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What IS a Legitimate “Outdoor Interest?”

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 16, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

At some level, the conversation is almost fascinating. At another, it seems downright silly. Still, in the context of America’s biggest headlines today, I understand why it has come up. So, what does, or does not, a column like this “Inside the Outdoors” post?

I’ve been writing this weekly piece for various newspapers and online since 1988. From the beginning, my goal has been to touch on virtually anything relating to outdoor activity and working to ensure that it is still an attractive option for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, and theirs after that. Column topics have ranged from treatises on fish, birds, animals and weather phenomena to raising outdoor kids. Others have run the gamut from fishing and hunting to shooting and firearms. I like laying out opportunities for the reader to decide for him- or herself what makes sense in one or another context. A couple times over the decades, I may have expressed an opinion strongly enough to land this piece on one or another editorial page.

What lodged this conversation in my mind was a brief back and forth with a politically active colleague. I was picking up some supplies at the Student Union and Recreation Center on the campus of Central Washington University. She wanted to chat about a recent column concerning firearms built on the AR platform.

“Look,” she said, “I’ve told you before how much I appreciate your writing and your take on the outdoors – especially the kids outdoors stuff – but the fact is that, today, stuff about guns and gun ownership and gun rights just has no business in your column. There are so many things you can, and do, write about that inform and fascinate us. The gun stuff doesn’t belong. We are all so upset about guns, guns, guns that it just stirs people up. Stick to your outdoor focus, like the wildlife we all enjoy seeing, that sort of thing.”

My responses about the need for inclusion of ALL outdoor interests, outdoor tools and the role of federal taxes on sporting goods – particularly firearms – fell on deaf ears. Still, the conversation lasted long enough to get me thinking about my whole philosophy of “outdoor interests.”

As a kid many decades ago, I heard the term “outdoorsman” applied to men and women who hunted, fished, trapped, hiked, camped, skied, boated, trained hunting dogs, rode horses, played various sports or carried on with recreational shooting of any type of firearm or archery gear.

As an adult, I headed up the United Sportmen’s Council of Colorado, representing more than 50 organizations from shooting clubs to fur trappers. In another role, I helped raise – and spend – large amounts of money on youth outdoor education, which always included learning to handle firearms safely and responsibly. I also helped determine how funds might best be spent to support wildlife and the habitat it would need to continue producing viable populations in perpetuity. I don’t ever recall trying to divide or rank those outdoor interests. I have long argued that people who have found “their” outdoor connection (whatever that interest might be), become ever more likely to commit themselves to ensuring that the outdoors will be available for future generations.

I would never argue against the importance of any of those aspects of the outdoors my colleague highlighted. Indeed, I have devoted many of these columns to each of them. Still, no matter how I toss it around in my mind, I see firearms and their uses as a fundamental “outdoor interest.”

In many ways, sales of firearms (and to a lesser extent other outdoor gear) are responsible for the habitat and wildlife – the outdoors – we all enjoy today. A hundred years ago, wild turkeys, Canada geese, most waterfowl species, elk, and white-tailed deer – all of which are over-abundant in one or another part of North America today – were almost gone. Dedicated hunters started a movement which led to the creation of the 1937 Pittman-Robertson excise tax on firearms and other sporting goods. That tax supported the development of professional game management agencies in America. To date, those P-R funds have produced well over seven billion dollars for wildlife management. Some 70% of state wildlife agency budgets today come from those taxes and license fees paid by hunters, even though only six percent of Americans actually hunt.

The “outdoor” firearm discussions about which my colleague was fretting are stirring up hunters and shooters, also. Nearly everyone I know is in frequent and serious conversation about all the firearms proposals and how they will likely affect legitimate outdoor recreation. They regularly fret over the – to many of them – serious mis-perceptions of firearms deaths compared to other causes. If anything, it seems to me, we need more of these conversations; we should not be avoiding them.

And it seems to me that an inclusive approach to “outdoor interests” must include discussion, data and analysis of the legitimate role of firearms.


Deer Season Openers

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 9, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

There is something universal about anticipating the opening day of “hunting season.”

Time was when deer seasons generally opened first across the West, followed by elk season, then upland birds and waterfowl. There was some variance in dates from state to state, but each season had its set time, and deer was nearly always first. Today, in efforts to manage both people and big game in various places and conditions, we have archery season openers, black powder openers, antlerless season openers, one upland bird season, then another, and waterfowl here or over there, and so on and on. Even with all the adjustments and fine tuning of local and prescriptive seasons, there is still a “general” season opener.

Here, that is our statewide general modern rifle deer season. It remains our premiere opening day. It happens Saturday, and attracts the largest number of hunters (something over 100,000 in Washington) and causes the largest number of pre-opener can’t-wait sleepless nights.

That toss-and-turn excitement builds early. Over the past week or so, I’ve watched men and women lined up to pick up licenses, ammo, orange vests and caps (and the newly-approved blaze pink clothing) and other gear at the counter in Bi-Mart and other retailers across Kittitas and Yakima counties. As one drops supplies on the checkout counter, others wait, chatting excitedly about deer and their habits, about the pleasures of making delicious healthful meat, and about family traditions. These are scenes frozen in time.

Then, too, of course, friends and homeys stop me around town. It always starts with normal catch-ups, a few words about gardening season ending, current projects or pet peeves, then we get to the serious business of the season. “So… Where ya heading Saturday morning?” “Found a spot with any nice bucks?” “Thought about that area up the Umtanum? (Or Teanaway? Or Colockum? Or…?)” Literally translated, this is “Are you hitting the deer opener?”

It’s universal. As my Hucklings came of age, I watched excitement and anticipation eat at them the nights before their first trips as real hunters. I still feel the awkward confidence they put on when they stepped afield for the first time with a rifle slung over their shoulder. I would tell them that I remembered how it felt, but the truth was that it never left me. I still toss and turn the night before an anticipated opener.

Somehow, it was only yesterday that I was sitting in our newly-self-built house in East Wenatchee (now under Costco) when The Old Man finally told me that 14 was old enough. I would go deer hunting with him and Uncle Ed up the Little Chumstick, out of Leavenworth. I would carry his old 12 Gauge J.C. Higgins loaded with slugs, and we would hunt the canyons and hills on Uncle Ed=s place. I had hiked that ground since I started walking, and the thought of finally hunting it with my dad and my uncle was too delicious for words. I could hardly sleep the night before, tossing and turning with intermittent dreams of big bucks stepping out of the brush and into my bead sights. The taste of the predawn air of that first opener is still in my mind. We made no deer meat that morning, but finally I had stories of my own to share over lunch about the big buck somehow getting the slip on us in the deep box canyon.

Over the years, these pre-opener days have also sparked a number of philosophical discussions. For example, one of my favorite homeys, a literary-minded colleague, has a time or two engaged me in a rich, deep, and philosophical conversation about the nature of my need for deer hunting. Caught up in a moment’s discussion, I may have confessed to youthful conniving, feigning of illness and – yes – even lying to get out of work and go deer hunting. At one time-stopping moment, we delved into the deeper meanings of William Shakespeare’s classic question “To be or not to be?” (There is no doubt in my mind that Will was a deer hunter, but not likely for white-tailed or mule deer.) Then there is the René Descartes (or somebody, no doubt) classic proof of existence: “Je chasse, danc je suis” (“I hunt, therefore I am”). This has been my mantra since childhood.

I am not alone. On Saturday, 100,000 or more of our closest friends will be afield at daybreak, in pursuit of the wily deer and food for the winter. A good many of those men, women, boys and girls across Washington will struggle with sleep for the next few nights. It’s universal.

When Saturday finally arrives, hundreds of us will take a break for the 32nd Annual Hunters Breakfast at the Swauk Teanaway Grange, south and east of Cle Elum. It is on Ballard Hill Road (signs at SR 970 and Teanaway Road). Many will do a morning hunt, come refuel on ham, eggs and hotcakes (with homemade apple butter), have a little coffee and orange juice, then head out to the rest of the day afield. Busloads of West Side folks will be there, too. The Hunters Breakfast is an icon – a tradition.

In two weeks, Friday the 25th, the annual Free Elk Hunters Breakfast will happen at PSE’s Wild Horse Visitors Center between Ellensburg and Vantage. In company with DFW folks and members of co-sponsor. 100-year-old Kittitas County Field & Stream Club, hunters will swap ideas, hopes and stories over a variety of eggs, sausages, potatoes, biscuits, pancakes, fresh fruit, coffee and juice – a newer tradition.

I love opening days. They are important; Je chasse, danc je suis. (Even William Shakespeare understood that.)

The Fall Grouses of Paradise

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 2, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

With the wing/tail collection and research across Washington’s grouse habitat, and what seems to be an uptick in interest, I’ve been getting several queries from homeys about forest grouse hunting, along with a few reports of locally plentiful birds. While I am unable to disclose certain hot spots within their habitat – under penalty of activities I do not wish to endure – I am quite interested in sharing what I have learned about these pretty interesting and delicious birds.

I our state, as with most western states, we enjoy a long hunting season for our forest grouse; it opened the first of September and runs through the New Year’s Eve. Bag limits for our four species/subspecies of these tasty galliformes (“chicken-like” partridges) are quite generous. Hunters may take four a day of any species (only three of any one type) and have 12 in possession (including only nine of any one type). One of the reasons for the popularity of our grouses is that the long season runs across all the other hunts (deer, elk, etc.) which take us into the woods. I love grouse for all these reasons.

We have three (technically, four) forest grouse in Washington. Their numbers have stayed pretty stable over the last century or so, but population are cyclic. This seems to be an “upward” year.

Spruce grouse, Falcipennis Canadensis, (aka “fool hens,” since they often sit tight even in the face of danger) are associated with lodgepole pines, from which they seldom wander. Spruce grouse are found all across northern North America: Paradise is at the southern edge of their range, and limited habitat makes them our least common grouse. The smallest of our grouse, an average fool hen may weigh a bit over a pound and be 17 inches long from bill tip to tail tip.

Ruffed grouse habitat also crosses the continent, but a bit farther south than the lodgepole turf of their northern cousins. Ruff’s preference for riparian areas (willows, cottonwoods, dogwood and so on) with nearby forests means that we have plenty of habitat and generally good numbers. The ruffed grouse, Bonasa umbellus, is just a bit larger than our fool hen, with lengths to 20 inches and weights to a pound and a half or more. This is the grouse which five-year-old Huckling Tena once called “a chicken dressed up like a turkey!”

Our third and fourth forest grouses are the “blue” grouses, Dendragapus obscurus. At 20 inches in length and weights up to nearly three pounds, this is our largest grouse. These birds range from the Yukon to New Mexico, and were among the very first western birds recorded. In August of 1776, the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition wrote of the birds as its members sought a route from Santa Fe to the California colonies, and developed a taste for the delicious wild chickens.

Blue grouse have been my favorites since I was nine or ten. Uncle Ed took me out on his place up the Little Chumstick, north of Leavenworth, to meet his blues – his “chickens” he called them. It was there I learned why I’d been given my uncle Van’s ancient .22 Winchester Model 67, and how tasty those birds were. Some decades later, they were the centerpiece of one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life, but that’s another story.

Male blues have a bluish-gray plumage, and “combs” above their eyes which often change color from yellow to red when they become excited or disturbed.  The females have a mottled-brown plumage, and blend in very well with their surroundings when hiding or on the nest.

Now, about that “third (and fourth)” business. After studying DNA evidence, The American Ornithologists’ Union separated blue grouse into two separate species in 2006. We now have the sooty grouse, Dendragapus fuliginosus, and the dusky grouse, Dendragapus obscurus. Similar in most ways, the defining characteristics are subtle, but noticeable. In mating display, the fleshy air-sac patches at the neck are reddish-purple in the dusky and yellow in the sooty. In the field, the most useful distinguishing marks are on their tails; the dusky has all dark tail feathers with occasional gray tips, while the sooty has a broad gray terminal band. Everything else you want to know is easily available online at Cornell University’s bird guide at

The sooty grouse ranges from Alaska to California, and is fairly common in the western part of our state. The dusky grouse, aka “dusky blue grouse” or “interior blue grouse” occupies the rest of what we have long called the range of the blue grouse. Washington is apparently the only state where the ranges of the two species actually overlap.

A few wildlife agencies have formalized the species separation. Montana continues to use blue grouse for one of its forest species. Oregon calls them blues, but locates the sooty through most of its forest grouse range, and the dusky in the northeast. Idaho and Colorado regs now refer only to the dusky grouse. In Washington, we still hunt “blue grouse,” with a note that it includes both sooty and dusky.

The dusky/sooty/blue grouse are in brushy and open transition zones around the firs and pines.

Oh yes, that collection and research. Successful forest grouse hunters are asked to place a wing and tail from each forest grouse taken in a paper bag – each in its own bag. Bring the bags to any DFW office, or drop them into one of the collection barrels scattered in habitat across the state. (You will find paper bags at each collection barrel.) DFW’s website and district offices will help you find collection barrels. This is important for the future of our grouse.

Happy grousing (in a good way).

An Outdoor Context for “Those Guns”

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 25, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Over the past ten days, in the course of the Wyoming deer and antelope safari that son James, son-in-law Chris, and I take each fall, I enjoyed a number of conversations with hunting and non-hunting folks from several different states. Invariably, we talked about hunting and the variety of tools (firearms, crossbows and traditional archery gear) used. Repeatedly, given the times in which we live, came questions about the amazing number of so-called “black guns,” those AR-10 and AR-15 types, and the AK-47.

It dawned on me that it is probably time to update and revisit the context and role of “those guns” in the hunting and shooting communities of our country. Without such a context, it seems folly to me to spend much time discussing and debating their future.

First of all, let me be clear that I am not a big fan of the AR-10/AR-15 or of the 500 or so brands of “black guns” built on the AR platform, although they are really fun to shoot. After all, one can burn through 200 rounds of ammo in slightly more than a couple blinks of an eye. And many of the new versions are among the most accurate firearms ever built. And they are very popular for hunting – available in more than four dozen calibers.

The AK-47 is, as far as I can tell, is available only in the Russian 7.62x39mm cartridge (caliber .312) and it is also widely used in recreational shooting.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, Wikipedia, and other sources, there are somewhere around 10 million rifles from the AR and AK families being used by Americans today. This number falls within the total of some 300 million firearms of all types owned by our fellow Americans.

If you have followed this Inside the Outdoors column over the past couple decades, you are aware of my long-held views of what is a proper hunting rifle or sporting firearm. Our modern hunting rifles grew from the military firearms of WWI and WWII. Soldiers used bolt-action and auto-loading rifles, which became sportier, lighter, more accurate and graceful as they returned home to traditional hunting and shooting activities. Over the decades into the 1960s, virtually all fine rifles were built around European and American military surplus actions (the mechanism moving the cartridge into the barrel’s chamber and locking it in place).

A quality rifle had a strong, smooth action screwed onto a carefully forged and machined steel barrel, and fitted to a finely carved and finished wood stock (likely walnut, but maybe maple, myrtle, or another strong and attractive hardwood). To me, and uncounted thousands of others within a couple generations of me, that was a hunting rifle.

That finished rifle would deliver a bullet with consistent accuracy to a point of aim downrange. Many cartridges and calibers (the bullet’s diameter in inches or metric) were developed for these rifles – well beyond the 7mm and .30 caliber military cartridges. Cartridges were developed for hunting critters of all sizes, with bullets in calibers from .22 and 6mm (.243) to .500 caliber. Accuracy was paramount. Hundreds of articles have been written on hunters’ responsibility for accurate shooting afield – one MOA (a one inch group at 100 yards) remains the standard.

We have watched war, soldiers, tools and times change. We sent our young men and women to fight in places that were often hot, wet and muddy, and traditional military arms didn’t hold up. New firearms were developed.

The first AR-15 (Armalite Rifle 15) was created for use in Vietnam in the early 1960s, and is still the military weapon of choice. (The M-16 is the version most GIs learned to carry.) Although it had its problems, it was light, dependable and could lay down a terrific barrage of fire. The original caliber was the 5.56mm NATO – a version of the .223 Remington – which could spit tiny bullets at 3200 feet per second. At that velocity, the round could do a lot of damage, and a soldier could carry a lot of ammo.

Those soldiers, like the WWI and II vets before them, brought home expertise with light, semiautomatic, gray/black carbon/plastic firearms with corrosion-resistant metal where needed. Just like the GIs before them, they started improving on the tools they knew.

As noted above, AR-type firearms – black guns – are now made in dozens of calibers. A good many will shoot sub-MOA groups, and cost several thousand dollars. Even shotguns and handguns are made with this light and weatherproof technology.

The transition to AR-15 rifles as firearms of choice for hunters, target shooters – and self-defense devotees – has not been easy for those of us who “know” how a real rifle looks and feels. Still, it is clear that these are currently the most popular firearms in the US. They are manufactured for cartridges in about 50 Imperial calibers from .17 to .50, 19 metric calibers (5.45mm and up) and 14 handgun calibers. (Larger calibers have become preferred for hunting deer, wild pigs, bears and other game.) Only Colt makes the official military AR-15, although it has stopped manufacturing a civilian version. Still, there are about 500 US and international manufacturers of AR-15 type guns.

Given the numbers, popularity, and use of them, I see little value in continuing argument about civilian use of AR-15 type firearms. Maybe we might focus on safety and training – it is generally how we successfully deal with tragic happenings in our country.

The RCRGWD&OTTBA and Current Times

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 18, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Monday, just over a week ago. A joint meeting of the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association (RCRGWD&OTTBA) and the 100-year-old Kittitas County Field and Stream Club. I was on the agenda to speak for a bit about my recent trip to South Africa. Truth be told, I was looking forward to hearing what I had to say, myself.

I always enjoy talking about the land, people and wildlife of southern Africa. My (finally) successful quest for a good mountain reedbuck and an exceptionally long-horned (for a tiny antelope) klipspringer, along with my continuing unsuccessful search for a large boar warthog, became sidebars to the presentation. The talk was well received, and I most enjoyed the questions folks had about Africa, getting the meat to market, local culture, logistics and costs.

After all that, we had a brief report from the two local Ellensburg, Washington, Boy Scouts – Trip and Beckett Landon – who attended the 24th World Scout Jamboree in late July in West Virginia. The club helped with their funding efforts and appreciated the follow up from their once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

As the meeting wound down, a couple homeys started asking questions about our little think tank. One of them had a serious and urgent request.

Given the hour, I postponed the “urgent request” discussion until the next day, then gave them a brief rundown on the history and goals of our Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association.

To wit: the name, itself, reflects the geographic location of the inspiration that led to creation of our little think tank. Our three founders sat on the east bank of Reecer Creek, along the east slopes of the Cascades, cooling themselves with iced malt beverages on a hot July evening late in the last century.

Over those cool beverages, we organized around a manifold purpose. We committed to solving most of the problems facing the World, America, Washington State and the Kittitas Valley today. Our goals included: peace and understanding among all the world’s religions and ethnic groups by 2022 (reset twice); solutions to world hunger by 2030 (reset once); respectful and productive discourse among American politicians by 2016 (this one has been reset twice and is now an open-ended prayer; returning salmon and steelhead to full runs by 2015 (now year-to-year); and taking daily actions to lift the quality of local outdoor discourse. We take all our commitments seriously, even as some target dates become ever more fluid.

We pledged to work for habitat so that our children’s great-grandchildren – and theirs – might know fish and wildlife. At an early meeting at the Tav, we agreed to aggressively seek hunting dogs as loving and strong and smart as my Lab, Freebe the WonderDog, (but not as gassy in a duck blind or car).

We do have bylaws. Meetings automatically call to order whenever two or more gather to talk about the outdoors or wildlife or hunting or fishing or whatever – it depends on attitude, time of day, and who’s paying. Any attendee becomes a member. Agree to support our purpose and goals, and you become a life member. Members are expected to find at least one free meal a month. Committee chairs, to retain their positions, must score two malt beverages per fortnight.

Operating funds? We have none. Nobody has money (read the papers). Occasionally we will have a successful poker game or pass the hat, if our checks haven’t arrived yet.

Agenda? We’ve never used one. We’d love for you to do one for any meeting you call. Place any issue you like on your agenda. If you want notes, please take them. And bring snacks.

Standing subcommittees handle kids’ education, publicity, media accuracy, science education and poker rules – all carefully staffed for expertise and balance. They manage most of our work

Ad hoc subcommittees can form at any moment to handle suddenly important issues. That was the gist of my next day follow up with Homey.

“So,” said Homey, “this guns, guns, guns stuff is out of control. I started looking stuff up and the numbers don’t add up to the craziness. This should be one of those ad hoc committees you were talking about. Maybe something like a ‘US Deaths in Context Subcommittee…’

“Look, these are some of the 2017 numbers – the latest I could find. I went to the National Highway Safety Administration, the CDC and a Time Magazine report. Get this: that year 117 people were killed, and 463 wounded, in mass shootings. Gun deaths were 39, 773 – 23, 854 were suicides and the rest were murders of various types; 297 were killed by teenager distracted (that texting and whatever stuff) driving, but 3,166 were killed and more than 300,000 injured by  ALL ages of distracted drivers. It seems that distracted drivers are six times more likely to cause an accident that drunk drivers; and here’s the one that really burns my backside. We keep seeing doctors and nurses emotionally taking up the cause of gun deaths, but Johns Hopkins’ 2016 study noted that 250,000 people in the country die from medical errors every year. Others push that number to more than 400,000. Where is THAT outrage?

“Will you please get somebody looking at this ‘context’ stuff?”