Yuba

               The 2015 upland bird season in southeast Washington provided a better bird year than 2014 and I found my Llewellyn setters hunted better than ever. My pup, Laurel Mountain’s Yuba was in her first season afield. She was born with severe hip dysplasia; hence, we don’t work her very hard or long, but she has a bird drive and desire to hunt second to none. She nearly out-hunted her three year old cousin, “Lynn Hill’s Finnigan”, pointing double digit pheasant early in the season when the birds were less wary. Yuba pointed many hens, held steady to wing about forty percent of the time, and instinctively backed Finn with style and as much grace as she could muster. As the season wore on, the pheasant became scarce with survivors growing ever educated, but our final day was one to remember….

Heading home after a cold, fruitless morning, I spot some pheasant feeding in wheat stubble along a brushy ditch. Steering my old Ford onto the shoulder, I bail out with Finn and Yuba in tow hoping to get Yuba her first rooster. Turning Yuba loose in the brush, she discovers a pheasant super highway laden with tracks in the fresh snow and the pursuit ensues. Knowing the birds are in cover, a couple blasts on the whistle directs the girls toward the ditch to our right where they brilliantly search every tuft. They generally cover ground full tilt, but the scent here is overwhelming and they adjust pace to methodically canvas the area. My mind momentarily drifts, but I soon realize I have lost track of Yuba. I last noticed her on the ditch edge to my right where she dropped in several minutes prior. Finn is momentarily still out front, and I struggle to hear any footfall from my stocky little tri-color. She must be on point.

Easing toward the ditch, I grip my old 16-gauge double, searching, yearning to see my future rock star pup locked up. Finn disappears into the ditch bottom twenty yards out and the world once again falls silent. Light snow swirls in the air and tips me off to Finn being downwind of me. My desire for this moment is embracing and time slows to a crawl. Yuba has proven a formidable hunter, but has yet to be rewarded a bird in hand despite her many accomplished points. Leaning over the ditch I peek past a large tuft of reed canary grass only to find Yuba locked up with aplomb and Finn backing. My chest swells with pride as I delicately drop into the ditch bottom only yards from Yuba.

My approach is deliberate and I work the thick mats of grass thoroughly to kick out a pheasant, any pheasant. Now mere feet from Yuba, her intense gaze into the grass telegraphs the bird’s refuge. The safety on my old double clicks forward as I kick into the grass and simultaneously glimpse Yuba nearly come out of her skin in anticipation. A stunning, young, wild rooster explodes from the grass underfoot. He was deeply buried, even below my footing on the frozen grass, and his long ascent provides more than ample time to put a steady bead on him. His flight path leads straight away down the ditch, directly over Yuba and Finn, Yuba nearly flipping backward as the rooster clears her forehead. The rooster clears a safe shooting height as I weld the bead to the rooster’s belly. My old double recoils against my shoulder, but the sound and jolt are lost in the moment.

The young rooster folds and my autopilot engages the gun’s safety as I holler dead bird, sending the girls clambering to the prize. Yuba is ecstatic, to put it mildly. I have taken birds over Finn all season while Yuba backs, but this one is hers. I have not trained the girls to retrieve, so I race to the bird and lavish the girls with praise as they nuzzle and huff the fresh, warm feathers. What bird dog daddy could ask for more than a solidly held point from his pup on her first rooster with her cousin instinctually honoring?

While carefully sliding the rooster into my vest pouch, Yuba sits at my feet, trembling and crying. Her eyes wide and dark, yet glowing like that of a child on Christmas morning. She yearns for more, and I release the girls to find one more bird.

 

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.

DSC_0350_edited

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.

DSC_0193

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.

LRM_EXPORT_20171202_191742

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!

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.

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!

Upland Pursuits – Dove Decoys Enhance the Hunt

Published in the East Oregonian, August 18th 2021

My decoy spread, offset slightly to my left, lit up like little gray beacons as the morning sun cast its golden glow. A light breeze kicked up, spurred by the sunrays piercing the cool air of early fall. Aside from the emerald foliage of the occasional tree, the Palouse was decorated in the usual varied tones of beige, canary, and bronze.

A pair of Mojo decoys set in a pea field as part of a larger spread

Camo-clad, sitting along a forgotten fencerow, I waited for the first flight to descend upon the grain field and gathering of imposter fowl. A robust doe whitetail with her speckled fawn leisurely fed from a grassy draw bottom. Suddenly, movement to my right revealed a few gray birds swooping in, head-on to the decoys. With a smooth swing of grandpa’s old pump gun, the morning hunt was underway.

Pop quiz – what am I hunting? Okay, you read the title and know it’s doves, but that scene could easily play out for waterfowl with a tweak to the decoy setup and a little water in the picture. No waterfowl hunter would dream of sheltering in a layout blind without a few decoys out front, but decoys for doves?

Pass-shooting doves is an American sporting tradition and the mourning dove is the most widespread and abundant game bird in North America. Every year hunters harvest more than 20 million birds nationwide. A typical hunt might be characterized by old five-gallon buckets for seats placed in the shade of a tree alongside or separating grain fields and water sources.

Tucked in the shadows, friends and family enjoy quiet small talk as early autumn heat wavers up from the parched landscape. No fancy gear or even camo required. Action can be fast and furious, but also slow when birds are sparse or keeping their distance. That’s where decoys enter the scene.

Handmade wooden decoys are an effective option as well

Doves tend to follow trees or obvious terrain features when moving among food and water sources. At these sources, doves perch on exposed tree branches or anything else with overhead visibility to survey for predators before descending to feed or drink. Decoys can be set to attract doves to a location advantageous to the hunter, influencing their flight path and encouraging more birds to fly within shooting distance. With a few simple considerations, your decoy spread can do more than keep you company on the hunt.

Identifying your shooting position is the foundation of setting decoying. Decoys should be placed 10-20 yards from your shooting position to ensure the shooter remains hidden from approaching birds. Offset the decoys from your shooting position at about 10 o’clock for the right-handed shooter, and two o’clock for the left-handed shooter. The goal is to encourage crossing shots rather than lure the birds in head-on to the shooter.

Next to location, setting visible decoys is crucial. Tree cover can be sparse in the shrub-steppe and harvested fields.  A wire or T-shaped bar about 10-feet high to elevate decoys can easily be constructed at home with PVC, pipe or rebar. A few decoys sitting side-by-side mimics doves perching on a powerline, which typically attracts others. If hunting your own land or an area where you can set up something semi-permanent, the T-bar or wire span can be left and used year after year. Options with more mobility, like telescopic T-bars for easy packing into public land, can be found online.

A Mojo decoy clipped to a black locust branch of a homemade tree perch

Another option is to make an actual tree perch that can be cut and pruned to an ideal structure for decoy attachment, and placed near food, water, and even gravel sources. Doves will also use them naturally, which may provide an advantage.

When placing decoys on the ground, set them 20-30 feet from the elevated decoys and pair them up with a few feet between pairs, generally facing into the wind. Dove pairs often travel together, and pairing decoys on the ground gives the spread a more natural appearance. This does not mean placing each pair perfectly side-by-side, but set in relative proximity to one another to give the decoys the look of feeding together.

Non-mobile (static) decoys work well on their own, but another option is to include a spinning-wing decoy to animate your spread. Doves approach an animated, spinning-wing decoy head-on most often, which can aid in setting up that text-book crossing shot. Later in the season as doves become wary, the additional movement of the spinning-wing decoy is more convincing to the cynical eye of our most frequently hunted bird species.  When you get right down to it, mourning doves offer one of the most versatile wingshooting opportunities of all upland birds, and decoying doves can be done simply, with minimal gear. If you have never used decoys, doves offer an easy, affordable opportunity to get started. Static decoys are easy to find and can lure birds even without being elevated. Whether trying something new or simply honing your decoying skills this fall, setting decoys for doves can enhance your wingshooting experience.

A brace of America’s most popular game bird, taken over a decoy spread