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.
I’ve been holding on to this for quite a long time… life has been keeping me busy of late and so I haven’t done much with it other than to think I should do something about it from time to time. Well, it appears its time has come do something about it!
So, let’s talk briefly about the travel crate and what ‘right’ looks like. I’m very happy I came across this infographic as it shows us what is more likely to be safer and prevent injury to your dog in the event you are in an accident or have to take some abrupt actions to avoid an accident.
We have seat belts and airbags, your dog? Well, is it loose in your car? In the bed of your truck? Or is it in a kennel and if so, is it secured and sized correctly? While your dog’s crate at home should be fairly roomy his travel crate should not be. In fact a travel crate your dog should be touching 3 of 4 walls at any time when laying down, and it should be snug enough that it encourages your dog to lay down and discourage moving around!
This snugness keeps your dog from being tossed around inside the kennel in the event of sudden changes e.g., hard braking, accident-avoidance maneuvers, or possibly an accident. But for this to really work, your dog’s kennel will need to be secured fast in your vehicle. Consider tiedown straps hooked into your vehicle’s child seat restraint moorings, a seatbelt alone is likely to allow slippage. The same goes for bed of your truck, if not more so. You will want to keep his kennel as stable and securely mounted as possible to allow the kennel to help protect your dog.
With all of this having been said, it is important to recognize that being in such a snug environment you now have a responsibility to ‘air your dog out’. Dogs do spend a great deal of their day sleeping, and this is what most will do when traveling, however they cannot stretch out from time to time, and can cause some stiffness in some dogs. The rule of thumb we use is, for every 3 to 4 hours of driving your dog should get about 30 minutes of time to stretch, walk, and potty.
As I sit here in cold wet Spokane in early January looking to collect my thoughts about the previous month. It boggles my mind we spent the entire month of December in Arizona hunting quail. In fact, we spent thirty of thirty-one days in the field on the prowl for quail and it was glorious!
We lost the one day to some emergency dental work on Fowler and Powder. Broken teeth in one form or another, extraction, or root canal, neither are inexpensive nor effectively covered by any pet insurance. But hey, we got a multi-pet discount so that made it alright – cough, cough, as I wipe a tear from my eye…
Without going into a daily account, as I am prone to do, I’ll endeavor to stay above board so to speak. To help set the stage, it was supposed to be the best year in over thirty years for desert quail, Gambles and Scaled. While Mearns were predicted to be in for an extremely poor year. With that said, what did we experience?
Year after year I promise myself to add days of desert quail to the schedule, but I always succumb to the allure of hunting Mearns. The day we lost was one allocated for desert quail hunting due to the dental dramas of Team Double Dutch. Jenna did an amazing job of organizing their care while we were on the road heading south. This on-the-fly arrangement could be a story unto itself…but I’ll spare you. The area we normally hunt has these desert quail on the periphery – should be easy. LoL famous last words.
We arrived safe and sound, but couldn’t check in for nearly five hours and Jenna was concerned about what we would do with the time we had to kill. It was an easy answer for me, go hunting of course! So that is what we did and immediately found a covey of forty or fifty Gambels quail right exactly where they were supposed to be. Clearly they had been schooled and had an exceptionally low tolerance for our piss poor just wheeling in off the road tactics. We did find a few other coveys in the few days spent chasing ‘desert birds’, one with probably close to a hundred birds or so, but they had been well-schooled by hunters. They all got up and vacated the area in a jiffy. Not even one willing to help get us on the board.
When I lived in New Mexico I found hunting Gambels to be a pain in the butt, apparently, they are the same in AZ. I have a better idea what to do for our next trip, and possibly get my Arizona Quail Slam – something I’ve flirted with doing, but never really set myself to do. Always the call of the Mearns is my downfall.
Jenna is a research junky and a huge asset on trips like this. She asks me a bunch of questions, and off she goes… With her effort, we hunted almost all new to us places this year, and only did a repeat on a couple of places. All in all, I am sure we hunted the full range of habitat that Mearns will live in. From altitudes of over 7,000 feet amongst the pines and juniper. Some of the rockiest and devoid of grass places I never would have ever thought to hunt. Let me be clear, places that looked much better to just drive on past. We pushed the truck hard, and my off-road driving tolerance to its limit. Yes, we had the rock sliders banging and grinding, low range has never been used more – and there were a couple of times we turned back without reaching our destination.
We found coveys in horrifically cattle-bombed places, and nothing in places that just last year held so many large coveys the excitement of having the location pop up on the schedule would make sleep the night before difficult to achieve. We had one day of being skunked, I don’t care who you are, it happens. Mostly though we averaged three coveys a day with several spikes of seven or eight coveys found in a day – a good day regardless of how the overall season is supposed to measure up.
All quail live and die by the rain. Each species needs rain at a different time of year, and when they get the rain they need, their populations can really explode. When they don’t, they retreat into prime areas or those which got the rain they need. With Mearns it is the summer monsoon that drives their success. Monsoon rains are fickle. One area gets just what it needs, the coulee over got none, the one over was pounded too hard and so the birds are where the rain was just right, and not where it wasn’t. Figuring this out is crucial to being successful.
With Mearns there is always the specter of over hunting. Coveys live in relatively small home ranges, so once you find one, your ability to find it again goes up. I have gently hunted specific coveys for over a decade. It takes a good bit of disruption to cause a covey to hightail it to a new location – but it does happen. Even if it is only one individual or two at a time. For example, a few years ago hunting with Booker I had a covey get up, and one little Bull just motored. He cleared the broad rocky streambed, then rocketed up and over a mammoth cottonwood tree on the far side. And G.O.N.E. he was. We have found coulees in the late season that were totally subpar but held astounding numbers of birds with no sign of hunting… those junk coulees were always surrounded by those with prime habitat that got hunted hard – just by looking at the boot tracks and spent shell casings. These birds, they have a brain the size of a lentil, but they aren’t dumb.
Small coveys? Interestingly we kept getting early season reports of small coveys consisting of only two to four birds – this is what many people were finding. Which perpetuated the thought the 2020/21 Mearns season was one of the worst in years. Well, I’m here to say it was an interesting season, that much I am sure of. With some areas plum full of birds, and others, that usually held good numbers, with none.
It wasn’t long before Jenna and I started finding these ‘small’ coveys. In one case, I took the second double I managed the whole trip, and soon realized there were no other birds – I felt ill. Now before I am vilified, here is the rest of the story… like all the other times we had ‘small covey’ experience one or both of the dogs had always been doing a lot of tracking, and then whamo there they were. Shortly after the other dog working 30 to 70 yards away would go on point. We’d go and work that and then we’d have a proper covey flush, easily more than ten birds. So, it seems to me it was the large coveys that did the most running and tended to ‘drop off’ a few birds so the others could escape. Several times we heard them casting their vote on who to sacrifice. This scenario played out time and time again where we found larger than normal coveys.
Yes, you read Part I right, Ila didn’t get to go Chukar hunting. Not quite a year and a half old, she still has to pass her OFA exams, prelims or not, and Fowler had been nursing a sore wrist. They were going to get to hunt Valley Quail. Sure, we have them in our surrounding areas at home, but not in places where you can hunt them mostly. In fact, one of the best indicators of Prime Valley Quail habitat is – can they be hunted here or not? If it’s legal, odds are you will not see them, and if you do, they will be like an apparition – did you really see what you thought you saw? If it’s not legal, the little winged turds will strut around with reckless abandon. Some say their call sounds like Chi-ca-go, all I hear is Suck-it-Monkey.
Jenna is becoming an adept habitat researcher. Juggling OnX, Google Earth, researching various blogs (seriously, I have no idea how she finds this stuff), and heaven only knows what. She decreed, “we need to hunt the area around the old center pivots up the road”, and so we did. We took the road to the west of the irrigation assemblies; it was a checkerboard of private and public lands. Which to me wasn’t exciting. But if you reference the above paragraph it had the effect of increasing the likelihood of finding these tricky little guys. As if on cue, we were approaching a break from private to public, and a covey was crossing the road – they were legal. Flirting with disaster, living on the wild side, all of fifteen feet of legal. If we got them to flush north, we could hunt them.
Quickly I got Ila out and let her work the covey – yes, straight out of the truck! Bam, she had them. I didn’t fool around and moved smartly past her point hoping to flush them deeper onto the public land, and maybe get lucky. Flush they did and just like the Rebel Fighters attacking the Death Star, they juked and jived through the sage brush as if they were rocking their speeders back home in Beggar’s Canyon, just like Luke Skywalker evading a squad of TIE fighters. No shots for me, worse yet, they flushed almost perfectly parallel to the property line – still barely legal (don’t Google that).
As Ila and I approached them again, many were easy to see, running on the desert floor here and there. She would point, look to me. Relocate. Point again. It was a chaotic scene for sure. She made a good point in front and pointing at me. The quail flushed at me, and regrettably I shot. The bird was rendered to a lump of quail-burger hurtling through time and space. I ducked so as not to be hit by it. The quail’s ruined carcass hit the desert floor with an unceremonious ‘thock’. Ila still steady despite all of this. I gave her the ‘hunt dead’ with quail still running hither and thither. She really didn’t know what to do, but she slowly worked towards me. Then abruptly the covey flushed again back to the truck. Clearly, they had the property line wrong by just the right amount! Ila located the crumpled bird and really had no interest in it. She literally looked up at me as if to say, “what is this”? I gave her a ‘here’ cue and stepped away. She grabbed the shattered bird ever so reluctantly and brought it towards me. Gawd, what a hit. That poor quail was a terrible mess. But hey, we were on the board!
We hustled back to the truck, where our friends were waiting. Ila picked them back up and quickly made a point. The quail were over this and began flushing north more deeply into the public land in desperation to get away from us. One bird abandoned the ‘Beggar’s Canyon’ mindset and flew high. It was an unfortunate decision for him. What a lovely little cockbird. Ila retrieved him with aplomb to hand. We decided it was time to let these guys be and departed for the area South and East of the old irrigation rig.
The southern edge was home to a large coulee running west/east filled with high brush, just the sort of thing valley quail love. It was a short out and back, and so we ran Fowler here due to his wrist injury. Within moments he was in the birds. They weren’t making mistakes and it wasn’t long before he was showing sign of being uncomfortable, so we wrapped it up. Another much larger but similar coulee system ran north/south joining the previously mentioned drainage not far from where we were parked. Tule and Powder hunted hard, but the only thing they managed to find were rabbits, and we discovered an ancient stand of giant sage. We took a moment to marvel these enormous bushes. Several of which exceeded ten feet in height.
Back to our regularly scheduled programing. All Ila, All the time. It was late in the day, and we wanted to give Ila another shot at the valley quail. We decided to put her on Fowler’s run and see what may come of it. She picked the quail up, pretty much in the same place Fowler did. She made her point between the steep edge and the tall, thick, and impassable brush. I gave her an ‘alright’ in hopes she might get them up for a shot. But what happened was she worked the birds through until she emerged on the other side where she went back on point. I was flabbergasted as to what to do next.
Thirty some odd yards away, but she may as well have been a mile away on the other side of molten lava – I wasn’t going to be able to get to her. The quail cracked first and flushed. A pair came back over towards us, I have no real idea where the others went. Ila stood steady to the flush. I waited a moment, then asked her to come in, which she did with great enthusiasm. I told Jenna I had an idea where the two birds went, and we set out in their direction. Ila canvased the desert floor then suddenly, she skidded to a stop ending with a dramatic point. Clearly the bird was pressured, and it flushed giving me a high-speed passing shot. The first shot caused him to rock in the air, the second caused him to fold up. I looked back, with Ila still standing, gave her the ‘hunt dead’ cue, and off she went. We searched, and searched and was near to giving up, when suddenly the little dog found the bird tightly nestled in a thorny bramble at the base of some desert brush!
In the area, we were able to cross over the channel cut in the desert floor without difficulty and began heading back to the truck. It wasn’t long before Ila became birdy. Point, go, point, go. She was managing running birds. Then somehow, they were visible. Possibly a dozen or more, running to and fro. Crossing one another’s paths with Ila standing in the middle of them. Picking her feet up like a cat on a hot tin roof. I gave her a recall since she about to lose her edge and start chasing them around. Then the quail went up and over the small ridge never to be found again. This is why it’s called bird hunting and not bird getting. The dogs are always learning and improving, just as I to continue to learn and improve as an amateur naturalist and dog handler. I suppose I too will only get a little better so as long as we continue to learn together.
Doesn’t necessarily have to stay in Oregon. I recently joked with my gun broker about recent changes in Oregon and our trip to hunt Chukar and Quail. He said, “Guns and Methamphetamine together at last”. I replied, “Be still my beating heart” and chuckled as I walked out the door new 28-gauge side by side in hand.
The next day Jenna and I were saddled up and rolling, headed for the South East-Central region of Oregon. A desolate and remote place with a special austere beauty. For the record, the scenic by-way really isn’t the most scenic route to take. To be honest it is rather anticlimactic if not the most direct way to get to our designated accommodations.
When we drive, we drive. We care for our dogs, yes. After that everything else suffers to some degree. We had secured lodging with a regionally historic spot, and I was kinda looking forward to staying there. After a long haul we were immensely proud to have arrived in time to have been able to order a hot dinner, at least according to their electronic presence, only to be told – no dice. At least he was friendly about it as he nodded to the store, we were being welcomed to explore. I chose a bag of Lays Sour Cream and Onion chips and a Chocolate Porter produced in state. Jenna selected a potpourri of sweets. She may have chosen more wisely as my tongue was still tainted by the chips in the morning… but you aren’t here to read about this kind of stuff, or are you?
How can I describe Chukar hunting? Well in many places it can be a profoundly serious event. Like life or death serious for you and or your dog – I have a story or two I could use to highlight this for you, if you cared to hear them. This is after all part of the mystic of Chukar hunting. At its simplest terrain is your primary antagonist. Everything else is, well, optional. We signed in, and then opened our gate and headed up.
The trail was oft off camber and slippery, but no match for the Power Wagon or my resolve. Slowly we wound our way to where seemed like a reasonable place to stop and disembark on our Oregon Chukar adventure. We prepped Tule and Powder, then set off, uphill. So up we went. Going up isn’t something you to take for granted. Be it a step, or a hundred. You feel each one. Each and every step. Our objective was a high alpine meadow, nestled in a craggy bowl high up. Schlepping higher. I arrived behind the girls, slightly out of breath. Jenna is still climbing, dogs are on scent – of course they are. No rest for the weary, I trudge on. Powder is on point a hundred yards out. Tule is exploring space fifty yards to the North of her, the ground is now like walking on a large Twinkie covered in thick grass. Tule joins Powder. No mistakes are made, the second dog was too much, and the Chukar begin boiling out and across to where Tule was investigating. Yes! This never happens. The girls begin working the birds again. It takes little and they are out and up. S.O.B. Like a fool I pursue them to no avail.
We allowed ourselves to be taunted by the Chukar’s call to reconvene. Stalking one here and there only to be made to feel a fool, again. Chukar hunting, it gets personal quick. After getting our fill, we opted to hunt down and around. Possibly we could get into more chukar, but I had hunted here before, and there was a veritable army of quail living amongst the spring seeps dotting the mountainside. Surely, that would pay a dividend.
We looped around, the girls got birdy, and like many times in bird hunting you have a choice to do this or that. Literally a 50/50 shot at doing the right thing. Invariably I choose the wrong ‘50’. Powder was on them, the point indicator was right, she wasn’t lost and figuring her life out – she was on point. The birds flushed overhead to drive the point home – Jeeebuz. Where were these damn quail anyway? We zigzagged down, spring by spring. Nothing. Not a damn thing. What. The. F?! There was one much lower, but I called it. Jenna’s foot was sore and to hit the last one, we’d be all but on the valley floor – I did that last year, walking back up on cooked pasta for legs – yeah, it wasn’t so exciting. I was willing to give the quail a pass if they were there. You win, this time.
The truck wasn’t so far away. But it was so much higher. The Mandalorian could be there in a moment. I could be there in maybe an hour if I pushed. Jenna wasn’t having fun, so it was going to be a trudge. So we trudged. And in trudging one is given time for self-reflection. I came to understand. I am a good person, like many with some misgivings, but a good person nonetheless. Existentialism. Self-Exploration. F*@#king Chucker hunting. The truck was close – thank God.
The girls had been getting birdy off and on. Pushing here and there. Pulling back, searching. But the truck. It was close, right? Bing, bang, bong. Powder was on point, wait, Tule was too, just over there. The girls are juking and jiving. Point, move, point. One loses it and returns, then the other…
Holy shit it’s steep, but I can’t lose contact, or it’ll be another lost opportunity. The wind, what is going on? I can barely take a step. Tule on my right, Powder to my left, maybe at most 10 yards apart. The hail came. Punch, push, point. Finally, I found the energy and steeped through – the bastards flushed. Pop! I had one. The hail stung so badly. The chukar, shot on it’s left, went spinning to the floor. Tule went one way, Powder the other. I went straight ahead to where the bird should have hit – nothing. Shit. Tule cruised by happy as a lark, without a bird. Where was Powder? She materialized up the insanely steep slope with a very lively bird in her mouth. Yes!
About 15 feet out she was met by Tule who lowered and turned her head. Powder, slowed, and gently lowered the very much alive bird to the ground and opened her mouth slightly, but kept it penned on the ground and allowed Tule to pick the bird up. She walked side by side with her, as Tule brought the bird to me. Who are you kidding, these dogs are Super Pro! Now, please make the hail stop.
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?
That 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 running 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 quite 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.
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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.