Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Manliest of Man Weeks Part 1: Pheasants

November 19th began an epic week to remember. The week was so epic, in fact, that I can't possibly contain the tales in a single post. This will be a three part series (plus or minus) detailing:

A pheasant hunt in Kansas (Nov. 19th~21st)

The 2010 North American Falconers Association (NAFA) meet in Dodge City, Kansas (Nov. 21st~24th)


An elk hunt in the mountains of Colorado (Nov. 26~28th)

I guess the best place to start is at the very beginning!

One of my best friends, Joel, and I loaded his truck and headed out late Friday morning headed to Kansas. Our eventual objective was the NAFA meet in Dodge City but for the last few years I've gone to Kansas to shoot pheasants with my father. He couldn't make it this year but since Joel and I were headed in that direction anyway we thought we'd leave a bit early and do some shooting before the meet started.

To be honest there's not much to write about the first couple days. We drove to a few of the walk-in areas around the town we were going to be staying in the first night just to get the lay of the land and only had time to walk one before the sun set on us. Unlike when I go with my father, we didn't have dogs, so it was a tall order for just the two of us to push some of the native grassland. We got two hens up but didn't fire a shot. In fact, we saw more prairie falcons that first day then we saw pheasants! One actually hung around the field we were hunting and did a few flybys. Being falconers and all, we thought it was pretty cool but we did want to find some pheasants! As we were packing our guns back at the truck we saw a MONSTER whitetail buck but went to our hotel empty handed.

We misjudged when the sun would rise the next morning. We crossed from mountain time to central time on our way over which put sunrise closer to 7:30 rather than 6:30! So we bounced along the back roads in the dark and arrived at our first planned location well before shooting time. I'd hunted this area a few times with my father and knew there were pheasants about but dogs were definitely the difference in the equation this time.

When the sun finally did rise we set off over the grassland and I quickly realized that without dogs the birds were likely to run circles around us. Again we flushed a couple of hens but nothing we could shoot at. We went a little further down the road and watched a rooster fly from a controlled shooting area (basically a place you have to pay to hunt) across the road to a field where we could hunt. A good sign! Just behind him we watched another rooster sneak out of the grass with a hen in tow. They were smart birds though as they stopped in the middle of the road and looked right at us, frozen for about 30 seconds before deciding they would rather take their chances in the controlled shooting area than deal with us. The rooster and hen in the road flew back in that direction and when they did the grass around them erupted in 30 or 40 pheasants following their lead in the opposite direction of where we wanted them to go! So much for that spot as the lone rooster that had flown across the road heard the ruckus and made his escape as well.

We headed southeast toward Garden City, our next destination. A small stand of evergreens along the way yielded three roosters that flushed out of range but flew to a field where we knew we could find them. We spotted all three out in a wheat field and opted to go after the pair that were closer together hoping to get both. My nerves get the best of me when hunting though and a poorly timed flush on my part prevented Joel from getting a shot (a recurring theme on this trip). I did drop one rooster though so we had our first bird for the trip.

The rest of the day was nothing to blog about. Lots of walking through large grass fields where I'm sure most of the birds just hunkered down and let us walk right past them. We pulled in to Garden City having hunted hard all day with only the one bird to show for it. Luckily we were able to find a nearby sports bar that was showing the UFC card that night and that took our minds off an otherwise disappointing day.

Sunday was going to be our last day of shooting and by now we had a better idea of the kind of cover we needed to find if we were going to be effective. With just the two of us we had to have something to push the birds in to, an empty field or road, otherwise they could avoid us rather easily. We were also hoping to find walk-ins that had been planted with some type of crop since the grasslands were obviously unmanageable. We found a perfect spot with cut milo and a thin row of grass separating it from thicker cover. Joel walked on one side of the grass and I walked on the other and low and behold right near the end a rooster flushed out Joel's side and a single shot brought it down. Finally Joel had gotten a bird and I didn't feel so bad about screwing up the first opportunity when I'd gone mine!

We headed back to the car and realized that it had gotten rather warm. I had on two pairs of pants and winter boots and it was simply too much. Joel also opted to shed some layers at the truck and as we were both changing he suddenly yells, "Two roosters just landed in that field right behind you!" Talk about being caught with your pants down! I quickly laced up my shoes, grabbed my gun and we both headed to where he'd seen them put in. I jumped into the brush and sure enough a rooster flushed just to my left. I took a wild shot with my first barrel, missing completely, and then his tail exploded as Joel shot. I regained my composure and dropped him with my second barrel. Good team work! We called it an assist as I gathered the bird and went looking for the other that Joel had seen. Unfortunately, the second wily bird snuck out behind us and made his getaway well out of range. But we were starting to see birds, and put a few in the bag, this was good!

We were getting closer to Dodge City, our final destination, but still wanted to check out a few more walk-ins before we called it good. As we continued our search I saw a suspicious looking minivan parked on the road. Hunters? we wondered as we approached but a minivan didn't fit the typical profile. "I'll bet they're falconers!" I told Joel and as we passed we noticed that one of the two individuals standing at the back of the vehicle had a falcon in hand. We pulled over and chatted for a minute and they showed us a freshly trapped prairie falcon they'd just caught. It turned out that me and one of the guys knew each other online! They were looking for merlins so we told them were we'd seen a few and wished them the best before continuing on. We definitely got the sense that we were getting close to the falconry meet though!

We stopped at another walk-in when Joel noticed a hen walking toward the road. She flushed but we thought it was a sign that this would be a good spot. We stopped the truck, hopped out and no sooner had I loaded my gun and shut the door when pheasants erupted all around me! There must've been 40 birds that started popping up like popcorn. I quickly dropped one rooster and yelled for Joel who was on the other side of the truck still getting ready. We both missed our subsequent shots but wow, what a start to this area! It turned out to be as good as we hoped with cover that worked perfectly for the two of us. Joel made a beautiful shot on a rooster that was quite a ways away and despite watching him drop like a stone in a wide open spot we made the critical mistake of taking our eyes off him once he hit the ground. He must've had enough left in him to crawl to cover somewhere because despite looking for him for 45 minutes we couldn't find him. I really hate to lose birds, again, we needed dogs! We got one more rooster up at the end of a small patch of cover and I put him down with my first barrel. The only other exciting thing that happened in that field is that I walked right over a rattlesnake! I thought it was kinda cool, Joel wasn't as excited...

So 4 birds for the day, 5 total for the trip, and we ran in to another set of falconers before we called it good. Not excellent by any means but all things considered we'd done fairly well for two guys without dogs once we found the type of cover we could work effectively. I should've taken more pictures but didn't think to pull out the camera until we'd arrived at our camp in Dodge City. Here's all I've got:

We actually found one more spot, a small abandoned farmstead, that produced a whole bunch of birds but they flushed two far out for either Joel or myself to shoot at. We made a note of it though and figured we'd hit it again on our way back from Dodge (more on that later!).

So the shooting had ended and we'd arrived at the Gypsy Hawkers camp in Dodge City, Kansas. It was time to fly birds. Part 2 of the manliest of man weeks will follow...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

UNESCO Recognizes Falconry

Great news! The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has officially recognized the sport of falconry as a living human heritage.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Something A Little Different

Saturday was the opener for both pheasant and quail here in Colorado so I gave Goliath the day off and headed out with some good friends of mine to see what we could scare up. We hit the road about quarter to 5 and got to my friends property right about 7. There was a big group of hunters pushing the field right next to his property and we hoped they were pushing birds into our field.

Guns at ready, we headed out along a low row of trees. We could hear birds cackling in just about every direction but we made our first pass with nothing to show for it. We paused briefly at the tree line that marked the edge of his property to plan the next pass and then I took one more step toward a small clump of bushes and suddenly there was a flurry of wings. "Quail!" I shouted, and fired a shot, bringing down my first bobwhite ever. I was too focused on the bird that dropped and whiffed my second barrel but my companions managed to bring down two more. We certainly weren't expecting that but it was a great way to start the morning!

We pushed the edge of the property without seeing anything but heard occasional cackles below us so we turned that way. We set up to push a small area of thicker cover and flushed a hen pheasant, our first look at a pheasant for the day, so we were encouraged. We sent a couple of the guys to the other end of some thicker cover to try another push and they flushed a rooster. Both were using shotguns more designed for self-defense then hunting though and their effective range was probably less than 20 feet. That rooster got away scott free.

The whole group made it back near the road with no more flushes. We decided to move back toward the other end of the field when suddenly we hit the motherload! First one rooster got up, then a few hens, and then like popcorn birds were coming up all around us! Unfortunately I was at the far end of that cover and the birds were angling away from me. I took a few shots but the nothing fell. The group had managed only one rooster but we sure had fun shooting at them all!

We reloaded and regrouped before finishing off that patch and right at the end one more rooster flushed. Two of us shot and the rooster dropped. Our second for the day!

We headed in the direction that the large group had flown and pressured a couple more into the air. Lucky for them none of us are very good shots! One daring rooster flew down the entire line offering each one of us a broadside shot at 20 yards and STILL got away!

Before we knew it we were back at the corner where we'd originally flushed the quail and from another small patch of cover a single flushed. No one took a shot at that one but one friend said, "If there's one theres gotta be more!" and went off kicking the brush. Sure enough another small covey busted and I swung around and fired dropping my second bobwhite of the day!

By that time we'd marched quite a bit and headed back to the truck for some brunch. After some great food at a tiny cafe we headed back to the field. 4 hens greeted us by flushing right as we pulled up! We pushed the opposite end of the field and got a few more flushes. I dropped another rooster and despite our best efforts for 30~45 minutes we couldn't find him. I really wish we'd had a dog with us as I hate losing birds! Very disappointing.

A long walk and only one more flush later and the group was pretty much spent. I could hunt all day but getting up at 4 in the morning was pretty taxing for the majority of our party. We did try and push one small pivot corner on our way home but it was pretty obvious our group's heart wasn't in it so we called it a day and headed home.


Fortunately, one of the guys I was out with is my hawking buddy and we decided we had enough daylight left to try for a bunny! His bird was kind of a butthead but put in a couple good chases before finally tying one up against a fence. So we ended the day with 4 quail, 2 pheasants, and a bunny in the bag.

Not a bad day of small gaming!!

On Friday I leave to Kansas for another weekend of gunning for pheasants. On Sunday the North American Falconer's Association annual national meet begins in Kansas as well so I will spend Sunday through Wednesday hawking before returning home for Thanksgiving day, filling up on turkey, and then leaving on Friday for a late season elk hunt.

Life is good.
(Many, many, many, thanks to my wife for putting up with these adventures! I love you honey!)

Monday, November 08, 2010

Pushing My Luck

Goliath weighed in at 91g on Saturday morning. Still on the fat side of things but heck, he's caught stuff at 92.2 so I figured there'd be no problem.

And there wasn't. First slip of the day at a group of about 6 starlings feeding in some low grass behind a shopping center. It was a beautiful 30 yard flight where Goliath dropped off the fist and skimmed the tops of the tufts of grass keeping his profile low. They saw him right before he got there but it was too late for one and he smacked it about 6 inches off the ground. Best flight of the season so far!

But it was too dang quick!! I decided to go for two. Traded him off and we were back on the hunt. I found another group just across the street. It was an awkward slip though and he didn't seem to have the same fire in him that he had for the first slip. I'm always worried about going for doubles because I've never been successful and I feel like I'm not giving the bird it's just rewards after catching one and not letting him feed up. When there's lots of birds I usually don't have time and when I have time, I can't find any birds! I drove around for another hour or so but wasn't able to find any ideal slips. We had another decent flight where I threw him at some sparrows in a McD's parking lot but they were so close to the bushes that they just ducked under before he got there. I ended up calling him back down and fed him up on the morning's first starling. I wasn't paying attention though and after the feed he weighed 112! If I remember right he was trapped him at 109g...Flying Sunday was questionable.

At flying time Sunday he was a whopping 93 grams. And the wind was blowing about 20 mph. So what did I do? Went flying of course! We only got one quick flight at some sparrows that he barely missed and when I held up my fist with the starling wing he kited only briefly in the wind before coming right back. :-D

Conventional wisdom about kestrels is that you have to be excruciatingly exact with weight control. I know folks who weigh them every two hours and insist that tenths of grams make a difference. So I imagine I'm pushing my luck but Goliath seems up for the challenge.

There's a lot that I do with my kestrels that tends to defy conventional wisdom but I've been successful so far so I can't complain. In all honestly I don't think these guys are nearly as difficult as people make them out to be. If I can be successful with them, anyone can be!