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Missouri With Max

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It's kind of a bittersweet upland bird season coming up. We had to put our older Brittany Molly down back in May, and this was the first real trip without her. Our 5-year-old male, Max, doesn't have as good a nose or as much experience. His first few years he mostly just followed Molly and let her do the work, but he would back pretty well too. Now that he's on his own it's easier to see his characteristics. He's a good hunter with lots of energy; he hunts in pretty close and checks back often. He's willing to go through the thick stuff -- especially if I'm in there with him. He's a little impatient on the point but he knows 'whoa' and will listen -- usually. He's pretty good at finding birds -- dead or alive -- but he doesn't want to retrieve. I haven't worked with him as much as I should -- partly because Molly carried the load so well and I didn't expect to lose her so soon.

Anyhoo -- the bird estimates from about everywhere this year have been poor, with 25 to 50 percent declines reported in Missouri, Kansas and South Dakota. I wanted to get Max out solo onto some birds before the season, so I took him up to a hunting preserve run by a guy I know (Mike Eckman in Baldwin, KS) a couple weekends ago. It kinda sunk in with Max what he was supposed to do (genetics and instinct more than good training), so that was good to see. We had a property lined up in Atchison County, MO for last Saturday and I was getting stoked for the season -- even though the expectations were not exactly high.

Molly always followed me around, and she could read me to figure out what was coming up. I would start gathering things for a trip to the local off-leash area and she'd figure it out -- even when I consciously tried to be sneaky about it. She would look me in the eye waiting for confirmation, then when she got it she would go nuts jumping, spinning around, barking, bumping me, etc. until we got in the car. When I pulled out the hunting bag, or opened the gun safe, the jig was always up with her. She knew what that meant.

Friday night when I headed to the basement, Max was right with me as usual. I purposely grabbed my vest first, because I knew it would have the scent of birds from the weekend before. Max got a little excited, then buried his head in the game pouch and inhaled deeply. When he pulled his head out he had a few feathers on his face. He wasn't going bananas like Molly would have, but he knew something good was coming.

I had had some good fortune at work that week, and decided I'd finally buy a Garmin GPS/training collar. I needed to get permission from the missus, and I knew I needed to act before the good-fortune glow wore off. She was on board, barely, in large part because she knows there is always a risk of losing HER dog (a seed I had strategically planted sometime before and mentioned periodically). Friday night I grabbed the last Alpha collar at Cabela's. At home I fumbled around with it for too long, like I do whenever I get a new electronic gadget. But hey -- It WAS cool to track Max all the way to the end of the driveway.

We were up early Saturday for the 2 hour drive to the farm near Tarkio. Max, who had been confused the night before when all the excitement of getting packed up lead to nothing, bounded into the kennel in the back of the car before I even got the words 'kennel up' out of my mouth. That was a good sign, because Mrs. ness routinely takes him places in her car, and he rides up front. With me he typically stands next to the passenger door with the 'Hey, get that for me, would ya?' look, and about half the time I relent.

The drive up there is always pretty nice. For a long portion of it you're driving in the Missouri River flats. The topography changes to rolling hills as you move away from the river, and it's some fine looking country -- made even prettier in the early light of the day. The farms up that way look prosperous and well-kept, and the crops (mostly corn and wheat) grow in terraced fields interspersed with lots of waterways; there are very few pastures. It reminds me a lot of the Driftless Area.

The roads up there are true 'dirt roads', and there had been some rain. At the farm I could tell by the tracks that just one car/truck had been down the road recently, and they had dug in pretty deep. I was a little nervous heading down the road at first, but momentum was my friend and I made it fine. We got there a little after sunrise -- later than I had planned, but I wasn't worried about it: I knew we had the place to ourselves for the entire day.

I've had pretty good luck with pheasant and quail on this property in recent years. The property is 160 acres, with about half in CRP and the other half in crops. A creek runs through it and adjoining properties, so there's a lot of cover around. The property to the south is CRP as far as the eye can see. If there are any birds left in MO, they ought to be here, right?

As for crops, everything is coming out late this year, and this farmer hadn't started cutting his corn yet. Good for the birds, not so good for us.

I got Max set up with his collar and he stayed with me while I got my stuff together. Then we set out into the CRP on the side with the breeze in our faces. 80 acres is a lot of acres, and walking through the thick stuff, up and down hills, means I take a few breathers along the way. One of the benefits of hunting alone is there's no timeline. We hunted pretty hard for about two hours and didn't see a bird. Max got birdy several times, and went on hard points a few times, but nothing flew. Its hard to know if he was pointing a mouse, or the spot where some birds had been, but I'm optimistic it was the latter. We stayed out of the corn.

We circled back to the car and I pulled out a chair and some water for both of us. Max got treated to a couple Slim Jims. I occasionally smoke a pipe, so I settled in for a while and enjoyed some Astley's 109, in a pipe that belonged to my dad, while soaking in the beautiful day and scenery.

After a bit I drove over to Bilby Ranch to take a look around. There were a few cars in every lot, and some campers at the campground, but I didn't see anybody in the fields. It didn't look too crowded for the first Saturday of the season, but I think a lot of folks have walked away from bird hunting the last few years. Man, that's an upland bird paradise right there, but the pessimists of the world would probably interpret the reports differently than I do.

We headed back to Tarkio and grabbed some Chester Fried gizzards and strips at the gas station, then headed back to the farm. When I got out of the car I felt like the Tin Man (needing the 'oil can...oil can'). The stiffness wore off pretty quickly though as Max and I headed into CRP down by the creek. That part of the property has the kind of stuff that is really hard to walk -- head high, thick-stemmed, seed-podded whatever with the occasional thorn bush waiting for you. It was so thick that several times Max bounded into a spot and was stopped in his tracks. But, he kept at it for longer than I did -- I headed for the edge after about 100 yards of that stuff. That's what dogs are for, right? After some walking the stuff thinned out to where it was bearable. Max got a little birdy and started looking for something behind and to my right. After a while I couldn't see or hear him, but the Garmin told me he was about 30 yards away. I stopped to watch and learn, and a few seconds later a single rooster got up about 80 yards away, flew across the creek and into the corn. I raised my gun but didn't bother to take a shot due to the distance. I think Max was too close to me to have bumped him. So much for stupid, tight-sitting, early-season birds.

Just like always, you figure if there is one there's a chance there are two, so we zig-zagged that area for a quite while without any luck. By the end of that Max was pooped, and although I was good to go for another several miles/hours, we called it a day.

So, if you stuck with me this long in hopes of a picture of a tailgate covered with dead birds, or some fantastic ending, I'm afraid this has been a disappointment. But, hey: there's another day in the beautiful outdoors in the book, and I'm certainly content. I think Max is too. He's got a couple solo trips under his belt now, and I think he's got good potential. We go to central KS this Saturday and MO again on Monday. This should be his only solo year, because we've got a pup that'll be ready to go by next year. To me there's always a helluva a lot more to it than dead birds.

Here's a coupla phone pics:


Profile:
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CRP and corn beyond:
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Pheasant got up here, flew right to left.

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Max looking impressive, though not really doing anything:

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Molly a few years back:
molly%202.jpg

Molly, Max and Matt a couple years back:
719788002_P6nD3-M.jpg

The future:

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Tarkio Road, is a mother
It's just like, oh, so many others
Where the pheasants reject you
And the wardens inspect you
Looking inside the trunk
Under the hood, hoping to find
The secret places where you
Always keep your mind
Whoa, whoa, no, Tarkio Road.

:have-a-nice-day:

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Tarkio Road, is a mother

It's just like, oh, so many others

Where the pheasants reject you

And the wardens inspect you

Looking inside the trunk

Under the hood, hoping to find

The secret places where you

Always keep your mind

Whoa, whoa, no, Tarkio Road.

:have-a-nice-day:

Had to google that one!

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Sorry man, I thought you might remember that old diddy (with minor changes to suit the topic). I used to roam that area back in another century, thought it was pretty cool a popular song recognized a place I knew at the time. Pretty sure I still have that album on vinyl.

Used to be a lot of birds up there. Used to, being 40 years ago.

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