Ptarmigan Round-Up

Well, that’s a wrap.

The ptarmigan season in Alaska (well, at least in our part of Alaska) has closed, and with our 2018-2019 season has come to an end. It started up here in Anchorage AK, saw us drive back to our home haunts in Minnesota, take a journey back to Kansas, and then decide to throw down some roots back up here in the last frontier. The finale to our season was a pretty good one though, and a case example of why I moved us here.

Armed with the knowledge we had gained so far from our many days of fruitless snowshoeing and our one morning of brief success in harvesting our first ever ptarmigan, I went towards the mountains with a renewed vigor. I had finally gotten a glimpse into the exact habitat to find, when to be there, and what to look for when you are there. We had four mornings left to work with, and our first two had us leaving up the trail head just as the sun was coming up.

 

If I were to sum up my limited ptarmigan knowledge into one piece of advice it would this; Get higher and Go further. These birds migrate over vast regions within the state of Alaska, and they could be anywhere on the mountainside. Have no doubt, they are there, you just have to find them. With that in mind I decided Watson and I wold hunt them much in the way we hunt big pheasant fields when it’s just him and I. That amounts to letting him cut loose, and I act as a blocker, moving myself into shooting lanes and escape routes when he starts working scent. Ptarmigan are prone to running through whatever willow run they are hiding in and flushing out the back side, much like a pheasant slipping through the corn rows, and this approach worked well for us. On our first morning we left the mountain with a pair of willow ptarmigan. We repeated the same strategy in the same area the next morning and came away with another pair of willows, as well as a pair of white tailed ptarmigan, and some tired legs. We covered about 7 miles both days on snowshoes, and I was feeling it!

 

After a week of work or last and final ptarmigan hunting weekend was upon us. I’d had spent a lot of time over the week monitoring snow pack levels, avalanche forecasts, and other things not pertaining at all to the work I should have been doing, but work doesn’t find you birds and this was the last rodeo until August! I decided we would return to the area of the mountain where we harvested our first ptarmigan weeks prior. My though (or hope) was that the unseasonably warm and sunny weather we were having would have taken the snow level down on that mountain face, as it is entirely south-facing. You can also drive all the way to above tree line, which saves valuable field time not having to climb to birds. So at the crack of the morning, we loaded up and went up. We had a stow-away with us this time as well. Once again we were keeping Olive in order while her parents were out of town. My hope was that we’d be able to get her some bird contacts after we were done hunting, as she’s shown great promise, and is at the perfect age to start sniffing the real deal.20190328_180252.jpg

Up the mountain we went. We arrived in the little gravelly parking spot at about 8:00am, loaded up with as many shells as we could carry and set out. What unfolded over the next two hours for Watson and I was one of those perfect days you rarely get as a hunter. We were in the right spot, the birds where there, and my shooting was just good enough. I couldn’t tell you how many ptarmigan we moved over that mountain, but my best guess would be somewhere around 70. It was incredible. When the snow cleared and the sun was up, I had one shell left and a full limit of 10 birds in the vest. The willow ptarmigan were scattered about the entire slope, and we encountered two flocks of white tails that caught me off guard with there enormity. It was fantastic, and seeing as Watson and I usually don’t stack up limits on our outings, I let him revel in it.

 

Our season could have ended right then and I’d have been perfectly happy. There was one more morning though, and we spent it with a fellow upland hunter we had met the previous week. Naturally we came back to this same area, as surely there would be just as many birds this day. Well, there were birds, but not the vastness of riches as the day prior. It was good day out though. His dog, a GWP/GSP cross, had a couple of nice points, and Watson and I picked up one last bird the end our year.

What about Olive? Oh, she had a pretty awesome day too. On Saturday, one of the ptarmigan Watson and I got at the end of his run was wounded, but very much alive, so we hustled back to the truck to give Olive a proper “intro to birds” for a puppy. She loved and it showed everything you want to see in a young gun dog. So after Watson’s day was over, I let her out of her crate and took her for a run in hopes she could work some of the white tailed ptarmigan that we had encountered on the way back. The wind had died down, taking scenting conditions with it. Olive is a pretty bold little hound though, and she had no reservations about stretching her range in search of…whatever she though she was looking for.

Eventually we located a couple of birds, but in typical puppy fashion her mind was elsewhere. Should I get that stick? I’m going to point this rock. Maybe I’ll run over here, and the back and then over…you get the idea. I admittedly got a little frustrated with here when we had a sitting bird about 5 yards from her, bt with the lack of wind and her focus elsewhere she had no knowledge of it’s existence. If you look closely in the photo below you can find it tucked into the willows.DSC02598

So walked her into it in hopes of re-focusing her intentions. It worked, almost too well. As soon as she saw that bird shuffle away and fly off, the day turned into and episode of “Olive vs. Ptarmigan Mountain”. She went absolutely insane albeit in a good way. She went from playing around with smells to stretching out 300 yards in search of those little white birds. She bumped about a dozen in her search, which only fueled the madness further.

Then, as if by the hands of the bird dog gods themselves it happened. After about twenty minutes her assault had worn down a bit, and she was now working within 100 yards of me. She had her face straight in to the wind, and as I watched her movements tighten up and her tail quiver I got my camera up just in the nick of time. She pointed her first ever bird, a wild Alaskan ptarmigan, and held that point for a solid five seconds. That’s not a rock-solid point by any means, but it’s a big step for a young dog. The bird eventually began to run and then flew off, which reignited her insanity, but after disappeared into the mountain she returned to us in due time.DSC02607

 

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Full Circle.

We’ve been away for almost two months, so what the heck have we been up to?! Well, we changed everything (sort of). In my last post I mentioned how I was planning to end our season long trip early in favor of some life choices, and that’s exactly what I did.

We moved to Alaska!

Before I left Minnesota after the holidays I started exploring my options for moving up here permanently. I made a few phone calls, applied for a few jobs, mostly with the thought that at the end of our season I could head up sometime around the middle of April. As we were wandering around back in Kansas, I spent one of Watson’s rest days reflecting on what to do with our last month afield. The obvious and planned choice ahead was the desert quail species, maybe some waterfowl in Oklahoma, but the more I thought about it the only thing I really truly wanted to do was be back in Alaska. So I went. I called up my friends who live up here to ask if they would be willing to adopt me for the winter so I didn’t freeze to death in my van, and as soon as we got off the phone I filled the gas tank and hit it. It was a long drive (obviously), we went through Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, British Columbia and the Yukon. If you ever have the idea of driving the Alcan highway in the winter, don’t. It’s delightful in the spring and fall, and likely in the summer as well. In the winter though, a person could die out there, and it’s definitely not the greatest choice I’ve made. We made it though!

 

After we arrived we spent the next few weeks house and dog sitting for friends, and then another week and a half house and dog sitting for our other friends. Watson is going to be spending lot’s of time with his new Alaska co-workers, a golden retriever named Cilo, and a GSP named Olive, both of whom are on the road to being bird finding friends. Olive even has a planned brother on the way soon. I thought it was great, Watson on the other hand had his reservations.

 

So why give up the vagabond bird hunting dream? Well, there’s a few reasons, but if I had to reduce it to just a few it would be these. Watson is six years old, and quite frankly he can’t hunt as hard and/or as often as much as he used too. I don’t have plans to get a second gun dog for some time yet, which means our full hunting seasons would be limited by dog power. Also Alaska is awesome. For Watson’s sake living here for a bit will allow us to hunt a lot, as the bird numbers off all varieties here are plentiful, and hunting him on a “half-day schedule” will keep him afield and in birds without beating him down. Alaska’s upland season basically becomes August-November, and then late February through March. Technically it’s open August-April (in some areas), but weather and geography has a strong role to play. For my sake, I’ll get to fish or hunt almost every weekend all year if I want to, in a variety of ways that is almost hard to get a grasp on. For example, in just a couple months I plan to be fishing for Halibut from a kayak in the ocean.

Oh, and when it comes time for that second bird dog, I can’t think of a better place to start a puppy. The spruce grouse population up here is incredible, and they are definitely not the wariest quarry in the woods, making them excellent wild birds to bring up a dog on. You also get the great mix of dense woodland grouse in ruffs and spruces, more open country birds with sharptails in the interior of the state, the open country and high alpine regions of the ptarmigan, and what seems to be underrated waterfowling opportunities. It’s a good place.

In fact we’ve already made use of the greatly extended season up here. We managed to find a very mature ruffed grouse during a little close to town field trip, and after burning up countless amounts of snowshoe hours we finally got our first ever willow ptarmigan just the other day. I’ve landed a pretty good job that will feed our habits and the gas tank plenty, and I actually don’t hate it (which was a real fear for a bit).

So that’s really it, we’re in Alaska now. I don’t know how long we’ll live here, it might just be a few years, it might be forever, only time will tell. What I do know is that this is an incredible place, and at least for right now, I don’t want to be anywhere else.

 

#Vanlife…RESUME.

I know, where the hell have we been. Last time we checked in Watson and I were rambling around Kansas having a grand time. Sadly, our time out there was suddenly cut short. A family emergency arose that brought me all the way back to the Midwest, and once there I was too far north to justify driving back out again, so instead I went back to Duluth earlier than I had originally planned and loitered on my friends couch for a couple weeks. I had planned to go back home for Christmas, but the events that unfolded brought us there in the first week of December. Before we left Kansas though we got a couple of good days in with my friend Rob who drove out from California to hunt with us a bit. His setter Lady is a treat of a dog to spend time afield with as well. The day Rob got in he also brought along a blizzard that shut down the town we met up in, and definitively scratched any potential hunting plans until the next day. Once we did get out though, we found birds and had a great time keeping the dogs working. Lady had some good finds, Watson got to bulldoze his way through fresh snow drifts, good fun all around.

 

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and all of sudden we found ourselves hunting late season ruffed grouse back in our home woods. I was in a bit of a personal funk for a few reasons, and as such I didn’t get us out quite a lot, but we still made a good go of it. Our first really good day fell apart when Watson gave me a perfect shot and big mature drummer, and I immediately discovered I had been hunting for almost an hour with an empty gun. There was also an unseasonable lack of snow cover in our first outings, which makes the birds even more skittish than normal. We got it all put together though when I spent a day driving north until we hit good snow cover, I got my head out of a fog, and we scratched down a ruff just a few days before Christmas. In between running around for various family holiday events I snuck in a day with my buddy Jason chasing some Minnesota pheasants west of the Twin Cities. We had to slog a lot of miles but we sure found some birds, and I even got to fill my limit by the end of the day.

 

After that we snuck in one last good grouse hunt. There was an enormous storm bearing down on the Midwest, and if I had left that day I would have spent an entire couple of days driving through it. So instead we hunted one last day and waited it out with friends after. When we ventured out I decided to gamble on a trail that I had meant to explore many times over the years and just never did. It was a good gamble, as the trail runs out into a large clear cut that has grown up with pines, and it was absolutely filthy with birds. If I’m remembering correctly we had eleven flushes in under thirty minutes, yet somehow I managed to bag one. It’s just as well, one grouse makes a prize any day.

 

That brings us to where we are now. Watson and I are back in Kansas. I had planned on going to explore a couple of new places for us during this leg of our trip, but there likely isn’t time for it. Recently I made some personal decisions that will most likely end this trip early, sort of. I’ll get into more if and when it happens. I brought us back to Kansas simply because it puts within striking distance of whichever route our life takes in the near future. I know, how cryptic…Anyways, today was New Years Day, a holiday for most but doubly so for Watson and I. Because it’s Watson’s birthday! He turned six years old today, and as we do every year, we celebrated afield. We moved a good number of pheasants, but we couldn’t get any roosters to hold within shooting range. Near the end of the day however he took the birthday bird getting into his own hands. I could tell he was working scent as we were making our way up a brushy fence line, when he all of a sudden bolted for the middle of a harvested corn field. I quickly moved to prepare for a shot that would never come. Instead, after a brief wrestle, he proudly made his way back to me with his own trophy.20190101_163101.jpg

Upon inspection it had a pellet strike near one of it’s leg and a broken wing, likely an incidental wounding from the goose hunters in one of the nearby fields. There are a lot of ducks flying around with the goose flocks in the area, and although duck season in this area is closed geese are still fair game well into February. Mission accomplished for Watson though. We’ll be banging around here for a few more days, and hopefully we won’t have to drag out our future decisions for too long.

 

 

Prairie Drifting

Week two in Kansas has been a delightful seven days of wandering around in fields of prairie grass and islands of cottonwoods like a bird hunter set adrift. It’s been wonderful. I’ve taken the approach of driving until we find a piece of cover that looks good, and just hunting with the assumption that where we find good habitat we’ll find birds. The first couple of days were very windy, and the birds we were able to find were holed up in prairie grass that was as tall as me and thick as a jungle. The wind that forced them into that cover also gave them up. I approached each field from the downwind side, working along the small dips and undulations in the terrain that would serve as a slight wind break for the birds. We didn’t find record amounts of birds, but we did find them. Our second day doing this the wind was strong enough that one rooster decided to try and bury himself instead of take flight. We had been working down the edge of a long draw, Watson birdy the entire way, and our pursuit ended when I watched Watson go full-crazy head first into a thicket bush. A noise that I can only describe as a snorting and flapping wrestling match unfolded, and moments later he emerged from the bush with a young rooster firmly in his grasp. We found one other bird in that cover that also held incredibly tight to it’s stronghold. Watson took a few moments to precisely locate it, and when he did it flushed so late that he had removed it’s two longest tail feathers as it flew strait back at me. I let it pass and took it on an easy strait away shot, and that was our day.

We got done with that day so early I actually went back to our little camp area and use the beautiful weather to catch up on some van maintenance. My rough and tumble E350 had been displaying some electrical quirks lately, and although I’m no master mechanic I can usually trouble shoot basic problems pretty well. I didn’t find anything terribly telling. So Instead we just loafed around, cooked some pheasant and listened to some podcasts. The place I usually camp at in here in Kansas is pretty cool. It’s basically a man made lake, surrounded by a dirt road, with roughly 10 unimproved campsites around it, and some old stone buildings that were built during Roosevelt’s New Deal. They’re just simple park buildings, empty except for some picnic tables. A few are also outhouses that look like they could withstand a hurricane.20181118_083804

The next day’s weather was much nicer, so we changed our cover selection to a piece that was mostly harvested corn. but had a nice long grassy draw on it’s southern edge. We moved a covey of quail along the fence line on our way in, and had I been paying even the slightest bit of attention I might have got one. We kept our approach pretty quiet, and we gave full Watson scares to a pile of hen pheasant that had just made their way into the corn edge to get their breakfast. We pushed on long enough to find one rooster hiding in the bottom of the draw, and with my bird-a-day goal met, we made our way back to a completely dead van. When I turned the key to start it the battery was as flat dead as dead could be. I bridged in the deep cells from the solar system, which helped but didn’t give quite enough amperage to crank the starter. I then dug out the battery for my trolling motor, jumped that straight onto the starting battery, and with all that extra juice the rig came back to life, and I drove straight back to town.

I bought a new battery, and the van started like it had an entire power plant in it. Satisfied I had fully fixed the electrical quirks (I hadn’t), we headed back out. I mostly just wanted to get back up to an area of decent hunting and where I could camp for the night, but we made pretty good time so I decided we’d sneak a hunt in as well to celebrate our triumph over the battery. We worked a grass and sorghum edge, and didn’t find anything there, so when we got to the back edge of the cover I moved us into a different portion of it that had thinner grass and some trees, thinking if there were no pheasant we might find some quail instead. We found two coveys, I took a bird from each, and we camped out near a big reservoir where I cooked the quail, the leg trimmings from the mornings pheasant, and watched a massive evening flight of snow geese coming in to roost.

The next couple of days after that would be limited by unseasonably warm temps. I had met up with a friend from a forum I frequent, and we spent the next couple of days running his German Shorthaired Pointers, in hopes of getting his young puppy on some wild birds and his older dog on some wild roosters. I didn’t do the best job of picking spots for us, but we got his older hound a few contacts. Watson had got out one day before it got too hot, and found us a covey of quail as well. My friends friend joined us later that day, and after he got his license we rolled the dice and a random choice for a last hour walk before sundown. It only had a couple of birds in it, but Watson had a picture perfect find in the last moments, sending a rooster rocketing up and quartering back at us. The next morning was Thanksgiving, and the three of us got out on one last albeit unsuccessful walk before we had to break from the heat. I called it quits for Watson and I for a couple of rest days after that, and shared my good and bad cover notes with them before parting ways.

I spent Thanksgiving cooking a pretty sweet meal of Pheasant, potatoes, onions, garlic, and asparagus, all simmered together in my cast iron skillet while I watched football over a local hotels unsecured internet. After dinner I continued trouble shooting the van’s electrical system, as my solar batteries had stopped producing reliable power as well. After crawling around with a voltmeter for an hour I found it. One of my inline fused that is part of the battery isolator circuit had gloriously failed. It was in a housing that was apparently not as weather proof as it claimed, and it had filled with mud and moisture that no doubt cased a fault and the fuse to blow. As the rest of the town descended on Walmart and Home Depot for their holiday shopping, I crawled under my van in the parking lot to remedy the situation. It’s all fixed now (I think). Watson needed the back to back rest days though, he’s got a long stretch coming up to rest up for!

Minnesota Cold, Kansas Hot.

Before we left our home state, Watson and I got two last little forays afield. We got out into the grouse woods one last time before leaving Duluth, taking advantage of one of the deer hunter free areas we had found. There was fresh snow on the ground, fresh snow falling, and after a half dozen flushes I bagged one last bird for us. From there we headed south, stopping at my uncles farm for a field hunt with my friend Jason. It was a typical setup of goose decoys with some mallard spinners. It was also only eight degrees that morning, and as such we actually made the rare decision to hunt without the dogs. We had a couple of close calls with a lot of geese, but the late season birds here have been shot at a lot and were just a tad to wary. We did fool some mallards, and shot well enough to bring five of them down. Had we shot better it would have been more, but isn’t that always the case? Either way, this property has a knack for producing some great, mature late season birds around this time of year, and these ones were spectacular.

From there we bombed our way down to Kansas, retracing our steps from last season. I have no doubt we’ll range around a lot more this time around, but I wanted to reap the rewards of last years learning and try to get us into some birds right away. We are going to be hunting around some high midday heat for these first two weeks, and as such I’ve spent some of our initial days driving a lot and hunting in measured fashion. It’s worked well though, we’ve had great opportunities on each day, and I’ve able to meet my “Bird-a-day” goal each time.

One obstacle I didn’t anticipate finding was standing crops. This isn’t a bad thing, as it means we’ll be able to hunt ‘new’ covers that haven’t received pressure as they get harvested, but conversely there are places right now that we can’t hunt that likely have lot’s of pheasant and quail in them. I’ve heard some other hunters around speaking about low bird numbers and poor success rates. I don’t have a wealth of historical information to make my own assessments about that, but honestly I think the bird numbers right now are just fine, and the standing crop element is just concealing many of them. Personally, I’ve stuck to the recipe that worked well for us last time around; hunting prairie grass with adjacent¬†harvested¬†fields. We have you to encounter and piece of land without birds in it. Certainly some pieces have had less and some more, but if you are working the fields right and staying in a favorable wind, the pheasants are there. I haven’t specifically tried to target any bob-white quail yet, but we’ve flushed six covey of them as well in pursuit of pheasants. Each covey was also quite large, so my thoughts would be they are fairing well too. Our first three days afield here have all been successful. Day one we got one pheasant, day two brought us a pair of bachelors and a quail, and day three we got another single rooster. Some brief scouting didn’t show too many ducks in the area quite yet, so we’ll probably be upland focused until we see some more trickle in. If you’ve never hunted Kansas, I don’t know if I can recommend it enough for an upland hunter. It’s what I would call a very hunt-able state for your average DYI hunter, the communities here are super friendly, and it’s a just a dang fun place to follow a dog around.

Closing Run

It took eleven days of antibiotics, antiseptic wipes, wound cleaning and bed rest for Watson’s wound to fully heal closed. If there’s a silver lining to having an injured bird dog in the middle of October, it was that he was able to heal up just in time to give us a final six day run before the opener of Minnesota’s firearm deer season. In general that spells the end of our time in the grouse woods. The influx of hunters over the weekends is extreme, and even finding places to hunt over the week can be a challenge sometimes. I put together a small plan to hunt some new promising spots, our top favorites, and to pace out the field hours in a way to keep Watson from re-injuring himself and maintain his endurance over the stretch. I decided that plan would essentially be hunting only six hours each day, starting around late morning or even noon, and then hunting until sundown. Hunting ruffed grouse in the middle of the day isn’t always the best plan, as they move around very little and can be hard for dogs to locate during those hours, but it was going to work best for us. Our first day would be spent basically running up and down forest roads, allowing Watson to run big and wide to blow off his pent up energy while simultaneously keeping him out of thick and heavy cover, where risk of injury to his freshly healed wound was more likely. It worked pretty well.20181028_095020.jpg

The first cover was an old standby of ours. In fact we had already hunted it earlier with Jason and his two labradors. It’s a pretty simple place to hunt, it’s a big road, and the good hunting spots that are off the main road are very easily walk-able two tracks, tree lines, and clearing edges. Watson was running like his feet were on fire, and by the end of our brisk walk we had moved a good number of grouse, and even a woodcock. I connected on one of the big birds and the timberdoodle, and after two hours we had two birds, Watson’s mind was at peace again, and I decided to call it a day with our small victory and having got back out there.

Our next day the plan would be similar, albeit I decided we would try some new covers that I had been meaning to investigate. Our first choice was empty, and after a short walk from the van I was able to see the cover that looked liked it would hold birds disappeared faster than anticipated, so we bailed and moved to our second option. That one was better, it was your typical, picturesque grouse cover. Young aspens, intermixed conifers, some small water sources that all butted up against a clear-cut from a couple of years ago. It had seven residents, and gave a good scare to three of them, but they were either bullet proof or faster than I was.

Feeling both relieved to be back in the grouse woods, and frustrated at my shooting incompetence, I took us to another cover on the ‘to-do’ list. This one was just as perfect in terms of cover type, but was a little bit cozier and would let us get up into the thick of it with the birds more. The ones we encountered in the previous spot were very skittish, and I was hoping that hunting them in a denser location would let Watson work them better. We made our way down an over grown four wheeler trail, which eventually stalled out into a small patch of cedars that was surrounded by aspens and dead fall. We worked in a circle around the cedar patch, and my plan paid off. Watson found four birds in just a short ten minutes, and I connected on the first, second, and fourth of them. It was a pretty exciting few moments, and after taking a pause to enjoy the moment, I decided that trio would end the day for us. We had been afield for four hours by then, and three birds is a pretty good day for any grouse hunter, so with Watson on heel we made our way back to the van to stay on schedule and continue our week. Our next day would be similar, as we tried a few more new spots, albeit we didn’t find much. A small handful of flushes, some mixed feelings about my location choices, but by the end of it I was able to connect on a young grouse that broke off from a group of three that all flushed together from a small patch of young white pines.

Then would come the day I had been saving all week, we would hunt our favorite spot on last time. As tempting as it was to run back there the first day we could, I decided I would leave it alone until the middle of the week, giving the birds in there time to relax from any weekend pressure they might have received. I actually had driven past it each of the last three days, and never once saw another vehicle at the entrance to it, so I was pretty sure we would have a nice time in there. It’s hard to say exactly what makes this one place great, other than that it always has birds, and it’s cover mix is incredibly diverse. You could spend a full day hunting every square inch of it, and you’d find slightly different cover types all over. There’s one other aspect to it that makes it’s bird production great, but that’s my secret, and I’m not sharing. We spent about four hours in there that day, working every back tree line, clearing edge, aspen patch and conifer stand. We flushed big mature drummers back by the swamps, and couple of social gatherings in the more typical grouse cover. By the time the dust settled, we had flushed seventeen grouse. I only fired at four, and only connected on two. It’s just as well though, as that means those others will be there for the future.

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As I was taking our end-of-the-hunt picture with Watson and his trophies I had to realize that I might not see this place for a long while. My gypsy-hunting life style has two potential future paths before it, both very different, and both will likely not have me in Minnesota during our favorite month next year. It’s likely we’ll still get to visit this place, although we’ll miss it in it’s greatest glory, and with that in mind I was more grateful than usual for our harvest from it, and our walk back to the van felt a little bitter sweet.

Our last two days afield I spent hunting closer to Duluth. There were a lot of places I hadn’t checked in with yet in our time here, and although they aren’t the greatest bird producers I still wanted to hunt in them for old times sake. Our Thursday afield we found some decent numbers, but they were professional birds highly adept in the art of hunter evasion, and it took thirteen flushes before I pulled the trigger. Thankfully it was a good shot, Watson had given me one of those perfect flushes right down the chute that you damn well better make when you get them. I did, but I almost didn’t. The cover in this spot was a little more mature, which allows the birds to hit their full aerial speed faster, and he was rocketing down the tree gap in a hurry. I actually switched the barrel selector on my gun to my tighter choke pattern and bore down in an attempt to make one good shot. It made contact at a solid forty (possibly more) yards, and the bird sailed down all the way to the end of the path setting down in the blanket of leaves like a crashing helicopter. As such, I was treated to the rare sight of getting to watch Watson make a full speed, retrieve on a ruffed grouse of about a hundred yards. It was pretty cool.

That awesome sight would be likely be our last grouse in Minnesota for the year. Our next day out was light on flushes, and I never even fired a shot. It’s just as well though, we went out for six days straight and were fortunate enough to harvest a bird in five those, making for a pretty solid closing week for our time here. This weekend belongs to the deer hunters, and we might sneak out for a morning or two before we head south for the season. In fact, as we were driving back to Duluth, I came to the realization that that day was only our second day afield this year without a harvest, the other being our day out ptarmigan hunting in Alaska. Our next week here in Duluth will be mostly catching up with friends and family before we head out, tidying up a couple of van things, and then it’s off to our next stop. See you in a couple weeks Kansas!

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As fun as a hole in your leg

The weather struggles have continued for us a bit since our last update. The wind and rain was so bad for a couple of days it caused some record damage along the shores of Lake Superior, and made any hope of getting into the woods sound absolutely miserable. We spent one day of lighter rain driving around some unexplored areas, mostly just to expand our huntable covers list in that area. I did get us out of the van for about 30 minutes during a splendid little reprieve in the rain. I had driven by a patch of cover that looked just too good to pass up, and it was barely drizzling out at that time, so I suited up and let Watson tear around for a bit. We moved a few grouse and I managed to bag one, but the rain resumed as soon as we reached the back end of the treeline, and by the time we got back to the van I was rather soaked.

 

After that bird though it was time for my friends wedding down in St. Paul. I decided I’d make it a little bit more of an “efficient” trip for us, and headed down a day early so we could have a day at my favorite little duck pond in southern Minnesota. My uncle has a small family farm about an hour south of the Minneapolis/St.Paul area, and it has a pair of ponds buried in the back of his corn fields that can provide some of the best duck shooting I’ve ever had. I’m the only person who hunts there, and I intentionally leave them alone for the first couple of weeks during the waterfowl season so the local birds can find it and get used to landing in there. My friend Jason and his two labradors joined me again, as well as a mutual friend who we both knew from the hunt club. One of the best parts about a spot like this is that you don’t need to do much to get the birds to come in. We put out 13 decoys and 2 spinning wing decoys, and waited for the show to start.¬†DSC02268.JPG

When I say show, man oh man was this one a show. We had a nice flock of teal come in early, and after we gave it a good scare the three of us settled in just in time for an assault of wood ducks that was absolutely incredible. For every duck Watson and I hadn’t seen up north, we would see in the next hour. They came into the pond in groups ranging from just a pair to as many as a couple dozen at a time, and even as we shot and dropped some into the water, they would circle away only to come back in to land again moments later. There were a lot of teal mixed in with them as well, and in the foray we added a few of those to our bag. So determined were these birds that at one point all three dogs were in the water on a retrieve, and we watched as they landed nearly on top of their heads, swam around for a moment, and exploded back into the air once they realized what they had done. Just as we had finished collecting our harvest and the wood ducks had finally given us a reprieve, we had a large flock of mallards drop in on us like helicopters. The three of us were busy talking and counting our birds to keep track of our limits and what we could shoot, as a result we didn’t see these ducks until they were landing on us. I was the only shooter to connect on a bird, and as soon as the dogs had it back in the blind a fresh round of teal were upon us again. We cut loose one more volley, bagged two more birds, and then stopped to take inventory once again. We were pretty close to our limits, and we all decided we should take the dogs around the pond edge to check for any crippled birds before we shot any more. This was the right choice. Jason and I did a lap starting starting on opposite sides, and each dog found a single cripple. This brought us to within one bird of our 18 bird, three man limit. We couldn’t shoot any more wood ducks as we had harvested our limit on those already. It didn’t take long for one last group of teal to come in and with one final shot, we were all done for the day.DSC02271

The next two days would be dedicated to wedding festivities, which were also an absolute blast. I got to hang out with all my best friends, eat and drink way too much, and sleep it off in a fancy neighborhood. I spent the two days after the wedding driving to Missouri and back as part of the looming job scenario, and before I headed back up to the Duluth area I figured I’d spend one more morning back at the pond. We camped out in my uncles driveway that Tuesday night, and set out with great hopes at five o’clock in the morning. I kept the same small decoy setup, although I didn’t have the spinning wing decoys as those were Jason’s. In hindsight I think they would have helped a bit after comparing the way the birds worked differently, but it’s no matter. Watson and I had a pretty nice morning, we picked up three more woodies, a beautiful mature mallard, and we even had a goose drop in! It’s good that we got what we did, as it would turn out to be our last morning afield for at least a week, possibly two.

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Somehow during those five retrieves, my dog put a hole in his leg. He didn’t show any signs of it while there was hunting to be done (typical him), but as soon as I called it a day and got up to bring in the decoys, his body language sent up every red flag we’ve developed over our years together. I rushed over to him and gave him a full inspection, and after a quick minute I found it. On the inside of his right rear leg he had suffered a puncture wound the went all the way through and into the small body cavity back there. I gave it as thorough an inspection as I could there. He didn’t seem to have any severe trauma, no foreign objects lodged in there, just a whole about the size of my thumb that had already become all swollen and infected. So we rushed back to the van, I cleaned it up, and we headed back to Duluth. A stop at the vet in the morning confirmed what I had found. Nothing had gotten in there and there was no damage aside from the hole itself. It had become very infected, likely a result from the lovely pond water he was swimming in. We left with a bevy of antiseptic wound cleaning tools and full two weeks of antibiotics, and the knowledge that we would be sidelined until it closes up. After a few days I can report that the infection is long subsided, and he walks around as if it doesn’t hurt at all, so I’m hopeful that as soon as it heals over we can get back out there.

After a few long days moping around my buddies house, he and I took his Vizlsa out for a full spin on a picturesque Saturday. Vixen (his dog) is only three, and full of natural drive and potential. My friend knows that, and he knows he hasn’t gotten out enough, a fact he laments every year during the winter after the grouse season has already passed. I think he had the idea that we were getting out for a typical little couple hour hunt close to town, but he also said “you’re driving man, we can go wherever”. Sucker.

I had a different plan, so I drove us over an hour to my favorite grouse cover, intent on getting his dog into more birds then she could handle. It took a bit for us to get into the right stuff, but it turned into a damn good day for the little girl. We worked hard to keep her in the best cover, and once we put one on the ground for her the on switch was flipped. She went from an excited dog who was running for the sake of running, to an excited dog hunting objectives and searching out her quarry. By the end of the day we moved 14 grouse, 1 woodcock, and bagged four for little brown dog. In the past, and first part of this outing, Vixen has never had the staunchest point, but by the end of the day she was starting to lock up when she felt she had her birds pinned as well. She’s always been a decent bird finder but on this day she really took it to a new level. My friend was outright glowing, I was happy for them both, and it was a one of those days I think we’ll talk about for a long time.

 

Watson’s wound is going to really hold the show on our next week. The knucklehead has, for the second season in a row, hurt himself during some of the best weather of the season (it’s downright beautiful out now). Such is life with hunting dogs though. All we can do now is rest and medicate, hoping it’ll close up soon. If it takes too long I might sneak that little Vizlsa out of the house when nobody is watching.

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