Today the upland game bird season opened near my home, here in Ontario. I enjoy upland game bird hunting and in addition to hunting close to home, I have, for many years, tried to do a hunt out in the prairies as well. But this year, I won’t be doing a western bird hunt. Time to reminisce, I guess.
Below is a story I wrote a few years back that I wasn’t able to sell. There’s not many publications that will take this sort of story and given the sorry state of the magazine industry, it didn’t really surprise me I didn’t sell it.
The good news is, it’s now free for your reading pleasure. Hope some of you enjoy the read.The bad news is Brill has left us, as has Daffy. We miss them greatly.
Dawn breaks cool and misty. We’re anxiously waiting, wanting to give the birds a chance to fly off their roosts to their morning quest for food. We haven’t seen or heard any other hunters rumble down the gravel road past our camp, an ATCO trailer furnished sparsely but lacking little, towards the river. The rolling mist brings the road into view sporadically and while the lack of traffic is comforting, it’s still early. We know there will be competition and we’ll just have to deal with it. Space is one of the best attributes the west has to offer and thank goodness there is usually more than enough for all those that may show up. An easterner, but having experienced the open range for years, it’s easy for me to understand why westerners often express feelings of claustrophobia when transplanted to forested landscapes.
Brian, who had a career as a short order cook during and immediately after his university years, asks us what we’d like to eat. During our many hunts together, he’s assumed the mantle of camp chef. It’s not something we ever discuss; it’s just the way it is and I assume that as long as we are hunting together, it will always be. But despite some mild hunger pangs, we elect to go with Glenn’s suggestion to ‘do a short hunt and come back to camp for a really big breakfast’. And maybe by then, Peter will have arrived.
Having decided to forego our morning meal, we instead attend to other duties, like cleaning up. Some of us have our best friends along on this trip who require our attention, so there are dog walks, watering and feeding tasks to do.
The dogs stay in the trailer with us, and not surprisingly, seem to know there is real hunting soon to be done. They are scuffling about, whacking their wagging tails on table and chair legs, us and anything else that’s close by. I appreciate that the dogs are reasonably well-trained and it’s unlikely their agitated behaviour will result in much breakage or upsets, as we learned long ago not to leave anything fragile within wagging distance. Excited dogs remind me of nervous people; the commonality is that both seem to have to pee a lot.
I take my girl Brill, outside. After she takes care of her business, we eye each other and I can’t help but smile. Immediately, Brill begins to yap and run round around in circles. She loves to hunt upland birds and I muse she is recalling memories of past years when she’s joined us on our western hunts. I watch her as she continues on her vocal and circular routine and wonder what, exactly, is she thinking about? Birds, I suspect.
Our trailer squats on a flat spot where upland and bottomland collide. It’s ranch country, so up on top, of course, it’s wide and open and dry. There are some decadent stands of big cottonwoods in the river valley, along with thick shrubbery that extends up into the attendant coulees. We suspect the primary reason the grand trees don’t seem to be regenerating is from thrashing and grazing pressure, but we’re careful to keep our thoughts to ourselves, lest we alienate ourselves with our ranch hosts. Substantial acreages of the bottom land have been converted to irrigation farming, producing grains and other crops, but even here livestock is often run. In addition to cattle, a few sections hold horses, which these days seem to be kept mostly for traditional reasons and nostalgia. Across the road from the trailer, there’s the bull pasture, and to the east and west, interspersed by tree and other cover, a number of various sized fields irrigated with circular pivots.
Gazing at the vastness of the scene in front of me, it’s easy to understand why the west is often referred to as ‘Big Sky Country’. The term might have been coined in Montana, but southern Alberta has similar scenery. Plus, I can’t think of a better way to describe the unfettered view of miles and miles of rolling grassland with the occasional dot of a clump of poplars and a never-ending skyline. Even though it’s early in the morning and light levels are still low, there’s an obvious hint of green to the viewscape that greets my eyes.
In the fall, for the most part, the scenery out here is usually a simple mixture of yellows and browns, plus whatever colour the sky happens to be. When snow blankets the ground, it can be hard to separate heaven from earth.
It is a very dry place we hunt, although this year, on the drive in, we had commented on the height of the grass and how things didn’t seem near as brown as they have in the past. There were also vibrant splashes of reds and orange in the coulees. We conclude it must have been a good growing season, and hope this translates into a bumper crop of birds.
We had also talked how things actually appeared to be somewhat lush, although as we rolled along it struck me that ‘lush’ is probably not the best word to use in a country where the ground is largely carpeted with cactus. I glance down and see I’ve narrowly missed walking into small clump of prickly pears.
Brill has finally stopped her antics and leads me back inside the trailer. The ‘boys’ have just about got things cleaned up, and it looks like we are ready to go. My gun is already in the truck, so all I have to do is don my vest, make sure there are enough shells in my pack and pick up Brill’s water dish. Glenn has jugs of water for both us and the dogs. Rob pours himself a thermal cup of coffee and then ruins it by pouring in a dollop from a can of Carnation evaporated milk. Brian has made himself a thermos of hot tea, which he, as with Rob’s coffee, never has to share.
I suspect our plan to ‘have a quick hunt before anyone else arrives then come back to camp and have a big breakfast’ is doomed to fail, which I mention to Brian. He laughs and doesn’t need to remind me that it’s a plan we’ve made before and one which has never worked out. If we’re lucky, we may get to eat by early afternoon.
All of us engage in some non-serious banter then decide, like we always do, to head east past the ranch house and hunt on the edge of Reg’s largest pivot.
With dogs and hunters loaded into two trucks, the ‘Trailer Park Boys’, a name taken from the TV show and whom we are referred to by the locals, and only somewhat because of our accommodations and habits, finally pull out. It’s Day 1 of a new season.
It’s also opening day of the pheasant season so that’s going to be the focus of the morning hunt. The seasons for sharp-tails and gray partridge – we still call them Hungarians – have been open for a couple of weeks, but there is very little hunting pressure on them in the area, except by us, of course. However we don’t think we put much of a dent into the populations, even during those years when we do well. As such, they’re never far from mind and we don’t turn our nose up at them. All three species are, on occasion, on or near the pivot, although we’re far and away more likely to encounter ringnecks there. And the ringnecks here are all wild birds, as the closest areas stocked with pen-raised birds are more than 30 miles distant. We like this.
The fog has lifted, leaving behind a bit of a chill and dampness. The winds are light – there’s always a wind – and the skies remain overcast. It almost feels like rain, which would be unusual. In all the years we’ve hunted here, it’s seldom rained, and then never hard enough to keep us from being afield.
As we are getting out of the trucks we hear two cock birds crowing near the banks of the river, in a place where the willows are so thick that often the only way through them, even for the dogs, is to follow the cattle and deer trails. Glenn goes to block where the river, the willows and the edge of the irrigated field meet, while Brian and his Lab Daffy, Rob, Brill and I head into a strip of cover to try to flush some of the birds we know are there, because they always are.
Brill is a Wachtelhund, a German breed I have as a result of my friendship with Gerhard (Gary) Gehrmann. Gary is originally from Germany, having settled in Northwestern Ontario, where he owns a hunting lodge catering mainly to European hunters. Like many of the versatile German hunting dog breeds, the Wachtelhund can be used to help with hunting almost any game species, no matter the size. While only about 60 pounds, they can be fearless, and aren’t afraid to hold wounded wild boars, black bears or even timber wolves at bay.
I haven’t used Brill much on big game. My first Wachtel, Heidi, loved moose hunting, but these days there are few moose where I live, and as such, Brill hasn’t had many moose hunting opportunities. Based on her demeanor, I doubt she would show much interest. She is a great waterfowl retriever, but it’s upland birds that bring out the best in her.
The Wachtelhund’s, like Daff the Labrador, are flushing dogs, but with one very unique, and lovely trait. They bay – actually, it’s more of a bark – when on hot bird and small game like hare, scent (they don’t bark for waterfowl, which I find really amazing). The hotter the scent, the louder and more frequent the barking. In thick upland bird cover, this is a Godsend, as you don’t need to interpret body language as to whether the dog is acting ‘birdy’. You don’t even have to see the dog.
So, here we are on the first drive of the first day of our week-long hunt. Within a minute or so of release, Brill disappears into the cover of dense grasses, berry-laden buffaloberries and thorny shrubs like hawthorns and currants that border the edge of the pivot field and lead to a stand of mature poplars. It’s not long before I hear her bark, and then spot her – mostly just her tail, beating briar bushes – about 80 feet from me.
About 10 seconds after her first bark, she lets out another, then another. She’s now into ‘Shrill Brill’ mode, and within moments, Daff, Robbie and I are bounding over to join in the hunt. A few years earlier, on Brill’s first hunt with us, both humans and dogs quickly caught on that a barking Brill means action, and if you want to participate, you’d best get over to Brill ASAP. It’s obvious those lessons haven’t been forgotten as I watch and participate in the pile-on that takes place on the small plot of cover Brill is working.
Facing a stampede of two and four legged hunters, two cock birds simultaneously hurtle from shelter and frantically claw skyward and toward the safety of the river. I get the 12 gauge Ruger Red Label OU up and start my swing, but before I can get a bead on a bird I hear Robbie touch off a shot. He’s always first off the mark. Always. Unfortunately, it’s a clean miss, as is my shot. There are two more shots with the same result.
Brill continues to run around barking her face off – this usually lasts a minute or so after birds have flushed – while Daff ambles over and gives all of us that “What? You missed?” look he excels at. I call Brill off by repeating ‘Gone Away!’ several times. Finally, she gives up and comes to me, panting heavily, eager to check out the next piece of cover.
We make our way down to the willows that grow on the sandy shoreline of the river, when Brill starts barking again. Then all heck breaks loose. I hear at least a couple of birds flush, someone yells “Hen!”, then there’s shooting, more barking, more beating of wings, some indecipherable yelling and another couple of shots. Stuck in a miserable patch of ‘slaplings’, all I’ve seen through my vegetative curtain is a flash of brown. At last I break out into the open, just in time to see a bird sail into the muddy brown waters of the river, a few feathers still aloft, floating along on the soft breeze. Daff jumps into the strong, swirling current of the river off a steep bank edge and does an admiral job catching up to the floating pheasant. When he brings the now soggy rooster back to Brian, I see both have huge grins on their faces. It’s the only bird we have in hand.
It seems we flushed three roosters and two hens. At least we are on the scoreboard.
For the next couple of hours, we work our way around the perimeter of the pivot with similar results. That is, we flush quite a few pheasants, touch off a fair number of shots, and occasionally connect. Just as the sun begins to break through the clouds, we find ourselves where the pivot and coulees converge. Maybe there will be a flock of Huns there, or some sharp-tails. Maybe both. One can only hope.
Brill goes over to inspect a towering thatch of grass beside a patch of stunted poplar trees only marginally taller. I can’t see her, but hear her bark. I’m some distance away so I pick up the pace in concert with Brill’s escalating vocalizations.
A brown bird bursts from the edge of the poplars clucking, and I immediately recognize it as a sharp-tail. I manage to squeeze off a round before the sharpie has gone10 feet and am rewarded with a crumpled bird. Another sharpie does the same thing with identical results. A double? Close enough, and I’m elated. Brill retrieves both of the plump prairie birds and I stuff them into my vest alongside my one pheasant. The extra weight feels good.
For the past 30 years I’ve lived in the southwestern border of the boreal forest, which is less than two hours from the pancake flat eastern prairie fringe and a long days drive from where I am today. It’s lake country with excellent angling for the likes of walleye, lake trout and muskellunge, and there is good hunting for whitetails and moose (sometimes!), as well as ruffed grouse, spruce grouse and, in large cutovers and burns, even sharp-tails. It’s a wonderful place to live, with a further redeeming feature being its closeness to the wide open west. I love both.
I think about how lucky and blessed I am as I watch and listen to Brill, who’s ran back into the cover that coughed up the brace of birds now in my vest. Her occasional bark has none of the almost panicky nature it has when the scent is hot, so I assume she’s sniffing memories of what I’m now in possession of.
I can see that the Trailer Park boys and Daffy are making their way towards me. I’m wondering if Glenn or Robbie will suggest that maybe we should check one more patch of cover – there are now other hunters nearby and we’re still hoping to put up a covey of Huns – before heading back to the trailer for that ‘really big breakfast’. If they don’t, I know Brian will bring it up.
The skies have cleared and the temperature is climbing rapidly. Good friends, good dogs, wide open spaces and Alberta birds.
It’s going to be a good week.