Something about Pheasants and Pheasant Hunting

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 21, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

There is something about being afield with pheasants that changes us—that gives us a new sense of ourselves and the world around us.

Tomorrow, 19 October, is our pheasant opener.  I shall not partake in this one, but look forward to the opener the James Gang celebrated for too few years.  James 2 and I (James 3) will open our Washington pheasant season in a short few weeks in pheasant habitat in the Basin.  The late James 1—Jim Groseclose—gathered us there each year on a specific date which we continue to honor.

Still, the approach of this statewide opener floods my mind with rich memories of pheasants and the gift of time spent in pursuit of them.

When I was a kid in East Wenatchee, I don’t think the Old Man and I ever missed a pheasant and quail opener around various Wenatchee orchards.  Once permissions were gained, the anticipation built.  I could rarely sleep the night before, and we always had an opening day that ended with us delivering my mother enough cleaned birds for a few highly treasured family meals.

I grew up with opening day excitement.  In the mid-60s, Air Force Buddy Rick and I decided to open the Colorado pheasant season on a full section of public ground near Fort Collins.  We were pretty excited, and headed out in time for the 12:00 Noon starting gun.  By 11:30, there were easily 50 of us surrounding that square mile, counting the minutes.  By 12:30 we were surrounding a patch of cover in the middle of that big field.  Not a shot had yet been fired.  When all hope was lost, a few hens and one lone rooster blasted from the cover.  More than a dozen shots were fired.  As several people loudly argued over the carcass of the rooster, we took our leave.  Until grad school in Kansas, and after, I rarely hunted a pheasant opener.

In mid fall of 1971, I opened my first Kansas pheasant season with young Freebe the Wonder Dog.  At 9:05 a.m. he breathed in his first legal snootful of pheasant scent, and put a brilliantly colored rooster into the air 10 yards out.  At my shot, he smoothly retrieved the bird.  With an obvious pride in his Labrador heritage, he came to heel, sat down, and handed me the first of many birds we would find together.

In 2001, I drove to Spokane and caught a November flight to Watertown, South Dakota.  There, I hooked up with Brad Johnson.  Brad got me writing this Inside the Outdoors column in the Denver area 25 years ago, and remains one of my favorite people on the planet.  We would chase birds.

Over a couple days, we swept cornfields and other cover, and managed a few birds.  On my last day, we hooked up with several of Brad’s buddies and kids.  We had a big enough crew to adequately cover several miles of prime pheasant habitat—in a 30 mile-per-hour north wind.  After several hours of pheasants sailing off on that wind, we had no birds to show for our trouble.  No one whined, of course, since it was a perfect day afield in typical November weather in South Dakota.  I still smile over the pleasure of walking cornfields, fence rows and windbreaks with a small group of upland birders.  I can still hear the joyful shouts of “Hen!” or “Rooster!” at a flushing bird, and the laughter about parentage or shooting skill.

I mentioned that the Old Man and I never missed an opener.  That is not quite true

I was eleven.  It was a beautiful early November Saturday.

After work and on weekends, for something over a year, The Old Man had been building a small house.  Somehow, he and mom had managed to scratch together money to buy some ground with a burned‑out basement next to an orchard in East Wenatchee.  For that year or so, we had lived in the capped‑off basement.  Now, he’d pretty much finished the small house, and we were on the roof, nailing down shingles.

Pheasant season was open, but we hadn’t been out for our normal opener.  Watching him choose work and chores over hunting, I was thinking that maybe he wasn’t much of a hunter after all—and probably wouldn’t be much of a dad to me.

Sometime in the morning, a rooster pheasant started calling from the neighbor’s apple orchard.  Each time that old cock would crow his pheasant challenge, the Old Man would stop tacking down shingles for a moment.

Something very deep and far away was tugging at him.  He’d tack another shingle down, the bird would cackle, and he’d hang his head for a moment.  I could feel the struggle inside him.

Finally, he looked at me.  …Almost painfully.   He handed me his nail pouch and hammer.  “Wait here,” he said.  He slid over to the ladder and climbed down off the roof.  Moments later, I heard the front door close and watched him walk toward that orchard.  He was closing the bolt on his old Sears J.C. Higgins 12‑gauge.

I heard the cackle, the flush, and one shot.  My mother walked out into the back yard.  The Old Man said, “Thanks, Dorothy…” as he handed her the bird and the shotgun.  He climbed back onto the roof.  He tied on his nail pouch, asked for a shingle, and started tacking it down on our new roof.  He was smiling.

There is something about pheasants that changes us—that gives us a new sense of ourselves and the people around us…

All about Opening Days and Traditions

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 11, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Tomorrow is our general deer season opener.  Somewhere around 150,000 of our closest friends will be taking armed walks in the woods across the state.  Even with all the different “opening day of hunting” events (deer, elk and birds; archery, muzzleloaders and modern firearms) spreading hunters out over the fall, this is the big one.

I sometimes rue the loss of season opener traditions for families or cohorts.  With all these “opening days,” I wonder how they maintain season opener traditions.  Then I review my own traditions, and am reassured by various outdoor nuts that they cling to—and move—traditions as particular seasons move around.  Many of us even redefine “opening day” as a traditional time during an already open season when they and their gang head for the hills or water.  Opening day traditions are alive and well and evolving—and still set the tone for a successful outing.

Some of our traditions are activities that firmly place us in an annual season, and show us the state of our lives; canning and freezing produce, putting up meat or smoking fish, for example.  There are people without whom we could not fully experience a fishing trip or hunting season.  There are places become icons representing key moments in our lives, and omens of our success afield.  They evolve, of course, as we grow and change, but they are always important.

I was barely an adult when I attached to the first real icon in my outdoor life.  …And not much older when I felt the loss of it.

“Uh, oh…” Buddy Rick muttered.  “This is not good…  This is a bad omen.”

We were halfway down Crow Hill on U.S. 285, southwest of Denver, headed for trout fishing in South Park.  It was dark-thirty breakfast time on a Saturday; summer of 1969.

There was a note on the door of the darkened diner.

Rick and I had discovered the diner in 1964, a year after we met at Lowry AFB, following our overseas duty.  We quickly discovered each other’s outdoor spirit, and partnered up for hunting and fishing.  We were on our first pre-dawn drive to deer hunting in the South Park hills.  Our drive was filled with youthful talk of big bucks and well-fed successful hunters.  We planned to grab a quick bite in Bailey, at the bottom of the hill.  Then we saw the lights of the diner.

The old wood-slab diner sat alone on the outside of a carved-out turn on the west side of the road.  It had a clean, deeply-worn linoleum counter smoothed by the sliding of a million plates of eggs and sausage and flapjacks.  The tall, lean old-timer behind the counter had probably cooked every plateful.  We were struck by his ease and the hand-rolled smoke that somehow stayed lit while clinging to the farthest possible corner of his mouth.  “Well, what’ll it be boys?”

Over the years, the Old-timer’s Diner became the icon of our year-round outdoor play—our tradition.  We could pass up every food joint out of Denver, because we knew that the old boy would have the coffee and the grill, and his good humor, ready when we got there.  Plenty of others knew the place, too, but it was OUR place.  “Huntin’ and fishin’ keep you young,” he said once, “and I love ta get out… But first, I gotta feed my boys and get ‘em on their way.”  Some days, we had a better time over breakfast than in the woods or on the water the rest of the day—but we counted every day that started with his breakfast a success.

Then came that 1969 morning.

The hand-scrawled note said the old-timer had gone to his reward—which, we figured, had to be substantial for all he had given.  We stood for a moment outside that worn old building with the shiny new “For Sale” sign, subtly wiping tears we were too manly to have, and wished the old man a good trip to the happy hunting and fishing grounds.

They built a bank there.

Our South Park fishing and hunting was never quite the same.  Within a year, I was off to grad school and Rick was in a new career, months away from a crippling accident.  We were never the same either, but any mention of the old timer and his diner put us back in a safe and sacred time.

I have long known that we need our outdoor icons.

Each summer, on our way to fish our opener on the Klickitat, Edward and I stopped at Sod Busters restaurant in Goldendale.  It always has just the meal we need to kick off our adventure.

On our way to Westport, and the opener of any annual family ocean adventure, our only stop is the Rusty Tractor in Elma.

On the road to Wyoming, there are only a couple places we’ll stop—no matter when we hit them.

We have places where we pick up our licenses and gear, and wouldn’t consider another option.

We have a great local tradition, too.  Tomorrow, our main deer season opens, and hundreds upon hundreds of us will wander to the 26th Annual Hunters Breakfast at the Swauk Teanaway Grange on Ballard Hill Road (signs at SR 970 and Teanaway Road).  Many will do a morning hunt, come refuel on the iconic breakfast of ham, eggs and hotcakes (with homemade apple butter, coffee and orange juice, of course), then head back out for the rest of a successful season.

Here’s to your successful fall…  And to the traditions that make it so.

Homeys and One Last Salmon Hurrah

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 4, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

HOMEYS AND THE LAST SALMON HURRAH

Sometimes you get an offer you just can’t refuse.  Homey Kirk Johnson invited me to join him aboard Shane Magnuson’s Upper Columbia Guide Service sled, with the big guy, Jim Gaudino, Central’s president.  Our destination was the Hanford Reach and the several hundred thousand fall Chinook returning there this year.  Fish are in such numbers that the limit had just been raised to three adult kings, and we could keep that many immature jacks if they argued their way onto a line.  “Wow,” I thought, “the prez is about to become a homey…”  The way I had it figured this would be the last hurrah for our 2013 salmon fishing.

Then, too, in all the years I’ve been managing an annual trip or two with Shane, we’d never fished the Hanford Reach.  In truth, since I returned to Paradise two decades ago, I have only fished for fall Chinook once.  In fall of 2001, I was fishing with buddy Early Earl English on the Columbia near the mouth of the Wenatchee.  At first, I thought I had hooked a passing boat, but after half an hour, we netted a nearly-four-foot long, 40 pound king.  That was a good day.

So here was a chance to chase fall Chinook again, with a couple pretty good friends on the boat.

In addition to all that, how often would I ever want to miss a chance to fish with Shane?  I’ve been fishing with the guy since he was a mere boy, working at Hooked on Toys in Wenatchee, and in the midst of an inner debate about whether to take a full-boat golf scholarship to Arizona or follow his heart into the fishing business.  We have a history.

Edward, last of the Hucklings, through our annual “Shane” trips down the Icicle or onto the Columbia, practically grew up fishing with him.  On one of those Icicle trips, Shane and Edward literally called every fish we caught moments before it took our bait or lure.  Various friends and family members and I have caught dozens of lake trout and kokanees off one or another of his boats on Lake Chelan.  Once, when he was tied up, he arranged a salmon chase on the Columbia for me and young semi-adopted son Jonathan, with Blue-Pill Rick—it was a successful, but never to be forgotten, fishing trip.  Kirk and I, with assorted in-laws and out-laws have happily chased steelhead and salmon up and down most of Central Washington with Shane.  How could I say no?

Thus, on the appointed morning a week ago, we met up with Shane and new friend Chelan John (who would join us on the sled) at 5:20 a.m.  We wandered toward the Vernita Bridge boat launches, lined up with a hundred or so of our new best friends and waited our turn to get the sled in the water.  By a bit after 7:00 we were fishing.  Homey Kirk was first into fish, quickly landing a shiny king.  Jim Gaudino followed suit with a nice king and then a small jack.  In the meantime, Kirk brought in another.  And another; becoming the first on the boat to catch his limit of adult kings—all between twelve and twenty pounds—and the first to stop fishing for the day.  As he sat back, he had a bemused smile on his mug, but also looked a bit stunned.  Over several minutes he kept repeating something like “I’ve never caught a limit of salmon before…  Wow…”

New Homey Jim was next to complete his three-adult limit.  To questions about my own fishing luck, I had little response.  I may have suggested that once they finished messing around with the small fish, I would show them how to catch a big one.  Which I did, of course: a very nice 22 or 23 pound king finally came aboard at my urging.

By somewhere in early afternoon, I was finished.  Chelan John had two adults and two jacks.  At some point we agreed that our 11 bright adult Chinook and three jacks were enough, and we called it a fine adventure.

If you want to make your own adventure, by the way, find Shane Magnuson on Facebook, or call him at 509-630-5433.

We had a great day, and I figured it was a terrific last hurrah to a summer of chasing sal…

Oh, man… Wouldn’t you know it?  I’m within a couple words of finishing this column about the homeys’ last hurrah of 2013, and suddenly here’s an urgent email from Brandon Rogers: “Wanna hit the Hanford Reach tomorrow morning?”

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

P.S.  I had to go, of course.  In what appears have been another—final—last hurrah, Brandon and I caught our three fish apiece and were off the river by 10:30 Tuesday morning.

So, here’s to your happy fall.  …And to the abundant blessings of our outdoor life in Paradise.

Bluetongue and Wyoming White-tailed Deer

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 27, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Our annual Wyoming Antelope and Deer Safari went well, thank you.  This year, Homeys Ken Matney, Joanie Taylor, Steve and Bonnie Kiesel and I assembled in Sheridan about the time son-in-law Chris Kolakowski arrived from Denver to join us in making meat for winter.

Given the unsettled weather, with flooding and rain and wind and fog, we weren’t sure what to expect.  Each year is different, of course.  One year the antelope and deer are exactly where we think they will be and another they are nowhere to be found.  Still, over the seventeen years I’ve made the pilgrimage, various combinations of us have developed relationships with enough landowners that we know we will find them somewhere on ground we have permission to hunt.

The center of activity was our KOA Kabin.  In a pleasant surprise, Homey Paul Rux and various family (gathered from Minnesota and points around the Northwest) were in the next cabin down the line.  They were also making meat.

None of us had much trouble finding the game animals we sought.  We did notice that there seemed to be more gnats than normal—particularly along some of the riparian areas along the streams we wander in our hunting.

The country we hunt has a limited number of antelope possibilities, but the white-tailed deer are everywhere, in large and growing numbers.  This is why Wyoming Game and Fish offers an unlimited number of doe whitetail deer licenses for anyone who wants to come hunt them.  Over the last few years, our conversations with landowners and among ourselves have increasingly turned to “When will the deep population grow too big, and crash?”  We figured it was just a matter of time, so this year’s conversations were not a big surprise.

The first evening we talked, Paul and his group mentioned ranchers who figured they had lost more than 80 percent of their deer to an outbreak of bluetongue.  All of our landowners had stories to tell of deer dying, but only small numbers, so far.  A common refrain, of course, is the damage so many deer can do to forage and habitat.  As I mentioned, we found plenty of healthy deer, but the bluetongue conversation loomed over each of our speculations on the abundance of deer next year and in the years following.  What would this bluetongue outbreak mean in the long run?

As it turns out, bluetongue is an expected problem every few years in much of the West.  In the past decade or so, it has turned up in Washington and Idaho, but not as virile and widespread as in Montana and Wyoming.  While it can have local devastating effects on domestic sheep, along with deer and pronghorn antelope, it generally has minimal effect on populations across states.

Bluetongue is a hemorrhagic disease, caused by infection with either epizootic hemorrhagic disease virus (EHDV) or bluetongue virus (BTV).  Affected animals look emaciated and often have bluish mouths and tongues.  Hemorrhagic disease caused by EHDV/BTV in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountain west is seasonal, occurring in late summer to early fall (corresponding with the presence of arthropod vectors—those gnats, commonly called “no-see-ums”).  Outbreaks tend to occur at elevations below 7,000 feet and at fairly predictable four to seven year cycles.

In our wanderings, we observed no deer obviously infected and ill.  I did come across Bob Krumm’s September 5th article from the Billings Gazette, and thought I might share with you his personal observations and writing about deer dropping from bluetongue.

“The white-tailed deer stood in the Bighorn River drinking the cool water. Had the deer been doing this at dusk, I wouldn’t have given the situation another thought. But the time of day was close to 11 a.m…  The doe drank for about five minutes and then took a couple of unsteady steps and drank for a minute or so more.  She appeared to be humped up as though she had been gut shot.  As she slowly waded to shore, she wobbled just a bit. It was evident that she was pretty ill.

“In the past two weeks I have seen five dead white-tailed deer in the Bighorn River and smelled a couple more. There have been news releases regarding deer dying in the area…  There had been reports of white-tailed deer dying in the eastern portions of the Bighorn Basin since mid-July. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks personnel have posted notices of white-tailed deer dying…

“Wyoming and Montana agencies speculate that the deer deaths are probably because of epizootic hemorrhagic disease or bluetongue…[which] cause infected deer to go to water. The vector for the disease is a biting gnat—Culcoides variipennis.  Other biting gnats and mosquitoes may also transmit EHD.  Typically, outbreaks occur in the late summer to early fall and end when the first frost kills the gnats.  …By the way, all the information about EHD and bluetongue affirms that humans cannot contract the disease.”

Time will tell.  We won’t know until next year whether this cycle of bluetongue will significantly affect deer populations in the country around Sheridan.

In 2014 we will again make our pilgrimage to Wyoming.  Whatever happens with the deer or antelope, the friendships and connections forged with ranchers and town folk over nearly two decades will be celebrated.

It is now time to savor the rich pleasures of hunting in Paradise.  Happy fall…

The Raptors of Fall

Written by Jim Huckabay on September 20, 2013. Posted in Uncategorized

Monday night’s joint meeting of the Kittitas County Field and Stream Club and the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association was centered on the status and outlook for the wildfires of our summer in Paradise.

After the meeting, several of us talked about impacts on wildlife.  One of the members asked me about watching raptors up on Red Top.  She wondered if it was true that one could see plenty of birds and be lost in their use of the thermals up there or if her buddy was just putting her on.  After all, she figured, we have hawks all year long, so what’s the big deal?  And should she really get the family up there?  The whole thing got me thinking about raptors and fall.

Of course, we do have year-round eagles and vultures and hawks and falcons.  And some individuals of a given species will hang out through winter supervising our bird feeders and fields.  Others may migrate a relatively short distance to regional winter habitat, but large numbers of our summer raptors head to Mexico or farther south.  It is largely those birds which you may find riding the rising warm air (thermals) of our regional migration routes over Red Top, Chelan Ridge or another particular locale almost any day in early fall.

This is migration time, and birds preparing for a fall trip south migration are gathering in large numbers over certain areas which are not difficult to reach.

I invited my doubting friend to consider the possibilities.  What would be more fun than a sky of soaring Buteos, swooping Falcos or dashing Accipiters—our hawks of summer?  Take a good guidebook and go look.

Identifying raptors is not all that hard, really.  Start with shapes of wings and tails in flight and you will quickly have a sense of hunting patterns, speed and diets.  (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 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 common in town at our feeders, but others of them will head off to Panama.  Peregrines (falco peregrinus) may migrate over the Cascades 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 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 stay for the winter, or head for Mexico and Guatemala.  The sharp-shinned hawk (accipiter striatus) may find your bird feeder or take off for Panama.

More than a dozen different species of birds of prey have already been observed above Chelan Ridge of 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.

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 good memories.  Birds, in general, seem to acquire navigation information from the stars, 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 The Birder’s Handbook by Paul R. Ehrlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye.

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, as well as Harts Pass (off State 20) and the Sunrise area of Mount Rainier.

Take a kid.  Watching birds of prey on the wing is as close as many of us will get to touching the sky.