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Author: Brian Koch

Finding Answers

Mountain Climbing with Bird Dogs

Spike camp was two miles from base — as the raven flies not really that far in this expansive National Forest. But as flatlanders taking on the thin air of elevated places, two miles is a decent gap to begin separating yourself from those less prepared to depart known trails and the easy-breathing comfort of motorized vehicles.

Over the weekend we witness a queue of young men carrying massive packs converging on trailheads that lead endlessly upward. I scan the parking areas for license plates to determine the elevations of origin for these haughty explorers. When prompted they proudly proclaim gear totaling half their body weights. I wish them luck. I note the hiking boots fresh from a box combined with giant rucks and have little worry of seeing these boys on the mountain. I’ve been up these trails with packs weighing a fraction of their payloads. Preparation barely gets you up some of these hills. Bravado earns blisters.

This first hunt of the season has been more proving ground than mission. Two eras have converged upon our upland pursuit: the start of a new, gun dog puppy and assessing the remaining days afield for an aging, canine warrior. For the past eight years Wyatt, the old Lab, has been a constant hunting force. The amount we’ve leaned on him to dictate the direction and outcomes of our days afield has been easy to overlook because he’s just this steady, affable sidekick. An 80’s ballad has been bouncing around in my head – Don’t know what you got till it’s gone. Funny what hypoxia, sleep deprivation and low blood sugar can do to a brain.

After multiple days hiking peaks and two nights under stars away from basecamp, we return with gear crammed in packs and worn dogs on our heals. The heat has been uncanny for this season at this elevation. And the mountains have offered more mystery than answers this trip. A quick walk to the once bustling trailhead reveals the predicted retreat of the inexperienced and overloaded. We’re alone again.

We feast on random provisions left behind in the coolers at our basecamp while reorganizing bedding for the evening. A couple hot cups of coffee wash everything down and begin to put the edge back on. A quick camp shower — wet wipes transferring grime from one crack to the next — followed by a clean set of drawers and even the rankest backcountry hunter can begin to feel halfway human again. With that humanity comes an idea: we should take the puppy out solo while the big dogs are spent. So we watch the old boys curl up and crash on sleeping bags as we deviously sip coffee, then slip out the tent flap with the pup and shotguns to head back uphill.

The mountain let us believe we are away scot-free just long enough. Then dark clouds roll in towing a frigid downpour; they organized quickly against us for these peaks demand honesty from all. This is the first hint of anything cold we’ve had besides remnants fished from the bottom corners of the coolers, so it’s less deterrent than motivation. A clap of thunder greets us as we round a bend in the trail at the edge of a small clearing. A lone Dusky finds this opportune time to flush wild while we’re off guard and makes a clean escape. The fusion of birds, shots, rain and thunder have the lab puppy fully charged, wide-eyed and running wild.

For most of the week the grouse have been scattered and unsporting, flushing at distance from trees upon approach or simply allowing us to pass under without a peep. But this storm has driven birds back to the safety and shelter beneath the trees which opens an opportunity. We descend into the dark edges of the forest where we answer blazes of lightning with muzzle flashes. Hunting in thunderstorms while holding walnut-clad lightning rods seems a bit reckless, at least until the next flush. And maybe we’re a bit bird drunk from the sudden abundance of game in a week that’s offered little chase. But the thunder finally rumbles loud enough to sober us to the peril and we wrangle the puppy from pursuit and head back down the hill.

Many measure the success of a hunt by how full the cooler is at the conclusion. But we’re playing the long game here. Birds on ice are a poor metric for why we are here.

When asked how this first hunt of the season has gone I think some are taken aback by the response, “I didn’t kill the dog, so pretty good.” I guess I don’t feel like explaining beyond that. I don’t want to detail the decline of my longtime hunting buddy to strangers; they should have been paying attention these last eight years when only the smartest of birds was safe from his drive. But this old Lab still wants to dig deep and hunt through compounding ailments. After taking on this challenge I have an idea just how far he can push the rest of the season.

I also have a puppy that is officially bird crazy. No lightning, thunder, rain, hail of gunfire or darkness will dissuade her from chasing birds in the future. No altitude, howling winds or exhaustion will prevent her from looking for the next flush. She is game for wherever we go and at some point this season she’ll pick up a bird and return it to hand, only mildly plucked, and I will sing her praises in an 80’s rock ballad falsetto that will wake the dead.

And I have friends foolish enough to join me in the storms of wild places in search of their own answers. I hope we all find some this season.

The Old Lab Wyatt


Blue Grouse

Kali with a Blue Grouse

Winging It

Bird dog and trainer

This upland season is fast approaching.

The preparations of the past few seasons manifested in paper and piles. Maps stretched over more maps to cross-check terrain and access. Gear overflowing tables to neutral corners for ranking to make the pack or inevitable re-packs. The planning and gear goat rope is something to while away the weeks, a distraction from a sluggish calendar. Maybe all that preparation pays dividends afield. The hours of thought poured into a hunt resulting in success by someone’s metric.

But this year is different.

The sides of a stage unseen by spectators are referred to as wings. In 19th century theater understudy actors would wait in the wings during performances in case of an emergency; making one question the safety of those old venues or maybe the sobriety of the audience. These understudies rarely knew the lines of the main actor and would be forced to improvise, winging it.

The stage is set for this upland season and I find myself in the wings transfixed by the view, awaiting the shove to improv. There’s still plenty of opportunity to learn the upcoming scenes but I have no desire to drone on lines already written.

The civilized spring and summer months are now driving me wild, to be wild. There have been too many people and too much order. A bitter, divisive society over-consuming oxygen unable to acknowledge any virtue let alone imagine the wonders of hidden birds in wild places. It’s suffocating.

It’s why I keep staring at that upland stage. I sense if I dare move or look away the surrounding shit storm of negativity, geopolitical turmoil and divisive ideology threatens to somehow taint even this most sacred pursuit. So I stare.

The addition of Ida, the new chocolate Lab puppy, has also had an impact on the usual off-season iterations. There’s no pre-game ritual for a puppy. Ida, eyes wide open, just does. Right, wrong, half-wild — not a whole lot of thought or planning go into the actions of this little Lab. Just let it fly and react to the outcome. Bite the setter’s tail and see what she does. Bite it again just to be sure.

Watching and training this pup over the months has been a bright spot in the dull summer sun. It’s been a reminder of the joy of seeing with new eyes. The recklessness is infectious and offers too obvious a remedy for all the current dilemmas.

I head into this season willfully unprepared. The coming performance will be cringeworthy or brilliant; I expect nothing mediocre. We won’t be stumbling through, we’ll be winging it to unexplored places where opportunity and peril fraternize. The perpetual cast of upland birds will be stellar. And the dogs and I will play our cameo in the drama of wild places that’s gone on for millenniums.

The First Month with the New Puppy

Puppy Love
Selective memory is a close ally to puppies. Recollection of puppy breath and cuddles gloss over the challenges of house training and toothy destruction. Adorable naps and puppy eyes erase the boundless energy and predawn bawling. It’s been six years since the last puppy, which has been plenty of time for revisionist history to mask the trials of young bird dogs.

The truth is, I didn’t want to be back in the puppy business. The setter, old lab and I were just getting into a groove afield. I had grown confident that no bird was safe within 10 miles of our nucleus. I felt like we could walk into any area and make upland game materialize regardless of the conditions, a deadly crew.

But the years are catching our old boy, Wyatt. The moments of flushing and retrieving brilliance are still there, just slower. The distances he can cover shorten and the after-effects of a hard day linger more pronounced.

This is the time for a puppy before all that experience together afield is confined to the dreams of an old, hobbled dog curled on the couch. I’m convinced that Wyatt can share the secrets he’s learned in a canine language that will transcend training.

And this new puppy is an opportunity to reconcile all “the next dog I’ll.” The thoughts collected and stored from days afield where something could have gone better or smoother, a different outcome if only the dogs would have known more.

Socialization, travel and exposure have been the focus over this first month. Ida, the retriever pupil, has already seen 13 states and traveled over 5,000 miles on the road. She has met more than 500 people and dogs. She’s hiked four miles at elevations over 10,000′, camped multiple nights, been eyed by gators, swam in icy rivers and fallen asleep by a campfire.

Of course she’s also pissed on the floor, tortured Wyatt with constant ear biting, busted through a screen door, leapt from heights taller than her abilities. All moments to be quashed once she retrieves her first wild bird this fall.

Puppies’ brains are like sponges at this age. We do a couple short training sessions each day, no longer than 15 minutes. She’s been able to pick up the basics: sit, stay, and retrieving while learning the vocabulary we use around the house and afield. Her eyesight continues to improve and I notice her now tracking birds in flight. We try to keep everything a positive learning experience with lots of praise and treats for reinforcement.

The puppy business has been pretty good. In the mornings Ida comes rambling upstairs all legs and a full belly. She jumps on the bed with an excitement that will not be contained for whatever the day brings, as long as it’s with you. That attitude is infectious and a great reminder of the joy when everything is new and present.

Throwing the Shotgun

Shotgun Throwing

The problem with having a primary gun you carry to the field is over time other shotguns just don’t feel quite right. But I worry dedication to a single shooting stick leaves me vulnerable to being gunless.

I throw my gun. It’s something I can count on at least once or twice a season.

For the last decade my shotgun has been through the upland grinder. It’s a walking stick on steep inclines above 11,000′. It’s taken multi-mile rides on the roof of my truck when I’ve forgotten to stow it after the delirium of long hunts. That gun has been plugged barrel first into swamp muck, then cleared with a warped stick and patch cut fresh from a shirttail. It’s been soaked, snow covered, and hailed on. It’s been stomped on by carefree bird dogs and swung into tree trunks attempting shots in tight grouse cover. And when I have the rare hot shooting streak I refuse to clean it because I don’t want to wash the luck off.

Taken cumulatively, It starts to sound as if I don’t like this gun. I assure the opposite is the case. There was a time when I looked at shotguns as works of art. But this bird hunting has transformed all shotguns to tools. It must work above all else. When I look at new guns the first thing I do is go hands on, mount that shotgun, see if it’s a shooter. I don’t look at any gun adoringly, envy the curves and think that would be a great addition to my safe. I look at it and think it’s a good day to get dirty. I want it to spit smoking hulls and feed it two more.

Which brings us to the throwing. I’ve learned self-preservation prevails over pristine shooting hardware. One of the most memorable tosses was hiking down a Nevada mountain when I stepped full weight onto a melon-sized rock that broke loose sending both feet skyward. Catching yourself is the natural reaction and doesn’t happen with a gun in your hands. That shotgun was airborne without a thought.

I heard a distinct, hollow clank off granite as I was getting reacquainted with gravity in slow motion. The gun and I faired pretty much the same on this flight. It ended up five feet below me with a new divot in the butt stock and a dent in the rib. Since I was alone with the dogs over two miles from a marked trail, I was just happy to still have two functioning legs and a bruised kidney. I ejected shells, inspected barrels to make sure there were no obstructions and dry fired. Mounted the gun to check for some new barrel English, reloaded and headed on down the hill, slightly bruised and highly adrenaline alert.

Many shooters might look at this as a cringeworthy moment and lament the damage. But I assure you those aren’t mars, they are character marks. Those scratches, dings and dents have all been earned. I can look at this gun and be reminded of falling into badger holes, face-planting on snowy grades and dropping birds in places where only goats walk free.

I’m entertaining the idea of a new gun. Given the abuse that’s sure to come some might advocate for a fugly plastic, hydro-dipped hog leg. But I still admire fine engraving, color case hardening, grade one walnut, immaculate receivers. Any shotgun is going to be way more attractive to my eye when it has been kissed by mishap on a memorable day afield. As long as it still goes bang.

Open Letter to Governor John Kasich

Ohio Division of Wildlife

Governor Kasich:

Ohio’s wildlife and wild spaces are no place for power-brokering or politics.

Despite over 30 conservation and sporting organizations and five retired Ohio Division of Wildlife chiefs calling for modest price increases in Ohio hunting and fishing licenses, the Ohio Division of Natural Resources Director James Zehringer, Assistant Directors Fred Shemp and Gary Obermiller resist the call to action to properly fund Ohio’s wild places. They are doing you and the citizens of this state a disservice.

The majority of Ohio outdoorsmen and women recognize that 14 years without a license increase makes little sense in the face of rising costs. They are willing to shoulder more of a burden, actually many are happy to, if it insures the future of Ohio’s great outdoors, resources and beauty.

Director Zehringer’s actions defy logic. When sportsmen call to increase fees on themselves and the ODNR response is “we don’t want your money, we don’t care if you believe wildlife is being underfunded,” it makes one question the true motives. I suspect if you were to ask the biologists at the Ohio Division of Wildlife (ODOW) if they could use funds generated by a license increase to provide better programs, education, enforcement, access and help fill 25 open field officer positions their answer might be a bit different.

Fisherman and hunters wholly fund the Division of Wildlife. It is a self-sustaining model of which we are proud. We don’t need bureaucrats telling us when outdoor opportunities, habitat, wildlife protection and enforcement are lacking. As stewards of the outdoors, we supply that feedback directly to the folks charged with the task, the ones we pay to do the job. We don’t need our voices filtered through the Ohio Division of Natural Resources’ competing interests of oil and gas, mining, agriculture and lobbyists.

The Division of Wildlife should be a cabinet level position advocating Ohio’s wildlife and wild places and should not be muzzled by appointees who are not sportsmen, biologists or naturalists. Current Ohio Division of Wildlife Chief Ray Petering, holding a Bachelor of Science Degree in Fisheries Management from The Ohio State University as well as a Master of Science Degree in Fisheries Biology from the University of Georgia, should be reporting directly to you Governor Kasich.

Decreased participation has been repeatedly cited by both Zehringer and Obermiller as the counter to any resident license increase. But the main driver of participation is opportunity and education. Look at states where outdoor activities and opportunity abound supported by state recruitment and retention programs. Minnesota comes to mind with a solid 34% of their populace purchasing hunting and fishing licenses, compared to just 6.5% of Ohioans. Minnesota has a walk-in access program that opens 23,500 acres of private land at over 200 locations to hunters and 1.29 million acres of state owned land at 1,440 areas enrolled as Wildlife Management Areas. 16.1% of the state of Minnesota is open to public hunting versus just 2.5% of the state for Ohio. Coincidentally, Minnesota’s resident small game license is $22 – just $3 more than Ohio’s and exactly the increase that the coalition of conservation and sporting groups is advocating for Ohio.

Governor, unlike your appointed advisor, Zehringer, I won’t go beyond my depth to advise. But let me tell you what makes sense for Ohio’s bird hunters as someone who travels over 35,000 miles annually in this country hunting dozens of states 100 days a year:

• Increase the resident hunting license by $7 (just .50¢ per year for the 14 years with no increase).

• No increase to senior (65 and over) or youth (16 and under) licenses.

• Tie all license fees to inflation so that we never need to have this ridiculous discussion again – numerous other states have done this and it takes politics out of future funding decisions.

• Create a state upland bird stamp that covers the cost of the pheasant stocking program. Ohio releases 25,000 pen-raised birds costing the state at least $300,000 annually. The upland stamp should cover the cost of this program plus 100% which would be used as dedicated funds for habitat improvements for game birds on state lands. Ohio should not be in the game farm business unless it benefits a greater mission, plain and simple.

• Mandatory habitat stamp of $10 required for anyone accessing Ohio public lands or waters and all non-resident hunters. Proceeds would be dedicated to expanding access and opportunity with purchase of additional state lands and a private land access program which would strengthen cooperation between landowners, hunters and the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

Assistant Director Obermiller also seems concerned with morale under the current structure. Obermiller stated at a recent public event the Natural Resources Department and the Wildlife Division have “always had morale problems.” When experts and specialists in a field are placed beneath layers of burdensome, unqualified bureaucracy and management the obvious result is discontent.

Release the Ohio Division of Wildlife to report to those who employ them, the hunters and fishers of this state. Morale will soar as well as engagement. Task ODOW with fostering and growing Ohio’s outdoor community and hold them to it. They will deliver with cooperation from sportsmen once you untie their hands.

Brian Koch
Editor, Ultimate Upland

James Zehringer

Contact Director Zehringer to share your concerns:







Assistant Director Gary Obermiller


Contact Asst. Director Obermiller:







The Sportmen’s Alliance has done a great job unifying the voices of Ohio outdoorsmen. Use their legislative action tool to contact your state senator. Click here.

Meet Ida

Ida and Wing

I’ve always found the haphazard naming of dogs intriguing. I’ve wondered if a puppy grows into the name, filling the shape of some predetermined vessel? I like original names, probably because I have irrational hopes for my bird dogs to be uniquely exceptional. But then names different for different’s sake grind on me. People names often give me chuckle; I like a good blue collar Sam or Maggie, but find it funny when a dog and person share the same space and name. I say this having a Wyatt dog in a time when Wyatt boys seem to be making a resurgence.

A few puppies ago I decided there must be a better way to name a dog, a set of rules that would prevent the naming pitfalls that I’ve conjured: original but not too original, not based on puppy appearance destined to change over time, not so long as to create a tongue-twister or too short to be harsh on ears. The dog’s name is something that I’ll say and hear tens of thousands of times over the next decade.

It became apparent this season that I needed to start working on a new name. Time is catching my Wyatt dog. If you followed our adventures over the last season you may have seen references to his health, though I’m finding it hard to acknowledge directly. But having to carry a 75-pound hunting partner from the field on multiple occasions makes it tough to ignore. He’s still got some birds left in him which is exactly why now is the time to find his new apprentice. Because we’re not breeders, there’s no chance for our dogs’ traits to be passed down genetically. The best we can do is hope skill and knowledge from thousands of days afield can transfer from old to young.

We now name puppies for their place of origin. That can be anything from a street near their kennel, to a lake or river, or even a historic event that happened in the area. This naming convention negated the irrational stress I felt of selecting arbitrary call signs lacking significance.

Which brings us to Ida.

After making the decision to expand our pack and finding a breeding program that fit our needs, I began researching the area: looking at maps, mountains, historical references, famous residents.

The German origin of the name Ida is from the word id, meaning “labor” or “work.” Also rooted in Norse mythology Iðunn (Idun) is the goddess of youth. Apparently Ida is a popular girls’ name in Nordic countries today, but waned in the U.S. at the turn of the century. It’s a name that has history and I like that. And I’ll hope for lots of work and eternal youth from this bird dog. But of course this new edition hails from the great state of Idaho.

Her education will begin as we make our way back across the country. We’ll be hiking and camping in National Forests and exploring wild places. Hopefully she’ll be soaking up lessons from Wyatt, who I’m sure is just thrilled at the prospect of unrelenting youthful torment.

Socialization of puppies is key to their future intelligence and success. For the next 30 days Ultimate Upland will donate $1 to Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership for every individual Ida meets – people and dogs. Follow our journey as we share the progress, photos and videos of these introductions on our social feeds using the hashtags #meetida and #publiclandpup

Check out all of Ida’s latest friends on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Picking THE Puppy, or are we just kidding ourselves

Yellow Lab in Pool

Last time I chose a puppy I was fresh out of school, only a dim view of the years ahead and a bank account teetering on empty. At the time it seemed like a great idea, introduce a young dog into chaos and hope for the best.

I knew little about training, obedience, nutrition, genetics, breeding programs……… it’s pretty difficult to recall anything I actually did know. But I knew I wanted a puppy and was able to find a litter within a couple hour’s drive. Off I went with a friend to pick the biggest pup in the bunch.

We shuffled into the breeder’s basement where he released the hounds. Looking back, he had a decent breeding program but these weren’t hunting labs by any standard. No matter, that became a lost notion once those fur balls came rambling across that cement floor.

After tussling and eyeing this group for 15 minutes, my buddy and I narrowed the selection to two of the bigger puppies. Then we watched to see which one showed the least amount of fear and took the least guff from litter mates. That was the entire science behind the pick.

I handed over my last dollars and walked out the door with a male yellow lab pup. After wrestling to exhaustion he curled up in the passenger-side floor and slept for the return trip. That may have been the final peaceful moment I had for the next decade. Of course we picked the alpha male in the litter and I was woefully unprepared for what that meant or how to deal with it.

It was trial by toothy destruction. For the next six years this lab grew, ate the bulk of my furniture, destroyed a couple apartments, challenged any and all authority, and proved to have no interest in hunting. To be fair, he also was a great companion, great with kids, protective of the properties he destroyed and people he knew. And he was one helluva a swimmer and retriever — if only I had the skill set to channel that back then.

None of those challenges were that dog’s fault. That lays squarely on the limited knowledge and resources of the idiot who raised him.

And that was the last puppy I picked.

The opportunity for new bird dogs happens fairly infrequently for us, once or twice every six years. I’d guess that to be pretty standard for most bird hunters without large kennels, breeding programs or infinite space for running and training.

I’ve not had a say in the selection of my last three dogs. All choice has been stripped away for one reason or the other. Finn, the shorthair, was the only female available in the litter.

Wyatt, the lab, had a physical defect and was the last, unchosen puppy in the litter. All of his siblings had already headed to their new homes when we made the decision. We had no intention of breeding him so the fit seemed too good. And the underdog story was too palpable.

Rio, the setter, was again the only available female in the litter. No choice.

There seems a hefty portion of ego involved in picking a puppy from a bird dog litter. One must believe in an ability to predict the future of a puppy’s skill in the field based on their actions when just a few weeks old. That’s a tall order. Just think of going to a daycare, looking at a classroom of toddlers and being able to pick the one who will become the best outdoorsman when they turn 35. Good luck.

But if you have a toddler, take them to the woods with you while they are young. Tell them stories about the mysteries of wild places and wild birds. Teach them to shoot. Take them hunting when they are teens. Let them breathe unfiltered air and feel the rush of flushing birds. There’s a good chance they’ll end up more proficient in the outdoors than many of their peers.

That’s one thing we do know about dogs based on work by psychologist Donald Hebb in the 40’s and expanded by researchers; puppies exposed to stimulating environments change their brain physiology. It can grow larger and develop new neural connections. These brain changes can spark faster learning, better problem solving and less fear in adulthood.

And that’s how I’ve made bird dogs. Take them to the field, expose them to new places and new people. Let them fail. Watch as they adapt and learn to hunt alongside us.

We’ve been really fortunate to pick good breeders, pick good genetics, pick hunting lines…..all things that can certainly hedge bets on aspiring bird dogs. But not having the pick of the litter and then molding the puppy cast upon us by fate has become somewhat defining. It’s made selection seem meaningless.

Until tomorrow. Tomorrow I pick our next bird dog. Let’s hope I can get out of my own way and let providence prevail once again.

End of Season Omens

Final West Virginia Hunt

Rio the setter suddenly hits the brakes, sliding to a stop on a steep grade beside an old logging road being reclaimed by the forest. We’ve spent a couple days wandering the hills of West Virginia searching for late-season Ruffed Grouse with no luck. I can tell by her stance, even on this awkward angle, there is a bird here. There’s no style, no high-head, no raised-foot or flagging tail. She’s just one solid muscle strained against the scent of this grouse, the first bird she’s marked in over 20 miles of running. It must be close to her because she won’t even sneak a look in my direction, afraid that even the shift of an eye might spook this elusive foe.

Wyatt the lab has been at my side for the past few miles bored with the lack of bird density. He’s unable to see Rio but notices a change in my demeanor which spurs him to double-time. I’m curious the tell he has picked up, though I suspect he spies my second hand move to grip the shotgun and thumb the safety. Whatever the clue, it’s rooted in the same assurance I have with Rio’s stance. We’ve seen this thousands of times before. We know what this looks like and it never gets old. I’ve tried for years to coach myself to not tense up. Stay loose and shoot better, right? And yet I’m still holding my breath, I still have butterflies.

We’re new to this area. Whenever we try finding birds in new spots I work down a mental checklist generated from other bird chasing experience. One item always on that checklist is talking to locals. Anyone we come across willing to engage in conversation about upland birds or dogs can help solve the equation of where birds reside. It doesn’t appear that many people chase birds in this area because the words “grouse” and “partridge” are met with blank stares, as if a foreign tongue. Even the outdoorsmen here fishing in unseasonably warm weather seem unaware they encroach on the realm of the King of the Woods.

The winter forest can appear flat and homogenous. Much of the color and highlights associated with other seasons is gone. That mental checklist has us probing different elevations looking for edges. Guessing why birds are lacking in an area, then looking for the solution to that issue in other areas. There’s a method to our late-season upland madness. But for all the thought and strategy, it’s not what has brought us to Rio’s point.

Evenings I pour a couple fingers of wisdom into a cheap plastic motel cup and pour over maps detailing 900,000 acres available to hunt in this National Forest. We can’t cover all that in even a dozen weeks. I look for cuts, different ages of forests where timber has been harvested or burns. The areas we’ve hiked so far have been dry and there’s very little snow on the ground. I decide we’ll try hunting creeks or culverts that should provide a water source.

I notice a name on the map I recognize, not from any intel or hunting journal. There’s a tiny tributary that shares my grammie’s name. She was an opinionated old bird who loved the dogs and stories of wild places. But she hated the hunting. Luckily she wasn’t above bribery and a few tail feathers from a recent trip would keep an uneasy accord. The name of that creek is an omen and I know regardless how the terrain looks, it could be a parking lot, we’re hunting there. How this level of superstition nullifies what I want to believe is some level of skill, I’m unsure. But the maps folds cooperatively and I tuck in for a night’s sleep untormented by indecision.

And now Rio is locked down a few yards above Grammie’s creek. Wyatt homes in on a spot at the base of a large fir as I shift to one side trying to predict a flight path. But late-season birds rarely allow you to guess right. I see a brief flash of a white, more blur than form. Faster than I can fully mount the gun, I shoot as positive reinforcement for the dogs. But there’s no way a single pellet has penetrated the evergreen shield this grouse threw between us.

Grammie would be happy with that outcome. And truthfully I am too. The deeper into the season we get, the more I root for the upland birds. I want to be proficient and deadly, no doubt. I want to be challenged by the conditions and educated birds and be able to overcome that with the dogs. But even more I want the birds to show us how they’ve made it this far and that no checklist or level of supposed proficiency is going to foil survival.

The dogs are reenergized as we turn back the quiet path to the road. Maybe there will be another omen on the map. And hopefully the birds continue to beat us.

Rio in Creek

Wyatt with Shed

Red Phase Grouse

Shooting Holes in Land Transfer

Grand Canyon

At the core of the raging public lands debate are two opposing views of federal lands. Transfer advocates believe the federal government owns the land. Transfer opponents believe the American people own the land which is held in trust by the government, managed by various agencies.

The truth is, regardless which view is taken, long-held principles outlined by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA) require these lands be managed in the best national interest.

Anti-Federalists claim that the government is not entitled to own land. Even if you subscribe to that interpretation of The Property Clause (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2), FLPMA still requires any disposal of land to use the best interests of the American people as a guiding principle. So let’s walk that path for a bit.

Residents of a state aren’t sole owners of the public land within its boundaries. That land belongs to all Americans despite which ownership view you believe. The federal government is a representative democracy, it is the people.  And land has value despite any “fuzzy” accounting rules congress tries to enact. One need only look at the free market where land has a monetary value and is bought and sold. It certainly would not be in the people’s best interest to give away, i.e. transfer, a valuable asset without proper compensation.

Anti-Federalists believe the states should manage and own that land. So why do we not see states reaching for their checkbooks? Why isn’t the movement referred to as “Public Land Sale?” If sale was determined to be in the best national interest then fair market value would be the guideline (outlined in FLPMA Sec. 203d).

Since the congressional delegation from Utah seems to be spearheading the land transfer movement (see Sen. Mike Lee, Rep. Rob Bishop, Rep. Jason Chaffetz), let’s quickly assess the value of land in their state:

Per acre values are subjective and should be based on the market, but let’s use a general number of $3,000 per acre for U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acres. That’s being very generous to prospective buyers since the BLM administers five National Monuments in the state which would likely have a much higher market value. We the people would certainly value National Park land much higher – Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Zion – truly national treasures that most would call priceless. For the sake of this exercise let’s value them at $15,000 per acre, an absolute bargain.

USFS 8.1M acres x $3,000 = $24,300,000,000
BLM 22.8M acres x $3,000 = $68,400,000,000
National Parks 2.1M acres x $15,000 = $31,500,000,000

By this rudimentary calculation our lands in the state of Utah are worth $124.2 billion. This doesn’t account for upgrades to the land, infrastructure, ongoing contracts, etc. But for the purposes of this exercise the basics should be fine.

Luckily Utah has a AAA credit rating. How many acres would the state of Utah, or any other for that matter, like to purchase for the right to manage the resource? The answer is none, at least not at fair market value. But who doesn’t want to add a substantial asset to the balance sheet for free?

Currently Utah has $35.7 billion in outstanding debt. Total annual tax collections are around $6.3 billion and annual federal aid to the general fund accounts for $4 billion. Utah’s last annual budget totaled $15.1 billion. The funds to pay for Americans’ land are going to come from…..

It’s not there. And the funds to manage 31 million acres don’t exist either.

Representative Bishop basically concedes a lack of management funds in his latest budget request of $50 million to give states that receive his planned land transfer to ease their financial burden.

It’s time for an analogy. Let’s break this down into bird hunters’ language:

You own a fine double shotgun, your prized possession. You have a gunsmith who keeps it tuned and functioning. Lately the gunsmith has made a few changes to the trigger that you don’t like. So you find a person with no money and little interest in shooting and give them the shotgun along with $50 to take it off your hands. Wonder what they’ll do with that gun? It doesn’t really matter because you don’t own it anymore.

This is exactly the kind of illogical behavior the public land transfer movement is asking you to support.

The attack on public lands is about profit motive, plain and simple. If it were otherwise – if this were a matter of management or constitutional jurisdiction – then start calling this movement land sale and state governments should be showing the American people how purchase funds will be generated and long-term plans for the land.

There will be those who support the idea of a land sale even when it makes no fiscal sense for their states. But the vast majority of Americans consider our public lands a priceless asset that transcends any monetary value. For them sale or transfer isn’t an option, it’s tantamount to treason. Just like a bird hunter will never sell that fine double gun; it’s to be left to their children and hopefully their children’s children.

Colorado College Public Lands Poll

Join the conversation and sign the petition to #keepitpublic at SportsmensAccess.org – Click Here.


Depths of Cold

Dead Deere
There seems no bottom to the depths of cold. It’s one of the few solace for hunting in frigid condition: could be colder, windier, at least it’s not…more miserable.

I’m assured by medical science that freezing does have a lower limit in terms of the human body. Paradoxical undressing: the point at which humans experiencing lethal hypothermia begin stripping off clothes due to a sensation of burning up, when in fact they are freezing. Seems it’s the mind’s one final, futile attempt to avoid a bitter end.

When you grow up hunting in the Midwest, cold burrows deep into your predacious psyche. The first cool breeze of fall conjures thoughts of wandering afield. And when it’s too warm shouldering shotguns just feels unnatural. But on this day there are doubts of the wisdom of leaving the truck. Mustering the courage to crack the door begins the extraction of feeling from fingertips one frosty needle at a time. It’s quiet, six inches of fresh powder blew in under darkness and hushed the landscape.

The body objects to these conditions and begins firing distress signals to the brain to dissuade progress that will further the frigid encounter. Everything contracts: balled-up shoulders, rigid muscles producing choppy steps, leather chap lips pursed to impede the flow of cold air. It takes a couple long hits of the freeze to clear the mind, erase doubts, fire neurons to memories cached in the soul’s cellar of past frigid hunts.

The dogs have been hunting hard for a number of days now and have the same reaction. Coaxed off the bumper they churn tight circles close to the truck until witnessing shotguns emerge from cases. Tails untuck and begin rotating in a cadence that pairs with lengthening strides.

Our group drops-in the south facing, snow-covered shelter belt to an expanse of blanketed cover. All evidence that this area has ever been explored is hidden. Easy walks with dogs, short sleeves and aimless meandering of the early season is replaced by new gravity. No longer can you spend an entire day in this, or idle under a tree to take a nap.

Winter is the great equalizer testing mettle, knowledge, strength — all others leading up to this season were practice sessions. The struggle for survival is pronounced this time of year. Exposure to frigid conditions wakes you to vulnerability. Bodily objections to cold so engrained must be manifestation of protest to the permanent chill.

We point into the breeze and move silently across this bottom, the language of longtime hunting buddies and dogs who know what lies before us. This is an opportunity to seize a moment and be free of all others. Every sharp inhale finds worry, wandering, irrelevant thoughts and carves them to frosty exhale that settles to the boot prints being filled and forgotten to the wind just yards behind.

After constant pursuit for months, the birds’ senses are finely tuned. The first rooster feels the roil of energy headed his direction and has no interest in close proximity. He jumps wild and cackles, the crack of shells is muted along with any effect. But our intent is announced to this valley, there will be no surprise or happy accidents.

The labor of keeping pace with dogs impervious to drifts and fully engaged in the effort overrules the weather. We shed layers of clothing in our own acts of paradoxical undressing. Hopefully the ensuing lethality will fall to these late season birds.

Outlast. Outsmart. Outrun. This is why we are here, to feel this life, to be a part of struggle to exist.