Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Four Post-Season Survival Tips

If you were doing what I am doing, you'd be sitting in your recliner, staring at a picture on your wall of a man hunting pheasant with a Yellow Lab and waiting for Top Shot to come on television.

You'd also be pulling out your android phone and checking the countdown app that reports: 250 Days to Pheasant Season! You'd also be playing with the idea of thumbing through the Spring 2011 issue of The Upland Almanac or the March/April/May 2011 issue of Gun Dog Magazine.

But maybe you're not like me, and you'd rather be productive during the off-season. If so, here are a few tips to get you through until November.
  • Work on your dog's socialization. In times past, hunting dogs often were one-man dogs. Nowadays, they are just as likely to double as house pets. While we certainly spend ample time preparing our dogs for field work, it is easy to neglect desensitizing them to people, dogs and the things they will come into contact with when we bring them out in public. I like to take my dog to Bass Pro Shops, The Home Depot and any other place where there are lots of people, sights and noises. Asking the occasional stranger to toss a treat to your dog will do wonders for her attitude toward strangers.
  • Shoot some sporting clays.  How many birds did you miss last season? I have no intention of telling you how many I missed, but I will tell you I intend to miss a lot less next year. Sporting clay ranges are an excellent way to improve your wing shooting during the off-season. They also provide a great venue for making some good memories with your kids. If you're in the Denver area, Rocky Mountain Roosters has an excellent clay range, and their prices are very reasonable. While you're at it, bring your dog along and throw some bumpers for him while people are shooting, just to remind him that guns mean he gets to have some fun.
  •  Get a fishing license. OK, that one may seem out of place, but let me explain. If you've got to kill time, there may be no better venue for doing it than bobbing on a lake in a canoe with a fishing pole in your hand! Some of the best daydreams ever daydreamed were dreamed on such days. Besides, as the number of pheasants in my freezer diminishes, it's nice to fill the space with something; trout will be fine, thank you very much. Icing on the cake: My dog loves a flopping fish almost as much as a pheasant.
  •  Start planning and saving for a special hunting trip next season. Nothing keeps a dream alive like planning for it, and stashing some money in the piggy bank during the off-season will help make the dream a reality. My kids and I recently started a tradition in which we have a family hunt the weekend after Thanksgiving. This year we're thinking of going to Kansas or South Dakota. (Yes, I realize my blog is called Colorado Bird Hunting. But just one trip a year to another state won't hurt anything, right?) There's lots to do: researching licenses and locations, digging through harvest records, plotting courses on the map. They say time flies when you're having fun.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Private Pheasant Preserves verses Walk-In Access Hunting in Colorado

During the 2010 hunting season, I had opportunity to hunt in some private pheasant hunting preserves and in the many walk-in access (WIA) areas of eastern Colorado. Both were fun, and both have their uses. Below are my experiences, which hopefully will help you make an informed decision about which hunting venue is right for you. I admittedly generalize hunting preserves a little for the sake of brevity, and I apologize to those round ones that don’t fit into my square hole.

The Birds

I’ve heard some folks refer to the hunting experience at private preserves as “kick-and-shoot,” as if you walk up to a tame bird, kick it to make it fly and then shoot it down. The truth is, I’ve walked within a few feet of birds in preserves and had them flush behind me (and consequently scare me half to death) when I pass. But I’ve had that happen in WIA areas with thoroughly wild birds too. I’ve also had birds flush so far away in preserves and WIA areas that I could not have hit them with a heat-seeking missle.

The pheasants in preserves are not tame, but they’re not wild either. They have the same instincts as true, wild pheasants: they run, hold and flush. Preserve pheasants are usually raised in captivity and released into the hunting fields in preparation for your hunt. Occasionally, you’ll run into some who survived the past season and are, for all intents and purposes, wild. But on average, they’re not as evasive, tough and fast as a wild pheasant.

Wild pheasants have survived by holding steadier, running faster or flushing harder than the ones that got eaten. They are stronger than pheasants raised in captivity and, consequently, fly faster and farther. Personally, I find more satisfaction and a greater sense of accomplishment when taking a wild pheasant. But the ones I shot on the preserve tasted great too.

The Dog

There’s nothing quite like shooting a pheasant over your own well-trained dog. It’s thrilling to watch my Labrador home in on a pheasant. It doesn’t matter whether it’s holding tight or running like crazy; the thrill of following her to the bird, gun at the ready is a real adrenaline rush. And it doesn’t matter to her if it’s a wild pheasant or a preserve pheasant. She gets just as birdie either way, and so do I. But dogs don’t start out well-trained. They need practice.

When you are training a bird dog, you want her to have a very high success rate and become passionate about finding birds. In Colorado, one of the best ways to help her gain the experience without her becoming bored or discouraged is taking her to a preserve.

In fact, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to let a young dog have her first few hunts on a preserve.  If you’re an inexperienced hunter, it’s a good place for you to learn the ropes too. Preserve hunts generally provide a guide and trained dogs if you need them. Labradors often learn well by watching what other dogs do, and most preserves are happy to let your dog run with theirs.

Sooner or later, though, you’ll want to take yourself, and your dog, to the next level. WIA areas are a great place to hunt savvy, tough, and usually more sparse birds.

The Hunting Grounds

Hunting preserves are typically divided into multiple lots, one of which you’ll have to yourself. It is restocked with birds prior to your hunt. You also usually can hunt for roosters and hens. All in all, it’s a fairly easy hunting experience with good chances for success.

WIA areas, however, are  not predictably restocked, and you can only hunt roosters. Birds come and go, feed and nest, settle in a particular area, and leave it for better areas. I’ve hunted some promising WIA areas multiple times and have seen nothing. And I’ve frequented other areas that seemed particularly trampled by hunters and taken pheasants every time. To quote the great philosopher Forrest Gump, “ya never know what you’re gonna get.” If it were easy, it wouldn’t be called hunting; it would be called finding.

The Experience

I thoroughly enjoy eating what I kill. But let’s face it: I could go to the grocery store and buy a pretty tasty eight-piece chicken dinner for five bucks, so it’s really not so much about the food. For me, hunting pheasant is largely about bonding with my kids and hunting with my dog. If I’m hunting alone, it often becomes more about the endurance and challenge (and make no mistake about it, hunting in freezing temperatures with nothing to block the wind in eastern Colorado takes some endurance).

But hunting on a preserve has its rewards too. If you’re looking for a fairly easy day of shooting some clays, bagging some birds and having lunch with some other hunters in a nice lodge, you can’t beat a nice private preserve. Or maybe you just want a good refresher hunt to kick the season off. There’s nothing wrong with that either.

The Price

If cost is a major factor in your decision, you may be surprised to learn it can be cheaper to hunt at a preserve. For example, if you are hunting by yourself and hailing from Denver, a trip to Rocky Mountain Roosters in Calahan, Colorado, will run you $175 for a three hour hunt and five birds, plus a tank of gas.

It’d hardly be worth the 6-hour round-trip to eastern Colorado's WIA areas (not to mention the hours of creeping down back roads looking for birds) to just stay one day. You need at least two days to keep it relaxing. You may get five birds, or you may not. But you’ll definitely use 2-1/2 tanks of gas, plus pay for food and lodging. With today’s gas prices, fair-chase hunting isn’t necessarily more financially feasible. Of course, if you’re hunting with a cohort, hunting at a preserve gets more expensive more quickly than WIA hunting.

Regardless of where you decide to hunt, the important things are: enjoy yourself, enjoy your kids, and enjoy your dog.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Anticipating and Dreading the Last Hunt

Tomorrow will be my last pheasant hunt of the season, and I'm feeling both a sense of anticipation and a bit of self-pity. Alie, my Labrador Retriever, has had a great first season, and it has been fulfilling to watch her become a good tracker and flusher and do her job with exuberance. I'm antsy to get my gear packed up for tomorrow and can scarcely wait to walk through the fields of Eastern Colorado with my son and Alie. But I'm already dreading the long wait until the 2011 season starts next November.

There's just something about walking through fields of tall, frost-covered grass (veritable crystal wonderlands), hawks swooping by searching for their breakfast, and my dog's tail telegraphing her position ahead of me that makes me more sentimental than is manly to admit. But after tomorrow, ten months of mild depression await me; I'll spend a lot of time in my recliner looking at my Christmas gift (a portrait of a man hunting pheasants in a field near a barn); reminiscing of the good times the past season provided with my sons (who become more independent, and thus distant, with each passing year); and reading articles from old hunting magazines. But I believe the future holds good things.

Next year I'll introduce my daughter to pheasant hunting. And I'm planning a bit of an extravagant Thanksgiving weekend hunting trip to either Kansas or South Dakota with all my kids. And I'm going to spend a lot of time during the coming spring and summer fine-tuning Alie's skills, working with her on hand signals, doubles and blind retrieves. Then there's the shopping: scouring the classifieds for used duck decoys and portable hunting blinds to introduce Alie to waterfowl hunting after the 2011 pheasant season ends (which should decrease the longevity of next year's post-season depression by about two months).

So, I'm off to prepare the truck, pack the gear and run a rag through the guns. Then I'll get to bed early tonight and dream of tomorrow morning's breakfast of antelope steak, eggs and toast, as well as the three-hour drive with my son to the hunting grounds. Ultimately, it's about making memories while you still can. When I hear the distant thunder of other hunters' shotguns tomorrow, I'll imagine they are feeling the same way I am. Then, I'll glance at my son and give him a wink (kids remember the darnedest things when they get older), locate Alie's flagging tail, and keep my eyes on the dog. Always keep your eyes on the dog.