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.

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?