Thursday, October 30, 2014

Two days, Two Hunts, Same Outcome?




Go afield with a good attitude, with respect for the wildlife you hunt and for the forest and fields in which you walk.  Immerse yourself in the outdoor experience. It will cleanse your soul and make you a better person. -Fred Bear

Fred Bear has always been one of my favorite outdoorsmen, perhaps because of his reserved and respectful character about hunting. He was a childhood idol and I pulled back many a Fred Bear recurve during my early years bowhunting. That was a long time ago and recurves have been replaced by high tech compounds and carbon arrows, none of which make the “outdoor experience” any better-in fact, those modern “advances” really don't matter.

Sure, better equipment, bows, guns, ammo, fishing gear and alike can make our sports more successful-if measured in harvested game. I think the older I get, that measure of success has changed-no, it surely has, because that theme has found it's way onto these pages more than a few times. Part of it is time-in my younger days it seemed time moved ever so casually and it was unlimited. Now in my mid fifties, there seems to be an urgency, that every second spent in the “forest and field “ as Bear speaks to, is precious...as it should be. There are only a finite number of minutes left for me out there.

Thoughts of years left on this planet were not filling my head the other day as I walked back to the truck, lab trotting alongside, double barrel broke and cradled in the crook of my arm. The day's hunt over. The game pouch was weightless. The last few minutes of daylight streamed through the trees far across a prairie valley-switchgrass and tall Big Blue Stem filling the fields in amber. Molly had done her job. I was satisfied in her performance, nailing down a couple rooster pheasant, her tail whipping violently each time she closed the gap on a bird. I could just waltz along following her zig zagging course through the grass and brush. The pheasant did well too-managing to put a tree or two between themselves and my shotgun leaving me with an empty vest and disappointed dog-retrieving is half the fun. Molly would drive back and forth searching out what should be a dead bird, and I felt disappointed for her I didn't connect. But that's how these things go and luckily her memory is short-there are always more birds to seek out and smells to smell.

It will cleanse your soul and make you a better person.” That was more the thought as I fiddled with the two 20 gauge shells in my hand, then slipped the brass bell off Molly's collar. She happily jumped in the truck-perhaps thinking we were off to another hunting spot or at least to be rewarded with a treat. Two days earlier, at this same field and covering much of the same ground, I'd connected on a nice big colorful rooster. Molly raced to collect the still lively pheasant as it tried to make an escape, but the proud lab would have none of it and returned the bird to my hand. That hunt was much the same-beautiful fall evening, cool temps, the dog getting birdy a few times and a quiet walk back enjoying the sunset warm the colors in the west sky.

A bird in the Hand....” as they say, was the only difference. Yet, it didn't really make that day any more successful or satisfying. It would provide a good meal at some point and I was thankful to bring back some game, but really, that wasn't the point of being out there. Two hunts, two days, same outcome as far as what is really important and the reason I needed to spend a few minutes afield. Bear's quote, to me, really lands squarely on everything I believe when I lace up some boots, slide the gun into a case and step out the door. It's not about limits being reached or perfect shots, but rather it's about cleansing that soul and making me a better, happier person.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dogs, Guns and Time


Christian B
A dog, a gun and time enough.” - George Bird Evans

Whenever bird hunters or about to be bird hunters share a few minutes or hours together, these three topics will always come up. There is no doubt, there is no debate- dogs, guns and having enough time to do them both justice will be discussed. Birds as well, but as unlikely as it would seem, they are a minor part of the story and whether or not a game bag is filled.

This fall we have been blessed with awful weather. Awful as in the original meaning of the word-things used to be “worthy of awe” which is how we get expressions like “the awful majesty of God.” Yes, awful indeed and days that are not to be missed outdoors. Bird hunting with my good friend Dave Borman and his son Christian of Ladysmith would have to override all other activities these perfectly awful days. Bike riding gear and a fat bike were stowed in the truck-just in case, but I think we knew deep down, their tires would see no dirt. Not when dogs, guns and time were on the agenda.

We have hunted together for well over 30 years, sometimes in the central forest region near my home, others busting brush in the Blue Hills in search of grouse or woodcock. An annual trip to North Dakota is a priority,  putting our pups and and packs of shot on ducks geese and pheasant is something not to be missed. This year is no different. The ND hunt is a few days away and to tune up the labs and our reflexes, it was decided we'd wade tall swamp grass on a game farm, then try our luck on a state wildlife area in hopes of getting the dogs on as many birds as possible.

Barley, Dave's excellent senior chocolate lab, needed to be afield a few last times-although showing her age, when the weather turns cooler and shotguns are slipped into cases, a spark of youth fills her gimpy little body. The tail starts wagging and she won't let you near the pick up without her tight against your leg, not to be left behind. And why not?-she is one of the best upland labs I've hunted over and it's her life, and it might as well be until she can burrow through the cattails no longer. It was a chance to see if she had the vigor for one more trip out west. As we hunted together once again, the little brown dog proved she still had the goods, confirming my black lab Molly's hits on birds or finding her own. I trusted Barley completely for over the years she is seldom wrong when the tail starts excitedly whipping her backside. “Yep-there is a bird there.” 
Molly May


Molly is in her adult years now-proving herself a solid performer, turning into this serious all business creature when she catches her first hot scent of a bird. Her solid body plows blindly through brush and saw grass letting her nose lead the way-albeit, at times a bit far. As I see it, I just need to keep up and it's tough to slow her down when a rooster is sprinting down cornrows or through a bean field.

Of the pheasant and grouse the pair of labs found and put up-we managed to take about 80%, not bad for using flushing dogs on our first hunt of the year. I'm just happy if I manage to connect once and a while-especially on grouse, who always have a knack of putting trees between me and them during their startling escape. I actually enjoy watching the dogs work the most-and if they can find birds, zero in on the scent cone and get them flying, they have done well and it's a good day. It's hard to explain witnessing a good bird dog do their thing to someone who has never had the privilege to.

Dave recently added a new gun to his collection-mostly for the tougher birds out west, but really as an excuse to get a new gun-his eldest son Andrew would be joining us for this years adventure and would inherit Dave's older scattergun. Perfect reason (in all our minds) to pick up a new smoke pole. Obviously, it should be tested, so he was anxious to run a some shells through the camo'd barrel. After watching the first few birds wave goodbye after his shots, we dealt him (and his new gun) a good deal of ribbing-justified, of course. In no time, they became comfortable with each other, much like my well used over and under, and birds started to drop. Christian, a full time education student, has less time to hone his shooting skills, but made some good clean kills on a few birds. As nice as new guns are, and we discussed this, we always seem to wax on and on about the venerable 870-one of our first guns and as trustworthy as they come. We always have one along as a spare, knowing full well, they can be counted on without fail. With my double and Dave's auto loader, we sometimes forget to pull the trigger a second, or third time, not having the '70s slide action to prompt the followup shot.

There were plenty of times while loading or unloading guns and dogs or when just stopping for a minute in the field, we remarked how peerless these days were. How matchless October outings can be like we were living, with bells on collars, vests stuffed with shells and the sound of a round chambered with authority. I love that sound. The scent of wet dog, gun oil and decaying leaves waif around us-a most incomparable perfume. I wish I had bottles of it for days I'm stuck in lifes' other distractions though not everyone would appreciate the fragrance I suppose. Those smells, those sounds, the talk of dogs, guns and time I cannot get enough of. Time is always too short here. Always. 
Dave & C-Man and the Tiny Vest

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Fall Rides

Lyle on Sidewinder


I was drinking in the surroundings: air so crisp you could snap it with your fingers and greens in every lush shade imaginable offset by autumnal flashes of red and yellow.” Wendy Delsol

Fall is without a doubt the best time of year to ride. Spring is buggy, muddy and has a chill that I can never warm up to. Summer sticks with the bugs but replaces the cold with sweltering air you can barely breathe. Winter? Well, there is nothing really wrong with pedaling in snow, but it still doesn't quite hold up to Autumn.

In my racing days, fall signaled the end of the riding year, rolling in the final races of the season, concluding with the Chequamegon 40-the Christmas and New Years of the fat tire world. The workout season is over and it's time to “just ride.” That philosophy of non-training now carries me throughout the year and I can pedal to no strict regiment or because I have to. Okay, not quite true, I do “have to” ride in the fall. As Delsol writes, I so look forward to “drinking in the surroundings,” many times frantically not knowing what to do or where to go first. There are so many things pulling me in different directions, if only October were twelve weeks long. The black lab prances after work, convinced we'll be toting a shotgun chasing birds, the backpack waits to be slung on a shoulder and a tree stand impatiently expects my return. There are leaves to shuffle under foot as well and wildlife to photograph. But the mountain bike leaning in the corner is most anxious because I am. Those knobbie tires need to run over the carpet of yellow, orange and red in the woods, not always quite sure were the trail lies hidden beneath.
Yellow Carpet Ride


Eventually, each fall pursuit will get it's share of my time, but never enough and I feel the same way. Luckily for me, others concur and my bike is more than willing to share some singletrack with company. Biker friends from Madison arrived at their favorite trail (and mine) on what could only be described as a perfect autumn weekend. Trees in full color, that “crisp” air surrounding us and the scent in the breeze that only waifs by when leaves tumble to the earth.

Like myself, Lyle, Kelsey and Kat had no interest in a discipled ride of heart rates and average miles per hour. We were turning pedals and rolling tires to just soak this season in at whatever pace necessary not to miss it. Favorite routes like Sidewinder and Wolf Run (at Levis Mound) were revisited, this time with so much more color and snap. Riding some in reverse of usual added a new dimension, nearly like discovering a brand new trail. Other mountain bikers had similar ideas and it was nice to meet here and there along the trail. “Remember this,” I thought to myself, as the bike carved corners and scattered popple and oak leaves behind. This season would soon be gone and homage must be paid by stopping frequently, taking a few pictures and breathing it all in.
Kelsey & Kat & Yellowjacket

Days like these pass quickly and too soon the bikes roll to a stop at the trailhead leaving me to wonder how much I missed out there. There is always more to take in. While my friends refueled and readied for another ride, the other fall interests tugged me away from taking another spin...reluctantly. More hours in a day? More days in this month? I can only dream, dream of just one more ride in this perfect time of year.
Sidewinder in Fall

Wild Ride