Archive | November, 2014

Hunter’s Journal, Part 5

19 Nov

Kris's first pheasant flush and retrieveNov. 19

Temperature 25, wind out of the north 20-25, gusting to 35

Cabin fever took over, and with the moderation in temperature, I took Kris for his first-ever pheasant walk. We flushed four birds — one wild rooster and three tight-sitting hens in the first two minutes of our walk, but I could see as Kris sniffed where the hens had been that he was interested.

He and I had bumped a couple of birds during a scouting trip earlier this year, but he hadn’t paid too much mind, but then, about an hour into our walk, he actually went on point, the bird ran out, he followed and then flushed it. I didn’t fail him, and when I walked over to where the bird had fallen, Kris was standing over it, looking at me. I said, “fetch” and he picked it up and actually pranced over to me, really excited and seemingly proud of himself. We had a hug-a-thon.

Really special moment.

A Hunter’s Journal, Part 3

14 Nov

Sunday, Nov. 9 through Tuesday, Nov. 11

Balmy and breezy, high in the 60s to howling gale, high in the 20s

Every year in commemoration of Armistice Day, Lisa Farrell Schwarz’s birthday or just the plain love of bird hunting, the Farrell/Schwarz partnership celebrates The Great Pheasant Hunt. It’s a 5-6 hour drive from my home in Southeast Iowa to Jim Farrell’s homestead at Camp Jiggle View in the village of Wahpeton on the shore of Iowa’s Lake Okoboji.

I arrived in the dark and found Jim readying the Bachelor Officers’ Quarters for the arrival of his son, Jon; his son-in-law, Dave; and Jon’s friends Dan and Caleb. We had a quiet time over coffee, catching up before Jon, Caleb and Dan arrived. They had been hunting in Danforth, some hour southwest of Okoboji.

Dave Schwarz arrived later after visiting his folks in Spencer. As we laughed and talked about the exciting events of the day, we were aware that the weather forecast for the rest of our hunt was not as inviting. Dave and I had planned a morning duck hunt for Wednesday, but after reviewing the forecast, we decided against it.

“I had a limit (three roosters) by 11:30 this morning,” Dave said with glee. “It’s been a long time since that’s happened.” The total take for the day was five, and each bird elicited a story from several points of view. The stars of the show were, naturally, the “Three Pointer Sisters”: the Vizsla, Buhda; and the German Shorthairs, Storm and Ruby.”

“Good dog work bordering on the heroic,” Jon summarized.

As we found our ways to bed none of us were really prepared for what we’d endure for the next two days, but because of modern improvements in weather forecasting, communications and outdoor apparel, it would be nothing like the Armistice Day Storm of 1940, but the similarities were haunting…

Abridged from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Armistice Day Blizzard (or the Armistice Day Storm) took place in the Midwest November 11 and 12 1940. The intense early-season storm cut a 1,000-mile-wide swath from Kansas to Michigan.

The morning of 11 November 1940 brought with it unseasonably high temperatures. By early afternoon temperatures had warmed into the lower to middle 60s over most of the affected region. Conditions quickly deteriorated. Temperatures dropped sharply, wind picked up, and rain and sleet and then snow began to fall.

 The result was a raging blizzard that would last into the next day. Snowfalls of up to 27 inches, winds of 50 to 80 mph, 20-foot snow drifts and 50-degree temperature drops were common in the path of the storm. In Minnesota, 27 inches of snow fell at Collegeville, and the Twin Cities recorded 16 inches.

A total of 145 deaths were blamed on the storm.

Along the Mississippi River several hundred duck hunters had taken time off from work and school to take advantage of the ideal hunting conditions. Weather forecasters had not predicted the severity of the oncoming storm, and as a result many of the hunters were not dressed for cold weather. When the storm began many hunters took shelter on small islands in the Mississippi River, and the 50 mph winds and 5-foot waves overcame their encampments. Some became stranded on the islands and then froze to death in the single-digit temperatures that moved in. Others tried to make it to shore and drowned. Duck hunters constituted about half of the 49 deaths in Minnesota. 13 people died in Illinois, 13 in Wisconsin, and 4 in Michigan.

Prior to this event, all of the weather forecasts for the region originated in Chicago. After the failure to provide an accurate forecast for this blizzard, forecasting responsibilities were expanded to include 24-hour coverage and more forecasting offices were created, yielding more accurate local forecasts.

Nobody died in our party, but our 40-degree temperature drop was breath taking; the 16-inches of snow in St. Cloud, MN must have had older folks reminiscing. Let me try to describe the experience of hunting pheasants in 20-degree temperatures and north winds of 10 to 20 mph gusting to 30-35: Exhilarating.

Once your cheeks went numb, you couldn’t feel the tears freezing on them, and the walk wasn’t that bad. The dogs seemed impervious to the elements. They hunted their hearts out daily, showing no signs of fatigue from the constant effort other than a torn pad here and a runny eye there – the usual wear and tear of their profession. And they found birds.

They pointed birds and two hens even sat still in front of the dogs long enough so that we got to walk in and flush them. The roosters? Not so much.

“I really thought they had that one,” Jon exclaimed as we clustered around the trucks after Dave and I had watched the three girls point, brace, hold, chase, point again, brace again, and on and on for some 20 minutes before their quarry simply disappeared. “They had that bird for some 600 yards before he snuck out for good,” Jon concluded.

Walking in the wind with a blaze orange stocking cap pulled down to the eyebrows and over the ears puts a hunter in a seeming bubble of unintelligible noise. Hunters often hear the flush of a bird before they see it, and such hearing was out of the question. The sound of the dogs’ bells toning as they move are a beloved part of the hunt, but when they were downwind of you, they were as soundless as when they were on point.

The 5-foot-tall blue stem grass that covers so much of that plains habitat danced madly under the influence of the gale, whipping and slashing at my glasses. I watched hunters on either side to make sure that we were in line, a critical safety measure, and when I turned my head to look at the guy on my left the guy on my right disappeared from my consciousness because of the wind.

In my gale influenced cocoon of silence I thought about that infamous Armistice Day storm that I’d read about and wondered at all my life, and felt happy to have solid ground under my feet and friends at my side.

And then I went back to humming that song that wouldn’t leave my mind, Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting first line, “The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the Big Lake they call Gitche Gumee; The lake, it is said, never gives up its dead when the skies of November turn gloomy…”

God, I love to hunt…

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A Hunter’s Journal, Part Two

8 Nov

Friday, Nov. 7
Clear and cold and still. Low Temp +23F 
Forecast called for “south, southwest winds, 10-15, gusting to 25, laying down later in the day.” At Belva Deer south winds are not the best, but they can still be hunted effectively. Thursday, while I volunteered at the Food Pantry, the wind howled out of the North, and the temperature dropped to more winter-like numbers, and the sun was apparent only briefly.
The full moon was day-bright at 4 a.m. and the temperature was a cool 23F as I loaded the two Labs that make up my hunting party for the hour’s drive. As we launched, Ark, Kris, and I became absorbed in the stillness that comes with the changing of the seasons. An eerie mist was rising off the cooling waters, and hanging in tendrils straight up to the moon that made the fact I’d left my spotlight home on the counter meaningless.
As we navigated the flooded woods out of the county’s refuge, I could see with unbelievable detail the point I usually hunt on west and north winds, and we kept to the far shoreline where the forested hills end abruptly at the waterline without fear of ramming a snag as they were clearly visible.
When we got to the bay with the southern shoreline, I sat in the boat for an hour waiting for the slightest hint that the wind would indeed come from the south, if it came at all.
The wait gave me time to soak in the beauty of the moment, knowing that no matter how hard I might try, I’d never be able to convey that feeling to those who’ve never experienced it, and knowing full well that those of us who have don’t need words like these to remind them.
Finally the mist started slanting from the south to the north and I set the decoys knowing that the diver ducks like to land at the head of the flock while the mallards, geese and other puddle ducks prefer to land at the rear. I alw77ays remember at that moment a lesson from years ago, “How would you like to glide in for a landing over a bunch of birds who at any second might pop straight up in front of you?”
But all my strategic placement of decoys and careful concealment of the boat blind were wasted on this morning. Other than three LBDs (a takeoff on the mycologist’s scientific term for unidentifiable “Little Brown Mushrooms) and a lot of crows, there were no birds on the lake.
I can only conclude that the heavy north winds and sudden drop in temperature sent the hundreds of birds I’d seen on Wednesday on their way south. That’s duck hunting in the temperate climes of the U.S. – a here today; gone tomorrow proposition. There is no real reason for birds to stay in the refuge on Belva Deer. Everything they find here is available hundreds of miles south of here except for the cold.
We wrapped up the vigil and were back home before noon with nothing to show for our efforts but a hauntingly beautiful memory of a mirror-like lake bathed in the wash of the moon as spooky mists of warmer times made their escape for the season.
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A Hunter’s Journal 2014

5 Nov

Saturday, Oct. 25
Balmy weather, bright sunshine, brisk south wind
I opened the duck season without firing a shot, or even setting a decoy. I chose to scout the Sedan Bottoms near Moulton, IA, a giant state wildlife management area near the Chariton River flowage.

Friday, Oct. 31
Warm, windy, out of the northwest, bright sun
I finally went hunting for real at Lake Belva Deere near Sigourney, IA. It was really a “flag cutting” trip, but lo and behold, in the spirit of Halloween, a three ring necks fell for my diver rig trick, two of them treated Susie and me with a special dinner – we marinated them in soy and fresh ginger grilled with onions, peppers and mushrooms on ‘fire wire’ gizmos that really make shish-ka-bobbing simple. They were tasty. I got the recipe from Wisconsin hunters in North Dakota when I made a trip to Devil’s Lake with Dave Schwarz back in the late 1990s (98 or 99, I can’t recall.) The motel was full of hunters, and on Wednesday night we all, without any planning or announcement, broke out our grills and favorite recipes, and before long everybody was just roaming around sampling and getting recipes. We did little-duck breasts basted with Good Seasons Italian dressing. It was a hit, too.

Sunday, Nov. 2
Warm temperatures, bright sun, brisk south wind
I walked in for an afternoon hunt at Sedan Bottoms. Saw a few ducks, learned a bit about the lay of the land, and decided that afternoon walk-ins would be the best way to familiarize myself with those wetlands. It was thrilling to walk in, however, the first time since I can’t remember. I came home reinvigorated by the “hunting” without much consideration about success, totals, or lost birds. I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth the effort to drag our pond skiff into the water and hunt from that. I think I’ll check with a game warden and see there are any rules against such behavior (other than common sense. It might be 500 yards to the water at what I call “parking area 2 on my GPS.)

Tuesday, Nov. 4
It rained earlier in the night, low, overcast sky, temperature in the Low 40s, northwest wind, gusting towards 20 mph
Back at Belva Deer I’ve told Susie that if I get the chance to walk Kris Kringle to a down bird, and he won’t pick it up, it’ll be the end of my dream for him. He just doesn’t care about a) hunting and b) being under voice control. He minds, but he hates it, I can tell.
I had low expectations when I got the diver, goose and mallard rigs set and because the water is finally high enough, I got to set up the boat blind for only the second time since I came to Iowa. I hid it behind the spit of a point that I’ve hunted over and over again, shooting an occasional goose or a few divers. Kris really doesn’t give a rip about sitting on the dog deck; prefers to be curled up under my feet – no matter where my feet might be.
Shooting time was 6:17 a.m., and I was in the boat blind and didn’t have my gun loaded as birds started swarming the decoys. It was so dark I couldn’t see them low on the water. I hurried and got the 1187 loaded, as bird after bird dived on me, some diver groups of 20-30 birds, a few puddle duck groups of a dozen or so – who knows what species, there were birds everywhere. After about 10 minutes, I had a flock come into the decoys, obviously not divers, and two flared above the horizon, and I shot one. It hit the water between me and first decoy, and I hurried out of the boat with Kris in hot pursuit. When I got to the water’s edge, I called him to heel, and he came and sat just like a training exercise. I put my hand in front of his nose and told him to “mark” and when he saw the bird, I said, “Kris!” and he tip-toed into the water, reached the bird and gave it a sniff, but it was apparent he wasn’t certain if he wanted to pick it up. “Fetch!” I said with some enthusiasm, and he took it in his mouth – A FIRST! He’d never picked up a dead bird in the past. He brought it back, dropped it and shook. Picked it up and brought it to me. His first retrieve, just 2 months shy of his third birthday.
We got back in the blind and the birds really started decoying, and I shot like I’d never hunted before. I had about 20 shells on board when I started, and by 7:35 I had four birds on the strap and two birds that were down but lost in the tall grass. If I had brought Ark out of his retirement, I would have certainly had a 6-bird limit.
The birds were still flying and decoying, but I was down to my last shell, and a guy can’t shoot at a working bird without having another shell available – what if it was down but lively? A guy can’t waste birds like that.
I even missed birds that had landed in my decoys. I flushed them with my gun 90 percent mounted, and missed my intended target three times, shooting right over the top of him each time. I could see the shot hitting the water. Apparently I never completed the final 10 percent of the mounting process.
We chased two birds that had fallen into the lake and were blowing away from us in the boat. Both were recovered and they were the first Shovelers I have ever shot! The drake looked like an out-sized Blue Wing Teal until his over-sized bill registered on my brain. I initially thought the hen was a Gadwall, but again the noggin gave it away. I found the drake floating near shore several hundred yards down wind of our decoys, and I got out the boat, and took the opportunity to give Kris his second lifetime retrieve. He had to be encouraged to get out of the boat, but once in the water he “took his line” and tip toed over to the bird, sniffed it a few times and came home without it.
My final bird was a beautiful drake Mallard who came to the decoys with wings set, feet down and died right in the kill slot of my decoy setup. Even that close to shore, I would probably have to go get him with the boat, but I walked Kris to the water’s edge, gave him the line and he went into the water, and, when the bottom fell away, he swam to the bird. The drake was dying, but could still paddle a bit, and Kris wasn’t certain at first, sniffing of the bird as it tried in vain to escape, and, finally, at the command “fetch,” he brought it back to me, held it all the way to me, and presented it, just like a training exercise!
But there is absolutely no appearance that he takes any joy or even real interest in the bird, the swim or anything. He got back into the boat and immediately crawled down to sleep on a decoy bag at my feet.
The birds created a reef about 200 yards down wind and in the middle of the lake, and worked my decoys and the reef without any real break for about an hour after that. It was thrilling to me.
Tomorrow I’m going back. There’s no reason to expect those birds to be there. They are obviously newcomers and while tomorrow will be windy, it’s supposed to be sunny and 60. I’m taking Ark with us. Susie is adamant that I give Kris every opportunity for the light to click on for him, and I’m hoping a little competition from Ark might just do it.
But I’m no longer thinking this is going to work out. He makes a great buddy for taking walks in the woods; he’s a loving and lovable pet, but I don’t think he’s ever going to hunt.

Wednesday, Nov. 5
Balmy west, southwest wind around 10; high cirrus clouds, marking the front that’s moving in left the day partly sunny
I now call Susie the “lab whisperer.”
The ripple generated by the breeze that greeted us an hour before shooting time at Belva Deer went completely flat just as legal shooting time arrived. We had ducks aplenty in the decoys up until then, but with no motion (I didn’t set the jerk line as the decoys were moving so nicely…) the birds cut us a wide berth for the next thirty minutes or so, then the zephyr got back on the job, but by then there were several hundred birds building a raft out in the middle of the lake, and that was tough competition.
It felt strange to have Ark in the boat again. At age 12, he’s been retired for several years, but with a predicted high temperature of 60, I thought he could handle a little work, and it really paid off. Susie, who has always been great with bird dogs but who has never hunted over one, is adamant that Kris Kringle just needs experience to “catch on” to what is expected of a duck dog in my boat.
When a hen Blue Bill came out of nowhere and landed in the kill slot between the diver and puddle duck rigs, I decided that training a Labrador was the overriding purpose of the morning, so I shot it.
Kris was asleep on the dog deck, but Ark was on watch, and hit the water at the shot (he was really steady to shot when he was a puppy, then my lack of training skills overpowered his fine breeding) and Kris came to life to watch. The pup immediately put two and two together, and decided he wanted to join the show, but couldn’t figure out how to exit the boat into the water – He’d never done that before except in training out of the pond boat in our yard!
He finally overcame his reluctance to jump in just as Ark turned the back corner of the boat with the bird. For the first time, Kris showed interest in a bird, albeit a bird in Ark’s control, but interest all the same.
When I got the bird in hand, I showed it to Kris. In previous instances, he had shown no interest or excitement in close proximity to the bird, but this time, he sniffed and licked a bit, his tail sending all the right signals…
We sat through enough close call, no sale, episodes that Kris lost his new interest in sitting up and watching, and curled up to sleep on the deck while Ark maintained his vigil.
I remembered Ark as a young pup. He too had often slept on watch in his early years, but that all ended on foggy morning on the Columbia River. I could hear the geese above, but the pea soup made visibility impossible. I finally figured it was the same for them, so I started calling, and much to my surprise a pair of geese, wings locked and necks craned, sailed through my decoys. I was so taken aback that my strategy had worked, I failed to even pick up my gun.
Talk about sleeping on the job…
But the next time I heard the birds calling, I responded and was ready when the goose appeared like magic. I folded him up neatly, but his momentum carried him over a small spit of land, so his crash into the water was heard but not seen.
Ark came out of his slumber, of course, but couldn’t see anything on the water. I lined him up on the end of the spit, and sent him. When he got to the end of the grass, I whistled him to a stop, and he took my “turn left” signal as I blew the two-short-note peeps that mean “back!” in his whistle training, and he responded. As he headed around the end of the spit, I saw his ears perk up and he shifted gears, and I knew my boy had just “handled” to his first goose retrieve. I was higher than Kilroy’s kite, I can tell you.
So we sat for about an hour, and then a flock of 20 or 30 Bills made the now familiar downwind sweep of our set, and then, at the extent of the body of water we were set up on, they turned left just as all the rest had done before them, but instead of climbing for altitude and skedaddling down the lake, these guys stayed right on the water and bee-lined it to our rig. I was ready, I thought, but man oh man those Scaup are fast!
I started to “pop up” out of the blind when they were some sixty yards to the north of the decoys. When I cleared the blind upright, they were on me! By the time I got the gun mounted, they were past me, and as I swung after the closest bird, I was shooting due south! But for a change I must have gotten the gun all the way up and swinging, because the drake Bill folded cleanly… into dense shoreline grass and weeds.
But I was buoyed by having my Ark on hand, so we got out of the boat and the old boy got active as I called out, “Dead bird! Find him!”
This is a game Susie never ceases to enjoy with the boys. She locks them in the bathroom, hides Milk Bones around the house, and then, with a great deal of excitement, she cheers them on with “Dead bird!” “Hunt dead!” and the like until one or the other finds the treat.
This has always worked on our dogs (We got our first Lab in 1969, and she’s done this game over and over.) Kris too likes the Milk Bone game, but he has shown no interest in applying his interest to other pursuits.
On this morning, however, a page turned in our young Lab’s story. While Ark immediately put his nose to the wind looking for a sign from the “dead bird,” Kris started quartering through the thick cover! I’ve had him do that many times as we walked and practiced upland hunting, but he’s never found anything. On this day I watched with amazement as his ears perked, his tail went into overdrive, and his normal long-legged bound was replaced with a more animated and erratic stop-start-turn-stop-start cadence as he tried to sort out the story his nose was telling him. I held my breath. He suddenly went stiff, and I saw a hint of indecision. “Kris, fetch!” I barked, and he immediately plunged his head into the thick grass and came out with a nearly dead drake Lesser Scaup – his first, in my opinion, actual retrieve!
He brought it right to me, and there was animation in his body language for the first time. He was proud, really! I let him carry the bird all the way back to the boat before calling him in. He gently gave up the bird to hand, and I really laid the loving on him, you can be sure.
I found it interesting that Ark made no advance toward Kris while he was carrying the bird. I have always been surprised at Ark’s willingness to accept Kris to his home. My other older dogs, when we brought a puppy home, read the writing on the wall and made it obvious they’d kill the little nipper first chance. Not Ark. He has been like a much older brother or a youngish uncle. He plays with Kris from time to time, but mostly he ignores him.
On this morning, I choose to believe that in some way he understood this was a big deal in a young dog’s life, and gave him center stage.
When we were back in the boat, and the wind had dwindled again to nothing, Kris went sound asleep. I sneaked a biscuit to the old boy, and after he had crunched it up, he poked his head through the blind door and nudged my hand. I showed him it was empty, and he positioned his ear right where I could scratch it the way he likes best… I think we shared a moment.
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