Pheasant Hunting the Walla Walla Valley Uplands

Published in the Union Bulletin, September 23rd, 2018.

I sat alone in the gray calm of dawn, gazing contently across my food plot. A few wary whitetails snagged a snack on their morning commute. Steam curled up from a hot cup of coffee, tickling the hairs on my face and nose as I sipped in peace. It was early December. Not quite frigid, but the bunchgrasses were frosted and brittle.

My Llewellin setters, Finn and Yuba, and I hunted pheasant hard the prior six weeks and I needed a break. But the girls lay anxiously at my feet, keeping a keen eye on their orange vests and the cased shotgun by the door. They knew it was a hunting day. Any other morning we would be working roost cover along thick reed canary grass in the low swales, or working a creek side brush line at first light. But not today. This day would be different.

As the clock reported 8:30am, I decided to act like a dedicated bird hunter.  The girls had succumbed to pessimism, lying, groaning, sulking. But they cast a suspicious glance as I approached the door. A hand outstretched for my shotgun sparked utter bedlam.

Hunting reliable roost cover early in the day can be productive, but hunting pressure may call for adjustment to keep on the birds as the season progresses. Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season.

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Lowland swales, wetlands, and riparian areas provide prime pheasant roost habitat. When left to their own devices, pheasant rise in the morning and move out to feed soon after sunrise. Early in the season, birds may loaf in or near roost cover, but reacting to hunting pressure, birds will push out incredibly early, at times in the dark on public land. While pheasant may adjust their schedules to hunting pressure and weather patterns across the season, when and where to find them at any given time can be predicted with moderate certainty in the Walla Walla Valley.

Seeds and berries are common pheasant diet components in fall and winter. By mid-morning, birds are foraging on upland slopes and moving toward or into crop fields. Tall wheatgrass (an introduced Eurasian bunchgrass common to southeast Washington), wheat, canola, or other seed-producing crops offer forage throughout the season. Woods rose and blue elderberry provide dual function of food and cover when growing in dense patches. Birds may spend more time in this type of cover in the early morning, particularly in freezing conditions.

Pheasant spend a large part of the day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Short wheat stubble lacks adequate cover from avian predators, so pheasant typically don’t roam far from secure refuge when browsing cut crop fields.  By late afternoon, birds grab a final snack before flying into roost, within about forty-five minutes of twilight.

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As 9:30am approached, the girls quivered with anticipation alongside my old Fox 16-gauge double, broken open across the tailgate. I released the girls and strode quickly through lowland, waist-high Canada thistle and reed canary grass in route to the uplands. A whistle-blast and hand signal turned the girls to the high ground. We worked into the wind up a long ridge spine toward a wheat field, paralleling a steep slope. Native needle-and-thread grass and bluebunch wheatgrass grew low and lush, hiding pheasant along the slope edge.

Having quickly lost sight of Yuba, I turned toward my last visual of her, but a familiar arrythmia pulsed in my chest as Finn locked up mid-stride. Going in for the flush, the hen held tight enough I nearly left her thinking the bird had escaped on foot. A stellar performance by Finn to kick off our late morning jaunt. Upon release, Finn sailed toward the slope, dropping out of sight. My pace quickened.

Approaching the edge, I spied Yuba standing staunch, tail high, with Finn cautiously backing. Hastily, I circled wide, approaching from the front to pin the bird between us. At ten feet out, Yuba’s penetrating gaze identified a thick round of bunchgrass three paces to my right. Turning to face the unseen bird triggered an eruption of parting bunchgrass with the onset of heavy wing beats. A splendid wild rooster gained altitude over a backdrop of rolling golden wheat and grassland.

My Fox came up smoothly, followed by the girls launching over the edge, their eyes fixed firmly on the prize. At approximately 10:00am, I softly slid our first rooster of a lazy morning into my vest, admiring his emerald green head, long, striped tail, and modest spurs.

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As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors; consider upland food sources over lowland coverts. Relax. Relish every point. Enjoy the hunt!

Restoring an Heirloom

I don’t know when dad purchased the gun or from whom or where, but one of its few outings captured on film was in 1977. My brother was a toddler and dad had hunted a gray squirrel on his parent’s farm in what used to be the middle-of-nowhere Appalachia.

The Herrington and Richardson Topper Model 158 (H&R) was the shotgun built for everyone. An ordinary, functional firearm built for the budget-minded. Overly simplistic yet wholly reliable described the H&R firearms line from 1871 to 1986 under the parent company.

Dad’s H&R saw its last hunt somewhere around 1992 when a zealous child acting crafty with a gray squirrel failed to properly lock the action. I secured provisions for Brunswick stew and learned a frightening lesson in the process. The top-break action blew open, ejecting the casing and busting the gun’s forearm. Miraculously, I did not suffer the same consequence. As a pre-teen, I had little use for a busted gun or the ability or knowledge to repair it. I left it to rust in an attic for nearly thirty years.

Pre-restoration, rusted and forgotten. What’s pictured here comes with the Burchwood Casey kit (save for the gun).

Returning home in 2020, I finally decided to grab the old H&R from the attic and haul it back to Waitsburg. Given their basic style and seemingly low-grade stocks, H&R firearms don’t carry much monetary value. Given the gun was useless otherwise, I decided to try my hand at a home restoration job, finding my first experience to be as terrifying as expected.

Ordering a Burchwood Casey complete re-bluing kit, I went to work one afternoon in the shop, thinking the directions were straightforward and simplistic. I learned quickly, however, that our hot, dry summer climate play a major role in the complexity of the endeavor, so much so that I basically enjoyed doing the job twice.

The first crucial step was stripping the rust and bluing from the barrel and action. Using a kit-provided swab and applying the rust and blue removal chemical was easy, as was using steel wool to gently rub off rust and debris. The kerfuffle came when the stripping chemical began drying into a sticky paste on the barrel in the 90-degree heat.

Using the supplied degreaser, I quickly removed the gunk from the barrel, performing a second and third coat of rust and blue remover in some cases, quickly working the steel wool and sand paper to remove everything, then promptly cleaning.

Lesson 1: Perform your firearm restoration in a climate-controlled area.

Disassembled and ready for a makover.

During the rust/blue removal step, the directions say to clean the metal until it shines, taking great care in the process. Simple enough. The problem occurs where interpretations of “shine” may vary. My cleaning job resulted in what appeared to be a rust-free, lustrous surface, yet later during the bluing step, I learned otherwise.

Lesson 2: Sand and polish the metal at least twice again once you think you have it “shiny” using the rust removal chemical and degreasing thoroughly when finished. You want as near a mirror finish as possible.

Degreasing is another critical step as bluing will not work with unclean metal. Grease and oil prevent the bluing chemical from contacting the metal surface, creating a blotchy appearance. Be sure to use latex or nitrile gloves during the process as fingerprints can show plainly from skin oils. As with the rust and blue removal, once you think the parts are clean, degrease at least twice again, scrubbing diligently. Sanding tough areas when removing rust and bluing can help tremendously, the gun action being the most difficult area.

Sound fun so far? The above steps are simply tedious. Bluing is utter madness. Bluing is a clear chemical that reacts with the steel, darkening it to the rich, almost black finish most guns bear. The directions say to apply quickly, and thoroughly, with an optimal 30- to 45-second soak and no longer than 60 seconds. This could not be stressed enough, which led me to believe the gun would self-destruct at 61 seconds. I decided to blue the H&R barrel in three sections, similar to what the direction recommended.

Lesson 3: Blue the barrel one or two inches at a time. By the time I had the area evenly coated, the starting point had been sitting for 20 seconds, leaving an uneven soak time before washing in cold water and breaking the chemical reaction.

Although it would have been excruciatingly slow, wiping a single blue streak around the barrel at a time would have been far better in the long-run for creating an even finish and would have required about the same amount of time. Thankfully, the finished darkened as it “cured” over 24-hours.

Lesson 4: Coating many small areas is preferable over fewer large areas providing a better finish.  

Makeover complete, awaiting reassembly.

With the metals finally finished, I turned to the stock. The original wood was light and wide-grained with an orangish tint when finished. The replacement forearm was beautiful walnut. How to match them up?

Once sanded clean, I used “special walnut 224” stain from the hardware store for the stock, matching with the new forearm as close as possible. Wiping on two light coats with a rag, I then applied teak oil to both stock and forearm. Finally, a light wipe of clear furniture urethane gave gloss and superior weather protection that looked good to me.

Lesson 5: I am a better carpenter than metalsmith.

Overall, I was pleased with the outcome. The barrel finish could be better and the process simpler, knowing what I know now, but the result was far better than the prior condition. And, I suppose learning a new skill requires starting somewhere.

Regardless, the H&R heirloom found its way back into action, plucking a plump collared dove on its first outing as a reborn small game scattergun. A bird I doubt my dad had ever even heard of.

Back in Action!