Don’t get me wrong, I love guiding and the career in fly fishing which has developed for me over the past 15 years, but when the season ends, it feels oh so good. There is still tons of paperwork to be finished, and bookings for next year are rolling in…..more paper work, but a good sign. Next season will be here before we know it. Most fishing guides I know take some kind of extended “vacation” and go somewhere to get away from it all. Some guides go fishing, finally taking time to stand in the river with a rod in hand – their hand – all day long for weeks at a time. Most of these guys steelhead, some chase BWO hatches and a few head to the salt. Others pick up high powered rifles and head out to the back country looking to fill the freezer. Then there are folks like myself who enjoy bird hunting. We row, tie knots and instruct anglers all summer long in order to walk the fields of Eastern Montana. Ducks, pheasants, huns, sharptails and cold beer….not always in that order.
Bird hunting in my family goes way back. There are photos of my grandfather, holding a classic side-by-side, standing next to his Model T after a hunt….circa 1930. Growing up inbetween the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, there were plenty of birds. Mostly waterfowl, but some guys were still hunting Bobwhite Quail when I was just a youngster. Poor farming practices reduced their habitat resulting in very low numbers of bobwhites. Maybe one day they will come back. The Federal Gov’t is renewing their contracts this year with farmers across the USA. One of the programs, the Conservation Reserve Program, (CRP) is up for renewal and from the farmers whom I have talked with, it is getting harder and harder to get their land re-enrolled in this program. Most of these farmers are getting older and after a lifetime of farming, they are tired. One problem is that there are no young people coming back to these rural communities to take up the charge. CRP allows some of these farmers to keep farming and not sell the land which has been in their families for many generations. If they can’t farm it, then they have to sell it. There is no way for them to afford keeping their land. The catch, trying to get started these days in farming is gonna cost you thousands of dollars resulting in big corporate farms buying up the good land from the small farmers. CRP protects millions of acres of American topsoil from erosion and is designed to safeguard the Nation’s natural resources. By reducing water runoff and sedimentation, CRP protects groundwater and helps improve the condition of lakes, rivers, ponds, and streams. Acreage enrolled in the CRP is planted to resource-conserving vegetative covers, making the program a major contributor to increased wildlife populations in many parts of the country. Pheasants, sharptails and huns use this cover for nesting and loafing. Mallard Ducks use these grasslands for nesting as well. This land is in jeapardy of being turned over and farmed once again, therefore eliminating thousands of acres of prime bird habitat. What will happen?
At some point during my youth, watching a bird dog – any bird dog- do his job, became a facination of mine. Hunting is amazing, but it wasn’t shooting birds and carrying a heavy bag that kept me coming back. It wasn’t because I was crazy for guns. It was the dog work and the fact that I felt a strong connection with the dog. I was young, just 5 or 6 years old, when my father started taking me hunting, to Cow’s Head Slough. I didn’t carry a shotgun, but was allowed to keep a bb gun in its case leaned up near the back of duck blind. On slower days or inbetween flights, that bb gun would come out and I would take bets with my Uncles and Rex on who could hit the decoys on the outside edge. We had Labs and the first one I hunted over was Duke. He slept at my feet most nights and so began the connection to hunting dogs. Duke died while hunting. Bummer for sure and probably my first real experience with death. Huck, a GWP, is my first bird dog and this is his 8th year in the field. He points with certainty and I trust what he does. The quote “follow your bird dog and birds will follow” is the absolute truth. Huck listens well……most of the time anyway. In the field, he is the one who is right. Unless of course he is running birds, but honestly, who can blame him. Pheasants run and good dogs can pin them down. It just might be 80 yards away when that rooster finally flushes. At 8 yrs old he is getting up there. I was certain that he would slow down this year and not be able to hunt everyday. He no longer hunts all day long, but definitely hunts twice a day, weather dependent. Huck has slowed down, but only in the sense that he hunts closer and hardly needs direction from me.
There is talk in our house of another GWP. Maybe a female this time, maybe another male. None the less, another dog in Eastern MT would be killer. In the years to come, Huck is gonna need some time inbetween hunts to rest up. A pup hunting under him, learning from a master, will make my trips that much more memorable. He is good with pups….sometimes.
My hunting pardner, Drew Menzter, owns the GWP above. Otto is our everyday, all day, hunting machine. At only 2 yrs old, he has proven himself time and time again. He won’t quit and very rarely leaves a dead bird in the field. He hates ducks, but will sit quietly on the stand in the middle of the marsh until we are ready to pick em’ up, head in and head out for upland birds.
I missed this drake, twice, only to have the Drew knock it down with one shell. Bummer for me, this drake had a band. Born in Iowa in 2007. Somewhere along the way he took a wrong turn and headed West. A beautiful specimen.
Time for a few more photos.
When folks ask me where I hunt in Eastern Montana, I just can’t bring myself to divulge the exact location or locations we hunt. I never will on this fishing report, becuase these places are my saving grace. We rarely see anyone and when we do, it usually is the farmer whos land we’re hunting. We don’t shoot limits everyday, but that is not why we go. Time away, away from everything, is what heels the soul and is the main reason we hunt. Take a vacation, stay home or go abroad. But do it. You need it. Your life will suffer if you don’t.