gauge semi-auto with the plug pulled out. Love the dogs even more. I’ll wager you do, too.

I’m not asking for your sympathy – I’m a big boy, and understand the risks. I’m just asking you to look at the whole picture.

And enjoy the dog work.

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This is Manny, in a long-ago image combining the Smiths’ “half hitch” with Bob Farris’ “belly hitch.”

I’m working pretty hard on steadiness with Flick. Here, that means hitting the scent cone and slamming on the brakes, holding through the flush, shot and fall. Maybe you are faced with some of the same challenges on that one!

But another dimension of steadiness is “sight pointing.” Derided by some as cheating by a dog that should have whiffed bird scent prior to seeing the bird, it is a fact of hunting life. A dog can approach from upwind, birds can run from cover, and here in chukar country they can be seen skylined on a ridgetop, skitter across a rock field, or otherwise vex a dog. And that’s not counting the valley quail perched on a fencepost for all the world (and Flick) to see. Eventually, Flick will also screech to a halt on the sound of a flush – I hope!

It’s pretty simple: you either expect nothing from your dog and he chases/flushes them wild; or, you want the same performance as if he’d scented the bird/covey. I prefer the latter. We get more shots, the process is virtually the same for the dog so he gets the same reward, it’s safer, and if there are more birds around they aren’t accidentally flushed.

Easy to say, hard to train.

I am spending a lot of time secreting birds in my vest and surprising Flick with them as he roams the yard and field. It’s not the same as rounding a corner and finding one pecking on the ground, but it’s a start. A stop-to-sight is rewarded with a “flush” and a retrieve of the dead bird I also hide in my vest. A few good versions, and next time I put the bird on the ground after the “point.” Sometimes, when I’m confident of his steadiness I will dizzy a bird and let it waddle around a bit until it gains its senses and flies off. Next is anchoring birds out of sight, then bringing Flick around a corner to see them and lock up.

We are making progress – are you doing anything like this?

The peaks are often accompanied by a valley or two – Flick will crash in on the unsuspecting bird and we head back immediately to Square One: on the training table, belly hitch/checkcord are my retrograde training tactics for steadiness. I am a real believer in the flank-pressure method pioneered by Delmar Smith and taken to the next level by son Rick and nephew Ronnie. (Bob Farris has a more “portable” version, illustrated above, that has a detachable dragging cord if you like, but it’s only effective if you’ve already used the cord and the Smith’s “whoa post” method with the cord through the dog’s back legs to the post.)

Ronnie recently explained some basics about pressure/contact/”Silent Command” that resonate (hope I get them right – if not, someone please comment): neck pressure is used to get a dog to move, go forward, change direction … all motion-inducing commands. Flank pressure is to stop a dog, or keep him still once stopped.

The revelation is, a checkcord going to the collar will certainly yank a dog if he breaks a point. But it will not really have a lasting effect. E-collar on the neck, ditto, which is why you often seen field trialers’s photos (especially) of a collar on the dog’s waist. Per Rick and Ronnie, “stop” comes with flank pressure: half-hitch, e-collar, even a hand tap.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Yep, right about here.

Yep, right about here.

Having one leg longer than the other is said to help you when chukar hunting. You’re often side-hilling a steep incline, the ground covered with loose rock. You’ve burned lungs and legs getting there, because the devil birds run up the hill, then fly down again. So you must as well.

The covey scrambled up a gully after watering in the trickle of creek at the bottom of the draw. We hadn’t seen enough to take a pass on this bunch, so up I went.

When the birds blew like a party popper at midnight, I was still trying to find a place for my left foot. As they scattered  above me, I spun on my right foot (conveniently perched on a round-bottomed rock) and pointed toward the lead bird, with hope propelling my gun mount.

As you probably guessed, recoil, rock and gravity combined. But as I went ass-over-teakettle I saw the bird stutter, spin, tower up, then drop straight down. By the time I scraped the gravel off my face, Buddy was back with the trophy, gently dropping it at my feet.

That was my best shot – the most memorable, to date at least. What was yours? Or your strangest, luckiest, funniest outcome … you do have one, don’t you?

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More of this please ...

More of this please …

The traditional version comes at the wrong time of year. We are putting things away and reminiscing about past months when we are encouraged to reveal our hopes for the coming 12 months. Thanksgiving, Christmas, then poof! There they are, at the bitter end of our favorite time of year.

Instead, my resolution is to make resolutions for our “new year,” Opening Day. Record my dreams and dreads wrapped in blaze orange and dog hair in the weeks leading up to the fresh season. They started on closing day and marinated until the opener was an actual, real date on the new calendar circled in red. Then, aspirations for shooting, desires for favorite coverts and of course, miracles for our dogs are voiced over beers (or in our heads).

Mine? Trivial, some might say. Steadiness from Manny on covey flushes. Stamina from 10-year-old Buddy. New places and friends in the field. Some green among the thousands of acres of ash and soot here in the West. And hope, for a safe season, strong legs, happy dogs.

What are yours?

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Up here, a saved step or two is worth thinking about.

On this morning’s training walk with Manny, I was reminded of the importance of how we choose our steps … and why. Hope you find something useful here:

“Walk This Way” is more than an iconic rock tune (the original version by Aerosmith, whose lead singer Steven Tyler, by the way, has been a bird hunter in the past.) Ambulating with some care husbands your precious energy and maybe save a trip to the emergency room. Where I hunt, in the darkest spot in the lower 48, both of those are good enough reasons to think before I step.

It starts with minimizing the strain on your thigh and calf muscles by stepping over, not on top of, obstacles such as logs and rocks. Each upward stride is like climbing stairs, taxing some of the largest muscles in your body and lifting virtually your entire body’s weight each time you summit a downed tree.

If you must negotiate a boulder field or rocky slope, you’re safer stepping to the low spots. You have less chance of twisting an ankle or breaking a femur because you’re carefully, deliberately putting your feet where they’d go the hard way in a mishap. And by not “topping” rocks, whether they’re securely anchored or loose as bowling balls is immaterial to your delicate bones and joints.

On steep uphills, say in chukar country, conserve energy with the slight rest your muscles get as you lock your knee at the apex of each step. Your legs’ skeletal structure supports your body weight for a microsecond, giving oxygen-rich blood a chance to flow back into relaxed muscle tissue. And for some reason I tend to stomp on each uphill step, adding injury to the insult of taunting chukars mere yards uphill from me. If you do too, step lightly instead.

A long day weaving among the trees and shrubs will seem shorter if you weave less. Even if it seems a bit out of the way, walking in longer straight shots with fewer twists and turns, alleviates stress on hip and knee joints and the muscles that activate them. Over the course of a 10-mile hunt, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the absence of pain.

Finally, the U.S. Army has convinced me that shortening your stride just a few inches is wise.  Among recruits, it protects against hip and pelvic injuries. For we hunting civilians, too. Here’s a bonus: on crusted snow, you may find yourself “postholing” less.

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Petroglyphs up there - one of the lessons to learn.

Petroglyphs up there – one of the lessons to learn.

In another life I must have been an historian. I love the past, reading about it, talking about it, and especially the dazzle of discovery. Besides being with dogs, the chance to span the decades (even centuries) is high on my list of reasons to go hunting. Cresting a ridge to find everyday stuff lost or discarded by those who walked the same path brings dusty books and mind-numbing lectures to life.

I’ve stumbled over sheepherder stoves and peeked (not too far) into abandoned gold mines, camped in willow corrals and counted bullet holes in a Buick abandoned after a foiled bank robbery. Man-made artifacts, each with a tale to tell those lucky enough to walk a bit farther.

A ranch driveway bears a faded sales pitch for an insurance agent, painted on a boulder when the rutted gravel was the only road into town. Pictographs and petroglyphs are a regular discovery in the tumbles of lava that define chukar country. Rock cairns called “stoneboys” by Basque sheepherders, were piled to counter the boredom of minding a flock. Stories from different ages, for differing reasons.

Wagon wheels, lead-soldered cans piled among shattered crockery, square nails from abandoned homesteads, all tie this life to past lives. Everyday junk joins us to predecessors.

Why did someone leave that wooden bucket on this ridge? Who knapped arrowheads, leaving a pile of obsidian chips glittering at the base of this rock? Was that intact spear point dropped in the heat of a chase? A clean miss? What – or who – was the target?

That’s why I love this stuff, the stories. Do you have any?

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Double on Huns ... now that's an indelible memory, boots or not.

Double on Montana Huns … now that’s an indelible memory, boots or not.

I don’t know what you have on your end-of-season to do list, but it seems like mine gets longer every year. One of the topmost chores is saddle-soaping my hunting boots. Today was the first spring-like day here: blue skies, last week’s rain rising from the ground to weight the atmosphere, and a blazing sun … ideal boot cleaning conditions.

With brush, water, saddle soap arrayed on the porch, out marched the footwear, pair after pair after muddy pair lined up like so many recruits awaiting their first day of basic training. Scrub, wipe, array in the sunshine to dry … assuringly familiar, this routine, a note of finality with each pair dispatched.

The tall boots rekindled memories of a hell-bent stream crossing after valley quail, alone but for my dogs. The mountaineering boots proudly wore scars from jagged lava rock, abrasions suffered in pursuit of chukars with a college chum. A cushy, “civilized” pair were worn only once this season, on a memorable bobwhite hunt with some real Yankees from Vermont, quite at home in Alabama, also quite genteel. Each boot brought another memory bubbling up from the subconscious, as vivid as the video footage you’ll eventually see on the show.

Last week, gun cleaning. This week, boot cleaning. Next week, I’m sure something else will find it’s way onto the list. Until then, I’ll pour another cup of coffee and relive my time in the hills and prairies, reminiscences now written onto the soles of each boot.

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