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.

Status and Conservation of Oregon’s Mountain Quail

Collapsing my tenkara rod, I reflected on the brilliant California golden trout I had just released back into the trickle of a mountain stream dropping from a series of high lakes in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. The September sun shone golden and warm against my back as dappled light streamed through the forest canopy. That fish put a bow on one of the most memorable weeks of my fly-fishing career, traipsing through the scenic Sierra Nevada Range in search of a trout I had dreamed about for decades.

Descending from 10,000 feet, the trail meandered through various cover types including old-growth pine and small pockets of yellowing aspen. Approaching a unique knob around 8,500 feet was a minute stand of sagebrush, appearing entirely out of place and displaced from the lowland scrub and chapparal. The faint scuffling and whistling of a quail covey piqued my interest.

Climbing the knob, the covey scurried across the trail ahead and levitated above the sage, sailing elegantly into the safety of a nearby snarl. Mountain quail. That first encounter left me mesmerized and wishing to exchange my fly rod for a setter and double gun, and added another hunt to my bucket list. Researching mountain quail habitat and their distribution across the west, I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Oregon’s populations and conservation efforts.

Mountain quail are a North America native, distributed throughout the Oregon Cascades and California’s Sierra Nevada, with a sprinkling in Nevada, Mexico and Washington. Southeast Washington, eastern Oregon and western Idaho historically were home to mountain quail, but over time, their habitat and populations dwindled. In Oregon, mountain quail were once found in every county. Since about 1950, land use practices and fire suppression have contributed to their decline.

Photo Credit – US Fish and Wildlife Service

Mountain quail are the largest native quail in North America. They are uniquely monomorphic, meaning both sexes are virtually identical in size and appearance, each boasting their most peculiar feature, a black, needle-like “top knot” growing over an inch long from the top of the head.

Preferred habitat consists of dense brush, such as manzanita thickets, chapparal and scrub, in wooded foothills and mountains. Features like burns and clear-cuts are important for providing the appropriate balance of cover and food sources, and water within about one mile. Riparian habitats with an adjacent brushy, upland slope are favorable.

The mountain quail diet consists mainly of vegetation during spring and summer, seeds and berries during fall and winter. Insects are important for spring and summer brood rearing. Mountain quail also exhibit a robust reproductive strategy. Females lay seven to fifteen eggs in two separate nests within about 600 feet of each other. Both adults incubate clutches independently, males typically having greater hatch success.

In 1996, Oregon State University (OSU) began a study to compare life history characteristics between the larger, stable lower Cascades population, and that of a remnant population in Hells Canyon. Additionally, quail were translocated from the Cascades to Hells Canyon to compare life histories of the separate groups in the same habitat.

The OSU study results informed a sixteen-year follow-on translocation study to reintroduce mountain quail to historic eastern Oregon habitats. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) teamed up with OSU and the U.S. Forest Service beginning in 2001, translocating and radio-tracking birds in the Freemont, Deschutes and Malheur National Forests and the Steens Mountain Wilderness.

A total of 2,574 birds were translocated across years. Forty-five percent (1,156) were radio-tracked to obtain habitat selection, survival and nesting success information. Overall, nesting and brooding was successful across sites and years. Survival ranged from approximately sixteen percent to nearly sixty percent, depending upon year and release site. Survival rates and trends observed were similar to those of the Cascades population from which birds were translocated.

Photo Credit- US Fish and Wildlife Service

Concluding the study in 2017, it appears the translocation efforts were at least marginally successful. Mountain quail appear to be maintaining small populations where translocated and are considered an “occasional” species in Wallowa and Union Counties while the lower Cascades population remains strong. Detailed annual reports of the translocation study are available from ODFW online.

Oregon offers hunting opportunity with the eastern Oregon season running October 10th through January 31st this year, including California quail and overlapping the forest grouse season. The lower Cascades season opens September 1st.

Mountain quail are a peculiar and secretive species, and a treasure to the State of Oregon. There is something magical about their presence on the landscape. The memory of flushing a covey over manzanita or juniper scrub will remain etched in your cache of extraordinary upland experiences. Whether pursuing with dog and scatter gun or hiking stick and camera, the marvel of this distinctive native quail and their habitat that we are blessed to have on our public lands is reason enough to seek adventure in the high desert.

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.

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.