Holiday Hunting

It’s often difficult to make time for hunting during the holidays. And the weather doesn’t always cooperate, but here are a few photos from the last three weeks.

Although the weather was too warm and sunny for geese, our first Webb Tract overnight this year did produce this rooster as Lola made a perfect flush and retrieve.

img_2444-lola-and-pheasant

This pheasant was good for a tray of thinly sliced and delicate meat dipped in cornmeal, salt and pepper, then fried hot and fast. The tray was presented on Christmas eve and it didn’t last long.

Geese eventually packed the island and here are a few photos from the next couple trips to Webb.

Just because the geese were there didn’t make it a slam dunk to bring them home, but last week I finally got a bunch of action and so did Lola. An overnight produced three the first afternoon and five more the next morning in a low fog.

img_2489-lola-and-geese

The three speckled bellies are now fully plucked and are sitting in my fridge, ready for roasting.The Aleutians and snow are breasted out. I’m contemplating how to cook them, but the first was pounded thin and fried for breakfast. Pretty good, but the specs will be better yet. After they are properly anointed with salt, seasoning salt and pepper, I’ll roast them at 400 degrees for about thirty minutes until they are medium rare and nicely browned on the outside.

Hunting geese can produce a real problem. Not the specs, which are easy to prepare and are also so delicious that they easily disappear, but the Aleutians and snows which are inferior.

The catch is that the population of snows and Aleutians is so large that they appear to need thinning. That’s probably why the goose limit is 30 per day, 10 dark and 20 white. Bag limits are three times the daily limit. If you shoot a limit of 30 (or a bag limit of 90), be prepared to make a bunch of jerky, sausage, stew and chili.

Lola’s Day to Shine

It was the afternoon of opening day. Fred and I were headed east along an interior berm with water on both sides of us. Lola was hot, but she was all over the place. After leading us in what seemed like hot pursuit, she turned and headed back in the direction we came from. As I stood facing west, towards Lola, a rooster shot upward from ten feet to my right.

I quickly swung and proceeded to unload my Beretta without touching the bird. Fred swung on it and missed his first two shots, but on the last shot, he broke a wing and the bird went down. Neither of us could see exactly where.

Lola ran to a ditch and stopped. We didn’t know if the bird had made it across, but odds were it had. So, I lined Lola up and sent her. She climbed into the 25 foot wide ditch and swam across. When she reached the other side, her nose went into gear. Within 30 seconds she had scent and ran northward along the ditch as full speed. After about 50 yards she turned east and ran smack into the rooster. This is what makes pheasant hunting exciting.

It was a thrill to see her in action. And, this was not her only impressive feat of the day. Earlier she had rooted a rooster out of tall fragmites and I dropped it, but as with the other bird, it landed on the other side of a ditch. She fought her way through the thick tules and found the bird on the opposite side, bringing it back. In all she raised five or six roosters and retrieved four that we downed. As a group, four of us came in with six birds. We did manage to lose a couple, but that’s not unusual in thick cover and wild birds.

Since opening day, Lola and I have only been out once. The birds were much tougher, but we’ll be back out again this weekend to see if we can turn it around. It appears that the Mayberry hatch must have been pretty good last spring. We need a couple more good years of good spring weather to improve brood success and bring the pheasants back.

Lola earned her keep on opening day of pheasant season.

Fate of the Birthday Rooster

If you read the story of the pheasant hunt that took place on my 60th birthday (Nov 25th post), you will recall that I had a rooster dead to rights that day. Lola chased him into a patch of fragmites along the 30 foot wide ditch that runs along the east boundary of our club. Across the ditch is a thick brush patch. The rooster, since named the birthday rooster, rose out of the fragmites and gave me an easy shot at 25 yards, but I let him go for fear that he’d end up on the opposite shore where Lola might not retrieve him.

Since that day I’ve hunted that spot several times in a personal battle to bring home the birthday rooster. Each time he’d flush out in front of me before I could get in range. It was beginning to look like 2009  would pass without bagging BDR. However, Saturday’s duck hunt was so slow that I decided to make another attempt at the bird. Lola and I approached from the opposite direction of our typical hunt.

Lola was on a bird for about 150 yards, working hard, but not coming up with anything. As we approached the ditch, she was in high gear, running nose down, turning, jerking and tail wagging out of control. She passed a fragmite patch and stuck her head in twice. The third time she did more than just sniff. As she rumbled through the patch, BDR burst upward – the thick branches forced the bird upward as he let out a continuous cackle.

This time Lola forced him away from the sancuary. He passed in front of me  at about 10 yards and we were briefly eye to eye. He made a 90 degree turn away from me and I hit him in the butt with steel twos as he began to swing towards safety. The birthday rooster was down and out.

The Birthday Rooster

Pheasant hunting was tough this year, but there are still enough birds at Mayberry to make a comeback if we get better weather next spring. Although I only bagged two wild roosters all year, I muffed quite a few chances and could have had five or six if I’d been shooting well. Rob and his two labs, tule and peatie, bagged 8 or 9 wild roosters this season, so it can be done.

Duck hunting has been very poor. The good news is that when December is poor, January is usually good. We’ll see.

Birthday Rooster Revisited on a Day of Great Rainbows

Friday afternoon, our group of five hardcore pheasant hunters took to the fields in search of the scarce pheasants at Mayberry. Surprisingly we found quite a few birds, but these well-trained escape artists evaded and dodged us quite expertly. We shot at not less than three roosters, but didn’t even touch a feather.

At the end of our first leg, I had my best chance of the day. Lola had been inhailing pheasant scent for a couple hundred yards and I’d been working hard to keep up with her when she went into a serious pheasant chase. I sped up, sloshing through the eight-inch deep water trying to keep pace. When the bird got up – low and fast – at about 35 yards out. I threw the gun up and took a quick shot, but didn’t manage to hit the bird.

On a better note, it looks like I did bag my birthday rooster, it just took a week to catch it. If you read my previous post about attempting to bag a rooster on my 60th birthday, you already know that I did knock down a rooster last Saturday, but it managed to beat Lola to a large berry patch and survived with a broken wing.

Now for the rest of the story. As Rob and his pooch Peetie rounded that same berry patch on our pheasant hunt this Friday (a week after the previous event), Peetie got some pheasant scent. She took up the trail and instead of sending a pheasant skyward, she caught it. Yes, most likely (since we’ve not crippled any other birds in that vicinity) it was my birthday pheasant afterall. It just took a week to retrieve it.

The weather this weekend was quite turbulent and at the end of our pheasant several dark rain cells passed through the area and we got a bit wet. Here’s a couple nice rainbow photos.

Very intense rainbow

Birthday Rooster

What a day for a birthday. Sunny and clear after an evening of outdoor dining and a little jamming, however weak. The banjo and guitar supplied by Rob and cousin Wes and some singing by me.

Our rendition of “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” left plenty to be desired, but on Saturday morning all I could think of was bagging a bright wild rooster on my 60th birthday.

At 8:00 AM sharp, Rob – accompanied by Tule and Peetie, Wes and I -accompanied by Lola, hit the fields.

It was long before Lola had a hen up and then another. The next field produced a rooster quickly and I knocked it down with my first shot – a birthday bird?

It was not to be and the winged rooster made it to a nearby berry patch and escaped. Too bad, but we had plenty of hunting to do.

Field three produced nothing. Nothing but about 100 bitterns and a river otter that posed – and me with no camera.

We planned an attack on the next field, one of our most productive. I circled and came in from the far ditch. As I moved into position, with Lola a few yards in front of me, a rooster climbed into the air only ten yards away. The bird headed for the thick cover on the opposite side of a 20- yard wide ditch.

It cackled a long continuous cackle and nearly hovered, offering an ‘unmissable’ shot. Unfortunately, I couldn’t shoot. I was not convinced that Lola would make the retrieve and having already lost one bird, I was gun shy. I let the rooster go – with some regret. Maybe I’ll find him again and Lola will get him up over dry ground on our side of the ditch where the odds of retrieving him will be better. There’s plenty of days of pheasant hunting remaining. In fact I’ll be back again this week and I’ll be looking for him.

In the mean time I’ll have to consider him a worth birthday rooster. Game on.

The Pheasant Crash

A comment on my post about the weekend hunting asked my opinion on why there are no pheasants in the Central Valley. The question is very appropriate and to say that the pheasant population has declined dramatically is an understatement.

Pheasants are survivors. They live in diverse habitats and under good conditions they thrive in California farm lands. However, they require habitat. At one time, corn and rice farms provided habitat for pheasants. As farming became more efficient, ground was occasionally set aside for wildlife and pheasants could nest successfully.

Farming is now so efficient that almost no ground is left unfarmed. Roundup ready corn can take direct application of herbicides that kill all other plants. No habitat exists between the corn stocks.

I don’t have as much experience with rice, but with rice and corn prices skyrocketing last spring, farmers stepped up their efforts to plant every square inch of land.  As hunter landowners, we take steps to promote habitat. Our fields are nearly 100% natural and we manage for maximum wildlife habitat. Therefore we should have large numbers of pheasants -right?

The answer is no we don’t. We are somewhat confused by the lack of pheasant production on our 300 acres, but at least we have enough pheasants to make hunting reasonably worthwhile.

Why don’t we have more pheasants? The weather in California can make things difficult for pheasant chicks to survive and survival of pheasant chicks is probably the most critical link in the life cycle of pheasants. Chicks need to be able to maneuver through the field in search of bugs. Bugs are critical nourishment for the birds during the first few months of their development.

Bugs only live in ground that has moisture. Once the ground drys up, the bugs go away and the chicks starve. However, cover is also important. If the chicks don’t have cover over their heads, they fall prey to avian predators – like the marsh hawk.

Therefore the critical link in springtime is to have habitat with moisture and leafy upland plants to hide the birds from predators. This annual grasses don’t do the job. If the annual grasses take over, that will also break the cycle and reduce the number of successful broods.

Therefore, management of pheasant habitat is critical to optimum success. Farming does contribute, primarily by disking or otherwise killing annual grasses and making a place for br0ad-leaf plants to grow. Farming also can irrigate areas to create insect life that is critical. Where farming may have once been a net positive for pheasants, it now almost a total negative.

The reduction in the number of pheasant hunters is also a problem. The loss of hunters reduces pressure on farmers and landowners to manage the ground with pheasant in mind. We’re losing on all fronts.

What can we do? I believe that hunters should own more ground and manage with hunting and wildlife in mind as a viable by product of good land management.

Education of landowners and people who like to see pheasants is very important.

The California Department of Fish and Game is aware of this issue and can be responsive if querried. Ed Smith, retired from Fish and Game is an expert on this subject. Since his retirement a few years ago, he has spent many days afield with landowners and pheasant hunters educating them about this isse. He is the source of much of my knowledge on this subject.

Ed’s approach is to clear a path to remove annual grasses. Then create a way to irrigate the path such as making a ditch line. Then water is run down the ditch on a weekly basis to provide moisture for chicks. Once the annual grasses are prevented from taking over, the warm spring weather will allow broad leaf plants to grow along the ditch providing cover for the pheasant chicks.

It’s not as simple as it sounds, but it does work. That’s why we still have some pheasants on our property. I’ll post Ed’s phone number once I locate it. When his process is managed carefully, it can produce a boat load of pheasants.