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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
Published in the East Oregonian, January 18th, 2020.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
An icon of the western U.S., the wary, spike-tailed adult males of this species boast the endearing nickname “bombers” due to their large size and lumbering liftoff. An obligate Inhabitant of the high sagebrush, greater sage grouse are as quintessential to the range as pronghorn and mule deer.
A spectacle to behold, my first encounter was in southern Idaho on a late September elk hunt. Riding an abysmally rough BLM road back to camp, I spotted “geese” in the sagebrush off to my right. “Why are geese out here in the sagebrush?” I asked myself. It seemed plausible to find geese along the Pahsimeroi River, but not in the shrub-steppe.
“Those aren’t geese, genius. They’re sage grouse!” I blurted out in elation. A half-dozen robust, feather-legged fowl eyeballed me warily as I bounced past, ensuring they need not unnecessarily expend the energy of lift-off.
Sage grouse once numbered around 16 million across western North America, pre-settlement. Presently, estimates of approximately 200,000 birds remain range wide, their significant decline attributed largely to habitat loss. Following their decline, the species was proposed for listing as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act until a 2015 status review identified that listing was not warranted.
The decision was made partially due to the efforts of the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), which began in 2010, pushing to conserve precious sagebrush habitat across the sage grouse range. Sage grouse and the SGI are both captivating in their own right; the birds for their size and behaviors, and the SGI for its incredible cooperative nature among landowners, non-profits and government agencies.
Presently, there are four protected, fragmented populations in Washington. A much larger area of southern Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and southeast Oregon throughout the Steens, Malheur and Owyhee public lands support these curious prairie grouse, permitting regulated hunting seasons.
Sage grouse are known for their dramatic “lekking” behavior. A lek is a common area where males gather in spring to perform courtship displays for females and fiercely defend their territory on the lek, which may only be a few yards in size.
The sage grouse courtship dance is something to behold. Males have spiked tail fans and snow-white breast feathers with two yellow air sacs that they inflate during the ritual. The Cornell University bird laboratory explains the courtship behavior as follows.
“Standing tall, with inflated chest held high, the male sweeps his wings across his white breast, creating a swishing noise. He tilts his head back, rapidly inflating, bouncing, and deflating the yellow, balloon-like pouches on his chest. The outward popping of these bare pouches creates a series of echoing pops. These displays are performed almost continuously, and up to 10 times per minute, for several hours in the early morning.”
Cornell University Bird Laboratory
Ensuring the persistence of this iconic species of the western sagebrush habitats, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) helped found the SGI, leveraging Farm Bill funds and volunteer landowner cooperation to conserve the largest intact tracts of sagebrush with the largest sage grouse populations. To date, the SGI has cooperated with 1,856 ranchers to conserve more than 7 million acres across 11 western states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming).
The SGI includes NRCS partnerships with myriad local, state and federal governments and non-governmental organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Oregon Hunters Association, Pheasants Forever and the Ruffed Grouse Society. While the NRCS channels funding through the Farm Bill, success is only possible through partners that leverage funds, shoulder work, and tackle policies beyond the authority of the NRCS.
The success of the SGI equates to uplanders like me continuing to have opportunities to hunt sage grouse where their remaining populations are strong. But wildfire and invasive species like cheat grass continue to threaten sage grouse habitat. As fire danger and smokey air from the Cascades region settled over eastern Washington and Oregon this past September, I cancelled my bucket list hunt for which I had drawn an Oregon permit.
Smoke settled thick, oozing through the window cracks on the homestead like pancake batter late on September 11th. Burning tear ducts awakened me, urging me to tape off windows and doors. Burns, Oregon was slated for the same air quality. I can only imagine how uncomfortably stuffy a camper, sealed tight, encapsulating myself and two setters might have been.
Historic sagebrush-steppe fires burned slow and cool, beneficial to the ecosystem. But cheatgrass encroachments have changed fire cycles to more frequent and hotter, roasting mature plants and damaging sagebrush regeneration. Additionally, sagebrush communities are slow-growing, requiring invasive species management and possibly replanting to reestablish decimated communities.
Fortunately, wildlife is resilient and persistent. Habitat and hunting opportunity to be restored through the efforts of dedicated partnerships like the SGI. And the 2021 prospects are looking good.
I can see the covey nestled among the buttery autumn grasses and milky sage. A setter tail wafts gently in the auburn glow of the sun peeking over the Owyhee; the location of the covey betrayed. Circling in for the flush, the covey materializes from the sagebrush sea. Heavy wingbeats trigger a swift mount. The bead aligns with my right eye as double barrels swing through. Next year…
Picture an expansive river bar with a variety of cover and vegetation types, and terrain ranging from flat bottomland to steep and brushy slopes topped by shallow soils over basalt formations. Riparian cottonwood and willow present with sparse, brilliant canary yellow and amber foliage, shedding gently into a light breeze. Golden waves of wheatgrass and other bunches flank wealthy corn, canola and sorghum food plots separating the riparian from the uplands. And a rooster cackles as you unclip your pointing dog for a morning match of wits.
This well-loved public parcel sees a wealth of upland hunters and canine breeds over the course of the bird season, my setters and I included. The pheasant are wily, highly educated, stretched tighter than a banjo hide, and easily qualify for the Olympic 400-meter sprint. Pinched birds are prone to startle the hunter into cardiac arrest as they rarely sit for a staunch point and flush from behind at every opportunity.
Humans succumb to routine, of which hunting method fall victim. The parking area and access points are low on the property and lead to the tempting food plots and thicker riparian cover. Walking the road or hunting the lowlands right out of the gate is a natural tendency, yet ensures an early day, and not due to a limit of birds.
Pheasant naturally emerge from thick roosting covers before sunrise and head to the high ground and crop fields for breakfast. Pushing through the roosting cover often produces a productive point or two, but if you step aside to observe bird behavior beyond the range of your pointing dog, you may notice birds escaping far ahead, possibly beyond the public boundaries. And once these birds decide to go, they generally waste no time.
A simple solution is to hunt the high ground immediately. Birds heading out from roost are more likely to hunker down or flush back toward roost cover. Making a high pass and circling low for the return lap ensures a few more birds are occupying good transition covers and may be less sure of themselves as you approach from a different direction than most others.
Hunting large tracts with birds possibly scattered throughout is best accomplished with partners and multiple dogs. Beware of the company you keep, however. Pheasant are highly attuned to sight and sound. I have witnessed birds escape an onslaught more than a quarter-mile ahead as whistles, beeper collars and voices echoed, alerting all life to the presence of the orange-clad cavalry.
Instead, keep quiet, collars silent, and leave the whistle in the truck, if possible. Use hand signals to communicate with your buddies and canines, and spread across the terrain with a couple of good working dogs to catch the birds as they try to duck between and around the mammalian search party.
Another consideration is the severity of disturbance the birds experience. A similar but much smaller creek bottom property I visit has relinquished several roosters to my girls and I over the years, some coming directly on the heels of other hunters. When pheasant are gently pushed out, even speeding ahead of an errant shot wad, they may only travel a short distance into more challenging terrain if not further pursued.
Recently, at the conclusion of significant rainfall, I made the creek bottom for the final hour of daylight, only to pass parting hunters on the road. Not 10 minutes prior did they deposit spent shells and boot tracks in the bottomland mud.
Upon spying the aftermath, my youngest setter, Zeta, and I turned up the adjacent draws, traversing the hillside bunchgrass, flanking the edge of a wheat field a mere couple hundred yards off the creek. Because the property is so small, other hunters rarely venture up the grassy draws. Pheasant that flush to the extent of the cover and experience no further pressure over time are largely content to sit tight, waiting for the typical brush-busters to push through and vacate.
This particular evening, Zeta put us on a couple pheasant that sat beautifully for her rare and stylish point. She needs a cure for her addiction to putting birds on the wing and careening madly in their wake. Yet, as we surprised these birds, she did her job well, and the flush presented an easy shot.
Hunting pressured public land pheasant can be challenging, particularly coming into the late season, but alternative approaches playing on pheasant behavior and property boundaries can be surprisingly productive. Keep quiet, always anticipate the flush, and trust your pup’s instinct. It may take some time to pin a bird, but when the point is true, circle in, ready for action, and savor the hard-won success of an educated public land bird.
The sun rested against the crest of the horizon, a massive sphere radiating vibrant magenta. Wind turbines stood solemnly shadowed in the foreground while a rich golden hue settled across the bunchgrass sea laid out beautifully across the hills and swales before us. Yuba trembled in anticipation as the GPS collar chimed and vest straps clicked securely.
Leadership training taught me the most valuable lessons of putting “first things first” and “taking care of myself and others” to maximize effectiveness as an employee and satisfaction with life in general. Therefore, as the clock struck 2:30pm on this gorgeous afternoon, a run on the Palouse rose to the top of my priority list like the cream materializing in a freshly squeezed jug of milk. Silently, I dropped from my conference call, tossed Yuba in the back seat and made haste for the wind farm.
Hitting the ground running, Yuba bee-lined to the east. But the faint whisp of wind suggested another approach. Whistling her back, we continued south into the swale. The plan was to cross the swale, ascend the far hill, hunt the ridge line east, then circle back to the north in a pattern reverse of how many hunt the property. Roosters up feeding would be preparing to drop into the swale to roost and I wanted to catch them on flanks before they hit the thick cover.
Dense reed canary grass envelopes the swale, providing superb roosting cover from predators and cold temperature. It also prevents a pup with bad hips from hunting efficiently, sapping stamina. Hence, I waded quickly through and across the mattress of bent, swishing grasses with Yuba in tow to keep her from expending too much energy in the impossible cover.
Emerging at the toe of the hill, a few colossal tufts of Great Basin wild rye stood clustered along the outskirts of the reed canary tangle. Strolling past, Yuba encircled a cluster of bunches and failed to reappear. Peering around a nearby tuft, Yuba’s breathtaking point offered an eyeblink’s notice before the rooster exploded nearly under my right foot.
Amid the startling heart palpitations, my practice of quick target acquisition instinctually kicked in, securing the roost with an instantaneous burst from the cylinder-choked barrel. Most upland birds begin entering roost covers approximately one hour before dark, and this guy was just on the edge, about to dive in for the night.
Yuba rushed in, securing her prize and whining excitedly as we marveled over the bronze, bared tail and brilliant iridescence of the overall plumage. The Palouse landscape against a gorgeous fall sunset presents a stunning watercolor painting. Throw in the varied tones and flashes of setter and rooster to orchestrate a unique masterpiece worthy of marvel and never to be seen quite the same again.
While those clear, crisp evenings along thick drainage cover are ideal, draw-bottom grasses on higher ground can serve as sufficient roost cover as well.
One rainy Friday evening, my youngest pup, Zeta, ran the high ground below a perched wheat field. The shallow draw opened slightly into a beautiful bowl below the abrupt field edge. The kind of area you would expect to glass a bedded mule deer. While the flanking grasses were little over ankle-high, the draw bottom grasses were knee to thigh high, enough to swallow little zeta as she quartered through the cover like a trick bicyclist in the half-pipe, zooming through the bottom and up the side hill to the rim, then back down again.
Circling down from the left rim, Zeta bumped a covey of Hungarian partridge. A great disappointment as Huns are a rare find for us and I hate to miss possibly the only opportunity of the season. Unlike quail, I have never seen any stragglers. The entire covey goes at once. Yet, hope springs eternal, so I hustled closer in preparation for a second flush, which failed to materialize.
Approached the top of the draw, Zeta became birdy and began working frantically up and down the thick grasses. Simultaneously, Zeta flashed on point, prompting a rooster to rocket from the cover, presenting a beautiful crossing shot. My 20-gauge double rose quickly, depositing the bird in the short grasses. Numerous roosts and scat piles were strewn about. An identical scene presented in the adjacent draw where we pushed up a hen.
While morning and mid-day hunts appear to be a standard for may uplanders, the magic hour before dusk can be nothing short of spectacular for both scenery and locating birds that may sit just a little tighter than typical. If the season is slipping away to other priorities, try putting first things first by squeezing in a short evening hunt. The minimum reward is a run with your pup beneath a painted autumn sunset, and you might even swing a bead over a bird or two.
Glimpses of white flashed through the heavy sagebrush as Finn dashed across the scablands. There were Hungarian partridge and valley quail hunkered somewhere among the sage sea and She was working her best to locate them. A carpet of spent grasses and forbs provided ample food sources for upland birds, which were inexplicably absent from the flood-scared landscape.
Circling a small basalt butte, I recalled the last flash of white being off to the left about 30-yards. Starting in that direct, my handheld locator alerted me that Finn was on point, simultaneous with my catching another glimpse of white between the waist-high brush.
Rushing on for a flush, a single bird levitated silently, catching the wind and flapping lazily to perch on a lichen-encrusted fence post and peer judgingly back at us. Its round head and exaggerated wingbeats gave it away instantly. A short-eared owl, I would come to learn.
Over the years, my setters and I have flushed short-ears a number of times on the Palouse. Occasionally pairs emerge. When hunting covey birds, there is no concern over drawing a bead on one of these peculiar raptors that can be downright startling, but when chasing something like sharp-tailed grouse, expecting a brown and white bird of similar size can be momentarily confusing.
Short-eared owls are brown spotted with a buff, streaked chest and white under the wings, resembling dried grasses. Their pale face is clearly defined with large golden eyes, outlined in black as if they are wearing eye liner. And if you really want to dive into the minutia of detail, a dark comma-shape is prominent on the white underwing.
An owl’s “ears” are the lateral feather tufts on the head. The great horned owl boasts magnificent “ears”, but they are far less conspicuous on the short-eared owl. Only when on the defensive are the short-ear’s tufts erect and visible, hence, its namesake.
Aside from their unique, exaggerated flapping and flight that the Audubon Society describes as “buoyant” and appearing like a “giant moth”, I’ve come to read the dog in the instances they point before the owl appears. They must possess a unique odor as the dogs know it’s a bird, but it just doesn’t smell right. Their points are tentative rather than rigid and confident, and when the bird levitates, the dogs peel off with no desire to pursue it.
Our numerous encounters with short-ears on the grasslands comes from them being the most wide-spread owl species in the world, occurring on every continent. Their North American range spans the entire continent nearly to the Arctic with year-round residency and breeding approximately across the northern band of the contiguous 48 U.S. states.
While most owls prefer some form of dark cover and timber, short-eared owls inhabit the open plains, shrub-steppe, tundra and marshlands, where they roost and nest on the ground like upland gamebirds or waterfowl. When nesting, the female selects a high spot and scratches out a bowl-shaped depression similar to what you might find a pheasant using as a dusting bowl. She fills the bowl with down feathers and grasses for soft, warm brood rearing. Nesting and breeding occurs March through June and peaks in April in the northern hemisphere.
Short-eared owls hunt mainly by sound, listening for rodents scurrying and scuffling in the prairie or wetland duff. While they hunt at night like other owls, one of most unique traits of short-eared owls is their common daytime activity. Short-eared owls are very active in the crepuscular periods of the day and can be seen most any other time of day.
Although these medium-sized owls are common locally and worldwide, my encounters with them have always been on large tracts of shrub-steppe. The patchwork of draw-bottom habitats dappling our wheat local wheat farms typically supports species of alder, cottonwood and black locust, more enticing to great horned owls who would whoop the shorts off the short-eared owl if it desired the shade.
Short-ears are easy to photograph and easily approachable. Finding them is the real challenge. A hike through public lands west of Dayton or the central Washington scablands near Odessa are areas where I commonly see these pale-faced fowl. A canine companion can increase your odds of discovery, but the camera must be at the ready.
Once spooked, Short-ears typically remain close, perching quickly, but the slightest additional human movement can put prompt distance between you. Select a fast shutter speed for the moving target. Upon the flush, train your focus on the bird and try for that perfect in-flight shot, then wait for the owl to settle and capture that wide-eyed glance of incredulous judgement born only of a meal or midday snooze disrupted.
The rich aromas of a moist, finely blended pipe tobacco drifted from the crooked briarwood clenched between my teeth. Taking a slow pull, I puzzled over the two spent 20-gauge shells lying before me, signaling a close to the 2020 upland bird season. Each season brings new and unique experiences, and lessons learned, and re-learned.
Unique experiences of 2020 included a road trip to north-central Montana for sharp-tailed grouse, and making a new hunting buddy from Almira, Washington, on the basalt-channeled scablands chasing quail and pheasant. Both experiences offered complete surprise and education.
A tip from some Helena residents led me to the Conrad area of Montana, only to find it a complete bust. Having hunted sharp-tails in far eastern Montana and finding coveys thick as starlings, I was confident in my setter’s ability to find birds. Map scouting for large grasslands and sagebrush tracts had me a bit concerned, but I identified a few areas that looked good among the patchwork of cropland.
Upon arrival, I found a single tract in 50 square miles with semblance of the native prairie I sought. Over the course of a few days, my setters never once got birdy. We saw not a single game bird along farm roads or public access. Thoroughly disappointed, we packed it in early, headed for Flathead Lake, and camped in a beautiful lakeside state park for a pick-me-up.
On the contrary, in December I met a social media acquaintance near Grand Coulee, expecting prospective covers to resemble our local bird numbers. Darren McCall and his daughter Kinzie were gracious enough to show me some of their best covers, while I ran my best dogs. Wading into the first field of the day, dappled in Great Basin wild rye and other choice grasses, a scene reminiscent of the Dakotas erupted as waves of pheasant took to wing hundreds of yards ahead of us and the dog.
Moving on to the quintessential quail cover of the scablands, every grassy pocket held pheasant, but we put up not one quail covey. The sagebrush and bunchgrasses were cloaked in ice and the landscape a glimmering prism, punctuated by the milky green of sage and chocolate basalt outcrops. Darren claimed a single rooster, and we enjoyed an exhilarating hunt behind Yuba as she taught a clinic on pinning hens.
The common lesson relearned from both Montana and Grand Coulee was that quality habitat produces birds. The Montana habitat was abhorrent, while the scablands were characterized largely by native vegetation.
Also noteworthy, the western wildfires may have kept me from the Oregon sage grouse season, but exceptional mourning dove flights on my homestead amidst the smoke were a fair consolation. Finn and Yuba hunted at peak performance, Yuba in particular. Following a second surgery in August to correct hip dysplasia, she now has no hip sockets. I feared her stamina and stability would prove a challenge over the fall, but being freed of crippling arthritis, her exuberance, determination and skill were redefined.
Yuba’s pheasant savvy comes as a result of passion and drive that have helped hone her skills over the years. I lost count of her finds this past season, and the tenacity in which she pursued downed birds was an inspiring spectacle.
Taking another pull, the sweet aroma triggered further memories. The time has past to hang up the vest, stow the side-by-side, and box the pipe for another grueling nine months of anticipation. And, as always, it was done with a pang of regret, yet a sigh of relief.
Season’s end signals a close to the crack-of-dawn, frozen finger mornings, and cutting, combing and plucking a thousand invasive weed burrs from the notoriously tangly setter coats. It also brings halt to the sight of high-tailed points beneath the golden rays of the crepuscular hours, and the rush of wings against crackling grasses and shrub limbs.
My girls and I are getting no younger. The same can be said for my upland brethren. And to me, a picture is worth 1,000 birds. It’s going to be a long wait for September. May the memories of the stellar days afield, and time spent toting the scattergun with friends and family, simply following the dogs and admiring the splendor of the uplands, see us through to the early 2021 grouse season.
As an adult onset uplander living in the heart of the “big city” flanking Walla Walla’s downtown shopping district, I never really considered owning a pointing dog. A German shepherd and buff tabby marauded throughout our 600-square-foot apartment space as it was. However, I had also never lived anywhere with legitimate upland hunting opportunity.
When my first rooster pheasant fell to the good fortune of arriving at a pheasant release site behind a hunter with a seasoned lab, my interest in upland birds piqued instantly. Suddenly, the old Savage Fox double that I loved so dearly took on purpose and was carried in pursuit of the abundant valley quail in the public access beyond the city limits.
I don’t credit my lovely bride with making the best impulse decisions, like springing for a Llewellin setter pup while we both lived in separate cities and apartments, fresh out of graduate school and living paycheck to paycheck. And that little pup was pure hell on our nerves and furniture. Yet, in hindsight, she changed our lives profoundly, forever. Mine in particular as the hunter of the household, and for that I am eternally grateful.
Similar to a custody arrangement, Ali and I split the duties of caring for young Finn, handing her off on our weekly visits. We both sought urban greenspace and any wildlands on the outskirts to expose Finn to wildlife. And while I knew nothing of training a pointing dog, I learned quickly how to utilize birds like pigeons that had grown accustomed to humans on the city sidewalks, and found Rooks Park on the edge of town with a resident covey of valley quail.
While a pup needs bird exposure, they also need socialization, basic obedience, and hunting commands, which can be taught indoors and on downtown streets. “Whoa” is a standard pointing dog command to keep the dog steady and on solid point as you approach to flush a bird. It can also be used to stop a dog in the field in a dangerous situation. Trainers use apparatus like barrels, tables, and elevated boards to teach this command, which can be done in the corner of a small space. Similarly, “place” boards are typically used for retrievers, but can also be used to teach “whoa” as an object which the dog is to remain steady on when given the command.
Once your pup has the basic obedience down, its time to practice in public. Start with only a few repetitions, cycled with some time in between. Pups still need time to be pups and it’s a big world in the city. Slowly build up your frequency and number of repetitions as the pup becomes less interested in the ancillary surroundings. Remember to start slow and simple with high reward for good work. Keeping a pup interested in training is important to ensure the lessons stick.
After a few jaunts downtown, your pup should have seen the flush of local pigeons enough to seek them actively. It will remember where the birds loaf and feed from your prior walks and anticipate the approach. Pointing behavior may still be coupled with the sight and sound of the birds, providing a good “whoa” opportunity. If possible, work with a partner to steady the dog while the other flushes.
The local valley quail were our saving grace when training Finn in her first year. She sought the usual blackberry and brush pile haunts and perked at the sound of their calls. While her maturation was slow, the regular exposure to covey birds on the edges of natural wetlands instilled early drive, and positive reinforcement for seeking them out.
Additionally, different breeds mature at different rates. My setters are typically not hunting with complete purpose until age three, but that doesn’t mean they don’t find birds afield at a young age. Maintain optimism throughout the early years, building the trust and teamwork foundation. Even if your pup doesn’t fully grasp the whoa command, by their sixth year, they can occasionally be steady to shot without formal training. Remember, no amount of formal training can replace the flush of a bird.
A number of timeless, foundational training resources are available in print and digital media, with recent contributions being geared toward urban training. Project Upland provides a variety of useful articles with free online access. The techniques may not work precisely as presented in every case, but with a little adaptability to your pup’s learning style, and a commitment to gaining experience whenever and wherever possible, a fine pointing dog can be made on the urban landscape, and with minimal resources.