Monday, December 24, 2012

Thoughts on general relativity and Christmas

This could easily be the title of a term paper but for the fortunate fact that I'm 20+ years removed from institutions of higher learning.  That's a gift in itself.

Last month I read Walter Isaacson's biography of Albert Einstein, an engaging if not excruciatingly detailed account of the physicist's life and work.  Einstein was not overly religious but on several occasions was asked if he believed in God.  His response never varied, explaining that there was far too much order in the design of the universe for it to be accidental.

Having never won a Nobel prize, my thoughts carry somewhat less authority, but on occasions such as the Eve of Christmas I make it a point to stop, look, and think about our existence.  Those of us who spend time in the natural world are either the smart ones or the fortunate ones or both, and because of this are witness to the beauty and wonder of things that even Einstein might struggle to quantify. Feathers, fields, fins or fur, they all hold the power to make us stop and stare and feel good inside.

If life evolved strictly on a functional basis most of nature would look like college engineering projects. Whoever or whatever created the life on this planet didn't stop when the practical issues were resolved. Camouflage needn't be stunning, after all.  Or maybe the miracle is simply that we were created with the ability to see the beauty in all of these things.

If you start feeling that twinge of envy tomorrow morning when your little brother ends up with two more presents than you, step outside and look around.  It's a gift too big to wrap and that's a good thing, because no one could afford it anyway.  And it's yours.

Merry Christmas-

Saturday, December 15, 2012

What a difference a bird makes

bobwhite quail in hand

Coming home empty handed isn't the end of the world.  If it really became an issue I could avoid it altogether by staying home, so keep it in perspective. Still, it's nice to have something to show for your efforts once in a while.

I'm quite content to walk for hours beneath tall pines, sometimes gliding, sometimes shuffling, sometimes pressing through grass and briar.  Simple, and definitely not sufficient to entertain the masses, which is probably why most days you have the place to yourself. Which is probably another reason it's so hallowed.

Doing this while watching a bird dog practice his craft is more than enough to pass the time. If you're not an enthusiast, watching a dog work is a lot like watching a baseball game; there's a lot going on in plain view that the casual observer never sees.  In an odd parallel it's like the hunting instinct in the dog himself - it's hard to instill in someone.  You either have it or you don't.  Lucky is he who has it.

Late last Saturday afternoon I threw my gear and the dog in the truck and set off for the other side of the state.  Arriving well after dark I had a few drinks and some BBQed chicken and climbed in a sleeping bag, only half-pissed that a vocal owl wouldn't give it a rest.

Up with the sun, a shot of coffee and pop tarts and we were off, loblollies overhead and field edges to the side, dog out in front, air still cool enough to ward off a sweat.  Thirty minutes or so later the dog stuck his nose toward some shrub at the side of the road and froze.  He still has a fetish for field mice and I wasn't expecting much, especially when we got to the shrub and nothing happened.  It took my host busting through it to get those birds in the air.  The first one out of the back side lined up just perfectly with the bead.

That's how one bird, one single bird out of one solitary covey changes everything.  What started as a nice morning turned into a great one, a perfect one, a can't-find-anything-that-would-make-this-better one.  No unfinished business here.  For the rest of that day there was nothing that could have let the air out of my mood.

And all this over one bird?  Standards too low, maybe?  Not really.  What exactly does it say about a guy who drives three hours at the end of a day, sleeps in a tent cot with his dog, and heads home before lunchtime on the next all for one single bird?  It says he's a bird hunter, man.  A happy, happy bird hunter.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Close quarters

Ever share one of these with a dog?  The extra heat is a bonus and large people need not apply, but it's actually not bad.  Until the coyotes start howling at 3am.

Cabelas tent cot

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Apple and the dog

I don't own any of her CDs and in fact couldn't tell you the name of even one of her songs. The only thing that immediately comes to mind when you mention her name is that her bus got stopped coming back into Texas a few months ago and she was locked up for possession of hashish.  She may have been good and baked when she wrote this letter, but it still hits home:

Bottom line is dogs don't care who you are as long as you're good to them.  You can be the biggest fuckup in the world and they'll think you're perfect.  And so we do things like forego six figure paydays, sleep on the floor with them, make certain their last breath is filled with bird scent, even tell them it's ok to leave us behind, all in the naive but well-intentioned notion that we can somehow pay them back.

Monday, November 19, 2012

And Now We Shall Do Manly Things

If there's one thing I enjoy in any memoir it's candor.  Speak to me honestly, don't put on makeup, give me the real you.  A writer who displays his own shortfalls unapologetically and without casting blame, placing all that he isn't out there for the world to see has my respect. As I read Craig Heimbuch's recent release, And Now We Shall Do Manly Things (not just a clever blog post title), I found all of the above woven into a tale about a man wrestling with the tribulations of manhood as he takes up bird hunting.

And Now We Shall Do Manly Things cover
Heimbuch's quest begins when his father gives him a 12 ga Winchester, more in a "Here's something pretty cool" way than an ill-disguised prod to go hunting. Curiosity gets the better of him and the result is a year-long chronicle of discovery, missteps, perseverance and self-realization.

A journalist married to a schoolteacher raising three young children, he is consumed daily by a job, paying rent, and the endless challenges of parenthood.  Here is a guy who doesn't have hobbies or passions as much as he has roles: employee, employer, provider, husband, father, fixer of all that breaks.  "Life is too much about compromise," he notes, a sentiment painfully familiar to many of us. For Heimbuch, hunting evolves into a departure from an existence devoted mainly to the well-being of others.

The story is funny, at times laugh-out-loud funny, without seeming silly or contrived.  The simple truth of lines such as "like our toys, pheasant were imported from China," kept a smile on my face while an extremely witty, albeit fictional, exchange between Ted Turner and Mark Zuckerberg had me spitting milk through my nose.
"Hello, Ted?  Hi, it's Mark Zuckerberg."
"Mark Zuckerberg.  I created Facebook."
 "Look, if this is one of them cults or Amway or some other foolish thing, I don't want any and Jane don't live here no more."
The relatively one-sided conversation continues with Zuckerberg intent on shooting one of Turner's bison and Turner, well, just being Ted.  Heimbuch possesses a well-grounded sense of humor and never falls into the trap of taking himself or the story too seriously.

The book offers a somewhat sobering glimpse into the declining number of hunters, one extending beyond the loss of habitat and the urbanization of America.  Heimbuch experiences the difficulties facing a guy who hasn't grown up in the sport but would dearly like to give it a try, the closed doors and skepticism encountered by a grown man who wants to hunt.  Were it not for several accommodating relatives this book might never have happened.  Our sport is one that's difficult to figure out on your own, at least before you grow tired of getting skunked and give it up for something less cryptic.

Oddly, the father who gave him the shotgun and who is an avid lifelong hunter only plays a peripheral role in his son's passage into the shooting sports.  We're left to wonder whether this was intentional or merely bad luck on the calendar, but Heimbuch leaves little doubt how much he wanted his father included.

I learned of this book through an email from TLC Book Tours who subsequently sent me a copy and included this review in a month-long virtual tour.  At 324 pages it's an easy read and one any bird hunter would enjoy.  George Bird Evans or Datus Proper it's not, nor is it meant to be.  It's a modern story that most guys can relate to, and fortunately it happens to be about wingshooting.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

What does pheasant hunting have to do with deer?

Occasionally worlds collide.  This video was shot by pheasant hunters in SD who came upon two antler-locked deer.

I wonder how Darwin would weigh in on this.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Random SD

Made it back this year, minor obstacles notwithstanding.  Some bits and pieces:

Minerva's in Watertown
Hot spot in Watertown
Nice to know someone else is excited about this bird hunting thing, even if for purely capitalist reasons.

The weather wasn't exactly divine.  The fog never lifted on Saturday, which I didn't figure would be a big deal until I got drawn to walk through chest-high switchgrass.  Cordura-faced denim brush pants aren't so waterproof after about a half-mile.  Always be mindful, however, of how good your situation is...

South Dakota forecast

Might not seem like much to you northerners but us crackers aren't used to this.  Dress properly and keep moving and it's manageable.  Multiple gear reviews to follow.

Reports had the bird population up 18% over last year.  I don't know how a hunter would notice an 18% difference, but somebody's tax dollar paid for the statistic so it must be right, or at least notable.  To someone.  What we found was inconsistency.  Two days we hunted from 10am til almost sunset and failed to get a limit.  The foggy day we were done by 2pm. Some spots were good for exactly zero birds.  Others looked like the boom years.

Sioux Falls airport in the snow

On the way home TSA found the pocketknife that I couldn't find before I left.  It's comforting knowing it made it all the way to Sioux Falls without them finding it.  The plane with the pickups parked next to it is the one that was supposed to get me from Minneapolis to Charlotte.  After 45 mins of delay for "a minor maintenance issue" we got off the ground. Fifteen minutes later we were turning around and headed back to Minneapolis for "an indicator saying there may be something wrong with the landing system".  The pilot was quick to note that the landing gear was fine, just a possibility that a spoiler or thrust reverser or something else used to keep the plane from shooting off the end of the runway might not be working correctly.  He also told us not to be alarmed by the fire trucks, "All part of the safety protocol."  An hour later we were back on another horse that eventually got us home.  When life gives you lemons you at least have time to finish a pretty good book (review coming on 11/19).

All in all it was a fine trip.  Something about big open spaces and beautiful birds pulls me in and paints me with a smile.  There is at least one party, though, who wouldn't be disappointed to see me stay home next time...

Saturday, October 13, 2012

So, any regrets?

It's been a little over two years since I brought Wyatt home.  As we eased through the public dove field this afternoon on a pre-season run I wondered, truly only for a second, whether he was glad he came to live with us.  Compared to his old digs this is something on the order of moving into Biltmore Estate, what with an honest-to-goodness roof over his head and something softer than dirt to sleep on.  Creature comforts aside he's a shamelessly affectionate dog and there's no shortage of that in our home either.

Brittany bird dog

Any new dog comes with a bounty of hopes and a measure of trepidation.  My most prominent fear stemmed from having two young children, visions of a dog who can't tolerate the occasional innocent aggression and eventually lashes out in protest.  I don't have kennels; my dogs live with the rest of us and such a curmudgeon won't have a place around our house.  It would truly suck to own the finest field companion I may see in a lifetime and have him not get along with the kids.

There was also the concern about him being a total washout in the field.  A dog who won't handle, won't hold point or worse still, points only butterflies and grasshoppers, chases everything that runs until he hits the county line and catches sight of something else.  He might be more fun that a turbocharged slinky back at the ranch but I already have one dog with "Non-hunter" on his ID. 

From my seat it's worked out just fine.  He's no field trial champion and we haven't bagged a limit yet but after a year without a bird dog the tally didn't really matter.  Being in the field behind a dog, any dog, is good medicine.  Being able to do it on your own schedule, not waiting for an invitation, is even better.

For whatever reason dogs seem to find their way into our lives.  And I mean the right dogs.  Not necessarily field trial champions or Nat Geo special candidates.  With the exception of the rare few that are plain disasters - the ones that run off, bite the in-laws, or destroy the house, and even these tend to teach us something along the way - certain dogs have a curious karma-like way of ending up with us.  They have a way of fitting into the family, quirks and all.  They have a way of filling a need or two, sometimes more.

Happy bird dog

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Vote early, vote often

I'm not talking about the Presidential election, I'm talking about something that matters. SportDOG is giving a $25,000 grant to the proposed project receiving the most votes in its Future Forward Fund competition.  Of the 7 finalists, the one that caught my eye was developed by Dr. Theron Terhune of Tall Timbers.  From the proposal page on the SportDOG website:
Operation Outdoors is a designed to bring students to the outdoor classroom by providing a field site for undergraduate curriculums, especially for underserved universities and colleges. The intent of the project is to foster the integration of hunting and game management into education. The ultimate goal of this project is to conserve and protect upland and grassland ecosystems, the species inhabiting them, and retaining the hunting legacy.
There are several other proposals that would benefit upland birds including one aimed at prairie chicken habitat and another at bobwhite focal areas.  Both of these are extremely worthy of consideration, and this may be the only time you'll hear me advocate not voting for a quail project, but Theron's project edges out the others because of one word: leverage. The other proposals are geographically limited. Theron's project, by educating and inspiring a group of young biologists, holds the potential to impact a far greater area for decades to come.

Theron Terhune prescribed fire

Habitat work is vitally important, arguably the most critical piece of the puzzle that is declining numbers of many species of gamebirds.  As long as there are adequate numbers of habitat specialists and supporters the work will get done.  Maintaining that adequate number necessitates efforts to recruit and train them.  

You can vote as often as once a day between now and November 30.  Don't be disenfranchised -  do it before Al Sharpton gets wise to it.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Strangers in a strange land

Opening day of dove season is different.  People show up in droves, bring friends, kids, preachers and some guy who called them out of the blue because he was visiting his mom at the lake and heard we might be shooting (mind if I join you?).  College boys appear between the trees like those baseball players from the corn in Field of Dreams. There's a cookout, beer, good to see you again and by the way, what have you been up to?  Everyone goes home grinning.

Dead doveThen starts the great decline. The crowds get thinner every week regardless of whether there are birds.  The only exception is that if you have a really hot shoot and go home and call everyone who wasn't there and rub it in, the next weekend the field will be packed with your boys and the birds will have packed up and headed south.  You shoulda been here last week...

This year the decline has held true to form.  Fewer and fewer hunters each week while bird numbers have been pretty steady.  You'd think this would be good for the few of us remaining, but as anyone who's hunted dove knows the birds get substantially smarter once the first shot is fired.  They have an uncanny ability to divert flight paths through the parts of the field where the guns aren't.  Which means you generally need enough guys around a field to plug the gaps and keep the birds moving, and if you're lucky there are a few guys who fidget and walk around and cause the birds to flare and fly toward you, the stealth hunter sitting motionless in the shadows, agent of death from below.

Last weekend Bob - one of the hard-cores - and I showed up.  Way down on the other end of the field was a guy I knew but had never seen in the dove field and he brought along a friend visiting from Israel.  And that was it.  Just the four of us.  And some birds.

So Bob and I rimmed a corner within earshot of each other, sipped a few beers and drew on the occasional kamikaze.  Mostly we watched the birds drift right through the big open spaces in middle.  When we left, the Israeli was still at the far end of the field, alone, and might still be there for all I know.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Dove hunting is....

.....altogether different when you're four years old.

Kid in the candy aisle
the bribe

Kid stuffing dove feathers in a hat

Dove feathers in a hat
...courtesy of a patient friend

Son holding a dead dove
wanted to know if he could sleep with it

There are far too many days when I wish I were a kid again.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Numbers Game

It's not that people don't like numbers, it's more that they can't always get comfortable with the stark certainty that comes with them.

"I was only late a few times." 
"Fourteen out of twenty days last month?  I'd say that's more than a few." 
"Shut up."

As is often the case, the numbers tell the story, the real story.  Educated as an engineer and currently responsible for the dollars and cents and operating metrics of several decidedly unsexy businesses, I live and breathe numbers.  It's a language I speak better than English and it makes me the unpopular winner of many an argument.  If anyone knows Huey Lewis, ask him if it's still hip to be square.

Being number-oriented is an affliction of sorts; people without it generally think things are either better or worse than they actually are while the rest of us are constantly hazed by the bare burden of reality.  It comes with a reflexive urge to count, to track, to analyze anything and everything.  It has its pluses and minuses.

When I lived in a ski town the magic number was 100.  Ski 100 days in a season, a season holding roughly 150 possible days, and you'd done something.  You were legitimate. Women would swoon, bartenders would give you drinks all over town, you'd get a $5 an hour raise, Hollywood A-listers would invite you to parties.  No, not really.  A couple of your boys would say 'way to go, dude' and you'd most likely be a better skier than you were in October but that's about it.  But that would be good enough because you'd lived it.  It's not the number, it's everything that happened along the way to the number.

If there's such a number for bird hunters it's less an accepted standard and more of a personal thing.  Last year I shot dove 9 or 10 days, hunted quail 12 or 13, didn't make it pheasant hunting at all.  And I fancy myself a bird hunter?  That's only 6% of the year spent doing what I enjoy most.  Even if I stack the deck in my favor and consider that I can't (legally) hunt birds but six months out of the year, I still took advantage of barely 12% of the available opportunities.  I should call myself a grass cutter, or a trash taker outer, or bill payer.  Problem is that I have about, oh, zero passion for any of these.

But it's unavoidable.  I'm gonna count, and then I'm gonna compare and rate and rank based on that count, and then I'm either gonna smile or think it's pathetic and swear to do better next year.  What I should do is look past the number.  Ten more days this year would be great, but it's not just "10" at all.  It's knowing that I spent those ten days - days I can't ever get back once they're gone - carrying a gun or walking behind a dog or both if I'm really lucky, about as happy as this boy gets.

The count currently stands at zero, but come tomorrow I'll be on the board.

Blair Witch or GoPro?  Either way, he was on to something.

Friday, August 10, 2012


A friend of mine who raised cattle had a bumper sticker on his truck that said "The West wasn't won on salad".  There is a lot of good food in the world, a list as long as a check cord of things I would eat any time, anywhere.  But in a class all its own is a good cut of beef.

Earlier this week the family was out of town and I felt like firing up the grill for a party of one, chasing the heat of the day away with some brown liquor on ice and enjoying the roaring silence of a house without children.  The rapturous sensory overload of this is hard to describe and harder to understand unless you have kids and work at a job that has effectively sucked the life out of your summer.  Suffice it to say that the only disappointment in three of my most guilty pleasures converging at once was knowing that it wouldn't last forever.

Some like their steak marinated or coated with seasoning, which is an abomination.  If the cut is good it will hold flavor that shouldn't be altered more than a shake of salt and pepper, and then only once it's on the plate.  And rare is the only way it should be cooked.  A three quarter pound piece used to disappear quickly, but old age and the anchor of a slower metabolism have left me with a nagging sense of restraint.  Staring at the half I hadn't eaten, devil on one shoulder and angel on the other, I thought about what it might taste like on a sandwich for lunch the next day.

Still basking in the good fortune of a night at home alone and a dinner as scarce, I felt suddenly benevolent.  As I cut the steak into smaller bites I knew they wouldn't savor it like I did, not with taste buds at least.  I've been told they enjoy food more with their noses and given how quickly they make it disappear I'm inclined to agree.  Briefly I thought of photographing this canine delight but decided it would ruin the mood.

When the plate was empty I knew they were happier.  I was too.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Garmin Alpha 100

When Garmin announced its acquisition of Tri-Tronics last summer, I figured it was only a matter of time before the technologies were combined into a single unit.  No, I haven't been secretly testing one.  Yes, I wish I had.  So consider this an unofficial preview and not a review.

Garmin Alpha 100

I've owned Tri-Tronics products for years and never had a bad experience.  I still have the original Sportsman model I bought 18 years ago, screw-in stimulation plugs and all, and it works just fine although it does draw the occasional snicker.  Kinda like pulling out a bag phone to make a call.  Currently I run a Sport Combo (really enjoy being able to adjust the stim level from the transmitter without changing plugs) and it's been just what a tool like this is supposed to be - reliable, easy to use, and unobtrusive.  I'm not a pro trainer or other power user, just a guy who needs to reinforce certain behavior in his dog and steer him away from occasional trouble.

I've never owned a Garmin product but their reputation is solid and extends far beyond the basic GPS.  My brother-in-law is the head of sales and marketing for an aircraft manufacturer that offers Garmin's avionics package as an option and says it's very popular among their customers and a thing of beauty to use.  Appealing to me is that every Garmin unit I've ever seen is more advanced than its predecessor.  Not just a slimmer shape or sleeker buttons, but more capability. A commitment to innovation and progress, while a bumpy road at times, generally leads to better products in the long run.

Put these two names together and there's every reason to expect a high-end piece of equipment. No surprise, there a quite a few slick features beyond combining two units into one, an advance that shouldn't be overlooked.  A dog's neck is only so long and stacking collars is never the height of practicality.

Garmin Alpha 100

Geofence is a user-definable range that alerts when the dog gets near an area where you don't want him to go.  I can think of about 200 situations right off the bat where this would come in handy.

Garmin Alpha 100

Bird's Eye imagery is something I find more useful than topos at times.  Landmarks are easier to identify (as long as the landscape hasn't changed since the sat photo was taken) and when in unfamiliar territory it's a lot easier to spot potential man-made hazards.

The claim is that the screen is glove-friendly which, if true in a practical sense, is a great feature.  There's a lot more to the package such as the ability to track 20 dogs, all your friends, their dogs and other stuff I'd never use but that someone probably will. Simply put, the thing is loaded.

For you guys north of the border, I couldn't find anything regarding usability in Canada. I'm sure an email to Garmin would answer the question but I'm lacking the energy to do such a thing in this heat.

I can't speak for every dog owner or handler but from what I see, this looks like it meets every expectation implied by the merger.  My only regret is that given the price ($799 retail), it may be a while before I get to drive one.

Ed:  Over at the Man's Best Friend Blog, Chad Love has a preview that dives a little deeper into some of the features.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Getting old is for the birds

When I was younger there were certain things that never seemed in short supply. Energy was one.  This must be what bubbles from the fountain of youth if there is such a thing.  I don't really know where it came from but sometimes I'd just run for the hell of it.  No stopwatch, no race, just running.  Once I wore a circular track in the backyard complete with berms in a few corners.

Deference was another.  Maybe it's the way I was brought up but I had respect for my elders.  I waited my turn, I listened when they gave instruction, I tried to live up to their expectations.  Remember those Question Authority bumper stickers?  I never had one. Just didn't have that rebel streak in me.  I did sneak out once, though.  Stayed gone for three days and couldn't believe the commotion it caused.

Apathy, on the other hand, bucked the trend.  It was nowhere to be found.  I cared about everything - big, small, dead, alive, new, old, clean, dirty - it was all interesting in one way or another.

Maybe I've seen all the world has to offer but now the give a shit factor barely budges the needle most of the time. Apathy and I have coffee daily. I don't know when, exactly, it all started to change.  If I had to guess I'd say it was a very gradual process, imperceptible on a weekly basis but at work nonetheless.  Slower than snowmelt but faster than water carving rock.

My joints never accept the notions I have for them, stiff, aching liabilities that they are. The stairs to the second floor might as well be Camp 4 at Everest by the end of the day. I used to see these old men walking around, shuffling actually, with their heads down and their shoulders rolled forward.  There's a preponderance of the day that I don't feel like holding my head up.

The doctor says my eyes are getting "cloudy", whatever that means.  I hope they don't fail or all these people who communicate with me through overzealous hand signals are going to be out of luck.  I know my hearing is slipping away but honestly, with these kids around the house it doesn't bother me much.  It comes in handy.

I got these round, fatty things all over me.  They feel like jello under my skin.  Doctor says they're nothing to worry about since they aren't attached to the bone or something but can this kind of thing really be good? Old age is undeniable, I don't care who you are.

I've narrowed the list of things I do care about down to two: food and a place to lie down, that's about it. I'll snitch food off of the table with everyone in the room. I'll knock over the kitchen trash can and have at it. Can't get enough of it.

And give me a place to lie down, any place really, and I'm happy.  A soft place is better what with my bones aching like they do, did I mention that already?  But this time of year a place in the shade or near a fan or next to an air conditioning vent is just fine.

This is the stuff I think about now that I'm old.  There are also things I prefer not to think about.

old bird dog

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Photojournalist Melissa Volpi - An Interview

In the immortal words of John Cleese, "..and now for something completely different." As part of an effort to bolt out of the off-season rut I thought I'd take a look from a new, more artistic angle than my point-and-shoot skills normally offer.

Clicking through the spring issue (no. 10) of the e-zine Sporting Shot I found a piece on grouse hunting in Colorado and eventually drifted toward the author notes at the end to find that the female author (bit of a surprise) was Scottish (surprise getting bigger) and earns a living as a hunting/shooting photojournalist (now we're into the different part).

Melissa VolpiMelissa Volpi lives outside of St. Andrews in Fife, sacred ground to golfers (I'm told) and generally a very scenic plot in the land of bagpipes and tartans.  In addition to Sporting Shot her work has appeared in Gray's Sporting Journal here in the US and in a number of sporting publications in the UK. Melissa graciously agreed to talk with me about her work, her travels, wingshooting across the pond and various other topics.

You've published quite a bit of work for someone so young. Did you find breaking into the business easier or more difficult being a woman?

There are definitely advantages to being a woman in this industry. Even in 2012 there are still more men involved in shooting than women – and for this reason I think people become intrigued by new female members and are eager to encourage their participation. But I also think, as far as breaking into the business goes, that it doesn’t matter whether you’re male or female – you just have to offer the right work to the right Editor and it’s this aspect, and this aspect alone, that I’ve found quite challenging.

I have been lucky enough to find a buyer for every article I’ve written. It's been a great learning experience for me and it still is. I write for myself first, and then try to sell the finished story. And stories are what my articles are – they’re not reports or what I would class as journalistic features. For a start, most of them are around the 2500 word mark, so it isn’t always easy trying to place this kind of piece. I’ve had rejections in the past three years – not because Editors haven’t enjoyed my articles, but because they are longer, written in the first person and contain a lot of dialogue.

My writing style isn’t commonplace within the shooting press, but there is a market for it – as I’ve found. I think this is more to do with it being written from a different perspective than because I’m a woman, though.

Was there anyone in particular who influenced you, mentored you, or encouraged you?

I really have been lucky to meet some memorable and interesting characters and each one has taught me something different about the industry and about people in general. From a reclusive Highland gamekeeper with a fondness for Sushi to gunsmiths who spend over 700 hours engraving a shotgun, but who never actually fire one to a hunter who accidentally wounds an animal, but doesn’t mind you naming him and writing about it for the shooting press, each one has taught me that people are surprising and impossible to place once you really get to know them.

There are three people who top my list though: Nigel Tanburn, my university professor, James Marchington, my first editor and Ernest Hemingway, whose books I have devoured time and time again.

Nigel was a shooting man in a past life and encouraged me to bring my interest in country sports into the classroom – even though no other member of my class was going down this route. If it wasn’t for Nigel, I would never have contacted the team at Purdey to ask if I could do a photo-essay on how a shotgun is made – which was the beginning of everything for me.

When I showed my images to James Marchington, he offered me a two-week work experience placement, which eventually led to a part-time job as Editorial Assistant at Sporting Shooter magazine. During the 9 months that I was there, James encouraged me to go out and write feature articles – something I had never attempted before – and it was this experience that made me want to write and photograph about country sports full-time.

Then there’s Ernest Hemingway. After reading A Moveable Feast, Fiesta, The Sun Also Rises and Green Hills of Africa, I decided that storytelling was for me. His books come alive because he writes in the first person and makes you feel part of the adventure – and it’s these qualities that I strive for in my own writing.

And like Hemingway you've given your passport a workout.  Tell me about one of the more interesting episodes in your travels....

This is a hard question to answer – as they have all been unique and entertaining. My European trips to France, Spain and Croatia definitely stand out though – probably because I joined local people on these hunts, instead of flying out there as part of a British shooting party.

I visited a group of hunt riders in the Loire valley to take part in the famous Chasse a Courre and ended up renting a horse aptly named Gigolo. There was the time I joined a French boar hunt and was kissed 50 times, by 25 different men, in fifteen minutes – due to the French custom of greeting your guests with a kiss on each cheek.

Once in Croatia when we were stalking wild boar on foot the guide said to the hunter I was with, “Don’t worry, there is a wide ditch between us and the boar. So there is plenty of time to shoot,” only for the boar to jump the ditch and head straight at us. Quite an exhilarating moment as that estate is renowned for its Oscar worthy boar, weighing nearly 300kg and with tusks reaching up to 33cm in length.

But the funniest episode has to be when I was shooting partridge in Spain for the first time. I’ve never had so many people helping me while standing at a peg. There was Antonio, my loader. Pedro, my secretario (bird counter) and Raquel who was my translator. None of the Spaniards use hearing protection but you really need it on driven partridge days. I love this picture because it shows perfectly what happened ten minutes into the shooting – everyone put their fingers in their ears. 

Spanish bird hunt

It was when Pedro started hammering what looked like giant green lollipops into the earth that it really became interesting though. “These are to remind the hunters not to shoot down the line,” Raquel informed me. If you had seen these metal stands, you would understand how terrified for my safety I became on hearing this – as most look worse than a target used for shotgun pattern testing.

For our American readers, can you compare bird hunting in the United Kingdom to your experiences in the States?

In Colorado, the day was all about the dogs and the grouse – nothing else mattered. The rules were few – wear something fluorescent, take a water bottle and blow on your whistle three times in case of an emergency – and once mentioned, everyone split up and walked up different parts of the mountain with their dogs. It was only during the odd break, or once your bag limit was reached, that you all came together again as a group.

In Scotland, walked-up grouse days are a much more formal affair. The head keeper and his team are dressed in their estate tweeds. Hunters walk across the moors in a line, for safety reasons, with the head keeper at one end and the under keeper at the other – with both constantly discussing what’s happening at each end on walkie-talkies. Scottish grouse shooting really is as well managed as an orchestra.

driven grouse hunt

Bag limit was another major difference. In Colorado, the bag limit was three blue grouse per day and two sharp-tailed grouse per day. In Scotland, there is no limit throughout the grouse-shooting season.

In Scotland, it’s common to have ‘Buck shot’ during the breaks from shooting – buck shot is a kind of alcoholic game consomm√©. But in Colorado, it was dark chocolate containing bits of streaky bacon that was passed around! It’s these little quirks that make a trip, I think.

The differences in temperature are another factor. We hunt grouse in Scotland from the 12th of August and although the days are still long and mostly sunny, the temperature is much cooler – and, in my opinion, much better for hunting. In Colorado, the temperatures rose from 65 degrees Fahrenheit to 85 degrees Fahrenheit in a couple of hours – and this was on a September morning! I got myself pretty fit by walking 10 miles three to four times a week before flying out there. But, between the heat and the mountains, I was definitely the only member of that hunting party who struggled – which is saying something, considering I am 29 and the other members of the party were in their 40’s.

Rest assured the temperatures get cooler in Colorado as the season progresses. Back to some professional topics, you studied photojournalism in college - when did you focus (bad, bad pun) on wingshooting?

It wasn’t until my second year at University that I started focusing on gun making, wing shooting and stalking. Before that I photographed everything from London film premieres to The Royal Caledonian Ball to Badminton horse trials and 18th century masked events during the yearly carnival in Venice.

And even though I really enjoyed photographing all these personal projects as part of my course, it wasn’t until I started focusing on field sports that I felt truly interested in my subject. I’ve met a lot of lovely people throughout the past few years, but the ones I hold most dear are involved in this industry in some way.

What makes a great photograph of a bird dog or a hunter?

I like portraits that tell you a little about the subject's personality, whether that be a hunter or his dog.  For me, it’s about capturing something that's a little bit quirky and unplanned. I do take set up shots occasionally – as sometimes it’s necessary – but I’ve taken my best shots when hunters have forgotten
I’m there.

Scottish dog handler
I took this photo on a Perthshire moor, during a day of walked-up grouse. This dog was in love with the keeper and rushed to his side at every opportunity. I took this shot when the keeper was
deep in conversation with the dog’s owner and I love it because they both have the same expression and stance.

Scottish hunting dogsThis shot contains the same pointer and I took this it because it really shows you each dog’s personality. The pointer is graceful and proud. She’s doing her job but, if you look closely, you can see she’s leaning into her owner, which betrays her inexperience and vulnerability – true, as this was one of her first outings on the moors. Where as the lab is relaxed and waiting eagerly for the fetch command.

And this photo is the hardest shot I’ve ever done. This gamekeeper was so reluctant to have his picture taken that I had to hide in the heather to get this shot – and I was there for a while! It was taken during a driven partridge day in Angus, when he was walking up the line checking each hunter before the drive began. For me, the clouds and his kilt made the shot. A gamekeeper in a kilt is not something you see very often, even in Scotland.

Scottish gamekeeper

What I will say is that it doesn’t matter whether you’re photographing people or animals, the best picture is one in which you’re capturing an intimate moment. That’s the kind of picture that we can all relate to and take something from.

I took this picture and I love it – not just because of the natural light but because Rebus, the golden Labrador, is looking adoringly at his owner. The owner’s pose was a set up shot, but the dog's loving gaze was not. It’s little details like this that are priceless.

In the last photo of the article in Sporting Shot, the one where you're holding the hard-earned grouse, those have to be the most fashionable pair of shooting glasses I've seen. As they say at the Oscars, Who are you wearing?

I’d love to say that I was wearing designer shades… but they are an inexpensive pair I bought from a local department store in Dundee, Scotland.  I don’t normally wear shades when shooting, but the strong Colorado sun made it impossible not to on that trip.

Thanks for taking a few minutes to share your story.  Before we go, I know of a certain element among our readers who would be severely disappointed if I didn't ask for some local knowledge of Scotland's most famous export.  St. Andrews isn't exactly in the heart of single malt country but do you have a favorite?

I do, I drink Edradour – it's Scotland's smallest distillery. On shoot days I do a 50/50 mix of Edradour and Sauternes. It's not a common concoction here, but I took this to Colorado with me and everyone seemed to love the combination.

(ED:  Thank me later.)

Visit Melissa's site at

Friday, June 22, 2012

The days are getting shorter

It's barely noticeable unless you're keeping score, a mere technicality yielding no practicality.  With fully two thirds of the working summer remaining and essentially all of the really hot days still to come only an optimist or a drooling fool would see any sign of autumn in this event.  I've rarely been labeled an optimist.

It's not that I loathe summer.  Swimming with the kids, a hammock I'm pretty fond of, bare feet, no jackets, fresh everything, humidity, mosquitoes, periodic drought, oppressive heat waves.  Yeah.

There are lots of things that I do loathe: spoiled grownups, a leaking roof, a checking account determined to achieve the value of zero, politics in general, Kanye West, reflux.......ok, enough whining.  It's one of the curious conditions of human existence that such nuisances are easily displaced by the hope of something better down the road, doesn't have to be bird season, anything more appetizing than the irritant at hand will do.  And hope comes in the form of even the tiniest reminder.

In the same way I'm forced to admit on December 21st that the best time of the year is ending I allow myself the brief but savory pleasure of knowing that fall and its vices are getting closer.  Not in a hurry, though, just right on schedule.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

New York to Finally Get a Dove Season?

Sometimes I focus way too much on the things I don't have instead of enjoying the things I do.  The Syracuse Post-Standard reported this week that a bill was introduced in the New York State Senate that would re-classify dove as "migratory game birds" from their current classification as songbirds, opening the door for the Department of Environmental Conservation to implement a full-fledged dove season.  I don't know why but I just kinda thought that the only places lacking a dove season were places lacking doves.  It's as much of a given down here as fried food and embarrassing local headlines that make national news.

I don't know whether there's a powerful songbird lobby in the Empire State or whether change is just glacially slow in such a "progressive" place.  Either way it seems strange that grouse, pheasant and even bobwhite quail are fair game during the season and dove get a free pass on their way south.  Hell, California has a mourning dove season, for crying out loud.

Part of the problem may be that almost half of the population lives on a strip of land 13 miles long and 2 miles wide, a place where shotguns are are either offensive or defensive weaponry and millet fields are, umm, completely nonexistent.  The other part of the problem, whatever it is, evades me.  Dove hunting is one of fall's finest diversions and there's no practical reason to deprive any sportsman of its rewards.  In both solitary and social forms, it is bargain recreation for any who enjoy a gun, a dog, fresh air or any combination of these.  And it's an excellent way to get a kid off the couch and hooked on something good.

New York doesn't just deserve a dove season, they need one.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It ain't exactly the Waldorf

Several nights a month the day job keeps me on the road.  It's not my favorite event but I've gotten used to it and have the routine down pretty well.  The town (Santee, SC) has a population of 724 according the census bureau.  There are a handful of golf courses which do me absolutely no good since I don't play.  There's a big ass lake which does me absolutely no good since I don't own a boat.  Among the things notably lacking are a pro baseball team, an opera house, an IMAX theater and an Apple Store.  I'm truly afraid of what I might see if I ventured into the local gentleman's club.

The hotel is a national chain (raking in the reward points) and the five star restaurant downstairs is, well, there isn't one.  There's a Shoney's across the street.  Still, the place is nice enough and recently remodeled, and they usually comp me a suite - which is basically the room next to the stairwell and the space behind the stairwell with the wall between them knocked out - for the regular room rate seeing as I'm somewhere in the Top 3 on their best customer list for the last seven years.  They treat me like family, which is about as good as you can get when you're away from your family.  You look for those little things when you're away.

Unloading my truck tonight I thought I heard something behind me.  I stopped, turned around, and heard it again, for sure this time.  Not 300 yards from I-95 the unmistakable two-tone call familiar to every bobwhite hunter brought a smile to my face.  I just stood and listened for a few minutes.  I'm sure the folks with the Massachusetts plates made a mental note to avoid eye contact should they run into me in the hall.  You know, the guy with the backpack and the laptop standing in the middle of the parking lot staring at the field?  Yeah, maybe he's been away from home too long.

It's home for somebody

Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day: Thanksgiving and then some

To most of the country today is just another day they don't have to go to work and don't get any mail.  No fireworks, no family feast, no gifts.  To me it's the most underrated, unappreciated pause for celebration and remembrance on the calendar.  We tell our children about sacrifice, about how nothing worth having comes without paying a price, about hard work and perseverance and setbacks.  It's part of their education and of our efforts to make them into good citizens, contributing members of our society.  And these virtues are the bedrock of this holiday.

There are pages and pages of things that I enjoy and that give me pleasure and maybe an index card full of things that I truly love.  Most would not be possible in any other country on Earth.  In a bit of grand irony, one of those on the index card has me carrying a gun intent on using it, not for my country or my job or anything except my own enjoyment.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans before me have carried guns under much less enjoyable circumstances.

Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."  We're not without our problems. What family isn't?  Yet as long as this is true there will be other governments and individuals preoccupied with knocking us from the podium. Maintaining our spot at the top will always come with a price.

I go to work every day knowing that there is no one intent on killing me for what I do, at least not anyone who's going to act on it.  How different my world would be if that were not the case.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Amber waves

Remember that winter wheat that was just sticking its nose up during dove season? Took a while but it sure looks good about now...

Winter wheat

Winter wheat

Saturday, May 5, 2012

What am I doing here?

Early May isn't that far removed from the end of bird season unless you take into account the leaves on the trees, the pollen, and the forty-plus degree difference in the temperature outside.  Right now it's as hot as the parking lot in Hell.  Aside from the blooming honeysuckle I'd need a calendar to tell me it isn't July.

But - surprise to me - there are still some guys chasing birds in the US.  Reading a random article earlier this week I saw mention that the season in Alaska didn't end until June.  At the time I felt sure this referred to some type of dog training season, a no-guns except blank pistols window before the birds started nesting.   Curiosity got the better of me and I drifted to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website get to the skinny.

PtarmiganLo and behold in the land of the tundra you can hunt grouse as late as April 30th and ptarmigan as late as June 15.  Wait a minute, if I lived in Alaska I could still be hunting birds?  With a gun?  I could go tomorrow?  

All these years I've been supremely jealous of the anglers around here, what with no closed season and all. Change apparel, change gear, change your underwear once in a while and never stop fishing.  But birds you can only shoot half of the year.  Never mind that the other half of the year you'd kill the dog running him for more than fifteen minutes, it still seemed more than a little unfair.

In Alaska, though, you can hunt TEN months a year. Yes, I understand there are probably a few days in the middle of the season where it might be too chilly to hunt.  Or open the front door.  Still, it gives the idea of pitching life as I know it in favor of the Alaskan adventure some serious consideration.  Maybe I'll stick it in that drawer to be opened near retirement.

I'm not sure if the rest of us should look at this as a consolation for living in such a remote and unforgiving place or one of the rewards for doing something the masses don't have the cojones for.  Or further proof that life in general is one big game of Let's Make a Deal.

Friday, April 27, 2012

...and he shot some, too

The estate of legendary saltwater fly fisherman Billy Pate is being auctioned in Islamorada in a few weeks.  Estate sales and auctions are an interesting glimpse into the lives of the deceased regardless of how well or if you knew them.  Browsing the catalog online today I was only a bit surprised that he owned several Winchester model 50s.  For whatever reason a fairly dominant percentage of rod men are also gun men, even if to a lesser degree. There is a pair of what appear to be Gokey snake boots (hmmm....wonder what size he wore?) and I even spotted a bird dog sculpture in one of the photos.  And there's a leather gun case from Abercrombie and Fitch back when they used to make stuff for people over the age of fourteen whose diversions were not strictly hormone-induced.

Billy led a charmed life, having made enough money early on to pursue his passion with abandon.  There are plenty of wealthy folk who ride out their days puttering around with lines in the water and a drink in hand to pass the hours.  Billy was more than a dabbler - he went at it like it was the only job he'd ever land.  Nice work if you can get it.

If you have a few minutes the catalog is worth a look.  Fly fishing groupies might find a keepsake or two in the ten pages of offerings.  Scores of books and videos, all being sold in lots.  Keep your eye out for these on forums and eBay down the road.  Also quite a bit of art and more flies than you can shake a push pole at.  And yes, there are even a handful of push poles.

The link:  RW Oliver's Billy Pate auction

Monday, April 16, 2012

Think he'd give me a key to the gate?

Over the weekend I stumbled upon an article in The State about a Greek shipping tycoon (is there any other kind of shipping tycoon?) purchasing one of the older plantations in South Carolina for a song.  The place definitely has character and a certain John Mellencamp flavor...

Medway Plantation, future quail
Medway Plantation
courtesy of The Post and Courier

At almost 6700 acres it's a good-sized piece of dirt and all of it is in conservation easements, a flicker of hope that maybe part of my state won't be a subdivision someday. It looks like he's in it for at least one of the right reasons:
(Gregory) Callimanopulos plans to reintroduce wild quail at Medway and use the Berkeley County estate as a personal getaway and hunting retreat.

Read more here:
"Reintroduce" is a bit of a misnomer, the local quail underground telling me that enhancements will come from the native bobwhites already in residence.  I'm guessing that of any limiting factors, cost will not be one.

If any of you happen to know Mr. C, do me a favor and mention that a nice donation to our state's bobwhite initiative would go a long way toward establishing him as a good neighbor.

The full piece-

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Patience, grasshopper

The last time I had an untrained dog in the house was somewhere around thirteen years ago.  And when I say untrained, I mean it in every sense of the word.  He was a "project", a rescue dog I was supposed to foster until I got him conditioned to the point that he could go live out his days with a nice family.  Fast forward about thirteen years and that nice family turned out to be us.

Patient dog
A very willing playmate
He's a pretty well -adjusted dog now, still a bit quirky but what dog isn't?  Obviously he's very tolerant of my daughter playing dress up with him, a big difference from the frightened, skittish, untrusting creature he was when I brought him home.  It took about a year just to get him to the point that he would voluntarily choose to be around people.  If I learned one thing from the experience it was patience, and if anyone tells you that you can train a dog without being patient you'd be wise to ignore whatever they say after that.

Since my first dog in the early '90s I've read and re-read a number of books and managed to pull a few nuggets from most of them.  The one point they fail to emphasize, however, is how important patience is in bringing a dog along.  They do a fine job of explaining what to do and what not to do, but they don't spend much time talking about how to go about it - patiently.   You'll read things like "don't rush through this step" and "the dog will tell you when it's time to proceed", but this fundamental aspect doesn't receive anywhere near the attention that it should.  Most inexperienced dog owners assume that the dog is telling them it's time to proceed at roughly the same time they (the owners) are ready to proceed.  What a coincidence.

Possibly the authors of dog training books don't spend more time on the subject because it's something you can't exactly learn from a book.  I'll go along with this premise. You learn it through experience, and you only get experience by getting older.  Still, if more authors devoted a chapter or so to the role of patience in the training process it would at least be in the back of the mind of any new dog owner.

When I think back to training my first bird dog I cringe at the mistakes I made.  Most of these were due to a lack of patience layered on top of a lack of knowledge.  I read too many accounts of dogs that were finished by the time they were a year old (or even sooner) and by damn I was determined to have one of those.  Fortunately for me I had a very forgiving, patient dog.  I could have done many things better by simply not being in a hurry.  Slow down to speed up as the road course racers say.

Since Wyatt came to live with us in 2010 I've been thinking a lot about patience and its role in the process.  It hit home again the other day when I read this post on the Steady with Style website in which Martha Greenlee does an excellent job of showing that time is as critical as any other ingredient in having a bird dog who makes you happy.  Martha is one of a handful of trainers who write regularly about the importance of not turning the training process into a contest to see how quickly you can finish.

If you spend time with a good professional trainer you'll notice how critical patience is to the process.  Work a dog on two or three birds per session, limit sessions to three or four a week, maybe every other day.  Don't try to fix every problem before the end of each session.  Think about it - you didn't learn algebra in a day, did you?  Some kids catch on quickly, some kids more slowly, but just about all of them get it if the teacher takes the time to keep working with them until the light comes on.  If you're struggling with your dog's progress, chances are you're in too much of a hurry.

I'm not a professional trainer and have no illusions of ever becoming one.  I just want to keep owning and hunting bird dogs, hopefully good, well-adjusted ones.  I'm a better dog owner and handler now than I was and a big part of that is learning the role of patience in the process.  It's not a sprint.  On average you'll own and hunt a dog for a decade or more. Take a little more time in the beginning to get it right.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Hits and misses

We had the winter that wasn't this year.  It was the warmest I can recall in slightly less than half a century that I've been available to take notes. The laws of nature and the law of averages and Murphy's Law and a few others say you're going to get one of these now and then, and not likely when it suits your schedule.  I felt a little cheated not even seeing a flake of snow.  I didn't even burn a full rack of firewood.  And now spring is here, wide open and at least a month ahead of schedule.  Winter is definitely gone.

I will miss being able to drive down the highway at dusk without bugs smashing all over my windshield, especially whichever ones make the tiny white streaks that look like someone ground up a grease pencil and hurled the shavings at the truck.

I will miss the smell of burning leaves, of the air first thing in the morning after a cold front moves in, of my waxed cotton gear that is uninhabitable in warmer weather.

I'll miss sitting in the office on Wednesday knowing I'm going hunting in only three days.  I'll miss waking up while it's still dark, loading the truck in the dark, and heading down the highway looking at the horizon for the first signs of light.

I'll miss knowing that if I really wanted to, most likely at the cost of a job or a marriage or at the very least a severe ass-gnawing from either, I could go hunting today.

I won't miss the barren, naked look of trees.  For years I've wished that leaves would change color in the fall and stay that way until spring when the new ones would push them off the branch.  A winter wardrobe.

I won't miss scraping frost off of the windshield or my door freezing shut.  I won't miss driving off with a stack of bills and checks on the toolbox, the ones I put there so I could use both hands to pull open the frozen door, and watching them take flight in the rearview.

I won't miss the mud in my yard.  And on my shoes.  And on my pants.  And in my house.

I could go on but there's not much sense in dwelling on what was, wasn't and isn't.  Winter is gone.  Give it eight or nine months and there's a good chance it'll be back.