Saturday, September 25, 2010

Montana 2010: The First Day, Hail Mary Edition

I'm much too tired to write this cleverly, but here's the deal.  Jon, Wes, and I (along with six dogs) left Kansas at 5:30pm on Friday evening.  We drove straight through, all night long, to Carbon County, Montana.  We arrived at 10:30am Saturday morning and put down Doc, Dottie, and Sage.

For those in the know, Carbon County is one of the few counties in Montana that hold a population of chukar partridge.  It was a longshot, to say the least -- we called it our "Hail Mary" attempt at punching our Montana card for a new species of bird.  In fact, none of us had ever shot a wild chuck anywhere.  Hell, when Jon called the Montana FWP, they advised him not to waste his time searching for these crafty birds.

That, of course, was taken as a challenge.

So imagine three corn-fed flatlanders, hitting the biggest, ugliest hills we could find.  And we tackled them.  As best as three dog-tired dudes could do, somehow feeding on the deprivation of sleep, energy, and a couple thousand feet in altitude.  Nothing though.  As the sun reached it apex, we headed down a drainage and back to the truck, birdless.

And then, as any bird hunter knows, luck changes on a dime.

Dogs got birdy.  Locked up.  Relocated.  Locked up again.  Solid this time.  Wes went in to flush Doc's find, and all hell erupted.  Ten birds, probably.  Three died.  A fourth fell when Dottie pointed a single, her tenth upland bird species of her ten year career.

Hard to beat today.  But we're gonna do our best to try for the next 14 days.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Road Music Roundup

It's been awhile since I've posted anything music-related, but here are some of my recommendations for those long road trips to your favorite fields and coverts.

Ryan Bingham & The Dead Horses - Junky Star
I was unsure of what to expect on Bingham's third album, this one produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett. Bingham's first two efforts were gems -- raw, rootsy, and raspy. But since his anointment by Hollywood (for his Oscar-winning "Weary Kind" theme song from "Crazy Heart"), I feared he might be caught up in the glitzy trappings of the west coast.  Instead, it appears he used his relocation to the Golden State to his advantage. This disc is a reflective snapshot of our country at a time where it can't seem to figure out what (or where) it wants to be -- only that it doesn't want to be where it currently is. There are no rocking cuts like on previous CDs (think "Bread and Water" or "Hey Hey Hurray"), but it'll sound good on a cool evening sitting around a campfire with a glass of Ezra on ice.

Jamey Johnson - The Guitar Song
I can't quite figure out why this guy gets the modicum of mainstream country airplay that he does -- and that's intended as a compliment. He's definitely old school country, owing more to Waylon and Merle than Big and Rich. This album, like "That Lonesome Song" before it, has some funky instrumental noodling in between tracks that gives the voluminous album some continuity. There's not a lame track among them, but some standouts include "Can't Cash My Checks," "Mental Revenge," "I Remember You," and "That's How I Don't Love You." And he's confident enough in his own talents that he's not afraid to throw in a few classic covers by Vern Gosdin, Kris Kristofferson, and even MMM-Mel TTT-Tillis.

J.J. Grey and Mofro - Georgia Warhorse
This is swamp soul that begs to be played loud and sung along to. On "Warhorse," the Jacksonville, Florida-based Grey and his band show that they can channel some pretty classic Motown, too, with tracks like "The Sweetest Thing," "All," and "Beautiful World." And if you can't get laid to "Slow, Hot, and Sweaty," well then no amount of Levitra is going to help you either, pal.

Danny Barnes - Pizza Box
For me, a little banjo goes a long way. Don't get me wrong -- I don't mind it as an accompaniment, but it rarely does it for me as a main course. Maybe that's why I like this album so much. Danny Barnes is an accomplished banjo traditionalist, having played with the likes of Del McCoury and Bela Fleck, but also sits in with varied artists like Lyle Lovett, the Butthole Surfers, and Ministry. "Pizza Box" takes the banjo out of the nonconsensual sodomy arena of Deliverance and into completely new, modern territory. It's a really cool mix of rock, folk, bluegrass, country, hip-hop, and jazz. It's been out for nearly a year, but I'm just now discovering it.

Terry Allen - Lubbock (On Everything)
Ok, so this one's not even close to new, but this 1979 double album by Texas panhandle savant Terry Allen never ceases to amaze me. It's a (sort of) concept album that tells the story of cotton and guitar-picking farmers, tired waitresses, high school football players, art dilletantes, and Wolfman Jack. Ridiculous? You bet.  But somehow, Terry Allen pulls it off with aplomb.  This one's a "desert island album" for me, as it has been for nearly 20 years.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 2010 Prairie Chicken Opener - A Photo Essay

I haven't had a lot of time lately to write -- hunting (and packing for hunting trips) has happily cramped my style.  Here's a pictoral update on my exploits afield.

I'm the chosen one, bitches!

By popular vote, Dottie got the call for the first upland hunt of the 2010 season, a Kansas prairie chicken quest.  Thankfully, the girl didn't skip a beat.  She covered ground nicely and didn't appear to be as out of shape as I had feared.  In fact, she pointed the first bird killed on the trip.  You can even see the zippered scar on her belly.  It blows my mind at how quickly the canine body can recover.

Learned: a sealed bag of Art & Mary's Jalapeno Kettle Chips, placed in close proximity to a dog crate on a long road trip, can be opened and eaten remotely.  I'm not sure who the thief was, and the suspects aren't talking.

Speaking of suspects, the only shots I can get of LuLu are when she's chained to a tie-out stake:

Or when she's taking a break from making 400 yard casts.  The pup shows great promise as a big-running dog -- she covers ground with purpose and is exceptionally good about coming in when called.  She even had her first point -- surprisingly staunch, in fact -- on a hen pheasant.

Vegas was solid too.  And when it got too hot in the afternoons to walk the hills in search of chickens, she pulled double duty as a dove retriever.  She didn't seem to mind.

It was the maiden prairie chicken hunting trip for Terry, a Minnesota native who was more accustomed to tight grouse woods than open, hilly prairies. 

But the eight or so miles of walking each day was usually rewarded.

Tomorrow, I'm off to Montana for two weeks in even bigger country.  And to think -- today is only the first day of fall.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Who Gets The First Call? Help Me Decide!

Faithful readers, we hunters are an odd lot.  We pine all spring, all summer, for the fall season to finally get here.  And as the various opening days draw nigh, we freak out.  I need to fix the lock on my topper.  I really should have shot more clays this summer.  How many pairs of liner socks do I have?  Shit, I missed the sale on Laphroaig!

But the conundrum facing me at this moment is which dog do I put down on Wednesday for the beginning of the Kansas prairie chicken season?  Seems silly, I know, but I think about these things, not unlike a college football coach who has a QB controversy on his hands.  I suspect I am not alone. 

Here are the choices -- pluses and minuses.  Vote in the poll box to the right of this post.  Voting ends Wednesday at noon -- about the time I arrive in the Land of Chickens.

DOTTIE (10 year old pointer)
  • Pros:  she's my pro.  She knows the drill, and she's hardly ever let me down.  She's also gotten the call for every season that we've hunted together.
  • Cons:  she's recovering from surgery.  She's been cleared by the doc, but her conditioning is nonexistent.

VEGAS (6 year old shorthair)
  • Pros:  she's in good condition, and although she's a late bloomer, she impressed in late season 2009 and during training this year.
  • Cons:  she's pretty close-working, and my goal on Wednesday is to make some bird contacts so I know where to go when my hunting buddies arrive later in the week.

LULU (8 month old pointer)
  • Pros:  she's a puppy.  It's a new season, so why not start it with my newest?  The dog can certainly cover the ground, and she has a great nose.  She'll undoubtedly bust birds, but if she's a miscreant, there's no one else to offend.
  • Cons:  she's a puppy.  If I need to explain, then you're at the wrong blogsite.  Go here instead.
Please vote, folks.  And feel free to add comments as well.  If you think I ought to put two down, vote that too... although I'm already going to insist that if it's LuLu, it's her alone.  I need all my focus on her!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Gift

The shotgun barked, same as the ten thousand before it on this particular afternoon.  This one, however, was quickly cut off by a deep and hearty YEAHHHHH! from yours truly.  I couldn't help it.  The day was over, we were out of shells on a borrowed and ill-fitting 12 gauge autoloader, and I was hastily running to retrieve my ten-year-old son's sixth whitewing dove of the sultry South Texas afternoon.

To say I was happy was putting it mildly.  For one, it cleansed the bad aftertaste of my own abyssmal shooting (also putting it mildly) out of my mind once and for all.  But more than that, it was the punctuation -- the exclamation point -- on a special Labor Day Weekend for me, my dad, and my son.

Through some connections, I was able to line up a dove shoot at the Nooner Ranch just outside of Hondo, Texas.  "Pulling a Nooner" is indescribable.  Sammy Nooner (among other things) manages hundreds upon hundreds of acres specifically for whitewing dove.  Having only started showing up in the Rio Grande Valley in the last 20 years or so, these invaders from Mexico are now the dove of choice in this part of the world, and can be found as far north as Kansas these days.  We arrived on Saturday at around 3:30pm, and the hunt was already on -- the amount of gunfire made it sound like something as close as I ever want to get to D-Day.  Literally tens of thousands of fast-flying acrobats poured across the sky, from their roosts in the city of Hondo to Sonny's planted sunflower fields that ring the small town.

As we readied ourselves, I recalled that I wasn't fortunate enough to hunt with my Granddad, but I know that's where I got my love of the outdoors.  For him, hunting was more than sport -- it helped put something on the table for his hardy German family of eight brothers and two sisters nearly 100 years ago.  Back when I was a kid, Gramps would take us plinking with the .22, but for some reason, we never walked a field or sat in a blind together.  No matter.  He was still a mythical figure, regaling me with stories and knowledge that you can't get from any book or website.

Jack, my son, looks at my dad in the same way.  Seeing Jack and Gramps together is a time machine back to my own childhood.  And what better way to relive my childhood than on a hunting trip with the two of them?  And I gave them that gift on Labor Day Weekend 2010.

Funny thing though.  As I sat there on two semi-sweltering afternoons, I realized I was the one who was the biggest beneficiary from my little plan.  My father was proud of me, joining me in something I deeply and profoundly care about.  He told me I shot well (the first day anyhow).  He was pleased I was teaching my son safe, ethical, and proficient gun handling.  Most of all, he was proud that I was exposing Jack to the glory of the outdoors.

My whipsmart, yet sometimes flighty boy had it in him -- he had to -- it was good breeding, not unlike any birddog worth their salt, that had been passed down through generations.  I was just the inevitable enabler, the kin to ignite the spark in him that really can't be extinguished.

So when that final gunshot went off, I looked for that spark in my son, and saw an inferno.  I looked at my dad, and saw an even bigger grin.  And so I ran, ran to that downed dove -- because I didn't want either of them to see me me smiling so hard that I was crying in joy.

Seeing his smile -- and my dad's -- is something I'll never forget.  Here's to the past, the present, and the promise.

And here's to the Gift.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Gear Review: L.L. Bean Technical Upland Boots

NOTE: L.L. Bean has informed me that they are trying to iron out some quality issues on these boots and that as of May 20, 2011, they are not for sale.  You can find the full story here.

NOTE: This review has been updated with my impressions of the boot after a month or so afield.  That evaluation can be found here.

Here's a first in a (hopefully) occasional series of upland gear reviews.  As I purchase new stuff, I'll do my best to post initial, as well as subsequent, evaluations as time allows.

There has been a lot of discussion about the new L.L. Bean Technical Upland Boots on various upland hunting message boards, and they recently garnered a 2010 Field & Stream Best of the Best award.  Those factors were enough for me to give the Bean Boots a try.  I ordered them for $179.00 and free shipping directly from L.L. Bean on August 27th and I received them on September 2nd.  That seemed a tad long, even for free shipping, but the ordering process was otherwise uneventful.

Full disclosure: my opinion of L.L. Bean generally skews neutral to slightly negative. I own little (if any) Bean gear, and right or wrong, I have always considered it northeastern preppy stuff. Not to the Orvis level of pretentiousness, but not far from it. In fact, I think the last piece of Bean apparel I owned were a pair of duck shoes back in 7th grade -- they were hot, uncomfortable, and butt-ugly.

Enter Bean's Technical Boots. Unique looking is probably a charitable description.  They're sort of a cross between a traditional hunting boot and a high-tech hiking boot. Two features really steal the show on these boots though -- the funky material that comprises most of the upper, and the unique steel cable lacing system.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What A Difference A Week Makes

One week ago, I was nursing a sick dog with an uncertain future.  I owned today.

Jack and I left Casa Scampwalker a few minutes after 5am for the hour-long trip to our dove field.  It poured -- and I mean poured -- rain the entire drive.  I was in full damage control mode, telling my eager son that it was likely the day (his first day) would be a washout.

Pulling off and parking at our destination, I checked the NEXRAD.  Seemed clear just to the west of us.  The sun reluctantly rose behind the clouds, and the rain let up.  Shooting time.

For the next three hours, my son and I had the hunt of our lives -- Jack, his first-ever, and me, living vicariously through his wonder-filled eyes and shit-eating grin.  We saw and shot plenty of birds.  And thank God for Vegas -- she found half the birds we knocked down in the thick soybeans and sunflower undergrowth.

My ringing phone shook me out of the predatory bliss I was in.  It was Dr. Frances, our vet who had removed Dottie's alarmingly fast-growing tumor.  Dottie is fine.  It turns out she had a long-blocked mammary gland that happened to flare up suddenly.  Crisis averted.

Gathering our spent shells and dead birds, we hustled to the truck as it began sprinkling.  By the time we pulled out, it was a downpour, all the way back home.

We dodged a lot of stormclouds today, and saw heaven, too.  Not a bad first day of the season.

Thanks again for your well wishes.