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.

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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Product Review: Ranger and Worker Vests by Hurtta

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

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

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

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

Specs

Similarities

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

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

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Differences

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

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

Fit and Comfort

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

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

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Heat and Cold

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

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

Noise and Utility

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

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

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

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

Durability

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

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

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Tattered neck stitching on the Ranger ⇑⇑.

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

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Barbed-wire tears on the Worker ⇑⇑.

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

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LED attachment “button”  nearly ripped off ⇑⇑.

Hitchhikers

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

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

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

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

Overall Satisfaction

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

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

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

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

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

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!