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Upland with Friends


It’s easy for me to get caught up in this solo pursuit. The rhythm of walking to the horizon with shotgun in hand appeals to my obsessive nature. Shut out the world and follow the dogs. Simple. Quiet. Rewarding.

But decades ago I came to be a bird hunter because of friends sharing their experience afield. I can’t say that upland hunting saved me, rather that it saves everyone around me from the monster I would become without it.

A trip to Big Sky Country reunited me with the group that helped seed Ultimate Upland. There’s a comfort in hunting with cherished friends. But the six year gap between hunts has also been unsettling.

Frequent exposure allows changes to creep up, go unnoticed. But these six years apart the contrast is stark. Time has caught my bird hunting mentors. Reflexes have been dulled. Endurance worn. It has slowed them. And they aren’t accepting these changes gracefully.

If it’s happening to my upland heroes, then it must be happening to me. I wonder if I’m on the rise or fading. Are my best days of bird hunting still ahead?

But then there are moments: a friend’s first Sharptail over my dog, an old gunzel dropping a double, campfire stories that provoke moronic laughter.

The hell with mortality.

Let’s just hunt so often we never notice the creep consuming us as we disappear over the horizon.


Kicking Off the 2013 Upland Season in Montana

When you are about to drive 1500 miles to hunt birds, the last thing you want to do is forget something. Rural Montana isn’t the easiest place to find gear that you left behind.

Because it’s the first hunt of the year, I try and pack over the course of a couple weeks. Sounds crazy, even to me, but it is a proven strategy. I’ll start making a pile in an unused room, garage or sometimes the dining room table. As the departure date draws nearer the pile grows in size. You never want to forget the big items: gun, shells, dogs. But it’s the little things that gnaw at you once you’re on the road: dog bowls, training collars, power cords, hunting boots, upland vest. Things you aren’t going to find in a General Store or gas station can be problematic when you’re in the middle of nowhere.

That pile of gear serves as a visual reminder of the upcoming trip and every now and then I’ll walk by it and a lightbulb will go off to add an item not yet included.

The bulk of Montana has managed to stay clear of the drought which has ravaged much of the west this summer. The other reason we decided to start the hunt in Montana this season is Sage Grouse. After years of studies the US Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to make a ruling on whether to add Sage Grouse to the endangered species list. If that happens, the ramifications for millions of acres of federal lands considered Sage Grouse habitat could be interesting to watch.

There is no doubt that Sage Grouse numbers have been on the decline. The debate currently revolves around why the populations have dropped. Many believe it is a symptom of habitat fragmentation. Being a bird hunter, not a biologist, I don’t have the answers. I can only hope that somebody smarter than myself can come up with a solution to stabilize these birds.

I’m in Montana to find Sage Grouse on what could be the final opportunity to chase this majestic bird and hopefully bring one to hand.

Rio, the Llewellin setter, is now in her terrible twos. The hope is that she skips right past terrible and picks up where she left off last season. And our ol’ faithful black lab hunting buddy Wyatt will be plodding along this trip too. Watching a pointer and a flusher working together has become one of my true joys of fall.

Here’s some clips from the start of the hunt. Check us out on Facebook or join the Lodge to see more photos and videos from afield.

Rio’s First Hunt

It’s easy to forget what it’s like to bring a young dog to the field. And it is truly revealing just how dependent one can get on a trusted and trained dog.

I could have brought Wyatt the four-year-old lab along on this little adventure.He’s got the game down. He knows all the moves, he knows what I expect and he knows how to find birds.The problem is he’s a flusher. And I need this little Llewellin from Jornada Setters to learn her own pointing moves.

I’ve returned to the Nebraska National Forest where Wyatt and I have spent tons of time chasing Sharptail. I elected to start Rio here because I have most normal hunting variables locked down – where to find birds, how they react to pressure, terrain, weather, etc. Also the Sharptail Grouse plays a fair game. If you do everything right it may hold until you get in gunning range. It’s not going to run to evade, their first inclination is always flight. And there are no second chances, when it takes to the air it flies for miles, not yards. The Sharptail rewards perfect pursuit with opportunities, and punishes flawed approaches with wild flushes at astounding distances accompanied by that dreaded “Sharptail chuckle”.

This allows me to focus on just one variable, the young energetic Rio.

With 30 mph winds, conditions weren’t great for dog work on her inaugural day. At the first barbed wire fence I’m reminded just how much she has to learn. With Wyatt I can lift the bottom strand and say “under” and he’s through. Rio just looks at me and continues to run up and down the fence line, until I demonstrate under. The first of so many lessons that will eventually become second nature.

Rio has never been in infinite ground – which is another reason why I chose NNF’s 90,000 contiguous acres. She has a chance to really stretch her legs and I’m reminded what I’ve missed so much since the passing of my last pointer Finn. That effortless gait that devours the terrain is just fun to watch.

We did manage to move a few birds this day; three wild flushes and five birds already on the wing. Rio learns that unlike pen-raised quail, she can’t run down a Sharptail after it flushes. She also learns what a cactus is. And she now knows what it’s like to be really tired.Tonight she’ll get to learn what it’s like to sleep in a tent.