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.

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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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October Groov’n

After we emerged from our trip into the BWCA, Watson and I took a day off to gather our gear and rest up a bit, and then we got right to it. Late September and the month of October is the greatest time to be in the grouse woods in Minnesota, and we had no time to waste. I didn’t have much of a plan, no direct intentions on which covers to hit and which to avoid, just the burning need to get out there. Having spent the summer not in Minnesota, I was unable to do my usual round of scouting adventures, so we’d just have to get out there and see what we found. It would turn out that our usual favorites hadn’t changed much, and a couple of hopeful coverts had grown up enough to support some birds own there own as well.

I like to start our seasons on a specific trail. It’s the place where Watson got his first ever grouse, which was his first ever wild bird, and it always has residents year round. It’s a simple forest road that is just barely outside of Duluth. It get’s a lot of traffic from other hunters, but I don’t think many hunters with dogs hit it, as the birds we encounter rarely behave like an over-pressured quarry. I’ve been here so many times I could probably give tours with a blindfold on, and at 8:00 am on a Friday we were there at the rusted and faded yellow gate, starting our sixth grouse season in Minnesota together. It went well, not even ten minutes from the van we ran head on into a couple a grouse and a half dozen (or so) of woodcock, and we were on the board.

 

 

 

From there we hunted another covert nearby, a small “pocket cover”, which only held one grouse that gave us the slip. I decided to head way up north from there and camp near a favorite river of mine (que up your best van by the river jokes), with the intention of doing a sort of exploratory duck hunt in the morning. I feared the cold fronts that rolled through while we were in the BWCA would have scared most of the resident waterfowl south, but there was only one way to be sure. The river itself is a very large waterway with a lot of wild rice in it, and has a few major lakes nearby that birds use to roost and loaf around. If there was anything flying in the area I would at least see it up and moving around. We got up at 4:00 am, loaded the boat and off we went into the darkness. We didn’t see anything. We had a pair of ring-necks give us a fly-by right near shooting light, and that was it. No ducks, didn’t even hear a goose…Watson was less then impressed. We did get to see a pair of moose on our way through however, which is always a delight in Northern Minnesota.

 

 

 

Having confirmed my suspicions, it was clear we would be very upland focused for the forth-coming weeks. If some new waterfowl noticeably moved in we’d happily set out after them, but basically it was upland work for us. I don’t mind really, with the looming job opportunity in the back of my mind, I wanted to get as much Minnesota as I could, and to me that means time in the grouse woods. The spot we had camped in was right in the heart of one of my favorite grouse and woodcock areas too.

Our upland foray that day would be good, but would come with a big scare that every hunter with dogs up here fears; Wolves. Before I give you the brief story I want to say that I have no ill-will towards wolves. Many hunters have lots to say about wolves, but my personal feeling is that they are part of the natural landscape and they belong out there. When you go grouse hunting with a dog in wolf country, you understand that there is always that risk of running into them. I regularly see wolf scat in many of the places I hunt, and have never had a face-to-face encounter. I carry a 9mm pistol with hard cast bullets on my side in case I ever need to defend my dog from them, but I hope that day never comes.

We were hunting our way down an old and long abandoned logging road, like we often do. We had harvested a nice woodcock and a grouse already, and were working into the furthest back corner of the covert where the grouse numbers are usually the thickest. It’s a point where the “road” ends and dissolves into the remnants of a two-track, and that’s where we saw them. It was a windy day, and it was blowing directly from our side, and as I replay the scene in my head I don’t believe the pack could either smell or hear us at all, as they looked very startled when we all saw each other. The lead wold was pure white, with two mottled brown and black wolves behind it, and had a pure black one emerge from it’s flank as they departed. There was about sixty yards between me and them, and Watson was only about twenty yards ahead of me. He headed my blood curdling scream to come back to me and heal with perfection. I had instinctively transferred my Beretta into my left hand and drawn my pistol the moment I realized their presence as well. As I said they ran off immediately, except for the lead wolf. It stood it’s ground for a few moments waiting for the others to clear off behind it, and just stared me right in the eyes. I kept my side arm trained on it, and breathed a sigh of relief when it turned and sauntered off with the rest of it’s pack. We walked out with Watson on heal the entire way, and called it a day after that.

 

 

 

We would spend the next few days doing some minimalist duck hunting on an old favorite lake of mine. I spotted a pair of geese and some late night flights moving around it, so I decided to balance a couple of days out to mitigate the mileage on Watson. We picked up a single wood duck one morning, and a wood duck and ring-neck the following morning. Not record setting days by any means, but we kept the decoy spread and corresponding work light, so I was happy with it.

 

 

 

From there it’s just been Minnesota as usual. We’ve spent the days wandering down endless forest roads and two tracks, enjoying our old favorites and finding some new ones. The bird numbers this year have been good as well. Every cover we’ve hunted has had a resident of some sort, and we’ve had no shortage of opportunities. My friend Jason drove up from the Twin Cities with his two labradors for a day and a half of hunting, and with all three dogs on the ground we moved piles of grouse and woodcock. His dogs are pretty awesome bird finders as well, and the trio all have little bit different style, which makes for a pretty dynamic group to set afield with. We picked up a few a grouse, a lot of timberdoodles, I almost got hit in the face with a tree that I shot in half…pretty good times.

 

 

 

The weather the last few days has been a chore to hunt around. It’s been raining non-stop, and is still a little gross out today. In fact the weather hasn’t been great at all since we got back into the state. I used one rain day to get my second solar panel mounted on the roof of the van, and it’s made a world of difference for my electrical system. I’ve got a couple of small canoe tweaks I should get done during this weather as well, but I ‘ll be putting them off for at least a week still. The wedding that corresponds to the BWCA trip is this coming Sunday, so we’ll be down in the Minneapolis area for at least a few days. I’m going to tray and sneak in some waterfowl action Saturday morning, but those plans are still fluid. I’m hopeful we’ll get a few hours of sunshine though before we head down for the festivities.

 

 

 

From one Wilderness to Another

A lot has happened in Watson and I’s vanlife over the past twenty days. We harvested one last bird in Alaska, Drove all the way across Canada en route back to Duluth, packed up 5 our friends and headed into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness for five days…We’ve covered some ground! So let’s take it from the top. Literally, Alaska is way up there.

Our last round in Alaska was basically filled with work, with the exception of one day. I had one day off in my last week, and Tyler didn’t have to work until the evening, so we made our way for one more little grouse ending. I took us to an area I had scouted and briefly hunted, hoping the recent dryer conditions would let us get further into the cover than I had been able to so far. It took about an hour before we got into birds,  but by the end of our little trip we had moved well over a dozen grouse, shot a lot of shells, and somehow managed to bring one to bag for Watson. It was a nice little end to my time up there, and not but three days later I would be on the road bound for Duluth MN. I had to get back in short order to put together a five day trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area with the rest my best friends, and there were a lot of miles to cover.

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Our Canadian road trip started with an incredibly frustrating experience that wasted an entire day of travel time. Canada felt I shared enough similarities (same first and last name, as well as birth year) with a convicted criminal that I had to go back to Tok Alaska, have the Alaska State Troopers run a background check for me, and after a lot of phone calls to Canadian Border Intelligence I was allowed to continue. With that little hiccup I had to go full road warrior for the first few days, which means any free minute not sleeping or putting gas in the van was spent driving. The drive down through the Yukon and Northern British Columbia was just as awesome as on the way up. The drive out of B.C., through Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba was far less scenic. It’s beautiful as well, just dramatically flat when compared to the mountain scenery I had just left.

 

I got back by Thursday. This gave Reed and I the full day we needed to get all the gear together for our BWCA trip. Our friend Dan is getting married in two weeks, and this was his bachelor party. He loves his home state of Minnesota, and in all the years here he had never been into the BWCA. So we stuffed the Van full of all our gear, put the Bro-Show in Reeds Vehicle, and made our way north to Seagull Lake at the end of the Gunflint Trail.

 

In short, our trip was fun, but hard. All of us on this trip love the BWCA, but it pushed us pretty hard this time. We all agreed that this was the worst/harshest weather any of us had experienced during a BWCA trip. Every day was pretty cold, the wind never really stopped, and it even snowed a tiny bit the first night. Our plans to fish and grouse hunt were severely handicapped and basically eliminated by the weather. We got out a little bit and the most of what we could. on our second to last day Reed and I seized some nice weather to portage over to a couple of lakes and found some better success. At the end of it, Dan had a great time, as we all did, and the celebratory burgers and beer in Grand Marais were just a little bit tastier this time.

 

Now that we’re back in Minnesota and out of the BWCA, Watson and I will be settling into our main Grouse and Waterfowling groove for here for the rest of October. Sort of. During the last day I was in Alaska I got a call from some friends of mine about a professional opportunity that may arise for me. It’s a line of work I’ve been trying to get into for some time, and there’s a fair chance that time could be coming soon. I had every intention of being a Birdvan-bumb and bar tending in Alaska for at least a couple of more seasons, but now that’s all a bit up in the air. I have the feeling that every day we spend afield in the coming weeks could be extra special, as I might have to go back to working like a real person at any minute. I know what you might be wondering; why would I? The #vanlife is awesome and the life people dream of! Well it is awesome, and I’ve been doing it for a year and a half already. My van is vehicle for me to take Watson and I on crazy fun adventures. The potential job would be very lucrative and would only change the way in which we had to do it, and in the long run would provide us more opportunity to be more flexible over the coming years. As of right now though, it’s a just a few sent emails full of ‘if’s and maybes’, so we’ll hold the course in the van until the time comes to change.DSC02247

 

Double Time

Over the last two weeks up here I’ve felt like I need twice as much time in every day as there is to be had. My work schedule has gotten more demanding with the close of the season eliminating some of the work force, and trying to squeeze time in to escape on our upland adventures has become tricky. Working full time and chasing bird dogs full time is tough. Watson and I have made some good outings though. Our first since the opening weekend up here required a lot of driving, but then again so does everything in Alaska.

Our mission? Ptarmigan. The state bird of Alaska was next up on our hit list. I know very little about ptarmigan hunting, but with what knowledge I had gained I set us off for a two day trip along the Denali Highway, which essentially a massively long dirt road that cuts right through the heart of nowhere in Alaska. The odds were sightly against us in this one, as ptarmigan country is vast, open land, which is incredibly hard to hunt for one guy and a labrador. We spent an entire day hunting four distinctly different areas, and came up empty in all of them. In fact, we didn’t even see a ptarmigan. In reflection I’m pretty sure we were in the right habitat in our first couple of spots and just came up unlucky. That’s how it rolls with upland hunting though, and I still got to explore and incredible area of Alaska that I had not seen before.

 

What was supposed to be our second day was shut down by weather. It was lightly raining when Watson and I went to sleep, and we woke to a downpour. I drove the van to a high point in the road where I could get some cell signal, and consulting the weather radar put an end to our adventure that weekend. I got to see every mile of that highway though, and our next trip up there will be more focused as a result.

The workload I mentioned earlier kept us out of the woods for quite a while after that. I managed to sneak out one evening for some fishing and caught my first ever Coho salmon on the incoming tide. I also took my friend Tyler on a fishing adventure that may have scared him away from fishing with me ever again without supervision, but neither of us died so it couldn’t have been that bad.

 

After what seemed like an eternity of days serving an infinite amount of drinks, there was finally a break on the horizon. I had a Wednesday off, and so did Tyler, and we both wanted to get out after some grouse. A few text messages later and our friend Stuart was joining us as well for his first taste of upland hunting. Stuart has never hunted anything before actually, and I love bringing first timers out. We only had the day to drive out, hunt, and drive back, so I brought us to an area where Watson and I had found success finding spruce and ruffed grouse.

We started up working down a simple two track, then used a downed tree to cross a stream, followed a wash up a tree line, and finally cut into a clearing we spied that had a good look to it. The cover along the entire walk was extremely thick, and although it could have held birds, we would have been unlikely to have done anything about it if we had found them. As soon as we followed Watson into that clearing though the game was a foot. A pair of black spruce trees were bracketed by some immature pines, right up on the edge of the clearing. I couldn’t see him, but I heard Watson turn back on his path twice, his movements quickening, and I told Tyler and Stuart to get ready. I couldn’t tell you how many spruce grouse there were, but they all took the air at the same time. I took on a low crossing shot out to my left, and followed with a high towering bird straight in front of me. Tyler had taken one in a clearing the trees as well. Stuart then moved to a spot with a better opening in the trees, and as Watson tore around the ground trying to find every last bird scent, Stuart was able to take his first ever bird. This is the third of my friends who has taken their first ever bird while they were out hunting with Watson and I. Tyler is one of them, Reed is the other. Both of them have become big fans of upland hunting, Reed has a dog of his own now and Tyler has one on the Way, and I hope we’ve made another recruit. We also learned that Watson is a big fan of chasing salmon in shallow streams.

 

From there we hunted a gravelly bank along a larger river near by. What we found was (rough guess) 6 ruffed grouse, all of which were better than us that day. As friends often do when upland hunting, we had begun bullshitting while Watson kept hunting, and I was reminded of a lesson about always paying attention to your dog. Even though we didn’t harvest any, I was super excited to see them. Our ruffed grouse encounters so far had been just a couple of birds here and there, so finding them in a greater concentration in the cover type I was hoping to find them was huge for us. Also I know they’ll all be there for next time, and this area is just a short (by Alaska standards) drive from Anchorage.

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Sadly, that outing could very well be the last for us up here this season. Watson and I will be leaving town September 15th, heading straight back to Duluth MN for a another fun adventure before we settle into our full season groove. I’m hopeful I’ll be able to get us out one more time, but with the recent work scheduling it just might not happen. It’s just as well though, our summer up here has been awesome, and we’ll be back next spring to stay for an even longer time.

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It’s Go Time Watson

We drove five and a half hours after work last Thursday into the interior of Alaska to start off our second season in the van. It may not have been the reasonable choice, but it’s the one I made, because I wanted to wet our feet in the awesome habitat I found scouting earlier in the summer. Sadly our time afield here in Alaska will be limited by the fact that I also have to work, so we’ll be making short one and two day hunts like this (like normal hunters?) until we head back to the lower 48. There we were though deep in the middle of Alaska on Watson and I’s fifth season together, setting out after our favorite birds (ruffed grouse, the one true king of the uplands), hoping I had gotten us into the right place with all this drive time.DSC02015

What we found was early season conditions much like we would normally find during the opening weekend back in Minnesota. The woods were still green with leaves alive and well on the trees, the birds were sparse, and the sun was hot. Early season ruffed grouse hunting is basically the worst time to hunt these awesome birds, but we can’t help ourselves. We started our day extensively working an area managed by RGS for grouse habitat, but came up empty after three hours. The heat was worse than I had anticipated, and Watson was showing some signs of fatigue already. I gave us both a lunch break, and brought us to an area I had found that looked as though it would have some more water (which the birds need as much as dogs and people). We worked in along an interior edge where the brushy cover adjoined the aspens, and although we didn’t have any flushes I was more optimistic with what we found. For our journey back I moved us further into the bush until we found the line where the aspens adjoined some old growth spruce trees, which provided a lot of shade and a damp forest floor.

That was the magic move, we hadn’t turned back for more than five minutes when Watson locked on and the game was afoot. When you haven’t seen your dog go bird crazy in months, it’s hard to explain the feeling of that first bird of the season. Focused, is probably the best way to describe myself, as to not miss what could be our only opportunity of the day. It took a bit as the bird held extremely tight in cover that I don’t think a mosquito could get into, but as Watson attacked the brush with his enthusiasm the young grouse took flight strait into the air, and just like that our season was officially underway.DSC02006

We would work one more small cover before our day was over, and it yielded a spruce grouse that held so tight I thought Watson was going to retrieve it without me firing the gun. I would have loved to stay out there the entire weekend, but Watson and I were both whipped from the heat, there was a long drive to make back to Anchorage, and I had to work the next two days. So I fed us both, cleaned the birds, and rolled back to the real world for two days before we would resume our opening round.

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The next round would consist of weather opposite from what we started with. The forecast was for essentially non-stop rain, ranging from light sprinkles to heavy downpours. This time I made a more practical choice, and headed us about an hour north of Anchorage to a region that is known to have some ruffed grouse in it, as well as lots of spruce grouse. Some years ago the Alaska Department of Fish and game trapped and relocated around 500 ruffed grouse from the interior regions of Alaska and transplanted them broadly into this region. I have made a good acquaintance of a fellow uplander who works in the ADF&G department, and he assured me there were some to be found in this region.

Our first spot was like hunting in a jungle it was so thick and green. We were working what I think was a long abandoned or unused four wheeler trail, but it was so over grown I couldn’t tell. It was the sort of cover where you could find a grouse anywhere, but you would have to be blessed to actually be able to see it. After a short bit of slugging around, Watson gave the perfect presentation of how a flushing dog can be a great advantage in the uplands (at times). He got birdy in a patch of Devils Club, a plant with giant broad leaves who’s stems are covered in needle like thorns. This was all mixed up with some immature aspens and a a treacherously uneven forest floor. If you had a dog on point and had to walk into it to flush the bird, it would be miserable if achievable at all. At bird height the Devils Club is also quite open, so I imagine a grouse could easily run out from under a point as well. For us it was none the matter though, as Watson barreled through it fueled by fresh scent, and caused the grouse to flush nearly strait in the air as it attempted to clear the shelter it had been hiding in. I the world of ruffed grouse hunting, these are about as easy a shot as you’ll get, and I made it count (although I’ve certainly missed many in the past).

I was super excited about finding this bird, as it meant we could find some ruffies closer to Anchorage for when our time is limited. We’ll never find them here in the same numbers as we will in the interior, but they are here to be had if you get it right. This area is also in the midst of a decent coho salmon run, so we might make a few combo trips in the next weeks. We tried to this time as well, but some terrible rain and lack of my patience to fish in the downpour made for a brief and fruitless outing at one river. After I changed into some drier clothes and made a late breakfast, Watson and I took off for another spot with a long and winding gravel road. We were borderline road hunting, but I had never been to this stretch, so we were half driving to scout, and I figured we would get out and walk and tree lines or trails that looked good to us.

We only made it into one cover. It was a pretty typical looking four wheeler trail, with mixed cover all along each side. I hunt a lot more of these in the early season than I do later on, simply out of practicality. When the trees are still fully covered in leaves, the visibility inside the brush is essentially non-existent, so we stick to the main course and punch into the sticks when Watson’s birdiness dictates.20180814_143030

We were only out for about an hour. Spruce Grouse are not renowned for the cunning, and back in our previous seasons in Northern MN we had only encountered a few over the years. They were quite dumb. It turn’s out that a well seasoned bird dog is perhaps too much an advantage over them in the woods as well. We harvested four birds in a roughly a thirty minute span. They were all individuals, but my guess is they were originally in a covey together and had only recently dispersed. They all flushed well and presented decent wing shots, but they were not nearly the challenge that a ruffed grouse or pheasant would present. I tried to explain this to Watson, but he didn’t seem to understand my point. So after an incredibly exciting half hour we made our way back to the van with a heavy vest and a very satisfied labrador.DSC02053.JPG

With that our opening weekend came to a close. I’m very happy with how it went. These are the first grouse I’ve ever harvested outside of Minnesota, and to be able to come out here, scout a bit, and find success on every outing feels pretty good. If the weather plays out right I’ll have a different adventure planned for us next week, but time will tell, as there are still lots of salmon swimming about too.

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