Tuesday, October 28, 2008

... perfect for duck hunting.

My dad is in his eighties and doesn’t hunt anymore, but he still gets the outdoor magazines and is pleased to hear about my hunting experiences. But even more enjoyable are the stories he tells of past hunts from before I was born and when I was just a youngster.

Just as I was raised by an outdoorsman, so was Dad. My grandpa and his brother had a duck camp in southeastern Minnesota on the backwaters of the Mississippi river just north of the little town of Weaver. The cabin was built of vertical logs chinked with mortar, heated with a barrel stove, and lighted by lanterns. Near the water was a three sided boat shed where six or eight small flat bottomed boats hung like canoes. I well recall dark mornings of camo-clad men sliding the boats over frosty leaves to the dock while various hunting dogs crunched the edges of the yard marking territory. I was put in one of the little double-ended wooden duck boats when I was five years old, and my dad would pole us into the marsh and shove us into the high cattails and reeds. Our dog and I would sit in the boat and Dad would push a long one-legged stool into the muck and sit with his waders on alongside us. I would shiver from the cold and excitement as he called ducks to our decoys and watch as he shot mallards and wood ducks and widgeons. Our yellow lab, Queenie, flew from the boat to every fallen bird and I was awestruck at her retrieves. Gramps would sit in his boat not far away and Queenie would bring his ducks in to us. Gramps was something of a legend around the area in those days for his shooting skill. His little boat was just big enough for him alone and he would shoot from it right or left handed, depending on which way the ducks presented themselves. I loved it all.

At seven years old I was presented an H&R single shot .410 with a hammer that I practiced with constantly until I could cock it pretty well, but it was always a battle to get my one little shot off at approaching ducks. I begged Dad to let me shoot some of the coots swimming around, and sometimes he'd let me to keep me interested. Then came the day when he poled us over to the mainland and I followed him, sneaking into the woods to a duckweed covered pothole surrounded by hardwood trees. We crawled close with Queenie following and Dad parted the grass to show me a pair of wood ducks perched on a rotting log out in the middle. They were the only ducks I could see and he told me to take the one on the right. I eased the hammer back and from a prone position shot the beautiful drake. My shot startled at least forty ducks from the green pond but I was only interested in the one I'd shot, which had disappeared and I barely heard my dad’s gun going off at some of the others. Before I knew what was happening, Queenie was clawing her way over the log to retrieve my duck and came swimming back leaving a path of clear water behind her. I held my duck and marveled at it while Dad sent her back for the ones he had dropped. It was the first duck I’d ever shot, and it was amazing.

We were shooting lead shot back then and I used that little .410 those first years with enthusiasm, but didn’t hurt many ducks. But I was part of the club, and in my cabin bunk I’d listen as Dad and my uncles poured whiskey and talked about the day’s hunt. It was two months before my tenth birthday when I dropped one of a trio of snow geese that came to our spread. It hit the water but tried to get up again and Dad finished it with his 16 gauge Remington Sportsman. In his basement hangs the photo of the two of us holding that goose, wings spread wide, to this day. That’s when I graduated to my uncle's 16, a twin to my dad’s. The goose was mounted and adorned the wall in duck camp.

In the ninth grade I’d saved enough trapping and odd job money to buy a used 12 gauge 870, but Dad used that old 16 for years until I’d grown and left home for some schooling and went to work. One of my biggest purchases then was a brand new Browning Auto 5 Magnum Twelve. I gave it to him for Christmas. He killed countless ducks and geese with it up until a few years ago, when he handed it back to me along with his 14 foot boat filled with decoys.

I was out with it again the other morning. Wind pushed rain at my back while I looked out over three dozen dekes. A gray, wet day perfect for hunting, a few small flocks of ring-necks and a couple of bills were lured close enough for some fast shooting. It was over quickly and I was home for late breakfast, but man, was it great! And Dad was happy to hear about it.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Champions, Runners Up, and also rans...

Bird dog field trials have been around since the pre-civil war days, and while many types of trials and hunt tests have evolved, the traditional format of two dogs going head to head in search of game is still the oldest and draws the most participation. True to American nature, it wasn't enough to have a good bird dog. You wanted one better than the neighbor's, and it's wasn't long before a competition ensued. The trial tradition is embedded in the southland where sportsmen would follow their quail dogs on horseback and the mounted gallery would actually applause when a dog pointed a covey. The war couldn't even stop the sport and there's a well known story about a Union Army captain who took a morning off from the fighting to try his setter on the quail fields of Dixie. He followed his dog over a rise and was surprised to see his setter on point with another dog, a pointer, locked up next to her. The Union captain was startled when a voice said, "I believe the shot is yours, Sir," and wheeled to come face-to-face with a Confederate officer also taking a short reprieve from the war. As the story goes, the two captains spent the morning hunting their dogs in an impromptu contest to see who's dog would best the other. When it was over they nodded farewell but were reunited later on the battlefield, with predictable results.

It took a while for the trials to find the northwoods, but grouse and woodcock trials took hold in the northeast and spread west to the midwest and Wisconsin and Minnesota. They are foot handling events where only the judges can be mounted. The first Grand National Grouse Championship took place in 1943. Grouse and woodcock trials follow the original format in that two dogs are turned loose to be followed by their handlers, then two judges and a gallery. The major trials, Championships, usually employ a reporter as well. The judges and reporter are often on horseback for a better view and to reduce the fatigue of following bird dogs 6-8 hours a day for the length of the trial, often 4-6 days.

I took part in these trials for years, and have made some wonderful friendships with folks across the country. The competion is exciting and it's hard to beat seeing good bird dogs doing what they do best. Many's the night spent driving through rain and snow to get to some faraway trial grounds only to arrive dead tired but eager to turn a dog loose. It's some good feeling to push in ahead of a rock solid dog and see a grouse thundering out over the gallery of spectators, fire the gun over a stauesque dog and get a smile and nod from the judge. Bird dogs have taken me to the backcountry of Florida up to the far corner of Maine and back. I've spent summers in dog camps on the Dakota prairies and the lifestyle is indescribable for an outdoorsman.

I recently returned from a day at the WI Champion-ship where I visited old friends and watched good dogs. Even from back in the gallery I could hear the bells on the dogs and get a look as they crossed the cover in front. It was neat to be behind a lot of good dogs -- not as good as handling one up front -- but fun just the same. One of the dogs I especially wanted to see found three grouse and two woodcock during her hour. Sometimes it can be hard to spot the pointing dogs in the thick stuff, as anyone who's chased grouse with a dog will agree.

One day of watching other dogs fired me up to run my own dog, and after a good supper and hours of conversation, I camped on the grounds and returned to MN to hunt my way home.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The makings of a grouse dog.

About four years ago a doctor friend gave me two orange-ticked male setter puppies with the express purpose of developing one of them into a field trial prospect. If it worked out the best of the two would compete in the grouse and woodcock field trial circuit and the other would be sold as a gundog or pet. I registered one as Orange Pop (though I called him Casey) because of his choppy, animated, reckless way of charging and darting through the woods which can be very attractive to a field trial judge. The other is Jack Sparrow, named for his swashbuckling clownish attitude. Right from the start I believed Casey would be the trial dog. I ran Casey and Jack in several American Field puppy and derby stakes and both did well enough, but Casey soon lived up to my expectations and when he turned two years he was qualified to enter Championship stakes. My situation changed and I was unwilling to commit to the travel required to run a dog in major trials, so the decision was made to sell Casey to a friend of mine who would enter him in the major events. And I decided to keep Jack because his personality had won me over, though he lagged far behind his brother as a bird dog.

Though he did OK during summer training, there were times when I was frustrated by Jack's lack of desire, it seemed he became bored and was too lazy to hit the cover, often returning to walk along side me rather than hunt. I wondered if he would ever find a wild bird, but the light finally seemed to come on for him in a woodcock cover near Bigfork. From there he started to come on, but he often backslid and reverted to his puppy ways. He never tried to do wrong or upset me, of course, he just couldn't help clowning around. And when he did he always seemed to have a smile on his face, and if he could I'm sure I would have heard him laughing out loud at his own antics. He was definately my second string dog and one of the slowest to develop that I'd seen. But that is changing. My older setter, Ty, is my 'go-to' dog and has won some trials and has a reputation as a bird finder in the woods and on the prairies. When Ty is on the ground everyone expects action. But Ty is laid up with an eye ailment this season and has only been out hunting once (and a good day it was, with 14 grouse finds). That leaves Jack to carry the load.

Jack and I have been hunting nearly every day, now. We would be hunting right now if not for the pouring rain that's falling. I've hunted in the rain often, but... well, not today. Jack was finding late summer grouse broods during training and handling them well, but when the season started I would hear or see birds in the air coming from his vicinity. And he would come in panting looking for water partly because the earliest cover was stifling near the ground even on cool days, and partly because he was not in top condition. As the days passed I would go in to find him pointing at grouse in trees. This happens sometimes, but I've never seen it so often with one dog. I suspect he was getting too close and flushing the bird, and sometimes the grouse would jump up to a tree above. This may not sound like such a bad thing, but I wonder how many were flushed that didn't stop overhead? Also, I shoot at grouse flying, and a tree flush is one of the toughest targets there is -- especially with all the leaves still on the branches. And then there were a couple of occasions when I saw him point and then move up to flush the bird. Thinking he was seeing the bird on the ground and unable to resist the temptation, I spent a morning at home having him point and watch wing-shackled pigeons hop and flutter all around him. So far, this has seemed to help.

There's nothing like daily hunting to get a dog in shape, and Jack's middle is slimmer and his hindquarters are muscled. While Ty is eager and cannot understand why he is left home, Jack jumps in the truck and is ready to do business. His confidence level is high, and my confidence in him grows daily. Yesterday we worked two good looking, but barren covers for woodcock to no avail. These are the first covers I've hunted this year without moving a bird. Then we headed for another spot that I had in mind but have never hunted. Jack was pointing minutes out of the truck and this grouse fell in a shower of leaves. A good start to any cover. We hunted this place in one direction for an hour. Jack had a grouse nailed about every ten minutes. It was tough shooting, it's seldom easy, and I didn't hit every bird I shot at, but I hit enough to enjoy Jack's enthusiastic retrieves. And we found grouse on our way back. I even flushed a pair of wood ducks from a puddle that would have offered a pretty fair shot. It was great! Sometimes it was hard to find him in all the color, sometimes it was impossible to hear his bell. It was often hard to get much of a look at the grouse rocketing in to a stiff wind through red and yellow foliage, but that's what makes grouse hunting what it is.

I think it was Burton Spiller who said it takes 500 grouse to make a grouse dog. Jack is still shy of that mark, but he's on his way.

This afternoon I'll travel to the Eau Claire county forest where the Wisconsin Coverdog (meaning dogs that hunt the cover, rather than open country)Championship will commence tomorrow. I've been invited down to see some friends from out east, and one of the first dogs running is a grand-daughter of my grouse champion Molly. My friend Lance B. from Pennsylvania is running her and I'm eager to see her perform.

This is a big time of year for those who participate in the wild bird trials. When the Wisconsin Championship is over the MN Grouse Dog Championship will start in the Rum River Forest. Then the National Amateur Grouse Championship will take place back in WS. From there the dedicated move east to Michigan, PA, and out to N.Y. and New England. I've been there and I miss it, but I sure love hunting the home cover with a good grouse dog.