Thursday, November 24, 2011

Busting Birds

 We woke up early yesterday morning, before daylight, and got ready to duck hunt.  It was blowing hard in town, which meant the middle of the valley was going to be miserable.  It was!  Gusting to 40 MPH and cold.

We set up along the field edge, near some juniper trees, waiting for the ducks to fly out of their sanctuary and into the uncut wheat fields of Ladd Marsh.  The boys haven't done much pass shooting, so they were excited to get out there, especially after the hunt uncle Seth and I had last week.

There were some guys decoying to the south of us, doing a good job of it too.  They weren't the typical guys out there scaring off ducks.  Their set up was professional and the ducks responded well to them.  It helped us out, keeping the birds focused on something besides us.  Many times ducks would make a pass at the decoys, bank with the wind, slide down over us and try making a turn to get back around setting us up for good shooting.

Corey and Cole tag teamed the first duck, a young, local drake.  It collapsed stone dead out of the air.  Jesse marked and retrieved it to them.  Then Tyler knocked down a duck, a big northern bird that didn't move once it hit the ground.  Jesse was right there again................the boys were loving it.  They all had part of a duck and had some other opportunities they just didn't connect on.

The decoy spread was busy most of the morning knocking down birds.  On one of the rallies a wounded hen barreled over the top of me, barely in control with flight feathers askew.  I knocked her down as she jetted past me with the wind, trying to make it back to water.  She fell over 100 yards out but Jesse had her in his sights.  It was a few minutes before he showed, but show he did with the mallard in his soft mouth. 

Tyler knocked down another duck soon afterwards.  It was a local drake, small and without the color of the norther birds.  A guy came down the line, headed away from the decoy spread, and back to his truck.  He had set up that morning unknowingly in front of the spread.  He knocked down a duck and while looking for it spotted the spread.  Without a dog the duck was impossible to find in the thick, heavy grass.  He came to tell me so Jesse could find it.  I headed up to where he said the duck fell and Jesse had scent almost immediately.  It took him a while to track down the runner, but he got him before he made it to the ditch.  The man thanked us and gave the duck to the boys, since their dog had retrieved it.  They were pretty excited to up their body count.

Just before we left, a big group of ducks dropped into the decoys.  They dropped a few and I watched a lone drake break formation headed for the open field.  It dropped 500-600 yards from the decoys.  I watched the hunters that killed it for a while and realized they hadn't seen it drop.  I headed out with Jesse to find the dead bird.  He worked the wind perfectly, finding the bird quickly.  There was a long, deep, wide ditch between us and the decoys.  I tried to get the attention of the guys sitting in their blinds, but with the wind, they didn't hear me, so we reduced it to our bag limit and headed home. 

 We got home, changed out our steel shot for lead, did some chores for mom and headed to chukar country.  We passed two trucks leaving the area we wanted to hunt, but decided with the limited time we had, we'd give it a go.  Jesse pointed birds in the first draw.  I had to move 60 yards down hill to where he held the birds.  I was just above him when the birds flushed, I missed easily.  Jesse turned up country and pointed again on a second group, just 40 yards from the last.  I had a quick shot that didn't connect with anything.

It was Corey's turn next.  Jesse made it around to him, following scent on the ever present wind.  Corey followed him out on a point where Jess locked up again.  Corey made it to his side and kicked up a bird.  It was too fast for him and as he let down his gun and guard, the rest of the covey flushed.  He said he didn't get his head down, he didn't follow through, and he is positive he flock shot, missing his chance.

Tyler had just caught up to us and was standing there with me watching Corey work his way back towards us and Jesse was headed around the hill hunting.  I told Tyler it was up to him to get some feathers in Jesse's mouth, so he took off fast trying to catch the dog.  It didn't take long and we heard the shot and Tyler  yelling fetch.  They had made it down to the next ridge and into the draw where Jesse pointed his birds.  Tyler worked in close and then Jesse moved on, fast; the birds had ran out.  Tyler kept with him and he locked up again a few minutes later.  Tyler got along side of him, flushed the birds and killed a chukar; his first on the wing.

 We stopped for pictures and then headed around the hill looking for more. 

Jesse had a few more points, the boys had a few more misses and we were headed back, trying to stay ahead of the falling darkness.  Jess was in the lead, but below Tyler and Corey.   A chukar flushed wild between them.  The shot was Corey's and he let the bird swing out and away from Tyler before shouldering his gun.  At the shot the chukar dropped to the ground, rebounded and flew down country, crashed again, raised once more, high into the air, then ran out of gas.  The boys got Jesse down there and he found it, pointing the dead bird, then retrieving it to Corey; his first ever game bird shot on the wing.  When Corey hit it he started yelling and jumping up and down......he was so excited.  Cole and I watched from above.   

Cole got a few shots in, but the chukars were fast and the single shot 20 gauge is still a bit big and the hammer somewhat cumbersome for a 9 year old.  But he had fun and can't wait to go again.  I missed six opportunities at chukar; not the best day of shooting for sure.  If my dad would have been there I'm sure I'd have heard him announce to all the world, like he did in 1995 when we were hunting uncle Dave and aunt Kerrin's place in Vale for pheasant, that "if a bird gets up in front of Jason, someone kill it, because he can't hit CRAP!"

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Flashback Duck Hunt

Last night was a cold and windy night, with snow storms ripping across the valley and, unbeknownst to us, 2,000 northern mallards piling into some wheat fields on state ground.  I called my brother Seth to see if he was feeling up to a good hunt;  I wanted to look for a few pheasants with an occasional duck thrown in the mix.  He said he was just getting ready to go, I asked him where he was heading and amazingly I was thinking of the same spot that night.  We haven't hunted it for years, but we both felt the need to explore it again.....but the wind was gusting to 40 mph and the near horizontal snow wasn't feeling like a pheasant hunt.  On our way to the "spot" we notice a couple thousand ducks landing in some standing wheat along the road..........I love it when fate smiles upon us, so, we decide to see what we could make of it.

I had brought along Jess; Seth decided to leave Piper, his black lab, at home.  Our plan was to hunt for the elusive cock bird over a pointer along brush rows and uncut field edges.  Now we were belly crawling through wheat with a pointer "creeping up" on 2,000 feeding ducks with a hundred more airborne trying to land.  Occasionally they'd all lift up, circle quickly and land again; it was beautiful!

Jesse, for a pup of 17 months, is pretty well mannered.  He typically does what is asked and has shown some good self restraint for his young and excited age.  But that many ducks in the air at once, with a strong wind blowing from them to us was more than he could handle.  He broke point, actually he shattered it, 85 to 100 yards from the mass of birds, running full speed into his heaven!  Within seconds every duck in the field was airborne and circling, trying to land and feed again.  Jesse came back with a drake......not a good sign for a pointer.  Thankfully it was wounded and lost, not a healthy bird he'd caught out of the air.  I quickly dispatched of it and made it part of my limit. But Jesse was already back into the field running with all his speed and might, putting ducks up EVERYWHERE!  Seth and I took advantage of this opportunity and got into better position as Jesse ran a distraction for us.

We set up between wheat rows laying on our sides.  Seth was shooting his 11-87 lefty gun, with an extended and ported choke tube--deadly.  And I was carrying a 1938-41 Remington model 11 autoloader.  It looks like the browning auto-5 humpback, which actually it is, only with the Remington stamp.  Mr. Browning took the original idea to Winchester, who made the prototypes, patented everything, then drug their feet, so John picked up the guns, the patents and the plans, and headed to Remington, who gladly produced them for a while.  I'm not sure the last time it was shot or even used as I bought the gun from an antique dealer this last winter.  I cleaned it up, shot it, paid the guy the money and took it home to the boys.  It's sat in the cabinet since then.  I know I shouldn't shoot steel through it, but I wanted to use it and on state lands steel shot is a must; so I sinned a little, sue me!  Oh, and by the way, it shoots like a dream!  Steel shot patterns very nicely through its long, full choked, solid ribbed barrel.  I'm pretty sure the great-great-great-grandparents of the ducks we shot, rolled over in their graves every time the hammer fell on that classic old gun!

As we laid in the wheat we watched as more ducks piled off the marsh, north along the freeway, then ducking under the wind, working their way over us to the thousands behind us.  Jesse finally came to his senses and was back at my feet begging for forgiveness, which I freely gave.  With intensity, he was watching every duck that slid over us in the ever present wind.  When our gun barrels raised, Jesse was ready, marking most of the birds we shot and retrieving them back to the pile.  Sometimes he'd drop them early, and once he found the duck but left it, hunting down field for something more interesting.  I called him to me, then walked down wind of the bird and he'd fetched it to me.  Seth just kept giggling because we had a pointer working the field, and doing it well.

Had we shot a little better in the wind, we'd have been done a half an hour sooner, but our 13 ducks came quickly with a few doubles thrown in.  It didn't take Jesse very long to figure out the game; lay down, wait for the shot, mark the bird, run like crazy, retrieve the bird, lay down, repeat!  I wish we'd had a video camera so you could have seen him.

On the way home we tried to figure out the last time we'd hunted ducks together and had a day like that.  It was around 1996, the year Tyler was born.  It had been a long, long time, and reliving the experience was sweet!  Maggie, our black and white Springer, the Mighty Mag Dog, would have been retrieving for us that day.  She'd have watched every duck, just like Jesse, but she wouldn't have lost control, that just wasn't her way.  She would have found the wounded duck and brought it back to us, just like Jesse, and every duck that she claimed would have had her signature on it.  She'd bowl them over, flip them on their backs, grab the tuft of feathers at the top point of their breast with her front teeth, and rip the skin.  Every duck she retrieved was properly other birds were worthy of the Maggie Mark.  She'd have sat tall, intense in the wheat, with her one blue and one brown eye always fixed on the sky.  When our safeties clicked off, she'd give us a quick, tense look that said, "if you miss I KILL YOU" and then she'd be off at the shot, running the falling duck down as it spiraled towards earth.  She'd have it in her little mouth, head high, short legs churning up the mud and stubble, headed for the owner of the duck; she knew who'd shot it.  Those were the days and my how I miss my Maggie!

Oregon Elk Season 2011

My dad and I had a spike only tags and Tyler and Corey had any bull tags this year.  Dad's and mine was for the first bull season and theirs the second.  Dad and I hunted together for the first time in 4 or 5 years and it was great.  We both had a good feeling about a specific ridge and hunted it well.  We saw around 40 elk in the bunch with 4 spikes in it and a few good branch bulls.  We made a push and they sneaked out below us, through thick trees and escaped.  It was the only elk we'd see for 3 days.  We ended up taking the kids fishing at Morgan Lake, in the afternoons and had a blast catching fat, firm, fish upto 15 inches.  They hit hard, fought deep and pulled some line.  It was a blast watching the kids battle for keeps.

We found lots of fire wood to cut and decided the last day we were hunting (Saturday) that we'd make one last hunt in an area we hadn't hunted yet, then cut a load of wood.  We piled off the top just as the fog lifted, the wind died, and the weather changed.  We fought through heavy alder patches, across muddy, slippery slopes, and into the old burn.  Dad spotted six bulls in a group, four ridges to the north.  I thought one was a spike, but we never saw him again.  The five we got good looks at were all branch bulls.  One was a real toad, but there are only 50 branch bull tags for that unit and it opened the second season, so we were just enjoying watching them feed fast across the openings.  While we watched I thought I heard a bull squeal to our south, around where we were headed.  It was faint and I figured I was hearing things, until I heard it again.  I looked to my right and a cow elk was 60-80 yards from us, feeding through the trees.

We sat back and smiled at our good luck.  The wind was strong from them to us and we were well concealed behind some blowdown alpine fir.   Five minutes of waiting paid off with a nice spike.  I shot him through both lungs, missing major muscle, piling him up against a tree.  Had he rolled, it would have been a long way to anything that would have stopped him.  As it was, we weren't too far below some benches that ran around the mountain, slightly above the elevation our truck was at.  Dad grabbed my rifle--he was so confident we'd get an elk he'd left his rifle at home and everything but binoculars and a range finder in the truck--and moved into a position to see another spike.  When my bull went down, all the elk scattered, taking any other spikes with them; he only saw some cows and calves.


We took a few photos, dad headed back for his pack frame, I gutted, skinned and quartered the bull and we got him out before noon.  We then headed down the road to a nice group of trees and cut a half cord of wood for the fireplace.  We were a little too late getting home, or we'd have taken the last of the 6 kids fishing...........they said they'd wait for steelhead season for a special trip with dad and grandpa!

Oregon Deer Season 2011

Tyler and Corey with their chukars, sheds, grins, and Corey's first forked horn. 

I knew moving from Wyoming, home to Oregon would be hard on me and my boys.  The hunting opportunities for big game are hard to beat in the square state!  Oregon, in the late 70's to mid 80's was still a pretty good place to hunt.  The 1988-89 winter we lost 80% of our deer herd to winter kill.  In 92-93 we lost 80% of the deer left.  In 1995, or so, we lost the ability to hunt cougars and black bears with hounds, to bait black bears, and in essence, to effectively control their numbers.  What deer we had left, didn't have a chance to rebuild and our deer herds have suffered greatly from that time.  (NOTE: the ODFW just finished a study on cougar diets, showing 80% of their diet at year is deer. Not just fawns, but all age classes of deer.   A study 8 or so years ago in either the sled springs or Wenaha units showed the greatest predator on elk calves is black bears.)

So, I embarked on this deer season with mixed feelings.  I love the Blue Mountains, well any time of year, but the fall is an amazing time to be alive--unless September is 95 degrees with no rain like this year!  The only other place I've found that I love as much is the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming!  I did some preliminary scouting in areas I knew held big bucks and I was sorely disappointed. I honestly didn't see a buck in my unit.  I found some small, young bucks, in the adjacent unit, but Sumpter just didn't produce!  I abandoned my designs and opening weekend I found myself scrambling to find deer.  We found a suitable spot with a fair number of deer, but it only produced one small buck opening morning.  We hiked down and across the country, leaving the hordes of hunters above us near the road, through chaparral patches that were easier to walk over, than through, and finally found a buck bedded in the burn, just off the top of the big, round ridge we were circling.  He commanded a superior position and I'm sure had seen us before we saw him.

I got Corey, my 13 year old, in a decent spot and pushed the buck out to him.)  Tyler had left his deer tag at home, so he was painfully watching from where we originally had seen the buck, 386 yards below him.)  I waited for the shot, and waited, and waited........Corey hadn't seen him jump up.  I took a parting shot at him, missing cleanly, and this alerted Corey to the buck.  Corey missed as well and we had officially blown our chance at the only buck seen in the area.  We didn't hear a shot all morning......well that isn't completely true.  We heard the distant echo of some shots to our west, but no one was shooting in the canyons around us.

We went home that evening with nothing but a blue grouse between us.  The next Wednesday I was hunting again.  I hunted 2 days without seeing a buck on public land.  The only buck I did see, on private land, was a very small 2x3 I wouldn't have shot anyway.  Saturday was a pretty depressing day!  The boys and I headed for a spot I knew held a lot of deer in the decades prior, but so had all the other spots we had checked, so we went without hope!  We took shotguns, because its loaded with chukar, and that day marked the opener for upland game birds.

We hiked hard that morning, beating all the bird hunters and deer hunters that showed.  We got high on the ridge and worked our way along the backbone, following fresh 4-wheeler tracks.............not my kind of fun!  We climbed to the top, circled another ridge and didn't see a deer......but we heard and had seen lots and lots of chukar.  This country is open, you can see for miles in any direction, and there wasn't a ungulate to be seen............anywhere!  So we consigned ourself to chukar and duck hunting that day.  We were walking back along the top to the ridge we'd climbed when I looked below us, under a juniper, and saw the unmistakable profile of a mule deer buck bedded in the shadows of the tree (it was actually 4 bucks).

I got Corey lined out on the biggest buck we could see and Tyler and I waited.........don't ask me why I didn't have Tyler lined out, I just didn't think he wanted to shoot a spike or tiny forked horn, but I found out later he'd have shot either.  With three nice Wyoming 4-points under his belt, I wasn't sure he was wanting a small buck like that.  Corey shot the buck in his bed and when everyone else took off Tyler and I opened up.  We should have saved the ammo!  But Corey got a nice deer, we found three good deer sheds, and killed a load of chukars that day.  Not a bad end to a frustrating season.  I don't know what we will do next year............go back to Wyoming I guess!