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Posts Tagged ‘upland 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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Nom nom nom. Good dog!

Whether this works for you, you’ll have to decide. If a more experienced trainer has an opinion, I’m sure I’ll hear via Facebook. But at least one of those, pro trainer George Hickox, thought enough to bring it up in a recent conversation:

1. Dogs work for themselves, not us. If they choose to cooperate with us, “obeying” our commands, it is a means to an end.

2. The end is quite often food (especially in young dogs) or prey (in our situation, usually birds).

Makes sense to me. Think about it for a couple days as you train, and see what you think.

So, how do we adjust our training philosophy and practice in light of those observations? I’m using the prospect of holding a dead bird as a much more frequent reward with Flick than with past dogs. So far, so good.

In steadiness training, when he slams on the brakes the moment he scents birds, he gets to retrieve one. Almost every time at first, and as quickly as practicable after a flush/shot. Then, he learns to wait a while from point to flush to fall to retrieve command.

In a gentle version of force fetch training I’m testing, a variation. Obviously, he “gets” the bird when he’s sent to retrieve it. But – and I’ve seen this countless times on the TV show and at training days – the moment a dog arrives at the human, the bird is yanked from his mouth.

Not Flick. He gets a moment or two to savor it. Maybe more, if he doesn’t start chewing! I’ll often heel him back to the yard or training table as he carries the bird – that’s a lot of savoring! And once he releases on command, he gets another chance to snort-sniff-lick it while I hold it.

A bird in hand may be worth two in the bush. But a bird in the mouth is worth two hundred in the bag … if Flick can enjoy it for a bit.

I’ll keep you posted.

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Two steps forward, one back. It’s a familiar cliche’ in the dog-training lexicon. Actually, I’ll bet if you think about your own life, your teachers moved you both directions as needed: guitar lessons, typing, overhauling a carb, driving that car after the overhaul was done – again.

Plateaus are a nice resting point on a chukar hunt, a chance to take a breather. But in dog training, they are misleading. You think you’ve mastered a skill with your dog … until you slide off the edge. Worse than a backward step, hopefully not too damaging to your bones or your ego. A humbling learning experience.

Peaks are what we strive for, our aspiration. Sometimes simple (he actually came to the whistle!), other times monumental (passed his Utility Test), each is a chance to be grateful … for your own teaching abilities but more importantly for your dog’s incredible talent (and patience, with you).

Valleys are the dog-training equivalent of a baseball player’s slump. The walls are steep, we are all alone at the bottom. Our dog has either lost most of his brain cells or suddenly can’t understand the English language. It’s when we contemplate switching dog breeds, or buy a fly rod.

In almost all cases, we are the culprit. Sure, the dog might be a co-conspirator, but if you think long and hard about your challenge-du-jour, honestly, it’s about you.

It could be shortcuts you’ve taken, inconsistent language/word choice, laziness, not being observant (“thinking like a dog”) … but in most dog-human relationships the human has got to do most of the thinking and sometimes, well, we just don’t.

Here’s your assignment: What’s your dog training project this weekend? If you’re training any skill, be aware, think ahead, consider your dog’s point of view and analyze what’s really slowing or stopping your progress. Be brutally honest with yourself. Go back, experiment, and see if it helps. I will if you will.

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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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Psychologists say a quality life has many “peak experiences.” I just had one, so life is getting better by the day.

This is the place.

Got to the place I’d been craving to hunt all season on a crisp, 15-degree day … shirtsleeve weather, if the shirts were made of polypropylene and wool. But weather wasn’t the point behind the epic hunt … instead, it was the setting, the dogs, the birds … WOW! We snake along a small-but-raging creek, the bed a tangle of willow, alder, cattails and wild rye. The valley quail were in scattered bunches, their heavenly scent wafting upslope to Buddy and Manny when they were running the top bank, clouding in the thicket to tempt them when they were busting the brush.

Points were rampant, often followed by covey flushes then the suspense of sussing out singles. Three weeks away from the hunt, the pup soon glommed onto his job, working independently of his uncle. Buddy was his usual incredible bird-finding self, ghosting from brush patch to willow thicket, crossing the creek confidently to seek and ultimately fly valley quail from their streamside hiding places.

Manny backed, even brought a few birds almost back to me. I remembered a lesson from trainer Doug Burnett, and gave them back for a few minutes. Dead bird soon lost its allure and he raced to the stream for more live ones. He leaped cross-creek with abandon, bird scent beckoning.

The only point I was willing to risk a photo on!

A wild flush at my feet was quickly followed by a shot and Buddy was all over it. Then, silence. He didn’t return from where it dropped.  I hustled over to find both dogs on point, a dead quail in Buddy’s mouth. One bird flew upstream and soon fell to the gun’s report. That triggered another flush from the same sagebrush, the cockbird rocketing downstream until it splashed it into the creek at my shot.

I caught my breath, looked at the robin’s egg blue sky, the massive stone pillars watching over us, two panting wirehairs at my side, and a brilliantly-colored quail in my hand. Time to go, as it couldn’t possibly get any better.

So, have you had any “peak experiences” lately? Spill!

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With Christmas breathing down our necks, have you ever considered the real gifts we receive? There’s the goodies, rich food and tchotkes that decorate our lives, clutter our mantels and boast our material wealth.

Sometimes, it's places like this.

But what have you learned, experienced, and remembered? I mean really, truly, deep-down indelibly etched in your mind as a result of this season’s experience? What is under your (figurative) Christmas tree?

Did your dog gift you with a solid pin-down on a brace of ringnecks, that you turned into a picture-perfect double brought to bag? Maybe it was your puppy’s first find, a ground-level ornament of trembling point and stumbling retrieve. You may have found a new hunting companion of the human variety – who understands what’s really important in life. How’d that sugar-plum of a new shotgun perform?

Other times, it's who you share them with

I may be a slow learner, but over time I’ve concluded that birds, dog work, and beautiful places are just part of the equation. They may be bright, shiny adornments hanging on the tree, but when all is said and done, much of the joy and satisfaction comes from the people with whom we share our experiences. Even hunting alone, I often long for the camaraderie of others après hunt: to relive the high points, seek counsel on technique or strategy, or simply to remind me that when all is said and done, we are members of the same tribe.

You? What’s under your Christmas tree?

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What does yukky weather do to your hunting plans? I’m looking at a Courier & Ives winter scene: eight fluffy inches of snow against a deep green forest … all that’s missing is a one-horse open sleigh.

Did I mention the two wirehairs snuffling around in the white stuff, looking for God-knows-what and bringing half the snow load back into the house?

The original plan was a weekend in the chukar hills of eastern Oregon … steep canyons along a secret stream – the only place I’ve limited on valley quail, chukars and pheasants in the same day. But six hours driving each way, most on icy roads, then slogging through at least as much snow was daunting enough to incent me to indoor chores and office work instead. [Did you get my survey re: dog club needs?]

So where do you draw your line in the sand, er, snow? What conditions are you willing to tolerate and which aren’t? Would you hunt in the rain, mud and slush? What’s your, and your dog’s upper temperature-tolerance range?

I hate wind! Is there a type of weather that is completely, totally off the table for you? And how about practical concerns? We shot sporting clays last weekend in cold and fog and one gun (or one shell) experienced what muzzleloaders call a hang fire. My guess was, sticky firing pin due to cold affecting whatever lubricant was in the works. You?

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