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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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Buddy on point at Ravenwood. Gun at the ready?

Elusive bobwhite quail flummox Buddy and his Pointer friends at Ravenwood Lodge. So what’s new? Lots of flushes and some wacky shots punctuate this visit I made to hunt with my friend Ken Corbet. Enjoy it by going here.

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The casino sign said “all you can eat buffet,” but the banquet didn’t end there. Clear Creek Sports Club near Corning, California, offers its own unlimited menu of bird hunting options. For decades I’d been driving past the sere rolling hills for which the casino is named, tempted to stop and explore the undulating terrain, explore the grasslands that looked virtually unchanged since the land was granted to some Mexican bureaucrat by the king of Spain hundreds of years ago for meritorious service.  

This was my chance. 

Brad Henman was kind enough to tolerate my dogs instead of the polished shorthairs he favors. That is testament to the hospitable treatment you’ll receive at Clear Creek. He’s a second generation outfitter who has hand-crafted a hunter’s treasure-trove of gullies, open fields, creekbeds, grasslands, CRP, and water features that will delight – and vex – anyone who loves the pursuit of ringneck pheasants … and doesn’t mind being humbled on occasion. 

Some rough footage from the hunt:

Unaccompanied by his uncle Buddy, six-month-old Manny was tentative in the first field … hunting close and moving cautiously, until his first whiff of pheasant, when the light came on and stayed bright the rest of the day. A few prancing steps and his first point was steady and classic: right leg tucked tight to his chest, tail as high as any pointer’s, just shorter.

A close shot was followed by sheer instinct: Manny was carrying the bird toward me before he realized it was time to play keepaway. He had more important tasks at paw anyhow. Another bird was somewhere upwind, tempting this puppy and his awakening nose. Unlike all those compulsive gamblers just up the road, we ended up winners, feasting on scenery, camaraderie and colorful, hard-flying birds.

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We are OFF. And I don’t mean mentally. The Awesome Upland Road Trip version 2.0 is under way. A bit of a high school reunion atmosphere in Portland, Ore., as director Tad Newberry and camera operator Lynn Berland convened at the airport, piled in luggage and gear, and everyone met Manny.

Where else for lunch on a trip like this, than the Pheasant Grill in Arlington, Ore.? And yes, I’ve shot some nearby but there are now more chukar in the area than the long-tailed birds. (Factoid: Arlington is where Tonight Show bandleader Doc Severinson was born. He was by far the coolest dude to come out of this Columbia River port town.)

The promise of new country is always part of the discussion during the first-day’s drive and we were not disappointed with Little Creek Shooting Preserve near Peck, Idaho. Sonny Hairston and his family have carved a little piece of hunting heaven out of steep canyon walls and rolling benches planted with the thickest cover I’ve encountered.

This is Manny’s first road trip – and beyond a few practice pigeons, his first bird contacts. I am stoked! He shows so much promise, has so much doggy street smarts and is such an indefatigable little guy; if only I don’t bugger the process he should be a cracking-good bird dog.

Okay, okay, just to when your appetite here is a behind-the-scenes clip from our first hunt, featuring contest winners Bernie Moore and Jim James doing the gunning:

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