When I talk to handlers about what their e-collar stim means to their dog. I get the most interesting looks. Then I ask, so when your dog does X (undesired behavior) what are you going to do? The handler usually states, "light it up" or something along those lines. But why, I mean, does the dog know what being "lit up" means? Again, usually more puzzling looks. Using the e-collar like an electric "no" is just as ineffective as saying "no" to a dog. What is more effective then, you may be thinking? Well, instead of "no" try having your dog do something it has been taught e.g. "off, down, leave it, sit, or even here/come". Basically, give the dog something to do, more importantly something the dog knows how to do, and does well. We use the e-collar for a silent recall, a non-punitive, low-level stim cue to recall. A cue that quickly becomes fun and rewarding to the dog, which they are more than happy to abide with. So, a "gentile tap" = recall and nothing else. This recall can be used to curb all manner of behavior to the extent that the dog gives its intent away when it does something that has been worked on, and automatically gives itself a recall. I'm not saying what we do is perfect, but our dogs know what a stim means, and that having a bulletproof recall can not only curb a range unwanted behavior, but also can save a dog's life
Yes, you read that right. There are easier and far more typical places to hunt Sage Grouse, but when Dominic Bachman invites you to go hunting with him, you clear out your calendar to make it happen. Even more so when the hunt is in such a unique and challenging environment.
This distinctive southeastern Oregon hunt must be applied for in advance, then if you are lucky enough to be chosen for this intense event, with less than a 10% chance of being drawn, you have to be prepared for high elevation. All the best hunting is right around 8,000 feet of elevation. The breath-taking views encompass Hawaiian-like canyons, dramatic mountain peaks, desert oasis’ and alpine lakes – all in one spot!
The hunting itself is incredibly challenging, even more so for me since I battled intense bouts of sciatica the entire time. The sage brush is low, compact and incredibly dense which makes walking nearly impossible. Each step is literally more akin to a high step march, with the footing of each step being questionable. This was hard and I wanted to quit, badly. But I was there. I signed up for this adventure for this experience. So, I did my best to put my big boy pants on and see it through.
I brought Ila, Fizzy and Rye along for this adventure. Up before dawn and rolling in the dark to a new location can be a surreal experience; follow the leader. With the sun beginning to light the horizon on fire, I took solace in having downloaded a lot of extra maps in my OnX. We arrived and Dom said, “This is your oyster”. A large roughly triangular shaped piece of mountain slope with a few rocky knobs. We Jimmy Jammed from the bottom to the top – straight into the sun. With sciatica firing off with nearly every step, and in some cases shorting muscles out robbing me of what little power I have. Good times. For this first hunt I had Rye and Fizzy down, once at the top, we began to roughly zigzag the rest of our “field” back down and roughly into the wind. It became clear that bird numbers where not what Dom had anticipated. I kept waiting to hear a shot in the distance… because we had nothing. No sign at all. This hunt got long, my legs a tad wobbly, and mentally I was starting to check out. I began to wheel around to the left to make what would be one of the last zigs to be made. Within a few steps, the girls began to come around. BAM. Rye froze, Fizzy froze. I completed my step, and a grouse few wild! I took a passing shot and wiffed but had the presence of mind to look back to exactly where it came from, as it was highly likely there would be more. On cue, a second bird few, and with a little more zen I took and made the shot! We were on the board. We hunted later that day, still with no success for the party.
We got the spare on, then took Dom’s truck to do some exploring and decided to hunt the hilltop above where he and Aaron had collected three birds earlier in the morning. I had Ila down, as I really wanted her to have a successful Sage Grouse hunt. As we were coming to terms with the hunt turning into a walk with dogs whilst carrying firearms a single grouse flew wild from Dom’s right. Once the grouse had cleared the dogs, he dispatched the bird with a cool dispassionate efficiency. He was done, which was good for him, as he needed to pack up and go home…he had to work in the morning. We had a good laugh over Aaron’s misfortune the morning before. Their hunt took them basically up to my tuck, where they had seen a few grouse land near. They had dropped off some of their surplus gear in my truck, and while they were farting around, Aaron had discovered an interesting perfectly heart shaped rock. He stepped on it and it gave more than he had anticipated, which prompted him to turn in over. This is when he learned I had used said rock to cover my morning expurgation. He was, mortified. This gave Dom and I a hell of a good laugh. Day two ended with a beautiful, but unproductive hike where I ran all three girls in a Hail Mary attempt to pick something up.
I was prepared to leave early to get to Burns to have the truck checked out, after all the steering wheel was rocked nearly a full 90-degrees out of whack. Not an exciting prospect when facing an eight-hour drive home. Jenna and I chatted, and she convinced me to go ahead with the plan to do the short hunt close to camp, if for anything just for the girls to stretch their legs – tomorrow was going to be a long day in the truck for them, in particular if I had to wait to be seen at the Les Schawb there in Burns. The only place in a zillion miles that could be of any help to me.
We set out, and about 30 minutes in I was about to turn back to the tuck to wrap this encounter up and there it was. A single grouse turd. Really. One single grouse turd, old and dried up. All alone. I laughed to myself. Only I would find a single grouse turd. Within a few steps an old roost. Hey, not bad I thought to myself. Then another ten feet, another roost, then another, and another. My hopes began to rise. This had been the most sign I had seen in all the hunting I had done thus far. But where were they? Up to my left a single snowberry bush stood proudly above the sage like a sore thumb. As Fizzy approached it, a single grouse flew wild, and it bombed down and into the ravine to my right. No way for any shooting there, and really there was no way I was going down after it. My brain clicked on, go to the bush! As I did Ila and Rye came around and became birdy. Rye hung around the snowberry, Ila went into tracking mode, head down, tail swishing. She was on ground scent. They were running! A bird flushed wild well out ahead of her. I shot; the bird was down! I was finished. I had done it. I had made it through the difficulties, it was a great feeling to have.
Would I do it again if given the opportunity to do so again, yes, of course. It was an incredible trip, thanks for inviting me Dom!
What a grand time we had! Now that is out of the way, I’ll share a few details with you. I took Powder and Rye on the paired down, lean camping trip for Sharptail and Hungarian Partridge in Northeastern Montana. These early season hunts have marked temperatures in the 90’s, which limits how long you can be out running dogs even more so than the relatively low limit on Sharptail. However, if your shooting is on point, your day can be closed out in a matter of minutes!
We camped within a quarter of a mile of the Canadian border. With the windows on the truck canopy fully open to allow the breeze to cool us and blow the flies out, we were gifted with the occasional call of a Sharptail. I had indeed picked a good spot! Later that night we had a “Blue Super Moon”, which Rye wasn’t too sure of. She did her due diligence to ward it off initially, but in the end she settled to watch it carefully while Powder and I slept.
In the morning we were hunting directly at legal light and were in birds a few minutes later. The girls did their job, and I did mine – we were on the board with our first Sharpie. The covey flew a short way uphill, landing at the fence line directly below where a large raptor had been roosting. Our presence kept the raptor from doing what it wanted to do, and amidst the confusion, the grouse flushed again over the hilltop and to the Northwest. I thought perhaps they had landed short to take advantage of the better cover, but I was wrong. The covey rose as a group out of range. As soon as we resumed our walk, that is when a much larger covey just a little way further up the hill took flight – well out of range. Popcorning to the sky, easily 30 birds if not more. They wanted nothing to do with us. Once they were gone, Rye was still standing…
We looped around the wheat field to hunt the lower portion of the hills to the south. I zigzagged into and out of the various levels of cover for a while then settled on a little higher elevation where a dozen or more deer had been resting. Right in the middle of where the deer had been camped out the girls got birdy. Powder swung wide and to my left. Rye stayed pretty much right in front of me only about 40 yards out, and went on point as soon after the “good cover” turned scrapy and thin. Her tail was vibrating vigorously, so much so it appeared she was flagging! I approached her, and stroked the underside of her tail to steady it. Her body tensed and birds started to fly. Rye stood. I shot and took a bird. Looked to Rye, where she still stood, and I took another shot toppling our third bird of the day, and a true covey rise double. Rye still stood. I was beaming and remembered to shout, “hunt dead”. Powder had begun to retrieve the second bird first, which they carried in together. The softer hit first bird evaded us for a while, but it was Rye who found the young male for me in some deep cover!
Barely five minutes later we were into another covey. Powder was first on the scene. She bumped them, and three or four birds came up. The girls were steady, so I shot and subsequently missed. Powder gave a little chase, and more birds came up. Then a few more. On the last of the covey, both girls stood smartly, and I took a passing shot on a Sharpie with it’s warp drive online and managed to dump it. Rye located the bird and retrieved it to within a few feet and set it down. I’ll take it. She has been reluctant to retrieve whole birds, despite enjoying retrieving all sorts of unusual items. It has to start somewhere!
By the time we had made it back to the truck, the heat was up, and becoming quite oppressive. We ate our breakfasts, and I got to make my coffee. We spent the rest of the day scouting for a new camping spot and hunting grounds.
Sparing you some of the agonizing detail, day two was also an equally great day of hunting and dog work, in particular from the puppy, Rye. We had six coveys of Sharptail within 600 yards of the camp and had my shooting been half as good as opening day we would have been shut out within fifteen minutes of starting our day! But alas, my hit ratio took irreparable damage for the season… Of note, Rye offered to honor Powder a couple times without any intervention or encouragement.
Day three we camped near to the Canadian border again, and had another great day of hunting, dog work, and shooting! Later that morning I got invited to hunt with a couple of friends a few hours away. Me being who I am, and being easily confused with my days and dates left the area 24-hours before I should have… None the less visiting with Eddy and Anita is always a treat, so I have no regrets for making time to visit with them. We left for the mountains the following morning for Rye to have a chance on Blue Grouse – she didn’t disappoint!
The longer I have been into upland hunting, the more I have gotten into quality dog work. It is fun to watch and be a part of. Additionally, it’s safer for the people and dogs involved and typically offers the easiest/best shooting opportunities that can be had for the situation at hand. My journey to learn highly effective and humane techniques has been fairly well documented here in this blog. As I have slowly gained proficiency as a trainer and handler over the years, my dogs have also become better and better in their performances. One hand washes the other. Making the whole experience more and more rewarding.
Next, we depart for a special opportunity to hunt Sage Grouse in the Steens Mountains of Oregon… possibly another story will need to be told?
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I'm just a guy suffering with an infatuation with gundogs since childhood. Forty some years later this is what you get.