Monday, September 27, 2010


Now, I enjoy being in the moment just as much as the next guy.  You know, just being happy to be alive, watching the dogs work in the field, enjoying the feeling of warm sunshine on my face on a crisp autumn morning, sharing a few laughs with my closest friends as we go gallivanting through the timber or uplands without a care in the world.  That being said, from time to time, I'm ashamed to admit that I do enjoy shooting the occasional bird.

Frankly, it's my opinion, and a noticeable trend, that when a guy spends too much time on poetry, describing the fragility of nature and the wonder of its bounty, the delicate balance between hunter and the hunted and the indelible connection between himself and nature, that he's probably just experienced a pretty unproductive day of shooting.  As example, I offer up my recent anecdotes with regard to my Birdless yet extremely rewarding adventures in the field.  While I feel genuinely enriched by these experiences, in the back corner recesses of my brain, where the wild things are, I was counting the moments until I was able to come back to the highlands and level the scales against my feathered foes.

This past Sunday, symmetry was realized ... with a vengeance.  It was time to get back on the horse.  When such a mission is called upon, you turn to your aces, the real McCoy.  Joined by my circle of trust, those who I consider to be the top shelf in all manner of bird hunting pursuits, we headed to the mountains singular in mind and purpose.  The wing shooting was ... well ... magnificent.  Everyone was on their gun, the birds were plentiful, dogs sharply tuned in their attention to detail, and conditions ripe with opportunities for success. 

We started the morning at high altitude, 9,300 ft.  With a group of six, we elected to split up and carve the hilltop into sections.  After only a short walk we manged to locate and harvest three birds situated in a stretch of timber that held the four primary blue grouse ingredients, water, aspens, and pine surrounded by immature sage.  As the crisp snap of morning turned to crazy high fall temperatures, it quickly became apparent that we needed to seek shelter from the heat at lower elevations with deep dark hollows filled with shade that centered around water. 

See the bird?  This one escaped in the sun.
Following the typical chin wagging, plan making, standing around gear/dog organizing, and relocation logistics for such a large group of hunters, it was time for lunch.  We retired to a shady campsite near our next hunting site to eat and  burn off some of the afternoon heat.  Renewed and anxious to get moving again,  we headed to a wide section of mountain face that held enough valley fingers choked with timber and shade to feed our appetite for about as long as we were willing or able to walk.

For the afternoon hunt, I paired up with bird man and good friend Matt Otiz, Upland Odyssey , and ten year old nephew and mountain storm trooper Ben, to carve up a section of mountain that had the right look about it.  Keying more on comfort conditions than food source, we headed up a deep dark section of old growth pine that was intermittently dotted with aspen combined with abundant water resource.  The timber shoot was on!

Most hunters of Blue Grouse concentrate their efforts almost exclusively on food source followed by edge.  While this is productive for morning and evening hunts, it is equally important to adapt to conditions and focus on the climate when necessary.  Ever hear a buddy say, "I wonder why we don't see birds in the afternoons.  Where in the hell do they go?."  With temperatures reading 82, and likely higher on the mountain face, we knew the birds would be seeking shelter from the heat and would be concentrated in the deepest darkest COOLEST spot they could find.  We did too, pointing ourselves into a menacing cover of thick pine.  In so doing, we were amply rewarded.

Mia and crew resting after a hard fought retrieve
Mia, Matt's Springer Spaniel, was working her butt off and was almost immediately birdy the minute we got into the dark timber.  She put up seven birds all totaled, Matt and I dropping all but a few that curled back around behind us.  Mia brought every bird to hand.

Joined later by friends and dogs from the other side of the drainage wondering what in the heck all the shooting was about, Mia, Razor and French Brittany Elsie put up another group of birds that were harvested and promptly brought to hand.  My limit filled earlier, I was content to sit back, catalog the euphoria, and yes, just enjoy being in the moment.

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Birdless... the final chapter

With what started out to be a tough first day of bird hunting, the pull of the river was yanking at my shirt collar pretty good.  Adding to my fishing addiction was the fact that Willow Creek meanders along the last thirty miles of highway on the way to my Sage Grouse hunting grounds.

With an empty bird bag, worn out puppy and wounded pride in the truck, I decided to enjoy my journey between hunting spots with a few leisurely stops along the way to tag a few trout.  I follow one simple rule that has served me well over the years.... never go anywhere without a fly rod.

I've driven by Willow Creek dozens of times over the years, always with blinders on heading for Sage Grouse country, but never absent the thought that I should plan time next year to stop and fish or come back with trout as my one and only objective.  Finding myself in the right frame of mind this year to just sit back and enjoy the ride, this would be the year I would keep a promise to spend some time on a new piece of water I've wanted to fish for a long time.  That turned out to be a wise decision.

Willow Creek is a small stream that winds along highway 125, just west and then north of Granby, CO.  It's not a classic piece of water but rather a non-descriptive stretch that most folks don't give a second thought to.  However, upon close inspection you'll quickly discover this river has everything, beaver ponds, oxbows, pocket water, and slow technical pools.  It also has more than it's fair share of riffle water where fish feed ravenously on dry flies during the heat of the autumn afternoons.

About the only thing it doesn't have; a Gortex hatch.  Without giving this beautiful piece of water a glance, the crowds race by to fight for a spot to fish along the upper Colorado units or Williams Fork river.  In fact, I didn't see a single angler on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon along the thirty miles of river I enjoyed, which was just fine with me.

I'm at a point in my life where I very seldom count fish, but it's fair to say the Hardy LRH was being put through it's paces.  By the way, if you haven't had a chance to try the new Hardy Classic LRH glass hybrid rods, you're really missing out.  These rods cast effortlessly and are so sensitive you'll feel every single head thump on the bottom of the stream when you're hooked up.  There's nothing like the feel of glass!

The river has a mixture of beautiful Brooke Trout, plenty of Rainbows and some good sized Brown Trout like the one pictured here that I found sipping on small midges out of the corner of my eye as I was driving by.  Having a keen eye for rings on slow moving water, I hammered the breaks, jumped out, grabbed my rod, and began sneaking through the willows in hopes of being able to get the drop on this unsuspecting beauty.  It took me a few minutes to work my way into a casting position, which I had taken up behind a small grouping of stream side willows and a cluster of downed timber.  When I had worked myself into position, I couldn't help but just sit there and enjoy watching this fish move about carefree and untroubled to every corner of this pool to feed as he pleased.  After a bit, I regained my senses, made a single cast and intercepted him making his way to his next feeding zone.  It was one of those fish.

After I got him safely returned, it was time to make my way on down the road and get over to Leadville to set camp for the next day's Ptarmigan fiasco.  Along the way, I stopped off to fish the head waters of the Arkansas River and a Brookie pond at Fremont Pass.  Although the fish weren't as big as at Willow creek, it was equally rewarding dry fly fishing.  I caught most of the fish here on cinnamon ant patterns and a crazy little dark colored midge cluster imitation called a Crackleback.

The next day, after my Ptarmigan failure, I figured why break a good pattern; crappy hunting must equal great fishing.  The dog was still sucking O's after the high country adventure and was in no mood for a fishing hike, so I left him behind and found this small little no name Disneyland just before deciding to make my way back to civilization.  It was a short fish in a microscopic stream, but everywhere you expected to see a fish, there was one, all rainbows that were moving up out of a reservoir and all surprisingly large considering the stream they were living in (average size was right at 10"-12").  On a teeny little three weight, that was a handful, not to mention a blast.

This is pretty much representative of all the fish I caught in this little gem.

Good holding spot.

Fall makes for such hard decisions.  On the one hand, I'm always so stoked about the bird hunting that I can hardly think about anything else.  On the other, this is usually the very best dry fly fishing of the year.  Then there's the big game shenanigans that get revved up right about the same time... decisions, decisions.  What's a guy to do?  Blue Grouse tomorrow I guess.
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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Birdless.... but who cares: Part 2

Oxygen is a funny thing.  You hardly ever think about it when you have it, but boy it's front and center on your mind when you don't.  Having blown my bird slam project by missing my Sage Grouse opportunity a day earlier, I was able to really sit back, slow down, and soak in all the majesty of the really high country to do a little poking around for some Ptarmigan.

These birds are just plain goofy.  Although we've found them in abundance in years past in this area, you just never know if they're going to show up or not.  The general rule of thumb seems to be, sometimes they're on the peak you're on, and sometimes they're on the peak way over there.  Believe me, taking a stroll through the mountains looking for these birds is definitely a lucky peak selection process or multi-day journey.  More often than not, you just don't have more than one or two of these walks in you, unless you're an iron-man triathlete.

Hunting Ptarmigan is truly one of my most favorite birds to pursue.  They are nothing like hunting their counterparts in Alaska where they largely exist as tundra birds.  Here, they're located at just about the highest point you can find.  There is virtually never any pressure on these birds, the country they live in is breathtaking (literally and figuratively) and the reward is very satisfying if you can locate them.  They're actually very easy birds to kill once you find them.  They hold for dogs great, and even if you miss a shot or two, are super easy to relocate as they never get too far off the ground or flush too far.  They are terrific birds for starting pointers, provided you can hold your dogs attention until you actually find the birds.

One of the primary things you want to identify in your scouting to hunt ptarmigan is a road, a road that will take you all the way to the top of some mountain pass.  This saves you a climb that would just about ruin you before ever reaching the hunting grounds.  Next, you want to find a reasonably long and level peak much like the one in the picture to the left.  This gives you a greater opportunity to actually locate some birds by increasing the acreage you can walk on a single peak.  Ptarmigan live in Colorado in relative large numbers.  Given a little perseverance, and some time spent pouring over topo maps, they're actually easier to locate than most people think. 

I always enjoy having a big meal before a ptarmigan hunt.  Braised lamb chops are one of my favorites.  High protein is the order of the day for one of these adventures, plus it just makes you feel good.  I can't say enough about the importance of practicing good mountain safety while  hunting these birds.  The area is generally very remote and more often than not absent human interaction.  Of all the bird hunting I do, this is one where I leave my exact coordinates with a my wife and give here explicit instructions on how to find me and when I'll be returning.  As with all high country activities, keep a weather eye on the conditions at all times and get below tree line if things even begin to look dicey.  Carry enough food and clothing to be out overnight in the elements in the event something happens to you, and always take as much water as you can carry, for you and your dog.  I've tried them all and the Quilomene bird hunting vest is the best for this kind of hunting.  It can carry up to six liters of water plus it has a couple of water bottle pockets in the game bag for sports drinks, and it has loads of pockets for food, first aide and extra clothing.  It's almost a backpack.

With a restful night of sleep under our belts, my young pup and I headed up to the pass we were camped on at near first light.  There wasn't a breath of wind and the temperatures were perfect.  High pressure had set in the day before so it even looked as though I would have stable weather conditions for most of the day.  On the outset, I was pretty optimistic, which was probably my first clue that hunting would be terrible.  Remembering the same optimistic outlook I had from the Sage Grouse fiasco a day earlier, I had an inkling to drive up to the pass, snap a couple of photos, and get the hell off the mountain to fish this cool stream I had passed on the way in.  The country was just too beautiful though not to have a look around.

We hiked and hunted for about four and half hours before we both pooped out.  The weather conditions were perfect but the habitat appeared extremely dry compared to years past.  With such dry conditions, I determined there just wasn't enough food source to sustain the birds this season so they probably headed for a better grocery store this year.

Who knows, they may be back next year with better moisture.  Regardless, I know I'll be back to see if they are around. It's just fun to get out there!

ptarmiganImage by stuant63 via Flickr
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Birdless.... but not without experience: Part 1

I returned from my grand adventure yesterday.  The birds brought to hand were disappointing, but the experience was outstanding.  I set out with a goal to collect a bag limit of Sage Grouse, Ptarmigan and Blue Grouse in a single day hunt. Logistically, this is obviously a tremendous challenge as these birds exist in wildly different habitat.  But, that's what makes it exciting, not unlike trying for a salt water grand slam of Tarpon, Bone Fish and Permit.  Over the past several years, my quest has proven to be a fools errand, but it keeps me energetic and gives me a goal to shoot for (no pun intended).

As I do every year, I started my quest with Sage Grouse.  I do this for a couple of reasons.  One, hunting Sage Grouse in Colorado is extremely challenging based on current population levels.  This also sets an immediate tone as to whether or not I'll ultimately be successful in tracking down three species of birds in a single day.  Two, this year the Sage Grouse season was limited to just two days in most huntable GMU's in Colorado, another reflection of how low population levels throughout the state have become.

The idiot (my GSP pup) and I started things off right.  We arrived at the hunting grounds a day in advance with perfect conditions on the horizon for the next morning.  I took a brief look around in the evening and came to the conclusion that it had been a very dry year in my hunting area, which told me the birds would concentrate around a specific patch of sage flat that circled the only measurable water source in this particular vast expanse.  Everything was going perfectly according to plan and I was optimistic we would get things rolling quickly.

The next morning I broke camp before first light and we hit the ground running.  I had a pretty good idea of where the birds would be based on my keen hunting instincts .... and a scouting report I got from a buddy of mine that was there opening day.  As we made our way over to the section of ground I planned to hunt, I was greeted by a number of hunters who all had the same idea as me, eight to be exact, all with dogs on the ground.  It's public land so this is to be expected, but I did find myself wondering how these birds got to be so popular.  With this group working from East to West in a very poor wind direction, my best approach was to start way West and push up wind in their direction in hopes of pinching any birds between us.  As it turns out, I was right.

The idiot on high alert
The birds were exactly where I thought they would be, pushed right to the end of a draw where they could sit quite well protected until they were pressured into taking flight for another country.  I discovered their location as my young GSP was going through an uncontrollable moment of enthusiasm, a sudden jolt out of  mind experience where he determined that he needed to be in another zip code - immediately!  Punching holes in the horizon at break neck speed, hell bent on figuring out where that whistle was coming from up by those spaniels way off in the distance, he blew right through a small family group of Sage Grouse who indeed did take flight for parts unknown quite to the idiots amazement. I still cannot determine which was funnier, the goofy look on my dogs face looking back at me as if to say, "Dad, something really cool just happened.  I don't know what but did you see that?" or the F bombs I could hear coming from the group that had just spent the past three hours pursuing these three birds.  Such is life with a young dog.  To the other gentlemen that shared my experience that morning, I apologize.

The good news:  In that I had blown yet another year in search of my high country grand slam, I could sit back for a few days and simply enjoy the back country.  Next stop, Ptarmigan country!

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Delayed Reaction - The Grouse Opener

There's just nothing like the long awaited opener of high country blue grouse hunting.  It's always a coin toss this time of year as the dove season opens on the same day.  With a new GSP in tow this season however, it just didn't seem right to take him out to retrieve gray rats so I opted to head to the high country this year and fill his nose with some real birds.  We had what can only be described as a perfect hunt... all sixty minutes of it!  To say the grouse were abundant would be an understatement.  Couple that with an unusually good shooting day for my partner and I and it made for quick work.

My friend Jim had his youngster along for the ride, a spunky little chocolate lab that shows tremendous promise.  Pepper, affectionately referred to as the idiot, had a great time on his first hunt.  I don't hold much in the way of expectations for first time hunting dogs.  As long as they're having fun, don't get injured, enjoy being around the gun, and don't get lost, I consider these trips successful. 

On the whole Jim's dog was magnificent.  She demonstrated a willingness to hunt game, flushed enthusiastically and brought most everything back to hand.  The idiot on the other hand was only good for commic relief.  At the ripe age of 7 months, it's pretty hard to take anything too seriously at this point.  He was hunting for something, although I suspect more often than not it was his best friend Daisy.  It was a mistake to hunt them together, but darn it, they were just having too much fun.  Perhaps this weekend, I'll take things a little more seriously.

We got out of the truck at the first Aspen thicket, walked about 50 yards and Jim hit his first double.  After collecting his birds, we walked another 100 yards or so and I hit a double.  With four birds in the bag we decided it might be best to try and locate another family group, so after a few photos, moved onto another prime looking spot.  We got out of the truck, walked about a 300 yards and flushed another family group.  Bang, bang... two dead birds and we were packing camp.  I don't see what all the fuss is about.  This grouse hunting thing is a piece of cake (tee hee!).

This weekend, it's off for a high country grand slam, blue grouse, sage grouse and ptarmigan in one day.  I've never been able to pull if off in one day, bu I've got a better plan this year so we'll see how it goes.