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Cheatgrass, foxtails ... watch for them.

Cheatgrass, foxtails … watch for them.

This is the best time of year for humans, but the worst time of year for our dogs. Maybe I’m not telling you anything new, but just in case …

Everything out there can cut, irritate, scratch or otherwise damage man’s best friend. (I remember the first porcupine encounter like it was yesterday!) Just a reminder to keep minor problems minor, and minimize major problems with a careful going-over after each outing.

Foxtails, cheatgrass and other weed seeds (“awns” is the more scientific term, I believe) are some of the worst offenders. They will get in your dog’s mouth, eyes, nose, between his toes or pads, and lodge in ears. I know someone who lost a great shorthair to an inhaled foxtail that infected a lung and went undiscovered until it was too late to save it. Any seed can burrow into the skin, migrate to internal organs and kill a dog, so teach your pet to stand for an inspection, and gradually accustom him to ear-poking, toe holding, and eyelid lifting.

Even minor cuts and scratches can become infected, so check your dog for blood, watch for persistent licking (often a sign of pain or blood), and dig deep into thick coats for a visual inspection of his skin. Foot pads, especially the accessory carpal pad (a dog’s “thumb”) are particularly prone to cuts and bumps.

Other signs something may be wrong with pup include head shaking, favoring one foot or leg, pawing at eyes or ears, and rubbing against furniture. If you observe any of these signs, take another look or head for the vet – like the commercial used to say, you can pay the vet now (cheaper) or later (cha-ching).

Hey, after all your dog’s done for you, it’s the least you can do for him.

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Ho ho ho.

Ho ho ho.

Before New Year’s Day, there’s another holiday. We hope, we wish, we make lists and check them twice, and it all culminates with the requisite gift-giving and receiving.

But as we discussed a while ago, our hunting life – and mental calendar – marches to a different drummer.  So if we’re going to make hunting-season new year’s resolutions, we might also make a “Christmas” list. It’s not very long around here, but it is full of important items …

A functional tether for my collar transmitter and GPS. Wicking underwear that doesn’t stink after a couple washings.

A good hatch. No more forest fires. Healthy dogs. Friends I haven’t met yet but will, in a diner somewhere in pheasant country. Cool weather when the dogs are on the ground,  but warm enough to hang around a campfire at night.

That’s the extent of it. What’s on your list?

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Shhhh! Results of a quieter, more observant human.

Shhhh! Results of a quieter, more observant human – and dog.

I think we all agree, the basic idea is to shoot birds over your dog’s point. But if you sound like the circus coming to town, you’ll scare away every bird in the county. Game birds may not be as spooky as whitetails (sharptailed grouse might get close), but they are still very cognizant of predators and the sounds they make. So stuff a sock in it.

I’ve snuck within inches of birds by treading more carefully and taking the jingle-jangles off the dog’s collar. Even though I own a dozen e-collars most times I’ll go unplugged. I try to ghost my way through brush, not bulldoze it down. Commands are by hand, not voice or whistle. My footfalls are those of an elk hunter, not a linebacker.

Sure, I like Monday-morning quarterbacking yesterday’s game as much as the next guy, but when my mouth is shut, my eyes seem to open wider. I enjoy more of the dog work, catch on quicker to his birdiness, savor the scenery and shoot more birds.

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Is it that first shopping trip?

Is it that first shopping trip of the season?

Hiking in the desert, of all places, it hit me when I noticed the dried leaves carpeting the sandy ground. Last fall’s remnants kindled anticipation of this fall’s hunts. Wrong leaves, wrong place, but the die was cast – I’m ready for hunting season.

What is your trigger-tripper? A training milestone? Weather change? Test season? Youth hunt?

Something pushes you over the edge, inescapably heralding the Most Important Time of Year. But do you know what it is? And if you don’t have one, you have several months to pick one.

Go.

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The reason we go

The reason we go

Protein is not the prime objective for Wingshooting USA TV viewers when they take to the uplands in search of pheasant, quail and grouse. That’s one revelation in show host Scott Linden’s fourth annual “Upland Nation Index,” a national survey of his viewers. The languishing economy might prompt big-game hunters and waterfowlers to make meat for the pot a priority; in fact, a recent more general survey identified a rising trend among hunters going afield primarily to supplement their pantries. But Linden says for upland bird hunters, food isn’t their primary objective.

“Watching my dog work” is the main reason Linden’s fans go hunting, according to his survey. With over 33 percent of Wingshooting USA viewers owning two or more dogs, that shouldn’t be surprising. And while that may be a full house for some, 28 percent of Linden’s fans are planning to buy another dog soon, say respondents.

“Being with friends and family” is the number two reason viewers hunt, being in natural surroundings ranks third, and “bringing home food” ranks dead last among choices in the Index. Speaking of priorities, Wingshooting USA TV fans live, eat and breathe shotgunning and bird dogs. When they’re not hunting, their principal free-time activities are dog training and clay target shooting (42 percent each).

Where are they going in pursuit of their passions? Forty-five percent hunt public land almost exclusively. Forty-two percent hunt private land via one of the landowner access programs or by asking permission, and the remaining 13 percent hunt primarily on preserves.

Linden’s fans are a restless lot too. Fifty-six percent plan to hunt outside their home state, with South Dakota the prime destination (25 percent of all out-of-state trips) and Kansas capturing the interest of another 17 percent.

The Upland Nation Index surveyed 1,700 viewers of the Wingshooting USA television program in January, 2013. The margin for error is plus or minus five percent. Wingshooting USA is the most-watched upland bird hunting show in the U.S., airing on seven networks including a debut on Discovery Channel’s Destination America this summer. It is the official TV series of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

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Here I am trying to explain to Buddy why not finding any birds is okay, once in a while.

Here I am trying to explain to Buddy why not finding any birds is okay, once in a while.

My Little League team lost every game one season. I know a bit about being skunked. So when not a single primer burns, no feather clouds drift with the breeze … well, that’s when you dig deep for something – anything – to justify your trip.

And that’s before the spouse greets you at the door with a snarky “You went all that way and didn’t shoot anything?”

That’s your cue to tote up the balance sheet, hoping for um, balance. Sometimes it’s easy. Other times, you gotta get creative, gin up a rationale out of the irrational.

Or do you?

I’m a firm believer in the “less is more” philosophy when there’s nothing in the ice chest. Maybe you too. We can focus on the other things, often as (or more) important than obtaining free-range protein.

Pro’s: the dog still got some exercise; it was a beautiful spot; I still got some exercise; the birds will be there “for seed;” I found an owl skull; time spent with new (or old) friends; no ammo was harmed in the making of the hunt (cha-ching!); it wasn’t raining; no birds to clean; I can cross that spot off the list; no gun to clean … well, you get the idea.

Con’s: no birds to clean.

Yep, it’s a pretty short “con” list. Or am I missing something?

When nothing flies, the adrenaline stays firmly in its glandular garage, and the game bag is empty, what do you put on your mental balance sheet?

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us mapFlorida, Georgia, Alabama, New York, Kentucky, Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, California, Nevada, Washington, Idaho, Oregon.

That’s 20 states I’ve hunted, many more than once and several, dozens of times. It is a daunting list, not just because of the road and air miles invested but because so many of these states are full of wonderful people and places I’d like to visit more often.

In all of them, I’ve made new friends. I’ve shared truck cabs and wall tents with good old friends. My dogs have banked enough windshield time to get a driver’s license.

What have I learned from so many border crossings, time zones and area codes? Where to start?

Keep things ship-shape in the vehicle. Everything in its place, every time. When you stop for gas, check the oil, diesel exhaust fluid, and clean the windshield because next stop, it might be cold or raining.

Feed the dogs on schedule. It’s one of the few constants they have on a road trip. Bring extra batteries and owner’s manuals for everything.

Cram in as many warm clothes as you can. Bring extra rain gear for someone else. Carry a bottle of something old and brown and leave it with your hosts. Save your back, invest in those fabric fold-up dog kennels for pet friendly hotels.

Call ahead and stop to visit friends along the way, even if you don’t think you have the time. Send thank you notes. When you stop, water the dogs first. Find off-the-beaten-track places to park so dogs are safe and unstressed. I like high school athletic fields and county fairgrounds. Bring tie-out stakes.

Carry water for your dogs and yourself. Refill at every opportunity. Same for your fuel tank; there are a lot of empty spaces on the map. Bring bowls for your dogs.

Eat at local joints instead of chains. Be nice to wait staff. Carry a thermos. Buy your groceries close to your destination – in many communities you are economic development. Learn a little bit about the place you’re visiting. Pronounce place names correctly. Visit with kitchen staff at the lodge.

Find something to compliment: your buddy’s dog, good shot, a well-managed covert, fine booze, special dinner.

None of this will help you shoot more birds or make your dogs steadier. But in the long run, you will be enriched by the memories you make, the friendships forged. The journey will rise a notch or two on your life list.

Whether your trip is across the county or the country you will be a better hunter. And person.

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