Although we hit a couple of areas in Montana that failed to produce many birds, most areas have held plenty of birds. And of course, a seemingly endless amount of fields and miles to walk while hunting for them. The scenery and the dogwork make those miles well worth it.
It has been particularly fun to watch the pups step up and do their part.
Our adventure is focused and planned around bird hunting yet there are many spontaneous aspects of travel that bring fun to our travels. For the past week+ we camped at an isolated Montana wildlife management area that was near the end of miles of gravel road. We were only about an hour from the Lewistown area which has received lots of publicity for bird hunting. But the area focus is on pheasant which doesn't even open until mid-October so we didn't expect many other hunters to be there pursuing sharptails and Huns. We were wrong.
When the weekend rolled around we were shocked to find other couples also camping there to hunt. Friday evening found 8 of us gathered around the grill while Mike cooked birds from the week as well as some venison from the freezer. The diverse group ranged from locals Karen and Butch of Amer Field trial and training fame, Don and Kristen from western MT, and Arlene and Sam who split their time each year between their home in NJ, months of traveling and hunting out of their RV, and winter months sailing the Carribean. The conversation and stories of dogs and hunting could fill chapters of a good book.
Sam expressed interest in hunting behind a pointing dog as a change from his Springer so one day he joined Mike, the 2 EB's and a setter while I followed with the camera. Dee in particular was really on that day and several times we looked for him, only to find him on point on a far ridge. Sharptails and Huns were bagged by both and I think a pointy dog is in Sam's future.
Also that day I snapped one of my favorite pics so far on the trip. Jack on the edge of a coulee on a sharptail that Mike dropped for him.
After the trial the temperatures really began to heat up where we were staying. Mornings were cool enough to hunt for an hour or two but the rest of the day we spent hunkered down, trying to stay cool and keep the dogs comfortable. Although the OR does have air conditioning, we carry a portable generator that cannot carry the heavy AC load. Staying at an RV park would provide an electrical plug-in to run it but if you have ever seen them, they are pretty much just trailer parks and that's not what our adventures are about. So instead we headed to one of the many mountains that can be seen in the distance from the prairie.
We chose to follow a lead we were given to find dusky and ruffed grouse, which are both referred to as mountain grouse in MT. It was a 30+ miles drive in on a small dirt road that at times had us wondering if we had made a good decision. We were headed for a small piece of public land that was sandwiched inside of a 150,000 acre private ranch whose enterprise focuses on elk hunting as well as cattle and gravel excavation. We camped in solitude in a long valley at nearly 5000' elevation with Douglas fir and ponderosa pines on the mountainsides. We woke in the morning to the sound of elk bugling echoing down the valley.
Although we had previously seen photos of dusky grouse being pointed in nice gentle pine meadows, we found them on steep hillsides in thick, rocky stands of aspen. Not very conducive to photos. We had also been told that the grouse out here were unaccustomed to being hunted and would flush slowly and unwillingly. Not. Storm had the first point and I could clearly see her standing steady, but as soon as I took steps around a clump of saplings the bird flushed giving me only glimpses of feathers. Bird, coming your way! I yelled to Mike and boom, in a single shot Mike had his first dusky grouse.
Over the next two days we climbed up and down the mountainside and were successful with a modest number of ruffed and dusky grouse. But we knew that rain was forecast for the next day and that we had better get out of that valley while we were able. The grouse were so delicious that we decided to head to a national forest located the other side of the mountain in the hopes of finding more. There was a booming thunderstorm hanging on top of the mountain as we approached that cleared as we got to the top.
It was beautiful up there but a lack of aspen cover, elk hunters pouring in (archery season opened the next day) and mud everywhere made us change our mind. So back to the prairie and solitude.
It's hard to believe that we have been on the road for a week already. After a wonderful visit and dinner with friends in ND last Weds nite we arrived in Denton, MT on Thursday. The Epagneul Breton trial was hosted by a couple well known to horseback American Field trialers with their lovely home serving as base for the trial. Butch (Nelson) had arranged with local landowners to use their private properties as the trial grounds. This was a wild bird trial and the habitat and bird numbers were excellent with dogs finding sharptails, Huns and pheasant. At the trial banquet we had the opportunity to meet several landowners; they were what one would expect from multi-generational Montana ranchers in their humility, openness and love of the land.
It was fun to see so many other EB's and the club members were friendly and helpful to us even though we made it clear that this was just for fun for us and our priorities remain with hunting. Jack did us proud by finding and handling 3 separate roosters and a group of sharptails as well as he always has when hunting and he was awarded Reserve (runner up.). Jack is probably less proud since the judges informed us that handler error kept him from winning 1st place. But being true to the species, Jack's love is unconditional and he seems to forgive his owners for our flaws.
The weather was great over the weekend but has heated up this week, restricting our hunting to a couple of hours in early morning. We are parked at a MT WMA (wildlife management area) on a dead end road that sees about one vehicle a day and we can walk out the door and to hunt in any direction. Yesterday it felt great to open 4 kennel doors and let Jack, Dee, Storm and Tweed rip across the fields and coulees. Sharptail and Huns: its what's for dinner. Look really closely to see the dogs in this first pic, that's how they roll out here.
Just down the road is the beautiful Judith River and today we took a pleasure walk along the river with the dogs staying cool swimming. It is a picturesque area and when we found a chimney from a long-ago cabin we talked about the fact that even very long ago, people found enough pleasure in the same things that we enjoy today to build there despite the hardships of this countryside.
The Open Range is hooked up, guns and gear packed, dogs are loaded up and we are crossing North Dakota as I write this. We have felt pretty organized the past few weeks as we prepared for this trip. We are planning to be on the road for about 8 weeks which is a good length of time but feels a whole lot easier than last year when we had to prepare for 4 months on the road. Having a house here in Kansas cuts our road time in half since come November our hunting will be just a few nights away at a time or even some day trips out of the house.
Our first stop last night was at a campground in the Sheyenne Natl Grasslands at a lovely, spacious campground and we were the only ones there so were were able to let the dogs stretch their legs a bit. Our brand new generator quit after just a few minutes which left us a bit hot with no AC but the RV fans got us through the night and the company is over nighting a part to where we will be tomorrow. Now we are on to western North Dakota for some dinner plans and tomorrow we head into Central Montana.
In MT we will be running Jack in a field trial, it is a wild bird, all-breed pointing dog trial but a different venue than I have ever been to. The EB club requires dogs to have been successful in both trials and at shows before being bred so we recently decided to enter him. This gave me about a month to take a dog who has been allowed to break at the shot for thousands of birds and make him steady to flush and shot. I have been training by myself, old school style with only his leather collar and checkcord as equipment and his progress is proof positive that a good dog needs nothing more than that. After the trial we will let, actually encourage, him to again break at the shot because especially with roosters we want every advantage when it comes to recovering birds we shoot.
The MT season opens Sept 1st and we will explore and hunt the central part of the state which is new to both of us. There are pockets of forest in addition to prairie with the possibility of a variety of bird species. Daytime temps will likely require early morning hunts with afternoons for fishing or driving around. We hope to meet up with a New England friend who is making a quick trip to MT himself: we had dinner together shortly before moving to KS but this time there should be wild game on the table instead of a jaw dropping tab. As it cools we will head east to the familar areas where we hunted last year.
We will post photos and updates when we can find internet access. This year we have a new camera that also shoots video so we will be trying our hand at that as well. Also, after years of people asking me if I had a website for my dogs I finally broke down this year and had a modest site set up. I got a referral to a wonderful young man who is starting his own business and it was fun to work long-distance with him as he attempted to rein in my verbose, photo laden style and make it work on a site. If interested, the address is www.Firelightbirddogs.com. I still need to add to and fine tune some details on it but that will have to wait until we return.
We are excited that this year we have 4 adult, experienced bird dogs plus 2 pups heading into the bird hunting season. That may seem like a lot but given that we usually run 3 at a time and we will likely hunt 100+ days this year we think it sounds about right. We will rotate 'teams' according to cover as well as how each dog has been hunting.
Jack is 4 now, making his 5th trip to MT. While we are up there he is also going to run in a wild bird EB trial for the fun of it.
Dee is 2-1/2 and glad to be back on the full time roster. He continues to have occasional issues with the regrown foot pad from his HBC accident last year so we have dog boots on hand if needed to keep the boy running. He is embarrassed by the bling (they don't really have lights, that's a reflection from the camera flash).
Tweed was spayed this summer so she will be able to have an uninterrupted season this year. Last year she figured out the moves that old, sneaky roosters pull and promises revenge this year.
Storm is 3 now, given how well she did last year as a novice to the prairie we are really looking forward to see what she does this year.
Seth and Sally are the 2 pups we kept from Tweeds 2/13 litter. They are almost 7 months old and we can't wait to get them into birds. We plan to hunt them all season and then will be keeping one of these 2. Sally
And we can't forget the Back Seat Drivers, Patch and Worf, both 14.
I owe Mike an apology. I had not written a blog post in quite awhile and the other day when I opened the BlogPress app I discovered that I had left the following post that Mike had written sitting there as a draft, somehow I had messed up and had not published it. So the following is out of order, it obviously should have been published some time ago but I know you will enjoy it regardless.
The SOB Gobbler
One evening as Lynn Dee and I were sitting out on the patio relaxing we could see a gobbler all fanned out just down the draw from the house. He and a couple of hens were about 200 yards off. It was mid May and spring turkey season ended in 2 weeks. I had already shot one Tom and had been hunting frequently trying for number two. It had been a grand season, waking with the wild life in the country. So, I decided to try for this Tom the next morning.
Like usual, the turkeys were already gobbling by the time I was walking down the road from the house to get set up. I was all set up with a couple “working girl" decoys out front. There were gobbles all around including one from where we saw the gobbler the evening before. That Tom was answering me when from across the corn field I heard another bird get off the roost. The Tom down the hill kept answering, as has happened all season, but would not come over. Then I saw a bird sneaking through the corn field and peeking at me about 100 yards out. He vanished behind a terrace, only to reappear at the end of the field out of range. He looked my “girls” over but walked off to not be seen or heard again until the next morning. The next morning about 5:30, I was awakened by a gobbler gobbling just down the hill from the house. That SOB, I said out loud. I came home from work that day and once again he was gobbling his butt off just up the draw. That SOB. It may come down to me actually getting up early for that SOB. We will see.
Second try for the SOB gobbler. I had a perfect setup; Hen and Jake decoy set just inside a planted corn field. I am hiding under a mulberry tree in the fence line. I thought that Tom would be roosted about 100 yards away at the end of the corn field. But, no..... that SOB is roosted in a dead cottonwood behind me in a pasture. He gobbles on the roost a couple times answering my call and I hear him gobble on the ground coming my way. I look over my right shoulder and see him at about 75 yards away. He is fanning and gobbling softly every time I call. He moves my way, directly to me. But about 50 yards out he sees the decoys and veers away behind me just like he did before. The SOB is decoy shy. I call a few more times and nothing. There is an early morning thunderstorm moving in so I am ready to call it a morning but when I get up I can see that about 300 yards away over a terrace in the corn field the SOB is all fanned out with two other lesser Toms and a bunch of Jakes. I call a few times and they continue to strut around, but moving away across the corn field. I have to wait for them to get far enough away before I can move. It just starts sprinkling when I walk into the garage. And I turn around and I can see the dead cottonwood from the drive way. You SOB.
Third try. So far, this bird has kicked my butt. I even thought about giving up and throwing the towel in on the SOB. But, the evening after my second encounter, Lynn Dee and I are relaxing on the patio again and there he comes out about 300 yards away all fanned out courting a hen. He follows the hen off up the draw, gobbling the whole time. That SOB. So it is mano-a-mano tomorrow morning, no decoys. My tactic that I employ on the third encounter is to go around where he usually roosts with his entourage and try to cut him off as he and his buddies wander away.
There is a bright full moon as I leave for the hunt, giving me a moon shadow. This concerns me as I need to cross an open field to where I want to set up and I am afraid that the roosted birds might see me walking in, but I stay on course and get set up around 5:15 am. It starts to get light, but no gobbling. Did the turkeys see me walking in? No… I hear a gobble just down the field and into the timber. I call a couple times, and nothing. I call a couple more times with my slate call and nothing. Then I hear the SOB gobble and it sounds like he is on the ground and walking away. Shit, he must have seen me walking in, in the moon light. As I wait patiently, I see a couple jakes coming out of the timber across the field about 200 yards away. Then a few more jakes, I think 5 altogether. I give up on the slate call and go back to the mouth call that I have used on the previous two encounters. And lo and behold, I get a gobble across the field where the jakes come out.
Out of the shadows come the three kings. Well, one SOB and a couple lesser SOBs. The SOB is all fanned out strutting around like he is king. I call with the mouth call again and he does his quiet gobble and struts around, not coming my way. I am trying to be really patient and not over call, but I want that SOB. Slowly, the jakes leading the way start moving toward me. In the middle of the field, about half way between the birds and me is a grass water way that the birds will need to cross to get close enough for a shot. I call a few more times and he fans and struts, the other two mature birds and jakes are just watching the king put on a show. It was a good show, but I need him to continue to come another 50 yards and cross the water way, and then some. I call again and I notice that the jakes have started to cross the water way and the mature birds are starting to follow. I continue to call and he continues to move closer, looking for me. He crosses and is straight out into field from me and it appears that he may just keep on going by me like he had the previous two encounters. I take the shot.