It’s been said many times already but please indulge me, just one last time. We had one heck of a busy summer. Tule and Powder have not just timed their heat cycles together, but they have taken it to a level we think few would believe. Their cycles are not the same duration, and they ovulate at different times in their cycles. Starting their heat cycles on the same day, well, that’s for rookies. These girls started when they needed to start to begin their ovulations within twelve hours of one another! Yeah, it’s like that around here. They also gave birth barely eighteen hours apart. It was very generous of them to allow us some rest and the threat of getting some sleep. But within short order we had a baker’s dozen of gorgeous pups to attend to. You can visit their litter pages HERE & HERE to see and read about these glorious pups. These litters came a bit later in the summer than we would have preferred, but it’s not like we get a vote…and as we were gearing up to receive our clients for pick-up week, others were hitting the field and getting into birds.
We had been kicking around plans to hunt Eastern Idaho since last winter, but when it came time, we heard the call of the Montana Hi-Line. We had never hunted the region, and it had been a full decade since I had hunted Sharptailed grouse – I no longer had a dog with experience on the species. As we juggled client communications and care for the pups, Jenna did what she does best and hatched a travel plan. With just a tiny bit of input from me she lined out an excellent itinerary – holy crap, we were going!
Like crazy people, the last pup left and the next day we were on the road, hoping that our newly installed and minimally tested sprinkler timers would not disappoint. We started our journey exhausted, but it was fueled by the hope of being like those we saw on the various Facebook groups we are members of.
Montana’s system of block management is quite frankly a wonderful example I feel more states should try to emulate. Landowner recruitment is good across the state and in some areas nothing short of amazing. Better yet, the properties enrolled in the program, generally speaking, are pretty darn good, or in many cases downright amazing – quite unlike what we have here in Eastern Washington…
For our first hunt, we had selected a place where three large parcels converged, one Bureau of Land Management (BLM), one state owned, and the other a beautiful piece of block management land. We stopped to look over the map to locate the sign-in box and to our surprise, we were gifted with an enormous covey of Sharptail crossing the road. From the private block management property to the BLM property – no sign-in required, have a nice day.
We took our time and put both Powder and Fowler down and within moments, they were on the birds – but the birds had really covered some ground in these few minutes. As you might expect, Team Double Dutch worked them perfectly and I was able to pull two Sharpies from the first covey rise. One for each dog. How about that?
What follows here was a series of poor decisions on our part. We had assumed Ila was ready to hunt in a brace, and that running her with Tule, our other Higgins dog, would be fine… yeah, about that. They weren’t ready to be run together and the experience was an unmitigated disaster. Each dog caused the other to make an error, and those errors only created more energy management problems, and errors. It was like a hurricane made of fire. Ila was running around like a total lunatic, chasing every bird, and not heeding any input from either of us – so far from her norm. The disaster culminated in her putting up a large covey of Sage Grouse and promptly ran them off the block of BLM. Finally, she regained control of herself and was returned to the truck. It was a quiet, tense, eternally long walk. At least for me that is.
We took Tule back out and as we did a new covey of Sharptail came over from the block management property to the BLM and landed about one hundred and fifty yards in front of us. Can you believe this? Tule had also regained her self-control during the intermission, so she was allowed to hunt these birds. She over pressured her first contact and they flushed. She remained steady. We caught up to her and set her out again. This time much more careful, but more or less the same result, too much pressure. The birds were spread out now, so it was all about remaining calm and allowing her to work. Then, bam. We had a point. The birds were running, so Tule carefully began tracking the bird(s). Point. Stalk. Point. And so on. She was being very careful now and then it happened. We had The Point. She had one dead to rights. I moved into position and released her to flush. She did so and I did my job for her and took the bird. Once it was down, Tule was released for the retrieve. Tule did a great job working the rest of the birds, and just like that we had a limit of Sharptail in a matter of no time.
Now to let us fast forward to Ila’s redemption. We had explored nearly the full expanse of Greater Middle of Nowhere, Montana. Some places more productive than others and some much less so, but that’s hunting for you and to be expected when you don’t have any honey holes mapped out. Ila and I came to a nice-looking piece of block management filled with a lush carpet of prairie grasses. Two of its edges were bordered by cut wheat fields – promising. Just as I was finishing up my sign-in card a local pulled in. Geez, I thought to myself, “It’s not that big, you saw from a mile away I was here…really”? He seemed just as off put by being beaten to the spot, yet he went and signed in. He opened the conversation sheepishly asking how I had intended to hunt the property. I basically stated I was planning to try to keep my pup into the wind as much as I could by doing a rather large counterclockwise loop in the large rectangle set before us. He offered to go to the far end and hunt the fence bordering one of the cut fields. I said, “sure”. In hindsight I’m positive it came out quiet curtly, much more so than intended, but in the moment, I thought I had done a good job of sounding out a compromise. Ila and I set out, and he drove off.
I have been blessed with some really nice hunting dogs. However, no matter how good your dog is you have to get through their puppy and juvenile phases. Ila is cresting her juvenile phase and so is subject to some young Drentisms. Said quirks can be outright comical most times, but in the same breath can be so frustrating when the timing isn’t optimal. All my Drents have enjoyed pointing field mice and working up a few meadow larks as a pup, some more so than others. Then there is Ila. She has taken the art of hunting mice and larks to a rather elevated level, really, I should just call it what it is – fine art. Few have seen such exquisite work from any dog! I have a friend who regularly produces National Field Trail Champion German Shorthairs – Terry, who has seen countless dogs work in the field would have his spine shiver to see her work (on field mice).
With that said, yes, the first thirty minutes were filled with this ‘great dog work’ on field mice. My soul slowly filling with despair. I was thankful that Jenna, my beloved, wasn’t with us for the first time ever – she would have been spitting red hot nails. Yet Ila went from mouse nest to nest, working each one with such great care, then mounting such dramatic and stylish points as ever recorded in Drent history. Each time, my excitement was like a veritable tidal wave. Rising. Climbing far above the ocean floor. Rolling. Growing. Climbing. Cresting…then crashing into oblivion. We walked on. Ila happy as a lark. Hunting for whatever may be possible.
In my mind I had resigned. Partially a good thing. Being detached can be quite amazing for your energy management and how that may potentially affect your dog. Her search was arrested abruptly. She geared down and was for a moment channeling her grandfather, Booker. A panther, stalking in the grass. God it was beautiful. This wasn’t a field mouse; it was something special. “Jesus”, I thought, “It’s happening”. She carefully stalked and gently eased into a point. I still had ground to cover forty yards at least to even consider being in range. Her point only magnified. Intensified. Did she grow in size? This was it. I carefully positioned myself. She differed to me and a moment later I gave her the queue to flush. She launched herself into the grass with abandon and a hen pheasant erupted. She remained steady without any encouragement from me, and we watched her fly away. I went and knelt by her side, stroked her up, and told her what a good girl she was. Was this it? It was time to hit the part closer to the road, where the local was to theoretically have hunted.
Within a few minutes I was able to see, he never came to our field, but instead hunted the coulee bisecting the other cut wheat field which ran up to the road. Soon after Ila began a ‘wiggly butt’ march. Clearly a sign of being birdy, but not with the level of self-control I wanted from her. I handled her away and watered her. No matter once released she resumed the behavior within moments. Then without warning they flushed – Sharptail! She stood and watched. I shot at one like a fool. We regrouped, shared a snack and a drink then set back out. Just like before, the wiggly butt started again. She was tracking Sharptail. But was she being too aggressive? One flushed wild. She stood, and I let it go. Inside I was like, damnit. Our chances are near done, if not… But we did still have a long walk back to the truck.
Again, her body language was telling. She had bird. This time she was more controlled. More calculating. Still, far out of range, but I know if it’s going to work out, it will. If she gets the point, it doesn’t matter how far out she is. She trailed the birds, I trailed her. This game of ‘cat and mouse’ went on for some time. It was intoxicating. Then suddenly it happened. Her point. She was nearly two hundred yards out. The exhaustion of the sleepless nights and never-ending work of the puppies, these days of relentless hunting and driving from sunup to sunset, washed away. It felt as if I floated through the thick as molasses prairie grass. Still she stood, as if hewn from granite. I drew closer. She stood. I started think, it’s going to work, she has them. She stood. I closed ground. She stood. I realized I took a line which veered me left of her by a fair distance. Floating or not, the grasses where dense and high. Making a bee line just wasn’t practical for me. As I drew abreast of her still a good twenty yards away. She differed to me. I paused wondering what the right answer was. It was then the covey flushed from between us! I looked to Ila; she was statuesque. I picked out a bird and shot – it fell. I looked back to her, still standing, motionless, watching the birds. I looked back, and thought, I can take another. So, I did. It was soft hit and did quite a dramatic ‘danza de los Muertos’ for our benefit. Still, she stood. Watching the covey vanish from sight. I came to my senses and released her to retrieve. Still she stood – LoL. I released her again and stepped off, she followed suit and there is it. A covey rise double on Sharptail over my fifteen month old pup.
Yes, there was much, much more to this trip than this brief excerpt. We had a grand time, met up with a former client, and fellow DPCNA Board member and now friend. We also had several Sharptail hunts ruined by hundreds to pheasants… We were also left wondering why we had not been doing this every year.
I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Fifty some years later this is what you get.