Upland Review 2019

The 2019 edition of Upland Review is available online! This free online magazine  details the prior year accomplishments of the Blue Mountain Pheasants Forever chapter in Walla Walla, Washington, and includes a few short stories of hunting the 2018 upland bird season and conservation.  Check it out!

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!”.

imgp1748

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.

imgp1759

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.

finn

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

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.

DSC_0176

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.

DSC_1079a (2)

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.

DSC_1069a

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

20181224_091812

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!

DSC_1106a

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.

DSC_0238

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.

DSC_0214

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).

DSC_0088

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.

 

DSC_0003-1

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.

DSC_0911a

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.

DSC_0350_edited

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

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

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

DSC_0193

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

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

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

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

LRM_EXPORT_20171202_191742

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

Haying Best Management Practices for Wildlife

Farming and habitat practices to maintain healthy CRP and alfalfa stands provides significant nesting and brood rearing benefits to upland game birds, fawning areas for deer, and nesting and roosting habitat for wild turkey in the early spring and summer. Long, overhanging grasses provide nesting cover while broad-leaf plants like alfalfa and other native forbs provide insect forage for fledgling broods and hens. These stands draw and hold birds but have been called “ecological traps” in areas where haying regularly occurs.

The term ecological trap refers to a beneficial condition that attracts wildlife, but results in additive mortality, affecting the population overall. Quality CRP and alfalfa stands fit the scenario well where haying normally occurs during nesting season.

As haying equipment approaches, a hen pheasant may not vacate eggs or chicks, rather hunker down and use her camouflage for protection as a tractor passes by. This leaves birds vulnerable to the following mower which may be offset from the tractor. Likewise, small mammals and deer fawns use similar camouflage techniques and experience similar vulnerabilities to upland birds.

Best Management Practices

To minimize the potential hazardous effects of haying on wildlife, the Natural Resource Conservation Service has developed a few simple best management practices.

1) Defer haying. Apply and maintain at least two of the following management actions specifically for improving or protecting grassland functions for target wildlife species.

  • Do not cut hay on at least 1/3 of the hay acres each year. Idle strips or blocks must be at least 30 feet wide.
  • For at least 1/3 of the hay acreage, hay cutting must be either before and/or after the primary nesting or fawning seasons based on state established dates for the targeted species.
  • Increase forage heights after mowing to state specified minimum heights for the targeted species on all hayed acres.

2) For all haying during the nesting/fawning season implement at least two of the following to flush wildlife from hay fields during the mowing operation:

  • A flush bar attachment will be required on the mower (see figure below).
  • All mowing will be done during daylight hours.
  • Haying pattern:
    • Begin on one end of the field and work back and forth across the field, OR;
    • Begin in the center of the field and work outward.

Following these simple practices can greatly reduce unintentional wildlife mortality, further increasing the benefits of environmentally friendly farming.

flushing bar

Image from the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

 

Elk in the Abyss

Friday, October 28th, 2016, at 10:00pm I was startled awake as my lovely wife Ali bailed out of bed in a mad dash for the phone. We are early to rise, early to bed folks and our friends generally are afraid to call after about 7:30pm; therefore, we instinctively assume that late night phone calls are emergency related and most likely regard our families back in Virginia. As Ali’s tone of voice changed from nervous to confused, then relieved, I realized no one was dead or dying and I was delighted to hear my friend Larry Lamb’s voice on the other end when she handed me the phone.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Larry asked.

“I was planning to take the setters out for a pheasant hunt in the morning.” I replied. “What are you doing?”

“You want to go on an adventure?”

Anyone living in elk country during an elk season knows that when a friend with a pack string calls in what you regard as the middle of the night to ask if you want to go on “adventure” before dawn the next morning, there is likely to be a significant, and possibly unpleasant amount of labor involved.

“Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?”

“Aaron has a bull down in the Wenaha and asked if I could help him pack it out. Not gonna lie, it’s down in a hell hole and we could really use another back for packing. Still interested?”

“Sure, Larry. What’s the game plan?” I replied, un-flapped.

“Be at the house at 6:00am to help catch the animals and saddle and load ‘em up.”

“Yes sir. See you in the morning.”

Aaron Anderson is one of Larry’s longtime hunting buddies, and one heck of a good guy. I met him for the first time a month prior on our 2016 Wyoming pronghorn adventure. For the second time in four years he drew a Wenaha Wilderness branch antler bull elk tag in southeast Washington, and luckily tagged out earlier that morning on a dandy 7X7 bull. The Wenahas are a rugged area of the Blue Mountain range between Oregon and Washington. It does not compare to the Rockies in regard to elevation and high mountain cragginess, but make no mistake, the few thousand feet elevation difference between creek bottom and ridgeline characterize the Wenaha with steep, exposed, rocky slopes, sheer cliff outcrops, and deep, dank, brushy draw bottoms fit only for the wild animals that inhabit them; hence, a 350” class bull in this country is not uncommon. Also, with an over-the-counter elk tag you can only hunt spike bulls or cows in southeast Washington (depending on weapon choice), so there are many branch-antlered and mature bulls to be had.

I have lived in Washington for a little over five years now, and have only begun to hunt elk. Unfortunately, friends like Larry have been hunting elk their entire lives, but never ask a portly Virginia boy to join the hunting party or assist with a pack-out. I love horses, have plenty of experience caring for horses, and formal English riding experience, but little saddle time overall. I understand horse demeanor and am confident in the saddle, but my eastern upbringing must make me a liability in elk country, which justified my suspicion that I was a last-on-the-list, much needed back for a painful, and likely frightening pack out as I hung up the phone.

Jumping out of bed, I headed down to my “deer room” in the basement to gather my frame pack, head lamp, knives, and water bottles. I didn’t want to risk forgetting something in the morning, but once back in bed, I barely slept throughout the night. My stomach flipped and my mind raced with excitement and anxiety, running scenarios of pack string wrecks, cliff scaling, and wishing I was dead while scrambling up an 87-degree scree slope with 100 pounds of elk on my back. I suspected by this time the following night (if I survived), I would know 100% if I really had what it takes to hunt elk; something I desperately needed to find out.

I awoke with a start twenty minutes before the alarm at 4:43am, literally rolled out of bed, hit the “on” button on the coffee pot, and slipped into my boots. I let the setters out for a quick morning pee, threw some cream and sugar in a travel mug full of fresh brew, and headed to the truck. My Tundra roared to life and I flipped on the fog lights for the forty-minute drive to Larry’s. Making a hard-right off Highway 12 onto Sapolil Road, I then swung the left into Larry’s driveway and rolled down to the barn where Larry had the trailer hitched and was waiting for me to help catch the pack team.

With head-lamps ablaze, we strolled down to the paddock where Larry had erected a nice chute down to the run-in shed where he feeds. All the animals were finishing breakfast as we opened the top end gate for our initial approach. Most of the team is well seasoned as Maggie and Bubbles are about thirty- and forty-year-old mules, respectively. Larry buckled the halter and lead rope on Maggie, who is slow, steady, and mountain savvy. I led Maggie to the trailer to tie her off for saddling while Larry followed up with Katie, a squatty and portly blonde mule with a barrel twice the girth of her body length. I chuckled as she waddled up to the trailer with a disinterested look, ears laid back in disgust, although calm and gentle as could be. On our second approach, Larry handed me the lead rope hooked to Freckles. Freckles is a large brown and white, dappled paint gelding who would serve as my trail coach this day. Freckles and I have a past ride together under our belts and I trust this horse with every step. Freckles, similar to Maggie, is a seasoned packing and riding horse in his mid-twenties, and big enough to handle a behemoth like me. Larry followed with Riley, a medium sized chestnut gelding with a gorgeous white blaze down his nose. Riley is the squirrely bastard of the bunch, flinching and jerking with every move Larry made. I was glad Larry would be the one to steer him, but Larry has a long history with pack horses and is fit for the task. With the string all tied off to the trailer, we saddled them, loaded them up, threw the panniers into the forward tack room, fired up the diesel and turned toward the mountains.

It was a gorgeous October morning with a slight cloud cover, but early morning sun broke through with the promise of a perfect ride out the mountain top to our descent “trail”. Unfortunately, the forecast was calling for rain by 2:00pm in the Walla Walla Valley, which we all knew would hit us in the higher elevations sooner as the moist air condensed against the western slope. We cruised the hour and forty minutes into the trailhead with ease and gawked in awe (at least I did) at the volume of campers and pickups that choked the parking areas and camp sites along the road in the Umatilla National Forest. It was opening day of the general elk firearm season, so the masses had descended to battle over the eleven spike bulls that can legally be killed in the immediate 600,000 acre area (that may a bit of an exaggeration on the acreage). At the trailhead, we spun a u-turn and pulled up next to a twenty-four-foot travel trailer that Aaron called base camp for nine days prior. Although we were there to fulfill a taxing chore, our “hellos” were heartfelt and we shared a moment of jealousy and congratulations while ogling the beautiful, heavy, chocolate rack with sweeping tines, ivory tips, and beams that could seemingly have stretch back to the bull’s tail. The top of the beam between the G5 and the split crown had a unique swoop to it where the antler arched down on both sides. I wanted my own set immediately. Then, just as quickly as we caught up, we climbed into the saddle and set out across the ridge spine for the hour and a half ride to the top of the draw where the bull lay a thousand feet below.

The ride out was amazing to say the least. The trail was easy with little elevation change, few windfalls, and no creek or cliff crossings, just beautiful views of deep canyons, rock outcrops, the fall greening of the open slopes, and the golden hue of larch scattered among the evergreens. I was reminded of a line I read in a book titled The Greatest Hunting Stories Ever Told. In his chapter, Spirit of the North, Thomas McIntyre wrote about larch while on a Canadian moose hunt.

While the needles of the tamaracks died off in their own fiery-yellow manner, the always dark spruce stood reservedly back from it all, looking down on this spectacle of deciduousness and having none of it.

IMG_20161029_101329645_HDR

I enjoyed the ride immensely and relaxed in tune with Freckles’ rhythm, but nearing the end of the mountain, I looked down the canyons where the finger ridges and walls above the creeks dropped sharply and abruptly into the thick, black bottoms, and my anxiety of what lay ahead jarred me back into an unfamiliar, but comprehendible reality. A quarter mile from our tie-up, Aaron led Maggie over to the east side of the ridge in a meadow. Larry and I followed, and as he turned to us, he pointed down the creek bottom at a cluster of glowing yellow larch. “There he is”, he exclaimed. I could feel my thighs burning already.

While tying up, the wind picked up, so we wound the string up into the trees where we could shelter them and stow some gear that we needed to keep warm and dry for our ride out in the looming thirty-four-degree rain. I shed my tee shirt and stowed it in a saddle bag, and stowed my heavy jacket in a pannier that we would later fill with the bounty won through God’s grace, the life the bull gave for Aaron’s perseverance, and the intense work that we were about to endure.  Wriggling back into my sweatshirt, I donned my frame pack with a bottle of water stashed on the shelf, took a GPS point of the pack string location, and dropped off the side of the mountain. Beginning our initial descent, Aaron looked back with a smile. “How do you guys feel about cliffs?” He asked.

Our descent was approximately an hour long down nearly vertical slopes, through numerous rock outcrops, along slick, muddy rims with loose granite shards, and through the dim, soupy draw bottoms thick with serviceberry. As for the cliffs, Aaron is afraid of heights, but not Larry or I. What I don’t like is trying to negotiate a cliff face. Luckily, we managed to avoid all sheer cliffs by scrambling around and down the bony ridge spines. The real challenge lay within the final approximately 200 feet to the elk, which fell just above the creek bottom. Here the terrain changed from painfully negotiable to seemingly impossible. We painstakingly placed each step to ensure that our footing would hold while using grass, evergreen roots, and serviceberry branches to maintain balance and distribute weight. Each step down increased mental anguish, intensifying the anxiety of making the ascent with a loaded pack. If there was ever a time to choose to swear off elk hunting for good, this was it.

IMG_20161029_114752673_HDR

Finally, just after noon, we arrived at the elk as the chill-to-the-bone rain set in. Aaron spent the day prior quartering and skinning out the skull for a shoulder mount, so the work to be done this trip was simply grab the back-straps and other loose cuts, and bone out and pack as many quarters as we could manage to carry. Larry and I clambered a bit further downhill to grab a couple quarter bags and a hind quarter Aaron had hung, while Aaron began boning out a shoulder under the shelter of a massive Doug fir (one of the few places to stay dry and work on three square feet of flat ground). We made a couple trips up to where Aaron was working, ending with the cape. Within an hour we had the shoulders, a hind quarter, and all the other loose meat split between the three of us, leaving only the cape and one hind quarter for tomorrow. None of us wanted to come back down here, but we decided it was better to leave a light load for a second day than take too heavy a load and risk injury. Besides, my thighs were burning by the time we arrived at the elk, and I silently wept inside imagining how the ascent was going to treat me. Our packs averaged somewhere between sixty and eighty pounds, and I estimated our total load weight to ballpark between 180-220 pounds. That’s plenty for a desk biologist who hadn’t hunted as hard as he should have the past archery season.

As quickly as we dropped into the abyss, we turned around to begin the ascent and prayed along the way for strength and sure footing. Our steps were short and deliberate, and our progress was slow and unsteady for the first couple hundred feet. I lead the team, clawing on hands and knees at times using anything anchored to the ground for stability and leverage. We all agreed to take it easy getting out of here, but there was nothing easy about this. In the draw bottoms, the downed serviceberry branches were slick and gummy from moss and years of grass decaying over them. On the ridge spine, bare soil was greasy from the rain. The soil was squishy and caked on our hands like pie crust dough with gritty, sandpaper-like granite shards.  My cadence carried me five to ten feet where I could locate the next object or flat piece of soil large enough for a foothold. Most footholds were the backsides of grass clumps where long, slender-bladed grass as dark as the evergreens that it grows under held itself firmly to the mountain side, determined to keep the light soil layer and other vegetation intact. I stopped for a minute or two, calmed my breathing, and commenced the shuffle once more.

Down-ridge about twenty yards were Larry and Aaron, carefully picking their way up behind me as I relied on my GPS track log to keep me on-trail. Ascending the bottom quarter of the climb felt like climbing Satan’s staircase in an attempt to escape the clutches of a hell frozen over. The going was slow and I speculated it would take us about three hours to reach the pack string. Where the terrain was too steep to climb, I fell into the edge of the draw and used the serviceberry to my advantage where it was rooted deep enough to pull myself a little further up the mountain. Stopping for a break after another five feet of elevation gain, I heard Larry shriek below followed by a few muffled obscenities. Aaron asked if Larry was okay, to which he replied yes, but he nearly lost his place on the mountainside and was afraid he may take out Aaron in the tumble. We continued to struggle on hands and knees for another approximately twenty to thirty minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Finally, I picked up an elk trail and broke out across the face of Satan’s staircase, which ended as we weaved our way up through a rocky outcrop and stood firmly, without fear of a slip, on a slope that was still absurdly steep, but manageable.  Breaking over the top of this vertical nightmare renewed our drive and we mounted the remaining mountain side with fresh confidence, and surprisingly strong legs.

The remainder of the climb was slow, but our progress was steady with better footing. We even managed some conversation along the way. I was enjoying the scenery again despite being soaked to the bone in sweat and rain. I always find it interesting how different a mountain looks while climbing up compared to shuffling down. Breaking down over the tops of the rocky outcrops pays a mountain little justice as looking over the top masks height and cragginess, but the outcrops and cliff faces loomed intimidatingly overhead on the ascent. About half- to two-thirds of the way up, the reality of how long and steep this climb was began to work on our mental status, but we were still going strong and the terrain only became more forgiving as we neared the crest.

Reaching the only small outcrop with a semi-flat top brought a sigh of relief. On the way down, we discussed walking the mules down to this spot which was about 300 yards from where the stock were tied. Without a word of dropping the packs and going for the stock, we boldly continued. The worst was over. We could see the high mountain meadow on the ridgeline to the north and we bore north-northeast toward the opening. Another blessing of the day was that an old burn that swept through this area left few windfalls, the majority of which were in this final stretch. Continuing on, we carefully stepped, hopped, crawled, and slipped across the decaying, charred, and spiky evergreen logs as we side-hilled around the finger ridge rim.  With a short push through what appeared to be sumach saplings, we broke into the bottom edge of the meadow and my right thigh began to cramp just above the knee. Perfect timing.

We swiftly closed the gap to the stock and shed our packs, which made a solid thud as they connected with the soft ground. I made for Freckles and looked around to see that we all had one thing in mind. We pulled out our rain gear, shed our wet cloths, dried our heads and arms, and slipped into something more comfortable for the ride out. It was 3:30pm and we made haste in loading the bulging quarter bags into the panniers, hoisted and hooked the bags onto the packsaddle, and lashed down the empty pack frames on top.

IMG_20161029_145713803

The stock were sheltered nicely among the trees and we didn’t even notice the wind as we finished our hike up the mountain. However, as we untied and led the string out of the timber, the cold wind settled on our wet fingers and faces, and stung with the near-freezing needle pricks of late fall. Mounted up, I settled in and rested my hands across the saddle horn, completely at peace and feeling at home. Taking in the dreary grays of a low ceiling, the bright greens of freshly growing grasses and forbes that feverishly sprout with fall rain, and the calming dark green of the evergreen forest, I can understand how my grandpa and uncle must have felt when they entered the wilderness of Idaho for the first time. My uncle has yet to leave it, and I assumed that by now, my grandpa had returned for eternity.

Our ride out was a bit quieter than the ride in. The horses were eager to get back and Freckles knew the trail fairly well from former experience. I let him lead, and although I have the utmost confidence in him, I took notice of his curiosity and lack of attention to the trail at times.  As we covered the mile back to the main trail, I gave Freckles a couple suggestions to either follow Aaron and Maggie, or choose another route that would reduce the potential for eye impalement or being swept off the saddle by a large, low-hanging branch. Freckles accepted my direction with aplomb and kept me unharmed, even comfortable while weaving through the timber and over the windfalls. Once back on the main trail I allowed him his complete freedom to roam and was amused at his desire to check out meadows, grab a yarrow snack, and basically meander across the mountain. Sometimes he even stepped slightly off trail on less traveled soil if he anticipated a slip in the mud. We plodded along in silence until the trailhead appeared, and while we had all enjoyed the experience, we had long passed the twelve-hour mark of this adventure, and the cold rain had our spirits fizzling.

Approaching camp, we carefully rode up to the trailer and tied off the critters. We made quick work unloading the elk and packs, then removed the harnesses and bridles and trailered up, leaving the saddles attached for warmth. Aaron invited us into the travel trailer and we shared a beer, some of Larry’s venison jerky, and a couple laughs, reminiscing of the day and Aaron’s hunt overall. It was an awesome experience with some great guys, and I dare say I plan to put in for this elk tag, now knowing the brutal physical demands and risks. Luckily, Aaron’s bull went down where it could be reached, but there is potential in this country to have one hell of predicament on your hands if a bull runs or takes a nasty tumble. This was my test to see if I have what it takes to be an elk hunter. I passed.

Larry, Aaron, and I shared a congratulatory and thank you man-hug, then Larry and I hit the road. I wouldn’t return tomorrow as Aaron had a replacement back lined up, but Larry and the stock would make a repeat performance. As we bounced down the mountain road toward home, my mind drifted off to my own challenging, successful hunts for mule deer, and the fire that burns so deep sparked to life. I will see this trail again in the coming summer.

Upland Review

I developed a magazine with the idea of showcasing the annual activities and accomplishments of Blue Mountains Pheasants Forever, Chapter 258, through photo essay. I also included a couple additional hunting articles.

I retain the magazine as an independent publication with a plan of developing it into a free online magazine to showcase fledgling outdoor writers and photographers, and the beauty of upland bird hunting.

Give it a read at Upland Review.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑