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.

Seven Years a Bird Dog Dad

I moved to the southeast Washington State in 2011 shortly after finishing graduate school. It was the first time I had lived in pheasant country. That fall, I harvested my first two roosters thanks to an old yellow lab who was flushing for hunters that happened to pull into the same parking spot at the same time. The feeling of holding that first big, beautiful rooster, admiring his plumage and impressive tail will never betray memory, save for dementia in my older years.

My wife, Ali, was living in California at the time and trying to make her way to Washington. At the notion of hunting pheasant, she insisted on a bird dog pup and began poring over websites and magazine articles, researching different breeds and their characteristics.  She is a bit of a sucker for good looks, mild temperament, style, and grace (and somehow wound up with me), and these traits led her to setters. She finally landed on a Llewellin setter, about which I knew nothing. I was not really interested in a bird dog at the time, but her persistence and disregard for my input (a timeless tradition) resulted in an orange belton pup we call Lynnhill’s Finnigan, Finn for short.

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True to Stockholm’s Syndrome, we fell in love with this beautiful, tiny, spawn of Satan. She was the worst behaved puppy I have ever had the misfortune of raising. Bold in her infant months, anxious and terrified the rest of her first year. She refused to be house-broken or crate-train, and shredded everything including mattresses, wall trim, and any other furniture well into her thirteenth month. She screamed for dear life every time we left the house, literally the entire time we were gone, according to neighbors. She was flat not trainable. I didn’t even consider training her to hunt until she was about eighteen months old. The one thing she did well was walk on a leash, so I took her to a park outside of town most evenings and weekends where quail and pheasant were common to keep her excited about being afield.

Upon finally deciding to introduce basic commands, Finn was easily bored, like most pups, but contrary to my immediate assessment, she was sharp, and picked up the commands quite well. All hope was lost, however, when Ali arrived home from work one evening with a pair of white pigeons. I built a small enclosure in the barn on the farm we were renting, bought a pair of kick traps, and began hiding the birds in the grass and brush around the farm.

Walking Finn on a check-cord, we always began our approach downwind of the bird. Finn would cover the area impressively well, but would never honor the scent. She could smell the bird. That much was clear. Her head would snap into the scent cone, but she continued to sail aimlessly as if being forced toward the bird against her will. In vain, we tried nearly everything we could to get Finn to stop or search for the bird upon catching the scent.

Nevertheless, I hunted Finn at age two with great frustration, but I always tried to keep it fun for her. Around Finn’s second birthday, my wife broke down and bought a second Llewellin, Yuba, with the hopes that she would have a bit more hunting prowess. Yuba was quite a different pup. As a short, stocky tricolor, what Yuba lacked in grace and stature she more than compensated for in prey drive and intelligence. Within a couple months she was crate-trained and quite obedient. Most satisfying was her attention to the songbirds in the yard.

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We worked Yuba alongside Finn on the caged pigeons and hikes through bird habitat where she display immense interest and skill. Simultaneously, Finn began to settle down and mature a bit between her second and third season. It was clear that things were coming together, and I think Finn’s maturing helped Yuba learn so much quicker than Finn had as a pup.

When the pheasant season rolled around in 2016, Yuba was just over one year old and I was eager to hunt her. We began that season expecting nothing from either dog; however, we found ourselves smothered in birds opening day. Finn actually appeared to be hunting, but we didn’t count our roosters too early; not before we found her locked up solid and the first bird of the morning hit my vest. Miraculously, a second rooster fell to my Fox sixteen-gauge not ten minutes later. By the time the second rooster hit the ground, Yuba’s prey drive shone fiercely. The light bulb illuminated for Finn that day, and by the third day of the season she was methodically covering ground, honoring the scent cone, slowing down and using her nose, and pointing like a champion.

By the fifth day of the season, Yuba and Finn engaged in friendly competition of who could point the most birds and hold point the longest. Working both girls by myself most days, it was no news to lose track of them, find one on point, and spot the other locked up as I went in for the flush. With repeated exposure they instinctively began backing each other. I nearly fainted upon my first witness of this phenomenon.

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During the 2017 season, the girls hit the ground running with virtually no prior off-season yard work. Both pups worked famously and I won’t soon forget Yuba’s exuberant eyes as she stood hard and proud, pinning fast the largest wild rooster I have ever seen. He flushed nearly under Yuba’s face as I closed in. My startle at his size and beauty caused me to whiff both barrels on his steep ascent. We stood in awe, looking after the handsome rooster sailing across the grasslands. We could have limited out for the first time that morning, but ole dad was a disappointment with the scatter gun.

As a first time bird dog owner and a mediocre trainer at best, my pups and I have learned a lot from each other; the greatest lesson being patience and persistence. Looking back over the early seasons, I wouldn’t trade the frustrating hunts for anything as they make the reliability of the girls so much sweeter these days. Zeta (my youngest) is not progressing as Finn and Yuba did, but time is on our side. If have learned anything, it’s that a fine dog can be developed when the time is right, and the upcoming season will be her second. A lot can change in the blink of an eye, and I anticipate North Dakota will be the game changer. At some point in the not too distant future, I will reflect proudly on my trials with Zeta. And as dog dad, I cherish the early days.

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God Loves a Pointing Dog

Obnoxiously loud, the alarm clock shattered a peaceful sleep. I awoke to another day off, but Ali had commitments at the office. Working through the morning routine, I slipped into a tee-shirt, stumbled into the kitchen, and ground some fresh beans for the pot. The cats squawked for breakfast as the pups stretched and shook in preparation for their morning duty. All seemed to be quite typical.

It had been seven days since Yuba developed a severe allergic reaction to who knows what. After four vet visits, the cause remains undiagnosed, but our suspicion lies with a leptospirosis vaccine administered on December 5th. Nevertheless, Yuba’s bout with a hypoglycemic seizure on the 10th, followed by severe hives, vomiting, and diarrhea for the past week has left the little Llew tuckered and vulnerable.

With the coffee brewing, I shuffled to the front door in the dim lighting of the Christmas tree. And much to my surprise, there were three perky setters waiting eagerly for the door to swing ajar.

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Yuba had barely begun to eat on her own the day prior, partially due to the quantities and variety of medications I had forced upon her for the past week. But upon reentering the house, she trotted to her crate, sat upright, and gave me the beckoning glare of a pup in dire need of breakfast.

I obliged with a small helping of kibble mixed with a little tasty canned food and an antibiotic pill tossed in. She indiscriminately ate it, pill and all. We were both quite satisfied with this, as well as the fact that there were no messes to clean from overnight. Yuba quickly staked her claim of the love seat and drifted off into a crack-of-dawn, winter’s morn dog nap which only a hunting dog can do justice.

Upon bringing Ali her morning coffee in bed and feeding the rest of the herd, I took up residence on the couch to proof-read an article I was about to submit to Pheasants Forever Magazine. Ali headed off to work as the girls and I hung out on the couch. But a miracle happened just before 7:30am when a boastful, cackling rooster pheasant soared straight over the house.

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Yuba erupted from slumber and dashed across the room, perching swiftly atop the far couch arm, where she kept watch over the wheat field and a pair of roosters feeding in the damp morning fog. Now this was looking more like recovery!

About an hour later, I headed out the door with the girls to fill bird feeders and visit the mail box. But before I could get my Muck Boots on, Yuba and Zeta were both on point in the driveway as our flock of California quail scampered through the blackberries and down the road on their morning commute to breakfast.

Thinking the chores could wait, I crated Zeta, then slipped out with my Ithaca Model 37 and a couple 6-shot. Yuba remained on point.

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Lingering by the driveway until all the quail had passed, I swung the paddock gate open and released Yuba to peruse the overgrown swale that spans the length of our property. Thick with white alder, woods rose, blackberry, and a couple old Russian olives, the deep swale flows with surface spring water all year and provides food and shelter for the quail, pheasant, a few whitettails and mule deer.

I hadn’t made it 30 feet into the paddock when Yuba turned into the swale and locked up. Nervous little birds chirped and scurried in the tangle leaving me little shooting room, so I dialed the polychoke to a notch between Improved Cylinder and Modified. I was being picky as well, waiting for a single male.  And, as luck would have it, a single male flushed and fell to the old 37, coming to rest at the bottom of the swale beneath a nasty mess of tree limbs and blackberry tendrils.

One hundred quail must have flushed upon the report the shotgun leaving Yuba and I to stare in silence at the final movements of the beautiful little bird gifted us this fine, wet morning. Encouraging Yuba to “Get that bird!” , she merely traversed the swale and pursued the larger flock. “Lord, send me a retriever!”, I pleaded as I slid down the muddy embankment into the fallen, slimy, algae-stained tree limbs, all the while snagged and shredded by the piercing clutches of blackberry

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Completing the retrieve, I called Yuba back to bask in her victory, and it occurred to me that God must love a pointing dog too. Coming out of a week of hell into the promise of Christmas, Yuba was gifted a short, successful, Christmas Eve hunt on the homestead when I thought she may only have one more shot in mid-January.

I grabbed an old whitetail shed I found on a hunt two days prior and staged a couple photos on my old fence row before heading back inside with my not yet fully recovered pup. Satisfied with her outing, Yuba climbed back up onto the love seat, curled into a setter ball, and drifted off into a post-hunt snooze, that again, only a hunting dog can do justice.

Merry Christmas, indeed!

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An Ounce of Prevention

The Backstory

Yuba sat trembling atop my lap, peering out the back of the cabin as the 225 horsepower Yamaha outboard thrust the North River Seahawk onto plane. The night brought freezing rain and wet snow, but the morning was dawning beautifully; the Snake River meandering its way between fog banks under a pink cotton candy sunrise. On board we had Dave, Brett, Rhett, two old, rotund Brittanys, and Yuba and I.

Our plan was to swing into a remote US Army Corps of Engineers habitat unit and split up. Cautioning the guys about Yuba’s big-running tendency, Dave, the only dog-less crew member, volunteered to hang with Yuba and I, while Rhett and Brett took the Brittanys to the other end of the property. Yuba is certainly the baby of the family, terrified of water, and is unsure of strange dogs, but she hit the ground running as the boat slid in under the Russian olives at the foot of a looming basalt bluff.

Dave and I barely made it around the toe of the bluff when we strolled right into a flock Rio Grande wild turkey. Yuba had seen a single or two, but the flock of 30 birds erupting from under the Russian olives sent her into a new dimension of crazy. Carrying a valid turkey tag, I wasted no time releasing a round of 4-shot steel from my old Ithaca model 37 pump, resulting in a notched tag and heavy vest.

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From Yuba’s perspective, the Rio hen was simply a giant prairie grouse with strong scent. And clearly, they were fair game as ole dad bagged one instantly. Therefore, in classic pointing dog fashion, she bounded off to peg the next bird. The turkeys amusingly dispersed like a flock of quail among the grassland. Yuba pointed and we flushed about a dozen singles throughout the hunt. But the real show began when we got into the pheasant.

As if Yuba weren’t crazy enough, there were dozens of pheasant along the riverbank, hiding in the false indigo and flushing wild. As we pinched in toward Brett and Rhett, the pheasant started busting in all directions, bird dogs were pointing, scurrying, and looking for birds to retrieve from a volley of shots.

I noticed I was on the whistle a lot more than normal as Yuba careened in, around, and through every bit of cover she could find. But even in the chaos and sensory overload, I was impressed with her finding and pointing prowess, telegraphing with precision where a bird was, should be, or was headed. The entire show was simply unprecedented.

I never touched a rooster all morning, but was amped and proud as we made our way back to our pick-up point. Yuba was beat, of that I was sure, but I had little worry as she was actively and intelligently hunting the entire morning. Still, I kept a keen eye on her as I am accustomed to her hips getting stiff and sore as a result of dysplasia. So, it was no news when she suddenly started to show some signs of hip pain, or so I assumed, from a seemingly stiff gait.

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Almost to the boat, I noticed Yuba’s hind legs quiver a bit, so I scooped her up and carried her the rest of the way. Her reward for an incredible hunt would be to warm up, grab a snack, and retire from the afternoon hunt. Handing her up to Brett, I swung myself aboard, regained my feet, and reached out to take my tired little setter. But confusion was replaced with dread as I noticed her eyes clenched in pain, followed by the unmistakable convulsions of a seizure.

“Holy shit, she’s seizing!” I yelled to Brett, who swiftly laid her out on the large, cushioned bench seat in the boat’s cabin.

I wrapped her in my insulated overalls while Brett cradled Yuba’s head. Seizures can present with a variety bodily functions, pains, and other involuntary motions and sounds. An eternal minute passed as every muscle in her tiny body went board-stiff, but the worst of it was her uncontrollable screaming.

With muscles finally relaxing and cognizance regaining, the pain must have been unbearable; the cause I am left to assume was perceived as some unknown predator. Large, dilated pupils searched to unveil the culprit as she pled for mercy. Terror, confusion, and panic were evident as Brett and I spoke softly, stroking her ears in an attempt to sooth her fear, if nothing else.

At the two-minute mark, she began to quiet. The convulsions had completely ceased and sore muscles relaxed. I scooped her up, still wrapped in my now defiled overalls, and sat with her curled on my lap like a newborn pup. Brett solemnly motored toward the marina.

She had come out of it. That was the first blessing, but I had no way of really checking her neurological signs as of yet. Suspicious that the cause was either an electrolyte or glucose deficiency, I went for a honey packet, which I had readily on hand for this very situation. She lapped at it eagerly.

Back at the truck, I tucked Yuba in softly among a fleece blanket and the overalls, and offered some water, which she happily drank. She was showing no sign of impaired motor skills, but was still clearly wiped from the exertion of the hunt and seizure. Dropping the Tundra into drive, I dialed the local vet, announcing I would see her in 45 minutes, if not sooner.

Keeping tabs on the groggy pup, I randomly whistled or called her name. She always responded. Carrying her across the threshold at the vet’s office, she wagged at the receptionist, and sat upright on my lap in the waiting room. The visit was short and sweet, and Yuba’s behavior improved immensely in that insignificant amount of time.

The diagnosis was as I suspected afield. Hypoglycemia. More appropriately, Hunting Dog Hypoglycemia (HDH).

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What is HDH?

I believe most folks know what hypoglycemia is, but in case you don’t, its low blood sugar. A pup’s normal blood sugar should range somewhere between about 70-150 ml/dl. A dog experiencing HDH will have a value likely below 50 ml/dl. Dr. Shawn Wayment (DVM, @birddogdoc on Instagram) explains that HDH occurs when a canine athlete exerts itself in strenuous exercise thereby rapidly depleting their blood sugar (glucose) before their reserves can be remobilized or released from glycogen storages from the muscle and liver.

Symptoms

There are a number of reliable resources on HDH that share common symptoms that may include the following.

  • General fatigue
  • Staggering
  • Trembling
  • Shaking
  • Nervousness
  • Anxiety
  • Weakness
  • Ataxia (loss of control of bodily movements)

As with any medical condition, no two cases will necessarily present alike. Athletes fatigue when they work hard, whether two- or four-legged. Yuba was showing fatigue as she has on every hunt for the past four seasons, but no other symptoms until about five minutes prior to her seizure. At that time, her demeanor appeared similar to her pre-FHO days when her hips began to hurt and stiffen.

Causes

Dr. Wayment refers to current literature on HDH pointing to a lack of condition as a common cause; however, he believes that this is simply not the whole truth and has “…seen it happen in very well-conditioned canine athletes.” That now makes two of us as Yuba is at the height of her physical ability for the season.

So, what really caused Yuba’s bout of HDH? My hypothesis is the perfect storm of conditions creating utter chaos, sensory overload, and compensation for environmental conditions. The novelty of the hunt in general is my overarching suspicion, the specific points exacerbating Yuba’s metabolic rate being the following.

  1. General adrenaline and anxiety for an hour before the hunt: Yuba knew we were headed out hunting and was trembling with anticipation the entire truck ride and wait for our comrades.
  2. First time boat ride: Yuba doesn’t like water more than about a foot deep. She was nervous just walking down the dock to the boat, much less roaring down the river on water she knew was deeper than she is tall.
  3. Strange dogs: Yuba loves people, but the two strange, yet sweet and well-meaning Brittanys, further prodded her nerves and desire to curl up in my lap for security.
  4. Turkeys: Yuba had seen a turkey or two before, but the dozens of turkeys that flushed into the grasslands like a flock of quail inundated the area with bird scent. She was working and pointing turkeys left and right the entire hunt. Upon her first find, it was difficult pulling her off of the scent at all. This was uncharted territory for her.
  5. Pheasant: There were also dozens of pheasant. Everywhere. Between the turkeys and pheasant, she didn’t know which way to go or which scent to key in on and was totally jazzed about it.
  6. Shooting: The two groups of hunters began at opposite ends and worked toward each other with a barrage of shots throughout the hunt. When the gun fires, Yuba kicks into high gear looking for the dead bird, then tears off in search of the next live bird. Focus was a bit problematic as she wasn’t sure what she should do at times.
  7. Frigid Conditions: We had been hunting since September, but this was the first actually cold day afield. And it wasn’t just cold, but wet from icy precipitation. She was soaked and chilly causing additional caloric burn to maintain body temperature.

 

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Prevention

The old saying that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” could not be more true as you cradle your ailing pup in the field with little to nothing you can do to remedy the situation. I was prepared with the necessary items to keep her energy up, but I neglected to enforce break time to care for her. When Yuba is on fire and thoroughly enjoying the hunt, I have to leash her to make her stay put for breaks. I failed to do this on this particular hunt and will not make that mistake again.

Furthermore, a warmer vest that could keep a lean, 28-pound setter drier may have been enough to keep her energy burn rate to a more normal level.

Proper diet, rations, and conditioning are a must for our four-legged upland athletes. How often to feed your dog is another question that I refrain from debating, but some veterinarians suggests that feeding the appropriate daily ration once per day would condition a dog’s body to store a larger liver glycogen reserve to draw from during strenuous activity.

Dr. Wayment also suggests that feeding a dog 10% of its calculated daily ration every two hours during strenuous activity has shown success in preventing HDH symptoms.

Emergency Treatment

What did I do right during this whole debacle? I provided warmth immediately, and water, honey, and rest once the seizing stopped. Yuba came out of it well, was responsive, excited about the honey, and didn’t show any obvious, alarming symptoms of neurological deficiencies. Nevertheless, I rushed Yuba to the vet for an exam, which was one hour to the minute from the onset of her seizure.

The same resources providing information on HDH symptoms also provide a variety of treatment options listed below. Whichever product you choose, at least 50% glucose is key. A couple ounces should suffice if needed in a pinch, but be prepared to feed your dog in short order and rest them the remainder of the day.

  • 50% Dextrose solution (50% glucose)
  • Karo syrup/corn syrup (100% glucose)
  • High fructose corn syrup (50% glucose)
  • Honey (50% glucose/50% fructose)
  • Maple syrup
  • Jelly/jam
  • Pure fruit juice
  • Nutri-Cal supplement

Dr. Wayment suggests applying to the oral mucous membranes for rapid enzyme break down; however, you should exercise caution. It may be best to wait for the seizing to end before trying to orally administer any of the above. Seizing animals obviously have no voluntary control over their body, including the mouth. Fingers near the teeth could end badly and at no fault or intention of your pup.

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Looking Ahead

I learned the hard way to recognize conditions that may be hazardous to my pup’s health, aside from the obvious. Be cognizant of how novel experiences may impose additional stress on your pup.

Do not dismiss symptoms. This is Yuba’s first season hunting post-FHO surgery on her right hip. She is a new dog with relentless enthusiasm and desire, but the former three seasons of monitoring her pain level through her body language left me to assume that any symptoms she expressed were caused by her other, still arthritic hip. This was clearly not so. I don’t recommend looking for the metaphorical zebra at all times, but I do suggest being suspicious enough of the horse to consider a zebra in disguise.

Preparation does not equal prevention without proper action. Keep an eye on your pup and the clock. This can be a tall order amidst insane action, particularly when you rely on your pup to show you when he or she needs a break. But in Yuba’s case, and possibly the case with other pups in peak condition, no obvious symptoms of extreme exertion or energy expense may be noticeable. Had I forced a break and a snack just once, it likely would have prevented the seizure.

While Yuba’s story has a happy ending, a proportion of these cases end fatally. Keep your pup’s energy up, and by all means, if you recognize any of the above symptoms of HDH, allow your pup to rest the remainder of the day. When caught early, pups can bounce back rather quickly. But finding a few additional birds is not worth the risk, lest you be the next to publish the unfortunate story of your pup’s demise in the Pointing Dog Journal subscriber forum.

Pheasant Hunting the Walla Walla Valley Uplands

Published in the Union Bulletin, September 23rd, 2018.

I sat alone in the gray calm of dawn, gazing contently across my food plot. A few wary whitetails snagged a snack on their morning commute. Steam curled up from a hot cup of coffee, tickling the hairs on my face and nose as I sipped in peace. It was early December. Not quite frigid, but the bunchgrasses were frosted and brittle.

My Llewellin setters, Finn and Yuba, and I hunted pheasant hard the prior six weeks and I needed a break. But the girls lay anxiously at my feet, keeping a keen eye on their orange vests and the cased shotgun by the door. They knew it was a hunting day. Any other morning we would be working roost cover along thick reed canary grass in the low swales, or working a creek side brush line at first light. But not today. This day would be different.

As the clock reported 8:30am, I decided to act like a dedicated bird hunter.  The girls had succumbed to pessimism, lying, groaning, sulking. But they cast a suspicious glance as I approached the door. A hand outstretched for my shotgun sparked utter bedlam.

Hunting reliable roost cover early in the day can be productive, but hunting pressure may call for adjustment to keep on the birds as the season progresses. Understanding pheasant behavior provides insight to changing tactics throughout the day, as well as across the season.

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Lowland swales, wetlands, and riparian areas provide prime pheasant roost habitat. When left to their own devices, pheasant rise in the morning and move out to feed soon after sunrise. Early in the season, birds may loaf in or near roost cover, but reacting to hunting pressure, birds will push out incredibly early, at times in the dark on public land. While pheasant may adjust their schedules to hunting pressure and weather patterns across the season, when and where to find them at any given time can be predicted with moderate certainty in the Walla Walla Valley.

Seeds and berries are common pheasant diet components in fall and winter. By mid-morning, birds are foraging on upland slopes and moving toward or into crop fields. Tall wheatgrass (an introduced Eurasian bunchgrass common to southeast Washington), wheat, canola, or other seed-producing crops offer forage throughout the season. Woods rose and blue elderberry provide dual function of food and cover when growing in dense patches. Birds may spend more time in this type of cover in the early morning, particularly in freezing conditions.

Pheasant spend a large part of the day working edge habitats such as the crop field/grassland interface common among farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Short wheat stubble lacks adequate cover from avian predators, so pheasant typically don’t roam far from secure refuge when browsing cut crop fields.  By late afternoon, birds grab a final snack before flying into roost, within about forty-five minutes of twilight.

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As 9:30am approached, the girls quivered with anticipation alongside my old Fox 16-gauge double, broken open across the tailgate. I released the girls and strode quickly through lowland, waist-high Canada thistle and reed canary grass in route to the uplands. A whistle-blast and hand signal turned the girls to the high ground. We worked into the wind up a long ridge spine toward a wheat field, paralleling a steep slope. Native needle-and-thread grass and bluebunch wheatgrass grew low and lush, hiding pheasant along the slope edge.

Having quickly lost sight of Yuba, I turned toward my last visual of her, but a familiar arrythmia pulsed in my chest as Finn locked up mid-stride. Going in for the flush, the hen held tight enough I nearly left her thinking the bird had escaped on foot. A stellar performance by Finn to kick off our late morning jaunt. Upon release, Finn sailed toward the slope, dropping out of sight. My pace quickened.

Approaching the edge, I spied Yuba standing staunch, tail high, with Finn cautiously backing. Hastily, I circled wide, approaching from the front to pin the bird between us. At ten feet out, Yuba’s penetrating gaze identified a thick round of bunchgrass three paces to my right. Turning to face the unseen bird triggered an eruption of parting bunchgrass with the onset of heavy wing beats. A splendid wild rooster gained altitude over a backdrop of rolling golden wheat and grassland.

My Fox came up smoothly, followed by the girls launching over the edge, their eyes fixed firmly on the prize. At approximately 10:00am, I softly slid our first rooster of a lazy morning into my vest, admiring his emerald green head, long, striped tail, and modest spurs.

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As the season progresses, get creative. Try new territory. Don’t be afraid to get a late start. Play on pheasant feeding behaviors; consider upland food sources over lowland coverts. Relax. Relish every point. Enjoy the hunt!