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Embrace the Hunting Curve

New Mexico Sunset

I kicked off this season hunting the entire month of September without ever pulling the trigger—for birds, not for big game, not for a once-in-a-lifetime tag draw. I never even came close. True, the Himalayan Snowcock might be the most challenging hunt in the country. This was my second attempt at those demons and I was just stoked to actually get a photo. Most people never have the opportunity to even lay eyes on one.

The dogs and I finished this season on public land in New Mexico. We’ve never chased desert quail before. We’ve never hunted this far south. I hadn’t heard a whole lot about bird forecasts or others hunting in the area this year. But there’s a big National Wildlife Refuge in the middle of the state that is just a short 23 hour drive away, and it calls to us.

Visions of huge coveys of all three desert quail species duel with the knowledge I’ve gained from hunting elsewhere; late season wild birds are demanding. The later you go into winter the more educated upland birds become. These are the survivors of inclement weather, predator, disease, encroachment and every curveball their environment can muster.

But end-of-season wild bird hunters are the survivors, too. Hunters looking for an easy stroll and guaranteed gunning have retreated to preserves or have long ago retired their shotguns until next season.

For me, what is left is the essence of bird hunting that few get to see. The battle of wits between the smartest, strongest birds and Ultimate Uplanders with bird dogs not wanting this dance to end.

This New Mexico desert does not disappoint. It’s brutal and beautiful. It’s unfamiliar and unkind. Unseasonably high temps, gritty terrain and cactus of every sort that chew up pursuers. Quail offer fleeting glances and scent then scatter across the sand and evaporate leaving nothing but shallow footprints and spent, stumped dogs.

And I wouldn’t change a thing. We’ll be back to build on the lessons of this trip, to confront the unknown. The heft of the game bag remains a distant aim when the humbling by wild places offers such reward.

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.