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.