Two months into camp and things have definitely taken shape. Since the last post, we went through about a two-week period of 90+degs and high humidity that made things pretty wretched, necessitating early mornings and a seven day week to get everything done without having to really try and cram everything. Since then the weather has begun to change and with it, the birds have started to move around too. Some of our covers have gone barren, in others the balance of birds has changed -- and so we're seeing more sharptails than pheasants -- but in the cooler, but stormier weather of the fall, it seems like we're having more hit-or-miss days as the birds stay hidden in the sunflower and corn crop fields (which are still up) till they feel comfortable leaving.
A good illustration might be the story of the last two days. Sharptail season opened on the 19th, but I finally got my license to start yesterday. I took 5 dogs to a piece of private land we lease access to and which we normally run dogs off horseback on. We've been over most of it and have a pretty good idea where the likeliest bird locations are. It was sunny, but blustery. And despite trying to get Momo, then Jozsi, then one of the camp dogs, into previously productive spots, we didn't even see a sharptail. I then moved the truck a little ways and got Capo out. She started trailing a covey about a 100yds out of the trailer, and we had a constant point, flush attempt, relocate cycle going for about a half-mile. Whether these were the same birds I don't know, but I saw four birds fly into a spot about 200yds upwind from us. We tried to sneak up a drainage unseen, but I saw them fly and relocate another 100yds further ahead. (I don't think they could see or hear us, but the wind was just making them spooky.) As we came into the wind, Capo started pointing about 75yds across the wind from where I thought the birds were -- but was looking into the wind as at least two of the covey now flushed downwind from us. I worked her through the area they'd left and decided it was time to head downwind back towards the truck. In another draw, she stopped-to-flush -- and I'll admit firing two Hail Mary's just out of frustration. She then stopped-to-flush again, but as I walked in another bird flew and I dropped it. The same routine happened about 75yds further downwind. I couldn't fault her terribly because I was taking her directly into a 10-20mph wind. So when she managed to point a third, I was especially happy to take it for her. I have no pictures of her from today, but astute, loyal readers will note that limiting out on our first day of sharptail hunting was done using my 135yr-old Stephen Grant hammer gun. (The picture below is of Capo, but getting a pheasant poult pointed in a cut wheat field.)
Today, however, it was cold and blustery to the extent that I actually wore a jacket under my strap vest and thought I was going to get soaked for the first two hours. I knew it was unlikely bearing in mind the cover and the wind direction, and sadly despite working hard, Jozsi drew a blank in the first field. I then got Momo out in a spot that he and Jozsi had found two good sized sharptail coveys three days before. To get there, you have to cross a cut wheat field. Momo stopped to poop and a sharptail flushed wild about 10yds ahead of him. We never saw another sharptail. After working the initial cover thoroughly, I then took him across another cut wheat section towards a treeline. It was a shame it wasn't pheasant season. He pointed a large, mixed covey of hens and roosters right by the fencelines, three waves of 2-3 birds getting up. He looked at me like I was a dumbass. He ended his trip out with a nice solo rooster find towards the road, still a little annoyed that his father apparently didn't remember how to use either of the triggers on the shotgun.
Post-Script: since I started writing this post, I took Momo and Capo out into one of our local covers that afternoon once the weather had cleared out. And over a point-and-back from the two of them, up went a covey of three sharpies, and in a miracle of miracles, I took a double.
Jake the Snake has been doing well, too, finding both his range and his nose for both sharpies and pheasants. Here's a nice picture of him with a rooster pinned in low, sage scrub. With all the dogs, I've been surprised by the kinds of cover and how close some of these wild birds will hold in. We've seen sharpies and pheasants share mid-summer alfalfa fields, sharpies in high weeds, and hen pheasants especially holding in tiny strips of cover left from mowing in hay fields. Earlier in the summer, we saw a fair number of hen pheasants decoying, trying to draw birds away from the clutch of poults. All my dogs are trained to stop-to-the-flush -- and situations like that often mean that you when the dog performs the skill reliably they still get the reward of seeing other birds fly when you get in front of them.
I have been breaking out two dogs, as well: my infamous Amy Winehouse, Rye, and a very nice dog belonging to my friend, Dick. It's been neat to see them both respond to the West Method albeit coming to it from very different directions. Rye is smart enough to know when she's being messed with or set up and will use your own pressure (or lack of it) against you when she feels like it -- and the challenges are often how to keep changing up the game to keep her slightly off-step and when to recognize her broken-pride-broken-wing routine as a bluff. But she most definitely has the ability to make a nice broke gun-dog. Ben is a great, young dog who has come to me with very few other hands on him, very few kinks, and a great attitude to do the right thing. He is now at the point that, as can be seen in this picture, I am turning him loose in the bird field wearing a harness and dragging cables to slow him down. This picture isn't the greatest of his overall style, in part because he is pointing a bird close up that we've already worked once and so hasn't been producing scent in that spot for a huge period of time. But he is thoroughly used to the ecollar cue and so, as with his last workout, he inadvertently ran over a bird and it flushed ahead of him -- he knew he was supposed to stop, wanted to keep moving after it, but successfully rolled himself to the stop with the e-collar cue. This is the sort of stuff that makes more of an impression to me about how the dog is learning. They all know where the breaking field is and where the birds are likely to be, but after showing them the drills and contexts for stopping and staying stood still, I like to get away from launchers or releasers as soon as possible.