Thursday, December 30, 2010

Adios, dos mil diez

It's been a full year already and I'm thankful for some of it and thankful that some of it's in the rearview.  Got a new bird dog, made it back to South Dakota, figured out how to make the lead hit the bird again and a whole bunch of other stuff completely unrelated to the matter at hand.  Much appreciation to those who check in here from time to time and look forward to seeing you on the next page of the calendar.

Supposed to go get my dog from the trainer next week - can't think of a better way to start a new year.  Hope (there's that word again) everyone has a good one.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Regardless of which brand you choose to practice, religion is a very personal thing.  You tend to get out of it what you need most, or whichever need led you to it in the first place.  In an age where people are losing jobs and homes, where random acts of violence proliferate, where the future sometimes holds more troubles than joys, possibly more than any other thing religion provides a source of comfort in a world of uncertainty, a sense of hope that good will prevail.

Hope offers a reason to keep going, to put troubles in perspective or at least aside long enough to let them fade.  Hope is the promise of tomorrow, and bird hunters know a thing or two about it.  Every puppy, day in the field, hedgerow and shotgun shell is hope.  Putting on a vest, easing up on a point, squeezing the trigger - every little action is pinned to hope.  In it you'll find optimism, reassurance, relief, contentment and a dozen other emotions shifting the burden of worry aside.

Not every Christmas present comes wrapped in paper under a tree.  Whatever your religion, find the hope that it offers and embrace it.

Merry Christmas....

Monday, December 20, 2010

Wrapped and under your tree

The problem with podcasts is that there are so dang many of them out there that it takes an immense amount of effort to find the ones that are worth your while.  Unless of course you just stumble into them, which is how I found the Orvis Double Barrel Podcast.  Hosted by Brett Ference, Orvis hunting product developer, the series is a casual discussion on various topics centered around wingshooting.

Most of them run 20-30 minutes and they're a great way to make use of time that might otherwise be spent doing nothing.  I listen to them in my car on a weekly commute I make to the lower part of the state and I've also used them to pass the time in a deer stand.  I suppose you could partake in a waiting room if you don't mind being seen in public with earbuds.  Whatever your fancy I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Topics range from gun maintenance to hearing protection to shooting technique, choke selection, and one on getting kids into shooting sports.  There's an excellent four-part series of interviews with Mike Stewart of Wildrose Kennels.  For many of the episodes Brett recruits in-house talent in the form of Bruce Bowlen, head of the Orvis shooting school, and Jordan Smith who's been Orvis's gunsmith for the last 30 years, infusing the discussion with unique perspective and expertise.  They're constantly looking for new topics, too, so email your ideas.

Orvis does have a bit of a reputation as being geared toward the higher end (dollar-wise) of the sporting spectrum, so before you write this off as great advice for lottery winners and trust fund babies only, take it from a guy who shoots a left-handed 870:  this is for the everyman.  Admission is free and you aren't required to give them your email address or answer any surveys. 
I'd recommend subscribing to the feed through a tool like Google Reader or iTunes.  The website doesn't update as rapidly as these services and at least from my experience it's been easier to download the podcasts to my phone.

As much as I'd like to send a gift-wrapped Purdey or a Parker to everyone who's kind enough to read this blog, this double barrel will have to suffice, at least until I am one of those lottery winners.  Hope you enjoy it...

PS - There's also a podcast for fly fishing.

Monday, December 13, 2010

QU one year later

It's been a little over a year since things officially unraveled at Quail Unlimited.  Most of you remember the apocalyptic headlines about furloughs, bankruptcy and criminal misdeeds, some of which turned out to be true and some merely embellished rumors.  It's kind of rare that a wildlife organization gets wrapped up in a scandal complete with accusations, federal investigations, and a founding member being unceremoniously ushered out the door.  This is usually the territory of politics and investment banks, not habitat outfits.

From an objective point of view things had to change.  Financial mismanagement, a board that was maybe a bit reluctant to press for answers they didn't want to hear, and a membership distrustful and at times resentful of the organization's leadership  were slowly starving QU of oxygen.  New President Bill Bowles seems genuinely intent on rebuilding trust by maintaining transparency and re-opening direct contact with the membership.  The clubby, elitist perception is slowly disappearing.

What does the future hold for a group like QU?  Internal issues aside, the question is whether there is a place for a national organization devoted to improving quail habitat, much less three national organizations with the same mission.  The non-profit world tends to be a Darwinian one and I'd imagine this question will be answered soon enough.

The bigger question is what the future of quail recovery looks like in general.  Are the national organizations becoming less and less relevant?  Is the objective better suited to local efforts?  There's a strong case for a model where funds are raised and used locally and habitat efforts are coordinated by state wildlife departments, not national conservation organizations.  Using the NBCI as a guide, state departments coordinate efforts between volunteers, landowners, federal agencies, donors and hunters to leverage these resources into the best possible results.  If national organizations are to be players in this scenario, they'll have to put self-promotion aside, something  easier said than done.  Ask any chief if he's interested in being an indian.

Don McKenzie, head of the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, wrote a well-crafted plea earlier this year for all parties to work together for the common good (the link to this document isn't currently working).  Putting their own survival instincts aside will prove difficult in my opinion.  Turf battles quickly consume time and money that would/should be better spent improving habitat and could ultimately be their death knell.  Here's hoping they can reinvent themselves for the cause.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Things that make you go hmmmm..

Been driving past this on and off for the last nine years and still haven't figured it out.

I suppose it's some kind of art, and given the broad definition of art these days who could argue?  Or maybe it's a memorial, some sort of "they don't make 'em like they used to" statement.  Either way it begs a few questions:
  • Where do you get this many red with a white top 2 door LTD Broughams?
  • What's with the one way out back?  Some sort of missing man formation?
  • Are there Druids in the midwest?
This lies on the outskirts of Clark, SD, if you're ever in the neighborhood.  It doesn't have a damn thing to do with wingshooting but it's on the way to a place I hunt and for obvious reasons it's just hard to ignore.

    Tuesday, November 2, 2010

    Election Day Special

    Seriously, I walk into the polls today and am handed the usual list of proposed amendments to our state constitution.  Right there, Amendment No 1, is a proposal to make it the right of every citizen of our state to hunt and fish:

    Amendment 1
    Must Article I of the Constitution of this State, relating to the declaration of rights under the state's constitution, be amended by adding Section 25 so as to provide that hunting and fishing are valuable parts of the state's heritage, important for conservation, and a protected means of managing nonthreatened wildlife; to provide that the citizens of South Carolina shall have the right to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife traditionally pursued, subject to laws and regulations promoting sound wildlife conservation and management as prescribed by the General Assembly; and to specify that this section must not be construed to abrogate any private property rights, existing state laws or regulations, or the state's sovereignty over its natural resources?
    A ‘Yes' vote will make it a constitutional right for citizens to hunt and fish and will permit the State to legally provide for proper wildlife management and the protection of private property rights.

    Talk about an eye-opener.  I don't know why I thought for all of these years that I already had that right.  Goes to show that nothing you enjoy should be taken for granted.  From what I've read, this was more a measure to ensure that neither Congress nor PETA would be able to take away this right down the road.  An ounce of prevention I suppose.  Arizona, Arkansas and Tennessee have similar measures on the ballot today, and this isn't a new idea.  Vermont passed right to hunt legislation in 1777. 

    I'm not sure whether this is a good thing in that my right to hunt and fish will be enjoyed by my descendants or a bad thing in that it implies that this right might not exist some day.  But that possibility does exist, however remote it may seem.  Change is one constant in this world.  My great-grandfather never would have thought that gay marriage would go mainstream or that I would make phone calls from anywhere using a device the size of my wallet.

    (I voted Yes).

    UPDATE: The amendment passed by a nearly 9 to 1 margin with 1.23 million people (roughly 27% of the state's population) voting.

    Monday, November 1, 2010

    Progress report

    For the last several weeks my new dog has been with the trainer working out the bugs before the season starts.  Those who read the post know that I took a chance when I picked up this dog in July but it seemed like the odds were slightly in my favor and this dog needed a good home anyway, which was enough for me.

    On Saturday my son and I went over to check on him and watch a few other dogs.  I confess I'm more than a little excited that at just shy of 3 yrs old he's very interested in bird dogs.  Hope I can stretch that into, oh, maybe a lifetime or so.

    Wyatt's doing fairly well in his training but needs a little more polishing than I'd anticipated.  While initially crowding his birds he seems to be backing off of them a bit, a big relief given that wild quail don't usually condone the up close and personal stuff. He still has a lot of chase in him and that will consume a good bit of time to reign in.  As a result he may be staying a few weeks longer than I'd planned to get it all sorted out.

    This week could be a bellwether as Maurice plans to shoot a few birds over him and take him to a larger field to see how he handles off of the check cord.  We'll be back over on Saturday morning and with a little luck we'll get a good report.

    Not being a field trialer, I really only need a few things in a bird dog.  Pointing is non-negotiable; guys who hunt bobwhites with flushers get a bag full of frustration, not birds.  And since I don't hunt with other dogs very often, backing isn't a deal-breaker.  It's a nice plus, though.  Same with retrieving.  I'd place it slightly above backing, but as long as he'll find a dead bird I'm perfectly capable of picking it up.  So if we can get Wyatt steady to wing and shot I'll hunt him this year and leave the rest til the offseason.

    All in all I'm feeling pretty good about this dog.  He has a lot of desire to hunt and is biddable enough that desire can be sculpted into something I can hunt with.  And he's quickly turned into a great dog to have around the house and office.  I'm looking forward to that first day in the field.

    Thursday, October 28, 2010

    Don't put that in your mouth

    A few years ago a handful of guys and I were visiting with Rick Smith at a convention and the talk naturally centered on trainers and training methods.  Someone mentioned Paul Long and I remember one of the guys saying, "Paul Long has helped me train 15 bird dogs and 4 kids".  Laughs all around and the conversation moved on but I never forgot that line.  At the time I had no kids and really only appreciated it on the surface, but now that I've spawned a brace of my own it's been like peeling back the layers of an onion - every time I turn around I'm reminded of that line.
    Somewhere I read that the average mature dog is on roughly the same intellectual level as a two year old human, certain considerations given. No doubt a professor got a huge grant to study this so there's bound to be tons of science behind it.  Still, the average parent and dog owner could come to roughly the same conclusion over time, so it's no wonder that Paul Long's disciple had success on both fronts.

    Around my house I know better than to make any comparisons at all between child-rearing and dog training.  But the internets ain't where I live and I don't think my wife reads this blog anyway, so here are a few things I can verify are true for each side:
    • Yelling doesn't do much good when they don't understand you
    • Punishment doesn't do much good if they don't know what they were supposed to do in the first place
    • Repetition, repetition, repetition (especially when it comes to manners)
    • You can't get around potty training
    • Don't try to teach it until they're ready for it.  You'll know when the light comes on and it's time to move forward.
    • Too much talk can be counterproductive.  Keep it simple.
    • Praise even the smallest victories
    • The older they get, the more the game turns mental
    • Patience is not a virtue, it is the virtue

    And then there are the strange similarities between kids and dogs....
    • Both are somehow genetically programmed to look you right in the eye and do exactly what you just told them not to.  I know they didn't learn this from me.
    • The more you wish for quiet, the louder they get
    • When they are quiet, something's up 
    • They never break their stuff, only your stuff
    • Wherever they are when they finish playing with something is right where it belongs 
    • They have no clue how to contain their happiness
    • There truly is nothing they won't put in their mouths

      Friday, October 8, 2010

      I went to see the doctor...

      After agonizing over my abysmal performance with a shotgun this season (see previous post), I broke down, did a little research and scheduled some time with a shooting instructor.    A well-credentialed guy (Dan Schindler, for those who are curious) lives not far from me and was available on fairly short notice, lucky for me I suppose.  Credentials aside, he turned out to be just what I was looking for: friendly, knowledgeable, methodical and patient.  And he honestly seemed to enjoy what he was doing.

      Over the course of the next three hours and several hundred rounds I learned a couple of critical things.  Apparently I'm pretty good with the quick point and shoot, widely known as the Churchill method.  I've never had much trouble hitting a quail on the covey rise or a pheasant getting up out of standing corn and this was confirmed on the target range.  Turns out that this method loses its effectiveness once you get out past 25-30 yards, something I can vouch for and have the empty shells to prove.  So went spent a lot of time working on those passing shots, the kind that tend to dominate the latter part of dove season.

      Seems my biggest problem was that I had gotten in too much of a hurry.  We spent most of the session working on slowing down my whole process, literally every part of it from mounting the gun to acquiring the target to firing and follow through. You hear it a lot in professional sports: split-second timing is everything, and the only way to control it is to slow it down in your mind.  I honestly never realized I had so much time to make a shot.  Once I got used to this simple fact the targets started dropping like flies.

      So how did all this translate in the dove field?  Mixed success on the first day out.  The difference was that I knew why I was missing.  There are a lot of adjustments between target range and field and this is the part that's left up to me.  Dove rarely come out of the trees at the same place over and over at the same speed.  You're constantly adjusting to a new shot - low, high, slow, fast, behind, from the side.  Still, any doubt that these changes would work was erased when I saw a dove crossing about 45-50 yards out, put the gun on it, swung with it, eased away and pulled the trigger, and watched it drop.  This was a shot I was never comfortable taking because of the distance and here it had worked just like it was supposed to.  I have to say that pride tastes a lot less like crow than I thought it would.

      Friday, September 24, 2010

      The Yips

      I've heard my golfing friends talk about it.  Suddenly, for no explainable reason, a guy can't hit the ball like he used to.  Can't putt, can't chip, drives go onto the neighboring fairway, whatever.  There's an accident on the neural highway somewhere between brain and beef and there's a casualty.  Worse still, you have no idea where the accident is or how to clean it up.

      This always seemed puzzling to me.  How can you do the same thing you did yesterday and not get the same result?  Just doesn't make sense.  Keep in mind I'm not a golfer so all I see is guys who spend hours on the range fine tuning their stuff to the point that it really should be automatic.  They become consistent 3 or 6 or 8 handicaps, respectable performers, and then one day they can't break 90.  I'd understand if they were recovering from hip surgery or a broken arm, but when nothing changes?  I just didn't get it. 

      Until it happened to me and my shotgun.  As I sat in the field Sunday morning filling the sky with lead, I couldn't deny that the boxes of shells were emptying much faster than my game bag was filling up.  Had this always been the case I wouldn't have given it a second thought, but not too long ago things were different.  Last season I had a mix of good days and stellar days, at least in terms of how many shells I consumed to get a limit of doves (currently 15 per day in my neck of the woods).  Where a box used to be more than sufficient, now it was pushing two or more.  It finally hit the tipping point on Sunday, the point at which I couldn't call it an "off" day any longer.  Off days only last a day.  This was stretching halfway into the season.

      I honestly have no idea what changed.  Eliminate any mechanical issues with the gun and any physical issues with me and you're left with something between the ears.  More than likely I'm thinking a little bit too much about the shot and shooting behind, not swinging through, lifting my cheek from the stock or something equally ruinous.  And no surprise, these things are all difficult to self-diagnose.  So here I sit feeling fortunate that my family doesn't depend on my shooting prowess for sustenance but otherwise generally in a funk.

      The fact is that I'm either going to have to plod through this until it corrects itself, which it eventually will after months or years of frustration and having no idea what the problem was will likely reappear further down the road, or I'm going to have to break down and get some help.  I've never taken a shooting lesson in my life, which is actually a pretty lame argument for suffering through a slump indefinitely.  Not to mention that I generally don't like to pay money for something that I ought to be able to do myself.  The reality of the situation, though, is that I can't fix it myself or I would have.  And the reality is that unless I get some help I'm going to be miserable doing the one thing that brings me great joy.  I'll let you know how that pride tastes going down.

      Monday, September 13, 2010

      Socialized medicine it ain't...

      I try to keep it original here at least in terms of content, so pardon my leeching and try to focus on the message.  Craig Koshyk at Chiendogblog posted yesterday about an effort by the government in his home province of Manitoba to get more people involved in hunting.  I really, really wish we saw more of that where I live.  Not saying there's no effort here, but compared to the depth and detail of what's going on up Craig's way it's no wonder our numbers are stagnant.

      Before anyone gets all "I don't want any more people in my favorite fields" keep in mind how the process works.  Government budgets are strained beyond the breaking point and with limited money to spend, guess where it gets spent?  Where it favorably impacts the most people.  And keep in mind that politicians spell people differently than you and I.  The more people voters you make happy, the better your chances of getting elected.  When hunters make up a larger-than-microscopic part of the constituency, it's harder to bypass funding for the things that make them happy.  Apparently the left-leaning NDP in Manitoba has figured that out.  Are any American politicians listening?

      By the way, if you have a few minutes you might also want to check out Craig's professional site.  He has some amazing photographs of dogs.

      Thursday, August 19, 2010

      Ketchup anyone?

      Most years it starts somewhere around the 4th of July.  Way back in the corner of my brain, back in the part where all the stuff that hasn't been used for a while gets shoved, I get a whiff of something appetizing.  It doesn't last very long, snuffed out by a beach trip or a lawn that needs cutting, but the little bugger won't go away.

      August rolls around and that scent comes back, refusing to be ignored any longer.   This time it triggers rumblings in my belly that become more persistent the harder I try to ignore them.  Resistance at this point is futile.  It's time to get the charcoal going, not exactly instant gratification like a gas grill but comforting in the fact that there is a finish line.  I  stock up on shells and dig the gear out of the closet, ridding it of last year's leftovers: stray feathers, bottle tops, a few twigs and an empty shell or two.

      By the middle of the month it's time to season and shape the burgers.   I double and triple check to make sure my license is where it's supposed to be on the desk.  I get the shotguns out and work the action a few times, you know, just to make sure.  Slice an onion and a tomato...

      Yes it's that time of year again, the countdown to opening day.  So close you can taste it and yet there's nothing you can do to make it get here any faster.  Seems like an eternity since that day back in January when last season closed.  September 4th is O-Day down here and boy do I wish I could find a way to squeeze the bottle.

      Wednesday, July 28, 2010

      Back in Business

      After a rather lackluster bird season last year I've taken a major step toward a remedy.  I picked up this guy last week and I'm hanging my hopes on him for the fall.  He's 3 1/2 years old, one of the lightest colored Brittanys I've ever seen, gentle personality and aside from needing a little re-socializing he's a good fit in our house.  Not exactly an action shot but this is the only time he stops moving long enough to snap a picture.

      Call me a glutton for the taking the hard way or a sucker for the less fortunate, either way he was far from a sure thing.  He'd gotten about a year of training before the trainer gave up on finding a home for him, parked him in a run and fed him and watered him.  I'm not sure he left that run for a year or so and I'm dead positive he'd never seen the inside of a truck or a house since he was whelped.  He spent the first hour of the ride home pinned against the window in the back corner of the truck, not entirely panicked but far from comfortable.  I had to carry him through the door into the house several times before he went willingly.  Stairs, dark rooms, even furniture were all new.  Imagine the thoughts in that head.

      I took him over to Maurice's on Saturday morning and all the necessary parts were present.  There's stuff you can teach and stuff he has to be born with, and if he doesn't have the latter you're pretty much SOL.  Fortunately he wants to find birds and is captivated by one in flight.  He points too, meaning he can be taught.   Give him a couple of months of polishing and I'm feeling fairly good about the opener.  My wife seems to think he's a quick learner and from what I've seen so far I'd have to agree.

      It's funny how things come into your life.  Back in the spring when I started thinking about this I never would have pictured a dog like him would be the outcome.  I suppose it all just has a way of working out.  We're calling him Wyatt.

      Thursday, July 15, 2010

      Quail Economics

      Last Sunday morning I was flipping through the latest issue of Garden & Gun and stumbled upon a piece on an interesting project in Alabama.  Some guys in one of the poorest sections of the state are doing their best to make lemonade out of the lemons they've been given, so to speak.  West of Selma is an area known as the Black Belt, called such due to the tint of the soil, and lacking any traditional economic development appeal certain locals have decided to pitch it as a sporting destination for, of all things, bobwhite quail.

      It's compared to the Robert Trent Jones Trail of Golf and a little research reveals that they're not putting all of their eggs in the quail basket, which is probably a good hedge.  offers deer and turkey hunting along with freshwater (read BASS) fishing.  The quail hunting may in fact be an add-on, albeit an appropriate one.

      By most counts, the sport of bobwhite hunting is headed more and more toward a preserve experience.  With wild birds getting harder to come by and a society moving ever faster toward instant gratification, preserves are the solution for the weekend warrior who wants to get in, maximize his quality time, and get on to the next diversion.  It's not for me; I'd rather walk all day and find one covey than spend three hours kick-starting birds.  But it may keep just enough people interested in the sport to give some of the efforts at restoring wild populations a chance to gain traction.

      Call it what you want, but restoring wild populations is ultimately a numbers game scored in dollars and hands on deck.  A relatively small number of people with deep pockets and, as is often the case with deep pockets, strong political connections could provide the dollars.  Hands on deck, however, depends on people.  Lots of people.  And to get people interested you have to give them a taste of it.  It'll be interesting to see how The Quail Trail pans out and more interesting still to see if it spawns any enthusiasts, activists, or disciples.

      By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with Garden & Gun it's worth a look.  There's also an article in this same issue about Nash Buckingham's legendary shotgun.

      Monday, May 31, 2010

      The 8th Deadly Sin

      Gun lust.  It's not exactly one of the seven deadly sins but it ought to be.  Some guys have auto lust, some have power tool lust, some have rod or reel lust.  In the end they're all cheaper than good old fashioned lust but only by the smallest of margins.

      Lust is not something to be denied.  It's genetic after all, pre-programmed into us to preserve the species.  Without the primal physical attraction of one gender to the other we'd all just coexist until we died out, barely more than flashes in the pan of evolution.  But migrating to something so practical, so utilitarian, so genderless as a weapon seems contrary to all of Darwin's notions.  It just can't be natural...

      Graceful curves, elegant lines, warm to the touch, gentle pull.  Or how about smooth action, rugged type, or more than a little kick?  Whatever your type she can catch your eye and the mind soon follows.  Attraction precedes obsession and is followed by rationalization and when you hit rationalization, you know you're in deep.

      Fortunately, gun lust can be written off as "collecting" or "pursuing a hobby", even to the point of becoming an aficionado.  At any level it's entirely socially acceptable.  As time wears on, stricken hunters become serial offenders as they tend toward more guns and more specifically, more-specialized guns.  Like a woodworker who can always find an excuse for a new tool the hunter eventually feels a need for turkey guns, duck guns, quail guns, pheasant guns, upland guns, wetland guns, fast-shooting guns and even beautiful guns while at the same time acquiring choke sets for each of these so that it can potentially be used in place of the others.  Never forget that at its core lust is an emotion, and emotion trumps logic every time.

      Possibly this is why each of the Deadly Sins is considered deadly.  If logic prevailed, such vices would be turned away at the door and we'd all live long and innocent lives, temptation-free and pure as spring water.  And boring as hell.  Vive la ├ępice of gun lust.

      Friday, May 14, 2010


      I've been without a bird dog for over a year now.  Doesn't seem like that long but nothing ever does when you're looking in the rear-view. Never thought I'd be this long without one, and I can assure you this isn't going to turn into one of those "as much as I hated it, it turned out for the best" posts.  It's been about as bad as I thought it would be.  I know, I know, cry me a river and build a bridge and get over it.

      There's still a dog around the house and he's of a bird dog breed and all, but he's no bird dog.  The only flying things that interest him are butterflies and grasshoppers.  Needless to say he's not the sharpest knife in the drawer.  Not to discount his presence, though, which has been a godsend over the last fourteen months. I don't need any New England Journal of Medicine study to tell me that scratching a dog's head is good therapy.

      As any parent, businessman or politician will tell you, once you're given something the consequences of taking it away are oppressive.  After a decade and a half it sort of becomes an established part of you, both expected and taken for granted that in some form or another it will always be there.  Remove it and you might as well be a hillbilly with a broken still, a Canadian during an NHL players strike, or my wife without access to Facebook.  Wars have been waged over such misfortunes.

      The upside to being an inquisitive person is that there's knowledge to be had everywhere, hiding in plain sight if you keep your eyes, ears and mind open.  One of the nuggets harvested over the last few years is that as you get older, changes in life brought about entirely by your choice result in other changes over which you have exactly no say whatsoever.  Kids seem like a great idea before you have them, problem is that nobody has figured out a really good way to let you know in advance how much time, money, and mental stability they consume.  Lacking this preview you get temporarily blinded by potential bliss only to see something resembling a Pollock when your vision returns.

      A second parcel of wisdom is that just because you can do something doesn't necessarily mean you should.  As King of the House, I could have exercised power over my domain and brought home another bird dog last summer.  And I could have watched that dog run off because someone forgot to put the electric fence collar on him.  And I could have sweated as my already thin bank account dwindled further under the weight of dog food, vet bills, replacement shoes, furniture, etc.  And I could have watched his antics reduce my spouse to a drooling cucumber, sitting in a corner rocking in the fetal position.  Yes, it's not just about me any more.

      Strangely, time seems to have a way of resolving nearly everything.   The tide of inconveniences that conspired against a new dog last summer is slowly receding and while a puppy still might not be such a good idea, I'm warming to the idea of a 2-3 year old, well-trained or at least well-started dog.  Slightly less spastic and unruly, ready to hunt this fall, house-trained if I'm lucky.  Maybe when my butterfly chaser goes it'll be time to put a puppy in the rotation.  And there's the matter of finding a few new places to hunt seeing as several of my old coverts have gone the way of neglect or subdivision or foreclosure.  Gotta look into some new gear, too.   If I look far enough out there, I think I see the sun rising.

      Monday, April 26, 2010

      I think they call this the doldrums

      Springtime can be a mixed blessing.  As nice as it is to see a world emerge from hibernation, the front edge of the space between hunting seasons can leave a person of the gun feeling a bit deflated.  I know I've been a bit vanilla and judging from the dearth of new posts on hunting blogs lately, I'm not alone.

      Nautical people are familiar with a term for the central latitudes where winds are fickle and often flat-out nonexistent for days on end.  It's called the Doldrums, a place where an iron sail can test the patience and sanity of most any mariner.  Stuck in the mud with nothing to do but sit and wait until help arrives.

      photo courtesy of David Maxey

      I've never personally skimmed the central latitudes in a sailboat but I have a pretty good feeling for what it's like.  From August through the end of February there's always something to look forward to, always tomorrow or next weekend or the trip coming up next month.  In between outings there's gear to clean and repair, new gear to buy, packing and re-packing the truck.  And then on March 1 it all vanishes.  The wind dies and in its place apathy pulls up a chair and makes itself at home.  Next season is just too far away to care a lick about. 

      It happens every year and I've yet to find a cure, so if anybody knows of one feel free to chime in.  Not really motivated to shoot clays even thought it would work wonders for my success rate.  Don't have a farm to plow and plant.  Certain years I get a hankerin' to shoot a turkey but not being one of those psycho gobbler groupies the impulse waxes and wanes.  The whole scene is reminiscent of the feeling I get the day after Christmas.  And like that feeling it doesn't last forever.

      Usually in July things start to stir on the horizon.  I'm determined to not go through another season without a bird dog, so there's that to remedy.  Never can have enough places to hunt, either, and the good ones don't exactly land in your lap.  Eventually the wind starts to stir and the boat picks up speed.

      Incidentally, the Doldrums are also where hurricanes are born.

      Tuesday, March 23, 2010


      Yesterday I read that Stewart Udall died over the weekend.  For those unfamiliar with the name, Udall was Secretary of the Interior for eight years spanning the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and is widely credited with making major contributions to the National Park system and wilderness areas.  I'll skip the details (try that Google thing) and get right to my point, which is that Udall's passing got me to thinking about the significance of the Secretary of the Interior, both today and going forward, and the more I thought the more I realized that over the next 30 years, the Secretary of the Interior will likely be the cabinet position having the greatest impact on our lives and those of our children and grandchildren.

      Yes, I said Secretary of the Interior, not Defense, not Energy, not Health and Human Services or any of the others.  Hear me out, now - while there are many factors that influence the quality of our life in this country, those that fall under the hand of the government while at the same time having the most enduring effect on our mental and physical well-being intersect at the Dept of the Interior.  I'm talking about energy, clean air and water, natural resources, recreation, the things that could really make your life suck if you took them away.  And yes, I've thought about all of the other things controlled by all of the other government agencies and instead of listing them here I'll give you the synopsis: some of them can't or won't be taken away, and the ones that can you won't miss.

      The key to these quality of life nuggets remaining beneficial is balance.  Too much of one at the expense of another and it's not long before you're left with only one.  Utilize, but sustain.  From a hunter's and outdoorsman's perspective this balance is ever more critical.  As recently discussed in several excellent blog posts (Exit Booming, King of the Big Empty, and Greater Sage Grouse Dilemma), federal decisions will impact our sport and our heritage, often in ways that are difficult to change once the path is chosen.  Too much grazing means too few western gamebirds.  Too many wolves means unplanned thinning of cattle, sheep, and pets.  Too much drilling and you can place an X on the habitat for a few generations.

      Udall was able to find the balance for an unusually long period of time in the life of a government official.  He never quite mastered the art of pleasing all the people all the time, and I'd be suspicious of anyone who did, but he was able to accomplish quite a bit of good, placating  most of the opposition with good old-fashioned logic and honesty.  Without destroying commerce he kept commercial interests from running roughshod over the land and still allowed our resources to be used commercially.  He saved a lot of wilderness at a critical time.  Forty years later we're fast approaching another critical time.  Here's hoping the person in that seat over the next few decades can find that balance.

       Stewart Udall
      1920 - 2010

      Saturday, March 13, 2010

      Crisis? What crisis?

      Recently I was reading an email to a friend, proofreading really, before pressing Send and it struck me how much it sounded like a country music song.  In reality it was not lyrics but a summary of my hunting season  and it was downright pathetic.  No duck hunts, no grouse hunts, no woodcock.  Didn't make it to South Dakota.  Bird dog died last spring so I had to bum quail hunts off friends.  Shot one doe - in the gut - and it turned out to be a buttonhead.  If it weren't for a few good dove hunts I'd be forced to write the whole thing off.

      The reasons behind the catastrophe are myriad but carry a common thread in the reminder that my life isn't quite what it used to be.  I vividly remember seasons that I hunted every weekend and was no stranger to playing hooky during the week to steal a few hours in the field.  I raised a really good bird dog because of this, put him on lots of birds at a young age and let him do what he loved doing.  Honestly I couldn't haven't owned him at a better point in my life.  Sometimes things just work out.  And sometimes, like this season, they just don't.  And when they don't you start to get these odd emotions, odd because you're pretty sure you haven't felt them before, at least not in the way they feel at the moment.  Sort of unhappy but not entirely, kind of resentful but not at anyone in particular, well short of miserable but with the feeling that more of the same could bring it on.

      I haven't taken a poll but my guess is that I'm not the only guy out there who's had this feeling.  Plenty of us have kids, a job, a mortgage, a house with something constantly in need of repair.  They all sap your time, your money and your will to fight them off and go hunting.  Some of the guys you used to run with waved the white flag years ago and the ones that haven't now live so far off that it's an expedition just to catch up with them.  At some point you realize you're in purgatory, no longer able to do the things you enjoy and not yet having accomplished the things you set out to do.  And then it dawns on you: maybe this is what they were talking about when they said 'midlife crisis'.

      When I was younger the whole concept of a mid-life crisis seemed absurd to me.  More ridiculous still was that someone would use this to justify buying a sports car or fooling around on his wife.   If you want a sports car and can afford it, buy it and don't apologize.  If you can't afford it, don't buy it.  If you feel the need to cheat on your wife, well, that's your little cross to bear and I'll offer no advice.  On a more abstract level, why a mid-life crisis at all?  Why not an early life crisis or a golden years crisis?  What in the world could or would trigger a crisis at this stage of the game?  Simple - the realization that the hands on the clock are moving and you no longer have your whole life in front of you, no longer is there plenty of time to live out all of the great dreams and big plans you had as a younger man.

      Most men live in fear of insignificance.  Fearful that they will reach the end of their lives and look back and see they have done nothing more than exist for the previous 70+ years.  Some men want to leave their mark in history books, some want to leave a mark on the land, some merely want to pass on a treasure to the next generation, but most all of them want to feel that they accomplished something.  And in the middle of life something happens like this disaster of a hunting season and it taps you on the shoulder and reminds you that the clock and calendar wait for no one.  This one's gone and you can't get it back, and the opportunities you missed are like a stock you thought about buying but didn't, and then watched it double in value.  It can drag you down if you let it.

      So you take stock knowing that those great dreams aren't going to happen all by themselves.  The road divides and the choices appear: abandon the dreams and settle for what you have or figure out how to make it all work, keeping what you have while chasing down the rest.  Is there a happy medium?  Is it even fair that you have to choose?  As a lawyer friend of mine likes to tell his clients, "The fair comes in October."  Either way you find out what you really love.

      Monday, March 1, 2010

      Anyone else NOT in a hurry for Spring?

      There comes a point every year where I'm done with the cold weather and ready for Spring.  But that point ain't here yet.  Apparently I'm in the minority, because just about everyone I've talked to in the last week is "ready for spring".  This whole whiny mindset gets triggered every year by one warm weekend and from there until Spring actually arrives it spills out of mouths like drool from a baby.  42 degrees this past weekend and I saw two separate droolers riding around town with the tops down on their convertibles.

      I'm not in such a hurry.  Spring means several things to me:
      1. Hunting season is over (yeah there's still turkey season, but that's not the same)
      2. Hunting season is a long way off
      3. I gotta find something to do for five months
      Technically hunting season is over, but as long as it's cold and cherry trees aren't blooming I can still pretend.  This hunting season wasn't exactly one for the ages (more on that later) and I'm neither trying to salvage it nor drag it out, I just really, really enjoy that stretch of time between the first cold nights and the last cold nights.  Way too soon it's back to cutting the grass, pulling weeds and trying not to sweat my nuts off just walking to the truck in the morning.  No, I'm not ready for Spring.

      Tuesday, February 9, 2010

      Stay lazy, my friend

      He once caught a car ....and let it go.

      He licks himself where you and I can't....because he can.

      He fills holes in.

      His twitches and snorts unconsciously....while he's awake.

      He is....the most interesting dog in the world.

      "I don't always choose to sleep during the day, but when I do, I choose the chair you wanted to sit in."

      Wednesday, February 3, 2010

      Please Don't Call Me Bogsucker

      Not even a mother could love a name like that. You gotta really hate something to call it a bogsucker. My guess is that somewhere along the way a guy came home with an empty bag after flushing a dozen or so and in a sour-grape fit of frustration coined the term. Of course anyone who's hunted them knows that the little devils can be deceptively hard to bring down and I'd be comfortable taking the over on the number of non-flattering names that didn't stick.

      Poor bird was behind from the get go, what with a bill more suited to a shorebird, a brain in the back seat and an appetite for things that live in the dirt, not above it.  Prefers to hang out in the less scenic coverts.  Lately people have been posting pictures online of deformities in the species.  They don't do that to quail, do they?

      I guess I'm bringing all this up because I failed to get even one opportunity to hunt them this year.  A cold wave moves through, freezes the ground and BAM, the season is gone before it even started.  The birds keep on truckin south, leaving us wishing and cursing and calling them names and complaining in general that it's not supposed to get this cold for this long in South Carolina.  A higher power with a greater purpose is responsible, I suppose.  Probably ought to shoot an email to Al Gore and let him know his work here is done.

      In spite of all the weirdness attached to this bird  I still have a soft spot for it.  I've had lot of fun following a dog through thickets and cane breaks and creek banks, waiting for the bell to go quiet, putting a few in the bag from time to time.  And contrary to what a lot of folks will tell you, they do taste pretty good....if they're prepared right.  Don't ever freeze one, though.  Still, no reason to go calling them names.  If I'm gonna call them anything other than woodcock, I think I'll stick with timberdoodle.  Bottom line is you can't suck bog when the bog is frozen.

      Sunday, January 24, 2010

      Baby, it's cold outside

      Actually, it's not nearly as cold as it was earlier in the month and if it were, I could deal with it.  It's worse than cold right now - it's raining.  And raining means I'm stuck inside for the weekend.  When it comes to the weather you play the hand you're dealt, though, so I made the best of it and devoured Larry McMurtry's second memoir, Literary Life, which proved a relatively easy and thoroughly interesting diversion. As Chad Love noted in a post on his blog several weeks ago McMurty mentions that he was, earlier in his life at least, a hunter.  That's about as far as the memoir goes on the subject but the author expounds a bit further on the topic of re-reading selected books, a habit I've developed over the years as well.

      While I don't have quite the list of re-reads that McMurtry does, I do have a few that I continue to pick up at unplanned intervals as the years tick off.  One of those is a somewhat obscure text by an equally obscure writer that is simply my favorite hunting book ever.  Guy de la Valdene's For a Handful of Feathers is a first hand account of the author's efforts at nurturing and hunting quail on his estate in north Florida, an account that strolls through a year on the land knee deep in the relationship between the landowner, the dirt, and the resident wildlife.  Lyrical enough to remove it from the category of simple journal, it appeals to me mostly because of  Valdene's incredibly candid, bare-bones, take me as I am style.

      Valdene is no stranger to literature, having run for years in a Rat Pack that includes Tom McGuane, Jim Harrision, Tom Corcoran, Jimmy Buffett and others, but his manner is boldly unique.  At one point he describes beating the summer heat by plowing his fields buck naked, a visual I could do without but much appreciated for its shameless honesty.  The message that unfolds, however, is one that bears repeating and re-reading.  In a time when more and more are throwing in the towel when it comes to the future of the bobwhite, Valdene proves that while it's not always effortless, it is far from impossible to return huntable numbers of birds to a piece of land.  If you're already one of the naysayers, well I feel kinda sorry for you but don't let that come between you and a fantastic story.

      Sunday, January 17, 2010

      Hope vs Reality

      Our dove season is divided into three decidedly unequal segments.  The first season begins the Saturday before Labor Day and runs through the first week or so of October.  These are the salad days, the afternoons when you stock the freezer for the off-season.  It's not unusual to bag three or four limits, which last year was increased to 15 birds, and have a couple of  5 or 7 bird days to boot.  Birds fly in big numbers with reckless abandon, not yet wise to the fate that awaits if they insist on getting into the field to eat.  Even a shooter having a bad day can end up having a pretty good day.

      The second season opens the Saturday before Thanksgiving and closes the Saturday after.  That first Saturday is the closest to a sure thing I've ever seen.  It's a barnburner, in the field by 7:15am, out with a limit by 7:45, and we walk back to the trucks giddy every year.  One week later you might as well stay in bed.

      The third season opens a few days before Christmas and closes, for good this time, around mid-January.  Call this one a potluck dinner - you might fill your plate and bask in your good fortune or you might go home hungry in spite of acres of possibility.  I've had both feast and famine during the third season and I guess I'm an optimist because I always approach it with hope. 

      We had a tough third season this year in spite of all the pieces being in place.  Our corn field was crackerjack, plenty of food on the ground and plenty still standing, a regular cornucopia.  Sorry, I couldn't resist.  And the birds were there, problem was someone had tipped them off that we were coming and they were on the lookout.  It's hard to give dove credit for being smart during the first season when they'll practically fly right down your barrel, but these birds got themselves an education somewhere between October and January.  They were skittish two weeks ago, cautious to the point that most of them passed on dinner a week later, and Friday morning, the last day of the season, they were just plain gone.  Probably having coffee at Rachel's Cafe down the road amid high-fives for making it through another season alive.

      I guess shooting a limit on the last day of the season is sorta like hitting a hole-in-one.  Once you've done it, you know it's possible so you keep thinking you can make it happen again.  The left side of your brain knows the odds are highly against it, yet you persist.  One thing you can bank on: I'll be out there on the last day of the season again next year, 8 iron in hand.

      Saturday, January 9, 2010

      Population 50

      I didn't make it to South Dakota this year. Halloween (read trick or treating with my kids) and a recession stepped in and kept me right here at home. The Halloween part I honestly don't mind, after all how many years will I actually have before they would rather throw eggs at houses and smash pumpkins? The recession I could do without.

      This trip has always been good medicine for me. It's a different place at a different pace, and the place is SO big. Big in every direction, literally as far as the eye can see. Big views of big fields are a big change for a kid who grew up surrounded by trees. I'm sure there's a metaphysical existential explanation for the effect wide open spaces have on our brains. I can't explain it, but I can tell you it's real, real enough that I can't stop myself from just staring off into that bigness at times.

      We hunt in a small town about halfway between Aberdeen and Sioux Falls, and by small I mean small. The sign at the edge of town says the population is 50, which means the head count surges 20% when we show up. Our hosts are a local farming family and once I asked the older son what it was like living in a town with 50 people and he said, "Well everyone knows everyone else's business, and nobody cares." Refreshing.

      One immutable fact of life is that your perspective on things changes as you get older. I grew up in a town of about 50,000 and couldn't wait to get out - it was too small for this big-time cowboy. I left for college and mumbled sayonara and don't think I even checked the rear view. Graduated college (finally), moved to our nation's capital and basked in all that the big city had to offer. Two years, countless hours in traffic, and Lord knows how many parking tickets later I'd had enough. Been back here 19 years this April.

      I got the big out of my system, at least in terms of cities, and found that the small was rooted very, very deep. It would be no effort at all adjusting to a place like Turton, SD. Sadly there would have to be compromises and sacrifices. My wife, for one, wouldn't consider moving there even if they built a Target on Main Street and that's a good thing, 'cause a Target would put a booger on the Picasso for me anyway. I'd miss all my boys at home, too, and would have to buy a plane so I could get back for the important stuff, but hey I need a reason to justify playing the Powerball anyway, right? For brevity's sake let's just say I could go on but there's no need. I'm not moving any time soon.

      Which makes missing the trip this year all the more difficult. I'll most likely be back again in the fall to get my fix, my prescription filled with fine folks, an absence of traffic, food I can't get around here, and lots of big, open space.

      And the pheasant hunting ain't bad either.