Late-Season Roosters

Published in the East Oregonian, January 18th, 2020. 

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Let’s face it. Whether satisfying a hard-charging, time-consuming passion or taking afield as a weekend warrior, hunting hard can wear you down. And, Heaven forbid, at some point you may even want to take a break. From my perspective, I don’t necessarily want a day off. But the pre-dawn wakeup calls get old in a hurry once the temperature dips below freezing. This is where pheasant and I have something in common.

A general theme among pheasant hunters is to bust thick roosting and refuge cover all season long. This is a solid, proven tactic. However, the terrain and expanse of wheat in our area can narrow covers and funnel the wind, setting up a repeated, ideal scenting approach, worn out by the hunter/canine duo.

Rooster pheasant are some of the sharpest game birds out there, sporting incredibly fleet feet. They wise up quickly, particularly to repetition. And by the end of the first month of the upland season, finding roosters willing to hold for a pointing dog is like telling your buddy with a straight face that his Griffon is “stylish” as it backs your setter. Not happening! (Relax, I am only kidding.)

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Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season. Pheasant spend a large part of their day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among our rolling ag-lands. It’s true that severe cold will force birds to seek heavy refuge cover and stay in it or near it much of the day. On average winter days, bird may sit longer in the morning before leaving cover, but they will lazily leave and move upslope to feed and loaf in the sun in often overlooked covers. And the bonus goes to the uplander who capitalizes on this behavior, enjoying a later, more relaxed morning before heading afield.

Late-season roosters are bound to flush further ahead and out of gun range relative to early-season. The majority of the birds will vacate public land when pushed, but a handful are likely to drop back into the refuge cover and sit tight or disperse to predictable pockets. If the roost cover is what you and your dog work best, go ahead and hit it early, but consider this: There may be another approach angle conducive to pushing fleeing birds into strategic locations for a second contact.

The experience of flushing a quail covey and hunting singles sprinkled across the prairie can translate to pheasant, particularly when flocked up at the tail end of the season. I have found this productive with flocks generally of more than a dozen birds.

Another strategy is to hunt with partners and additional dogs. I spend the majority of my season alone with one or two setters on the ground at once, which puts me at a disadvantage over those who hunt with friends or run flushing dogs in the thick stuff. First, identify any likely escape routes and try to cut them off. Also, narrow points that you can spread across and push birds into are likely to hold birds longer as some will be reluctant to flush into open areas like an expanse of planted wheat field.

Vary your path through cover. If I had a nickel for every rooster that ran around the dog and flushed behind me, I might have five bucks by now (you can do the math). Walking a predictable path allows a wily rooster an easy escape. By varying your path, you are more likely to encounter that escape artist trying to pull the end-around on you, forcing a flush out front, opposed to over the shoulder; a much higher-percentage opportunity. The only downside? There are no [legitimate] excuses for a miss out front.

Alright, we’ve covered the coverts. Let’s consider a few other points. How often do you hunt quietly? Pheasant will flush at the sound of a distant car door or voices when heavily pressured. Leave the whistles and beeper collars in the truck. Speak only when necessary and use soft voices. This sounds a little silly and extreme, but is a must if you hunt public land or public access.

I use a whistle and run my setters in vests. I have seen roosters flush hundreds of yards ahead at the blast of a whistle or the sound of brush against the vest as the dogs close in. I avoid all unnecessary auditory communication with my dogs by mid-November, relying heavily on visual cues to direct them, even when they want to run big.

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Now, what are you shooting? I have been a 16-guage fan for years, but finally broke down and bought a CZ Bobwhite G2, chambered 20-gauge. Loaded with 3-inch magnum Kent steel 4-shot, this little gem has secured more pheasant this year than I have ever touched in my upland career. While some claim that the 20-gauge is best swapped for a 12-gauge magnum load when hunting extreme cold, I have no intention of switching out for late season. With that said, I do agree that magnum loads are a must, as well as larger gauges if you consistently shoot lighter loads, as extreme cold can rob power from the powder charge.

Another consideration is choke, and I do recommend choking up with colder weather and the potential for pheasant to flush further out. Remember that steel patterns tighter than lead. This means that when changing out choke tubes (if you have this luxury), swap to “improved cylinder” if you want to shoot a “modified” pattern, for example. For a double gun, I recommend “improved cylinder” and “modified” chokes for steel shot and “modified” and “full” for lead shot.

As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors considering upland food sources over lowland coverts. The pheasant season ends December 31st in eastern Oregon, but the eastern Washington season runs through January 20th this year (two days left). You can pick up a 3-day non-resident small game license for $68 and there is plenty of “Feel-Free-to-Hunt” land within an hour of Walla Walla.

Regardless of how you play the game, bask in the moment of every hunt. Our passion is stoked by the time afield, the work of the dog, the feel of that coveted scatter gun, cold in our hands, and the distant cackle of a rooster making a fool of all who pursue him. Tail feathers protruding from the vest, while hard earned and respected, is mere icing on the cake.

Kings, Pawns and Jesters in the Game of Grouse

Published in the East Oregonian, September 19th, 2020

“King of the woods”. Otherwise known as the ruffed grouse. I won’t go so far as to agree with those who believe ruffs are the king of all upland birds, yet I am yielding to this “king of the woods” business.

There’s an old saying about hunting chukar that goes something like “at first you hunt them for fun, then you hunt for revenge”. I have found with chukar that I hold no hate strong enough to chase them down (or up) the cliffs and scree slopes and plummet-to-your-death, inhospitable hell holes where I have never before seen so many birds in my life. It’s just not worth it. But I will say that I am wholly undecided on it being passion, challenge, or vengeance that calls me back to the grouse covers.

My setters and I have secured a comfortable routine hunting prairie birds across the west, and my desire to run the dogs earlier in the season is what drove me to the grouse covers. And nowhere have I been more frequently frustrated to the point of maniacal laughter like in the dark tangles of the Blue Mountains.

In the literal thick of things when a grouse blows my socks off, my brain short-circuits, fumbling gun mount and lead timing. The 3.2 nanosecond shot opportunity a ruff leaves in its wake, screaming through pinholes in impenetrable vegetated walls sufficient to challenging a Jedi Interceptor require far quicker reflexes.

My oldest Llewellin, Finn, searches a wetland for ole ruff.

If you’ve ever hunted timber of the ruff’s preferred stem density, you know precisely the dodgy, Mach-speed flight these birds are capable of. Instinctual shooting is a must. The kind of target acquisition born nowhere short of a lifetime in the grouse woods. Thinking is not an option. Not even a blackberry thicket quail covert requires so much anticipation and keen attention to the flush.

But there is something more to success on roughed grouse than snappy, savvy handling of walnut and steel. A good grouse cover is like the Bermuda Triangle. Grouse appear and vanish like apparitions. Pointing dogs lock up staunch, then suddenly peel off, only to be stymied by the explosion of a bird behind them. A bird they assumed was never there at all.

The fall of 2019 was my best grouse year on record if you count finds and flushes. About average if you figure I never managed to squeeze off a shot. Having three legitimate opportunities among a dozen flushes, I succumbed to panic.

My last hunt of December placed my middle pup Yuba and I in scraggly ninebark flanking a young red alder stand. The slick, greenish tinge of the alder shone a brilliant contrast to the dark timber along the Tucannon River. Candy-apple red rose hips shone radiantly like Christmas lights amid the dim forest. And Yuba, a stocky tri-color Llewellin setter, stood firm, etched into the fabric of the forest.

Thinking it a “grousey” spot, I circled around for the flush only to see Yuba reconsider and peel off to continue her search.

“There has got to be a bird in there.” I thought as I stood atop a small mound, staring daggers into the shrubbery maze.

 At once, a glorious male ruff rose from the crisp, ocher leaf litter with three swift wingbeats. Either the savage gleam in my eye spooked him or he was never actually there, but for the first time that season, both barrels of my L.C. Smith 12-gauge covered the bird immediately. Tracking as closely as a fighter jet target lock, I swung with the bird. I have never taken a male ruff, and still haven’t to this day.

My youngest Llewellin, Zeta, takes a break on a September hunt.

Shocked by its lazy escape and the unbelief that the bird even existed or that my superstar Yuba betrayed her own instincts, I stared down the barrels at the coal-black neck ruff, finger poised on the trigger, begging to energize the modified-choke barrel. The handsome gent evaporated into dense fir, my finger still pressuring the trigger. Befuddled, my cognitive ability failed to disengage the safety. Yuba and I shared a look of bewilderment and called it good on a season of lessons.

Nearly a year hence, having practiced my mount and prepared mentally for the grouse game, we set out to discover new covers. Running my oldest and youngest, Finn and Zeta, we traversed a creekside snarl of cottonwood and young fir flanked by thick hawthorn and serviceberry. I could sense the bird, clutching my 20-gauge CZ Bobwhite (The Bob) as Zeta encircled a fir on the edge of a clearing.

The ruff made a 10-foot leap, coming down quickly between the dog and I. Darting between trees, scrambling for a clear shot, the bird came up again, a big male, and The Bob was on it with alacrity. To my delight, I pulled off the shot in a fraction of a second, then stood mystified, gazing into the riparian jumble as another male ruff slipped into the safety of distance. Reaching into my vest, I retrieved the two high-velocity #7 loads that I recalled with certainty closing tightly in the action upon exiting the truck.

Years of frustrations. Screw-ups. Shoddy bird numbers. Ghost birds. Dog blunders. All for the sake of a bird that commands respect only to offend at will. Feeling at times like the peasant among royalty, begging for a meager chance to gaze upon the delightful plumage of the elusive ruffed grouse. My girls and I made a mockery of an upland team.

King of the Woods or Lord of the Louts? Perhaps both.

My middle Llewellin, Yuba, with one of the occasional grouse to grace our game bag.