Homey Steve Kiesel and I rolled into Sheridan, Wyoming, bright and early on rainy Monday a week ago. Later that day, son-in-law Chris Kolakowski arrived from Denver and we set up our week of making antelope and deer meat for our families. 2016 was year 20 for me, 13 for Steve and year 10 for Chris. “Twenty years,” I was thinking. “This has to be a special year, somehow.”
We first picked up our leftover antlerless deer and antelope tags at the Big R, then made rounds to say hello to now-old friends. When Chris pulled in, we got his licenses (we eventually had six whitetail and three antelope tags), and checked in with Oscar Rucke (pronounce it “Roosky”). I congratulated Oscar on 20 years and asked him what he wanted for our anniversary. He couldn’t quite find the flattering words I know he wanted to say. Clearly, we were right at home.
I first met Oscar and his buddy Bob Haugen in mid-morning of September 14, 1996. Brother Tom Fontes and I had decided to check out the Sheridan area because the antelope season opened early enough that we could hunt, get some of the beloved meat back to our folks in Boise, and then get home in time for my fall quarter classes at Central. We had camped overnight in Livingston, Montana at Osen’s Campground (“Welcome to Tom Osen’s Drive-Thru Retirement Home. Camp anywhere you want. I’m the only thief in the campground, and I stole everything I needed years ago. That’ll be ten bucks!”). We drove to Sheridan the next morning.
After Tom and I talked to Oscar for an hour or so about where we might hunt, he allowed as he and Bob would be busy the next day – the antelope opener – but gave us some directions and handed us the key to the gate into six sections of his hunting ground. That was Tom’s only trip, as his leukemia caught up to him within a year and a half. I skipped ’97, given Tom’s failing health, and returned in ’98. I have not missed a September hunt since. It is at Oscar’s that we clean, cool and process our game meat so that it might come back to Paradise perfectly. Over years of phone calls, occasional summer or winter visits with him and his wife, and those regular hunts, Oscar has become a treasured friend.
That first trip, Tom and I were joined by three of his buddies from Washington and Oregon. Over the course of the 20 years, 16 different hunters have joined my annual Wyoming safari. Five of those 16 have gone on – I hope – to the Happy Hunting Grounds. Homey Steve, Son-in-law Chris, and Last of the Hucklings Edward have been most steadfast.
Initially, and for the first eight years, we made antelope meat. In 2005, Wyoming opened an antlerless deer season on September 1, to thin out deer herds which had become problematic. We began adding deer to our safari – mostly whitetails, but a fair number of muleys as well. With a couple exceptions, we bought only leftover nonresident tags at prices ranging from $80 each in the last century to $34 today.
Over the decades, we’ve gained permission to hunt eight different ranches to match several parcels of public ground. Some owners and permission-granters moved, sold or passed on. Some years we scrambled to find hunting ground with critters on it, but we always went home with meat to sustain our families. Over twenty years, my safari hunters have purchased 154 antelope and deer licenses, filling 143 of them (most unfilled tags were antelope). The last few years, our hunting has focused on three ranches.
Amazing, really, seeing so much history and change in my 1996 – 2016 spreadsheet. Still, isn’t that the world in which we live and thrive?
So, back to last week. On Tuesday, the 13th, we went deer hunting in the off-and-on rain on one of – arguably – the most beautiful ranches in Wyoming. By Noon, we had skinned, cleaned and hung three deer. After a quiet lunch we headed back to the ranch. Given the muddy roads, we hiked the mile and a half to the alfalfa bowl where the deer were hanging out. I had filled my one tag, so my job was rickshaw driver with the two-wheeled cart Homey Buzz Chevara had loaned us for the trip. We were back at the truck by dark, with three more deer aboard the rickshaw – pulled and pushed by a rotating pair of us. All deer tags were filled.
The next day, we processed some of the deer meat and waited – over cool malt beverages and a great BBQ dinner at the Big Horn Smokehouse and Saloon – for Thursday’s antelope opener.
Thursday dawned wet – again. By afternoon, thanks to careful stalks and good shooting, three antelope had been carted to the truck, skinned, cleaned and hung up. Antelope tags were filled.
Friday, we processed meat for the trip home, did a bit of souvenir shopping, and relaxed over a couple more cool malt beverages.
On Saturday morning, we finished processing meat. Then I presented Oscar and Bob with twentieth anniversary gifts: each received a specially wrapped “20” hand carved from a two-inch thick block of the best fudge in Wyoming. After a warm round of thanks, and several disparaging remarks, we noted that this was indeed a special year. Never before had we filled all our tags on the first day of hunting for each species. And in the muddy wet, yet.
By dark, Chris was back with his family in Denver and Steve and I were in Montana, heading for the barn.
The Homey who has missed every grouse he found over the last couple weeks and still admitted it was eagerly trying to change the subject. “You’ve probably been up by Red Top and into the Naneum already – have you noticed all the hawks swirling around those ridge tops? Seems like more than normal… What do you think?”
I thought for a moment. “Well, Deadeye, I think you need to take your shotgun out and get some practice handling it between hunting seasons… And I don’t know about the number of raptors sailing around up there, except that this is the time they should begin gathering for migration. And there are all those great thermal currents up along and over the high ridges, so…”
He got me thinking about raptors (from the Latin “rapere,” meaning to seize or plunder) — and fall and migration. Of course, we do have year-round eagles and vultures and hawks and falcons – some individuals of most any given species will hang out through winter supervising our bird feeders and fields. Others may migrate some relatively short distance to regional winter habitat, but the likely majority of our summer raptors will head to Mexico or farther south. Those are the birds, generally, which you may watch riding the thermals (rising warm air) found along our regional migration routes over Red Top, Chelan Ridge or one of a handful of other specific locales – pretty much any day in early fall.
Since this is migration time, birds are preparing for a fall trip south migration. Numbers of them are gathering in large numbers over certain easy to reach areas around Paradise.
I invited Deadeye to consider the possibilities. Since he was wasting his time trying to make grouse meat for his family’s bellies, what would be more fun than a sky of soaring Buteos, swooping Falcos or dashing Accipiters—our hawks of summer? “Take your family and a good guidebook and feed their souls,” I suggested.
Identifying raptors is really fairly simple. Start with shapes of wings and tails in flight and you will quickly have a sense of hunting patterns and speed (and even diet). (Males in virtually all birds of prey, by the way, will be smaller than females.)
The Buteos are the largest hawks. They are soaring birds with broad wings and tails, to swoop down on ground‑based prey (generally rabbits, rodents, snakes, frogs, insects and an occasional bird).
Many, if not most, of the Buteos in the thermals will be heading south. The ferruginous hawk (buteo regalis) will winter in Central Mexico and be back in April. Swainson’s (buteo swainsoni) will have the longest migration, flying clear to the Pampas of Argentina, then back to our country in spring.
The speed merchants are the Falcos, with their trademark long, pointed wings and narrow tails. With blazing speed and maneuverability, they catch and kill birds and insects in flight, with an occasional rodent, rabbit or other ground‑runner.
Many falcons will be found in the state year-round, and some will head south. American kestrels (falco sparverius) will be scattered across town at our feeders, but others of them will head off to Panama. Peregrines (falco peregrinus) may migrate over the Cascades to the west side or head to Panama, while prairie falcons (falco mexicanus) may come to the east side or join the peregrines on their fall journey to Central America.
The Accipiters are the in‑between hawks. Their short, rounded wings and long, stabilizing tails enable them to dash after prey in and around trees. They take mostly birds, but also rodents, rabbits and other ground prey.
Among the Accipiters now gathering, Cooper’s hawk (accipiter cooperii) or the northern goshawk (accipiter gentilis) may stick around for the winter, or it may head for Mexico and Guatemala. The sharp-shinned hawk (accipiter striatus) may find a winter home at your bird feeder or it may take off for Panama.
More than a dozen different species of birds of prey have already been observed above Chelan Ridge near Manson, and over Red Top Mountain along Teanaway Ridge off Blewett Pass. You will see many more than the few mentioned here. Both ridges are natural migration corridors for eagles, hawks, and falcons in September and October.
By the way, that migration urge is probably triggered by photoperiodism – the changing length of day and/or amount of sunlight reaching some critical level – touching some ancient knowledge within the birds’ brains.
Once they head out, exactly how they find their way over thousands of miles – or even just over the mountains – remains a mystery. More and more evidence is pointing to fairly high intelligence and very good memories. Birds, in general, seem to acquire navigation information from the stars, the sun, the terrain they fly (including wind direction), earth’s magnetic field and scent. The long-lived raptors seem to remember migration routes and landscapes.
Grab a good field guide, such as The Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest, or go to Cornell Lab’s amazing and endless site www.allaboutbirds.org to find any info you seek.
Red Top Mountain is on Teanaway Ridge, west of Mineral Springs Resort off the Blewett Pass road (FS road 9738 to 9702). You may find raptors rising over the Saddle Mountains, Yakima Ridge, and Rattlesnake Hills, too.
Take a kid. Watching birds of prey on the wing is as close as many of us will get to touching the sky.
Last weekend was “Ilwaco Tuna Weekend” for ten Hucklings, Homeys and former Homeys.
This was year four of Labor Day Weekend tuna fishing. In 2013, we filled the boat with 95 fish ranging from 14 to 25 pounds. In 2014, we worked hard and long to catch nearly 50 tuna – all of which were bigger than the previous year’s fish. We started planning this year’s trip when I booked Captain Rob’s Katie Marie (at Pacific Salmon Charters) right after he returned us safely to port a year ago. That 2015 trip was our third, and it fell on an unexpectedly stormy day – Cap turned the boat around after an hour or so. We were pretty deeply disappointed at the scuttling of our trip but were almost to a person thinking, “Well, there is always next year!”
So here we were gathered on the Katie Marie last Sunday morning at 3:15. Last-of-the-Hucklings Edward and fiancé Anna drove up from Los Angeles; adopted Huckling Jonathan – Edward’s kid brother – flew in from Colorado; Cousin Debbie Yount had just moved back to Tacoma after decades in Central California; Boyfriend-in-law Brian Smith drove down from Renton; former Homeys Bruce and Michelle Seivertson arrived from Eureka, California; former Homey Scott Worley drove in from Oregon; and Homey Eric Anderson and I worked our way down from Paradise.
Captain Rob Gudgell is a life-long fisherman and boat nut. He was a deckhand as a kid, fully licensed in 1981, and has been a full-time captain since 1998. In 2002, he brought the use of live anchovies for tuna fishing to Ilwaco, supplementing the use of jigs. He is known for his intensity and passion in coaching his fishers to success. He is a tuna missionary, with very good juju. Brian calls him “The Tuna Whisperer…”
By 3:20 a.m. we ten fishermen, deckhand James, Co-Captain Loyal and Captain Rob Gudgell were having a briefing aboard the Katie Marie. Mostly it was safety stuff and reaching an agreement about how the fish – should we catch any – would be divided among the fishers. Then there was that reminder. Those of us who’d fished with Captain Rob already knew what was coming, but the newbies needed to hear it; it was Cap’s admission of passion for finding and catching fish, and an admonition to not take personally anything he might say in the midst of fishing chaos. The “catching” instruction was simple: “The anchovy swims freely, with no drag – keep your thumb on the spool to prevent bird nests, but feed the bait line. When the tuna grabs your bait and runs with it, I want to hear your count for ten seconds – loudly: ‘One… Two… Three… Four… Five… Six… Seven… Eight… Nine… Ten!’ Now engage the drag. And bring that tuna aboard!” That settled, we left Ilwaco Harbor and headed into a perfect almost-calm day on the Pacific Ocean.
The albacore race around the ocean searching for giant spherical schools of small fish (“bait balls” they are often called) at 40 to 50 miles an hour – these silver torpedoes are often called the fastest fish in the ocean. As we headed out, Cap reminded us to keep our eyes open, sweeping the sea for any sign of feeding frenzies – flocks of seagulls, small fish leaping out of the water, big fish leaping out of the water, whatever. We would drag several hand lines with colorful jigs behind the boat, knowing that a strike on one or more of them would tell us we were in a school of tuna.
In a very short time, someone yelled, “Tuna!” Within seconds, Cap had the boat settled and had chased everyone to rods. He circulated with live anchovies, cajoling and pleading, “Watch your lines! Edward, follow your fish – if it goes that way, go with it! Go under Brian… Eric! Go over Jonny and duck under Debbie! Come on people, pay attention! No tangles! Don’t cross lines – don’t let anybody cut your line! Don’t lose a fish! James, get the net forward! Come on, get that fish on board, then bait up and get back out there! Hey! No slack line – no bird nests on your reel! Pay attention guys! Keep your footing! Over! Under! Follow that fish! Square up with your line!” …And, thus, we lived in organized chaos for hours as we drifted with a very large school of tuna. They were large fish, too, ranging from 26 to nearly 40 pounds with most between 30 and 35.
With each fish fought, it became harder to wrangle these torpedoes to the boat through the 15 to 25 minutes of arm-wrenching struggles. It never seemed to stop, with almost constant shouts of “One! Two! Seven! Ten!!” in one direction or another. Michelle and Debbie seemed to have the “bite” stuff down pat – they seemed to hook up with another big tuna each time their baits hit the water. After a time, they became delegators; they’d hook ‘em and then hand the rod to the nearest guy who wasn’t playing one. It was fast and furious.
Late morning, the bite slowed enough that Cap decided to move the boat. To a person, we sat, sighed, ate, drank and rested – for a few very short minutes. Our reverie was interrupted as Cap yelled “Get to the rods! Get some fish on board!” We laughed our way to the railing and baited up.
By a bit after Noon, Cap announced our full boat, with no room for another fish. Everyone smiled and Eric kept taking pics as we headed to port with 70 very big tuna. (See his terrific photo record of our trip at www.facebook.com/eric.anderson.71404976.)
Everyone had aching arms and big smiles. Having great fun can be hard work. …and thank goodness there is a “next year.”
Forest grouse season opened yesterday across the State of Washington and here in Paradise. I was reminded of this by Kevin Clements – my Africa bird hunting partner-nut. His comment was something like, “Enjoy your family tuna fishing… I’m spending the weekend chasing blue and ruffed grouse off in the northeast corner of our fine state. Can’t think of a better way to celebrate Labor Day Weekend. You should probably write something about the re-separation of blue grouse into two species.” I had written about the separation that happened in ’06, but “re-separation?” Hmm.
At any rate, there seems to be a good number of birds in the woodlands and higher forests of Paradise. We generally hunt three species of forest grouse in our corner of the world. They are all galliformes, or “chicken-like” partridges.
Spruce grouse (aka “fool hens,” since they often sit tight even in the face of visible danger) are associated with lodgepole pines, from which they seldom wander too far. They are found all across northern North America, but we are at the southern edge of their range and limited habitat makes them our least common grouse. On average, spruce grouse, Falcipennis Canadensis, is the smallest of our grouse; weighing a bit over a pound and measuring some 17 inches from beak to tail.
Ruffed grouse also cross the continent, but range a bit farther south and are much more common here. Their preference for riparian areas (willows, cottonwoods, dogwood and so on) and nearby forests means that we have plenty of habitat and generally good numbers of ruffs. The ruffed, Bonasa umbellus, is only slightly larger than its spruce grouse cousin – length to 20 inches and weight to a pound and a half or so. This is the grouse which once-five-year-old daughter Tena called “a chicken dressed up like a turkey!”
This brings us to our “blue” grouse, Dendragapus obscurus. At 20 inches in length and weights up to nearly three pounds, this is our largest forest grouse. These birds range from the Yukon to New Mexico, and were among the first western birds recorded; in August of 1776, the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition, seeking a route from Santa Fe to the California colonies, developed a taste for these delicious wild chickens.
Blues have been my personal favorites since I was a pretty small kid. Uncle Ed took me out on his place up the Little Chumstick, north of Leavenworth, to meet his blue grouse. I learned very early why I’d been given Uncle Van’s old .22 Winchester, and how tasty those birds were.
Males have a bluish-gray plumage, and “combs” above their eyes which may change color from yellow to red when they become excited or disturbed. The females have a mottled-brown plumage, helping them blend in with their surroundings when hiding or on the nest (bettering the odds of survival in the face of danger).
Now, about that “re-separation.” In 2006 the American Ornithologists’ Union separated the blue grouse into two separate species. We now have the sooty grouse, Dendragapus fuliginosus, and the dusky grouse, Dendragapus obscurus – a split which is actually a return to the designation of the early 1900s when dusky and sooty grouse were thought distinct. The re-reclassification was justified on the basis of mitochondrial DNA research by Barrowclough (2004), and on early research by Brooks (1929), who described several differences.
The grouse are similar in size, and the differences are subtle, but identifiable. In mating display, the fleshy air-sac patches at the neck are reddish-purple in the dusky and yellow in the sooty. The most useful mark in the field is found on their tails; the dusky has all dark tail feathers with occasional gray tips, while the sooty has a broad gray terminal band.
The sooty grouse is found in Washington and ranges down into California. The dusky grouse, also known as the “dusky blue grouse” or the “interior blue grouse” occupies the rest of what we have long called the range of the blue grouse. As it turns out, Washington is the only state where the ranges of the two species actually overlap and several observers – including Kevin – have noted patterns indicating hybrid birds.
Not all wildlife departments have bought into the species separation yet. Montana continues to use “blue grouse,” and Oregon calls them blue grouse (treating them equally for hunting), but locates the sooty through most of its forest grouse range, and the dusky in the northeast. Idaho hunting regs now refer only to the dusky grouse, as do those of Colorado. In Washington, we still hunt blue grouse, with an asterisk* to tell you that this includes sooty and dusky.
Learn more. Check out Cornell University’s www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds. The Grouse Group – nearly 100 international scientists and conservationists specialized in grouse – will introduce you to the 18 world recognized species at www.galliformes-sg.org/grousg/species.htm
I do love those dusky/sooty/blue grouse.
A couple weeks back, I told you about the pretty straightforward – if detailed – process that Kevin Clements and I followed to take our rifles and shotguns with us for our July South Africa adventure with friends Richard and Ruth Lemmer and Safari Afrika. Last week, Kevin passed along his excellent description of our time there. While Kevin and I spent most of our time teamed up chasing the birds and critters we had on our evolving lists, there actually were several others in our group.
Shortly after I won the bidding on the hunt at the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club’s 2015 Chukar Run, Kevin agreed to join me. We began our planning, and as that unfolded into fall, long-time buddy Roy Enter (with whom I first went to South Africa and Safari Afrika in 2011) wondered if there was an opportunity for him to come along and hunt a Cape buffalo – one of Africa’s “Big Five.” Richard allowed as how that would be a bit north of where Kevin and I would be hunting (up closer to Kruger National Park), but should work out fine.
A few weeks later, Roy mentioned that one of his Denver buddies Tim Buchanan had an interest in hunting Cape buffalo, as well. Richard said, “Of course.” By early this year, one of Roy’s Texas business buddies – Mark Russell – suggested that he’d been thinking for some time about a hunt in Africa: “Was there room for another buffalo hunter?” Richard said, “It can be arranged.”
Not long after that, Mark asked about bringing his 13-year-old son Vaughn to also hunt – and they would like to do their hunting with bows. Richard could arrange the father-son bow hunt, and would be glad to do it – just understand that Richard or another professional hunter (PH) would be backing them up with a rifle.
By February, Tim had arranged to bring his partner, Ronni Sperling, for photography, wildlife viewing and an African adventure. Gerry Addington, an old buddy of Roy’s (and one of the folks who had planned to join Elaine Glenn and Diane and I on our 2013 Trans-Siberian Rail journey, but got derailed over visa arrangements) would come along to record our adventures with photos and video. By April of this year, our little Safari Afrika group – six hunters and two observers – was complete.
By July 6th we were all in-country and on our hunts. As Kevin mentioned last week, we spent our 10 or 11 days after plains game first, then birds and then a combo of one sort or another. Roy, Tim, Mark and their teams passed through our HQ at Mokopane and then headed east and north to the Cape buffalo range near Kruger National Park.
So, how did it all go?
Richard sent daily – and sometimes hourly – reports to Ruth and to Flippie, the PH with whom Kevin and I were playing. Roy and Tim, using one of Richard’s .416 Rigby rifles, were the first to get their buffalo – with just enough charging and skittish behavior on behalf of the 1,300 pound bulls to have them reliving adrenalin rushes several days later. They then returned to Mokopane to join us in our fun – Roy to do a bit of bird hunting and find a big waterbuck, Gerry to carry on his video journal, and Tim to join Ronni in wildlife viewing.
Mark and Vaughn continued their bow and arrow quest on the buffalo range – Mark’s bow drawing 85# and Vaughn’s drawing 44#. Within the next couple days, Mark had managed a stalk within a few yards of a couple very large bulls, experiencing one serious charge and a couple nerve-wracking stare-downs. Somewhere around the third or fourth day, he made a very good stalk and a perfect shot on an exceptional bull. He and Vaughn joined the rest of us and continued their hunt from HQ. Vaughn had taken a nice impala with his bow and would join his dad on several stalks and blind hunts. By the last couple days of our joint adventure, the boy had made a perfect shot on a nyala bull and was fervently pursuing a blue wildebeste. His dad had connected on a couple other critters and an exceptional waterbuck.
Food was always excellent, of course. Breakfasts were always ample quantities of fruit, eggs, meat, toast and coffee. Most lunches were packed afield. Dinner was always fresh local vegetables with one or more entrees of impala, bushbuck, reedbuck, buffalo, waterbuck, or nyala – depending on what was hanging in the cooler. Appetizers were sausages, cheeses, crackers, fruit or some of Kevin’s special partridge “popper” appetizers. Laughter, conversation and camaraderie flowed across the table each time we gathered.
Tim and Ronni headed off to Victoria Falls and a “bucket list” trip a couple days before the rest of us wrapped up our Safari Afrika adventures and headed for Johannesburg and our flights home.
Most memorable? Everything, probably. I will, however, never forget watching seven men (including Kevin) literally carry Roy’s very nice, 500-pound, waterbuck bull one hundred yards off a mountain and through the bush to the truck waiting below. Dragging is not allowed at Safari Afrika.