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The Difference Between Shooting and Hunting

Wild Quail

 

Around the age of 12 I went on my first bird shoot in the state of Ohio. One snowy, winter morning my dad and a few family friends drove to a local shooting preserve. I had just gotten my first shotgun for Christmas, a single-barrel break-action 410. We rode to fields of manicured milo separated in neat strips.

As I recall the guide unleashed a chiseled liver and white pointer into the field. I’d been instructed to not try and pet the dog for it had only a temperament for hunting and no time for the affections of a boy. Within the first 15 yards of walking that demon dog had locked down on a pheasant. It could have been a rooster or hen, I had no concept of any difference at the time. With coaxing from a well-placed foot the bird flushed from the snow and I shot my first game bird.

The rest of the day went much like this, though I’m not sure I cut another feather being new to moving targets and a bit overwhelmed by the intricacies of this pursuit. I know our group shot over 25 birds that day. After a steak dinner at the lodge I recall the guide swapping our shot birds for pristine, plucked and packaged pheasant ready for the freezer.

It was all amazing to me. How did I not know that walking a field with a dog could roust birds to shoot and then eat? The tractor treads in the fresh snow between strips never tipped me that these pen-raised birds had been seeded for the day. That may sound crazy, but at that point in life I’d only hunted varmints.

It’s pretty comical to consider how far the pendulum has now swung the opposite direction. I drive thousands of miles annually to dig up wild birds in the wildest places with dogs that crawl into my sleeping bag on cold nights. Cut my 12-year-old self some slack, maybe I wasn’t the brightest bulb. But it didn’t take too many years of pursuit of wild birds in Kansas in order to recognize the difference between shooting and bird hunting.

When birds are raised and released in an area for the sole purpose of being harvested, that’s not hunting. When the outcome is guaranteed, it’s not hunting. It simply cannot be by definition of the word hunt.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with game preserves and shooting pen-raised birds over dogs. Many state wildlife agencies east of the Mississippi even release birds on state lands to increase opportunities for bird hunters in areas where wild birds no longer thrive. It’s great practice, great for training dogs, great for introducing people to the sport and entertaining. But it’s not hunting.

The danger comes when game preserve outcomes are confused with hunting which downplays the struggles of wild birds. When large numbers of pen-raised birds can be shot just feet from trucks it skews perspectives on the density and prevalence of game birds. When the number of birds shot is limited only by the amount of money paid it can appear wasteful and bloodthirsty. When preserve seasons are longer and don’t coincide with wild bird seasons it can subvert regulations managing pursuit of wild birds. When one must kick a bird in order to prompt flight it distorts the challenge presented by wild birds that often outrun and outsmart dogs and flush wild hundreds of yards away.

When hens and rooster pheasant can be shot alike the skill of bird identification and selective harvest is nullified. And when species such as Chukar can be shot in places that don’t at all resemble their natural habitats – the rockiest, steepest, inhospitable high desert – it skews the difficulty and challenge many game bird species present which takes both training and conditioning to levels few hunters are willing to invest.

If you are shooting and sharing from a game preserve, my only hope is that you recognize the differences and identify your pursuit as such. Call it shooting. Call it training. Call them pen-raised birds. Certainly have fun but don’t feed misconceptions of the ill-informed (or goofy, doe-eyed teenagers). The advent and prevalence of social media can do wonderful things to promote our passion for chasing birds. It can also be a detriment by giving false views of what it means to be an upland hunter. The beauty and honor of this upland pursuit and the struggles of many upland species shouldn’t be undercut by pictures of piles of pen-raised birds.

Whitetailed Demons

Something is wrong with me.

Any other sane bird hunter would have packed up and moved to the interior where the bird numbers and density are greater. But I’m entrenched in the Kenai and I can’t get away from it.

I’ve shot a Whitetailed Ptarmigan already. I’ve seen where they live. I know their confounding habits. I know that if I want to bring another one to hand on the peninsula it will require I burn legs and dogs on hikes as high as I can go without rope to assist.

I came to Alaska with grand ideas of multi-species game bags. Designs of days afield where I could just break open the shotgun and stroll back to the truck while letting birds fly free because enough powder had been burnt.

Those plans are long gone. Replaced with obsession and insecurity.

Though I want this to be about the upland birds and what it takes to hunt them, it’s become apparent it’s as much about me.

Whitetail Ptarmigan play dirty. It’s definitely part of what makes them so maddening. It feels like the hike to get to them, to fractured rock in the cavernous back rooms of a mountain should be enough of a challenge. But if you find these pale ghosts, that’s when the fun really starts.

The dogs and I had hiked to an amazing lake, one of so many with the clearest of water that takes on a turquoise glow when it congregates after falling from the snowpack above. It seems all these bowls hide similar jewels from those unwilling to make the ascent. The scene opens before us at the final few steps after climbing through the saddle. The lake appears and the peaks surrender a token of their scale. But arriving here as a bird hunter, it’s tough to be fully taken with the view. There’s always somewhere higher, a distraction.

Alaska Mountain Lake

And these Whitetail live at the farthest reaches, not one step below, at least not this time of year, not here.

Why can’t I just go inland where the birds abound? I guess I don’t want to be lucky. Anyone can be lucky. My first ptarmigan could have been a fluke, and I need to know it wasn’t. I’d rather hike my legs off than be left feeling I can’t make it happen. Insane.

The rest by this lake and the view grows stale because I can see the next ridge line. I know that if there are birds on this mountain, they are up there. Or they are on the precipice above that one. Or the next. It doesn’t really matter at this point. I’m going and the dogs stretch their legs in agreement. They feed the madness, but at least they are just bird crazy.

We hike onward. Upward. Agonizing exertion. And it feels good.

The route to the next ridge narrows to a goat path snaking between a sharp wall and a 100′ drop. I reign in the dogs. It’s just one of the many places on these peaks where the possibility for mishap creeps from back of mind into reality. It conjures the rarest of thoughts… please, don’t let there be birds here.

As if on command, Rio the setter freezes at the bend above Wyatt the lab and I. Her head is craned into the breeze, tail high.

They are here.

A plan. I need a plan to get out of this with everyone in one piece.

But the birds read my thoughts and flush wild. This covey of 10 have no interest in a plan. Rio bales off the cliff in pursuit, and Wyatt runs to join. He shoots me a wild-eyed glance to make sure I’m game then dives over the edge. He’s misread the terror on my face. And there’s nothing left but action.

The dogs have made the leap successfully, a controlled fall down one face, and now a climb of the opposite to rejoin birds above. I scramble to close on them wishing I had the benefit of their four legs in this terrain.

We weave in and out of boulders. Points. Running birds. Flushes perilously close to dogs. Long, ill-advised shots. Repeat. It’s hunting through a labyrinth of rock on a 40 degree slope.  The ptarmigan fly just far enough to draw us deeper into their lost world by dangling shreds of hope. Never over the horizon, just over the next set of granite daggers.

I boulder to some higher ground to escape the grind. With the altitude comes an angle. A single bird holds a fraction too long, flies just a few inches too high, doesn’t keep the flusher between us. At the snap of the trigger it falls. Wyatt runs to retrieve and it’s the contrast of angelic wing against dark jowls that I will see in my sleep for days to come.

We start the hike back to the mundane, flat ground. And the demons recede into the crevices of the mountain and are quiet. For now.

Whitetail Ptarmigan and Llewellin Setter

Granite Daggers

Point on the Point

Black Lab and White Bird

Cross Country Drive to Visit Benchmade

When the bird hunting season was winding down I needed to find an activity to fill the void. When the folks at Benchmade Knife Company heard about my 16-year-old nephew Zach’s interest in blade design they offered to give us a VIP tour of their facility. Since Zach is also trying to accumulate enough hours behind the wheel to qualify for his driver’s license it seemed like a good opportunity for a road trip.

At the end of the week we’ll embark on this Ultimate Upland Off-Season Odyssey which will cover 5,000 miles in just 10 days. Looking forward to learning more about what goes into knife development. We got an overview of Benchmade’s Mini-Landslide while at SHOT show.

Can’t wait to see more innovations once we reach the left coast.

Bird Hunting Year in Review

The bird hunting season never seems long enough. This first full year of Ultimate Upland was filled with great moments that helped define our mission to be the best resource in the country for bird hunting enthusiasts. We’ve got a dedicated following and nearly 1,000 new members joined the the Ultimate Upland Lodge last year. With additional focus on social media we managed to expand our fan base to over 4,500. One look at our online footprint combining our site visits, members and social media confirms that we have become one of the largest dedicated bird hunting presence online.

With the emphasis on the digital world and technology, it’s easy to click past the real world accomplishments. But Ultimate Uplanders are firmly rooted in the outdoors, and though the forecasts and bragging appear online, the real passion starts in the field. We have members from all 50 states, at all levels of experience hunting with every breed of dog imaginable. They carry all sorts of guns chasing every species of upland bird. The collective knowledge of our group is formidable and extensive. And the willingness of Ultimate Uplanders to share experiences is what makes the site a true joy to oversee.

In April after a long battle with both kidney and thyroid problems I lost Finn, my GSP and the matriarch of my bird chasing. A true punch to the gut that only other bird hunters can honestly understand.  These dogs are more than pets, they are partners in our obsessive pursuit. And Ultimate Uplanders were there to commiserate and to share. And over the course of 2011 we saw it again and again as canine hunting partners were lost our community gathered round to soften the blow and offer support.

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Over the remaining Spring I worked to fill the void by focusing on our lab Wyatt, trying to hone his obedience and retrieving.

But when Summer scorches into the South the bird hunting and training pretty much shuts down. Luckily these are the months that most state DNRs elect to update their upland regulations. Consolidating all these regs into one place is one of the pillars of Ultimate Upland which keeps us busy along with the planning for the Fall hunting trip.

In late Summer we also managed to put the final touches on the online store. Members and fans who’d been requesting shirts and decals finally had a place to purchase. One of the most fun items we released was the Rooster Ruler® which coincided with our first annual Longest Pheasant Tournament. We’re the only organization in the country that found a way to run a nationwide bird hunting competition. The tournament ends on February 20 with the close of the last pheasant season. We’ll crown the 2011-12 winner then (the lead is a monster 41.25″ tip-to-tip which will be very difficult to beat).

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In early September we embarked on our bird hunting odyssey to the upper Midwest. First stop was North Dakota and Teddy Roosevelt’s old stomping grounds. This was Wyatt’s third year in the field and with three months of hunting ahead and just a single dog, he had a big load to carry. It took a few days to really get back in the swing of hunting for both of us, but chasing the native Sharptail over the infinite rolling acres of the Little Missouri National Grasslands proved a good refresher.

After getting back into bird hunting shape, we allowed our Facebook fans to select the next state to target and they pointed us to Montana. We spent the better part of our 10-day license trying to locate the Hungarian Partridge in this visually stunning big country. Unfortunately bird numbers had been negatively impacted by successive harsh Winters and a wet Spring, and though the Sharptail still could be found the non-native Hun proved elusive. With some good fortune and some bird hunting Kharma on one unseasonably hot afternoon Wyatt and I were able to bring our first Hun to hand.

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Next we headed to our first South Dakota rooster opener, considered by many to be the Mecca of bird hunting. We embedded with the Double K Guides of Gregory, SD to witness the Orange Army descend upon the area. And the pheasant did not disappoint. Even in a down year the shear number of birds was a site to behold. After the SD opening weekend we trekked to the northern part of the state and met up with a couple Ultimate Uplanders where Wyatt got his first serious hunting with pointers and setters. Watching different styles of dog work and run together is a treat that most single breed purists miss out on.

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When our Dakota ticket expired it was on to Nebraska to meet up with the good folks at Breed Sponsor Bluestem Kennels for the Husker state pheasant opener. And their trio of Wirehaired Griffons combined with some superb shooting made for a memorable time. Wyatt and I also made our return to the sandhills of Nebraska National Forest where we pitted ourselves against the late season sharptail that had thoroughly beaten us the previous season. But armed with experience from earlier in the season we managed to level the score. Fans and members got to take part in the chase vicariously with one of the new features that got a lot of attention this season, the Ultimate Upland Blast Cam.

And we finished the western swing with the return to our happy hunting grounds in north central Kansas. My dad joined us again testing out his new bionic knee replacement as we reunited with the folks of this area who have become such a fixture in our brains. The knee was a large improvement to last year’s hunt, but it still did not improve the luck with our decade long quest of pass shooting Kansas Prairie Chicken without success. At the conclusion of Kansas we reunited with family for the Thanksgiving holiday and were welcomed by the addition of Rio, the next generation of bird dog newly arrived from Jornada Setters in New Mexico. And so the off season will be filled with getting the young Llewellin in tune with her bird hunting genes.

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The 2011 season was marred by depressed upland populations across the midwest; in some cases we were faced with record low surveys. But the friends and memories forged in the fires of gunpowder burned brighter than the dimmest forecast. And though the seasons are winding down, Ultimate upland has been firmly established by passionate bird hunters across the country. We’re going to continue to elevate our upland agenda, offering windows into original bird hunting experiences across the country while promoting the sport at every opportunity. Plans are already underway for next season’s hunts and we’re looking forward to sharing the journey with you.