Friday, March 3, 2017

Almanack -- March 3, 2017

 It looks to me like the local ranchers are about “calved out” as they say. Nearly every cow has a calf. I am still adjusting to February as calving season. I grew up 2000 feet higher above sea level, and spring is not expected for several months at 7200 feet above sea level. Down here it’s mud and slush and slop.

I know several deer sleep under the apple tree most nights because I can see where the snow has melted under their warm bodies, leaving an egg shaped indentation in the snow. I wonder if they sleep under the trampoline? It is certainly looks dry and cozy under there, and I know from experience they can crawl that low. I wonder, though, if they would feel trapped under there and so they won’t sleep there. Maybe only deer that town life has softened too much indulge in luxury like that and the cougar that sometimes comes to town eats them. Anyone out there have experience with deer sleeping under trampolines?

It has certainly been demonstrated in my neighborhood that deer will adapt to town life by learning to use the sidewalk. Nothing anthropomorphic there, just the result of deer that don’t use the sidewalk being taken out of the gene pool. Still, it’s striking to see a family of deer out for an evening stroll down the sidewalk and the parents looking both ways for cars at the crossings.

For those of you who have been inquiring, I have not heard from the Professor Emeritus since the local duck and goose season closed. At that time he told me that he was headed south to do some quail hunting with his son, and then to Arizona for some golf, and thence to California to visit his brother. He said he would come back when the weather around here decided to be reasonable. He cackled happily at the thought, mostly to needle me. I miss the old bird, but he has earned the right to fly free.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Almanack -- February 24 2017

We have decided to alter the spelling of the title of whatever this is to “Almanack” instead of “Almanac.” (We have also decided it is OK to adopt the editorial “we” when appropriate. Or so the voices in my head tell me.) This is to conform to the Oxford English Dictionary, according to which the “k” spelling goes back to 1392, and the “c only” spelling dates merely to 1835. We are suspicious of such newfangled tinkering with the language, and prefer to leave well enough alone.

We have received several inquiries as to what the hell an almanac is. We have decided that our Almanack is a verb, per the OED’s definition: “To put into an almanac; to organize or record (information, statistics, etc.) in, or as if in, an almanac.” That, then, is what we are doing. We are recording, as if in an almanack. We are Almanacking.

As predicted the snow came. About eight inches here. The good news is, the dog poo issue is currently moot.

Bad news is the snow made me grumpy with The Boy. He doesn’t want to get up and go to school; he wants to wrap up in his blanket. The cat aids and abets. I don’t want to shovel and scrape, I want to read the news and drink coffee. So we compromise by griping at each other. It’s our Way.

As I was scraping, I heard and saw a single goose flying (a gray shadow on a gray sky) and making a lonely but hopeful sound.  I wished him/her luck in finding a mate and making a nest. I have certainly had my share of luck in that field.

After I got The Boy to school, I came home and started shoveling. Did the front and then discovered somebody had plowed the long side for me already, as pleasant a surprise as I have had all week. We shook hands later when I thanked him. (He had gone downtown to go get more gasoline.) He had just got a great deal on the plow for his four-wheeler and he was plowing the whole street out of enthrallment with his new toy.

Tough time of year. Mud season gave way to a blizzard. We got mudded out of our bird-farm pheasant hunt last week. I hope we get to go this week, with all the snow. Me and The Boy and the dogs have got cabin fever, I reckon. If nothing else, I’ll tie some fishing flies this weekend. I know I’ll need them. Eventually.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Almanac -- February 22 2017

The geese are starting to think about nesting. There is a nest box in a small pond that I drive by each day to and from work. The pond is man-made, created by the construction company that widened the road on the big hill between Lander and Hudson. This pond is an absolute goose factory, likely to produce, I estimate, twenty new adult geese each year. The nest box is on what is usually an island in the pond by nesting time, although this year due to high water, there is very little island. The nest box itself is always prime goose real estate and usually taken by the first pair to arrive, which is something I watch for each year. I had seen a pair thinking about moving in about two weeks ago, but nothing came of it, and the geese went away, probably due to the big snowstorm we got. This morning there was a pair (the same pair as two weeks ago?) again investigating the old tire atop a pole. We are due for another big snow this week, so I wonder if they will be delayed yet again.

I also saw a common merganser flying the Popo Agie River. It seems I see mergansers nesting hereabouts, and mallards, but I never see any other ducks nesting. Last year I saw a merganser that had a nest in a hole in a tree, probably fifteen feet up in the air. My research indicates that this is always where mergansers nest, a fact I find startling. It seems inappropriate to me for a duck to nest in a hollow tree.

In years past there has been a mallard hen raising her young just outside my office window. A colleague was very worried about her nesting so far from water, but mallards nest on the ground, and often far from water. I will never forget the Suzie I saw when I worked at a country club. She had made her nest near the end of the driving range and was attempting to hatch half a dozen golf balls, the poor dear.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Happy in the Field, Happy at Home (appeared in September 2015 issue of Wyoming Wildlife)

I wouldn’t hunt birds without a dog. Losing hit birds drives me crazy, as it would any ethical hunter, and without a dog it happens too often. I learned a lot training my own dogs, but I also put up with some dogs that chased rabbits and chewed up birds. My desire for better gun dogs led me to a professional trainer, an idea I had resisted because I believed professional training is for dogs that never see the inside of a house because they are a tool, not a friend.  I found out that a good trainer will train dogs to suit the owner, but some old-school trainers still think that letting a dog be a house pet will spoil him for hunting.  I keep my dogs in the house because I enjoy the companionship, but I expect them to behave. Keeping them in the house strengthens the bond between us, and leads to a well-trained dog that is a joy all year, not just during the bird season.
Obedience training is the foundation of hunting training, and a hunting dog should come when you call him, heel, sit, and stay. These commands also come in mighty handy when you are trying to move all your gear and two big Labs into a hotel room. Many owners don’t spend enough time on basic obedience, either because it’s not as much fun as the hunting training, or because they don’t want to fetter the dog’s free spirit. But I don’t want to share my home with a dog that is an ill-mannered nuisance.  
Life in the home presents temptations that a kenneled dog doesn’t face. Professional trainers worry that sending a dog home with the owner will lead to the dog becoming “untrained”. Bo Allen, trainer for Stealth Point Kennels in Meeteetse, tells the story of a Lab he trained and sent home with the owner. Upon being released in the house, the pup promptly retrieved an expensive, tasseled loafer. The owner didn’t want his shoes chewed up, so he whipped the pup.
“That pup never brought anything to that guy again,” Bo says. “He would retrieve for me, but not for the guy who whipped him for doing what he was supposed to do.”
An old-school pro might think “that’s why you don’t keep them in the house.” But the savvy owner who lives with hunting dogs sees daily training opportunities that reinforce skills the dog already knows, and help keep the dog from becoming “untrained.” I would have suggested that this owner gently, and without much emotion, tell the pup “leave it”, take the shoe, and give him a hard plastic chew toy, such as a Kong. That way the dog learns that holding stuff is OK, but not the boss’s shoe. He learns through positive reinforcement. If you repeat this process enough, the dog learns that “leave it” means “put that down.” It helps the dog distinguish between stuff we want and stuff we don’t want. That transfers really well to the field when your dog encounters something dead and disgusting. Learning to spot daily training opportunities helps the dog be a better hunter, and makes life at home better for everyone.
Another daily training opportunity at home is feeding time. Like most Labs, my two are total chow hounds. As soon as I moved to the cupboard where the food is kept, they both would go nuts, stepping on my feet and jumping up on the cabinet. It took a while, but I finally realized that I should master this situation rather than being a helpless victim of my own dogs. I started making the dogs sit, and wait, while I prepared their dinner. It took a few repetitions, but they learned that the quicker they behaved, the quicker they got to eat. Positive reinforcement creates a feeding time is that is no longer a destructive free-for-all. This also transferred to the duck blind, because their desire to get the bird isn’t that different from their desire to get the food. Helping them learn to control their desire helped them learn not to break and chase decoying ducks, which scares the ducks, destroys the blind, and might lead to a dog being shot accidentally.
Taking advantage of daily training opportunities keeps my dogs safer, and puts more birds on the table. But, of course, hunting with a dog is more than just getting birds. It’s a partnership, and a happy, well-trained dog makes for a joyous partnership at home and in the field. A good dog knows the rules and understands the boundaries. And a hunter with a good dog never goes hunting alone. 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

How not to shoot birds

I’m putting a lot of effort, time, and expense into dog training currently. I’m really getting a bang out of working with Frank, my chocolate Lab, and seeing the results is exciting. I found a professional trainer that I am learning a lot from, and it is so satisfying when it all comes together in the field and Frank gets the chance to do what it’s all about with wild birds.
And that’s why it sucks so much when I miss the dang bird.
Since I got Frank, I have embarked on a quest to become a better wingshot. Before I had a dog on the ground it wasn’t that big a deal to me. Hit the bird, miss the bird, oh well, it’s all about having fun and my family won’t starve if I don’t bring home the pheasant. Now I see every wild bird as a huge opportunity. A guy only gets so many opportunities per season, and it’s birds that make the bird dog. I can’t throw enough training dummies to make up for lost opportunities on birds. It kills me when Frank does everything right, puts the bird up, and then bang, bang, bang, no bird; no chance to close the circle and go get the prize.
Since I don’t have the dough to fly to South America and burn a few cases of shells on doves, improving my wingshooting skills means shooting clay pigeons. I guess I could just go out to the range with a hand trap, but I’d rather do something a little more interesting, so I am drawn to the various clay pigeon games: trap, skeet, and sporting clays. Now if what I am about to say here offends some of those who are devoted to these games, I can only reply that this is one man’s experience, and I have only sampled a few opportunities to participate in shooting sports. I believe it is true that most people who are good at the shotgun sports are also good shots on birds. But I have found it difficult to improve my abilities by participating in these sports.
I shot the shotgun a lot when I was a kid, and I thought of myself as a reasonably good shot. Like most young shooters I didn’t receive a lot of formal instruction. My dad took me out to the range with the hand trap and my new twenty gauge, and I busted a lot of caps and a few clay pigeons. Nobody said much about shooting a shotgun being different from shooting a rifle, so I shot my twenty the same way I shot my .22 rifle; I closed my left eye and focused on the sights. Of course anybody who knows anything about wingshooting knows that you can never be a good shot that way. It’s fundamental in shooting a shotgun that you keep both eyes open and focus on the bird, not the barrel. Unfortunately, there was nobody around to tell me that, so I persisted in doing it the wrong way.
And the wrong way worked pretty well for me for a while.  I got a limit of sage grouse on the first day I ever hunted anything. I shot ducks okay.
Now here’s where maybe I offend those who shoot trap. I think trap was bad for me. Not because trap is a bad game, but because when you’re young, eleven or twelve, and you have clear eyes and sharp reflexes, you can become an average trap shooter by shooting the wrong way. The really wrong way. Trap offers mostly shots at gentle angles. There are not many birds at sharp right angles, and thus no birds that require a lot of lead. As I began to shoot trap, I started snap shooting. In other words I wasn’t swinging the gun with the bird. I was pointing a stopped gun at a spot ahead of the bird and pulling the trigger. Once again, everybody knows, stopping your gun is one of the greatest sins a shotgunner can commit. But I was young and fast, and I could get away with it on trap, and after fifty rounds or so of trap, it became an ingrained habit. And everybody at the trap club encouraged me, because I was breaking 22 or 23 birds out of 25 almost every time I went up to the line, which is real good for a kid. But it’s not good for a real trap shooter who expects to go 100 straight to qualify for the shoot-off to see who wins the tournament. And nobody could see that I was never going to reach that level with all the bad habits I had acquired.
Then the trap club we belonged to added a skeet range. My family started shooting more skeet and less trap, because at that club skeet was informal and only a few people shot it, as it was mostly a trap club. My dad liked the informality and the fun of skeet. The trap shooters were pretty serious and shot expensive guns made just for trap and we couldn’t afford that. The skeet shooters tended to be looser and they shot whatever guns they hunted with.
And I grew to dislike skeet, because it exposed all my bad habits. I did OK on the birds that offered the same kind of gentle angles that resembled trap, but skeet offers a lot of sharper angles, many at or near ninety degrees to the shooter. I hated those birds. I never broke them. Other, older shooters would tell me “you’re stopping your swing,” and I knew by now, through reading, that most good shotgun shots use the “swing-through” method of starting behind the bird and swinging ahead of it and then pulling the trigger with a swinging gun. I tried to do that, but it never worked. I guess I had too many other bad habits. I never broke more than 15 or 16 out of 25 at skeet. And I practically broke out in a cold sweat every time I stepped up to stations 3, 4, or 5, which offer the crossing angles. I wanted to go back to trap.
I didn’t shoot shotgun a lot after I graduated from high school. I didn’t take up the shotgun again seriously until I was in my mid-forties. The results were pretty dismal. After experiencing the pain of missing over my own dog, I decided to get serious about shotgun shooting. I was determined to break old habits, to pretend that I had never shot before, to start over completely, the right way.
But now I have a powerful learning tool at my command: the Internet. Now I can research the question “How do I become a good wingshot?” I plugged the question into Google, and in a few hours, I found the answer: spend a LOT of money.
If you really want to do it right, you travel to a famous shooting school, preferably one that has a resident gunsmith. You are fitted for a custom shotgun, and then you and your personal coach head out to the range for three or four days. Five thousand dollars ought to cover it. Plus travel, lodging, and meals. And tips.
Did I mention that I’ve already got a lot of time and money in the dog?
So, I read everything I can get my hands on about how to shoot a shotgun. The one issue that keeps coming up for me is fit. In order to shoot well, the experts say, your gun must fit you properly. One reason a lot of shooters struggle, the experts say, is that they stubbornly cling to a gun that doesn’t fit them.
“A-ha,” I say, “a-ha!” I have been clinging to Dad’s old over-under for years and it doesn’t fit me! (I suspect the reason he quit shooting it was it didn’t fit him either.) But how do I find a gun that fits?
Well, I have two other shotguns, both pumps. I need to do some testing. But where, how? I find the nearest shotgun club is 2 ½ hours away. They offer both trap and skeet. I don’t want to shoot trap, because I am afraid of falling into old bad habits, but now I can face my old nemesis skeet (especially stations 3, 4 and 5).
I load up and head for the skeet range. A few rounds later I confirm that I don’t shoot Dad’s over under well, nor my old twenty gauge, probably due to the fact that dad cut the stock down to fit a kid. I do best with my old Remington 870 12 gauge, which has been my waterfowl gun for years. I like it for waterfowl, but not for upland hunting because it’s heavy and I hate where the safety is located and I can’t seem to find it in a hurry when a pheasant flushes.
Plus, nobody shoots a pump for skeet anymore. The other skeet shooters kind of roll their eyes a little when I step up to shoot. I haven’t found the gun club to be a real welcoming experience anyway. Hardly anyone talks to me. Once somebody asks me what I do and I say I’m a teacher, and I hear somebody else say under his breath “he ought to teach skeet etiquette.” I Google “skeet etiquette” when I get home, and I find out it’s considered a breach to pick up empty shells after you shoot each station. You are supposed to just let them fall and pick them up after the entire round. Oops. Nobody told me.
I keep shooting skeet, and eventually the guys warm up to me a little. I resolve to be the oddball who shoots a pump for skeet, but I can’t help feeling a little weird. I want to fit in. Besides, I’d like to start shooting some respectable scores and “everybody says” you can’t do that with a pump. I start researching skeet guns a little, and I realize I am shooting with guys who shoot five thousand dollar guns. One guy I am friendly with, and who is encouraging me to get serious about skeet, is shooting a ten thousand dollar Kolar. My Remington cost $200.
I decide to find an inexpensive over under that fits me and allows me to fit in. I do some research and find out that an inexpensive over under is about twelve hundred bucks. The most the family budget can possibly withstand is one thousand. I start shopping for used guns. I’m looking through the over unders one day at the gun store, and I find a pretty little twenty gauge side-by-side, made in Spain, imported by BSA (now defunct). Eight hundred and fifty bucks brand new.
Nobody shoots a side-by-side for skeet. Plus it comes with only three choke tubes, none of them right for skeet. Plus the maker has gone under, and who knows if I can find skeet tubes for it. Plus the stock seems a little straight for me.
But it’s elegant and slim and light. And pretty. And the stocks on the over unders in my price range look like they were made from old railroad ties. Sold.
I shoot it OK in the field, and it turns out there are some guys who play around with side-by-sides for skeet. Plus I discover that the club occasionally has sporting clays, which I like better than skeet. It’s looser and more informal. The guys are friendlier. The shooting is more like hunting.
I keep shooting skeet too, and I can’t find skeet choke tubes, and the serious skeet shooters tell me I am handicapping myself pretty badly without the right chokes. Plus the stock on the little twenty might be (guess what) a little too straight. I should sell it. But it’s so pretty. And it’s not a bad gun to start a kid on. But if I don’t sell this gun, I won’t have much money for a new one.
This time I am convinced I have the solution: a Beretta 3901. It’s plain black autoloader with a plain plastic stock. Lots of good skeet and sporting clays shooters use autoloaders. Every kind of choke tube in the world is available for it. The safety’s in a good place. The stock has an adjustable shim so the fit can be customized. Four hundred and seventy five bucks.
This is it, I tell myself. Beware the man with one gun. I can use it for everything; skeet, sporting clays, upland, waterfowl. I will stick with this gun and learn to shoot it. Does it fit me? I still don’t know.
All this time, I am trying to learn to shoot the right way. I keep both eyes open, and I focus on the bird, not the barrel. I keep the gun swinging. I am determined to learn this new way of shooting, the right way.
I keep reading about shotgunning. I ask for help from good shooters, but the coaching leaves me a little frustrated. Everybody tells me I’m doing something different. Some say my gun doesn’t fit me. Some say it does. All last spring and summer I kept shooting and shooting. I felt like I was making progress.
Late in the summer Frank and I entered an Upland Classics field trial. This is a trial where the dog handler also does the shooting, just like in the field. On the first day I hit two birds with two shots. The judge complimented me on my shooting. I’m filled with confidence. The next day I missed five out of six. The judge said he thought the stock on my gun was too straight, as I was shooting over the birds.
I carried the Beretta all last season, and I did OK with it, but not much better than the season before. I sure missed carrying that light little side-by-side though. I kept mounting the little gun to my cheek, and every time I thought about the Upland Classic judge saying the Beretta was too straight. The little twenty is even straighter. I also remembered one of the best days of shotgunning I ever had, ducks on the river and I could not miss, it seemed. I was shooting that old Remington pump that day. The stock on the Remington is not as straight as either the little twenty or the Beretta. The thought haunted me: was that old Remington I paid $200 for twenty years ago the one that really fit me? That old pump that I was embarrassed to shoot skeet or clays with?
As the hunting season progressed, based on conversations with the best hunting shot I know, a man who does not shoot any of the shotgun games, I decided that I was going to give up skeet. I became convinced that the only helpful way to practice shooting birds is to practice just like you hunt. The artificiality of mounting the gun and calling for the bird was not right for me, I decided. Skeet shooting tends to become an end in itself. Most of the guys I was shooting skeet with rarely hunted, if at all. They were devoted to skeet, a game. I guess I could have decided to shoot skeet like I hunt, not mounting the gun before calling for the bird, and starting with the safety on, but there is a lot of pressure on the skeet range to shoot like a skeet shooter. People who wanted to practice hunting skills were not encouraged.
This spring I decided I would shoot only sporting clays, and to shoot them often. I found another club that has sporting clays twice a week, so I can get more real practice. I was determined not to worry about my score, and beating the other shooters. I only wanted to practice hunting skills, not win trophies. The first day I shot at the new club, everybody I shot with was shooting a pump. Turns out the club is having a “pump guns only” tournament soon. There is also a side-by-side tournament. “Cool,” I thought.
Most shooters were shooting the clays like skeet or trap, first mounting the gun and then calling for the bird. A few waited to mount the gun until after they called for the bird. Nobody was calling for the bird, taking the safety off, and mounting the gun, as I was. Everyone was very friendly.
My shooting definitely improved as the day wore on. I was pleased with the new club. We came to one of the last stations. It was two birds which appeared and disappeared very quickly. Mounting the gun before calling for the bird would be a tremendous advantage here. I resisted temptation, shot it the way I had vowed to shoot all stations, and missed every daggone bird. After I had missed the first few birds a very nice man, who was an excellent shot and obviously a club regular, stepped up to me.
“Look,” he said, “I know you’re a hunter, but you just can’t shoot sporting clays that way. A lot of the stations are designed to be shot with the gun mounted. You will never get to be a good clays shooter shooting the way you do.” I tried to get him to understand that I wasn’t interested in being a good clays shooter; I just wanted more birds for my dog. I could not get through to him. He couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t choose to do what it takes to break more birds and win the game.
It’s seems hard for people to remember that all these games were invented because people wanted to bring more birds home. Sporting clays, in particular, was invented by people who were tired of the conventionality of trap and skeet. But as soon as you start a tournament and offer prizes, specialized equipment starts to appear, and techniques that have nothing to do with hunting. Big money starts to show up. I don’t bear any ill will to folks who enjoy that sort of thing. But it seems a shame that when somebody new shows up, in his hunting clothes and with the only shotgun he owns, he is made to feel uncomfortable, and out of place.
This summer I am going to play with all three guns, including that old pump. I am going to shoot it all just like I was hunting. I may or may not become a better wingshot, but I am going to have fun.
Oh, and by the way, I shot that station with the two fast birds, the one the nice man said I couldn’t shoot that way, a second time that day. On the second try I cleaned it, broke every bird, shooting it my way. It felt darned good.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Wild geese: Solstice season

It began in September, as the aspen began to turn golden, and the change of season pushed the elk toward the rut. It continued through October, with the early teal, and the deer. With November comes too many decisions, too much open: late rifle elk, pheasant, late ducks, rutting mule deer. Now we are down to the last season: wild Canada geese over the frozen lake on the shortest days of the year. Now it's time for insulated boots, a thermos of hot coffee, a shivering dog, and listening intently for the gabble of geese carrying far on the cold air.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sandhill pheasant and sharptail -- November in the Panhandle

Some people don't see the beauty of the Nebraska Sandhills. I understand; it's a dusty kind of beauty. But to me, the hills and thick grass create an austere beauty that provides contrast to the lush beauties of terrain that is easy to love.
We come here with our dogs, supposedly looking for birds. In truth, birds are only an excuse to let the wind and the grass and the sky cleanse us.
  The skies are big here, and the horizon is more than just a theory.