Monday, 14 November 2011

Nebraska III

Mike showed up at Super-8 In Ogallala around 9 PM with a bottle of Ardbeg and a copy of the Double Gun Journal.  Like his father and grandfather before him he hunts behind a setter (named Luna) and, on this day,  carried one of a pair of early Woodward under levers with sleeved barrels chambered for 2 1/2" 16 gauge shells.  

 Luna and Mike.
We spent the day hunting walkin areas in Perkins and Lincoln County.  After a days rest, Erdos seemed good, he was not limping and I was relieved that he could hunt.  He started off rather slow, but as soon as he got on some fresh scent he perked up and hunted hard. I apparently misread the walk-in map and we almost immediately wandered off onto private property. As we tried to get back to the approved walk-in, three roosters flushed wild out in the cut corn and we headed across to the shoulder high grass they'd landed in. I asked Mike if we should try to pinch them and he said to just head for where they'd landed as fast as we could, which was not easy in the heavy cover.  We pushed into the absurdly thick cover,  moving together, parallel to one another.  A rooster took off in front of Mike and then another and he missed them both. I did not have a shot.

Hunter and his dog on a country road.
We split apart, Mike heading back into the cover where we'd just jumped the roosters while I headed off into the reeds, ostensibly chasing the ones we'd already jumped.  The cover was so dense and the going was so tough that I abandoned my attempt to hunt and bushwhacked out the back edge of the CRP.  I walked the edge of the corn cut field hoping to hike back to the truck by making a loop. About a hundred yards ahead of me Erdos was clearly making game.  He was onto fresh spoor and headed back into the tangle of reeds; it was not long before I saw three pheasants fly and then land again, perhaps only fifty yards further into the heavy cover.

Following Mike's earlier advice I quickly waded in after them.  The reeds were over my head and I had to hold my shotgun up in front of me to make my way. I could hear Erdos somewhere near me but this was not cover for pointing.  One bird took off not far in front of me, and then another, and then more to my left and right, perhaps eight or more all together.  I finally pushed forward to a spot where the reeds transitioned to a reddish chest high grass that I could see over.  A rooster flew up in front of me, I took the shot and he tumbled as he went down - a solid hit.  I marked the spot as best I could and when a second bird went up in front of me and before I knew it I had two roosters down.  As I started towards the point where they'd fallen I lost the optimistic hope that I would ever find them at all.  Erdos was no help and the cover was so thick that at ground level I could only see a foot or tow in any direction. I started searching in a regular grid from the tall reed I'd hung my hat on where I'd marked the second bird down.  Eventually, I found a few feathers. It seemed like a small miracle. I worked my way out in a spiral until  I found more feathers, and then I found the dead bird a short distance away, along the line defined by the points where I'd I found the feathers.  This started to feel a bit more like tracking a wounded big game animal than bird hunting. I recalled Datus Proper's assertion that a pheasant rooster is a trophy game animal.

I searched for the other downed bird for another half an hour before I finally gave up; I was already late for the appointed meeting with Mike at the truck.  And later, after Mike had a rooster in his game bag we could count the hunt as a success.

Woodward underlever sidelock and Jeffery boxlock and two roosters.

It is a deep disappointment to hunt and kill any animal and to not be able to retrieve it. I killed two pheasants on this trip that I was unable to retrieve.  First and foremost, such a failure is a waste of life that is hard to justify. It seems that uncertainty is the foundation of the compact between hunter and prey - the hunter will try his best for a clean kill and recovery and the birds will enlist all their instincts to thwart that objective.  Uncertainty is the essence and the very nature of the endeavour, to bring down a bird on the wing at a distance with a few pellets of lead. That birds are wounded or killed and never recovered is inevitable and serves as evidence of that uncertain footing.

 A lost bird is an abrupt interruption of the intimate relationship between hunter and prey that begins when the bird falls to the ground out of thin air.  Once to hand, the hunter must often kill an already dying bird with his own hands.  This usually accomplished by wringing its neck.  The attentive hunter inspects the miracle of the warm feathered form closely before depositing it in his game bag and may walk miles with that body pressing against his back in the game bag.  I hang pheasants undrawn for a week and then pluck them and gut them saving the liver and heart.  As individuals of the species, each pheasant is special and they present a challenge in the kitchen. Pheasant should never be overcooked, but nevertheless must be cooked. The intimacy of the relationship ends with the enjoyment and sharing of an honest meal of wild meat. A lost bird is a lost opportunity for a kind of perfection.

British game guns and long tailed rooster.

By the time I was home I'd driven over 750 miles in the course of three days -  and that number does not include the driving Carlos did Saturday and Sunday morning which was at least 160 miles more to be summed with my own total. I drove home leg tired, with a tired and satisfied dog and with three pheasants and two quail.

Sunset on the drive home.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Nebraska II

A man and his dog.
Our second day was overcast and cooler, better for the dogs but it turned out not to be as good for us with the birds.  We hunted walkin areas closer to where we were staying.  We saw birds but both of us were not shooting well.  Birds we'd have easily killed just the day before we could not connect with if our lives depended on it.  we jumped hens and more hens, and the roosters we saw mostly flushed wild.  Erdos' shoulder was so bad, I left him in the room while we hunted in the morning and then only hunted him very briefly in the afternoon after Carlos left.

An ocean of grass.
Walking pheasant cover is physically tiring.  It's a lot like walking in snow, the thick grasses force you to lift your feet high and offer substantial resistance to legs moving forward. A large walkin area in Nebraska can be a whole section (a square mile) though most are smaller.  Still, in a days hunting we end up walking miles and the dogs who quarter back and forth in front of us cover at least five times as much distance.

The rich colors are astounding.
In some ways, driving around Nebraska is a little like stepping back into the 1960's.  The following scene of an abandoned motel and an antique car was rather striking though not atypical.

I thought this might be an Edsel but now think it's a 1961 Chrysler New Yorker.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Nebraska I

Erdos pointing a pheasant the first morning.
I met Carlos in Sidney NE and drove on further east to small town where on weekends he regularly rents an apartment in an old brick hotel.  He prefers I not mention the location.  The next morning we headed south, almost to the Kansas border.  It was opening day of rifle season for deer and there were hunters roaming the countryside everywhere and in fact we saw a very nice whitetail buck on the edge of the walk-in area as we pulled up.

Oscar the nine month old Drathar is ready to go.

In the first area we hunted the dogs were on scent almost right away.  Erdos was ecstatic.  Carlos and Oscar flushed some birds about 150 yards diagonally to my right and then they bumped two more. Erdos and I kept hunting parallel to a fence line next to a corn field that had recently been harvested.  I heard shots ahead and Carlos had killed a rooster. Erdos was on a trail of scent and I followed him as he carefully followed the birds for  a good distance, more than a 100 yards. And then he went on point and would not move.  I stepped forward and a pheasant flushed just behind me.  I turned, raised my shotgun and pulled the trigger and nothing happened.  Much of the fall I've been hunting my single trigger 20 gauge  O/U and, like a fool, I did think to pull the other trigger on the Jeffery.  As I struggled to reload (an unfired shell will not cock the ejectors and hence will not eject) I realized I'd had a misfire. And then, another cock went up right in front of me.  I got off a late shot, a feather flew, but the bird did not seem phased and disappeared over the next ridge.  Typical.  And then, in a few more minutes, Erdos was on fresh scent again.  This time I was ready and when the pheasant flushed I fired once and again.  On the second shot the bird tumbled into the tall grass. I marked it down and ran to the spot but did not see it. I looked and looked and looked some more -- with no help from Erdos who was off on more scent.  Carlos came by with Oscar, and we all hunted for the downed bird, but still we did not find it. A bitter disappointment.  I regret not having worked with Erdos on retrieving.

The dogs get a drink and cool off.
Carlos and Oscar with the first pheasant of the trip.
Erdos' right shoulder has been injured for some time - the vet says - and a long energetic hunt in tall grass had him hurting.  At the next walk-in I left him in the truck and Carlos hunted Lola, a six year old Pointing Griffon. Lola hunted hard quartering back and forth in front of us until she went on point.  We moved in quickly and a cock pheasant went up. Carlos shot and I shot and then he shot and the bird tumbled down. We marked it down and ran to the spot and there was no bird to be seen.  We dropped a hat to mark the spot and circled.  We found no bird until Lola found it, more than fifty yards from where we'd both seen it fall.  Carlos had two now and I had none.

Oscar, Lola and Carlos.
Within the next half hour I was carrying two pheasants in my own game bag. Expertly pointed by Lola.

Sitting in the shade eating lunch.
After lunch, we looked around for Erdos and Oscar.  They'd just been sitting with us as we ate in the shade of the truck.  We called them and then saw they were both on point on the far side a hedgerow.  A covey of quail took off like a rocket.  I grabbed and loaded my gun and moved to the other side of the fence where  Erdos was still on point.  I kicked the brush and Oscar and Erdos charged in -- but no bird came out.  Erdos moved further down and went on point again.  This time the quail went up out the other side by the truck.  I mounted and took something of a hail-mary shot as the bird flew just above my line of sight over the hedge.  Carlos heard the shot and saw the quail drop.  We would not have found it without Oscar.  We followed up on the singles and Carlos killed one more quail.   We separated, with Carlos dropping into a ravine and Erdos and I hunting the top.  Erdos  had been following fresh scent for more than a hundred yards, intent on birds every few feet. As I was starting to loose faith in his absolute conviction that the birds were near Carlos and Oscar came up from the ravine below where they'd filled out Carlos' limit on pheasants. Oscar went on point and when the quail flushed I instinctively mounted the shotgun and cleanly dropped one of the fast fliers.
A brace of quail from my game bag.

It turned out we were in the Republican (river) region that Nebraska Game and Parks had reported as having good Northern Bobwhite Quail populations this year.  Quail populations are estimated by whistle counts and by interviews with rural mail carriers.

A great day in the field.

A day like this one makes it almost seem easy.  Good dogs, good guns, good company, lots of birds.  Our next day was to prove that good days like this do not come for free.

The bag from an exceptional day.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

A limit of grouse

It doesn't happen all that often that I shoot a limit of grouse.  I did this afternoon.  Erdos was birdy from the moment we got out of the truck -- but he knows the spot and he's been cooped up in the house most of October while I was chasing deer and elk.  We got to this favored covert after a somewhat dicey ride through heavy snow.  As I loaded my shotgun my mind was partially occupied by prospect of getting stuck on the way back out.

We left the truck and hunted into a replanted clear-cut.  Six or eight years ago these trees were waist high, now they're about three times the height of a man.  The stand of pines was thinned a couple of  years ago and the loggers left the cut trees lying every where and every which way -- this makes for hard walking and almost impossible shooting.  I usually just pass through this mess to hunt the edges.  But, still in the cut, Erdos  went on point.  I followed his lead, him acting like we were going to jump a covey of grouse at any second.  He would stop on point, and, after moving ahead of him, expecting a shot at any second, on signal he would move ahead another 20 or 40 feet before going on point again. I saw grouse tracks in the snow, lots of them.

Erdos' nose found them first, but there's no confirmation like grouse tracks in the snow.

We followed the tracks to the end of the trial they formed. They ended under a small tree surrounded by fresh dropping  with nearby brush marks left in the snow from them taking wing.  There were no birds in sight and no telling which way they'd gone.

Lots of tracks and fresh droppings.
It's usually best to let a hunt unfold on its own, guided by the dog's nose and interest. This is true even if the flow of the hunt veers from the preconceived map in the hunters head.  Even if that preconception was formed based on a previously successful hunt in the same place.  Grouse are creatures of habit and if you've found them in a particular area you're quite likely to find them in the same area again.  That said, you rarely find them in exactly the same spot you did before. You need to trust the dogs nose.

Dogs prefer to hunt into the wind though of course it's generally impossible to leave your truck and hunt into the wind and end up back at the same place.  From our deadend at the grouse droppings  Erdos wanted to hunt into the wind back toward the truck.  My own mental map of the hunt had us walk out of the opposite side of the cut. Today, this meant the wind would be quartering into our backs from our right.  We hunted less than a half a mile down a gentle ridge away from the cut.  On this diversion from Erdos' plan I saw deer, elk, moose, bobcat (I think), coyote, rabbit, squirrel, chipmunk and mouse tracks in the snow.  No sign of grouse. I came to my senses and circled back to the point where the grouse tracks had ended and followed Erdos' plan.  It lead us out of the cut into the older timber -- and onto more tracks. Lots of them.

On point.  There's birds ahead. 
As we hunted forward, Erdos went on point, not the intense one signaling birds right here, but the casual point saying to me, there are birds ahead.  Another 40 yards and he stopped, crouching on point and would not budge.  I knew the birds were very close.  I spotted on in a tree not ten feet from me.    And then one took off and then another and maybe a dozen all together.  Standing ready, the explosion of beating wings is still startling.  Before they were gone, I got off three shots dropping two birds.

I haven't often had good luck trying to follow up on blue grouse in this kind of thick cover (woodcock are a completely different story.) But, since three is a limit and we had two, we walked into the timber in the direction they'd flown.  Not fifty yards in, Erdos went on point -- and wouldn't budge.  I walked forward to find a bleeding grouse lying dead in the snow. The second time this year Erdos found a dead bird I was sure I'd missed.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Jump Shooting

"We spent a fine day driving south from Lemmon all the way to Nebraska with a specific kind of grandeur to the landscape, truly the Great Plains, a subtlety to rolling hills and rocky escarpments that doesn't suit people like Marybelle who want snowcapped postcard mountains."  Jim Harrison, The English Major.
There are few landscapes as unexpectedly beautiful as a sunrise or sunset on a prairie river or a pothole lake. Mostly, people rush by these places on their way to someplace more interesting. Water lies low in the landscape so these places are often hidden from view of the highway, concealed by tangles of willows that glow red in the last light of the day. I am not a morning person by nature; I have witnessed such views at sunset far more often than I have at sunrise.
Jump shooting is the peripatetic hunters preferred method to obtain wild ducks for the oven. You hike the riverbank trying to spot ducks before they spot you.  Once ducks are spotted, you must move into shooting range, using the landscape to conceal yourself. Once you have revealed yourself, the ducks fly and you take your shot or not, depending on how well you have calculated your approach. On a flowing river, the calculation as to where the ducks will be by the time you have moved into shooting range is always a gamble.  Running a hundred yards, bent low to the ground is hard work.  Sometimes you stand up, sure that they will be right in front of you only to find no duck in sight.   

Meager results from a satisfying afternoon of jump shooting.
I manged to kill what I at first though was a mallard hen.  But the bird was smaller than a mallard and the beak was yellow -- leading me to think it must have been a Gadwall hen.  After retrieving my duck from the meandering current, I jumped three mallards -- but they saw me more than 100 yards off so I had no shot.  A half a mile downriver I spotted a duck floating downstream.  I ran downstream, bent to as low as possible to prevent my long shadow from falling on the water, to the point where I thought I'd have a good shot. After stalking through the willows to the riverbank, there was no duck in sight.  I hurried downstream again to the point where a long oxbow returned the flow to near where I was standing.  The duck was hidden under the bank I stood on, not four feet from me. It swam out.  I don't shoot ducks on the water. I hollered to get it to fly and instead of taking off, it dove underwater.  I was dumbfounded. I thought, if I was a duck I'd swim downstream with the current to get away.  So I quickly headed downstream wondering how long a duck can stay underwater.  I waited.  No duck. I watched three muskrats swimming in the current along the bank.  I took a few pictures. Finally, I walked back upstream and at the apex of the oxbow bend I watched the mallard drake flush wild a further fifty yards upstream -- giving me no shot.  Smart duck.

One duck is not a meal, I will head back.