Monday, January 10, 2011

The closer

Well, the 2010 upland season is over. Sadly, it was without a doubt my worst season ever. I guess it is ironic that I decided to start a blog this season. My last day out was particularly memorable, and not in a good way.

My friend Jeff and I had talked about heading north to hunt grouse that day. The nearest grouse country is about two hours north of us. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground and the temps were low. Hunting in those conditions can be pretty rough, and both man and dog can fatigue quickly when you are breaking trail through that much snow. We decided to chase pheasants closer to home, rather than drive two hours north to be turned back by conditions. Call me a wimp if you'd like.

When we pulled up to my local hot spot, we discovered some deer hunters beat us there. I thought all the deer seasons were over, but here in Wisconsin it can be hard to keep track with muzzle loader, doe-only, CWD zones and a variety of seasons other outside the more traditional season. I suggested we try some lowlands surrounded by cattails near by. Big mistake.

The going was tough with deep, drifted snow interspersed by as-of-yet unfrozen sink holes. The first leg of our exploration proved fruitless, save for a couple snipe that the dogs showed only passing interest in. We decided to cross a creek to reach some desirable bird cover. We looked for a natural crossing, and failing that, decided to jump at the narrowest spot. I unloaded my double and lept across, boot tip just dragging in the muck. Jeff followed me and missed the landing, sinking to his chest almost instantly. Jeff scrambled out of the creek with a little assistance from me. It was time to get the heck out there, as the temps were well below freezing. Hypothermia is one of the big killers in the outdoors. We were not that far from the truck, but neither Jeff nor I had any interest in taking a soak on the way back. We followed the creek for a while until we found a downed tree wtih some hand holds we could cross. I tossed my empty gun into a snow bank on the other side and carefully crosed. Jeff followed, this time staying out of the water. From there, we high-tailed it back to the truck.

Once safely in the truck, heat set on high, I realized that even semi-frozen creek muck still smells. Bad. Being a bird hunter is like being a Cubs fan sometimes. Even when you got nothing but lose, you can always hope for next season.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Losing the game

Like many of my hunts, the start of this one was inauspicious at best. I knew there were roosters in the cattail swamp. It had been their refuge whenever they were pressured. The swamp is generally not passable by man or dog until it freezes. Well, temps have been below freezing at night and hovering around the freezing point during the day for the better part of a week. I thought I might give it a try today. Things started off well enough. There was still frost on the ground, and a sprinkling of snow, like powdered sugar applied by baker trying to save a dime. The edges of the swamp didn't seem bad. I headed in. As I crossed a depression, my right boot started to sink in the mud. I quickly swung my left boot forward onto what looked like terra firma. I was wrong. It was like stepping on a trap door. My left leg sunk to just above my knee faster than you can say quicksand. Of course, I had some forward momentum yet, and forward I went. I somehow managed to keep my gun barrels pointed in the air with my right hand while I braced my fall with my left arm. I know, I know, you're supposed to tuck and roll. You try that with one leg sunk in the muck. With a bit of effort, I extracted myself from the cold mud. The left side of my body looked like it was auditioning for the Swamp Thing. Thankfully, my clothes remained water proof, and other than some moisture that had gotten up my pant leg to the top of my socks, I stayed mostly dry. Being dry is important when it's only about 24 degrees out. I gave up. The moat around the pheasant kingdom would keep me out for another day.

We headed to high and dry ground. I knew there was another area the birds liked to congregate when it was cold. We hiked around for quite a while and saw no sign of birds. After working what I thought were the most likely places, Whit decided to explore a section chest-high grass. Within moments it was clear that she was on a bird, but it was also clear that bird was trying to give her the slip. Scenting conditions were less than ideal on this clear, cold day so pinning the bird down might be challenge. As she finally eased into a point, a rooster pheasant erupted at about my 9 o'clock position. From the route Whit took, it was clear that this bird was trying to elude using the old end-around strategy, a late-season rooster favorite trick. It was not a particularly big bird, nor was it's tail particularly grand, but any rooster you find in December is a trophy. By this time, they've been eluding hunters for a good 6 weeks. Never mind the coyotes, foxes, hawks, owls just about every other predator that calls Wisconsin home.

I fired on the bird as it swung out to about my 12 o'clock position, hitting him squarely in the right chest. Feathers flew, and for the briefest time, there seemed to be a delay in his flight plan. Just as I let fly with second barrel, he righted himself and clawed for altitude. I'm pretty sure I shot under him, missing him cleanly the second time. He flew towards the edge of the woods. Just before he got there, he began to cant with the right wing down. He slowed and looked like he might drop into the edge of the woods, hopefully dead for the dog to retrieve. The adrenaline must have kicked in at that point. He beat his wings and powered up to the top of what must be the steepest, tallest hill between the Appalachians and the Rockies. I think the bird landed on the opposite side of a large pine at that the crest of the hill, but I couldn't be sure. I exhaled slowly, hung my head and resolved to find that bird.

I unloaded my gun and began to scramble up the hill. Most of the time, I was bent forward with one hand on the slope, the other cradling my gun. Whit had an easier time of it than I did. I hoped when I got to the top, I'd see her waiting for me with bird in mouth. Instead, I found her intensely tracking a scent-trail. My hopes were lifted. Then she did what she does when she can't quite make out the trail: make a large loop, return to where she had definite scent and cast out again. While she tracked down scent, I scanned the tree tops. Sometimes wounded birds will roost in trees, making it all but impossible for the dog to find.

We searched for over half an hour. I would have searched longer, but it was clear to me that Whit could not make out the trail. The bird was gone. Losing wounded game is one of the unpleasant realities of hunting, and one I think most hunters would like to keep private. Yet it happens to all of us sooner than later. A dog may be a great tool for conserving game, but no dog is perfect. I was so frustrated I nearly wept. I know the bird was having a worse day than I was. I suspect it bled to death internally after running off a good ways. The only solace I find in losing game is knowing that it will likely feed a coyote that night. Pheasants live a tough life as it is, most of them not making it beyond two or three years. Still, no hunter with an ounce of ethics likes to leave wounded game in the field.

I broke open my gun, pocketed the shells and began the cold walk back down the hill.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Anatomy of a slump

I am in a slump. A slump of grand porportions. I haven't seen a wild game bird in over two weeks. Worse yet, it is November 13th and I have yet to shoot a wild bird. My bird hunting journal tells me I've been 12 times this season to hunt wild birds and have nothing to show for it. I stand to lose what little credibility I have as a dedicated upland bird hunter.

The season started out well enough. We chased woodcock in late September and early October. We never got into the flights like we did last season, but put them up in one's and two's. Not all of them presented shots, and the ones that did were cleanly missed. I spent an absolutely lovely day in grouse country, but only put up one woodcock that my parnter missed. Pheasant season opened in mid-October. Conditions were far from ideal with many warm, dry days. Nonetheless, at first we were getting into birds, but never more than two on a given day. I can recall exactly three birds that were put up over solids points that offered reasonable shots. Missed them all. Now, we can't seem find birds anywhere, despite a record number of boots-on-the-ground hours.

I think part of the slump is the natural ebb and flow of bird season. In October, the birds are relatively naive and sometimes offer easier shooting. By November, the dumb ones are gone and the hard scrabble survivors are the only ones left. The weather has been mild, so the cover is still in excellent shape. Whit has pointed many a bird that has just run from us through acres of unbroken cover. When winter comes, the birds will concnetrate in the thicker cover and perhaps offer us better opportunities. Now, the odds are clearly tipped in their favor.

I've now been a serious upland hunter for about the past 6 years. I recognize there are plenty of guys (and gals) out there with way more experience than me. Regardless, I've been doing this long enough to learn a thing or two. I spent a lot of time at the gun club this past summer working on my shooting technique. By August, I was shooting much more consistently. My dog is 8 years old and true professional. I don't need to tell her what to do, I just let her loose and follow. I understand the habits of game birds, am knowledgeable of their habitat and understand how to use cover and wind to my advantage. Doesn't seem to be helping me out of the slump.

I told my wife I was going to sell all my guns and pick up a new hobby. She knew I was not serious. The affliction still burns. We'll be out again in two days. Maybe day number 13 will be the lucky one.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Whit and how she got here

A guy could stand to do a lot worse with his first birddog. The upland bird hunting bug bit me hard in my final year of specialty training. Shortly thereafter, we moved to Milwaukee. We had a very nice, 1920's era home, but it was under 1400 sq. feet and had a yard like a postage stamp. We also had a brand new baby and 70 pound lab-mix from the humane society. And I was just starting my career, needed to pass my boards and figure out the academic aspect of my career. My initial pleas to bring home a birddog fell on deaf ears.

After a while, my wife relented. She gave me some criteria, which if met, would mean I could get another dog. First, she was only interested in a Weimaraner. I had wanted a German Shorthair Pointer given their good looks and "out the box" hunting abilities. My wife was not keen on the breed. Noted author Tom Davis referred to Weimaraners as that are credible hunters as "kind of like bigfoot; I've heard of them but never seen one". She only wanted a female. She found the marking behavior of males annoying. Additionally, the dog needed to be at least two years old and professionally trained. Perhaps this part was wise. I didn't know the first thing about training a birddog and certainly didn't have an abundance of time to learn how.

I set about my search. This was in 2004. Many breeders did not have websites at that point. In fact, there are still some prominent breeders without websites. Googling "hunting weimaraners" didn't yield much useful information. I browsed the back of hunting magazines, and found small add for a breeder of Weimaraners from hunting stock. I emailed the breeder and told him what I was looking for: a two-year old or older, started female Weimaraner. Predictably, he emailed back something to the effect of "sorry, we have nothing of the sort". And then, the improbable happened. He emailed me back less than an hour later. The email was brief; "call me. I might have a dog for you".

That afternoon, one of his clients returned a two-year old female Weimaraner that had quite a bit of professional training. Seems he had to move out of state unexpectedly and could not accommodate a dog. The price was fair, and the dog checked all the boxes. My wife admitted that she thought she sent me on an impossible mission, but conceded that I had met the challenge. Now, I just needed to figure out how to make time to drive the 7 hours to the breeder in order to evaluate the dog. I sent a deposit and started looking for dates to make the drive.

Things then got even better. The breeder was driving to Madison, Wisconsin to buy some goats. Seems dogs were not the only animals he was breeding on his farm. He offered to let me look at the dog in Madison, which was only 90 minutes away. Deal.

We set out on snowy night in February to meet to the breeder and the dog. We walked into their hotel room and were greeter by an energetic, friendly Weim, not the "aloof" attitude they are often said to possess. My wife set down the car seat with our infant daughter snuggled inside. Whit gently sniffed her and then curled up beside the carrier. Sold.

I brought Whit out to the parking lot and opened the back glass on our small SUV. Whit leaped in, easily clearing the tail gate which was still in the upright position. Not everything went smoothly at first. Whit was very dominant with other dogs. She would mount our 6 year-old lab mix daily, just to show him who is the boss. She would not start fights with other dogs, but she was for damn sure not going to back down. I tried taking her on runs with me, but they did little to tire her. The only thing that seemed calm her was off-leash running.

In March, I had my first opportunity to take her hunting. The wild bird season had been closed since December, so my only choice was a game farm. I had no idea what she would do. I let her loose for the first time, not knowing if she would run off, hunt, point or do anything that a birddog is supposed to do. I was overwhelmed with joy when she went on point a few minutes later. I flushed the pheasant and shot it cleanly. She was on it moments and retrieved it to hand. Before I could tuck it in my game pouch, she was off hunting again. I couldn't believe my luck.

Whit and I have been partners now for over 6 years. She's an old pro now. She's not perfect, but we have a good working relationship. I forgive her her faults, and she mostly forgives me mine (I do get protests if I my shooting gets too poor). Given the circumstances under which I found her, I can't ask for much more.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The spot

It's embarrassing, really. I have a pretty good hunting spot for pheasants. It's a short drive from my home. Unlike a lot places where you hunt pheasants, it's pretty to look at. And it holds a lot of birds. This place, however, gets pounded. It is hunted hard. I'll pull in the turn off at 10 AM on Wednesday and there will often be two or three other trucks there. I think to myself "who gets to go bird hunting at 10 AM on a Wednesday?", then I remind myself that I am one of those people.

Anyway, most of the hunters leave the lot and walk on the trail into the fields. To the left of the trail, there is a vast expanse of grasses and mixed cover. Most guys focus their efforts there. To the right of the trail, there is a swamp. Nobody goes to the swamp. Except me. And the roosters. In fact, nearly every time we've hunted the swamp, we've put up a rooster. It's no more than 100 yards from the parking area and 15 or 20 yards from the main trail. It is uncanny how often this area produces birds. They are almost always in the same spot, a thick patch of "cover within the cover". Now here's the real embarrassing part: I've never hit one of these swamp roosters. It's almost like I don't believe there will actually be one there, again. The scenario that unfolds reminds of the movie "Groundhog's Day": Whit gets birdy and then goes on point. I start to move in, doubting there could actually be another rooster there, that a bunch of other guys and dogs walked by, only a few yards from the trail. Then the thing flushes, startles me and I miss like a rank amateur. For all I know, it could be the same rooster every time, a mythic swamp rooster, capable of dodging a hot load of #6 shot. On the other hand, I could just be a mediocre wingshooter. The score so far this season is swamp rooster 2, Mike zero. Last season I think I went 0-4 against the swamp rooster. If this keeps up, I might start rooting for the bird.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

My wife mentioned to one of her girlfriends that I was out bird hunting on a recent morning. Her friend responded, "Oh, my ex-husband used to do that from time to time. I never understood why he would want to get up at the crack of dawn and then go lay in a field, hoping for some birds to fly by". My wife responded, "that's not how Mike does it. The way he hunts birds is more like practicing an art form". I'll keep her.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


I've known Matt for a pretty long time. We first met in kindergarten and became fast friends. My family moved to the other side of town the following year. Imagine my surprise, when as a newly minted second grader the following year, the new kid in the class was my old friend Matt. His parents had moved within bicycling distance of our new neighborhood. From that point on, we were just about inseparable. We did a lot of typical kid stuff, but one of our favorite activities was "playing guns". There was an empty woodlot near his house where we built bunkers, machine gun nests and staged juvenille military campaigns.

Matt will be the first one to tell you that things did not go well during his adolescence. At first, I tried to be the supportive best friend, but as his troubles grew deeper, we grew further apart. By our early 20's we had lost touch with each other entirely.

Nearly a decade and a half later, we were re-connected by the social networking phenomenon. At first, I was just relieved to learned that after many troubled years, Matt had landed on his feet. Turns out he got pretty good at landing on his feet. In the depth of his troubles, Matt enlisted in the Army. He served in the airborne infantry, and after several years, left honorably, a changed man. He married a young woman that first caught his eye in high school. He held down a respectable job and was close to finishing his college degree.

Improbably, our paths crossed again. Matt took a new job, hoping to relocate closer to family. He ended up in Madison, Wisconsin, less than thirty minutes from me. We met for coffee a couple times after he moved. After so long, I think we both wanted to test the waters and approached things cautiously. Perhaps we needn't have. After all that time, hurt on both sides, we picked we up where we left off.

Matt and I both shared a love of the outdoors as kids, and in the pre-political correctness era, a boyish fascination with guns. Turns out guns would end up playing a substantial role in our lives, Matt as a serviceman and now sport shooter, and me as broken birdhunting addict.

I invited Matt to come with me pheasant hunting. I knew he wouldn't be all that interested in hunting, but thought he might enjoy the hike. I took him to one of my favorite spots. Unlike most terrain that holds pheasants, it is hilly an pleasant to look at. This time of year, much of the ground cover turns a golden hue, framed by the tree-lined hills, which were nearing their peak colors. If anything, we'd have a nice hike on a gorgeous fall day.

After busting cover for over an hour with nothing to show for it, I decided to take a little break and actually walk along an established trail. I was pleased with the way my dog Whit was quatering, covering the edges of the trail. Regardless, I think even the most dedicated birddogger starts to lose a little faith in the pup if you aren't finding any birds. It was about that time that Whit found religion and got on a bird. There was a small game trail off the main thoroughfare that caught her interest. She pointed briefly, and then began a low, cat-like crawl. Each footstep seemed to fall more deliberately than the last, until she finally froze into a point. It was clear that the bird was on the move, as this sequence repeated itself several times. We made our way down the game trail, a jaunt of about 75 yards. The trail then came to a small clearing. Several things tend to happen at clearings like this. Sometimes, the bird will loose its nerve and flush. That didn't happend. Other times, they will hunker down at the end of the cover, which can make for some nice shooting. Often, they just keep running. Thankfuly, this bird took the second best option: it ran across the clearing and into the closest patch of thick cover, where it sat. It wasn't fooling Whit. She made right for the tangle and went on point. The bird had had enough and flushed, offering a relatively easy quatering-to-the-right shot. I missed cleanly with both barrels. We watched it fly, Matt at a slightly better vantage point than I. We both lost track of the bird as it dipped below a small rise. We followed it and were greeted by acres upon acres of unbroken, chest high cover. I knew the bird was as good as gone, but we tried anyway. We never found any sign of the bird.
After many years, Matt and I were forging a new bond, with similar constituents to when we were kids: guns and the outdoors. I'm glad to have my oldest friend back.