Raising Pheasant from the Ground Up

Sustainable farming practices to benefit wildlife is a topic for discussion in grain capitols across the country. To the farmer, the mention of sustainability may trigger consideration of production and bottom line. To the biologist, thoughts of crop rotation and managed fallow lands provide wildlife food, water and shelter. And to the economist, efficiency and bang-for-the-buck in the form of yield versus effort/acreage sewn would likely provoke a back-of-the-napkin chart explaining the benefits.

So how does one actually define sustainable farming? A combination of all of the above. Sustainable farming includes economics, reducing production acreage to focus on the most productive for maximum yield. The less productive ground can be leased into CRP or to an NGO like Pheasants Forever to manage for wildlife.

To take it one step further, habitat-minded agriculture may provide a mix of no-till planting and forage and cover crops built into rotation schedules. This permits soil replenishment and works to combat invasive species by providing different plant competitors, insects, and invasive plant treatment options. Forage or cover crops can be sewn alongside winter cover like cattails and other wetland habitats to reduce energy expense and vulnerability critters may experience when seeking food and cover in winter. Pollinators benefit as well.

Picture2

Sounds great, right, but are the benefits actually attainable? Absolutely. Case-studies have proven the benefits to the farmer and wildlife through these sustainable practices. Midwest farms have shown production of preserve-scale wild pheasant through habitat-minded farming practices while maintaining or increasing their bottom line. And who out there would argue that they don’t enjoy wildlife like upland birds? If you answered “no one”, we couldn’t agree more!

If you find this encouraging from any perspective, reach out to your local Pheasants Forever or Quail Forever Chapter. In southeast Washington/northeast Oregon area, contact us at bmpf@bmpf258.com for more information.

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?

DSC_0090a

⇑⇑ 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.

Trumbo - Just Follow the Dog (2)

⇑⇑ 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.

DSC_0194a

⇑⇑ 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.

Screenshot_20200216-192718_Instagram

⇑⇑ 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!

Trumbo - Late-season Roosters (2)

⇑⇑ 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! ⇑⇑

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.

DSC_0971

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.

DSC_1159_insta2

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.

20181103_121022

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.

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

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!