Wingshot

When did I become such a casual murderer in this wilderness where I am, at best, a tourist. 

In my own hands heartbeats and shudders go silent, life escaping between my pressed fingers like a mysterious vapor. 

Where do I find the strength to kill something so perfect and delicate, after just being introduced. 

What conceit allows this fumbling ape to harvest speckled jewels from the sky, whose final grace is to close their eyes as they die.

The lion can not love the gazelle in this way. 

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Skulldoggery

elk

One of the lessons I’ve learned as an extremely mediocre fly fisherman is to be willing to work areas that others don’t.  Because if you put my ordinary skills on a virgin pool with naive fish, I’m a really super good fisherman.

Out of orneriness or just not knowing any better, I’ve been taking the same approach to quail hunting.  Quail hunting is supposed to be a sport of gentlemen, casual strolls with pipes and brandy in tweed coats, expensive antique guns with wood burl stocks, led by a salt-of-the-earth guide on someone’s private spread, but I just don’t have the patience (or taxable income).

What I want to do is find wild birds in a wild land.  That’s what I find most enjoyable.  I want to see critters doing their own thing on their own terms, and if I can get birds (or deer, or elk, or pronghorn, or javelina…) on those terms then I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and gotten closer to earning their sacrifice and protein.  A form of penance, perhaps.

It is usually easiest to find these wildeor (self-willed beasts) in places that people don’t visit.  Sometimes it is a matter of mileage.  Sometimes it is a matter of thinking, “Geez, I wonder what’s on the other side of that hill, off the trail, that no one ever seems to go.”

I am no mountain man or commando, but I am curious, and that curiosity will kick my feet uphill.  Sometimes it pays off.

A lot of preamble.  Short of it this past weekend I followed an elk trail 1,000 feet up over a ridge and found a high bowl, with water, forage, and cover.  There were many birds and the pup and I spent some time chasing them.  I don’t think anyone had been up there for months, as the full bull elk skeleton with antlers I stumbled upon suggested.  Nobody would leave that there.

In terms of the pup, he continued his Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde routine– finding birds in a passion, but then wilting after a couple shots are fired.  I’m a fool, I know, I need to back off and start back at zero with the gun.  But it’s so hard to leave him behind.  Again, patience is not a strength of mine.

So I got some birds.  I got this bull skull rack.  And the wildeors indulged my presence for a little while, and I got to pretend I was breathing the same air as them.  Which is enough to get me through another week until I can come back.

PS- while in the trailhead parking lot a young guy in a truck with federal plates rolled up.  We got talking, turns out he’s a BLM ranger for the area.  He was out there that Sunday morning cleaning public restrooms in his spare time as a volunteer— because they “don’t have the budget to hire people to do this full-time.”  The next occasion I hear someone bitching about public lands or federal employees, I’m going to think of this young ranger, and suggest the complainer grab a goddamn toilet brush and/or vote for someone who will appropriately fund the management of our nation’s great outdoors.

Success!

After 2 years of wondering whether my dog actually has “it” in him, usually with diminishing optimism, we had that moment this weekend: breakthrough!

It was a day we barely managed to get out.  Kid’s soccer games, the rain, and my knee were conspiring to keep me in the city.  But we got a window of weather, I got the green light from the boss, and Teddy and I were off for an afternoon hunt after slapping on my leg brace.

I brought the gun but didn’t know if I was going to fire it.  Last week in “my” valley we had seen some birds but he shut down after I took a single shot (and failed to hit a bird).  This time I was going to play it by feel.

hills

Instead of working the draws I decided to climb into the hills a bit.  The wind was strong and steady from the south, so I figured if we gained some elevation in the north he’d get scent blown to him and I could possibly glass down into the draws.

On a whim I decided to push even higher, to the top of the hill, where a fire a year ago burned through the manzanita and gray pines.  The effect meant this year there are a lot of skeletal branches, cleared underbrush, charred soil, and new growth sprouting from the ground, boosted by last year’s El Nino.  We were able to walk through this area with good sightlines in a way we previously wouldn’t have been able to without a burn.

It was clear the quail liked this habitat.  The first bunch of manzanita locked Teddy into that strange combination of antagonistic behaviors– the slow, robotic trance with steady head and hyperfocused eyes, while the tail explodes into a wild blurring dervish.

As I approached several birds flushed, and the next 20 minutes were a complete revelation.

This dog that rarely moves more than 15 yards away from me became an unrecognizable demon covering the hill up, down, left, and right, weaving through the brush like a defensive end turning the corner on a blindside quarterback.  He was pointing and chasing quail everywhere, time after time relocating and finding new birds by scent.  Even if I hadn’t been in a knee brace I couldn’t have dreamed of keeping up, but I kept shouting out encouraging words in the hopes he could hear them.

teddy-runs

Bad photo, but he was a blur at this point.

Had I been in the mind of killing birds I could of limited in 5 minutes, even with my poor shooting.  Teddy had been possessed by a insatiable bird-finding beast, and it had been released.

Given his previous timidness I didn’t dare pull the gun off my shoulder– yet.  I just sat back and enjoyed the spell while it lasted.

Eventually he started orbiting closer and recognized me again.  Teddy came up close and stopped directly in front of me, panting happily with lathering jaws.  His grin seemed to say, “Holy s–t.  Did you see that?”

I gave him as much praise and rubbing as he’s ever had.  He understood this was good thing he’d done.

After watering him we continued walking to the south through the brush, the wind charging on.  And then… bing!  Another point.  Burst.  Chase.  Bing!  Burst.  Chase.  Bing!

Eventually it got to the point where I felt like, dammint, I should try a shot.  He was entirely consumed with bird-finding.  He locked up on a large brushy manzanita.  He crept to one side of the stand, and I walked along the other.  I could see some birds on the leading edge of the bush.

When they burst I took two shots and downed a bird, who tumbled down the ravine side.  Teddy hadn’t seen me shoot and hit the bird (mistake?)

I called to Teddy who poked his head out the other side of the bush.  He looked surprised.  I ran down to the bird, calling him down to where the juvenile male quail was flapping in his last throes.  He found the bird and chomped.

I walked back up the hill and let him carry it along the way, loudly praising the entire time.  His tail was whipping.  I damn near wept.

retrieve

He gave me the bird willingly, but followed behind me in jumps sniffing at the bird bag.

After we found a couple more birds I figured we had pushed this huge covey around enough.  When I started walking away from the brush he stopped.  He didn’t want to leave the hill.

We didn’t get into any more birds the rest of the day.  Some of his hesitancy reared up again, particularly in the area where I had shot last week.  I had to nudge him forward in that area a little bit.  After that I took him back to the truck and we called it a day.

I analyzed the hunt on the way back– I really enjoy those 90 minute drives when I’m tired, but calm and clear of mind after a hunt– and several elements emerged for me to process going forward:

  • It was just me and Teddy.  No other people or dogs for him to to be distracted or influenced by.  No other outlets for his ADHD.
  • There were birds.  We hit a hive of quail and it made his nose very happy.  Those burned areas just made my list.
  • He was more comfortable in the brush than the open grassy areas.  I don’t know why this is.  Perhaps he likes having cover too?
  • I’ve been playing gunshot sounds from a CD the past month.  I can’t say the noise seemed to register with him, even when very loud.  But perhaps it’s helped?
  • He’s still in the woods.  I need to continue to think of this as a training year.  I need to stay “zen” about my knee and be very strategic in when/how/where I fire the gun around him.

But success.  About fing time.  And I let him eat the bird.

Sophomore Slump? Counting the Ways

  • 22 months since I last blogged.7f71eced-22b0-4693-84f5-cfba5bab450b
  • 10 months since I last hunted.
  • 9 months since I got my safety course certificate (which I need in order to hunt chukar in Nevada—somehow I managed to get a CA hunting license without one).
  • 5 months since Teddy exhibited gunshyness (do the math… July 4th).
  • 12 weeks since I tore my right patellar tendon playing rugby (that’s what I get for breaking my promise to my wife to stop playing).
  • 30 opioid painkillers prescribed.
  • 10 weeks since the surgeons split my knee open like a fatted calf, pulled my tendon up, and sutured it into 3 holes they drilled in my kneecap to anchor it.
  • 30 more opioid painkillers prescribed.
  • 8 weeks since I last laid on the couch with my leg locked out in a brace (Olympic rugby on TV helped keep me relatively sane during this period, go figure).img_2797
  • 6 weeks since a heated conversation between my surgeon and I about his very conservative recovery plan for me (from my perspective).
  • 6 weeks plus one day since I started putting weight on my leg.
  • 5 weeks since I stopped using crutches. Alleluia!
  • 4 weeks since I went to my favorite bird-hunting ground, now a National Monument designated by President Obama, and hobbled around in my brace to see if El Nino rains brought a healthier hatch.
  • 70+ quail in one busted covey answered my question.
  • 3 weeks since my first physical therapy appointment.
  • 2 weeks since I took Teddy out for some more training to build his bird drive.
  • 3 days ago it started raining and hasn’t stopped since.
  • 2 days since hunting season for quail in my zone opened.
  • 1 day ago I was able to pedal an exercise bike for 30 minutes.

It’s clear it won’t be a big year hunting for me this time around.  I won’t be able to really hike around until December.  My deer tag was a waste.

I’m trying to be zen about it, and interpret my gimpiness as a sign for me to focus on up-training my now 2 year old vizsla past gunshyness.

But reading other blogs has inspired me to not lose faith and keep my enthusiasm up to keep training my boneheaded dog and do my leg rehab—thank you Tuckers Chukars, Birdhunter, Mouthful of Feathers, Chukar Hunting, AZWanderings!

This week I’m looking to go for a hobble and maybe come across some birds (sans Teddy).  Maybe I’ll get lucky.

Cheers!

Hiking with Silent Metal Sticks

Last weekend we went for a walk in Cache Creek where we carried strange metal tubes, wore bright colors, and had an earnest look upon our faces.  But at no point in the day did those metal sticks make a noise.

Plodding along with pups.

Plodding along with pups.

Neither did the birds.  We saw lots of doves, woodpeckers, juncos, and a bald eagle (happy to report Yankee did correctly identify it as NOT a quail), but not a peep of quail.

photo 1

Teddy chilling with his buddy. They do not judge each other for not finding birds.

On the up side Teddy the pup got to go with his buddy Ronin, who is about a month younger.  They had a blast, although questionable if they were aware of the purpose.

I’ve been working with Teddy on positive association of shotgun blast at home (using an app on my phone, handy little bugger it is), so it may have been just as well we didn’t fire.

In sadder news, Teddy probably won’t be hanging out with his buddy Ronin anymore.  Yankee’s young son has proven highly allergic to Ronin, and they are working with the breeder to find a new home for him.  Family is crushed because he’s great dog, and has already received some field training in South Dakota.

If you know someone in the market for a GREAT viz male pup in Cali, let me know.

What is this plant?

What is this plant?

BTW– anybody know what this plant is?  I flushed a covey from a stand of it a couple weeks ago.  I was pretty surprised because it was thick and stood about 4 feet tall.  I didn’t think quail liked tall, tight veg because it’s hard to see?  In any event the stand was in a somewhat marshy area just above waterline.

I Broke My Dog

Teddy went for his first official bird training today with some of his littermates.  He was doing great and then… the gun went off.  While I had shot around him before, with some gunshy tendencies, today’s lesson made clear I’ve officially made him gunshy.  Honey I broke the dog! (I’d share the vid but WordPress won’t let me share vid files).

It was kind of like what I imagine getting my first phone call from my son in jail will be like.  He screwed up, but it’s my fault.

His other littermates also showed some good interest in birds, and one of them also was a little gunshy (he had not been exposed to cap shots since taken to new home 3 months ago).  So it may be that these vizslas are just a little sensitive in general.

But clearly there’s work to do on that.  Here’s my list:

– don’t take him hunting with me over the next month or so;

– I’ve downloaded a gunshot sound on my phone; play that every time before I feed him;

– play the gunshot sound when I reward him playing the “find the quail wing” in the backyard game, which he is really good at;

– turn up the volume on both as he becomes more comfortable with it;

– take him out and fire the shotgun from far away, with treats and chukar/quail wings.

Hopefully that approach will allow me to actually be able to hunt with him by the end of the season.

Another takeaway from the training is my personal discomfort with the treatment of the birds.  I don’t like the idea of crippling something so it can be abused.  Afterwards I made a point of asking for the dead birds so I could eat them, but admittedly I’m very conflicted about this.  If the only way to train my dog is to torture a bunch of birds then I’m not sure I can go this training route.  I’d rather just wait until Teddy matures up and learns in the wild.

We have another training in a couple of weeks, we’ll see how that goes.

Thoughts and/or cuffs to the head appreciated…

Ticked, Nicked, and Licked

Tough couple weeks for the pup.

Two weeks ago we came back from a hunt, and despite me looking over him pretty closely, I found 4 ticks on Teddy a couple days later. Unfortunately they were buried pretty good and I really had to dig to get them out.

Besides squirming out of puppy curiosity over the tweezers, he didn’t seem to mind, but there were four good-sized bumps that are still in the process of healing today. The bumps don’t seem to bother him much and aren’t infected, but I’m a little concerned about Lyme Disease, as they were a species that can carry it (western black legged ticks).

I’ve previously had a dog with Lyme’s and it did affect him, so I’m watching it closely.

Then part 2: earlier this week another health issue– he and another Vizsla pup were running to get out the door and jammed each other at the frame.

Teddy starting howling and crying something awful and I was sure he broke his right front leg, as he started limping terribly and flopping his foot forward lamely.

After a couple of minutes he started prancing around again, but I could tell he wasn’t playing as hard as normal because he was letting that other younger, smaller Viz pup mount and dominate him. Not his normal MO.

I decided to take him to the vet yesterday and the diagnosis is a sprain, not broken, which is good, right? However, the hard part is for him to “take it easy”– which the vet noted was going to be a challenge for a puppy. And it has.

He’s going nuts in the house without his daily park times, to the point he’s running around, diving under the couch, and, yup, hurting himself all over again– crying, limping, and coming to me expecting a solution.

Well, here’s the solution, pup: stop being so gdam clumsy and chill out for a couple of days. Do they make straitjackets for dogs?

Re. the ticks– I’m not thrilled with the idea of throwing Frontline or other harsh chemicals on my pup, for his sake and that of my young kids. I don’t trust those long term treatments to be benign.

I have read about putting tea tree oil, or sandalwood, on as a short term repellant before I go out to the field for the day.

Has anyone had success with that, or other tick treatments?

Thanks in advance for any wisdom.

PS– I have found one thing that seems to calm him down– a fire! First fire in the hearth this season and he walked right up and made himself comfortable and cozy. Nice to know, hopefully it will stay chilly!

IMG_0721.JPG

Bird in Hand?

Before going for an afternoon hunt last week I stopped by ye olde Starbucks for some turbo juice– a little ritual that gets my brain going before the legs, which generally is a good idea.

Walking to the front door I nearly stepped on a healthy looking pigeon.  That plump little sucker was a nice reddish color, not the slate dirty grey most pigeons have.

I like to think of myself as a meat hunter.  I don’t hunt what I can’t eat.  But I’ll admit, the carbon cost of getting to the places where I can find critters I can kill is usually not a net win.

So it struck me.  Why don’t I just give this pigeon a boot.  A faux off-balance step, a swift toe-punch, one that could be mistaken by the people in tight black clothes around me as the clumsy stumblings of a sleep-deprived dad?  Albeit one with a tragic end?

It vexed me enough to stop and take this photo.  While I bust a couple coveys with the Pup, I got no quail on the hunt that day.

I saw the pigeon again today.  Keep it up pigeon.  Your days are numbered.

Dead pigeon walking.

Dead pigeon walking.

First Bird!

You may follow blogs written by experts, sharing helpful information to increase a particular competency you aspire to master.

This is not that blog.

This is a blog written by a nincompoop, with no skills or insights about hunting or dogs.  This is a selfish blog.  My goal is for people to read it, be mildly amused by my incompetence, and then offer advice on how to do things more sensibly.   Thus spoke Rookiebird.

This first entry relates my first quail hunt of the season, which was Pup’s first real hunting experience, and the random thoughts that occurred to me while out walking the Earth like Cane.

I live in Sacramento, and I can “get into birds” within the hour in the Coastal Range.  As usual I was accompanied on this hunt by another experience-challenged quail hunter, who specializes in shooting at birds that aren’t quail.  We’ll call him “Yankee”.

The first place we went was along a creek in a wilderness area.  This is a place I hunted last year with success (one bird taken over 4 trips) with plenty of birds to be found, if you worked for them.  The terrain is hilly and not the casual gentlemanly walk some folks think of when conjuring quail hunting, which is why I like it.

Two weeks prior I had gone scouting along the creek before the season opened with my sons and nephew, and literally we busted two good-sized coveys not 100 yards from the car.  Within the next mile we busted two more big coveys.  Opening day held great promise.

The night before opening day I eagerly pulled together my gear, re-checking zips and clothing in my backpack– I’m sure you know the feeling!  I got 4 hours of sleep but that was enough because the adrenaline was pumping.  I packed the dog, kissed the wife, and pulled out before dawn.

Yankee and I coffeed up and talked excitedly on the drive about hunting strategies, and caught up on life in general.  Pup detected our excitement and was crawling through the car, barking at birds he saw out the window.

We arrived with wisps of fog being torn by the hills, with elk barely visible along the way, like ghosts posted to welcome us back to the kingdom wilderness.  We tugged on our gloves, strapped up the packs, let Pup relieve himself, and chambered.  We crept down to an overlook that framed the creek, scoped, and began our descent into the rocks and reeds.

Readers you will not be surprised to learn we heard not a peep from a quail in the 5 hours we spent along that creek opening day.  Despite being the first ones on that creek, we saw not a feather.  I was astounded.  I swore to Yankee I had seen quail in good numbers just two weeks before.  I’m not sure he believed me.

After one last pass we decided to hit another area we had hunted previously, although it was a bit of a drive away.  It was a good decision.

Fifteen minutes later we were parked, and in opening car doors we heard the name of the City of Big Shoulders called out in the brush above.  Down below the car was a meadow with a trickle of water, closed around by a steep pitch of hills on three sides, one of them being a highway berm.  Yankee walked towards a group of manzanita and pine that emptied the stream running through the meadow, and I took the side closest to the berm 100 yards away.

We could not see anything but sparrows dancing around the meadow as we walked down.  Pup and I hit some high reeds (I wish I knew the species) as we got closer to the bottom of the meadow.  Pup was porpoising through the reeds, leaping high to push through the vegetation, when the sharp WHOMPING of a dozen quail popped out of these high reeds 10 feet in front of us.  I was caught totally unawares– I had read that quail do not like high vegetation, and did not expect them to be in  chest-high grass.

They flew towards the berm and I hesitated, as I did not want to shoot towards the highway.  As they turned and swept lower I took a shot– missed.  But that shot prompted several other quail to jump from the reeds, and these took a more direct route up the hill to the woods on my left, away from the highway berm.  I tracked one, pulled the trigger, it tumbled in air and fell.

I looked around quickly, waiting for more to bolt over the next few seconds.  Nothing.  Not wanting the downed quail to crawl somewhere I couldn’t find it, I started up the hill towards where it went down.  There was a barbed wire fence between us; I hadn’t even seen it, buried as it was in the tall grass.

Pup was jumping at me.  While the birds were flying I was focused on the quail, and hadn’t noticed how he reacted.  With him jumping at me I now realized he was a little scared.  He hadn’t detected the quail, and their quick jump and my shots caught him off-guard.

I quickly gave him some treats from my pocket (trying to create positive association), and then encouraged him to get through the fence so we could track down that bird.

The quail was right where I’d seen it go down, eyes closed, dead, and warm.  I called to Pup, encouraging him to sniff the ground to find the bird.

He sniffed, nosed, and mouthed the bird softly, picked it up and immediately started waggling his entire rear end, with his tail cantilevering the other way.  Pride in a puppy is not hard to interpret.

I took a photo of him with bird in mouth, and he released the bird to me without a fuss.  Success.

The quail was a female, and heavier than the bird I got last year.  Beautiful and speckled on the breast, I marveled over the intricate design and structure of its feathers and wings.  Imagine killing such a perfect thing.

We eat.  We live.  We must have things die so we can live.  My sons and I ate the bird that night after plucking and gutting it, again marveling over its intricate machined insides.

That was the only bird we got that day.  Yankee was skunked and Pup was bone-tired.

On the drive back I pondered many things.  As a big game hunter for some time now, I’ve had those internal conversations probing the morality of hunting, those questions Ortega y Gassett played with.

I’ve gotten to the point where there is no self-incrimination, but only questions thrown about in the mind.  I figure if I stop asking them I should stop hunting.

Other questions, though, about strategy and training will be prosecuted.  I’ll need to continue better acclimating Pup to the shotgun blast.  Also, should I focus on locking in his pointing first, and then start training retrieval (he’s naturally doing a bit of both now)?  Is it possible to work on them both without one coming at the expense of the other?  If you have answers, I’m anxious to hear them!

Until then, more questions and more adventures, in the next episode of… Rookiebird!

Thanks for reading!

Pup's first bird!

Pup’s first bird!

Across Misty Mountain hops.

Across Misty Mountain hops.

Pup is ready!

Pup is ready!

The cleaned bird and the shot that got'em.  Anybody know what plant those seeds are from?

The cleaned bird and the shot that got’em. Anybody know what plant those seeds are from?