Flurries and Tail Feathers Inspire Future Upland Hunters

The Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever Chapter (Chapter) held their annual youth hunt at Clyde Shooting Preserve November 8th. The Chapter-sponsored event is typically held in September during the early Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife-designated youth hunt weekend, but fire danger this year resulted in the September hunt being canceled. A lucky break for this year’s attendees.

An inch of snow blanketed the Walla Walla Valley as folks awoke in preparation for the hunt. Twenty youth attendees and their families arrived from as far as Tri-Cities to attend the coveted event. Kit Lane, owner of Clyde Shooting Preserve, welcomed his guests in fine fashion with a bonfire outside, and a shelter with seating and large fire pit surrounded by a lovely brick hearth, blazing warmly to cut the chill.

Friends and families scattered about the yard, toasting hands and bottoms over the bonfire. Stories and laughter echoed among the buildings, setting a celebratory mood.

Fields were stocked and parties assembled to follow the skilled and stylish canines careening across the white-washed prairie. Snow fell in force as the initial hunters embarked, many first-timers eager to experience what the upland hype is all about.

Chapter volunteer Randy Snyder explains the retrieving basics to a youth hunter following a successful retrieve by his golden retrievers.

Through snowflakes and windchill, pointing dogs struck statuesque poses while flushing dogs encircled, pushing stunningly-plumed fowl skyward. Wily roosters took to wing as pump guns and doubles tracked.

The occasional bird came to hand by means of luck and skill, sometimes both cooperating harmoniously. Retrieves of all kinds, some at length and some nearby, aided young hunters in securing their airborne quarry. And true to the hunt, a number of birds exacted daring escapes into the hills surrounding the canyon bottom as hunters looked in awe and puzzlement.

Eight waves of hunters passed through the golden range. Experienced mentors handled bird dogs, orchestrated hunts and imparted lessons of firearms and shooting safety. All in attendance enjoyed opportunity and real-time coaching to improve accuracy.

Bird hunting is a balance of chaos for the well-seasoned, let alone someone new to working dogs and kicking up a colossal, boisterous, flailing bird capable of reaching 55 miles-per-hour flight speed in seconds.

While some first-timers were unable to connect, their skill across the hunt improved markedly, becoming accustomed to their scatterguns, dog behavior and the adrenaline-pumping rush of an explosion of cackles and tail feathers trailed closely by a flash of driven fur and wagging tails.

A savvy yellow lab retrieves a rooster to hand.

Hunters were all smiles as they parted the fields, eager for the warmth of the truck heater, excitedly recalling the events with a clarity known only to those stricken with the same fiery passion for the hunt. Fortunate hunters selflessly shared their bounty with their unlucky field mates. And talk of next year already on the lips of those eager for another chance.

The Chapter appreciates Kit and Cindy Lane, our membership and the assistance of other volunteer mentors who selflessly sacrificed their day to share the magic of the uplands. Without the support of these fine folks, and the revenue from Chapter fundraiser supporters, this coveted opportunity to inspire the hunters and conservationists of tomorrow would not be possible.

Pushing the Limits – Emphasizing the Hunt over Harvest and the Role of Social Media

I got my first lesson in conservation as a boy, the age of four. Well, maybe not my first lesson, but the first I could remember. My grandfather would carry me atop his shoulders in the farmland woodlots of the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, as we hunted squirrels with a .22 caliber rifle. And there was no shortage of squirrels.

The bag limit was six in those days, but we never once killed more than three. When I asked grandpa why we would stop hunting before taking our limit, he replied “We only take what we can eat. Leave a few for the next hunt.”

The harvest is the obvious measure of success, and taking a limit of any game provides a rewarding sense of pride and accomplishment. But should the measure of success be the harvest of game, and should we portray taking a limit as the Holy Grail of a hunt?

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⇑⇑ Lynnhill’s Finnigan with our first ever limit of Washington roosters. ⇑⇑

Poetry in Motion

Sailing across the Palouse, my Llewellin Yuba’s vigorous tail feathering wafted in the breeze, as did her soft, black ears as she bounded. The day was blossoming with the promise of a rare, bluebird morning in late fall. Rich, golden sun rays shown thick across the chilled landscape as if viewed through a Mason jar of honey.

Bounding toward the cusp of the ridgeline, Yuba slowed to a halt, crept up a few feet, and locked into the most beautiful point a setter fanatic could ask for. With tail held high, sunlight streaming through her feathering, her gaze set hard on the short grasses ahead. Approaching the edge, the backdrop was breathtaking. A narrowly carved valley opened up with the dappling of milky green sage and rabbitbrush among the variety of fawn-colored grasses, spent vetches, and basalt outcrops set against the cotton candy pink of the distant horizon with a blue ribbon on top.

Shuffling into Yuba’s fixed gaze, a covey of Huns levitated from the bunchgrass, then bailed over the ridgeline like a cinnamon cloud burst. Mesmerized by the moment, my Fox double trained on the stragglers a little too late. The entire covey floated into the next draw as we looked on from behind, the sun warm against our backs.

Moving on in search of singles and roosters, not a bird one reached my vest that morning. I didn’t care. I got exactly what I went for.

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⇑⇑ Yuba with a bird pinned. This is what every pointing dog owner lives for. The result of the point is mere icing on the cake. ⇑⇑

Sweetening the Pot

In my Uplander Lifestyle blog post, “Anticipate the Flush“, I made a firm statement on the climax of an upland bird hunt.

“Probably the most rewarding experience of bird hunting is approaching for the flush and seeing confidence ablaze in the dog’s eyes. When her whole body is locked and loaded, she glances up at you, then back to the precise location as you approach. Both hunter and pointer anticipating the flush.”

The hunt itself, that poetry in motion cast on a perfect canvas, calls upland hunters more than any other in my experience. And the stats don’t lie here either. Project Upland’s fall 2019 survey elucidated that approximately 75% of ALL uplanders are drawn to the prospect by the dogs. Its more than a game. It’s a partnership between hunter and canine. The search for that moment of purity, perfection and connection can only be found in the uplands.

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⇑⇑ Releasing the dog is to embark on an upland journey together. Each day is new with various challenges, success and failures. Birds are a bonus. ⇑⇑

More often than not (for most bird hunters), the hunt results in bird(s) in the vest. But is a bird in hand really worth two in the bush? I proffer that it merely sweetens the pot. It’s not necessarily the bird that draws us afield, but the orchestration of the hunt. One could argue that the hunt is meaningless without the bird, and with that I agree. But I am not the only uplander who would volunteer with alacrity for a catch-and-release opportunity. To marvel over the bird and a job well done, then simply return it to Mother Nature to be hunted again another day.

Enduring the Social Scene

Social media is a blessing and a curse. The incredible photography is inspiring and evocative, but brilliant displays of the harvest can unintentionally overemphasize the kill. And for upland bird hunters, pushing a limit sets a high bar, particularly for those new to the field.

Hunting wild birds on public land is a challenge in itself. The vast majority of my hunts end with a single bird; the next most common result being bird-less. I rarely take multiple birds or a mixed bag. That’s not to say that my opportunities are really that rare. Wingshooting ability is certainly at play. But an end-of-the-day photo of a dog sitting behind a tailgate stacked with birds is an unlikely outcome on public lands, generally speaking.

Every uplander revels in the moment, cradling in hand the most beautifully plumed species the uplands have to offer, particularly when taken over flawless dog work. But emphasis on harvest can reduce the significance of the hunt itself.

The instant gratification of social media and the desire the be “Instafamous” puts tremendous pressure on performance. What’s more is that for an up-and-comer to the upland realm, social media has the potential to stunt one’s confidence in their young dog, etc. Once new to the upland scene myself, seeing other folks in my area continually posting photos of birds and boasting limits set me back a couple years in having 100% confidence in the ability of my setters. Only after some particularly good hunts in the same season did I understand that when my girls weren’t finding birds, there were no birds to be found.

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⇑⇑ Setters doing setter things. No better reason to take up upland hunting! ⇑⇑

Occupy the Canvas

Worry not of the success of others on social media. The best uplanders out there offer a holistic approach to upland hunting from the significance of carrying an heirloom shotgun, to the memories of grouse camp, hunting with family, and a stylish canine on staunch point.

Utilize social media to seek the inspiration and learning from your upland brethren. Revel in their successes and reach out to expand your knowledge and opportunities.

Never lose sight of the significance of the hunt. Boots on the ground behind your own dog or among your favorite coverts with that particular, familiar scattergun in hand is the setting for any work of upland art.

Push the limits of your body and the terrain (with your dog’s conditioning and health in mind). Cherish the days afield with an empty vest or meager single as much as the truly epic moments. Immerse yourself in the beauty and innocence of Mother Nature’s canvas. Chase the Flush!

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⇑⇑ A picture is worth 1,000 words. Yuba has a rooster pinned here. Her tail feathering was so full of houndstongue seeds that it hurt too bad to present a high flagging tail on point. Her eyes told the whole story, and capturing this image was worth far more than the rooster my buddy bagged over her just moments later! ⇑⇑

Can Hunting Keep us Human?

Paula Young Lee poses the question in the High Country News. If this strikes you as a philosophical diatribe, you may be correct. But in an era where hunting is increasingly despised (read: misunderstood), the deeper meaning behind such ecosystem interaction at the human level of cognizance is indeed ponderous.

Hunting’s broader importance to human existence reconnects the severance between human life-history and the complex society we have developed. Humans operate under the disillusion that humans are superior to the natural ecosystem, having no association with the natural world or ecosystem function. But the hunter views things differently.

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⇑⇑ Above: the author with a cow elk, his first, taken on the Idaho winter range, December 2018. Hard earned and well respected. The tags for this special draw hunt have since been stripped from the public and given to private landowners as depredation tags. ⇑⇑

“It may seem like sophistry to argue that hunting protects wildlife, but the act of hunting encompasses far more than shooting a wild animal, and it neither starts nor ends with a death. The hunt itself is part of a much larger continuum.”

Diving deeper into the meaning of the hunt, Lee discusses the spiritual connection between hunter and prey, and that the hunter views wild game as a blessed gift. Lee reinforces her point of the larger continuum through an economics analogy related to the gift of wild game.

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⇑⇑ Above: A successful valley quail hunt with two hens falling to a pointing dog and swift gun work. This interaction with the canine and upland bird plays a crucial role in spiritual rejuvenation for the hunter, who, in turn, gives back to conservation. ⇑⇑

“In a gift economy, the act of giving compels the person who receives the gift to reciprocate. A gift can be refused, but that refusal has consequences. Hence, ethical hunters reciprocate by protecting the wilderness, giving of themselves to ensure that the forest stays the forest….”

Hunting maintains our connection with and works to conserve our place in the ecosystem, and the ecosystem itself. The preservation of human nature.

Upland Destiny

The feel of the old, familiar stock brings a smile to my face; slick, cold, comfortable. The foregrip checkering is rough against my left hand. Rolling the gun under the lights, the fox engraved on the underside of the box peers smugly up at me as if to say “If it flies, it dies!

The marbled bluing on the box appears prismatic with hints of purple and bronze. Admiring the precise barrel fit into the action, my thoughts drift to a moment afield under an overcast sky. The barrels are broken open over a flannel-sleeved forearm above tawny bunchgrass; two spent shells presented by a single-piece extractor.

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Double triggers are guarded safely by a softly rounded, modest steel housing. The safety is nestled a comfortable measure behind the action lever on the tang. A custom recoil pad fits beautifully against the dark walnut stock creating the perfect length and fit. The gun shoulders smoothly; the rib meeting the eye impeccably.

The width of the side-by-side barrels and sight window instills a feeling of confidence, foreshadowed by the smug fox engraving. With my eye on the bead, dozens of hunts past flood into memory where staunch points and explosive flushes were met with accuracy, putting a period on an exquisite moment of poetry; a momentary dance backlit by the glowing embers of deep passion and firm upland style.

The lettering on the left barrel boasts sixteen-gauge. Marveling at the double in my father’s gun cabinet as a small boy in Appalachia, I was unaware that a sixteen-gauge existed. No one could have known that nearly forty years hence, it would swing through and place in hand the spectacular upland bird species of the western grasslands over my own Llewellin setters.

This double harvested my first rooster pheasant over a pointing dog; my first and oldest Llewellin. I toted it through my small bunchgrass pasture the first fall that I owned land, where it harvested a stunning wild rooster; just one, save the rest for my winter picture-window entertainment.

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It harvested my second Llewellin’s first wild rooster from a frost-encrusted wonderland of reed canary grass and Woods’ rose one frigid January morning. It came to shoulder and found my first Hun as a cloud of cinnamon plumage erupted frighteningly underfoot.

But its significance is deeper than the harvest. It’s the entire package. This old double is a pillar of my upland lifestyle. The feel of the stock in my hands, the sheen of the deep bluing, the sly fox engraving, the aroma of solvent and lubricant, the double triggers with the front trigger set awkwardly far forward, and the thumb safety placed exactly at the right spot, which clicks satisfactorily when the butt hits my shoulder.

What’s more is the feeling that my father walks beside me, and when the flush is just right, he may even guide the gun to shoulder in fluid motion with the bead instantly tracking the bird’s trajectory.

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Nary an upland hunt is as sweet as those spent traversing the endless miles of rolling Palouse and riparian quail coverts with a perfectly-ticked setter out front and this old double broken over my shoulder. Whether fired or simply packed in anticipation, its more than a fine firearm. It’s a companion. A large part of the upland hunter that I am today.

Is my love affair with this old double is merely coincidence? I rather muse it as a bond meant to be. A pairing in the cards since before my own conception. My upland destiny.

Grass Awns and Gun Dogs

Have you ever stopped to consider the impact upland bird hunting has on your gun dog? Birds hunters are well aware of the physical exertion on ourselves, whether its pounding the prairie for sharptails and pheasant, or pushing through draws of aspen for ruffies. But I often ponder how many hunters really understand the effort a gun dog puts into a hunt, or the stress they endure.

Upland bird hunting is a full-contact sport for a your dog. No, there are no physical altercations with other dogs (generally…), although one of our feathered quarry may be run down and tackled on occasion, but the conditions endured by a gun dog in the field are downright hazardous.

In the grouse coverts, thickets of woody shrubs and aspen, prickly hawthorn, and windfalls stand to challenge your dog’s stamina, but can also poke, pinch, scratch, and gouge. In the southwest quail country, cactus, mesquite, barbed wire, venomous critters, and a hot, dry climate stand to work your dog into the ground. The rolling prairie appears to be the most benign of the common western settings, but are you aware that your hunting companion covers three to seven times the ground you do in a day’s jaunt, not to mention porcupines, badgers, and even grizzly bears on the plains of the Rocky Mountain Front?

Gun dogs are prone to exposure to a variety of habitats in pursuit of upland game across a given season, but among the plethora of potentially harmful phenomena in the field, grass awns stand among the top contenders for most harmful. While there are a number of precautions and post-hunt measures one can take to ensure the well-being of your fur baby, grass awns can go undetected, wreaking havoc on you pup’s health.

Two common, menacing grassesfoxtail barley (left) and cheat grass (right).

Grass awns are responsible for a number of unexplained illnesses, and even deaths among gun dogs annually. But how can a grass seed be so injurious? In the western US, several grass species including cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), and cereal rye (Secale cereale), which are largely invasive grass species, form barbed tails on their seeds or awns. The awns attach to the dog’s fur, and the sharp point of the awn may work its way into the skin between toes, in ears, eyes, mouth, nose, arm-pits, etc., and the awn barbs continue to work the awn deeper into the tissue until it can enter the interior body cavity or muscle tissue.

The awn may carry bacteria as it enters the dog’s body, and/or it may carry bacteria that are normal inhabitants of one part of the body, usually the mouth, into other parts of the body where it is abnormal, establishing an infection, typically in the form of an abscess.

As we approach and enter upland bird seasons, late summer through fall, grasses dry out and the awns loosen, becoming prone to drop. The best advice? A careful tailgate inspection of your dog before leaving the field may allow removal and avert any illness. But, with awns that have been ingested, odds are that the damage is already done by the time you and your dog leave the field. Routinely check your dog for swellings, particularly at the lower rear sections of the rib-cage, a prime site for abscess development.

What to look for:

  • Hair: Matted hair that may eventually lead to sores against the skin if not removed.
  • Ear canal: The dog shakes the head, scratches or rubs the ears, holds head at a slightly tilted angle.
  • Between the eye/eyelid: The eyes of the dog get inflamed, sometimes including discharge or tears.
  • Nose: The dog sneezes, paws at the nose, and may experience nasal discharge
  • Gums, Tongue, Mouth: If swallowed, grass awns may stick to the back of the throat causing inflammation and swelling.
  • Lungs and Other Organs (inhalation or migration): The dog shows signs of serious sickness, coughing, short breath, and vomiting.
  • Rectum and Anal Glands: dog abnormally licking or scooting on the ground, trying to defecate often or for prolonged periods.

Zeta at the vetZeta at the vet, June 2019, to have cheat grass awns removed from both anal glands.

Learn to recognize hazardous plants, and be watchful where you are hunting, training, or just exercising your dog.  Typically, a simple tailgate inspection post-hunt or run to remove awns before they have the chance to penetrate the skin and begin to migrate will eliminate problem awns, but inspection may not always reveal hidden awns immediately.  A best practice is continued monitoring of your pup’s behavior after hunting through dangerous grasses. Being mindful of the vegetation in your hunting or training areas, coupled with thorough inspections will keep your four-legged partner pointing or flushing long into their upland career.

Product Review: Ranger and Worker Vests by Hurtta

With the upland season far enough past that my office legs have caught up with me, my time for reflection on the recent upland bird season has brought to bear a review of two dog vests by Hurtta.

For those not familiar with Hurtta, this Finnish company opened its doors in 2002 and is quite popular among European countries for their canine accessories. Founded by clothing professionals with a need to outfit their own dogs with functional performance gear in snow country, they reached out to dog owners around the globe for inspiration, designing a variety of coats, vests, harnesses, collars, and more to provide comfort and protection.

More than twenty years hence, Hurrta’s success encouraged the opening of a North American branch, Hurtta America (@Hurtta.America), to serve the US and Canada. To promote sales and awareness, Hurtta America reached out to folks through Instagram, offering free products in exchange for testing and marketing opportunity. As luck would have it, my wife Ali (@SixTailsSetters) was chosen to be a product tester.

We selected the Ranger (below left) and Worker (below right)vests in orange, testing their performance against a season of bird hunting from the September grouse coverts, to the icy December pheasant haunts of the Washington Palouse. Here is how they shook out.

Specs

Similarities

Right off the bat you will notice the style and beauty of these vests. They are just flat sharp on my Llewellin setters.

Both vests are made with a light-weight, stretchy, breathable, very quiet material with snug fit. Hurtta boasts their “Houndtex” weatherproofing layer that is treated with Clariant Sanitized® containing permethrin as the active substance protecting against insects such as mosquitos, horseflies, and ticks. (NOTE: permethrin is toxic to cats.) Both vests have high-visibility 3M® reflective material and zip down the back, and a button-like apparatus on the top left shoulder to attached an LED for night activities.

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Differences

The Worker is a longer vest with a Cordura® belly fabric that extends from the neck back. There are lines along the back of the belly flap indicating a trim-to-fit (I did not trim for our setters). The Worker neck line extends a bit higher than the Ranger. The Worker also has removable straps along the neck meant to secure a GPS collar.

The Ranger is more adjustable in size, meaning it has Velcro-like front shoulder straps that can be adjusted, where the Worker is a solid piece vest.

Fit and Comfort

“Tight-fitting” is Hurtta’s description of these vests, and they are not kidding. Based on Hurtta’s sizing chart, we ordered medium vests. The Ranger would not fit our larger 35-pound Llewellin, Finn, but Fit our smallest 28-pound Llewellin, Yuba, perfectly. It stretched exactly to the back of her rib cage and fit snug around her chest.

The snug fit was great for reducing the amount of grass and twig debris and weed seeds from getting into the vest. Both vests appeared to be comfortable, the soft fabric being gentle on their armpits.

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Heat and Cold

The thin material these vests are made of provides absolutely no warmth, nor did I expect it to. The upside is that these vests are exceptional for September – October when the temperature is still warm. At no time did the vest cause my girls get too warm hunting early-season grouse.

The downside is that these vests are not great for high-energy setters or pointing dogs with little body fat and thin coats once winter decides to dabble in your hunt. Yuba was wearing her Ranger when she went into hypoglycemic seizure on a wet, icy day afield. The cold temps contributed to the seizure. There were a number of other factors involved (see my earlier blog post An Ounce of Prevention) and an insulated vest alone would not have prevented the seizure, but certainly would have been a better choice over the Ranger.

Noise and Utility

One of my favorite features is how quiet the vest material is. With birds like pheasant that spook at the slightest disturbance, these vests are nearly silent through timber and grasslands. I firmly believe that this played a role in the number of successful points my girls had on pheasant over the 2018 season.

The reflective strips and orange color provide excellent visibility at all times. Seeing a small dog in the bunchgrass or riparian thickets can be more than tricky, particularly if you hunt without electronics. A small dog on point can be hard to spot, but much easier with a good, bright vest.

The zipper down the back of the vest is an excellent feature as well. Vests that clip on have straps that can loosen or get caught on brush, but the low profile and lack of bulky hardware made these vests great for thick cover. The stretch of the fabric is also forgiving where brush can grab bulky material.

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One minor, yet thoughtful feature is a button on the back near the start of the zipper. To put the vest on your pup, snap the button together and it holds the fabric in place as you zip it up. This is superb for squirmy pups.

Durability

Durability is lacking in comparison to some of the more rugged vests that use rip-stop type fabrics (e.g. Sylmar Bodyguard). Weed seeds like yellow starthistle spikes did not penetrate any more than other vests we have used, but the stitching is far too weak for a hunting dog vest.

Fabric around the neck and armpits is surged with a fine thread comparable to what may be used on a tee-shirt. The Ranger neck stitching was in tatters after about two hours in grouse cover. With that said, the fabric itself never frayed, stitching be damned. I hunted Yuba in that vest for two months afterward with no issues.

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Tattered neck stitching on the Ranger ⇑⇑.

Another plus is that the fabric held up to barbed wire much better than I expected. My setters believe there is always a bird on the other side of a fence, so we had many encounters this past season, but only twice did Finn hit a fence hard enough to tear the fabric on the Worker; the Ranger suffered not one tear.

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Barbed-wire tears on the Worker ⇑⇑.

Speaking of barbed wire, the LED attachment button could stand for heavier stitching as well, but again, it withstood a lot more abuse than I anticipated.

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LED attachment “button”  nearly ripped off ⇑⇑.

Hitchhikers

Weed seeds stuck readily to the fabric, but for the most part were easily brushed off. A small, black weed seed known as the stickseed did a number on the soft armpit and neck fabric edges and stitching. There are permanent stickseeds in this area of both vests. Otherwise, the fabric stood up to the roughness of the seeds quite well.

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Houndstongue and small, black stickseeds embedded in the armpit fabric on the Ranger ⇑⇑.

On the Ranger, grass debris and weed seeds get into the Velcro-like patches on the shoulders over time, causing the corners to peel up. They never came completely unhooked in the field, but cleaning these patches out can be troublesome.

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Houndstongue, stickseeds, and grass debris stuck in the Velcro-like shoulder straps on the Ranger ⇑⇑.

Overall Satisfaction

Overall, I was impressed with the vests. They were comfortable, cool in hot weather, relatively durable, visible, stylish, and low-profile in heavy cover. Weed seeds were a minor issue and the fabric held up to rough stuff like barbed wire as well as could be expected.

My one recommendation for Hurtta would be to use heavier thread to surge the fabric edges.

If I had to give these vests a numerical rating, I would go 4 out of 5 stars with the Worker being the better vest. My girls will be wearing their vests again next fall when the September grouse season opens, and I anticipate this will be the case for several years to come.

You can find Hurtta products at https://www.hurtta247.com/.  The Ranger and Worker vests are priced at $45 and $55, respectively. If style and comfort are important to you, you will be hard pressed to find another vest comparable to the Hurtta line. If durability is number one, you can find tougher vests, such as they Sylmar Bodyguard (about the same price), which we also use in the field and recommend.

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Yuba and her Ranger vest looking sharp and sporting a fair covering of houndstongue ⇑⇑.

Just Follow the Dog

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 Weller Canyon, homebound from work. The bluebird afternoons of late October leave little to be desired on the southeastern Washington Palouse.

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 sailing effortlessly into the deep draw of the adjacent field. The pheasant season was freshly open, and my Llewellin setter pup, Finnigan, waited impatiently at home.

A wild little bitch, 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 hell, give her a shot!”.

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Applying hard brake, the truck slid to a stop in the driveway of my humble, mustard-colored, 1972 model double-wide with 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 back 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 beds, but not a bird was found. In my mind, we were acting out the script precisely.

Circling back 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 trotted through 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. I somehow knew where it was sitting. Fixed on a small hummock of reed canary grass, I called Finn back once again to repeat her last twenty feet of cover. But this time, her head swiveled as she trotted by 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 had ever seen before or since 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.

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That rooster was my first taken over a pointing dog, and my own pup to ice the cake. I knew little about training a bird dog, just enough about pheasant habits and habitat to be dangerous but not good, and carried an heirloom shotgun, albeit a classic side-by-side. Six seasons hence, I know a hell of a lot more about upland birds and their habitat, I still carry my old heirloom double, and I run two damn fine Llewellins with a third up-and-comer in the wings. My greatest fall passion entails a 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.

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.

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 pastime.

My deliberation on the essence of a bird hunter came as I listened to Project Upland’s podcast #47 interviewing Ryan Busse of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association (Link at the bottom). Ryan is an avid upland bird hunter with an intriguing story 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 to 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 the upland hunting puzzle, and for many of us, the dog is the center of our upland universe. 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 far more over a lifetime afield than in the yard or preserve. The bird and dog can always surprise you, and no training exercise can supplant the experience of the hunt.

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Ryan was lucky enough to have pheasant out the back door of his childhood home, spending 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.

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, shoot at it. Over time, the dog will find more birds, you will shoot and 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, follow the dog, and enjoy and appreciate every single minute of it.

After a few quick seasons, you won’t recall how many birds hit your vest, or how many misses were volleyed behind the escapees. But the unforgettable facets include the way your favorite shotgun felt in your hand, how smooth and naturally it shouldered, and the pride you felt at the glorious sight of your companion flawlessly orchestrating a flush, point, or retrieve.

So, what are you waiting for? Just follow the dog!

Listen to Project Upland’s Podcast #47 interview with Ryan Busse