Anticipate the Flush

Every bird dog has its own style with nuances that tell a different story in a variety of hunting situations. In this post, I explain the subtleties in the posture and eyes of my oldest Llewellin setter, Finn. What has your pointing dog been telling you over the years?

Give it a read at Uplander Lifestyle!

Carving an Upland Niche

“As an upland jack of all trades, my setters have adapted to a variety of situations, most of which (exception = chukar) they handle well, but there is something to be said for those who carve a niche on a particular quarry.”

Primarily a pheasant hunter, I fell victim to an affair with California quail, and have not looked back. The dog work and camaraderie I have experienced in the quail coverts, particularly over the 2018-2019 upland season, has piqued my interest and opened my mind. Jimmy Carter once said that “life’s just too short to go quail hunting with the wrong people.” On the contrary, show me quail hunters and I’ll show you the right people.

So, what’s your upland niche? Read more at Uplander Lifestyle.

Back-country Trek for Treasure Lakes Trout

Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below.

The journey to landing a California golden trout on the fly in the Sierra Nevada was by far my most thrilling bucket-list adventure yet. What you need to know to make it happen is contained within the pages of the May 2019 edition of California Game and Fish Magazine.

Read it here!

Paddle-boarding the Snake: It’s for the Dogs

Published August 1st, 2019 in the The Times

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The first time I spied a stand-up paddle board (SUP) was cruising South on Highway 97 somewhere around Orondo, WA, on the Columbia River. A perplexing and comical sight, it appeared that folks were paddling surf boards and going nowhere for no reason and not getting there any time soon. I later realized these folks were paddling SUPs. The “going nowhere in no hurry” aspect was simply relaxation; a concept poorly grasped by many in our fast-paced society.

I swiftly dismissed the notion of ever owning such a silly contraption subsequent to my first encounter. (I also have a solid history of eating crow.) New gear like a paddle board needs to check several boxes on the hobby list and I simply could not fathom how a SUP would be useful or enjoyable. But as a hopeless fly fisherman and avid upland bird hunter with water-loving Llewellin setters, I am always pondering new tools to address both needs. So, it’s no surprise that several years after vowing I would never own one, my wheels started turning on SUP possibilities.

The Times readership suffers the good fortune of having the Snake River with its myriad public access opportunities in our backyards. And for many of us (myself included), these resources are underutilized. Watercraft can unlock doors to outdoor recreation, but a boat can be untenable or impractical, leaving one to assume there is little to be gained from the big water otherwise. This very logic led me to considering SUP capabilities for local summer fly fishing in lieu of the more expensive and time-consuming boat alternative. Then it hit me. The setters would love it.

A couple evenings of internet research turned up an inflatable model of modest color, capable of supporting 441 pounds; a weight limit providing enough free-board to handle my Neanderthal frame and all of my three setter girls. What’s more, I thought I might be able to coax my lovely wife, Ali, into playing a little more on the weekends.

Having secured our new watercraft, we made the maiden voyage at Little Goose Landing just upstream of Little Goose Dam on Snake’s south shore. Fortunately, there were few campers to be entertained at my expense. While completely stable when seated or kneeling, raising my center of gravity to full height presented an entirely different scenario. The key to stability was to control my rapid-fire muscle reaction to the unsteadiness to avoid worsening the situation.

Getting the hang of it, I decided it was time to onboard my setter, Finn. She eagerly jumped aboard, but her excited jostling doubled the difficulty, bringing me to my knees with alacrity. Eventually we kind of got the hang of it together; at least the paddling on my knees part.  Anyone with bird dog experience knows that they make sweeping casts in the field to cover ground and find birds. Finn bounces from side-to-side in the truck, which apparently transfers to watercraft as well.

With legs splayed, taking careful steps, Finn tottered with each dip of the SUP, then countered with an abrupt push to the other side. It was touch-and-go for a bit on remaining upright, but she finally relaxed a little and decided to take a seat. What she enjoyed most was jumping from the dock and swimming out to be picked up for a boat ride.

Switching off with Ali, we encouraged our little polliwog and youngest setter, Zeta, to give it a shot. Zeta loves swimming far more than bird hunting, so the paddle board was a natural fit. She seemed to enjoy the ride, peering down through the emerald water at the weeds and sunfish, but was most entertained by jumping from the dock onto the SUP, then off into the water once away from the dock. And, in classic Zeta fashion, she always made the attempt to swim to the opposite shore, far away from mom and dad.

Finally, our timid middle pup, Yuba, took a shot at it. She enjoys water the least among the three and was quite skeptical. I sat with her between my legs as we paddled, and I think she actually enjoyed herself a little. She was the most unstable and all but knocked herself off the board a few times. While wading over belly-deep is not high on her priority list, she was quite proud of her puppy life vest. Being a bird dog that wears an orange vest in the field, donning a vest of any kind equates to a good time.

Kicking the pups off, I decided to go for a quick paddle alone to test out the fishing potential. Kneeling, I slipped the SUP into the back of the inlet at the launch, gliding effortlessly into fly casting range of a large carp. My thoughts instantly drifted to a Tenkara rod with minimal gear, tossing small flies for sunfish and bass, or even a San Juan worm for the carp (a story for another time). If I wasn’t before, at this point I was sold on the SUP for fishing. Not to mention the inflatable SUPs weigh about 24 pounds and can be packed up with pump and paddle into a frame pack for remote opportunities.

Windy conditions on the main river channel can be unsafe, but there’s nothing stopping you from hitting the inlets at U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boat launches and recreation areas. These off-channel waters are generally sheltered from wind and typically receive little boat activity aside from launching or taking out.

So, what are you waiting for? A SUP is something the entire family can get behind, and the inflatables are constructed of a durable polyvinylchloride shell like a whitewater raft, so they are tough. They are even big enough to serve as a floating couch, and if you are into fitness, standing and paddling is a full-body workout. Just remember to check Coast Guard and state regulations about personal watercraft before taking to the water. At minimum, a SUP requires a life jacket and whistle, which should be worn at all times.

If you think a SUP might be something you and your family would enjoy, check out the Stand Up Paddle Boarding Basics blog series from REI to get started (read here). Your dog (and maybe your significant other) will thank you!

Grouse of the September Uplands

Publish September 5th, 2019, The Waitsburg Times

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With the summer heat still baking the brown and brittle landscape, dog work would need to be restricted to the precious early morning hours of refuge. Fortunately, we were blessed with an overcast sky; one of the first to come of the early fall season. But the transition to autumn was in full swing, presenting a soothing canvas of large pines towering dark above the reddening of the Oregon grape and snowberry, and the fading yellow of elderberry leaves accented by their rich, black berry clusters.

The remains of an old road wound its way along a tributary of the Tucannon. The native shrubbery was speckled with the remnants of homesteads that once grew lush with apples and plums. The homes are gone, but the old fruit trees hung heavy with bright red apples and golf ball-sized orange and purple plums; their delicate offering a gift to the wildlife seeking to plump a bit for winter’s arrival.

Hiking the road, my mind wandered to days gone by. I pondered what the old homes may have looked like. Had they raised livestock? Did they grow vegetable gardens? I could almost taste the sweetness with a hint of pectin tang from the canned preserves that may have come from one of the old plum trees. Basking in fantasy, my muse was jolted back into reality. My innate setter sense triggered a subconscious reminder that my girls were missing, and dead silent above the ambient roar of the creek.

A couple whistle toots usually brings them back around for a check-in, but not a sole moved for a visible quarter mile. Adrenaline kicked in, and my leisurely stroll swiftly transformed into a calculated search for white, speckled bodies, little orange vests, and high setter tails flagging a pinned bird in the soft breeze.

Ruffed grouse or “ruffies” received namesake from the ruff of feathers around their necks. They are one of many miraculous upland bird species on the Columbia Plateau, and the first of the upland seasons to open in our little corner of Washington. But it’s a tough season, opening September 1st, concurrent with the early deer archery season. Temperature can soar into the 90s, wildfires can diminish air quality, and the thickets that these birds inhabit can challenge the most seasoned of hunters.

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Hunting ruffed grouse became an upland tradition in Appalachia and the Northwoods many moons ago before the early decline of the northern bobwhite quail. An icon of the northern deciduous and boreal forests, their chest-pounding “drumming” echoes throughout the timber like autumn’s noble ambassador. The literary world offers a wealth of praise to ruffies from a simple emotional mention of grouse drumming, to entire volumes dedicated to what some regard as the “king of upland birds”. And a tradition this strong is sure to span a continent and beyond.

But the plethora of upland bird species and the overlap with big game seasons in the west has made the ruffed grouse seemingly less sought-after quarry, at least here in the Walla Walla River watershed. While I commonly share my public land pheasant coverts with others, I have yet to meet another grouse hunter afield in Washington.

Ruffies occupy a variety of habitats and elevations, but are quite fond of thick cover offering insect and tender vegetation food sources during the summer months, while fruits and berries serve as a winter food source. And a variety of food sources requires a mix of conifer and deciduous forest. In the Blue Mountains, this translates to creek bottoms and draws where elderberry, serviceberry, snowberry, hawthorn, and possibly some aspen occur, intermixed among or flanking fir and spruce species.

Given the tangled and sometimes prickly nature of grouse coverts, walking old forest roads presents the most efficient, and at times, the most pleasurable experience, particularly if working a dog with a GPS locator. Historically, a bell was hung from the dog’s collar, and some folks in the Northwoods still prefer the traditional gear. In any case, letting a dog do the brush-busting dirty work is my preference, although the most successful grouse hunters charge right into the thick of things.

Stepping from the road, I wound my way into a thicket of hawthorn and snowberry with a few pines poking up through for good measure. A darkly shaded mess of impossibility lay ahead as I dropped to a knee, ducked a few low branches, and began clawing my way in. Blackberry tendrils clung to the edges and my flannel shirt as if trying to sway me from entering the torture chamber.

Straining deeper in, I finally spied a speck of white about twenty feet ahead where snowberry met pine; my oldest Llewellin, Finn, on steadfast point. Crashing through the understory, I clambered as quickly as possible to reach her, cautiously optimistic that the bird would hold through the racket. A bit further into the snarl I spotted Yuba honoring Finn’s point, affirming the bird was indeed holding.

Anticipating the flush, planting my left foot forward triggered an explosion of wingbeats against the heavy vegetation. A blur of brown feathers and white setters ensued as my old 16-gauge side-by-side came to shoulder, reporting a clean miss. My split-second shot window vanished with the grouse, now sailing full tilt toward safer cover. Another performance typical of our little team.

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We regrouped on the far side of the jumble for a drink and some puppy praise, then resumed the mission, but grouse hunting does not have to be this difficult. Rain actually plays a major role in my success. Ruffies tend to slip out of the woodwork in the rain, spending time along mountain roads and other more open edges with good cover nearby. A quiet stroll under the pitter-patter of a shower has by far afforded me the most success, no pointing dog required. For this reason, and the likelihood of a spooked grouse sailing into a nearby tree within range of a small caliber rifle or arrow, ruffies in the west have also earned the nickname “fool hen”. But those who utter such blasphemy have never hunted grouse in the deciduous forests east of the Mississippi River.

If September archery hunting just isn’t your game, grab your favorite scattergun and hit the timber at sunrise. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife 10-year harvest trend, grouse numbers in our corner of the state are rebounding from a 2015 low, likely on their normal, cyclical pattern. The W.T. Wooten Wildlife Area and Umatilla National Forest surrounding the upper Tucannon River provide a variety of habitats and opportunities.

Prior timber harvest offers an easy hike for youngster to become immersed in the uplands along old harvest roads closed to vehicles. You stand a good chance at seeing moose, mule deer and bear. The tranquility of a soft, pink sunrise and songbirds welcoming the day is broken only by the energetic flush of a ruffie erupting from cover.

The Autumn Stream Palette

Published October 3rd, 2019, The Waitsburg Times

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Fall is undoubtedly the most anticipated and contested season of the year, and rightfully so in both regards. The fat days of summer are quickly drawing to a close at our latitude, even more dramatically in climates further north. Darkness cloaks our early waking hours and morning routines, not to mention the crispness on the air, leaving little motivation to escape the comfort of our beds, save for the increasingly satisfying steam and piquant aroma of coffee or tea tantalizing our nostrils and taste buds on such mornings.

The transition from a season of glut to a season of thrift. Hunting, gathering, fattening, reproduction, all to the tune of Mother Nature’s rhythm. The birds are heading south; their innate sense of the season to come urging them to seek warmer climates and more abundant food sources. The last of the humming birds are scarcely seen as they migrate from northerly portions of their summer range. Flocks of drab, olive-toned gold finches visit bird baths en route as curious nuthatches and black and tan towhees begin to appear. The vibrant, red berry clusters of the mountain ash begin brightening to brilliant orange in time for the arrival of masked cedar waxwings from higher elevations.

The long-awaited early upland and big game seasons are upon us as deer fawns lose their spots and wild turkeys build their winter flocks. Elk bugles pierce the wilderness canyons, echoing through the timber like an autumn canticle. And the bedraggled, teenage pheasant roosters are finally coming into their handsome adult ensemble. But what lurks below emboldens many, not to be second best among the terrestrial grandeur. There are coho, Chinook and steelhead to be caught, but the high mountain cutthroat, rainbows, and even the eastern transplant brook trout are calling those patiently waiting for the summer heat to ease and the October rains to replenish the headwaters.

Cutthroat trout

The paling of the upland aspen and streamside cottonwood and alder, the blushing of snowberry and the blackening of elderberry fruit paints a soft contrast against the russet, heat-baked hills and basalt. Water temperature is optimal and the trout feisty. Ominous skies draw out the long-awaited October caddis hatch, triggering trout to rise aggressively, snatching the burley, moth-sized flies as they dip to the water surface to deposit their eggs. Among the largest of the caddis species, the October caddis serves to quickly fatten trout for their upcoming months of sluggishness, feeding largely on nymphs.

The final hurrah of the big fly season, hulking stimulator patterns tied tawny with deer hair and eye-catching orange or red bodies fight the slightest of breeze as a floating fly line shoots for the edge of a backwater or pool tail-out. A cutthroat, now coming into its prime, rolls on the stimulator from the shelter of lazy waters. Boasting rich, buttery flanks, an olive-tinged dorsal region and faint flush of pink adorning the belly, the cutthroat is the natural 24-karat gold of many western streams.

Not to be outdone, the rainbow, so aptly named for its prismatic sheen, rockets airborne from the tumult between pools. Preferring faster water, rainbows are the pure muscle of montane waters. Their dazzling shades of blue, violet, olive and rose, decorated with an incredible varying of pepper flecks serves to entrance and addict anyone to ever marvel over such a finned spectacle. Splashing down into the froth, a sizeable rainbow hits top speed in an instant, leaving an unprepared angler fishing for a fresh stimulator in the fly box.

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And then there is the master of shadows. The one who seeks brush and boulder seclusion. Their fall routine being quite different from the other trout, possibly because they are not trout at all. Brook trout are actually a char, their scientific name, genus Salvelinus, sets them and their western bull trout cousin apart from the other trout of genus Oncorhynchus. A native of the eastern U.S., their widespread range hard won over ages of fighting steep, flashy torrents and heavy woody debris loads. Their aggressive attitude and insatiable appetite make them vulnerable to angling, particularly during fall as their tenacity and brilliance peaks for spawning.

Soft pink bellies blaze into fiery orange-red. Their dull, gray dorsal darkens to a deep ocean olive-blue streaked by worm-like striations. Their peculiar pink spotting with the sky-blue halo darkens to a stunning hue like decorative buttons on a jacket lapel. But their most unique identifying trait is the mark of the char; the stark-white leading fin spine on the pectoral, pelvic and anal fins, trimmed in pitch black, sets a marvelous contrast to the dominantly red fin. They may pose an invasive species threat to native trout in the west, but their splendor is inarguable.

Bulls, bucks, pheasant and ducks; the allure is potent and justified. But on those heaven-sent, bluebird October mornings when the mercury falls, the waters are calling. Sun-kissed creek bottoms flowing through a kaleidoscope of changing vegetation sets the backdrop for a well-placed fly and a radiant adipose fin. And for a brief moment, painted among the autumn stream palette, may we achieve true serenity, blessed to witness nature in its most vibrant glory of the wild trout.

The Rios of Fall

Fall turkey hunting the Walla Walla Valley is as fine an experience as it gets!

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Published in the Walla Walla Union Bulletin, September 22nd, 2019.

The grandeur of a wild turkey in full strut, spitting, drumming and gobbling their hormone-crazed heads off lures the masses of anxious hunters, wrought with spring fever. Spring is an amazing season to hit the woods with colorful tree and flower buds and the first green grasses of the warm season. The chill in the early morning air quickly vacates as golden sun rays breach the eastern horizon. Then there are hunters like myself, who don’t buy into the farce of calling spring turkeys. Autumn is our season of conviction and pursuit of all things upland. Fall may represent the annual cycle of senescence, but the season also holds rejuvenation, calm and terrific turkey hunting.

A heavy November fog hung in the pines, cloaking the forty-some birds in their evergreen roost, high above my brushy ground cover. Turkeys had flocked up for winter, and like clockwork, entered their routine of roosting in a small pine strip along the Touchet River. Soft yelps and clucks wafting from the canopy were barely audible above the babbling river, but soon evolved into a boisterous cacophony as the sun fought to tear through the fallen ceiling. Having never mastered the art of calling turkeys, I sat quietly, awaiting the birds’ vacation from roost.

As visibility increased to about thirty yards, the inharmonious ruckus from overhead fell silent. Had I moved? Had they heard me? My mind raced with the paranoid cogitations of a turkey hunter familiar with failure. And as abruptly as the birds had fallen silent, the pines erupted. Turkeys spewed from all angles in unison, hidden entirely by fog; their heavy wing beats showering the understory with the mist deposited among the trees. A short glide carried them to a nearby wheat field where tender green sprouts topped the breakfast menu. Time to move.

Eastern, Rio Grande and Merriam’s subspecies of wild turkey are found in Washington, none of which are native to the state. Efforts to introduce wild turkeys into Washington began in the early 1900s with present populations possibly containing descendant genetics of those transplanted since about 1960, but an aggressive transplant program from the mid-1980s dramatically increased the state’s wild turkey populations. Presently, the Eastern subspecies can be found in the lower Cascade region, Merriam’s in northeast and central Washington down through Yakima, and the Rio Grande occurs largely in the southeast counties along the Snake River.

The Rio Grande subspecies (Rio) was selected for southeast Washington to match the turkey to the habitat most closely associated with its south-central U.S. native range. Rios prefer to nest within a quarter mile of perennial water and select winter roost and forage areas in wooded streamside habitats. Grasses, forbs, fruits from shrubs like serviceberry and golden currant, and insects make up the Rio diet. Although not expressly stated in literature, turkeys often select conifers for roosting. While turkeys are notoriously difficult to call in spring, having a basic understanding of fall habitat and forage preferences is more than half the battle for fall hunting success.

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Many of the perennial stream corridors in the Walla Walla River watershed are characterized by narrow riparian strips with a mix of trees and shrubs, flanked by dry land crops. Fall flocks can generally be patterned to roosting and feeding in these areas. Spotting a large flock is relatively easy, and in my experience, they generally remain within an approximate one-mile radius of their preferred winter habitat.

Once a flock is located, spot-and-stalk tactics similar to deer hunting can prove tremendously successful for fall Rios. Using the terrain and other cover to conceal movement as you close the distance on a feeding flock, it seems safety in numbers allows these otherwise paranoid fowl to unwind.

Creeping toward the wheat field using brush and trees as cover, I managed to avoid visual detection as the Rios fed. Although acting in predator mode, I was captivated by the sweet sound of the resuming discordant orchestra of yelps, clucks and purrs. Cover grew thin as I gained elevation on the hillside below the wheat field, so I hit the deck, slithering through mud and grasses to reach a final ambush behind a fence-side rose thicket.

Peeping through the rose on the right flank of the thicket, I spied a small group of hens separating from the main flock and feeding toward me. With movements largely concealed by the rose, I eased my grandpa’s old Ithaca Model 37 pump across a fence wire and selected a large hen. But a turkey’s vision is incredibly keen. Busted.

Remaining stone still, my gut crawled into my throat as heads popped up, necks stretched high, and alarm “puts” began to wave through the handful of birds. With eyes closed, forcing shallow breaths, I awaited the disheartening sound of the flock vacating the county, but much to my surprise, the hen clique began to calm. Cracking an eyelid, I saw the distant turkeys paying no attention to the alarmed hens. Barring mass hysteria, the hens relaxed and began feeding again. Settling the Ithaca bead, I notched another fall turkey tag.

Although Rios appear drab gray from a distance, close inspection reveals marvelous plumage. When viewed from various angles, back and wing feathers boast rich hues of copper, emerald, and auburn. The tail fan is tipped with an elegant tawny band, and jakes and gobblers sport brilliant pinkish-orange blotches on the neck and head. While some turkey hunters are driven afield in search of beards and spurs, the overall spectacle that is a wild turkey, not to mention the table fare, is trophy enough for this upland hunter.

Thankful for the Opportunity

Fall sparks a time of reflection and thanks, and the Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect time to be thankful for our public lands and natural wonders.

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Published in the Waitsburg Times, November 7th, 2019.

The month of November is a special month. Not only because it’s like an extension of October in the Walla Walla Valley, or that the late season big game hunts are open. Rather, November offers a time of reflection as winter approaches and we gather with friends and family to give thanks. Given my love for fall, I spend many cool evenings reflecting on the outdoor opportunities I have been afforded over the years, and the magnificence of our nation’s natural resources.

One extraordinary September evening a decade ago, twelve hours to the southeast of Waitsburg, I stood amid the roar of the Maison River in Yellowstone National Park. The sun had settled peacefully behind the western peaks while the cool humidity of fall sank into the river bottom. A soft, white haze began to form about ten feet off the water as the cool air from above fought to smother the moderately warmer temperature and moisture rising from the river.

To my left was a pewter-colored, house-sized boulder with a massive log jam against the upstream side. The river had undercut the boulder and placed a couple logs on the downstream edge as well. The twilight cast a dense glare across the river surface, but climbing up and standing atop the boulder, I could peer down and see a few very large mountain whitefish in the eddy on the downstream side. They darted swiftly in and out of the flow beneath the shelter of the logs.

Time was wearing thin, so I dropped back into the river on the thalweg side. There was a glorious seam near a gravel bar across the current, and my size 18 Adams was destined to be picked up by a feisty rainbow or brown trout. Preparing to cast, I stripped out a fair piece of my floating line and began loading the rod with short casting motions. Glancing to my left, the sight of my beautiful little blonde girlfriend, Ali, waist deep in the current and laying out a dry fly with her golden locks trailing behind her brought a warm smile.

I stood momentarily entranced in the scene of my future bride fishing the Madison, but my revelry began to fade with the faint sound of a cow elk mewing, and then another, and yet another. Spotting movement behind Ali, I gawked awestruck for minutes as the dark evergreens under the fading light began to writhe with elk. Big, tawny bulls with rich, molasses manes, raghorns, cows and calves maneuvered among the trees on the opposite river bank. They slowly fed and drink directly opposite us as we remained stone still. I felt a fleeting sense belonging, as if welcomed into their world. We were just part of the woodwork.

Ail Fitzgerald fishing the Madison as a bison watches

Daylight vanished with my rod held at my side. I simply stood there and drank in every precious moment of that scene as the final shred of visibility faded around a couple fly fishermen engulfed by the ambient tumbling river and the screams of rutting bulls. We climbed from the chill of the river, stripped out of our waders, and fired up the heat in our rig as we returned to our West Yellowstone hotel. That trip was noteworthy for a number of reasons, all of which are owed their own story, but fishing the evening hatch on the Madison will remain one of my fondest memories of Yellowstone, and early dating with my wife.

Recalling that moment on the Madison conjures another elk story, only this one occurred an hour from town. It was modern firearm deer season and I had packed into the Wenaha, spiked a camp, and hunted the high ridges with my buddy, Marvin, in hopes of spotting a good mule deer buck and making a move on him.

It was frigid for October and spitting snow. The Eagle Caps appeared as two small, snow-covered hummocks to the distant southeast. The atmosphere lit up around the peaks, pink as cotton candy from the few straggling rays of sun clutching the horizon. I could feel darkness approaching; an impenetrable cloak meant to shield the world from its own inhabitants.

In years past, I had seen mule deer in this meadow, and packed a buddy’s elk on a pack string after clawing our way up from the jagged bowls of the canyon bottom. My only encounter this day was cutting the tracks of a lone cougar and wolf, both on the same meadow trail, and both the diameter of a softball. Worn out and cold, I headed for camp only to suffer the fitful sleep of fall wilderness tent camping.

Awaking the next morning, the sky was incredibly clear with a billion shimmering stars. Within an hour, the warmth of golden sun would breach the eastern tree line to end my frozen torment for eleven glorious, yet laborious hours of searching for backcountry bucks. Standing peacefully over the hiss of my pack stove, as the soothing aroma of hot coffee curled up, tickling my mustache, I stared wide-eyed at the first twinge of pink kissing the low horizon.

The black silhouettes of surrounding evergreens stood tall and firm like the sentinels of dawn. And unexpectedly, a bull elk let out a single bugle, not 100 yards from camp. His guttural squeal echoing around the edge of the meadow sent a chill down my spine, prickling me with goosebumps.

Unexpectedly, tears welled up and my throat went tight. Emotion and memories ran wild. Regrets of moving away from home and family; gratitude for the loved ones I have been blessed with; shame for the times that I failed my loved ones; and bewilderment over all of the undeserved blessings I have been afforded, to include the opportunity to hunt our nation’s wild, public lands. My love of the wilderness, fish and wildlife, and my thirst for these experiences are owed to my grandparents and the heritage they passed on.

Such emotion spurred by a single supremely placed and timed elk bugle. We never found our mule deer buck, but time in the wilderness, no matter how long or short, offers some form of profundity and reward otherwise.

Recollections of wilderness adventures arouse further memories of the most beautiful high mountain lakes I have ever had the good fortune to lay eyes on, just a day’s drive south in northeastern California’s Sierra Nevada range. The John Muir and Ansel Adams Wilderness areas provide astonishing scenery, hiking, and one of my bucket-list trout species, the golden trout.

Thirty minutes of channeling my inner mountain goat, teetering and hopping up, over, and across jagged granite perched me 11,300 feet above sea-level. With burning thighs and short breath, I gazed back at Long Lake about a mile and hundreds of feet below. The gray walls of the high peaks reflected off the deep blue of the lake. The solemn green of the pines cast deep contrast against the light granite with a dappling of brilliant goldenrod from sparse quaking aspen and grasses changing with the season.

Turning around, I faced the Treasure Lakes. Thirteen-thousand-foot Mount Dade peak loomed overhead to the south. A permanently shadowed, remnant snow pack, dusted gray by the wind, was feeding the lakes. Below the shimmering surface of the crystal-clear depths lay pure California gold.

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Sizing up the lake, I tied up a size 14 hare’s ear wet-fly on my four-weight. Stepping down onto a boulder along the lake’s edge, I rolled the olive-green sinking line into the depths and began retrieving the fly with short strips. My breath, still labored from the climb, or maybe just the elevation, was sucked away completely as the line jerked tight between my fingertips; the fly engulfed as it slowly sank on the pause between strips.

A moment of panic overwhelmed me as I realized I was playing a trout I had obsessed over landing on the fly for decades. Kneeling on the flat boulder, rod tip held high overhead, I softly cradled my first golden trout in the frigid alpine waters. An awesome spectacle in a small package with a rich auburn belly, buttery yellow flanks, and olive-sized parr marks. A scene so perfect I will never forgive myself if I fail to relive it again in the near future.

We are incredibly fortunate for the opportunity afforded us by visionaries like Teddy Roosevelt, who realized the importance of setting aside public lands and parks for our enjoyment. The beauty of our public lands, our right to explore them, not to mention the most spectacular pieces of our nation being preserved for the public rather than privatized, is a true blessing.

Of equally good fortune, Waitsburg is a central hub to more than a dozen National Parks and Monuments within a day’s drive, not to mention the myriad state parks.

Think of Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks with peaks towering sharply above the Montana landscape. When was the last time you saw the turquoise depths of Crater Lake or traversed the prickly, jagged lava beds of the Newberry Monument in central Oregon? How about experiencing the tranquility of looming redwoods along the northern California coast, or the picturesque formations protruding from the Oregon beaches? Have you ventured over to Mt. Rainier National Park or Mount Hood to ogle the glaciers and marvel at the history and architecture of the historic lodges? All of this awaits at arms-length.

As we share in our Thanksgiving feasts, late fall turkey, deer and elk hunts, and make new memories with friends and family, take a moment to give thanks to those responsible for setting aside our public lands and parks. Thank our fellow taxpayers and sportsmen and women for contributing funds to the operation and maintenance of these lands. Thank our military brethren who serve to ensure our freedom and opportunity to enjoy our nations specular resources. And thank your friends and family who, alongside you and I, work to perpetuate this rich wilderness heritage.

Just Follow the Dog

Breaking into upland bird hunting can be intimidating, what with the spendy gear and quintessential image folks push on social media these days. But the bottom line, the only requirements are to grab your shotgun and just follow the dog.

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Published in the Waitsburg Times, December 5th, 2019.

A hint of the long shadows of evening began to cast across the rolling wheat stubble and amber bunchgrass. A solid cloud of gray dust billowed from behind my old green Ford rolling down the backroads, homebound from work. The navel orange sun dipping low along the horizon left little to be desired in an October sky.

About a half mile from home, a large, brilliantly plumed wild rooster pheasant with a tail stretching to Mexico levitated from the grass buffer above the gravel and sailed effortlessly into the deep draw of the adjacent field. The pheasant season was freshly open, and my Llewellin setter pup, Finn, waited impatiently at home.

A wild little one; her energy and personality were equally spun up to ear-rattling irritation, like a pressure cooker about to blow its regulating weight. We had worked since spring on basic obedience and finding and pointing caged pigeons with little success. But my gut said “What the heck, give her a shot!”.

Applying hard brake, the truck slid to a stop in the driveway of my humble, mustard-yellow, home with the mouse-dropping insulation. I knew Finn’s energy would be unmanageable for a hunt straight out of the gate, so I hurriedly gathered my vest and a few shells, retrieved my old 16-gauge double from the safe, and released the pup for the half-mile trek to the rooster sighting.

At the foot of the draw, we hunted up the roadside where pheasant roost and feed. Her interest piqued a time or two as she inhaled the deep odors from pheasant dust bowls, but not a bird was found. In my mind, we were acting out the script precisely.

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Circling back and into the draw, Finn worked more intently. We cut the expanse of wheat stubble with alacrity, approaching downwind a small patch of dense grasses just large enough to harbor a bird or two. Brief moments passed as Finn halfheartedly worked the grasses; her thoroughness lacking from a short attention span and inexperience.

Calling her back, I directed her to the inside edge along the toe of a twenty-foot sheer slope. Breezing through with little interest, I was certain Finn had run past the bird, like I somehow knew where it was. Fixed on a small hummock of reed canary grass, I called Finn back once again to repeat her last thirty feet of cover. But this time, her head swiveled down as she trotted over the hummock, stuttering to a slow halt with clear inquisition.

Closing the distance, I stomped through the hummock, and was nearly tripped backward as the largest rooster I have seen to this day on the Palouse blew his cover on a near straightaway retreat. From the corner of my left eye, Finn’s head swiveled after the rooster, while my right eye glanced flush down the rib, the bead finding the stark white ring of the rooster’s neck. With a squeeze of the trigger, our fate was sealed. An upland hunter and his first pointing dog were etched permanently into the folds of time, oblivious to the obsession, passion, learning and journey that was to shape our future.

That rooster was my first taken over a pointing dog. I knew little about training a bird dog, just enough about pheasant habits and habitat to be dangerous and carry a shotgun just in case we tripped on a bird. Six seasons hence, I am well versed in upland birds and their habitat, I still carry my old heirloom double, and I run two fine Llewellins with a third up-and-comer in the wings. My greatest fall passion entails shotgun in hand, chasing the tail feathers of a brace of dainty setters across the prairie. I may pass for a legitimate bird hunter, yet I still regard myself as an everyday outdoorsman lucky enough to have reliable canine talent.

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And herein lies the simple foundation that every newcomer to the luxury of upland hunting behind a bird dog should glean. Just follow the dog. But can it possibly be that simple?

In the age of social media, we attempt to put our best foot forward, so to speak, with our highest quality photography, catchy captions, and stunning gear and guns on display, tapping the envy of every “wannabe” out there. In reality, however, none of that matters and should in no fashion intimidate someone from diving head-first into this classic and life-altering activity.

My deliberation on the essence of a bird hunter came as I listened to an interview with Ryan Busse of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association. Ryan is an avid upland bird hunter with an intriguing story to tell that will leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling about folks in the political trenches, fighting to protect our nation’s public lands. But his message on recruiting upland hunters was simple and hit home. Just follow the dog.

A shotgun, bird dog (if you so desire), and habitat comprise the essentials of upland hunting. Few upland hunters are experts at any one of these facets when they enter the game, and most may never claim expertise. Even the most well studied and practiced bird hunter and dog will continue to learn together for a lifetime afield. The bird and dog can always present new tricks, and no training exercise can supplant the experience of field time.

Ryan was lucky enough to have pheasant out the back door of his childhood home where he spent countless hours with an old shotgun following a dog. His message speaks to the experience of many of us where time in the field lends itself to understanding habitat, bird and dog behavior, and wing-shooting prowess. My experience was much like Ryan’s, only I got started in my thirties.

And what exactly is Ryan’s message? In a nutshell, follow the dog until it finds a bird. When the bird gets up, if its legal to hunt, take a shot. Over time, the dog will find more birds, you will connect (at least some of us…) more often, and one day you will suddenly realize you are an upland hunter. No fancy shotgun, no professionally finished dog or other exorbitant paraphernalia required. Just pick up the gun and follow the dog, and enjoy and appreciate every single minute of it.

In time, you won’t recall how many birds hit your vest or how many misses were volleyed behind the escapees. Rather, the unforgettable facets are the way your favorite shotgun felt in your hand, how smooth and naturally it shouldered and the pride you felt at the sight of your dog flawlessly orchestrating a flush, point, or retrieve.

So, you want to be an upland hunter? The time is now. Just follow the dog.

A Christmas Songbird Tradition

Songbirds are an icon of our natural world, inhabiting nearly every landscape. These remarkable birds are worth noting and saving; just what the Christmas Bird Count through the Audubon Society promotes.

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Published in the East Oregonian, December 21st, 2019.

I talk a good game about hunting and fishing, and most of my fondest memories revolve directly around those two passions. This doesn’t detract from my holistic appreciation for the natural world, sans my double-gun and bird dog.

Among my favorite childhood memories is the barn-shaped bird feeder my grandparents hung in front of their Appalachian living room picture window. Cardinals, tit mouse, nuthatches, downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees would chatter and fuss for space at that feeder and suet cakes all winter.

I vividly recall one particular lazy weekend afternoon kicked back in an old recliner, sipping hot cocoa; my grandparents reading the paper and working word-finds. Their wood furnace stood atop a beautiful river rock hearth my grandpa had built. The blower kicked on, filling the room with the irreplaceable warmth of wood heat as I gazed contently at the first snow of December falling around these flittering songbirds and settling thick atop the feeder.

The American robin in its modest appearance has always been one of my favorite birds; their glorious melody signaling spring as the dew settles cold on freshly greened lawns. And then there are the jays. Blue jays were a common bully in my hometown, but the first time I laid eyes on a Steller’s jay was the first time I moved to the Pacific Northwest, cruising Highway 12 along the Lochsa River in Idaho. I still marvel at Steller’s jays as I scramble across the ridge tops in the Blues pursuing grouse and mule deer.

The two masked western species that I enjoy the most are the sleek, olive-yellow cedar waxwing, and the Bullock’s oriole with its black-accented, pumpkin plumage. Each sporting a Lone Ranger eye patch and swapping seasonal appearances at my little homestead near Waitsburg, WA. The Bullock’s oriole drops by in the spring to enjoy fruit bits that I hang from the clothesline and raise a clutch in the massive white alders along my spring seep. The cedar waxwing drops in from the higher elevations about the time snow finally settles in our little canyon. They gorge alongside robins on our ornamental crabapples and mountain ash.

Other common winter visitors to the local drylands are the house finch, gold finch, house sparrow, Oregon junco, white-breasted nuthatch and spotted towhee.

My musing over common songbirds may seem curious, but songbirds are anything but common. Songbirds have the ability to bring nature’s beauty to virtually any landscape. Be it a city block or secluded ranch home, songbirds are ever present. They connecting us with our natural world, inspire artists, develop ornithologists and arouse wonder in young and old. What’s more, songbirds seasonally migrate thousands of miles across North America from Canada to Mexico and points south. Their extensive migration makes songbirds vulnerable to severe weather patterns, food shortages and predators.

Aside from the natural life challenges, songbirds have been imperiled by hunting since the 19th Century. Hunting for plumage caused the extinction of species like the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet. Fortunately, our conservation ethics in North America improved, and the Lacey Act was passed in 1900, followed by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918. Both Acts still stand today, protecting songbirds from harm in the U.S.

Prior to our conservation legislation, early ornithologists sought to change a Christmas tradition known as “the side hunt” where folks would choose sides and descend upon the hills. The side returning with the most species of fur and feather claimed a win. One hundred nineteen years ago on Christmas Day, the bourgeoning Audubon Society and ornithologist, Frank Chapman, imposed the Christmas Bird Count in lieu of the traditional hunt. That first Christmas, 25 different counts tallied 90 species, and the tradition stuck.

One of the longest-running datasets in the history of wildlife science, the citizen-driven data collection effort provides critical input to long-term population trend monitoring, as well as helping to guide conservation efforts in North America.

“The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.” Explains the Audubon Society.

Understanding population trends is important for understanding the effects of environmental changes on migratory birds and natural resources. And, in some cases, population trends can serve as the proverbial canary in the mine shaft.

The beauty of the Christmas Bird Count is that anyone with the desire can participate. Bird counts are held within a 15-mile radius of a designated point. Participants may travel to a common location and disperse with an organized group or, if living within that 15-mile radius, folks can simply report the species that visit their feeder on the given count day.

Presently, Umatilla, Wallowa and Baker counties have a designated count center with point of contact information below. Union County has a count center but is not currently available for new participants. You can learn more about the Christmas Bird Count, participation in counts and review prior year and population status data by visiting https://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count.

If you are looking for an exciting family activity over the holidays that gets you outdoors and contributes to a good cause, look no further. Even a hunter like myself is fascinated with the splendor of our native songbirds and bird-watching. And who doesn’t enjoy some friendly family competition over the holidays?

Hardwater

Ice fishing Washington State can be hit or miss, but not because of the fishing. When the weather is cold enough to pack on the ice, the yellow perch and trout fishing can be excellent, and with a few simple techniques, anyone can get in the game.

Published January 2, 2020 in the Waitsburg Times.  

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January is a tough month. Barely emerging from the shortest day of the year, we immediately embark on those dreaded New Year’s resolutions while looking across the arduous 348 days that lie between us and the next Christmas/New Year holiday season.

Even more frightening is the impending closure of the upland game and waterfowl seasons later in the month. February cabin fever looms on the horizon like a blizzard riding an El Niño jet stream. The doldrums are nearly upon us, and it seems that the only folks with something to look forward to are those who ski.

Back in my high school days, I would fire up my old Bronco, kick it into 4X4, and blaze a few snowy mountain trails on the National Forest. Sadly, I matured just enough over time to kick the joy-riding habit, yet fell victim to another vice of the winter months. Picture a wind-swept landscape with snow-covered, timbered ridges rising in every direction. A small jet sled rests at my side containing an ice auger, chisel, depth flasher, a couple 30-inch jigging rods and a thermos. My pocket contains a bathymetric map of the lake that lies cloaked in darkness beneath my feet.

My first experience with ice fishing was like baptism. It opened my soul to winter rejuvenation. A college buddy and I rolled up to southern Vermont to meet his uncle and a friend of his on the ice. We fished tip-ups, which are small, folding frames with a spool of line and a flag. You drop the line through the ice, bend the flag to a catch point that also holds the spool in place, and set the frame over the hole. When a fish takes the bait, the flag pops.

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Regulations allowed six lines per angler at the time, so we set 24 tip-ups baited with live minnows. The action was slow. At first. A flag would pop here and there with plenty of time for chewing the fat and sipping cayenne-laced hot chocolate. But as the day wore on and the temperature warmed a bit, the flags came quick and steady. I don’t recall how many fish we caught that day, but there were times when all four of us were running between tip-ups with as many as a dozen flags up at once and more coming.

That was the first time I caught northern pike or chain pickerel. I was instantly hooked and immediately invested. How I ever earn my bachelor’s degree is mystifying given I lived out the remainder of my New England winters racing toward a PhD in ice fishing.

The hardwater season generally runs January through early March, and is dictated by ice as much as fishing regulations. The season is a bit shorter in some areas of Washington as temperatures don’t stay cold enough to make safe ice or keep it safe very long, particularly in our little corner of the state. But if you are willing to put a few miles on the SUV, north-central Washington provides some fine opportunities beginning in January.

One of my favorite destinations is Patterson Lake in Twisp. Twisp is a quaint little mountain town, good for a visit any time of the year, and its cold enough to keep Patterson locked up safely for some good ice fishing. Rainbow trout and my first kokanee came on tip-ups at Patterson a few years ago.

Another solid choice, seeing more than its fair share of pressure, is Fish Lake by Lake Wenatchee State Park. The scenery is gorgeous and the yellow perch plentiful, but finding a fishing spot can be tough on the weekends with the wealth of fishermen, ice skaters and hockey players, when the ice is good.

Also, in the Chelan area are Roses, Wapato and Antilon Lakes. These lakes all offer warm- and cold-water species. Roses is one my favorites with chunky sunfish and black crappie, feisty rainbows, and the occasional largemouth bass, but it’s the trout and yellow perch that really draw me.

Have you ever eaten walleye? (Assuming you nodded “yes”). Closely related to walleye, yellow perch offer equal table fare; flakey, white and mild flavored. Lightly battered in the pan, yellow perch makes Baha fish tacos to die for. Trout are tasty too, but they have nothing on yellow perch when it comes to the dinner plate. On the other hand, trout fight well in cold water and get big in many Washington lakes. The yellow perch; not so much.

Given the two-pole limit in Washington (that is, if you are willing to fork over extra cash to use a second line), I set a tip-up and jig the time between flags, or explore other areas with the jig rod while still fishing the tip-up. I generally target the same areas for either technique.

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Bathymetric maps are critical to identifying productive areas. I look for humps with a base between 10 and 20 feet deep that rise up four to eight feet. Yellow perch spend time on top of and around these humps. I like to drop my bait or jig to the base of the hump, then work my way up the side to the top. This means punching a few holes around it to work it over properly. Another option is looking for saddles between two humps within that same 10 to 20-foot depth range. I punch a series of holes across that saddle to fish each depth and location.

Yellow perch tend to school up. Finding one generally means finding many. Conversely, trout tend to cruise around, requiring a bit more patience. One technique that has worked well for me on trout is finding a shallow point extending from the shore into deeper water. If I can locate a sharp drop on that point, I will set up and jig there for up to an hour before trying another spot or moving shallower along the same point. This has put some of my largest trout on ice.

Meal worms and nightcrawlers are my go-to baits for tip-ups. I prefer to jig with glow-in-the-dark jigs about 1/32nd to 1/64th ounce. I usually tip the jig with a small piece of nightcrawler as well. Drop the tip-up bait or the jig to about six-inches off the bottom. You may need to experiment with jigging speed to entice a strike.

Regardless of what species or technique you try, don’t be afraid to move around. Sometimes you have to probe the depths of a few different areas before you can locate feeding fish. And I don’t recall a trip where I didn’t catch trout when targeting yellow perch.

Best of all, ice fishing is family- and pet-friendly. Dogs, kids on skates, lawn chairs and grills are common among hardwater fisher folk of all nationalities stretching from here to Maine, in my experience. The only way to avoid fun is to take it seriously.

If you take to the ice this winter, remember to exercise caution. Six inches thick is my minimum safe-standard for weight-bearing ice as I am coming in at about 270-pounds these days. Clear, black ice is as pure and strong as it gets. White ice has impurities such as air bubbles and potentially debris that can cause weakness. Always carry a length of rope to toss to someone in the event they fall through. Never try to approach too closely and risk falling through yourself.

I personally wear a Coastguard-approved arctic survival suit with built in thermal and floatation layers. I look foolish, but stay comfortably warm. I also keep a pair if ice picks strapped to my body that I can used to pull myself up onto the ice if I fall through. A wealth of additional safety information is available online.

With that said, don’t let the safety talk deter you. In all my years of ice fishing I have yet to see anyone break through. And, to be clear, the only necessary gear is an ice auger and a fishing rod. No need to drop a paycheck on Amazon for a boat-load of gear that you may only use twice per decade.

If you are anything like me, you dread the months ahead and suffer an unfortunate ailment for northern latitude; a severe allergy to downhill skis. If so, round up the family, throw the dog in the back, and slip out on the ice for some care-free fishing. By the end of the day, you should have a few tasty fish for the pan and plum tuckered kids. And if all else fails, you will at least enjoy a renewed appreciation for the warm confines of home.

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.

Winter Birding Brings Nature to All

Published in the Waitsburg Times, February 6th, 2020.

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Growing up a hunter, my mother and I agreed rarely in our views of humans interacting with our ecosystem, save for our thoughts on habitat conservation and a deep appreciation for nature’s beauty and songbirds. Sitting together by the back-porch door of her Appalachian home, sipping a warm beverage as a light snow falls through the naked deciduous forest, marveling over visitors to her bird feeders is something I have dearly missed since leaving home.

This is a simple example of the power that songbirds have on society as a whole. They may seem common, but are extraordinary in their natural abilities and habits. Equally extraordinary is their ability to bridge the gaps among cultures, ages, and social differences, connecting us with our natural world, inspiring artists, developing ornithologists and arousing wonder in young and old.

Birds represent spiritual and religious symbolism among many nations. They stand at the helm of conservation movements and non-profit organizations. They represent sports teams. Racheal Carson’s incredibly motivating Silent Spring touted the detrimental effects to songbirds from rampant DDT application in the 1950s, swaying her readership to pursue environmental legislation which eventually led to the formation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Songbirds serve as our most common connection to nature and can be admired by anyone, virtually anywhere and at any time, like today, right now, outside your kitchen window or patio door, from a city block or a secluded cabin.

Some of the typical species to the Waitsburg area in winter include the house finch, cedar waxwing, red-winged blackbird, house sparrow, Oregon junco, American robin, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, golden-crowned kinglet, northern flicker, and the list continues. The cedar waxwing is the masked species I enjoy the most as it descends from its montane habitat to overwinter in the foothills and valley floor.

One of the most fascinating aspects of songbirds is their plumage that changes with the seasons. The brilliant spring and summer colors, like the sunflower yellow of the gold finch, are shed for calmer winter plumage suited for survival. Songbirds can tough out incredibly cold temperatures by fluffing up their feathers, creating an insulating layer around their small bodies. Some species grow additional plumage to serve this purpose when molting during late summer or early fall.

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⇑⇑ A sneaky wren grabs a seed from beneath a flock of voracious gold finches as a female cardinal awaits her turn. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

Feeding and metabolic strategies support songbirds through the winter as well. They generally maintain an active body temperature at about 106 degrees Fahrenheit, and may slow their metabolism to reduce body temperature and conserve energy as they sleep. Like other animals, songbirds store fat to fuel their metabolism and insulate their bodies. Some species will store as much as 10 percent of their body mass as fat during winter.

Additionally, songbirds seek strategic roosting areas like natural tree cavities, dense grasses and evergreens or shrubs. While a common practice to remove birdhouses outside of the nesting season, Birds and Blooms recommends leaving them up over winter to provide safe, warm roosting opportunities. Specific roosting houses are available on the retail market as well.

Similar to birdhouses, hanging bird feeders is the most common method of “backyard birding”. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2016 census, over 65 million Americans have hung a bird feeder at some point, if not consistently. In winter, high-fat food sources including black oil sunflower, safflower, and suet cakes packed with seeds are what birds seek. But beware of “economy” seed mixes as birds largely discard the filler millet, milo, corn, etcetera, to get at the fattier sunflower seeds.

Would you like to see a specific species frequent your feeder? You may want to consider separating food sources or feeding stations. This will allow species to hone in on their favored items or feeding methods rather than jockey for space at a crowded feeder or avoid the feeder entirely. Additional information on different types of bird feeders and setting up feeding stations can be found online at https://www.fws.gov/birds/bird-enthusiasts/backyard/bird-feeding.php.

What about the birdbath? Having a water source in winter is important to songbirds. This is less critical in our banana-belt area of Washington, but when the temperature dips below freezing, birdbaths are well attended. A wide range of birdbath heaters can be found at Amazon.com. It need not be spendy, just reliable, and they actually make excellent holiday or birthday gifts for the birder in your family.

 

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⇑⇑ Eastern bluebirds flock to the birdbath on a frigid, Virginia afternoon. Photo Courtesy of Carolyn Phillips. ⇑⇑

With the above in mind, feeder and birdbath placement for birding from the comfort of home is important, particularly for photography. Place the feeders where you and the birds can access them easily in all weather. Maintain a good line of sight to the feeder and place it an appropriate distance from the house to provide the desired photo effect (or to ensure that those of us with failing vision can still identify the species). Maybe you have a spot inside to set up a tripod and train the camera to the feeder. This will allow you to capitalize on quick opportunities when that special bird shows up. This can also contribute significantly to photo quality and clarity, as will clean windows.

Songbirds are the tie that binds humans to our natural world, and clearly arouse interest and emotion. The ease of birding at home provides an undeniable opportunity to experience that emotion and wonder from our couch or kitchen table; an especially attractive prospect when the jet stream delivers an arctic blast.

Regardless of how you do it, birding is entertaining, and a great way to knock the edge off of cabin fever. So, are you ready to get your birding on?

SIDEBAR:

Suet cakes can be made at home with a simple Crisco, peanut butter and sunflower seed recipe. Place ingredients in a medium sauce pan and warm. Mix ingredients together, let it cool, shape it in a container or on wax paper. Place in the freezer for 30 minutes to solidify and it’s ready.

  • 1-1/2 cup Crisco
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 1 cup sunflower seeds.

WDFW Revising Game Management Regulations

Published in The Waitsburg Times, February 20th, 2020

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February 6th, The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) opened the public comment period on proposals to update regulations for a variety of game hunting opportunities, as well as the proposed 2020 hunting seasons. Among the proposals, two changes in particular have potential to influence hunting opportunity in southeast Washington.

The proposed elimination of several elk areas due to the success of depredation hunts and overall population declines include what the proposal lists as area 1011 for Columbia County (present regulations show this area as 1010). Additionally, area 1082 in Asotin County is proposed for elimination.

Proposed changes to cougar management and harvest are the most significant. Presently, WDFW uses the mean (average) cougar density across five years and five research projects throughout the state to set Population Management Unit (PMU) maximum harvest or “harvest guidelines”. The WDFW developed four options (rewritten here for clarity as alternatives) for adjusting cougar harvest guidelines and propose extending hunting seasons in areas with high cougar/human conflict.

1) Alternative 1 – Status Quo. No change with the exception of changing the harvest guideline from being based on a mean density to being based on a median density for studied populations. The rational for this proposal is that the mean density includes outliers (abnormal extremes) in the data that may drive the mean and harvest guidelines higher or lower than what is appropriate for a given population. The median is simply the middle number in the range of density estimates, which is influenced less by outliers than the mean.

2) Alternative 2 – Similar to status quo, but proposes to use the median density calculated only for adult cougars that are 24 months or older. This option reduces the harvest guideline slightly, but sub-adult cougars harvested under this option would not count toward reaching the guideline and informing season closure for a given PMU.

3) Alternative 3 – The harvest guideline would increase for units that exceeded the harvest guideline by December 31 at least once in the past five years. This alternative assumes that cougar density is higher in units where this occurs because hunters are encountering many animals and quickly reaching the harvest guideline. The new harvest guideline would be based on the highest harvest in the past five years.

For example, in two PMUs, harvest guidelines would be adjusted so they do not exceed an assumed density of 4.15 cougars per 100 square kilometers (62.1 square miles). This would keep the density within an acceptable range based on research conducted in the western United States. This harvest guideline would include adults and sub-adults.

4) Alternative 4 – Same as Alternative 3, but considers only adult cougars that are 24 months or older in meeting the harvest guidelines in a given season.

The “non-status quo” Alternatives 3 and 4 are intended to extend hunting seasons where higher harvest is warranted and where human/cougar conflicts are higher.

The complete set of proposals and 2020 season dates are available for review at https://wdfw.wa.gov/hunting/regulations/season-setting, as well as an online comment form. The public comment period closes February 26th. As a steward of the public’s wildlife, don’t miss your opportunity to participate in this important review process.

 

 

LETTER TO THE EDITOR ON PROPOSED COUGAR MANAGEMENT REGULATIONS

Upon reviewing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW) presently proposed cougar management regulations, there are considerations I believe the general public should have more clarity on regarding the science behind the proposed alternatives.

Scientifically, there are cautions with every alternative, all for the same reason; setting and managing “harvest guidelines” appropriately to maintain healthy cougar populations. The example given in Alternative 3 that relies on a target population density to inform harvest guidelines is the most scientifically defensible method and should be the standard across cougar Population Management Units (PMU). The harvest guidelines may be set with the intention of maintaining a healthy population density (e.g. 4.15 cougars per 62.1 square miles) in all PMUs. This is implied, but not necessarily clear in the proposal.

Alternative 3 may also result in higher harvest in PMUs where harvest exceeded the guideline by December 31st at least once in the prior five years. Our local PMU 10 includes Game Management Units 149 (Prescott), 154 (Blue Creek), 162 (Dayton) and 163 (Marengo). The 2019 harvest guideline for PMU 10 was 4-5 cougars. Total harvest in 2016 was 11, 15 in 2017 and 18 in 2018; as high as three times the harvest guideline. It appears that higher harvest may be warranted in southeast Washington.

The PMU 10 harvest numbers likely offer a clear example of why WDFW is proposing to set the harvest guidelines on the median population density rather than the mean. There may be a low population outlier that is keeping the PMU 10 harvest guideline lower than it should be.

The “non-status quo” Alternatives 3 and 4 are intended to extend hunting seasons where higher harvest is warranted and where human/cougar conflicts are higher. A perfectly acceptable proposal. Extending the hunting seasons will shift the removal of a proportion of problem cougars from WDFW responsibility to the general hunting public. As a hunter and steward of public resources, my first instinct is to ask how the hunting public can help manage wildlife when animal removal is necessary.

Extending the cougar hunting season is solid logic for a couple reasons. 1) Per law, wildlife is under the ownership of the state and general public, regardless of where that wildlife occurs. Transferring agency removal of problem cougars to hunters through enhanced opportunity offers the public greater ability to participate in the management of OUR wildlife; 2) Sportsmen and women buy licenses to have hunting opportunities. Allowing the hunting public to participate in population management increases hunter opportunity and reduces expenditure of WDFW tax- and sportsman-paid dollars that could be better used on conservation programs, for example; and 3) More liberal seasons and additional opportunities may entice additional license sales. This is important because license sales support habitat management that benefits all wildlife, not simply game species, as well as hunter access programs. Over 70% of hunters in the western U.S. rely on public land and public access for their hunting opportunity.

From a biologist’s perspective, WDFW has developed an appropriate array of alternatives to improve cougar management in Washington. Alternatives 3 and 4 appear to be scientifically sound and offer additional benefit to sportsmen and women. Review the proposals yourself and represent your responsibility to the management of public resources by submitting comments on the proposals.

 

Tenkara Angling for Mountain Trout

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The sun sets early in the deep canyons of Kelly Creek in the Idaho wilderness; the opulent evening glow casting an amber hue upon considerable granite outcrops and emerald pools below. Rugged ridges and peaks reach skyward looming over the river, defying its brazen attempts to break free of their control. Diminutive yellow stoneflies flitter sparsely through the cooling evening air, seemingly slowed by the rich, evergreen scent of western cedar and grand fir.

Angling pressure was picking up late in the week and the fish were feeling it. I typically fish regular fly rod and reel, but my suspicions of stressed trout led me to reach for my tenkara rod. I wanted the ability to present a flawless drift in the hard-to-reach pockets overlooked by others. The rod I brought was a bit overkill at twelve feet with a heavy spine, but the reach was a must for dropping flies into midstream eddies and flow seams. Additionally, the rod was fresh off my dryer at home and I wanted to get a feel for its capabilities before heading to Alaska to try it on salmon.

Tenkara angling, in its purest form, is a Japanese traditional fly-fishing method developed on small, mountain trout streams, using a fix-length rod, a fixed-length line tied to the end, and a small wet-fly or “kebari” that is dead-drifted in the sweet spots. Basically, cane pole fly-fishing. Traditional tenkara carries great history and detail on methods and gear, which is available in other literature and worth the read. The two truly defining features of tenkara angling are its simplicity and ease.

Trumbo Tenkara Angling (8)

⇑⇑ The Essentials ⇑⇑

Fly-fishing is easily perceived as far too complex for newcomers and youngsters. The myriad fly rods and reels, line choices and fly patterns, not to mention their hefty price tags, are frequently beyond attainable on cash and time budgets. One can make a successful career on second hand and hand-built fly rods, but tenkara angling requires the bare minimum in gear, is deadly effective and can be learned at virtually any age.

My first rise of the evening came on a voluptuous, blonde elk hair caddis as it floated the seam where riffle met pool. A scrappy fourteen-inch cutthroat pounced with conviction, almost with vengeance, and put a sweet bend in the top third of my heavy tenkara rod. As the evening wore on and rises became few, I scoured the drainage in search of sunlit reaches. In the canyon streams, the bite tends to wane as the mountains force the river into the evening shadows. East-west oriented reaches carry daylight and fish activity a little longer into the evening.

               My final reach of the night was a boulder-strewn field of pocket-water with a few small runs that have produced well for me in the past. I switched to a behemoth of a foam bug called a “Chubby Chernobyl” to draw some attention. Sizing up a large eddy formed behind a car-sized boulder, melding into a soft run with deep, swift flanks, I could envision where the fish were lying. Gently dropping the Chubby along the flow seam between the eddy and the sweep around the river-right side of the boulder invoked an explosion of ferocity and a firm hookset deep into the jaw of a sixteen-inch cutthroat.

Playing the fish to net, my admiration of the profound lateral reddening painted against the thick gold, speckled body and the blaze orange under-jaw cuts lit a fire of anxiety in anticipation of the next catch. The fish returned softly from the net into the cold, clear water.

Trumbo Tenkara Angling (5)

A flip of the rod landed another cast in the same general vicinity, the size-8 Chubby immediately met with a repeat performance. It simply couldn’t get any better than this before dark. Completely at peace, I collapsed the rod and slogged for the rig.

I rig my tenkara rods with sections of old floating fly line cut to approximately the maximum length of the rod, and a fluorocarbon leader between two and four feet. I continue to use typical dry and wet fly patterns, a departure from true tenkara angling, and largely referred to as “fixed-line fly-fishing”.

Opportunities to fish high mountain wild trout near Walla Walla are fewer as many of our headwater streams are closed to fishing to protect spawning and rearing salmon and steelhead (which I support completely), but the Tucannon and South Fork Walla Walla Rivers are fishable. Some friends visited from Virginia this past summer with their seven-year-old son, William, a fishing prodigy. William had his heart set on visiting the local streams, so these are the creeks we visited.

Having never touched a fly rod, I handed William a Rhodo series rod from Tenkara USA. It’s a very small, delicate action rod built for tight mountain streams and small, native trout. With the briefest of instruction, he took to it like a seasoned pro. Pointing to a log pushing the current from shore and forming a deep pocket with an eddy on the downstream side, I advised William to drop the fly behind the log at the point where water broke around it. On the third attempt, a small rainbow rocketed from below the log in a burst of zeal that caused it to whiff the fly completely. But it didn’t miss the second time.

Trumbo Tenkara Angling (4)

We fished the area for a while, enticing a half dozen little guys to take a fly before moving on to repeat the performance elsewhere. William masterfully cast a tiny Adams to feisty six-inch rainbows, and the incidental Chinook salmon fry. His first western fishing trip and he quickly and excitedly checked the box on these two native fishes, caught on the fly, nonetheless.

I began fly-fishing at age 12 and rarely pick up any other rod. I have enough gear to keep a fly shop in business. Yet, the first time I fished with a tenkara rod, I found its simplicity and minimalism utterly liberating. Young or old, novice or pro, you can realize the art and effectiveness of fly-fishing while channeling a centuries old tradition, and for a fraction of the cost relative to regular rods and reels. And the possibilities range far beyond trout and freshwater. For additional tips, techniques and stories on gear and fishing of all species, check out Tenkara Angler on the web. You’ll be hooked.

Fishing the Lakes that were Not Meant to Be

Published in the Waitsburg Times, June 11, 2020

Fishing desert lakes April through June is tough to beat. Flipping around on a float tube, the warm spring sun across my back, and wild trout smacking small streamers like mini freight trains is what I have come to love about desert lakes. Well, that, and the rugged, burgundy and chocolate-colored basalt rims punctuated by milky-emerald big sagebrush, random white plumes of yarrow and brilliant canary tufts of balsamroot blooms.

Having had quite enough of COVID-19 self-isolation, I decided to take a little road trip to Quail Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello. Quail Lake is open year-round to catch-and-release fly-fishing for trout. And while I love a good desert lake, my preference is mountain streams, which weren’t yet open to fishing, locally. A desert lake would have to suffice.

Having never been to Quail Lake, or the seep lake area of Potholes, for that matter, the landscape was intriguing. Former ice-age floods gouged the prominent coulees and dozens of holes in the landscape, creating the scared and pock-marked surface similar to what you might expect to encounter on the moon. From atop the bluffs, the landscape appears flat, brushy, and baked brown with the already spent stems and drooping seed heads of invasive cheat grass. A few dark rims appeared in the distance, but the depth of the topography was not revealed before approaching the small, sunken lakes. Thus, Potholes is an appropriate moniker for the reservoir and surrounding area.

The lakes were formed by the Columbia Basin Project (Project), located in east-central Washington in the counties of Adams, Douglas, Franklin, Stevens, Okanogan, Grant, Lincoln, and Walla Walla. The primary feature of the Project is Grand Coulee Dam. Construction began on Grand Coulee in 1934 with an irrigation pumping concept of drawing water from the Columbia River, sending it down to Pasco, east of the Columbia River, as a means to reinvigorate the arid landscape for agriculture and homesteading. Presently, the Project irrigates approximately 671,000 acres, or 65 percent of the 1,029,000 acres originally authorized by Congress.

Quail Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

Construction of the pumping plant, irrigation canal system and dams were completed in 1951. North Dam and Dry Falls Dam (formerly South Dam) were built to equalize the irrigation discharge and form the grand coulee, which is now 27-mile-long Banks Lake. There is over 300 miles of main canals, about 2,000 miles of lateral canals and 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways on the Project, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Among the drains and wasteways, Potholes Reservoir was developed to capture irrigation water for reuse in the southern portion of the Project. It’s the seepage from Portholes Reservoir and surrounding irrigation features which inundated the seep lakes.

Parking at Herman Lake and the Quail Lake trailhead, I was instantly mesmerized by the hoards of common carp thrashing the shoreline in search of food as spring rains and irrigation flows had flooded the cattails and low grassland swales. Overlooking the lake, these large fish were literally everywhere, boiling, jumping and beaching themselves in the cattails and newly flooded grasses. Landing a carp on the fly rod is an incredible experience, and I nearly caved to the temptation. Exercising self-control, I grabbed my backpack and fly rod and trudged off through the sagebrush in search of Quail Lake.

The hike was short and easy, but the map showed roads that didn’t exists, so I wound around through the wildlife refuge taking in the interesting bits of flora and fauna, like the myriad darkling beetles roaming gopher mounds, presumably in search of dung. Eventually deciding to cut straight to the lake, I was disappointed yet unsurprised to find the shoreline heavily populated with cattails and tule, so much that there was no potential to reach fish from shore. Experience told me this would be the case, yet I stubbornly ignored my own intelligence and made the hike a second time, returning with my float tube and waders.

A darkling beetle posturing for defense

Also as expected, the lake surface dimpled with rising trout feeding heavily on hatching midges. Had I not known better, I would have assumed it was beginning to rain. The overcast sky provided perfect conditions for a midge hatch, and between light puffs of wind, the trout were taking full advantage.

Flipping out from shore, I tied up a small streamer, which is my standard choice for desert lakes. Midges dominate arid water food sources, come in a staggering diversity of sizes and colors from millimeters to centimeters long, and make utter fanatics of the trout that feed on them. By this, I mean trout of all species that key in on midges know their profile down to antennae length and scrutinize imitations to the minutia of detail. I so rarely match a midge hatch that I strip streamers almost exclusively on desert lakes.

Gliding along, taking in the scenery, the morning slid seamlessly into early afternoon. Amid the rustle of red-winged blackbirds in the cattails, and acknowledging the distant cackle of a rooster pheasant or territorial “kerrr” of a male valley quail, I noted the occasional tap on my streamer, too timid to produce a hookset. Quite uncharacteristic of the rocketing rainbows I have encountered in other desert lakes. Deciding to make a switch, I went for a dry fly; a tiny black midge to mimic something I was seeing on the surface. I tied an extra long leader with very fine tippet to extend the nearly invisible fly as far from the main fly line as possible. And, as expected, something was amiss. No takers.

My final effort involved a midge nymph, again trying to mimic what I was seeing on the water’s surface. Using a small orange float as a strike indicator and depth selector, I had no more than made my first cast when the wind erupted from an intermittent gust to a sustained 15 miles per hour. If you have ever lounged on a swimming pool float and been blown across at break-neck speed (which is apparently about 15 miles per hour), you will understand why I vacated the nearest shoreline open enough to clamber out on, and called it a trip.

Climbing the canyon wall on my way to the top, I mused over the setting and the puddle lakes visible from my vantage. An unlikely dry landscape transformed into a vast desert oasis of wetlands and waters. An unintended consequence (and benefit) of an irrigation project developed nearly a century ago.

An overview of Quail Lake and Herman Lake in the distance

Navigating for the truck, I pondered the uniqueness of the seep lake ecosystem and the flush of wildlife that now inhabit the once crisply dry area of central Washington, as well as the beauty of old-growth sagebrush and the contrasting pop of the blood-orange colored lichens covering their arm-sized trunks.

Approaching Herman Lake, it dawned on me that now was a great opportunity to try my hand at a carp on the fly. But a few teenage boys were sufficiently harassing them such that I simply wandered by, casting a sidelong glance at their peculiar techniques. I thought it comical the gear these boys were using and their uneducated attempts at catching the beastly, bronze, invasive bulls of freshwater.

Suddenly, the notion struck home that I was doing nothing more than peering into my own past, seeing a striking resemblance of myself, back when I was an ignorant, harmless boy who wanted nothing more than to fish away his weekends. Well, at least before I had any clue of the foolery we adults rope ourselves into. Bills. Chores. Steady income. And for what? I suppose a home with acreage for the garden and wildlife is an acceptable example.

Closing the tailgate, the threesome strolled by, boisterously recounting their efforts to dupe the surprisingly intelligent carp. One boy said he wished they would have been able to catch a few more, while another said he was thrilled to have caught one at all. It was his first fish ever. An unlikely first fish from an unlikely lake that was never meant to be more than an ephemeral puddle, if that. Living vicariously, reveling in his success and exhilaration, I shifted my Tundra into “drive” and departed for home.

Angling for Archaic Sturgeon

Published in the East Oregonian, June 20, 2020.

Once a teenager with wild dreams of becoming a fish biologist, I set my graduate school sights on studying the prehistoric and long-lived sturgeon that swim among the barges, gators, and salmon in our nation’s largest river systems. And, as all best laid plans, sturgeon were far from the focus of my master’s thesis. But upon winding my way to the Pacific Northwest, my study in sturgeon evolved to angling. I did learn a few things about these fascinating beasts in the process.

The author with a 7-foot Snake River sturgeon caught on pickled herring.

Native to the Columbia River Basin, white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) in their present form have occupied the planet for approximately 175 million years and can be seen etched into native American petroglyphs. Sturgeon are incredibly unique benthic dinosaurs characterized by armored scales called scutes, barbels (“whiskers”, like a catfish) that smell food and an inferior (on the bottom) protruding mouth that sucks in food like a vacuum cleaner. One of the largest white sturgeon on record was measured over twelve feet long.

Mother Nature has a way of throwing curveballs at species, setting them back and wiping them out, but the adaptive, and sometimes most primitive persist, at least until humans discover them. In the early 1900s, white sturgeon were overfished for their roe to be sold as highly prized caviar. While fishing regulations are now highly restrictive, dams present obstacles to adult sturgeon migration and genetic diversity. Like salmon, white sturgeon migrate to the ocean as juveniles where they mature and return to spawn as adults. Populations downstream of Bonneville Dam are the strongest in the Columbia Basin, yet upstream populations without ocean access are struggling.

White sturgeon can live to about 100 years old. Their maturation is slow and only about one percent of the population is among the spawning cohort over twenty-five years old. It’s difficult to draw many accurate conclusions on their long-term population trajectory. Conservation programs are underway to propagate sturgeon and promote genetic diversity to the degree possible.

Angling is an effective means for capturing adult sturgeon and I was invited afield to collect brood stock for the Yakima Nation hatchery program for my first sturgeon fishing adventure. It was about this time in June when I finally laid hands on an adult sturgeon after years of dreaming. For the first time in my life, I experienced what it truly meant for my arms to be tired from fighting fish.

About an 8-foot Columbia River sturgeon making a brief appearance at the stern.

We’ve all heard wisdom of using big bait to catch big fish, but I was educated by our technique. Rigging up whole American shad on a rope leader and hook large enough to slip around a soda can required three pounds of lead to sink it into the current below the dam spillway. Miraculously, we managed four rigs without a single snafu.

With lines down, the crew bantered on fishing in general, recalling the past steelhead season. My friend and colleague, Chas, was mid-way through his harrowing tale of landing a winter steelhead on the Hoh River when the back-right rod bounced hard against the gunnel.

Leaping into action, Chas grabbed the rod, flipped the bail open and waited for the fish to commit to the bait. The rod continued to bounce as line fed out beneath the light pressure of Chas’s thumb. Slamming the bail shut and laying six feet of stout ocean rod into the fish was of little consequence to the speed and course of the massive sturgeon.

The high-test, braided line screamed through the water as if attached to a steel-gray bullet train as the sturgeon angled across the tailrace. At once, the sturgeon spun a U-turn, rocketing directly back to the boat, breaching at the stern and nearly flopping aboard. I will never forget that moment as a snow-capped Mt. Hood stood picturesque in the background. We quickly guessed it to be a nine-footer and popped the anchor to follow the fish.

Forty-five minutes passed, as did the rod among those with fresh arms, before we were able to secure the beast. I served as second rod hand. Trying to winch a speeding school bus from the river bed is the only description that paints a remotely appropriate picture of the fight, our twenty-four-foot jet boat in tow like a barge behind a tug.  

Hanging on for the ride!

With the fish tied off, we floated down river to pass it off to the Yakima Nation for data collection, then motored back upstream for round two. By the end of the day we landed five additional mature fish between six and nine feet with one successful double. It was truly epic. The three-hour drive home was excruciating.

Sturgeon fishing is highly restricted in Oregon and Washington to protect these treasured fish. Some Columbia River tributaries are closed entirely to sturgeon fishing, while most other waters are catch-and-release only. A 2020 harvest fishery in the lower Columbia River imposes a slot limit of 44-50 inches (fork length) and is projected to allow 5,720 harvestable fish. If you plan to angle for sturgeon, be sure to check the regulations, and always handle these primordial giants with respect and care. How we treat them today may affect the spawning population and our privilege to fish for them tomorrow.

In Pursuit of the Eurasian Collared Dove

Published at Duck Camp Co June 23, 2020.

“If there were ever a time to doubt Wikipedia, you can count the claim that ‘The collared dove is not wary…’ a busted myth on rural farms and public lands… A perfect opportunity to introduce a young hunter to wingshooting or soothe the gripping withdrawal mid-way between the end of the prior and beginning of the next upland season.”

Read more at Duck Camp Co

Wilderness Hues

July 2nd, 2020

Climbing the mountainside, the temperature began to drop with the elevation gain. A welcomed change from the 90-plus degree heat in the Walla Walla Valley. In the truck bed lay my frame pack, stuffed to the gills with my pack tent, sleeping bag, spotting scope and scant provisions for an overnight in the wilderness. Glassing elk and locating a suitable fall campsite were the main drivers for the trip, yet these were ancillary opportunities.

A July wilderness pack trip provides an incredible sense of solitude with postcard-worthy scenery. Many of the beautiful blooms of spring and early summer in the lowlands are spent, making way for the future fruit. But higher elevations see a later flush of wildflower color.

Evergreen needles crunched lightly under foot as I softly padded from the trailhead. Exposed tree roots formed a natural staircase entrance into the Tucannon-Wenaha Wilderness. The weathered wilderness sign to my left provoked a satisfied grin. The trail winds its way through a series of dark timber and mountain meadows, each boasting its own variety of color and pattern; the wildflowers clinging to the sunlit trail corridor and open spaces.

The first to grab my attention was the subalpine fleabane of the aster family. Its long stem extended a concave lavender flower head with a canary-yellow stamen into the middle of the trail, brushing my legs as I passed. A second purple beauty holding strong as a favorite of mine is the lupine family, to which belongs a variety of species found in the Wenaha. Their palmate, milky-green leaves and popsicle-stick stem of brilliant clustered blooms hummed steadily with the wing action of native pollinators.

The patchwork of meadows offered uniquely-colored ensconcing. Timber opened to a buttery rich blanket of yellow biscuitroot on the drier western slopes. The ground covered with the ornately arranged flowers clustered like a bowl of lollipops with all stems inserted toward the center.

A blanket of biscuitroot paints a vibrant floor in a mountain meadow

Yet another deep violet marvel that appears to be Venus penstemon is dashed among other species. Deeply developed flower heads remind me of catchflies, yet bees and flies are common pollinators of these flowers arranged like a series of tipped vases.  

Spurs of clearing extended into the timber displaying a sea of fiery Indian paintbrush in one meadow and a complimentary mix of fleabane, penstemon and Indian paintbrush in another.  Accents of snowy yarrow clusters poked through with the minor undertones of phlox and spring beauty. Chipmunks and songbirds chirped and scurried through the forest and ruffed grouse flushed from the recovering burns, thick with elderberry.

Stopping to glass the shaded slopes below, an alarmed elk barked its warning yet remained concealed somewhere in the dark timber. Soils softened by pocket gophers compacted underfoot, the already dried early grasses crunching with each step. Coal-black ravens and Oreo magpies drifted on the thermals, high above the deep draws, as hawks scoured the mountaintop, casting a suspicious eye upon the intruding human below.

As the sun stooped to the western horizon, I found a spot to rest on the edge of a meadow, tucked into the shelter of evergreens. With the tent erect and the air again cooling, I took a stroll out the spine of a ridge to see the sun off for another day and welcome the night.

Indian paintbrush sets the small forest alcoves ablaze

The absence of moon ushered in darkness that settled like a heavy quilt, masking all visual recognition from the human eye, save for the magnificent starlight. The atmosphere was thick and stagnant with not a breath of air. The pops and cracks of charred and sunbaked pine skeletons echoed deafeningly through the forest. I lay awake listening for the lonesome howl of a wolf and snickering softly as mule deer skirted my tent, bounding and blowing their distress as they circled downwind. The sleep that finally came was deep and restful.   

Dawn arrived as serenely as night and the cotton candy pink hints of the morning set the horizon ablaze. My pack stove hissed amid peak humidity for the day. Taking my cup to go, I sat and sipped, entranced in the aroma of a steaming cup of go-juice on the edge of an eastern-aspect meadow. The critters of night settled as the critters of day awakened and bustled. The red squirrel being one of the first and more obnoxious inhabitants to greet the day. 

With the sun climbing and coffee mug void of the succulent sunrise nectar, I collapsed my spotting scope and headed for camp. The elk had again evaded detection. With camp on my back, I followed faint deer and elk tracks back to the trailhead, marshaled out by the “good riddance” chatter of the furred and feathered occupants of the forest. The sun now high overhead, blazing atop the kaleidoscope of wildflowers and wildlife, I dropped the truck windows and left the forest to resume its routine, uninterrupted.

No Shortage of Good Days

“Any day catching wild trout on the fly is a good day”

I said to my buddy Derek as we traversed a bedrock cascade on one of our favorite mountain trout streams. It had been a couple years since I visited my Virginia home town, so we capitalized on my impromptu June arrival to carry on a tradition of fishing this particular stream.

Adjusting my Tenkara USA Rhodo to 9-feet, 9-inches, I set my sights on a pocket where the stream dropped over solid granite. The water was incredibly low for June, resembling the trickle of early fall. The pools were mirror-flat and crystal clear forcing us to endure a painful crawl across cobble streambed to approach without spooking fish.

Clinging to an algae-stained granite slab angling into the stream and forcing the flow to the far bank, my knees made relieving purchase on a soft jade mat of moss, cool and moist with river water. A gentle cast landed a small, blonde elk hair caddis with an olive body at the head of the cascade feeding the deep, emerald pool.

Derek Blyer fishes an Appalachian stream cascade for native brook trout

The caddis bobbed through the narrow cut between granite slabs, dappled by sunlight fighting its way through an eastern hemlock canopy. As the caddis rounded a large hunk of sandstone, an explosion led to my first fish of the morning. With the rod stuck high, I guided the 8-inch fish to shore and photographed its varied hues. The rosy speckles with the sapphire halo, the worm-like striations across its back and the fiery glow of its belly tugged at my soul.

I cut my fly-fishing teeth on Appalachian brook trout over 25 years ago and still find them challenging in tight cover and low flow. And they still hold high rank as one of the most beautiful specimens of the salmonid family, in my humble and biased opinion.

The wild Appalachian brook trout – a true spectacle to behold

In the west, some of the best days fishing wild trout have come from Idaho where big flies entice ravenous cutthroat in steep river canyons. On evening in particular, the sun kissed the mountaintop on its descent, casting a rich glow across the river and illuminating a dense mayfly hatch. Perched atop large riverside boulders, my buddy Chas and I were casting Chubby Chernobyl dry flies the size of a hummingbird to fish that were thrashing the water as though they had never eaten before.

A sweat-soaked straw hat shaded my face as I stripped and launched each cast in the evening heat. Hotter yet were the 16- to 18-inch cutthroat holding in eddies and along flow seams, erupting on the fluffy white flies like a champagne bottle blowing its cork. Evenings like this spent stalking these luxuriant bars of finning Idaho gold remain forever engraved in in our memory of good days.             

Another Idaho trip, I rigged up my tenkara rod with a Chubby and drifted it down a riffle into the head of a massive pool. The riffle filtered into a run before the flow encountered a house-sized boulder and turning 90-degrees. Dead-drifting the fly perfectly along flow seams fooled big fish where they had been educated by a generous number of anglers previously.

Chas Kyger fishing a glorious Rocky Mountain stream

You know when you get that “any moment” feeling when the drift is just right? At that moment, the brilliant, buttery glow of a cutthroat would rise from beneath and roll on the fly, hooking perfectly in the corner of the jaw. The throb of a heavy cutthroat against a tenkara rod in fast water feels nothing short of a spiritual experience.

Mountain streams tend to wash away the burdens of the day and fortify the soul. Songbirds, deer, chipmunk and squirrel, the roar of the stream and humidity of the transpiring forest canopy engulf our worries. We find ourselves lost in our natural habitat, having escaped reality, if only for a brief time. Mountain time is timeless yet tangible. Cleansing. A reset for bruised souls amid hardship like a pandemic and social unrest.

Wild trout and mountain streams are everyone’s resource in which to seek joy and solace, July being a prime month. Be it the Minam, Lostine, Wallowa, or somewhere further flung in Montana, California or Appalachia, John Gierach could not have said it better. There is no shortage of good days on wild trout water. We could all use a few more good days.

Tenkara Angling for Snake River Smallmouth

Since discovering tenkara fly-fishing a few years ago, I don’t travel much without a tenkara rod. Tenkara rods are telescopic, collapsing down to about eighteen inches and only require a fly line, leader, and a handful of your favorite flies. Minimal gear and super simple. Absolutely unfettering after years of lugging a minimum of four fly boxes, two reels to accommodate floating and sinking fly line, fly line sink tips, split-shot and strike indicators for nymphs, a variety of leaders and tippet strengths, dry-fly float coat, and the list continues. 

This third-generation fly-fisherman seeking squishy-finned, speckled trout and salmon almost exclusively, had convinced himself to carry every possible method and fly pattern in the pack at any given time. We all know trout can be picky. But with the burden of gear selection removed from the equation, fly-fishing is once again magical, comparable to my single-digit years casting from the red clay, muddy margins of a forgotten farm pond. Back when I was a normal-sized human, able to snag my line in the tall fescue on the back-cast.

Given the simplicity of tenkara gear, its easy to toss the necessary items in the truck or pack for any occasion as you never know when you might find yourself in a situation where a fishing rod comes in handy. One such occasion was a recent trip to the Snake River to still-hunt Eurasian collared doves.

A tenkara fly rod on the Snake River is about like hunting grizzly bear with a straw and spit-wad. The gear doesn’t quite match the task. Nevertheless, I tossed the tenkara rod into the back seat with my CZ Bobwhite double-gun and hit the field. I figured once I had missed a few birds, I could sneak around some backwaters with the tenkara rod to try and pluck a few bluegill from their spawning beds.

The CZ Bobwhite G2 and tenkara rod are a formidable team for an epic day afield.

If you have never hunted collared doves, I recommend it as a challenging bird hunt to be had at any time throughout the year. Collared doves are considered an invasive species and not regulated to a season or bag limit. Watching, listening and sneaking through cover, closing the gap on their raspy coo is nearly as thrilling as crawling through starthistle and yellowjackets to get a bow shot at a dandy four-point muley buck. And the table fare is exquisite.

 Hunting collared doves is a story for another time, suffice it to say that on this particular day, I scattered eight-shot to the wind, simply making a racket with my little twenty-gauge side-by-side and educating the doves to heighten the challenge on my next attempt. Disappointed in having failed to add the appropriate choke tubes to the shotgun, I strolled over to a small riverside pool and reached for the tenkara rod.

Bluegill were stacked into the shallow margins of milfoil beds and guarding nests with hostility.  Casting ahead, I began slowly twitching a hideously-tied prince nymph through the shallows and into the beds policed by the feisty gendarmes. Readying myself to deliver a one-man clinic on the proper techniques for catching panfish hand-over-fist, I experienced crushing fail number two of my cast-and-blast adventure.

Amusingly, the bluegill that I was certain would eagerly run down and engulf the fly, fled hastily as if the nymph were noxious. A first for me in thirty-five-years of angling panfish. While switching to a smaller fly would likely have done the trick, I decided to change tactics, casting beyond the weed bed and letting the fly sink. On the second cast, the line jerked as if someone reached out and flicked it with a finger.

Popping the rod tip and sinking the hook into what I thought was a bigger bluegill turned out to be a smallmouth bass about eight-inches long. While I wielded a rod I had built for salmon, I was surprised at the small fish’s power against the heavy backbone of the thirteen-foot broom stick. Marveling over its bronze striping and deep red eyes, I eased it back into to the semi-turbid waters, excited at the opportunity.

Thinking it a fluke, a few casts later found the fly embedded in the upper jaw of another smallmouth, only this one a bit bigger. A solid twelve-incher that worked the tenkara rod impressively. Growing up on the Shenandoah River in Virginia, I had landed literally countless smallmouth of this caliber in my youth. The moment reinvigorated the excitement and admiration for the fight of the bronze-back that never fades from memory.

A momentary flashback to a sultry summer evening with a few of my best friends wading deep into remote ag-land reaches of the South Fork Shenandoah sparked a chuckle. While the Shenandoah was a blue-ribbon smallmouth river, I still rarely caught fish much bigger than I was seeing this day on a pocket water to the Snake River, 2,700 miles west.

Returning to reality and the immediate problem of daydreaming of fishing past rather than capitalizing on fishing present, I laid out another cast to the edge of the weed bed. Working the shoreline, about every fourth cast enticed another willing smallmouth. The bluegill scurrying from my shadow now completely forgotten.

The Snake River is a bit of a stretch to recommend as a fly-fishing destination, but if you find yourself in the position to give it a shot, go for the backwaters. Every boat basin and drainage mouth provides a unique environment much simpler to fish and teeming with bass and panfish, not to mention common carp, if you seek true adventure.

The wisdom of using big baits for big fish holds true for bass, but don’t over-do it. Nymphs, streamers and dry-flies, sizes eight to twelve are my preference. Ironically my personal best bass have all come on some of the smallest baits, and always while fishing for panfish.

Warm-water fishing for a cold-water evangelist is a back-of-the-mind prospect, yet each time I give it a whirl, I am pleasantly reminded of the merits of such an endeavor. It’s a great opportunity in a pinch requiring little time and the most basic gear to realize the value of keeping it simple and simply catching scrappy smallmouth in the marginal waters of the infamous Snake. 

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.

A Tag for the Table

It was one of those years. Forced to fall back on “Plan B” for every hunt led me to lackluster locations and conditions with equivalent results. The general rifle deer season in southeast Washington is a predictable warzone. Public lands resemble a pumpkin patch as hunters push the open country. The silver lining was the limited draw whitetail doe (“second deer”) tag in my pocket, of which it was the opening day.

A suffocating fog blanketed the morning, which I swam through with hopes of tripping over a doe in thick cover. And true to “luck of the draw”, I busted several decent bucks at point-bank range, nary a doe to be found. A stark contrast to the years where I held a limited draw buck tag.

By evening, the fog had cleared and I found myself hunkered beneath the shelter of mature pines in a deep canyon where does frolicked carelessly during buck hunts past, yet only a few does fed in a distant wheat field. With sunlight fading, my backside urged an early hike west to a pea field to glass a timbered edge. Turns out, my backside harbors keen instinct as I quickly spotted two does and began the stalk.

With nothing more than failing light for cover, I pursued the perfect doe as she plodded along, stopping just long enough that I could settle the crosshairs. Quartering slightly away, then broadside momentarily, I squeezed the trigger on my heirloom .243 Remington 700, but the gun never fired. She moved too soon to touch off a round, forcing me to pick up and shuffle after her.

An eternity lapsed as we waltzed across the slimy harvested field, watching her body fade to a near silhouette behind the crosshairs until she finally stood perfectly broadside long enough for my index finger to activate the firing pin. Had she had turned or stepped once again, the decision was already made to pack up and hike out. Literally, not another 30-seconds of shooting light remained.

The shot was textbook, high-shoulder, dropping the year-and-a-half doe in her tracks. She fell behind a slight rise, high enough to conceal her, save for the white belly beacon. A tough season behind, I reveled in the moment, giving thanks on one knee with a hand upon her hide.

We’ve all heard it said, a trophy is in the eye of the beholder. Continuing to kneel, gently stroking her thick winter coat, I admired the blessing given for my nourishment. She was the perfect age and health, gifting our table with quality and quantity.

Reaching into my pack, I pulled a skinning knife, quartering knife and bone saw, laying them on her still ribcage. Draping my elk quarter bag across my pack frame made for clean and easy loading.

As blade struck hide, I methodically skinned from spine to knee. I can reasonably average forty-five minutes from start to finish on any given deer, precisely the longevity of my headlamp batteries this particular evening. Having triple-checked that I packed my tag apparently drained all other cognitive ability to throw in a few spare AAAs.  

Adding the final quarter and stew scraps, I tied off the quarter bag as my headlamp faded to black. With cell phone in-mouth, I secured the bag and gear to my frame pack, hoisted it to my shoulders and embarked on a moonless, black-as-a-pine-box, 45-minute hike beneath a billion glorious stars.

As a boy in Appalachia, hunting does was a way of life. Table fare and the accomplishment of the harvest was never lost on antlerless deer. Most folks I know in the west wouldn’t dare work for “just a doe”. But the harder the work, the sweeter the reward and adventure. The loss of my headlamp simply tested my navigation skills and revealed an incredible unfettered view.  

Slogging through the soft, rich mud along the field crest, I gazed at the city lights of Walla Walla to the west. The glow was faint, but bright enough to silhouette some large firs. Keeping time with a cacophony of distant coyotes, my only startle came from a small covey of Hungarian partridge busting from underfoot.

Approaching my truck, I longed for the shot of water and snack that I had stashed in the cab. Reminiscing of the hunt, I looked forward to reviewing the memories of the evening, burned timelessly into mental film for decades to come, the good Lord willing.

Sliding my pack into the bed and climbing into the driver’s seat, the Tundra roared to life, set in motion to the northeast toward home. The prospect of fresh tenderloin urging me on.

Black Powder Pursuit of Mule Deer in the Foothills

Published October 17th, 2020

I’ve never experienced anything quite like spot and stalk mule deer hunting in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. The open expanse of golden wheat stubble and grasslands pressures a hunter into honing their creativity in the use of wind and terrain.

Having pursued my fair share of mule deer with the stick and string, I’ve found the muzzleloader season to be the most exciting. The modern smoke pole is highly accurate and provides a distance advantage over archery (at least it used to), but the relatively light weight stocks pack a wallop of recoil. Coupled with the old-fashioned fork sight, making the mark is something of a science. Being a scientist by trade, you would figure I’d have the game figured out by now.

October 3rd, my buddy Dean and I wandered onto an eastern Washington “hunt by reservation” parcel as the first hint of dawn cracked amber on the eastern horizon. We picked a long ridge spine angling toward the furthest point from the road. Deer were scarce in the early dim, but as the sun climbed higher, mule deer appeared and vanished like phantoms of the prairie.

By 7:00am, we spotted a bachelor threesome with two legal bucks, one of them better than average. Spying with the spotter and putting them to bed for the morning, the game was on. Dean kept watch as I made a wide loop, circling through the canyon and crawling over the top from behind. I would ooze down to their bedding area for a short-range shot. But the best laid plans are destined to be flawed.

Of the 16 does I slipped through traversing the canyon floor, a single doe-fawn pair ran the entire length of the canyon, blowing the bucks from their bed. Luckily, Dean kept an eye, watching them bed again as I hiked a different ridge, still-hunting to the bottom into a bedding area wrought with powdered soil dugouts on the shady side of blooming rabbitbrush.

I studied the cracked soil between bunchgrass tufts as I hiked; my mind wandering back to the days before white settlers arrived. Pondering how many native Americans had hunted the same hills, what game they had taken and how they may have tried to pull a fast one on those bedded bucks. I always glance for stray arrowheads but never find them.

At the foot of the spine, the throaty percussion of a nearby muzzleloader seized my attention. Dean had apparently slipped in on the bucks while I devised my next move, taking a steady, calculated 90-yard poke at the bigger buck. As the smoke cleared from his shot, I propped my gun on the sticks in preparation. A wide rim separated us, and my gut suggested those bucks may escape in my direction.

Not 60 seconds later, three deer appeared, trotting the base of the rim and directly toward me. All three were healthy and largely unhurried. Peering through the binoculars I found the lead buck to be the big boy. But that fact became abundantly clear as the trio barely changed course, passing broadside at 40 yards, justifiably ignoring my very presence.

Tracking the lead buck with an unusual calm, the fork sight held at the point of the chest when the bolt broke free, crushing the musket cap and igniting the charge. The fork sight never left the buck, despite the heavy recoil. He was as good as mine. I had done everything right. Save for my (mis-) calculation of the collision point between lead and hide.

My main assumptions of bullet and mule deer velocity resulted in a clean miss, yet the soil beyond my moving target was wounded severely. I suppose muzzleloader loads carry some haste at close range, enough to have shot in front of the deer.

Dean appeared on the horizon as I gathered my thoughts and headed for higher ground. It was about noon and 85 degrees, so we headed for the rig. Among the wafting bunchgrass and the sting of starthistle stabbing through my Carhartt pants, I recalled a past season where I had calculated everything to perfection from stalk to shot, securing my only velvet buck, the skin and fuzz dried hard on the antlers on October 6th. A beautiful 4X4 with a small bifurcation on the left G2 tine. I can still feel the strain of the pack straps against my shoulders and the burn in my thighs as I trudged with the quartered buck and rack packed neatly in one load.

A unique October velvet mule deer taken with the smoke pole in the Blue Mountain foothills.

The foothills offer what feels like a true western mule deer hunt, providing the expansive views and glassing opportunity that come to mind with dreams of sagebrush, hill country and the charcoal gray and forked-antler racks of Odocoileus hemionus. Early fall bucks can be predictable and the stalks exhilarating, punctuated with ample opportunity to fail, courtesy of being human. I could hear the echoing laughter of the native American spirits as I climbed with an empty pack.

Fresh Snow, Blaze Orange and Opening Day Roosters

Turning down Lewis Gulch, I spied a beautiful draw curling into the wheat fields, free of human track. A sight for sore eyes on the eastern Washington pheasant opener. Whipping the Tundra to the shoulder and throwing her in “park”, we finally had something to look forward to.

Deciding to try something new this year, I quickly re-learned that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We had left home at 5:00am. Four hours hence, we had yet to put boots on the ground for lack of room in the bird covers.

Releasing Finn and Zeta and wading the waist-high grasses, we took delight in our first snow romp of the season as about an inch had fallen above 2,500 feet in the wind farm. The girls and I climbed steadily through the white fluff with the anticipation of pushing roosters to the end of the draw began building. My gut tied in knots with visions of the red-faced, cackling prairie clowns erupting at field’s edge. I knew birds were there. The variety of thick and thin shrubs and grasses was too good to be void.

Zeta inspects the field edge, pretending to find a wily rooster.

It was risky running Zeta the only hour we would hunt this opening morning, but she needed the exposure and the exercise. Half way up the draw, the grasses began to shorten and the cover narrowed to a teardrop point in a ridge-top saddle. Exactly where a running rooster hesitates briefly at the open field before bursting airborne as the dog creeps onto point. And bursting pheasant is precisely what Zeta had in mind.

Shifting my grip on my 20-gauge double for a quick mount, I spied Finn trotting back toward me, eyes on the wheat field. She then stopped cold, turned and came at a run. The gig was up. Finn always returns when a dog bumps the birds. Sitting at my feet with a sheepish gaze, her wide eyes tattled on young Zeta, who was ranging out of sight in utter merriment, according to my GPS locator.

Finn and I crested the hill to find Zeta frolicking in the snow and leaping grass tufts as she does at home, double-checking the brush in the ditch after blowing through at the speed of sound to scatter in terror the birds, cats, chickens, deer and anything else that cares to run. She lives for the chase.

Disappointedly laughing it off, we circled the draw, coming off the far side, and marveling at the splendid winter view. Every visible piece of habitat simultaneously under dissection by hunters, revealed by the specks of blaze orange sprinkled across the landscape.

Descending from the ridge crest, my mind escaped from the hunt into a state of winter stroll. Finn scented below hillside pines while Zeta plowed beneath piles of tumbleweed and thick reed canary grass. At the truck, I emptied snow balls from the front of their jackets and turned the rig toward home.

Finn boasting her snowball collection tucked neatly in her vest. Best laid plans for revenge on Zeta’s follies.

The sun was already warm and rich back on the homestead and Yuba was due a hunt. It had been two months since her second hip surgery to correct dysplasia. She lives to hunt pheasant and her pride was bruised over not loading up with the others this morning. Grabbing the gun and vest from the back seat, I kicked open the paddock gate and smiled as “wobble dog” disappeared behind the barn into the golden, waist-high wheatgrass.

Rounding the barn, I spied Yuba on point, statuesque, her tail-feathers wafting gently in the breeze as the afternoon sun streamed through the long strands of white hair. She encircled a path I mowed for watering our golden currant plantings, catching the scent of birds feeding along the path.

Closing in, she broke point to follow the scent and a dozen pheasant erupted 20-yards to my right, silhouetted against the sun. The occasional down-feather drifted behind them, lit up like orbs and boasting a starburst edge as sun rays streamed through them. Swinging through and squeezing both barrels, the birds vanished unharmed. I had once again delivered a stellar lesson as a professional wildlife educator.

Whistling Yuba back, I sent her into the hillside weed hummocks where the birds had flushed. We entered nearly side-by-side when she slammed onto point simultaneous with a single rooster rocketing from beneath my feet. Sufficiently startled, I whiffed with the right barrel, but as the bird made the 30-yard mark, the left barrel connected perfectly, securing our first bird of the year.

“Wobble Dog” Yuba with her first rooster of the season.

Racing as fast as two unsteady hind legs can carry pup buzzing on the rich aroma of roosters, the black and white flash claimed her bird, mouthing it gleefully as I approached.  Admiring the bright plumage of the young wild rooster and the curiously long, banded tail feathers flanking the two longest in the middle, the success was just a bit sweeter coming from the homeplace where we work the land to serve the birds, and take just one when the numbers are high.

Prancing to the house with our prize in hand, Yuba’s exuberance defined the highlight of her fall. Reveling in the sweet opening day success on the homestead, a dozen birds, no competition and a tight-holding rooster set the bar abundantly high for hunts to come.