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!

From Raghorns to Riches

An special draw elk hunt in Idaho’s Unit 37, Big Lost Wilderness, gave us four seasons with warm summer sun, firgid winter temps, gale-force winds, snow and fog, forty-five miles of steep mountain terrain, botched stalks, and sleepless nights. What we took from it? Incredible scenery, solitude, mental and physical health, and in the end, a hard-earned, beautiful raghorn bull elk and heightened sense of respect for the wilderness.

Read the full story in the Spring 2019 edition of Strung Magazine.

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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!

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.

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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.

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.

Modest Land Mule Deer

Published in the Backcountry Journal, Fall 2021 Edition

“The meager acreage is nothing special, absurdly steep and completely land-locked, save for a river crossing. Scarcely worth the effort for a half-day hunt among the larger state and federal tracts with easier access in the region…

This superlative morning of my 30 years pursuing deer, we spotted 11 bucks in a tiny, remote canyon. A beautiful muley to show for the effort. Tagged out on unlikely ground, owed entirely to the good fortune of a bedded whitetail, our nation’s public lands, and blessings from the man upstairs.”