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?
In memory of Fowler: 10 May 2010 - 26 April 2023
Since you are reading this, it is a safe bet we are back in cold, dark, and wet Spokane and we are no longer in the business of shoveling sunshine and hunting quail in the high desert. I could make this the shortest recap ever: we had a great trip. But then that isn’t a lot of fun now, is it?
A week prior to heading South for the big Pheonix dog show, Jenna had gone to Oregon to help our friend Stacey. It was an eventful stay, and to say the least, Stacey was helped, as was Mr. Kim & Laura. A made for TV drama if there ever was one. As an added kicker, she contracted COVID and it hit her while on the 9-hour drive home.
Jenna did a turn and burn move, and we left with her having barely 24 hours at home. It is a full twenty-hour drive from Spokane to Pheonix, and all was going well until we were about five hours out – the VID hit me like a freight train, and I had to pull off the road. Driving was no longer possible for me. Day one I missed the dog show, then life began to return to me. We wore our masks, and stayed away from people, which was pretty easy to do at the enormous West World horse pavilion. Ila did pretty good in her Open shows, and Fizzy did well in all of hers, as we have come to expect. After the show cluster ended, we headed further South and got started with some desert quail hunting.
My buddy Jacob had invited us to check out an area he liked for desert quail, and it turned out to be an amazing time. In the low spots there were Gambles quail in abundance, on the ridges, there were plentiful numbers of Scaled quail. Wow! I even took a Scamble, a primarily Gambels quail with Scaled quail feathers on its chest – super cool! The different species in this location literally were a few yards apart in many places, very easy for overlapping and Scambling to happen. Good times were had, and we are still grateful for the opportunity to hunt such a cool place.
With the Mearns opener on the horizon and a hunting buddy from Spokane coming down to fulfill a lifelong goal of hunting Mearns quail – we were hyper focused on getting into birds. Not just hunting our usual coverts. But to continue something we started last year. Jacob and I had a friendly competition running on finding new and unique coveys. I had stopped marking coveys a long time ago, and had just hunted haphazardly here and there, and many times into the most rugged and insane habitat the birds would live in. A sure-fire way to find birds in the hard and down years. After a few friendly jabs, I started marking my covey finds last year. We ended that season with over 80 new to us finds, which was pretty cool. More importantly it got us thinking more deliberately about where we hunted, and how we hunted the areas we did hunt. We were never really keen on repeating hunts, even in the tough years, but this new game really got us thinking.
Jenna and I spend our summers training, showing, and fooling around with our dogs, but also, we have an unusual hobby of tracking rainfall for the areas we prefer to hunt in Arizona. Mearns quail populations are tied directly to the summer monsoons. So, knowing when and where the rain fell would likely help us to produce more finds. One might think this would be easy since rainfall data can be found with relative ease on the internet… but not if the primary area you hunt, over a million acres, doesn’t have any rain gauges! We use a myriad of odd sources, and spend time watching the active weather radar, which helps us to identify areas of interest. I then draw borders on these areas in OnX for us to go and investigate using boot leather.
This past season was a high-water mark with how extremely systematic we were with this approach. In all we located and identified over 140 new and unique coveys for us during our thirty days of Mearns hunting. We did hunt a few Old Hunts so our total covey count was a good bit higher, but what really interests us is the “new to us” category. It serves to validate our methodology and makes the exploration into the unknown even more rewarding. We rarely hunt past noon, that more or less makes us “half-day” hunters down there. Say what you will, but we aren’t there to make money. Making it back to the house by one or two in the afternoon to eat, shower, relax, and enjoy some of what the area offers is also part of the package for us. We are proud of what we do and how we do it, one or two dogs on the ground at a time, a casual pace, and short-ish days. If you are running three or four dogs at a time, doing a crew swap at lunch to have fresh dogs on the ground and hunting until dark – well, I’d hope you are finding more – better yet, do some better hitting and you’ll have to stop! Most folks I compare notes with find much fewer coveys and spend a good bit more time walking…but I digress.
We’ve also always kept a soft count on covey finds for each dog, but this year, and the number of birds we were finding got a little more serious in this department as well. The Leader Board Emerged. We established a few easy rules. Coveys would be counted even if the dog made errors, it just happens e.g. bumping. If we were running two dogs and they both pretty much tied into the covey at the same time both got credit. If one was on a covey first, they got solo credit, the backing/cooperating dog was along for the ride. We joked about figuring out a handicap in the event a dog with a bunch or errors passed a dog with few to none…it was close, but it didn’t happen. So, for now that will remain a project for another day.
You may find the results surprising. The Old Guy Fowler came in last, but also with the fewest days hunted by far, with 14 coveys. Tule was 4th with 15 coveys. The Queen of Mearns Hunting (8 seasons), Powder, came in 3rd, with 35 coveys. Ila was second with 51 coveys. Fizzy, in her 2nd hunting season, came in 1st with 54 coveys – also with the fewest errors by far!
What does it all really mean? Well, having several months to reflect on this I can say we had a grand time! We hunted with new and old friends, had dog work I couldn’t have dreamed of just a few years ago. I my shooting was always on point (that’s a joke kids), and at times it was the things that fuel the creation of colorful memes, but I also had days where my hitting was literally the stuff that gets written into song. If I never had a Mearns season like this past, at least I had it as an incredible high-water mark to remember contemplatively while enjoying some fine libations with the sun on my face.
Not a lot to say, other than we had an exciting time and definitely found our share of birds. We hunted hard and the girls did some excellent work and upped their game to meet the edginess of the mid-season birds. Not to be mistaken for the puppy friendly early season birds... Each dog was able to work and point Pheasant, Hungarian Partridge, and of course, Sharptailed Grouse on this blitz style 5-days of hunting trip. Sadly, I started off by missing some great opportunities to take game I had been gifted with. However, I managed to find my mojo at an undisclosed location and started filling the bag and completing great hunting sequences for the girls - which was nice. Here are a few shots, in no particular order, from the trip.
During hunting season, we have been taking some time to moonlight for Sage Canyon Outfitters guiding discerning clients on preserve hunts. I get to hunt the girls at least twice a day for some really good folks. The sets are rather generous, and we can easily expect 25 to 50 points per hunt... tailgate photos are about half the birds taken on each hunt (I must do a drop and call for support). Tule likes to sneak in for the group shots, while Ila and Powder prefer to lay in the shade and drink water, Fizzy tends to be all business unless there is mud to roll in. Here are only a few of the group photos from that vigorous five days! Enjoy
Mountain grouse, as they are called in Montana, are not for those weak in the knee or faint of heart. Sure, you don't need to be in Boston Marathon shape, but that would help a lot. I stayed with my longtime friend and we hunted with our collective friend who is seventy-six years of age! I hope to be at it like him when I get there! The easiest Dusky Grouse habitat in their area isn't really easy. You just take it easy, one step at a time, and trust the dog(s) to do their work. Since we don't sluice birds off the ground or out of trees, the shooting is a real challenge and means hard found birds can be lost as they make their escape through thick cover. A change in temperatures for the better, read coolerr, got the broods moving and we made good contact each day. Ila had injured a toe on the last day of her prairie hunting, and so it was eighteen-month-old Fizzy who hunted every day from the start to the end of the trip. Ila did get to hunt in the mountains for the morning hunt before we left town.
You might think with six weeks of hunting lined up we would be wiped out and ready to come home by the end. If you did, you would be mistaken. I did have to miss a day of hunting to retrieve Robert for his Christmas break visit with us, and we elected to take the following day off to do family things. We did have a few days of heavy rainfall threatening to take a day away from us, but it all worked out and we made at least a short hunt work somewhere.
As mentioned, it was a big trip, with 6,606 miles driven in total, 3,498 of which were put in over 39 days of hunting. The dogs smashed 165 pounds of dog food and we hiked 180.44 miles in the pursuit of these little birds. We made new friends, had some good times with old friends.
It was clear many of the coveys had late hatches. In the early season, several birds that had been harvested were surprisingly small, covered with copious amounts of pin feathers and even bare chests! Oh my, if only we had been able to “shoot and release”, some were so small. This only reinforced our normal hunting practice of hunting only covey rises, doing what we could to deliberately leave singles and flushed birds be where they were and move on to the next. This tactic worked well for us overall, and we managed to locate 83 unique coveys of Mearns quail during our time.
The dog-by-dog report:
Fowler: did his typical work, which is to say, he did a nice job. Sure, he’s almost twelve now and he’s slowed down a bit. But his nose still works, and if he smelled them, he had them. He found his fair share of birds, made nice points, and of course did a fine job of locating and retrieving downed birds.
Powder: had another great Mearns season even though she started this season very overweight and out of shape due to the late season Singleton she gave birth to. We had also hoped to work her using the Higgin’s Method to improve a few elements of her performance, namely steadiness after the flush/shot, but that too was sidelined by a bad shoulder injury and then her pregnancy. Despite losing that opportunity Powder crushed her eighth Mearns season. Moreover, she has done a fantastic job of teaching our other dogs the ways of the Mearns given her deliberate and consistent style of working and reliable points.
Tule: had a banger early season and upon retrospect we made some errors that didn’t help her end on the note she deserved. Tule ended her summer wonderfully steady and cooperating with our other dogs with a remarkably high level of fidelity. She was a total rock star for me while guiding at Sage Canyon Outfitters. The key was, we believe, she hunted with our dogs. Dogs she knew and trusted. Dogs managed in our way or the Higgin’s way. We thought she was ready to hunt with others, and well, we were wrong. As her Mearns season progressed her performance slackened. It was unfortunate and it’s on us 100%. We will get right by her this coming summer!
Ila: man, she had a rough go of it. She had a disproportionate number of hunts that held little to no birds. We even back hunted a number of those areas with her mother to again come up empty handed. Her performance was good, she did her job. But after so many dry outings it seemed to affect her confidence towards the end. As a side note, I so desperately wanted to capture video of her work for my mentor, and somehow it translated to my worst work with my GoPro, ever. And that is saying something. A videographer I am not. I recorded countless hours of the inside of my pack mostly… Jenna did begin to record us occasionally with her phone towards the end. Ila’s feet are as if set in concrete on a covey rise, and after shots are made. She even caught a quail on a covey rise without moving a foot! Ila also did great work on her ‘alright’ queue, which is the opportunity to relocate or even flush when given the queue, little more than a step or two mostly just to observe the bird flying away – just fantastic. We were frustrated for Ila. Overall, she did the work one would expect when there was work to be done from dog that will hopefully soon become a recognized Higgins Gundog. We intend to expand upon her Field skills this summer, again using only Higgins/LIMA methods. I am excited!
Fizzy: now here is our success story. We started her with the Higgins System as a young pup, and she did great. Maybe a little too well. She very quickly and easily became steady to release with essentially no effort. Then she kinda seemed to stop caring about birds. With that we backed off and focused on letting her be a puppy. Not that the Higgins Method uses high pressure or the use of any lightning to get the job done. It just happened to be too much too fast for her, and we needed her to ‘love’ birds more. Fizzy started her Mearns season following, but not dogging our more experienced dogs. Due to Powder & Folwer’s pronounced stalking behavior, and me making improvements in consistency with my handling she just began to naturally co-hunt with and back them. From her earlier exposure, she knew putting up birds never pays the bills. She was a killer on singles, the only dog we intentionally hunted on flushed birds. As season progressed, she began to work more independently until one day I blew her off, opting to pay attention to Fowler & Powder. Fizzy had the covey, but overcooked it, and found herself in the middle of them when they flew. She stood there and watched them fly. As the birds flew off, I called her over and praised her for returning. After that, she knew the deal with coveys. When in doubt hang back and point. She went on to have a killer puppy season and we look forward to finishing her out the Higgins Way this summer.
My mom and son visited for the holidays; we did some cool stuff and saw lots of rainbows. I caught a flushing bird in my hand! It was a good trip, and it all went by far too quickly. We are already looking forward to our return. Until then take care,
Brian & Jenna
The complete and unabridged version
So, what’s it like to hunt over a Drentsche Patrijshond, one of North America’s rarest versatile pointing breeds?
And what if the game you were hunting was one of North America’s most prized birds, an uncommon species many hunters have pinned to the top of their bird hunting bucket list?
I’m going to go out on a limb and guess most of you do not know what a Drentsche Patrijshond, aka Drent, is and without boring you with a textbook introduction to the breed, I’ll offer this snapshot. The Drent is nearly four hundred years old, and, unlike the German versatile breeds, it was developed in a more organic way. For example, in the Dutch Province of Drenthe, located in the northeastern part of the Netherlands, commoners had the right to hunt. But most of them were quite poor and couldn’t afford more than one dog. Therefore, that one dog had to do it all; keep vermin out of the barn, pull a cart full of produce or cheese to market, play with the children, warn of approaching strangers, and yes of course, hunt. The rest I hope to convey with an account from the field.
I am by all accounts a Mearns quail hunting nutter and have spent no less than one hundred and thirty days over the past eleven years hunting them along our southern border, I’ve identified two different color phases of the female and four different crest patterns of the male. Forecast reports, bird counts and weather, mean little to me, as I am drawn to the region for its ruggedness and austere beauty, locally produced wine, and of course the opportunity to meet up with friends to hunt these amazing little birds.
This hunt took place a couple of years ago. Accompanying me was my favorite and cutest hunting partner ever, my wife Jenna. We had planned to hunt with a duo of dogs. First, Jenna’s boy Fowler, a classic Nimrod-type Drent, who is at the heavily coated end of the spectrum for the breed. He was eight years old at the time and sports a fluffy white tail you simply can’t miss. Additionally, he happens to be the first NAVHDA UT titled Drent. He would hunt with my girl, a Drent with heavy Clovis-type influences, a coat at the opposite end of what is considered allowable and nearly all white. She moves like a flash of lightning, scales rocky slopes like Spiderman, is my medical response Service Dog, and is one of the most honest dogs I’ve hunted over. The difference in type boils down to subtle variations in skull structure and overall bone mass of the dog. A Clovis dog will have a bit more of a heavier and domed skull and carry more bone than a Nimrod type, with a flatter and more wedged-shaped skull. Both are wonderful examples of each type and really show the allowable variation within the breed between them. Of note, there is quite a bit of allowable variation in the breed and one really needs to spend time learning breed to know what ‘right looks like’ – but once you know, it’s easy to spot those who fall outside the boundaries of fair play.
On this hunt, the action had been slow but steady. Down from the year before – an all to familiar trend. Yet, when we asked other hunters about their hunts, it seemed like we were finding more birds than most of them – again, nothing new to us, but that isn’t to say we don’t work for it. After all, some days are hard.
This day’s location was brand new and was chosen primarily by looking over satellite imagery and making comparisons to other areas where we’d had success before.
As we wound our way to a suitable parking spot, attempting to avoid as much of the catclaw and mesquite branches as possible, I can tell you this; it did not look anything like the traditional old man strolls you see in video footage or photos you see in print. This place looked daunting. This was going to be something: a proper canyon, much bigger than we had realized. Still, we were committed, being so far off the beaten path, with the sun already coming up. How hard could it be? After all, it had already been a tough season, so why not hunt this ragged gash tucked deep into the Madrean Sky Island habitat of the Chihuahuan Desert?
The end of the trail for the Power wagon was break under a large evergreen oak. The peaks towering ahead of us were a bit over a thousand feet above the boulder strewn creek bottom we parked on. This was going to be interesting; we had all the right habitat even if it was much rockier and vertical than what most people are looking to hunt, or so we thought. We booted the dogs up and readied ourselves for a long hike.
As Jenna was gathering snacks for the hike, and I was relieving myself of my coffee rental, I heard “the dogs are on point!”. Standing there, with the wrong gun in my hand, I said “what!?”. “Powder and Fowler are both on point” she said. Less than fifteen yards from the front of the truck, on the steep bank of the mouth of the canyon, the dogs were sharing a point on a covey of Mearns. Both neatly crouched, as is most typical, frozen in time and space on the steep embankment. A Drent’s tail is a good barometer as to what may be in front of him or her. A flagging tail generally indicates the dog is unsure; maybe the birds are running out? But when they are sure, you will see that brushy tail outstretched, positioned between two and three o’clock, in-line with the backbone much like the tail of a weathervane – it’s just how they are built, there is no changing it. A Drent’s tail is there mostly to knock things off the end table. I carefully made my way forward with a handful of shells hastily jammed into my front pocket. And that is when I realized just how steep the embankment was. The covey flushed as I neared Fowler as a dry branch snapped underfoot. Most of the birds flew straight up and into the sun, but one juvenile bull made a tactical mistake and veered left. My shot connected just before he crested the rise of this spit of land which would have allowed him to really travel. With minimal interference from me, Powder was on the retrieve. Drents have a strong retrieving instinct and can rival more traditional retrieving breeds. In fact, doubly so if the right training methodologies are employed. The breed has a reputation for being both soft and stubborn, but I challenge the notion of stubbornness after having trained a dozen or so Drents. Using traditional training methods, Drents will become either bored, frustrated, or worse yet, intimidated and will shut down, leading many to think they are stubborn. Since I have converted to ‘Force-Free training’ for all aspects of my training program; from the mundane, to field and retrieving work. I’ve not experienced a ‘shut-down’ (stubborn) dog since. Moreover, this change has enabled me to tap into the Drent’s innate desire to please and work with their ‘boss’. We were on the board right from the start. How about that?
With this rather immediate and unexpected success, we set out into the canyon. In Sky Island country, conditions and temperatures can change throughout the day depending on the orientation of the land in relation to the sun, and of course changes in elevation.
We rounded a bend, barely ten minutes from leaving the truck. My GPS told me Powder was on point up ahead and above us in the full heat of the sun. She had worked just out of eyesight. A Drent will adjust its range depending on conditions and terrain to remain in loose contact with the gun, with ranges typically flexing between thirty yards for deep brush and out to around one hundred and fifty yards or more in the open. The Drent was, after all, built by foot hunters for foot hunters to hunt patchwork fields customarily separated by dense hedgerows and the brushy edges of watery dikes surrounding polders. But that wasn’t the case here. I began my ascent up the steep side, carefully negotiating the crumbly slope dotted with scabby grasses. Every step up was reduced by half as the soft unset rock gave way. I had to use the edge of my Kenetrek boots in an effort to gain purchase. Progress was slow, and the heat of the unfiltered sun was withering. Yet, Powder held her point. The covey was moving, but they were in no rush. She would take an occasional step and re-establish her point. Drents are highly intelligent and learn early how to gauge scent as well as the movement of their quarry. Mearns are renowned for holding tight for the pointing dog, which is only somewhat true these days. It seems, too many hunters have taken advantage of the Mearns’ predictability. This coupled with increased hunting pressure of recent years, has all the dedicated talking about the change in Mearns tactics. Some will hold, while many will run like their more common desert brethren. Most recently I’ve witnessed coveys flush wild from a hundred yards away or more – if I wanted to hunt Huns, I’d go to Montana! These are not the Fool’s Quail of yore, which have enticed many to hunt them.
As my body heat began to fog my safety glasses, I opened my vest for ventilation. Powder held her point but when I paused to catch my breath or sort my gear out, she looked back to verify my location and progress. This is quite typical for the Drent. As a breed they are naturally cooperative team hunters which thrive under benevolent leadership. I believe the Drent to be ideal for the hunter who wants to hunt with a friend and is willing to trust their dog to make decisions versus a four-legged tool – there are other breeds for that.
As I neared her, my steps became more tentative on the steep unstable surface. I worked to get above her, managed to get parallel to her and paused. The footing was better, and she hadn’t moved in some time. The birds were close. Powder shifted her gaze to me, then looked forward and stretched her neck. I released her to flush the birds. I set my bead on the dark underside of a large bull quail flying uphill towards the deep grass. With a puff of feathers and cartwheeling wings, he pitched in. I asked Powder to make the retrieve. It was an easy find, as he was caught in a dramatic flutter as gravity wedged him into the base of a dense tuft of grass. Two birds down already. It was shaping up to be a genuinely nice day. Might I have enough tender Mearns meat to make a batch of my somewhat famous quail Posole by the end of the day? For sure I’d be able to put them to use in my quail Marsala recipe. Maybe I was getting ahead of myself...
Moving down hill is quicker than going up, so within a moment we were back to Jenna and Fowler and boy was he ready to go! A few yards further we entered the throat of the main canyon where the conditions swung a full 180-degrees. It was as if the canyon was alive and breathing. As the ‘outside’ temperature was rising, it was causing an inversion in the canyon, forcing freezing cold air from the upper reaches of the system down and out the mouth. Then after a few minutes this ‘push’ would stabilize, and just as you could get feeling worked back into your fingers, another push of arctic grade air would snake through, stinging our eyes, cheeks, thinly gloved hands, and sending chills into our cores.
Was it the second push of this artic air, or the third? One of them caused Fowler to move forward in an entranced walk, as if here were stalking something. He moved in this way for over a hundred yards. He took a long pause in the creek bottom; the thermal belt had paused again.
Powder caught up but was staying clear of Fowler. She knew he had something she hadn’t caught a hold of. Then the cold air drainage restarted, our glasses fogged, and Fowler began to move again, this time couched, like panther stalking its prey. Powder moved alongside, also stalking. But it was clear she still did not have the scent; she was just mimicking Fowler’s movements as she carefully picked her way through the dense catclaw.
Fowler scaled the short cut bank to a grassy plateau choked with catclaw and dense grass. A few mature evergreen oaks dotted the braided boulder laden creek bottom. Both dogs froze like statuary, a bit more upright than normal. But here was no way for Jenna and I to get through the catclaw, we had to stay in the creek bed and work our way around until we could find a break and work our way in.
As we did, the Drents took turns, one pointing the other backing, and then switching roles. This team stalking is something we are very used to, and just love being a part of it. As we rounded the bend to get onto the island with the dogs, Powder slipped down into a braid of the creek on the far side. She had managed to work up wind of the covey and come back in from above.
Team Double Dutch had the covey in a pincer with only one way out, across the other portion of the creek bed, and up a rocky landslide which had tumbled from the canyon top a thousand feet above. I didn’t need to release the dogs to flush. As I found stable footing, I found myself in the middle of the covey. Birds erupted from all around me, I fired, then fired again – a double. Birds continued to flush! There were at least two dozen of them. What a find! This was easily two if not three family groups together, a regional conference. If I’d had better presence of mind I could have reloaded and taken more as several quail were late to depart in a delayed popcorn flush. Were we the first hunters to make contact with these birds this year? With three rich covey finds in this first hour of hunting and four birds in the game bag this was setting up to be a wonderful day afield.
As we made our way further into the canyon the cold air pulses continued at regular intervals, the gentle whooshes lasted just long enough to make us wonder if we were crazy. Then they would subside long enough to rewarm ourselves as we trekked further in and up the rocky creek bottom. Each bend was different. Shaded, cool and comfortable, or fully sunlit and broiling hot. Around yet another bend the scene would be wrapped in shadow, a place where the hoar frost grew to epic proportions in its freezing shadowy depths.
It was in one of these shadowlands that we noticed both dogs on point; Fowler high up in the sun near a partially burned oak and Powder low in a bramble of brush, grass, and younger oaks. As I approached Powder her point intensified, I had to pause to take stock of the situation. She checked in with me, then I resumed by circling to her right and coming over a slight ridge covered with some tall dense grass. A single sunbeam had managed to penetrate the cold and darkness around us. Meanwhile just a few feet away, Powder lowered her head, her breath melting the frost on the grass in front of her. It was a tight spot to be in. I gave her the release command, but all she did was look me in the eye, then look ahead and nod her head as if to say – they are right here!
Sure enough, there was a covey right in front of me, tucked away in a patch of gently warming frost-free grass. I carefully looped the shotgun over my shoulder and lifted the camera up to rattle off a few shots hoping desperately the autofocus would find a way to grab a quail or two through the grass. I put the camera away, grabbed my gun and took a step.
All hell broke loose! Quail shot out of that grass like popcorn on a stove top; bouncing off branches, zinging here and there, and just when I thought the show was over, one hen lit through my little window. It proved to be an unfortunate decision for her, but still there was enough vegetation to keep it from being a super clean shot, and she buzzed off a short distance. Easy for Powder to relocate, but where was Fowler? Funny thing about Mearns, their habitat is immense. You can find them on flat easy walks in the open chaparral, or tucked away under clumps of cat claw, most of all, you find them where they are – in the most unlikely and damnedest places. He was still up on the hillside, still pointing – good boy! Powder located our little hen with a bonus point and flush at her release. Five birds and six shots today – I’m on fire and still have a dog on point. By the time I was able to get to Fowler, his tail had begun to flag, which was a sign of things to come.
Still Powder backed him once she got to within a few yards… and that’s when the large Coatimundi (Nasua nasua, a member of the raccoon family found in Arizona) decided to make a break for it and climb to the top of the tree. We had a good laugh and were glad that the big male Coati didn’t want any trouble.
Pushing ever higher the canyon opened and began to resemble more typical Mearns country. This one, however, was on a breath-taking scale. We had gained enough elevation to make our way into the chaparral where the winds could blow. And with the wind blowing, we knew we’d probably have some running birds, even in a place like this. It wasn’t long before our beloved Drents made bird contact again on a lower bench which led up to the highest reaches.
Powder and Fowler were exchanging roles, pointing and backing, with Fowler mostly in the lead. Up and up we went, and the higher we got, the stronger the wind. The birds were running. We’d catch a glimpse of one here and another there cutting and running from grass clump to catclaw in the scabby open area and gusting winds. They were like phantoms. I’m sure I had seen them darting about. Fowler managed to get a nice long point, but we just couldn’t get up hill fast enough to his side. Powder was running from side to side behind us, as if marshalling nervous birds, stopping to pause when Fowler pointed.
Then, just as we thought we were in the money and ready for a shot, the most peculiar thing happened. The quail began to talk. I’ve never heard them chatter like this before, a harmony of high-pitched alerts, sounding much line a bubbling spring to notify their mates of a strategy change. For us, it was a wave of excitement washed with confusion; after all, how could they be so close, yet never appear? But when the chatter stopped, the grasses jostled violently as the quail began running again. The covey had split up and were hauling ass every which way, except towards us. We continued to press them to the top. This was a grudge match now. Once at the top, on the backside of a depression, and out of the wind, Fowler nailed a solid point. Powder backed. I was able to walk in like royalty, right past Powder, then past Fowler. The few remaining birds flushed. I took one on a nice passing shot as it headed into the air current. The other barrel I let off just because I enjoy the sound and wanted to strike fear into their little hearts (no seriously, I missed like everyone does).
We had a great day, our dogs had a great day, and we had a long walk back to the truck. Despite the Drent being established nearly half a millennia ago half the world away by farmers for farmers to hunt hedgerows and patchwork fields, it seems to me, the Drent’s qualities are perfectly suited for hunting these native polka dotted kings of the high desert. Our success, is perhaps a case of having the right tool for the job? I’d like to think so. Scenting conditions can be difficult in the heat of the sun and scabby dry grass, having a dog that will calmly work areas and stay on task, make effective calculations on its own, and work as a team seems to be a winning combination. Since this was an out and back hunt, I found one of Fowler’s favorite songs in my music library, Prince’s Purple Rain, and put it on speaker as we headed back down our boulder strewn path.
We’ll see you all again next year.
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