About Hunting, Fishing & Outdoor Partners

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 30, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

It was one of those simple, innocent, questions that triggers a fairly in-depth conversation, followed by days of mind-probing thought. Then, there’s the savoring of experiences which are not often lifter from the back of the vaults in my Memory Bank.

A week ago, homey and hunting partner Wes Clogston and I were out on the Army’s Yakima, Washington, Training Center ground. As master hunters, we have a responsibility to deal with the cow elk which spend nights messing up farm fields in Badger Pocket, south east of Ellensburg, and then retreat to the Training Center. Ever mindful of carrying out our duties, we were diligently spending time behind our binoculars scouring hills, draws and sagebrush valleys.

At one point, we were lost in glassing a beautiful mule deer buck moving through early morning sunshine up into a scatter of red basalt boulders, apparently in search of a bed-down spot. Admiring that buck with Wes flashed me back to sitting alongside Rick Doell, my first really good hunting/fishing/outdoor partner, as we glassed a small group of muleys in the piñon-juniper country out in the Piceance Basin of western Colorado.

“So, Wes,” I asked, “how many true hunting and fishing partners have you had in your life? You know: partners you never doubted would have your back, no matter what… Someone you just trusted in any wild place or for any wild or crazy situation in which you found yourself?”

The ensuing conversation and swapping of humorous – and not-so – tales consumed the next four or five hours of our elk search. By the end of that day, we agreed that our quality outdoor partners could be counted on one hand. Over the following days, I found myself stumbling into those memories and experiences at almost any odd moment.

During the Puget Sound Energy and Kittitas County Field and Stream Club Hunter’s Breakfast out at the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility last Friday morning (10/25), I found myself asking groups of hunters about their partners. Seemed like everyone had one or more person without whom hunting would not be right. The terms that came up most frequently were trust, family, just like family, and dependability.

Rick and I met at Lowry AFB in 1963, after overseas stints. Our radio and TV production work was about as much indoors as we could stand, and we quickly agreed to head outdoors. He hailed from suburban Boston, but with a Stetson, a pair of boots, and a Winchester .270, he evolved into a westerner.

From the beginning, Rick was part of me. If I was thinking thirsty, he’d hand me a cool one. If I was about to cast long, he’d cast short. He always took the duck on his side of the blind, and he never shot the pheasant that got up in front of me until I’d fired both barrels. On a deer hunt, we’d separate to work a long hillside. We’d move slowly through the timber for an hour or more – a hundred yards apart – and we’d reach our designated rendezvous within a minute of each other. Firearm or fish hook, safety was never an issue. We just always knew where the other guy was.

With growing families and increasing responsibilities, we escaped less often, but our campfires were special. And he’d still pretend to see a deer or elk on another mountain just to get me over there. In spring, 1970, I headed off to more graduate work at the University of Kansas (KU). Rick and I had planned a fall bird hunt with his dogs in Kansas. Late one night his wife, Elberta, called. Rick had split his helmet in a motorcycle crash. He came home from rehab, but never grew beyond an unmanageable 6-year-old in a man’s body.

On antelope hunts, I still hear Rick marvel at the speed of those “goats.” Now and again I still hear his laughter across a campfire.

I met Phil at KU. A California boy, quiet in the classroom, but fully alive afield. He was a wonderful storyteller – some of his stories were no doubt true. Phil never got dirty or wrinkled or greasy or bloody or any of the other things you go fishing or hunting to get. He’d clean as many fish or birds as I did, but he’d look ready for the office, and I’d be blood and guts from head to toe. He said I was a born slob. He was a fine and dependable partner. He took a position in Oregon, and we hunted a bit in Colorado and Wyoming until a time his wife stayed with my about-to-be ex-wife. Haven’t seen him since.

In the top three on my list would be Last-of-the-Hucklings Edward, now pursuing his stunt career in Los Angeles. We still do a bit of fishing and hunting, but never enough. I deeply value my Wyoming and Texas hunting time with son James and son-in-law Chris. For a time I had great partners in the James Gang, on our bird hunts. Bill Boyum and Wes would clearly be right up there on a current list. No matter how you cut it, though, it’s not a long list.

Clearly not be as sacred as the relationships we develop and nurture with our spouses, but relationships with our most trusted hunting, fishing and outdoor partners are important – and critical to our enjoyment and success afield.

Of Black Bears and Mountain Lions

Written by Jim Huckabay on October 23, 2019. Posted in Uncategorized

Black bear and cougar (mountain lion or puma) attacks in here in the Paradise of Washington are extremely rare, really, and grizzly attacks are so far nonexistent. Still, for some reason I’m hearing several questions and concerns from homeys lately. This may have been triggered by the push of some agencies and groups to return grizzlies to the Cascades, the reports of recent grizzly bear attacks in the northern Rockies, or the ongoing discussions of recent bear and cougar attacks in Canada. Be that as it may, this seems like a good time for a look at predators and our interactions with them (note that for this week’s discussion, I am excluding wolves and grizzlies).

Mountain lions – or their fresh sign – have been reported at several locations around the valley and the region over the past few weeks. Black bears have been out in good numbers, too, force-feeding themselves for winter. They have been getting a fair amount of press over the past couple years – some a bit hysterical, some factual, and most of it the result of increasing numbers of interactions with us. It seems likely that the rapid growth of the county and spreading urbanization is the primary cause of those interactions and occasional conflicts. Then, too, folks who track these things are convinced that changes in hunting and harvest methods have led to rising predator populations as well. Still, we can keep trouble at arm=s length.

Mountain lions are probably grateful for our inadvertent offerings, but their food preferences create angst and anger. We move into lion country and leave our horses, sheep, llamas and dogs outside overnight. Then get all bent out of shape when an odd lion discovers how much easier it is to catch something in a pen, or chained up. Lions really seem to have a sweet tooth for dogs, and missing dogs are a common complaint all over the West=s lion country. While only a small number of lions begin preying on our pets and livestock, we can prevent problems by thinking ahead about how to keep them safe. Lions preying on pets generally receive death sentences.

A bear’s natural diet consists of items such as blueberries or huckleberries. Human-provided foods, such as garbage, birdseed, and hummingbird feeder fluids, may have 10 to 20 times the caloric value of wild natural foods and may delay a bear’s natural hibernation pattern. Bears often develop a taste for dog and cat food left outside, hummingbird feeders, suet or peanut butter left out for birds, and greasy barbecue grills. Leaving such stuff out may cause a mess for us, but the wildlife managers who have to follow up use this rule: Aa fed bear is a dead bear.”

DFW offers simple suggestions for preventing bear problems. 1) Store garbage cans in a garage or sturdy building until collection day. 2) Remove bird feeders (seed and liquid) from porches, trees, and other accessible areas, and feed pets inside. 3) Pick and remove fruit from trees, even the highest branches. 4) Don’t intentionally feed bears, deer, elk other wild animals. Once they learn to connect people with food, it puts the bear, and the public, at risk. 5) Take preventive measures before the bear is even seen.

There are several recommendations for avoiding trouble if you meet a bear or mountain lion outdoors. Stay calm; talk aloud but softly to let the animal know of your presence – and assure it you mean no harm – as you stop and back away slowly; don’t run or make sudden movements; do not make eye contact – this may be taken as a sign of aggression. With mountain lions, some additional advice: raise your arms to appear larger, and if the animal behaves aggressively, throw stones, branches or whatever you can find, but do not crouch down or turn your back. And if the lion attacks you, fight back – lions are often driven off prey which fights back. It may help to remember that, while Teddy Roosevelt considered cougars the most cowardly of all the predators, their backing-off behavior is more likely a case of “this meal may cost more calories than it is worth.”

There are a number of ready phone and online links to anything else you want, or need, to know about dealing with lions and bears.

For an emergency dangerous wildlife situation in Washington (and most anywhere else), dial 911. If it is a non-emergency dangerous wildlife concern, call 877-933-9847. You may also text the information to 847411 or file an online report at wdfw.wa.gov/about/enforcement/report (note that the form you will use is the “Report a Violation” form). Washington DFW is committed to rapid follow-up to all situations reported.

To reach the full range of available resources, start with wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/living. Here you will find links to suggestions and keys for living with wildlife, from dealing with injured animals, to properly establishing a backyard sanctuary, to dealing with nuisance or dangerous wildlife. At the dangerous wildlife link, you will find maps of incident reports. For specific information about mountain lions see wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/species/puma-concolor. For similar background about black bears, go to wdfw.wa.gov/species-habitats/species/ursus-americanus.

We are not likely to train all lions and bears to behave responsibly around us and our homes and temptations: better we learn to live responsibly in their country. Being safe is not difficult. Remember that even a minor bear or lion attack could mess up your whole day.

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, belong.in 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 www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide.

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).