Friday, April 6, 2012

The Senior Tour

The buggy rolled to a stop, and Steve and I surveyed the ground ahead of us.  It was a good looking draw, at least by Midland, Texas standards. More of a dry creekbed, it definitely looked birdy and manageable enough for us to put down our two older dogs for a brief run.  The sun was shining and things were warming up quickly, but this would only be a 45 minute walk or so.

Steve put down Em, his then-11-year-old black and white pointer, and I readied Dot, my 9-year old lemon and white counterpart.  I stopped to wonder how many birds these two old girls had between them -- the different species, scents, and locales that they've collectively hunted.  This walk would be dubbed the Senior Tour.

We loaded up with shells and water, and the brace began.  Neither dog was running the way they did back in their younger years, but they didn't need to.  Fanning out across the creekbed, they knew just what to do. Wisdom always trumps enthusiasm (at 43, I'm finally starting to learn that lesson).

Not five minutes into the hunt, Em locked up near a gnarly patch of prickly pear.  Dot was 30 yards behind, staunchly honoring (never a sure bet).  The covey of scalies rose, and two quickly fell.  I don't recall any remarkable retrieves -- there certainly weren't any from Dot, who only cares about living birds, a trait I've learned to accept in her older years.  Either way, we collected our birds and continued chasing singles for the next 30 minutes or so.  It was an impressive show, and all four of us were soaking in every minute of it.

I've killed more birds on a single walk before, and I've certainly seen dogs cover more ground than these two did.  But it's the memory of two veteran dogs that hunted with the prowess that only age and experience can bring.

I'm not sure, but I think that might've been one of the last times Em went to West Texas, having mostly retired from Steve's traveling team.

I got a text from Steve yesterday letting me know that Em had died in her sleep Wednesday night at age 14.  We spoke on the phone, and I extended my condolences, feeble as they were.  Nothing really helps when you lose a hunting buddy, save maybe the solace in knowing the guy on the other end of the phone has experienced that same pain, and is destined to again as long as he's got a bird dog.

That's the contract we all sign, willingly or not.  We'll miss ya, Em.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What Are Your Birds Worth?

$4554.00 worth of scaled quail, Midland, Texas 2007.
If you're a Texas quail hunter, then it's exactly $253 apiece.

I've been rolling this number around in my head for about three months now, and I'm not sure what to think.  The figure, compiled by the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, is certainly a lot to ponder.

The study indicates that in Texas, the average quail hunter spent just over $8600 for roughly nine days of quail hunting during the 2010-2011 season (the year before Texas birds really nosedived.)  Texas, as many of you know, is a pay-to-play state -- there's virtually zero public land, which means very expensive leases, which many times go into the five-figure stratosphere.  So that's probably a number that skews the figure.

I'll let Dr. Rollins and his cohorts' study speak for itself, but it raises some interesting questions, namely:
  • Nine days?  Really, guys?  If I'm going to drop some serious coin on a Texas quail lease, even if I live in Kansas, I'm spending more than nine damned days hunting them.  I spend more than a cumulative nine days a year shaving, for the love of God!  I've never cared how many I kill, but nine days concerns the hell out of me -- for a portion of the world blessed with what is the best (yet dwindling) quail habitat on this planet.

  • According to the study, the number of Texas resident hunters has plummeted 79 percent since 1981.  Frightening, but I guess I can't blame folks.  It's an expensive sport, and in a where racks and beards matter, shooting something not much bigger than a songbird apparently isn't as cool or as worthwhile in our time-strapped, measuring stick society.

  • How does the price of a quail -- or a decent season of quail -- compare to what a trophy deer hunter spends in Texas?  High fence or low fence, a deer outfitter commands thousands of bucks (pun intended) for the privilege to shoot a decent-sized trophy.  That's one animal.  And the success rate I'm guessing are a lot higher than the probability of shooting a decent day's worth of quail (to say nothing of a Texas limit).  So are the economics really in favor of a bird dogger?

  • What will gas prices do to this equation?  With most Texas quail hunters (read: urban) at least three hours from decent Bob country, will it cease to be worth the effort?  Or will it increasingly be the domain of the well-heeled?  Sad stuff.
And then, of course, I think about my own season.  I shot exactly two quail in Kansas this season.  It was on "free" public land, and I'm grateful for those birds.  But when you add up the numbers -- gas, lodging, bird dog expenses, vacation time -- well, you get the picture.  I might as well have taped some balsa wings on gold bullion bars and shot them in my backyard. Putting a price on our avocation is indeed a slippery slope.

Yet I soldier on, undeterred, as I'm sure most of you do.  After all, you can't put a price on happiness.  

My wife will read this, after all.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Road Photo Friday: My Hun

Ok, so this photo wasn't really taken on the road, it was taken in my living room.  But this ideal specimen of perdix perdix was shot while on the annual road trip to Montana.  It's special because it was one of the first birds I shot over my young pointer, LuLu.

Now, every so often, it catches the eye of Dottie, my semi-retired, inside-dog pointer, and she locks up on it.  I like to think that when she does, her mind drifts off to a special time afield.  I know mine does.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Secrets of Preparing Dark-Meated Gamebirds

Seared Sharptail breast, steamed broccoli, and corn spoonbread.
I love hunting prairie birds in the early fall.  Chasing sharptails and prairie chickens for me and my buddies has become more than a way to pass the time until the pheasant and quail season start up -- it's a focal point of our fall campaign.

Fortunately, we usually have a freezer full of these dark meat birds at the end of the season.  I savor this exotic-tasting bird done just about any way, but like many folks, Mrs. Scampwalker isn't too hot on dark meat from wild birds.  But I've got a foolproof recipe that'll satisfy the most finicky of palates.

When I clean and package the birds, I fillet the breast into two medallions. I freeze the thighs, legs, and bones for a later date when I can combine them with other prairie bird hindquarters and simmer them into a rich stock for a gumbo.

With the breasts, I soak them in a simple marinade of 1 part soy sauce, two parts olive oil, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a tablespoon of coarsely crushed dried rosemary, and black pepper to taste.

I turn up my Weber full blast until it's good and hot, and I sear the breasts -- a minute or less on each side -- until cooked medium rare.  After turning the meat, I baste the birds with a bit of Chatellier's Rare Game Sauce.

Chatellier's is hard to describe -- a unique mix of savory, sweet, and tangy.  But it does what all good sauces should do -- it enhances the taste of the meat instead of hiding it.  And it's equally good paired with venison, goose, woodcock, or red domestic meats as well.  It deserves a spot in every hunter's fridge.

Note: I received my jar of Chatellier's for free from the company.  But it's still darn good and I plan restock more once my freebie is gone -- which is soon.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

You Can Call Me Coach.

I've never been an athlete.  Far from it.  My athletic career ended in eighth grade as a backup defensive end for the Barr Junior High Bulldogs.  I saw exactly one series of downs, in which I was pushed around, humiliated, and torched for six points.  Fast forward a generation.

My son Jack, who might possess a bit (but not a ton) more athletic ability than his dad, still doesn't get a lot of spiral passes thrown his way.  That's a failing on my part, and I freely admit it.  I'm embarrassed even.

But much like his father, Jack has a serious love of the outdoors, and probably moreso, a passion for shooting.  Longtime blog followers know I enrolled him in the Powder Creek SCTP Shooting Team last spring, and he's set to begin his intermediate (sixth grade) season in a couple weeks.

This year, I'll be a coach.  I spent this last weekend (the entire weekend, in fact) becoming an NRA/USAS/CMP Level One Shotgun Coach under the expert tutelage of Tom Wondrash.  What a worthwhile program!  I would encourage any bird hunter to take this course, not only to ensure the future of our sport, but as a ridiculously cheap way to brush up your own skills.

If you're like me, you grew up hunting, and shooting was something you sort of learned through experience.  There wasn't any formal teaching -- my dad taught me gun safety and stance, but we all sort of figured out the science of shotgunning on our own.  And until Sunday evening, that's how I was passing the sport onto my boy.

Nothing wrong with that, of course, but through the SCTP program, I've learned so much about the mechanics of shotgunning.  And hopefully, I'll be able to pass along at least a few nuggets to the 40 or so new kids that are eagerly joining our team for the first time this spring.

So I'm a coach now.  That's a new feeling for me, and one of awesome humility.  On the range Sunday afternoon, in 40 mph winds, my fellow coaches and I helped to quickly improve the scores of half a dozen kids.  Then it was my turn to get on the line, and with my wealth of knowledge, shot one of the shittier rounds I've had in a long time.  No matter.  I'll work through it.

After all, I'm a coach.

If you want more information how to get your kid or yourself (or both) into the Scholastic Clay Target Program, click here.  And have fun.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Pheasant Fest 2012: Winning Hearts and Minds, One Kid At A Time

Most of you are aware that Pheasants Forever hosted their annual Pheasant Fest in Kansas City this past weekend.  For those unaware, it's an outdoor trade show that features all things related to hunting and conservation -- bird dogs, guns, and everything else related.  By any account, it was a success, drawing more than 22,000 people over three days.  That's impressive, given that KC was as far south as The Fest has ever ventured -- not to mention that the weather was ridiculously nice, which probably kept a few people outside.

But I've got another, more personal, way to measure the festival's impact.  Saturday morning, I took my 11-year-old son Jack to the show, and let him bring along one of his classmates -- we'll call him Justin.  While Jack's outdoor experience rivals almost any kid of his age, Justin wasn't at all familiar with hunting, shooting, or bird dogs.  I could tell on the drive downtown that he had no idea of what to expect from the show.

After arriving, the boys and I cruised the aisles.  We pet bird dogs and we handled shotguns -- a first for Justin.  After about 30 minutes (and a few "rules" admonishments), I let them wander the hall alone while I conducted some business.  A couple hours later, we met up for lunch.  The boys were ebullient.  They told me about the shooting galleries and fishing games, and showed me the autographs they got from the young men who would represent the U.S. on our Olympic skeet team.  They had collected stacks of catalogs and brochures from vendors.  (Jack was a little bummed he couldn't find Larry Potterfield to autograph his Midway USA master catalog that he lugged to the show, but that's another story...)

Anyhow, I had planned on taking them home after lunch, but we went back for more.  Two hours later, we were descending the escalator, smiles on all our faces.  And then Justin turned to me with a question.

"Do you think I could take a hunter's safety course with Jack this spring?"

That's when I saw Pheasant Fest from a different perspective -- the view of a non-hunting kid who had truly gotten excited about a new thrill.  It's a thrill that I've never lost, but it's one I've almost come to take for granted.

The kids are home from school today (Presidents Day, you know).  But I can't wait to hear what Justin says to Jack tomorrow in class.  Hopefully, he's still as excited about hunting as he was on Saturday.  Hopefully, he'll talk his dad into shooting with us some afternoon this spring.

And maybe, just maybe, we'll be able to show Justin the thrill of a rooster flush or covey rise next fall.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Designer Breeds: English Pointer - Shar Pei Cross

Nothing like another trip to the vet for LuLu to get me blogging again. 

This evening, during the nightly chores to walk and clean the pups, we were greeted with this.  LuLu, my almost two-year-old pointer, had a head that was swollen up so badly that she could barely see, and her jowls were swollen and droopy.  She was fine when I checked her at noon -- all I can figure is that she tangled with a spider or some other creepy crawly.  As warm as it's been this winter, the insects have had an easy time of it.  It was sad, funny, and most of all, alarming.

I debated shoving some Benadryl down her gullet, but we decided that she was advanced enough that we were concerned about her airway.  Mrs. Scampwalker called the vet (literally minutes before closing time), and they graciously stayed late to administer a couple different rounds of antihistamine.  The photo was taken after the trip to the vet, and the swelling had already gone down quite a bit -- you can imagine what it was like 30 minutes earlier.

The Glass Pointer strikes again -- this time from the confines of her own kennel run!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Thompson/Center Dimension Hands-On Rifle Review

It's not often that I have the chance to shoot an unreleased, unannounced gun weeks before the general public knows about it, but that's exactly what happened to me in early December of 2011.

While on a deer hunt in Southwest Texas, I was given the opportunity to handle, fire, and hunt with the new Thompson/Center Dimension bolt action rifle in .308 caliber, introduced today at the 2012 SHOT Show in Las Vegas.  Sadly, I wasn't allowed to take any photos on my hunt, but my experience with this gun is recounted below.

Looks aren't everything, but this rifle will definitely attract attention.  There's really no other centerfire bolt action like it.  At a glance, the overall silhouette approximates T/C's venerable Encore, with a pronounced pistol grip and a rounded, almost arched, stock.  It has various shims and inserts that help you customize the Dimension's, well, dimensions -- affording the shooter an optimum length of pull.  And a good-fitting gun is usually an accurate shooting one.

Speaking of accuracy, the barrel is completely free-floated, and in fact, can be swapped out with different caliber barrels (depending on length of action) in a matter of minutes, using a special tool that's included with the gun.  Hell, you can even make it a right handed or left handed bolt.  It's this sort of interchangeability (see: Encore) that is a hallmark of Thompson/Center, and it's nice to see they're bringing the modular gun concept well into the 21st Century.

My gun came pre-sighted with Nikon glass, and before taking the Dimension hunting, I fed it a few rounds of 150 grain Hornady Superformance at the 100-yard range.  Ergonomically, the gun fit well and I was easily throwing inch-and-a-half groupings downrange.  I was told the trigger is user-adjustable, and the pull felt crisp and light (but not too light).  The action was smooth -- similar to the T/C Venture that rests in my gun case.

Back to the hunt.  The rut was just coming in, and I was wanting to take a buck using rattling horns -- something that's common in Texas, but somewhat a mystery to this Midwestern boy.  We walked many miles over my three day hunt, and I carried the Dimension all day long, and never once did it become heavy.  The detachable box magazine was a nice touch, too.

Thanks to the popularity of the AR-15 platform, the shooting public no longer considers a black, "plastic" gun as inherently inferior to a traditional walnut-stocked bolt action.  And in this sluggish economy, one gun with multiple barrel options is going to make a lot of sense to a lot of people.  Priced at about $650 (with extra barrels at $250), it's also a gun that's within reach of most any hunter or shooter.

I never did find the buck I was looking for, but it sure was fun rattling in smaller bucks and hunting with a top-secret rifle.  I give Thompson/Center a lot of credit for taking some chances and designing a rifle that is truly different than anything else on the market.  I hope to put a new Dimension in my gun safe soon.

note: I was not paid or otherwise compensated by Thompson/Center for this review.

Monday, January 16, 2012

A Goose, and a Tease

Jack and I tried our hand at shooting some Canadas yesterday.  Thanks to the ridiculously warm weather we've been having (it's topped 60 the past two days), the geese weren't moving much.  We were able to scratch a couple down nonetheless, and had a ton of fun in the process.

I'm on my way to Vegas for the SHOT Show for a week of fun (I say that in half jest).  Anyhow, I might have some actual newsworthy, cutting edge product review in conjunction with the show -- just the type of thing you loyal viewers have come to expect from the Scampwalker newsroom (I say that in full jest).

Bon voyage!

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Glass Pointer

As I wind down the 2011-2012 upland season, one sad fact is becoming more and more apparent, each and every time I hunt.

LuLu is injury prone.

First was her mishap with barbed wire up in Montana, on her first run since getting her from Nolan Huffman, my trainer.  That accident came perilously close to severing her Achilles tendon, and sidelined her for part of the trip.

Second was the opening weekend of pheasant and quail season here in Kansas.  She ran headlong over a cattle guard and fell in up to her chest at full speed.  Although she narrowly escaped breaking bone or ligament, she received a deep tissue bruise and subsequent cellulitis, which necessitated an extended rest on the sidelines.

Over the past month or so, she's developed a nagging tail injury, and it's usually minutes into a hunt before her haunches are spattered in blood.

And yesterday -- on what is likely my last upland hunt of the season -- she decided to tangle with a porcupine after pointing the damned thing.  All of my dogs have been stuck by these critters, but none as severely as LuLu.  Some of the barbs (typically an inch-and-a-half long) are buried more than an inch in her nose.  I was able to pull many of them, but the rest she's not letting me go near.  Presently, she's at the vet getting them extracted (along with my hard-earned cash).

Amazingly, none of these injuries slowed her down.  She's a gladiator-tough dog (even by bird dog standards) and I am happy and proud to hunt with her.  But dang.

Not quite two years old, I'm hoping that I can chalk this up to a young dog learning the ropes.  I can't afford a decade of this!

Update: Mrs. Scampwalker picked up Lu from the vet, and she is resting comfortably, sans 18 porcupine quills.  Apparently there were several inside her gum and palate.  I'd have never gotten them all on my own!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Tons of Water... Ducks Not So Much.

Ed note: I've been a bit absent from the blog lately... thankfully, much of that time has been spent hunting and enjoying family.  As a result, I've got a lot to talk about.  Here goes the first post of 2012!  Thanks to all of you for stopping by and paying attention to my little slice of the internet.

In mid-December, Jack and I met up with my dad for a duck hunting trips near Waldenburg, Arkansas.  As luck would have it, most of Arkansas was pummeled by eight inches of rain in the previous week.  That made for some tough hunting -- the birds were around, but standing water everywhere made for some tough hunting (not to mention that many of the best blinds were submerged.  So from that perspective, the trip wasn't much of a success.

Thankfully, hunting success in the 21st century hunting is seldom measured by the quantity of critters shot. As I mentioned previously, this was a trip about bringing together family and creating memories.  And on that accord, the trip did not disappoint.

We still managed to shoot a few birds.  We jumped about 8,000 snow geese on a reservoir -- a spectacle that is completely indescribable.  I'm not sure who's the proudest in this photo... Jack, his grandpa, or the guy taking the picture.

Aside from teaching Jack the finer points on waterfowl hunting, Gramps also exposed Jack to "Austrian cuisine," a staple of blind and boat back when I was a kid.  Vienna sausages.  The look on Jack's face pretty much tells you what he thought of this delicacy.

The guy who really organized this whole outing was Dan, a close hunting buddy that I met when I lived in Texas.  We literally met in the middle of nowhere on a quail lease some 15 years ago -- and we've been tight ever since.  He brought his dad and son as well.

Dan also brought his two labs, and we were thankful to have them. Primarily upland dogs, water work was foreign to them at the beginning of the trip, but by the end of it they were regularly making some outstanding retrieves for us.

It was the first three generation trip, but I suspect it won't be the last.