Last week, a group of my colleagues from Pheasants Forever’s marketing department attended a shooting lesson conducted by Jeff Hughes, proprietor of Wild Wings of Oneka Hunt Club. The primary purpose of our visit was to record some of the lesson for use on Pheasants Forever’s website and social networking platforms. Not only did we take away fantastic footage for the creation of that video, we also learned that even as a group of experienced shooters, we were each guilty of some very basic wingshooting mistakes.
People too often overlook marksmanship in the field as playing a role in conservation, but at its core, your wingshooting skills are directly tied to your commitment to conservation. “Crippling birds is something none of us want to have happen, so it is imperative that we always work on our shooting skills, leading to cleaner and quicker kills,” said Huges, preaching from his heart to a choir of believers (our group was comprised entirely of Pheasants Forever Life Members).
“Hunters, by their nature, love wildlife more than any other group on the planet. In fact, hunters have backed up their love for wildlife by donating more money to habitat conservation than any other constituency,” Hughes continued, “So why wouldn’t they want to do their best to ethically harvest what they work so hard to protect?”
In the past, I’ve been as guilty as anyone in letting my shooting skills deteriorate over the summer months. Historically, I’ve grabbed the shotgun the weekend before opener, ran through a couple rounds of trap or skeet, and declared myself ready for hunting, often improving the shots I was already comfortable with, but staying the same (or getting worse) on the shots I consistently miss, which for me is the rooster flushing like an airplane straightaway from me on the runway.
However, Jeff’s pre-pheasant hunting lesson opened my eyes to just how beneficial and painless a coaching instruction can be to improving my shooting ability. It makes common sense; we have coaches all our lives in sports and throughout our careers, why wouldn’t we get help for our favorite outdoor activity? Enlisting the assistance of an expert shooting instructor is no different than enlisting a professional coach’s opinion on your slap shot and it just happens to be quite a bit cheaper.
If you’ve ever wondered “Was I behind or in front of that bird,” then a pre-season shooting lesson is a fun way to tune yourself up before the pheasant opener gets here. Shooting lessons are available at most local gun clubs and are usually very affordable. Our lesson was a mere $50 per person for one hour. Public shooting lessons are available through Jeff Hughes’ Wings North of Pine City, Minnesota and to members of Wild Wings of Oneka. To learn more about shooting lessons or club membership, email Jeff Hughes at Jeff@wildwingsofoneka.com.
I was struggling. It was Sunday morning and I was on the second day of a fruitless grouse hunting/scouting excursion intended to produce some new spots. You see, I’ve been hunting my exact same haunts the last five years and “my” aspen stands were starting to age out of their grousey prime. So, I’d set off east and north of my normal destinations in search of new coverts.
I spent Saturday pounding decent looking grouse woods with very little flushes. And the one layup shot presented to me clanked off the backboard with a horribly makeable miss.
Truth be told, I was really struggling with two nagging thoughts in my mind. First, it was my first solo exploring expedition with two dogs, so I was very nervous about losing my 6-month old pup in the woods. Second, I was nervous about getting lost myself. Despite my GPS lock on my truck’s location, I had trouble diving into the grouse woods with abandon. Fortunately, hope was just around the corner.
Around 11AM on Sunday, I rounded the corner of a state forest gravel road and passed two trucks on my right. To my surprise, I recognized the two faces under the blaze orange hats. If you’ve attended Pheasant Fest or Game Fair in the last ten years, then you’d probably have recognized both of them too. They were Tom Poorker and Mark Haslup from Focus Outdoors Television and Midwest GunDog Kennels.
After commenting on the serendipity of their coming out of the woods at the exact moment I drove by, I shared with them my frustration of learning a new grouse woods. That’s when my luck turned around. Although, they’d both been set to finish their hunting for the day with dog training obligations waiting at Midwest GunDog Kennels, they offered to show me a spot in their home woods. They even went so far as to insist on my two pups being the only dogs in the woods as their bird dogs had already completed their work for the morning.
Needless to say, we found grouse and woodcock in the woods where these two veteran hunters aimed our trio. In fact, Mark bagged a nice opening weekend timberdoodle that my young pup was able to deliver to his hand, and Tom brought down a beautiful ruff with a dandy shot. However, I earned the trophy of the morning’s walk with renewed confidence.
After sharing a few laughs over our impromptu hunting trip and thanking them for their generosity, I went north in search of some spots of my own. And I finally started to find what I was looking for in the woods. In fact, in one particular alder/aspen mix, I elected to hunt my 6-month old shorthair solo for the first time and she produced three neatly pointed woodcock, quickly earning me a day’s limit.
To me, the moral of the story is that membership in Pheasants Forever definitely delivers more habitat on the ground - we’ve got 8.5 million acres of proof of that fact - however, membership in Pheasants Forever also creates friendships. Whether you’re a chapter officer, banquet goer or Pheasant Fest attendee, your involvement in Pheasants Forever will introduce you to new people, good people. Some will even become your friends, help you train your dog, and show you a new hunting spot.
To Mark & Tom: Thanks a bunch for a great experience! It truly meant a lot to me for you to take the time out of your plans to give me a little nudge in the right direction.
A Pheasants Forever chapter volunteer from Minnesota recently flattered me complimenting this blog, and in particular, my writing focused on wild game cooking. This gentleman even suggested I consider giving a few presentations on the Cooking Stage at National Pheasant Fest.
Shortly after that compliment, I dug out a plucked pheasant from the basement chest freezer and was inspired to create Grapefruit Honey Pheasant. To my thinking, honey, with its sweetness and caramelizing nature, was a safe bet to start the recipe. And without the natural complimentary ingredient of oranges in our fridge, I grabbed for its citrus cousin, a grapefruit. That’s where I made a “bitter” mistake. While the photos may mislead you to believe I’ve accomplished a new pheasant dining masterpiece, I’ll warn you not to try this recipe at home. The bitter citrus of the grapefruit simply did not marry well with the honey’s sweetness. While Meredith and I were able to finish the meal without a pizza delivery necessary, I wouldn’t recommend replicating this experiment in your own roaster.
In the end, my Grapefruit Honey Pheasant proved to me, my wife and my bird dogs that my cooking skills are still elementary at best and certainly not ready for stage time exposure. That’s okay. Wild game cooking, er . . . experimenting, is one of my favorite aspects of the hunting cycle. Conservation leads to wildlife habitat, wildlife habitat leads to better hunting, good bird dogs and straight shooting put more meat in the freezer, and a little experimenting in the kitchen leads to good wild game eating . . . most of the time.
So, I know I’m not the only amateur chef to bomb in the kitchen. What’s your own “best” wild game recipe flop?
The Masters may have coined the slogan, “a tradition unlike any other,” but for bird hunters like me, the slogan also rings true when I think about Game Fair. Born in 1982, just like Pheasants Forever, Game Fair kicks off this Friday morning on the 80-acre Armstrong Ranch Kennels in Ramsey, Minnesota. If you’re a fan of bird hunting, bird dogs, scatterguns and conservation, then it’s a “can’t miss” event. Pheasants Forever will be there in force. Here are some of our featured efforts:
Pheasants Forever Membership Drive
Thanks to our partnership with Gander Mountain and the Minnesota Wild, we have 300 limited edition blaze orange hats remaining from last year’s Penguins/Wild battle on October 18, 2011. The first 300 folks that sign up as members of Pheasants Forever at Game Fair will receive one of these special blaze orange Minnesota Wild hats and a Pheasants Forever dog collar. Stop by the Anoka County Chapter of Pheasants Forever booth (just inside the main gates) or the Pheasants Forever National booth (on Pheasants Forever Hill) to take advantage of this special offer LIMITED TO THE FIRST 300 ONLY.
The 2012 Build a Wildlife Area Campaign
Game Fair, Outdoor News and Pheasants Forever got together in 2003 to conceptualize the Build a Wildlife Area concept. Federal Premium Ammunition, Apple Auto Group, Gander Mountain and KFAN radio have also been supporters of the program from its beginnings. Through this unique campaign, all donations are matched at least three times by grants from the Minnesota DNR and/or U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. In other words, every $1 donation automatically turns into $3 and every $1,000 donation turns into $3,000 toward the purchase of a brand new Minnesota wildlife management area open to public hunting. In the campaign’s nine years of existence, it’s led to the creation of 11 new Minnesota WMAs covering 3,345 acres now open to public hunting. To participate in the 2012 campaign, please stop by the Anoka County Chapter of Pheasants Forever’s booth to purchase raffle tickets on a new CZ Wingshooter Deluxe 12 gauge over/under shotgun. Proceeds from the Anoka PF Chapter’s raffle go directly to the campaign. In fact, Anoka PF’s raffle has been the largest single source of Build a Wildlife Area fundraising dollars during the campaign’s run; an amount approaching $100,000 in total. Build a Wildlife Area donations are also accepted at the Pheasants Forever National booth and online.
Pheasants Forever’s National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic
We’ll also be distributing 1,500 complimentary daily admission passes to National Pheasant Fest & Quail Classic (the coupon is a $10 value!) at the Pheasants Forever National booth during the course of Game Fair. This year’s National Pheasant Fest is being held at the Minneapolis Convention Center on February 15, 16, & 17th in conjunction with the organization’s 30th Anniversary Celebration.
SportDOG eCollar Giveaway
In addition to a great Pheasants Forever membership offer and exclusive Pheasants Forever gear for sale in the booth, we’ll have a register-to-win contest that will award one lucky new member each weekend with a brand new eCollar from our partners at SportDOG.
Tree Cookies for Kids
Pheasants Forever volunteers from across the Twin Cities will also be inviting youngsters into the PF National booth to participate in making pheasant necklaces out of tree cookies.
Young and old, male or female, if you’re a bird hunter and/or lover of bird dogs, then Game Fair is a can’t miss event for you the next two weekends:
Dates: August 10, 11, & 12 / 17, 18 & 19.
Hours: 9AM to 6PM on Fridays & Saturdays, 9AM to 5PM on Sundays.
I learned to bird hunt behind a Brittany. I don’t remember my dad ever teaching me how to “approach” a pointed bird, but it has always felt natural because it’s how I got my start. What’s interesting and more than a little humorous is watching my various hunting partners the last few years who have only hunted behind flushing breeds react to my German shorthair on point.
In almost every case, I’ve witnessed “human vapor lock” as these friends look at me with twitching eyebrows, tip toe with caution as they approach the dog, then stop behind the dog and look at me again. Are they waiting for the weasel to go pop? Honest to goodness, I’ve witnessed pure fear on the face of a fellow hunter.
“When a rooster flushes in front of my Lab it’s all instinct and excitement,” one friend explained last season. “With your darned pointer, it’s like watching a Friday the 13th movie and you know Jason is around the corner with an axe.”
I’ve also been told by pointing dog purists to never walk up directly behind a pointer, but rather come in from the front or at an angle. The pointer purist worries about inadvertently causing “creeping” by approaching a dog from behind. “Creeping” being the unwanted broken point and creep forward of the dog toward the bird.
With this subject in mind, I called Purina’s “top dog” and pro trainer Bob West for his guidance on how best to approach a dog on point. “There is no clear cut, best way to approach a dog on point. You have to factor in the dog’s level of ability, the scenting conditions that day and the species of bird you anticipate being pointed to properly make the best approach for the situation,” explained West. “When hunting pheasants, it’s not uncommon for me to make a big 20 yard circled approach in front of a dog on point in an attempt to prevent a rooster from running.”
West went on to explain to me that he does believe young dogs could be caused to creep by approaching them from behind and an angled approach would be advised; however, he didn’t think a seasoned bird dog would be susceptible to the same problem. He stressed repeatedly in knowing your own dog’s tendencies and making the best decisions with your dog in mind rather than what some “expert” advised.
West did add that “perhaps more important than what angle to approach is the speed at which to make your approach. It’s critically important, especially with pheasants, to approach a dog on point at a pace as fast as safely possible. That bird isn’t going to hold all day and the conditions of the scent and scenario are also constantly changing for your dog.”
Lastly, West reminded me that the bird isn’t necessarily where the dog is looking. “It’s important to be ready the entire time you approach a pointed dog and be alert in all directions. The bird may be exactly where the dog is looking, but it oftentimes is not. Where the dog is looking simply is where that dog picked up the scent to lock into a point. That dog has been trained not to move any closer than the moment the scent reached a level to cause the dog to freeze. Its eyes should have nothing to do with it.”
To learn more about the pointing instinct and a variety of dog training questions, tune in to FAN Outdoors radio this Thursday evening at 7:45PM (CDT) as Bob West joins the show for a live interview with me and host “The Captain” Billy Hildebrand. FAN Outdoors airs live on 100.3 FM in Minnesota and can be streamed live across the globe at www.KFAN.com.