Just Follow the Dog

A hint of the long shadows of evening began to cast across the rolling wheat stubble and amber bunchgrass. A solid cloud of gray dust billowed from behind my old green Ford rolling down Weller Canyon, homebound from work. The bluebird afternoons of late October leave little to be desired on the southeastern Washington Palouse.

About a half mile from home, a large, brilliantly plumed, wild rooster pheasant with a tail stretching to Mexico levitated from the grass buffer above the gravel, and sailing effortlessly into the deep draw of the adjacent field. The pheasant season was freshly open, and my Llewellin setter pup, Finnigan, waited impatiently at home.

A wild little bitch, her energy and personality were equally spun up to ear-rattling irritation, like a pressure cooker about to blow its regulating weight. We had worked since spring on basic obedience and finding and pointing caged pigeons with little success, but my gut said “What the hell, give her a shot!”.

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Applying hard brake, the truck slid to a stop in the driveway of my humble, mustard-colored, 1972 model double-wide with mouse-dropping insulation. I knew Finn’s energy would be unmanageable for a hunt straight out of the gate, so I hurriedly gathered my vest and a few shells, retrieved my old 16-gauge double from the safe, and released the pup for the half-mile trek back to the rooster sighting.

At the foot of the draw, we hunted up the roadside where pheasant roost and feed. Her interest piqued a time or two as she inhaled the deep odors from pheasant beds, but not a bird was found. In my mind, we were acting out the script precisely.

Circling back into the draw, Finn worked more intently. We cut the expanse of wheat stubble with alacrity, approaching downwind a small patch of dense grasses just large enough to harbor a bird or two. Brief moments passed as Finn halfheartedly trotted through the grasses; her thoroughness lacking from a short attention span and inexperience.

Calling her back, I directed her to the inside edge along the toe of a twenty-foot sheer slope. Breezing through with little interest, I was certain Finn had run past the bird. I somehow knew where it was sitting. Fixed on a small hummock of reed canary grass, I called Finn back once again to repeat her last twenty feet of cover. But this time, her head swiveled as she trotted by the hummock, stuttering to a slow halt with clear inquisition.

Closing the distance, I stomped through the hummock, and was nearly tripped backward as the largest rooster I had ever seen before or since on the Palouse blew his cover on a near straightaway retreat. From the corner of my left eye, Finn’s head swiveled after the rooster, while my right eye glanced flush down the rib, the bead finding the stark white ring of the rooster’s neck. With a squeeze of the trigger, our fate was sealed. An upland hunter and his first pointing dog were etched permanently into the folds of time, oblivious to the obsession, passion, learning, and journey that was to shape our future.

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That rooster was my first taken over a pointing dog, and my own pup to ice the cake. I knew little about training a bird dog, just enough about pheasant habits and habitat to be dangerous but not good, and carried an heirloom shotgun, albeit a classic side-by-side. Six seasons hence, I know a hell of a lot more about upland birds and their habitat, I still carry my old heirloom double, and I run two damn fine Llewellins with a third up-and-comer in the wings. My greatest fall passion entails a shotgun in hand chasing the tail feathers of a brace of dainty setters across the prairie. I may pass for a legitimate bird hunter, yet I still regard myself as an everyday outdoorsman lucky enough to have reliable canine talent.

And herein lies the simple foundation that every newcomer to the luxury of upland hunting behind a bird dog should glean. Just follow the dog.

Can it possibly be that simple?

In the age of social media, we attempt to put our best foot forward, so to speak, with our highest quality photography, catchy captions, and stunning gear and guns on display, tapping the envy of every wannabe out there. In reality, however, none of that matters and should in no fashion intimidate someone from diving head-first into this classic and life-altering pastime.

My deliberation on the essence of a bird hunter came as I listened to Project Upland’s podcast #47 interviewing Ryan Busse of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association (Link at the bottom). Ryan is an avid upland bird hunter with an intriguing story that will leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling about folks in the political trenches, fighting to protect our nation’s public lands. But his message to recruiting upland hunters was simple and hit home. Just follow the dog.

A shotgun, bird dog (if you so desire), and habitat comprise the essentials of the upland hunting puzzle, and for many of us, the dog is the center of our upland universe. Few upland hunters are experts at any one of these facets when they enter the game, and most may never claim expertise. Even the most well studied and practiced bird hunter and dog will continue to learn far more over a lifetime afield than in the yard or preserve. The bird and dog can always surprise you, and no training exercise can supplant the experience of the hunt.

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Ryan was lucky enough to have pheasant out the back door of his childhood home, spending countless hours with an old shotgun following a dog. His message speaks to the experience of many of us where time in the field lends itself to understanding habitat, bird and dog behavior, and wing-shooting.

And what exactly is Ryan’s message? In a nutshell, follow the dog until it finds a bird. When the bird gets up, if its legal to hunt, shoot at it. Over time, the dog will find more birds, you will shoot and connect (at least some of us…) more often, and one day you will suddenly realize you are an upland hunter. No fancy shotgun, no professionally finished dog, or other exorbitant paraphernalia required. Just pick up the gun, follow the dog, and enjoy and appreciate every single minute of it.

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

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

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

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!

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