New Year, Success Found

As the calendar turned its last page on 2015 our dismal success took a needed swing in the right direction.  The first two months of this year’s bird season was a struggle at best and had me shaking my head and my fists more than I want to admit.  Dog work was a spotty mix of good and bad and my shooting prowess was at an all time low.   We did have some pretty good hunts early on, considering it always seemed to be 70 degrees and windy.  But we could never quite put it all together.  For the majority of the dogs on this years team it was to be their first year hunting wild birds.  As the dogs struggled with poor scenting conditions and learning not to crowd birds, I failed to be disciplined enough to pass up shots on mishandled birds.  To make it worse, I struggled to connect the little dots on the birds that were handled correctly.  It was shaping up to be the worst season I have ever had.

How can things change so abruptly, I haven’t a clue.  I am still having issues with being cross eye dominant and my shooting still isn’t what anyone would call good, but things have taken a turn for the better and I am not complaining.  I have come to the conclusion that my expectations were too high and I was hinging my perceived success and failures on bar that was set too high.  I vowed to “just go have some fun” for the remainder of the season and see how things worked out.  Essentially I took the pressure off, both myself and the dogs.  I tried to convince myself that I didn’t care if I missed that easy straight away shot and that if didn’t matter if the dogs bumped, knocked, ran over, or totally missed a covey of birds.  Of course I did care, but I had to pretend it didn’t matter.  And in the end it really didn’t.  I lowered my standards and both my performance and the dogs started to get better.

I had a few short, local hunts at the end of the year and they were good for both the dogs and I.  We didn’t find a lot of birds but we did get some birds pointed and a few tumbled.  The biggest success was releasing the tension.  “It was the start of a new season,” I told myself.  Let the dogs make mistakes and learn from them.  Let the birds to the teaching. And for God’s sake, don’t shoot at mishandled birds.  It doesn’t matter if the only covey we see the entire day gets a free pass.


Rock Bottom?

Is this rock bottom?

I feel my season is turning into a full blown disaster.  I imagine it is like a drug addict stuck in a revolving cycle. Perpetually moving and still going nowhere. There are times when the euphoria sets in and times when I want to shoot the dog. Of course I didn’t and never will, but you get the point. And just like an addict stuck in that predictable cycle, I know I cause most of the problems, and I just can’t help myself. I can’t stop.

So, what is my problem exactly? I…. I …. I shoot at birds that aren’t handled correctly. There I said it. I can’t make myself stop. I do not have the discipline to choose good dog work over shooting at a bird. Even though I so desperately want great dog work. And then, I get extremely frustrated at the dogs (and myself) for continuing to mishandle birds. WTF? Even I don’t get it. Even I know it doesn’t make sense. If you want the dog to learn to handle birds correctly, don’t reward the dog and shoot, or often in my case shoot at, mishandled birds.

So on top of one of the poorest shooting exhibitions I have ever put on, I now am rewarding the dogs for bad habits and flat out knocking. The shooting, has its own set of obstacles. I used to be a good to better than good wingshooter. That is back in the day, when I lived in bird country and hunted every chance I had. That was before marriage, and children, and work obligations.  When I was in a target rich environment. Sure I hunted hard and had to work for the birds but I had a lot of real life practice. I have slowly gotten progressively worse in the shooting department. So what gives? My eyes. I am one of the minority it seems as I am no longer right eye dominant. So, I am currently shooting right handed and am left eye dominant. So either I close one eye or I need to learn to shoot lefty.  Or can this be fixed with more focus and practice.  We will see how this plays out…

Eye dominance test: Look at a object in the distance. Make a triangle with your hands and center the object in the triangle.  Then close your shooting eye (dominant) eye.  Do you still see the object?

eye test

Now back to the dogs. I can’t say that all is lost. There have been some bright rays of sunshine that have shone through, even in the gloomiest of storms.  For the most part the dogs are doing there job well enough.  Certainly better than the average dog.  They hunt hard and handle well, and that is better than a lot of other dogs I have hunted behind.  Ironhide has had some outstanding pieces of birdwork, and is learning to play the game with ditch chickens quite well. He still stops to flush and has stayed broke several times. Bella, who is a wild bird rookie this year, is starting to find and point her own birds, and she is hunting dead very well, even though she points the dead birds rather than retrieve them to hand. And Luke, the pup that doesn’t know anything, has had the instinctual fire stoked by having a few coveys flush in his face, during some evening road training sessions. But Magic… The most experienced dog on the crew, the oldest dog, has decided that she needs to see every bird she smells. See em’ on the ground, see em’ in the air. She doesn’t care anymore. And what have I done to stop this. Nothing. Nope, I shot, which just rewarded her. But at least she is still does a great job retrieving.  Like I said, I have created most of my own problems.   I have to hunt her alone now, until we fix this issue.

Magic makes the retrieve.


Why is it that I can’t hold off, when I know I shouldn’t shoot? Why can’t I force myself to be disciplined? Am I so amped about shooting birds this year because I didn’t get to hunt much at all last year?  Actually I haven’t hunted much for about 5 years as I had been almost exclusivley training and trialing. Are the dogs pressuring birds too much because I have over worked them on throw downs? Will more exposure on wild birds straighten this out? I can admit that I am puting pressure on myself to kill a lot of birds this year. Why, I don’t know.  Its not like I will starve if I return home with an empty game bag.  I think it impacts both my lack of discipline and my poor shooting. I just find it so damn frustrating that I used to kill so many birds with my old lab/mutt and now I am struggling to scratch a few birds down.

Cooper with Huns and Sharpies.  I miss this dog!

Cooper in Montana

Cooper Huns and Sharptail

A good friend and mentor of mine that has decades more experience than I do told me this, “What you are going through is what we all have to go through at some point. We have to make a decision. We have to decide whether good birdwork is more important, or is killing more important.” My response would be that of course good birdwork is more important, but I know deep down I am a killer. My first 15 years of bird hunting didn’t require all this discipline. If a legal bird got up within range you tried to kill it. End of story. I feel as though it is ingrained in me. Kill any bird that offers a safe shot. It is a real problem for me. I want to stop, but it’s so damned hard.

I have to make the decision now. What do I want more? I want the good work! I am going to have to force myself to walk with an unloaded gun and only shoot properly pointed and handled birds. That is the only way I can do it. But can I even do that? Can I pass up birds that I walk up? Birds that the dogs had nothing to do with. Will I be able to overcome the need to shoot a bird? Will I be happy if I don’t shoot another bird all season? I can’t answer that. It would be disappointing to say the least. But I have made the decision. The dogwork must take precedence.  We shall see if I can stay on the wagon.

There is still hope. There is still time and still some hunts to come. One of which I am looking forward to more than others. Texas. On a ranch where the birds haven’t been hunted for years.

Like I said, “It hasn’t all been bad.”  For the remainder of the season, I think its time to focus on quality work and not the quantity of dead birds.

Ironhide on Point

Turkey Day Hunt

To keep up with Thanksgiving tradition, I managed to squeeze in a half a day of chasing quail.  It was a far cry from the four day weekend spent following birds dogs in quail country that I was hoping for. If nothing else, this season is teaching me, that we don’t always get what we want.  I grew up in pheasant country and Thanksgiving meant several days of chasing tail. Times change. Family move. Decisions have to be made.  So, my options were limited.  I could hunt a half a day before going to visit the family or I could not hunt at all.  Take what you can and give nothing back.

It was a pretty good half day for local standards on public ground.  As luck would have it I flushed a covey while driving to the spot I planned on starting at.  I let the birds settle down for a bit and then turned the dogs loose not far away.  It wasn’t long before both dogs were standing motionless with the wind in their face.  I took a few quick pictures (which look like crap) and then moved in to flush.

Hide Tksgiving 15

Quail exploded and I picked out a bird.  A simple left to right crossing shot.  I fired and the bird started to fall.  I instinctively glanced back left for late flushers, but there were no more birds coming up.  Just as quickly and instinctively, I looked back to the right only to see a poorly flying and clearly hit quail struggling to make it over the first stand of trees at the creek bed’s edge.   I stood there wondering what the hell just happened as I watched feathers drift to the ground.  I thought I had hammered that bird.  I looked and had the dogs search for the bird that should have been dead on the ground, but we finally gave up.  We looked all over the creek bottom but found nothing.  I hate losing birds.  Killing birds never makes me feel bad, except for the times when we know we killed it and can’t find it.  It really bothers me.

After a long search for singles on the other side of the creek that came up empty we moved to a different location.  I turned the dogs loose at the end of a fence line that is home to the Old Faithful covey.  They may need a new name, as we came up empty there as well.  We covered some ground and poked around some likely cover on the way back to the vehicle.  I saw a few hawks soaring over a particular area and decided to check it out.  I have often found birds by targeting areas that the hawks seem fixated on.  The hawks moved off as I started to approach.  The cover on both sides of a wide mowed grass strip looked great.  Hip to head high ragweed with a bunch of warm season grasses mixed in, dotted with a handful of plum thickets.  I wanted to check the thickets on the other side of the mowed strip and started heading to the downwind edge.  Dogs were out front, almost to the first thicket.  I was watching the hawks again, gliding on the wind in the distance.  I wondered if I was fooling myself, by thinking the hawks were hunting quail too.  My eyes fixed on the raptors in the distance, my gun on my shoulder with my hand on the end of the stock, the ground erupted in every direction.  Oh shit, birds, bang, dead bird.  The dogs clearly missed this covey, in ankle high grass no less.  Oh well, it happens.  I never claimed to only shoot pointed birds, and the dogs didn’t miss handle them.  They were just off hunting more likely cover.  We searched for the singles in the head high ragweed but that only produced one bird that offered no shot.  The ragweed was about as good of quail cover as there is.  Bare ground that allows birds to run and five to six foot tall dried stems so thick that its hard to see more than 20 yards.

After making it back to the vehicle I had time for one more walk.  I pulled into an area that I hadn’t hunted in several years.  The cover looked great everywhere so I stuck to the fence row of a ragweed choked,  year old corn stubble field, next to some crp grass.  We covered a multitude of excellent looking cover, bouncing from field edge to fence row, to thickets, to brush piles.  Nothing.  I was getting discouraged and tired.  It was time to give in and head for home.  I swung back around to the original fence row I had started walking and headed for the car.  The dogs out front and to my right and my mind wandering.  The covey blew up right in front of me.  Boiling out from under a small, waist high thicket split by the fence.  As snapped to the right, I saw him standing there in a low spot on the other side of the fence, tail straight in the air, staunch.  How long had he been there?  I don’t know.  I pulled up to shoot but I couldn’t get on a bird that offered a safe shot, as they flushed low and on the other side of the dog.  Finally a late riser busted out and quartered to my left.  About as easy as it gets.  I fire. I miss.  Frustrated, at my shooting, actually at the whole fiasco, we set out tsearched on for singles.   I didn’t see where the bulk of the birds went as I was too busy missing the one bird that went left.  I kept the dogs close and handled them to where I thought the birds would have went to.  I kept loosing sight of the dogs in the tall cover, but I trusted they would be working in the right direction.  I topped over a small terrace in the old corn field, which obviously hadn’t been farmed at all this year, and Bell crossed right in front of me.  She slammed on the breaks and froze.

Bella turkey day

I started digging the camera out of its case.  As I was doing this, I noticed that Hide was on point about 20 yards ahead.  They were obviously pointing different birds.  They were facing opposite directions and couldn’t see each other.  I took a few pictures and then moved in to flush.

Hide turkey day

I didn’t know what to expect as Bella was pointing in the wrong direction for the wind.  I thought she may have run past a bird and didn’t want to move, but she was starring straight ahead, as if she knew was right there.   I flushed for her and produced nothing.  I released her and hustled over to Hide, who hadn’t moved a muscle.  I was sure he had a bird pinned down.  I readied the gun and flushed in front of the motionless dog.  Nothing.  “Little bastards are running on us” I said out loud.  I figured I had just sacrificed a shooting opportunity to get some pictures.   I released Hide and Bella, who was now backing, with the whistle.  Hide took the lead and hit a deer trail with his nose on the ground.  I followed and watched him slam to a stop.  A stop to flush.  Too much pressure.  A single male bob was in the air and I swung and missed.  Five more birds flushed at the shot and I missed again.

Shooting slump continues….

Frustration has set in.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Opening weekend.  The anticipation build up is usually more spectacular that the hunting itself.  This year was probably not going to be any different.  I had been trying to gather as much field intel as I could in the months leading up to November.  I was watching for birds while traveling for work and occasionally running dogs to spot check a few areas.  What I was gathering, was that this year had the makings of a good one.  But, unlike most years, this opener actually held up, at least the bird numbers did.

I have been struggling to get out of bed early for a while now.  I would say this condition has been effecting me for about the last 30 years or so.  But when the morning of the opener comes, it always seems to be a little easier to rise. In fact I think I was awake for an hour before the first chime of the alarm went off.   The plan was to get parked near where I wanted to hunt before sunrise and listen for birds to give away there locations.  As soon as I shut off the ignition and poured steaming coffee out of the thermos, with the windows down, listening, I heard the unmistakable, Bob-White,….Bob-White, whistle.  Not only was I the audience for one choir, I heard several whistlers in different directions.  I was as happy as fat kid in an ice cream parlor.

After collaring the dogs and gearing up, making sure I was carrying enough water.  We set out straight for the covey that I thought was closest.  It didn’t take long and Hide had stopped dead in his tracks. Head and tail held high. Eyes staring forward with a piercing glare.  Now this is the kind of start to a season we dream about.  Just after sunrise, cold, crisp air, and a staunch pointer with birds in front of him.  I circled around him on his right and motioned for my wife to move in from the left.  The little setter, who was, at the time, doing her own thing, decided to come by as if on cue and backed nicely.  As I paralleled him he started to slowly creep.  We were in a little bowl of crp grass.  The covey didn’t have woody cover to duck into so I picked up the pace and moved in front to flush.  Two birds got up and flew directly at my wife.  No shots offered.  Then another step and another bird was up, quartering away.  Easy shot and a clean miss.  %$&(!  At the shot the rest of covey took to flight in every direction.  I emptied the second barrel…. And then I cussed again.

“Okay, fine I missed two gimme shots.  Whatever”.  I thought to myself.  Most of the covey went over the hill.  We’ll just find some singles. Bella, my young setter female,  found and pointed a single and it fell after a rushed, but lucky shot.  That made me feel a little better.  This is her first season and I just shot her first wild bird.  Success is sweet.  The retrieve, well that wasn’t so sweet.  She found the little flapping bird in a dense thicket and then proceeded to leave it lay.  She was off to find more, I guess we have a little work to do there.

We never did find anymore singles and opted to just hunt onward for another covey.  We walked for 20 minutes or so and Hide struck gold again.  I found him pointing on the edge of a plum thicket.  As I was walking in his direction, he started to move and then froze and then moved again.  This proved to be too much for the birds and they lifted.  I was still too far out of shotgun range for a shot.  I thought this would make a good training exercise for him anyway.  He needs to learn to stand his birds even when they are moving away from him.  They didn’t go far.  Maybe 70 yards and then plopped down in another thicket.  I hustled over to the where I thought the birds had landed and before the dogs (who didn’t see where they went) got there, I had walked to far and was standing in the middle of the scattered covey.  The first birds to get up, shot up right behind me and after a wonderful attempt at a 180 to eye the bird that flushed and another one 180 to try spy the second bird I heard flush, they got the best of me.  No shots.  Bella showed up and had a stop to flush as she ran over a bird with the wind at her back.   I pulled up and fired… and it kept on keepin on.  As predicted the remainder of the covey exploded when the shot when off.  I picked out the last bird to go, the late riser of the group.  This time I took my time and settled in.  And… missed for the fourth time of the day.  Yes,  I cussed again…. a lot.

We moved on and found another couple of coveys that Hide pointed nicely.  I managed to get a few shots off and scratched down one more bird.  We worked our way back to the vehicle to water and switch dogs.  It had been a pretty good start to the 2015 season.  Well, at least we were finding birds, even if the shooting was horrendous.

The second walk of he morning didn’t produce much.  I was hunting the third wheel of the dog team solo.  The wind had picked up and the temps had risen considerably.  We hunted towards and then around any water source we could find and then finally decided to head back to the truck after one covey, more crappy shooting, and a few pheasants that tried to out maneuver us.  The two roosters succeeded and the hens used their “I’m a girl, don’t shoot” cards.

That afternoon I made the call to spend the early afternoon driving several hours just to check out an area that I thought would be promising.  This was a risky call.  Spending almost 3 hours driving to only hunt for another 2 1/2.  But it was windy and hot, in the middle of the afternoon and scenting conditions would not favor the dogs.  As the sun was setting, I was glad that I had made the call.  The area that I wanted to check out was doin good in the bird department… doin real good.  I ran the point/setter duo again and we moved several coveys in a relatively small area.  My shooting still sucked, but I was a manage to put a few in the vest.  I thought this area would be good and now I had the boots on the ground info.  We will be back.

We drove all the way back to where we started, and called it a night.  The next morning we where at em early again.  With whistling birds singing to us as we drank our morning coffee.  But this day the whistling birds could not be found.  I was dumfounded and a little pissed, that we could find them.  They sounded like they were right there.  I looked everywhere that I thought they could have been.  We hunted on.  Found nothing on this windy morning.  Switched dogs and headed off.  Magic found and busted covey after covey.  Pointing and then knocking.  I have no effin clue what her deal is… or has been.  All I know is that it made me furious.   She did this a few times on training runs as well.

I just rembered…. A few months ago we did a little warm up session with some stupid pen birds.  There was no wind and she pointed one as she basically ran it over.  Pointed it right under her nose.  Right before she caught it.  Is that it?  Did catching one bird in a training session, screw her up this bad.  Maybe.  Every covey she pointed and flushed she likely saw as she was in a thicket.  She probably saw them running and thought she could catch them.  I dunno.. I am still mad about it.  Hopefully I get this think nipped in the butt quick.

After Magic’s showing I was not very happy and  went back to the truck and got Hide out again.  We hunted our butts off in the wind and didn’t find much.  Shot a rooster and pointed a few more hens.  I was tired and left  a little defeated after piss poor dog work from Magic, and my shooting slump from hell.  We  loaded up and head home.

All in all, it was still a good weekend.  We were bird huntin’ after all.  And there are birds this year.

Temporary Insanity

Temporary insanity is usually a term thrown out there by defense attorneys that know their client is guilty.  I am claiming the same defense strategy, for,… well, everything that I should be doing right now, while I am sitting here counting the days before the opening day kicks off.   Just a few days left to wait.  Just a few days left to run through the mental checklist of the gear that needs loaded, the plans that need to be re-evaluated and then edited again.  Day dreaming about young dogs nailing their first covey.  Re-living the covey rises of the past, and fantasizing  about the great dog work that will be .  I’m sure there are numerous things that I should be doing, but I can’t.  My mind has turned off, switched gears.  Its bird season and not just the early opener trips that we took to the prairie, last month or the month before.  Its bird season here and now.  Every activity that takes up time on the weekend will now be weighed and balanced against the time I could be spending in the field.  On top of that, the weather is actually starting to cool off and it’s not to hot for the dogs anymore.  I can no longer use the scorching hot summer and early fall temps to ease my mind when participating in another activity.  No more telling myself, “Well its too hot to run dogs anyway.”    The weather is right and the season is open.  If there is any, and I mean any, free time, it should be spent following a bird dog.

I guess the average person doesn’t get it.  My wife, whom I love dearly and understands me better than most, doesn’t fully grasp it either.  But she loves me, and I think for that reason lets me go.  Even when there are other things to do and the honey-do list is growing faster than the national deficit, she lets me go.  That’s not to say, that she is happy about it.   I am trying to become her enabler but at this time she is just a casual user of this drug, we call bird hunting.  She’s not quite there yet.  She walks some, when it’s not to hot, or raining, or snowing, or too cold.  She sees what it cost in time and in money, and sees the returns in terms of birds in the bag and on the grill.  She still thinks rationally and it doesn’t add up.  This bird hunting thing is a bad investment.  We feed and care for dogs all year-long and that aint cheap.  Nor is it always easy.  Having a pack of dogs means, every time we plan a vacation we have to find someone willing and trustworthy to take care of them.  For the record, I hold fast and true, that the only vacations should be bird hunting trips.  This causes more issues….

Who in their right mind spends the time and money to travel 1 to 6 hours, then hunts all day, stays in a motel and then hunts all day again and then drives the 1 to 6 hours back home?  Repeating every weekend until they are either broke, on the verge of divorce, or until the season is finally over, leaving them with an empty bank account, friends that seem distant, relationships that need mending and list of chores that needed done yesterday.

I’ll tell you who, someone who has an addiction.