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3000 Miles for One Bird

Kansas Sunset

The sun is dipping into the horizon and the thermometer reads 19° when the dogs and I return to the truck after hunting the final day of upland season in Kansas. A quick check of the fitness band reveals I’ve hiked over 12 miles in eight inches of new snowfall. The dogs never stopped hunting the entire day which guarantees they have each run a marathon in arctic conditions. The two hens we flushed early in the day  confirmed for the dogs that somewhere in this polar landscape other birds exist, and that’s all they needed.

Now that I’m out of the wind the burning sensation signals the thawing of my fingertips and face. There’s not a single bird in my game vest. It’s one of the most satisfying days afield I’ve ever had.

I am always a bit torn for late season bird hunting. On the one shoulder sits the tiny conservationist saying “these birds have made it this far through winter, they’ve earned a pass.”  On the other shoulder sits the killer. He lobbies for cutting feathers. And the dogs, now bored from lack of action, side with the killer. It’s useless to fight those odds. So hunt it is.

Most upland seasons across the country have begun rotating out. It doesn’t help that bird numbers were at historic lows across broad swathes of land due to the widespread drought. The northern latitude hunting shut down weeks ago and states still available for upland are in the path of a Snowmageddon.

Yesterday while we were on the 18-hour road trip to get to these familiar hunting grounds, the birds would have felt the low pressure system moving in, crammed their crops full of whatever forage they could find and joined forces for warmth and survival. Somewhere the pheasant are all bunched up in an impenetrable maze of cattails at the bottom of the deepest ravine in Kansas. Despite how hard we searched, we’re unable to locate the treasure trove.

But chasing forecasts, be they bird or weather, always proves futile. We are hunters and that’s what we intend to do. No forecast of bad bird numbers or inclement weather will change that. We take the conditions given and head afield because this love of pursuit holds back the madness that builds from the days when we aren’t trailing dogs.

The next stop will be Oklahoma where upland seasons continue for another couple weeks. There’s nothing left to do now but wait for the snowplows to catch up. It takes a full day for the road to Oklahoma to be cleared enough for safe travel. It gives the dogs a chance to recoup from a massive day running.

I’ve heard via upland friends that the Oklahoma quail population has made a slight comeback this year. Chasing Blue Racers has been a dream I’ve wanted to challenge the dogs against. This late in the year the Scaled Quail should live up to the reputation of little running bastards. And the tiny conservationist on the shoulder realizes this won’t be shooting birds in a barrel and allows my conscience rest.

Crossing into the Sooner State the weather warnings are already popping off. Winter has no intention of releasing its grip. As we arrive in at the area we intend to hunt, the flurries have already begun. And they don’t stop for three days. The only warming in the forecast is to begin on the day we’re scheduled to leave. Once again, there’s no choice; we hunt.

The truck cuts a lonely set of tracks in the fresh snow confirming I’m the only person crazy enough to challenge this weather. I don’t ever recall hunting in temperatures quite this frigid. The thermometer reads five degrees when we head into winds gusting to 15 MPH. Normally hunting into the wind would be preferred strategy to get on birds, but in these conditions it’s needles to the face that can only be tolerated in short doses. We’ve got a five day ticket to track down quail on public land in Oklahoma, but I have a sneaky suspicion that much like the late season pheasant of Kansas, these birds have gone to deep cover.

Rising from the snow are the plum thickets, scrub oak, sage brush and occasional juniper. At times the thickets so entangled they force us to circumvent instead of push through. On a normal hunt this would be great quail cover. But with snows at this depth I have little hope of finding birds. I know exactly where they’ve gone, because it’s where I would have gone if I were stuck outside in an overnight blizzard. The junipers offer the best cover and insulation from the biting winds. Coveys will have balled up for warmth under the thickest juniper and have no intent to leave until a thaw.

These won’t be long days of hunting — the bitter cold just saps energy too quickly. I carry hot water for the dogs but five minutes into the field and it’s a solid block. There’s a constant balancing act between walking too fast, sweating and freezing or trudging so slowly that lack of heat generated doesn’t stave off hypothermia. I keep a close eye on the dogs who act unphased by the frigid temps, but extended exposure could harm them as well. Within a couple hours my appendages are frozen to the point motor skills get clunky which could make shooting an interesting endeavor.

At the end of one of these frigid hikes I see Rio the setter lock down on a fence line of Juniper.  It brings an immediate flash of warmth and a quickening of heartbeat and stride. She’s unsure, I can see it in her face as she repositions to get a better angle. But the lab Wyatt has the experience that comes with age and has already run to the end of the fence and worked downwind to the backside where he pries Bobwhite from the snow. Two of the five birds in this group fly to my side of the fence. My thumb never touches the safety and I don’t even raise the gun. Shooting into a five bird covey this late in the year is bad form. Quail play a numbers game for survival; individual birds stand very little chance against the elements or predators. I watch as they sail to the nearest thick cover.

Wyatt wants to run down the singles but I call both dogs in for some praise and point them toward the vehicle. It’s 2 PM which is our self-imposed cutoff time for quail hunting. Birds need time to regroup before sunset. I hear the recall whistles on the short trek out and it carves a smile on my frozen face. There will be other birds, other opportunities and I prefer to remember this hunt for the covey I let fly than one I doomed.

The final day of our trip arrives accompanied with sun and rising temperatures. We make our way to the field for one last walk before starting the trip back across country.

There’s a marked change from the past three days of brutal cold. We begin to see songbirds back in flight. Rabbit tracks and other small game prints now accompany the lonely trails the dogs and I have been etching. Even quail have begun to work from beneath the junipers as their tracks confirm my suspicions.

We work to a large juniper surrounded by a dense plum brake and my instincts say birds are here. The howling winds we’ve grown accustomed to have been replaced by a piercing quiet. Wyatt begins to rummage at the margins of the thicket. As he pushes to the edge of the juniper the woosh of wings fill the void. More than 30 birds take flight and I lock on to the white throat patch of a male climbing my direction. I feel no pressure, no rush. The shot feels natural. Effortless. The Bob folds and disappears in the powder.

I give the dogs some extra time to soak in the scent of this final bird of the year. We’ve got a long drive ahead. And a longer off-season.

Last Bird of the Year

Bird Hunting Amid Spun Tales

Kansas Pheasant Hunting

Every year in Kansas we hear funny stories about birds and hunting. Maybe it was the full moon, the start of the whitetail rut or the dismal bird forecasts that contributed to tales of the extra nutty variety this season. We hunt from a small town that resides in a county with a population just over 3,000. If one person shares a story it is guaranteed to be known in all corners by the end of day.

On the third day of the season in Kansas this year we were informed by one of our local friends that he had spoken to a group of out of state hunters while driving home on back roads. He inquired how the hunting was going with a response of “not so good”. This group of hunters then proceeded to share their theory for the ringneck population decline: the deer have been eating all the pheasant eggs………… That likely bears repeating because this might be the craziest thing I’ve ever heard about declining bird populations. The deer are eating all the pheasant eggs according to this group of non-resident hunters.

While at the local gas station the attendant let us know that she spoke with a hunter who had witnessed a marauding band of killer turkeys that rounded up a group of juvenile pheasant into a circle and proceeded to kill and eat them. The gobblers then headed off in apparent search of their next victims.

Complaining over the loss of 95% of their birds, the owner of a local restaurant informed me that his adult son had gone out last week and killed three roosters (this would have been a week before the season started). Upon cleaning the birds he found there was little to no meat on them and they were unfit for eating. He concluded, the entire pheasant population has contracted a disease and the Kansas DNR is covering it up.

A hunter staying in the same motel was happy to inform us if we get in a situation where we need to buy birds, there’s a great guy just west of town who charges $175 for a four bird limit. And If we call ahead he’ll put them out and show us exactly where to hunt.

I’ve hunted in Kansas for the last 20 years. For the last decade my dad has joined this adventure. Over that time we’ve developed lots of great friendships with residents we see year-over-year. We tend to hunt the same general vicinity which gives us a pretty decent annual view of what’s happening in the broader ecosystem when assessing bird populations.

Ringneck numbers in Kansas have been on the decline for the last few seasons. The hard winter of 2010-2011 accompanied by the extremely wet spring seemed to be the initial blow. This was followed by a severe drought the summer of 2012 and drought conditions throughout the bulk of spring and summer this year. These dry conditions seized a large portion of the center of the country prompting the USDA to allow a massive swath of emergency haying of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) — see the map below.

The pheasant numbers in Kansas were lower than I have ever seen. But let me assure you this isn’t a mysterious disease or egg-eating deer. Everything is being bailed: milo stalks, wheat stubble, CRP grass. In the area where we hunt many of those bails are being sold and trucked to other areas of the country even harder hit by drought. Combine this rampant bailing with the generally high prices of grain. We’re seeing more and more areas that were previously enrolled in CRP now being planted. And we’re also seeing fence lines and trees being bulldozed to gain even more area to plant.

As much as we enjoy a good story, the tale of pheasant decline across the midwest is pretty simple: lack of cover.

So we’ll be hoping for a mild winter across the center of the country this year. And then we’d like Mother Nature to serve up decent moisture that allows the prairies, pastures and crops to thrive. We don’t chase bird forecasts so we’ll be back in Kansas next season to visit our friends. We’re in search of memories afield that have very little to do with bird numbers. And if I’m ever in a situation where I need to buy birds, I’ll go to the grocery and pay $2.99 per pound.


CRP Haying Map

Kansas Bird Hunting in Perspective

I make the annual pilgrimage to Kansas to reunite with old friends and family.  It reminds me of where my passion for bird hunting was first kindled.  Because this year was no exception to the rule, Kansas seemed like the right place to bring together our young Jornada Llewellin Rio with our veteran flusher Wyatt for their first joint hunt.

An inexperienced puppy afield is a great mirror into a hunters reality. Rio reflects how much my hunting style and perspective has developed. We typically bring a new pup into the family every five years and because so many things change unnoticed during hunting seasons over time, Rio is a breath of fresh air. While older accomplished dogs tend to blend in, covering for mistakes and making you better on days when you’re just average, Rio shows how much older I’ve gotten. She tests my patience. One minute, she hangs on my every word acting as if she understands verbatim while the next she feigns deafness to any coaching. This pup runs wild and acts crazy when I feel anything but. She looks for birds in places I know they are not, and then finds birds there to spite any wisdom I presume to possess. 
Rio poses even more of a challenge because she’s a pointer, and Wyatt is a flushing lab. When this season started my first inclination was to hunt them separately to establish a different set of rules for Rio. However, she has proven to be focused and steady on point, earning her stripes during my Nebraska trip and a subsequent North Woods hunt with other dogs. As a result, I’m upping the ante by turning her loose with my dozer Wyatt. I know fully what to expect of him and he’s hunted with pointers before. The whole prospect still causes some butterflies. I’ve gotten far too accustomed to running a single dog. 

The conditions in Kansas are bit discouraging this season and I’ve prepared myself for the worst. The drought has decimated the cover. Most landowners have been forced to cut and bail the land enrolled in the CRP programs. Though it is still designated public walk-in for hunting, lack of cover makes most plots unfit to shelter birds. Early bird forecasts were up from 2011 when the hatch was drowned with record spring rainfall totals. But now it has swung to the opposite extreme. This year grains underperformed and were harvested early along with the cropped native grasses leaving few areas for pheasant to hide from aerial predators. The normal steep learning curve for the young birds has become even more treacherous. However, this is what hunting public land is all about; take the conditions we’re given and try to make lemonade. 

It is the 10th season dad has joined us in Kansas. This spring he saw Rio train and has an idea of just how much ground she can effortlessly cover. In contrast when you’re over 70 years old I’m not sure anything is physically effortless anymore. I know he’s nervous that the pack might outrun him and his titanium knee replacement. So this hunt I’m putting dad in charge of tracking Rio. He’s going to carry the SportDog Tek GPS transmitter so he can see when she’s on point. Really he’ll be able to see where she is at any time because of the collar’s seven mile range. This eliminates any fear of losing her. She’s free to range too long, get lost and then find her way back to us. It is the best way for young dogs to gain confidence and begin understanding the value of proximity to the gun. Pairing the old man and the young dog should be great for everyone.

Decades of Kansas experience and learning from mistakes have shown us the light. Gone are the days of running on tilt across fields, yelling at dogs, hoping to close distances on roosters bolting out the other end of the field. Now we hunt small and smart: We still cover lots of ground but try to focus on the smaller areas within fields that we determine most productive. I like to pit our dogs and skills against the smartest wild birds we can find. The birds will win their share of these battles, but we will win our share as well. Many hunters get caught up in the heft of the game bag which is a losing proposition. Inevitably there will be days you don’t shoot a limit. Instead we strive for memories that we’ll recall for years to come and they rarely have anything to do with limits.

 On the third morning of this 10-day hunt the phone rings. My Aunt Pat, dad’s sister, suffered a heart attack and was undergoing a cardiac cath which would reveal the severity and next steps. We were 1,000 miles away. There’s not much to do but prepare to make the drive to Ohio. But until we get the results of the procedure we’re in limbo. Depending on what they find this may be our last hunt of the year. 

Cardiac issues hit very close to home in our family; Dad has survived quadruple bypass, multiple procedures and complications over the years. We’ve become good friends and are on a first name basis with his cardiologist — which is both reassuring and disconcerting at the same time. So when his sister has a heart attack it immediately brings a massive weight to bear and I could see it on his face. But I convince dad we should take our phones and hunt one last field while waiting for Aunt Pat’s results. A walk on a brisk morning can help clear heads. 

The dogs seem to sense the gravity. They hunt with purpose from the moment I drop the tailgate. We’re walking into the wind with the sun still low on the horizon at our backs.  It’s the golden hour and everything has that amber glow. Birds have been hard to come by to this point in the hunt. I know dad really isn’t even thinking about hunting. But Wyatt and Rio are intent on bringing him back to the moment. A couple of hundred yards into this cover Rio begins creeping and pointing.  Wyatt runs in and flushes a rooster in front of me and I snap off a shot and fold it. At the report pheasant begin boiling everywhere. I’m standing in the middle of a rooster eruption. I can see dad from the corner of my eye soaking it in as more birds rise and I break open the action, reload and continue to shoot. 

The points and flushes extend the length of this new field forcing smiles to return to our faces. Just as we make the turn to head back with the wind the text comes in that Aunt Pat has had a successful procedure with minimal damage to her heart. The fears fully retreat to the dark recesses. When we return to the vehicle dad makes a call to confirm the good news as I begin to clean the birds. 

Some memories are sneaky and weasel their way into stories recounted year over year. But this is a memory that I know immediately will become a part of our hunting legend. These roosters, this hunt will be remembered as part of a miraculous bountiful field in a year of depressed numbers. A hunt where distraction was desperately needed and nature heeded the call. We often give nicknames to locations where we hunt and this new spot has become Aunt Pat’s Place.

The rest of the week is a true bonus since our hunt could have been over. We add plenty of other tales to recount. Rio ended up pointing her first covey of wild quail this year in Kansas. Hunting with Wyatt has given her new confidence and she stops pointing songbirds. And Wyatt sees how keen Rio’s nose is and begins keying in on some of her points giving hope that one day this contrasting duo will attain my vision. In a year when all our local friends said there wasn’t a pheasant in the county, we never went a day in Kansas without seeing a bird.   

More importantly this hunt reminds me that all our days afield are a gift that lend perspective to the other events of life. There’s not a day in the field where I want to take this for granted. Cherish the moments chasing birds with family, friends and dogs.

And we’re so blessed and thankful to have sponsors like Blackwood Pet Foods who recognize our goals and support our vision for upland hunting’s significance. 

Making Kansas Memories

Opening day in Kansas occupies a sacred  place for me since this is the territory  where my upland obsession really took hold years ago. The bulk of the state has a dismal bird forecast like much of the rest of the Midwest this year. There are some bright spots which have been deemed the north central and northwest portions of the state.

My dad has joined this leg of the hunt which centers around a small town where the residents and the public hunting grounds have become familiar friends. For the last five years this has been where dad and I reunite and share the love of the outdoors and hunting which he sparked in me as a youngster.  I have hunted in this part of the state for over 15 years either solo and with other hunting buddies.

We are in the north central part of the state and contrary to the predictions, pheasant numbers are low this year. So hunters chasing forecasts who selected this area will likely be sorely disappointed.

The locals have been convinced that pheasant numbers are down due to the  thriving coon population. Last year the pheasant numbers were low due to the “damn redtail hawks” if you buy the area gossip. But if you ask a few questions of  local farmers a much more likely scenario becomes obvious. There was an extremely wet Spring . The rains started the beginning of May and according to most National Weather Service reporting stations in the area they received nine or more inches of precipitation for the month.  So declare war on raccoons if you must, but the truth is the nests were flooded, abandoned or just generally soaked.

A bright spot is that the Bobwhite have made a small comeback from previous years. Why did quail nests not get sogged? I believe they choose to lay in areas less susceptible to the rain, under trees and in better shelter.

The bulk of the Roosters in the area are the educated two-year olds.  Hunting has been challenging but we’ve seen our share of birds. Our black lab Wyatt continues to work really well and give us opportunities, albeit less frequent than years past.

The cooler won’t be full when we leave the state, but the memory bank certainly will be:  we’ve gotten an assist from hawk, dad has gone ass over elbows in a hole with his untested knee replacement, he had safety “issues” and missed a gimme rooster at 10 yards,  we located and patterned a big new covey of Prairie Chicken, more safety fumbling when he stumbled into a covey of quail, nearly crapped his pants when stepping on a hen this morning,   AND there still are six days left to hunt.

It’s gonna be a great week and no amount of coons or rain can change that.