Sky Dance

Photo from USFWS

Spring is just around the corner and it brings on a lot of change in nature. Flowers bloom. Fields and grasses turn green. And for those of us connected to the outdoors it also means breeding season for most wildlife. That’s why the turkey season is in Spring. The gobblers are out there strutting and fanning try to attract hens to breed. So they are more suceptible to our flawed yelps and clucks from our box calls.

A video I saw recently on the internet brought back memories of a natural observation from over twelve years ago.  I got to go out one evening with members of the Ruffed Grouse Society staff near Pittsburgh, PA to observe the mating ritual of the American woodcock. First, a little background about this diminutive game bird.


The woodcock is biologically classified as a shorebird, but it inhabits wood and aspen thickets in lowlands around streams where it can use its long beak to probe for its favorite food, earthworms. It is a migratory bird, in the Spring and Summer inhabiting northern climes for breeding and nesting and then being pushed south by the cold weather of winter. North Carolina does have a woodcock season and occasionally hunters will flush a “flight bird” while out grouse or quail hunting. The eastern flyway takes them through the piedmont and coastal region of NC. Like many of our game birds, the woodcock is declining in numbers primarily due to loss of habitat through development and poor land management.

While visiting RGS headquarters, one of the staff members said he knew a place about one mile from the headquarters building that was a woodcock mating and breeding area, commonly referred to as “singing grounds” (which you will understand after the description of the ritual). So after pizza and a video about the woodcock, several staff members with their spouses and children headed out right before dusk hoping to catch them in the mating mood. It can be a hit or miss proposition. Our expectations were exceeded.

Mating Ritual

As we stood silently on the gravel trail, we could hear the repeated bleating sound made by the male woodcock to attract the attention of female listeners sitting quietly in the area. We counted at least four different birds. After listening to these for a few minutes the interesting part of the mating ritual started.

The Woodcock Sky Dance

At some point the male decides it is time to show off. So he takes off making a “peeping” sound, flying straight up in a corkscrew pattern, gyrating back and forth, to a height of about 200 – 400 feet before descending in that same corkscrewing gyration pattern while cupping his wings. The cupped wings cause the air to make a “singing” sound as he descends back to the same spot from which he took off. I mean the exact same spot within feet. The little male resumes his bleating and sky dance until he attracts a willing female. On a moonlit night, this ritual and sky dance will continue all night if needed to attract a mate. So for about thirty minutes we stood silently listening to their calling and watching these birds do their love dance. We left a little after eight when it got too dark to watch the little birds corkscrew up into the sky, and they were still going strong.

So what’s my point? There are several. First, the staff member said when he first started this there were at least four of these mating grounds within a mile of the headquarters building. This is the only one remaining. All the others have been consumed by development. As human development destroys wildlife habitat, we have a responsibility to provide habitat where we can though proper land management techniques.

Why This is Important

My son and I on a North Carolina woodcock hunt

Secondly, as we travel outside of our home range, we should always look for opportunities to hunt, fish, or even observe wildlife behavior that we may never see at home. That’s one of the neat things about enjoying the outdoors; it is always a learning experience. Sure, I’ve hunted woodcock here in North Carolina, but they typically don’t mate as far south as North Carolina. A friend and avid woodcock hunter at Stoneybrook Outfitters sees a few near his home in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. Had I not been “where I was, when I was” the unique and intriguing sky dance of the timberdoodle is something I might never have experienced.

And lastly, watching this ritual reminded me that no matter where it occurs in this animal kingdom of ours, winged, furred or human, the male will always go through wild gyrations and make a fool of himself to attract a mate. Sorry. Just couldn’t pass that up.

Meditation Room

While sitting in the doctor’s office one day I was thumbing through an out of date magazine about homes and home improvement. Besides the obvious thought that I needed to find a doctor that subscribed to outdoor magazines, my eyes caught an article about a trend in home design, meditation rooms. It is described as a place of “spiritual sanctuary” to get away from the stresses in life. The room is arranged using feng shui (Chinese words for “expensive furniture”) to provide flow and energy in the room. It was described as even having an altar with spiritual symbols as a focal point.

This got me thinking: What would my meditation room be like? I can tell you right now my altar would be an open fireplace with a long mantel to place my spiritual symbols on.  Not one of those with gas logs. I’m talking about build your own fire with kindling, matches and oak logs. It must be part of my prehistoric DNA. We don’t burn much wood so I cut and split my own. The smell of fresh split oak logs in the Spring is part of the anticipation of crisp Fall days and the barely perceptible sound of a bell as Ben works his way through grouse cover.

I already know which spiritual symbols will sit on the mantel. There’s the first quail my son shot when he was 12. I had it mounted with the empty 20-gauge shell he used to kill it. It symbolizes a new generation of hunter and memories over the years he and I have spent together in the fields. Next to that would be a picture we took that same day of my dad, my son, and me giving thumbs up before we left the house. It’s priceless. Also on the mantel would be an old Zebco 33 reel that belonged to my dad. That’s the only kind of reel he used over all the many years we fished together.  It symbolizes my introduction to the outdoors and memories of small farm ponds and slab crappie at Weiss Lake. Of course there’s got to be a couple of old leather dog collars lying on the mantle with reminders of days in the field with Babe, Belle, and Ginny. There are, and will be other dogs, but the memories are there to symbolize why I bird hunt: I love what dogs add to the sport and can’t imagine that I would hunt without them.

A framed print must hang over the mantle. There are several still in tubes I’ve gotten through my membership in one or another conservation organizations. One called “Watchful Monarch” of a ruffed grouse standing on an aspen log that might work. But I think the one that best fits the meditation room is hanging over my office desk right now, “Setters at Sunset”. The name pretty much says it all. “Watchful Monarch” can go over my desk.

That takes care of my altar. Now to feng shui the room to give it flow and energy. In one corner would lean the Winchester Model 42 .410 Uncle Jim gave me. There’s no telling how much game that little gun killed in its lifetime. Uncle Jim hunted everything with that gun with the exception of dove or quail when he stepped up to a 20-gauge. It was his “back door” gun. If you’ve lived in the country you know the one I’m talking about. It leaned in a corner loaded by the back door to shoot at squirrels in the bird feeder or crows in the garden as the situation warranted. The gun was in bad shape when he gave it too me and I had it reconditioned. I’ve only shot it a few since, killing a woodcock on a recent hunt. I don’t know, it just seems sacrilegious for me to use it much after the life it lived. Maybe this is the best way to retire it.

On one wall will hang the full head mount of the trophy chamois I shot in the Bavarian Alps of Germany while in the Army. It reminds me of the German hunting tradition of honoring game that is harvested and Herr Obermayer, a barrel-chested Jagermeister that took me on that hunt. There are a couple of small rehdeer mounts I also harvested in Germany that will hang beside it. They’re not trophies, but take me back to a time of high seats and the friendships developed on those hunts.

Of course there will be some fishing gear around. A couple of Dad’s old rods (with Zebco 33’s of course) are still in my possession. I wish that included his old metal tackle box to sit with them. It takes me back to the day we went winter fishing for bass at Patterson’s Lake and the picture of a burr headed seven year old grinning ear-to-ear holding a stringer of bass. Uncle Bob’s old fly rod will stand in one corner.

It’s a Wright & McGill graphite 4-weight rod and I have no idea what he used it for. Uncle Bob would buy stuff he thought he needed and never use it. He liked to fish but mostly on lakes for white bass and crappie. Knowing Uncle Bob, he went trout fishing one time, bought the rod and never used it again. It’s still in the original metal tube.

There would have to be a hall tree by the door to hang hats on. And I’ve got hats: blaze orange, camouflage, and about six or seven others which rarely get worn. One hook would hold my hunting vest. It’s got to be there so I can heft it every now and then during the off-season and sort through the pockets. Mingled in with the 20 gauge shells, dog whistle, and pocketknife are pieces of leaves and tree branch from last season. There’s probably a grouse or quail feather still in the game pouch with a pack of cheese crackers from last season. It’s there to heft and remember times past and anticipate days ahead. I just can’t figure out why the vest seems to get heavier each year even with the same stuff in it.

That will pretty much get me started in my Meditation Room. I can add to it as time goes along. On second thought, maybe I don’t need a meditation room. I’ve already got one. I’ll take Uncle Bob’s fly rod in and get the guides re-wrapped since it is old.  Hang a little 4-weight reel on it and take it out on Shelton Laurel or Upper Laurel stream during the Delayed Harvest period next year. It’s the right length at 7 ½ feet but a little stiff. With my fly-casting skills it really won’t make a difference.

Dad’s old rods are still in good shape. Maybe I’ll just oil the reels and put some new 8-pound line that Dad said worked best on the 33’s. They’re not much good for trout streams but there are a couple of friends who I may be able to coax into taking me out for crappie at Lake James next Spring or even walleye on Fontana this winter.

While writing this I can look over my shoulder at the little Model 42 shotgun in the gun cabinet. Just like an old bird dog whose heart is in hunting but body can’t keep up, it wants to be out there. I would like to bag a grouse with it to complete its life cycle. If not there’s an oak and hickory ridge in the Pisgah to find a few squirrels. And maybe my friend and his beagle will take me out for a little rabbit hunting. There’s nothing more stress reducing than a crisp winter morning accented with the deep baying of beagles ending in a crescendo at the bark of the little .410.

Shrugging into the hunting vest, slipping the gun out of the case, and as the dogs whine and tails beat against the side of the box this winter I will realize I’ve got the greatest “Spiritual Sanctuary” of all.  It is natures feng shui called the outdoors.

Giving Thanks

This week we all gather with family and friends to give thanks for Gods blessings on this country, and the bounty we enjoy. As hunters and anglers, we should be especially thankful to our forefathers’ conservation efforts for that bounty. No other nation in the world enjoys the bountiful wildlife of the United States or the bounty of opportunities we enjoy to pursue our sports. In my first life in the Army, I got to travel to different countries. In Korea, the only place you can hunt (and that’s just for pheasant) is an island off the southeast coast of the country. Gun ownership is severely restricted. Although there may be fish in the countries lakes and streams, I don’t remember seeing a whole lot of folks doing it.

Germany has a long history associated with hunting and fishing, if you’ve got the money. That history is typically associated with the landed gentry and most of the traditions that are part of the sport today started hundreds of years ago.

Hunters receive their license in a formal ceremony that is part of the tradition.

But again, gun ownership is restricted and people who want to hunt must go through a lengthy training course and then pay high fees to hunt on public land. No ten hour safety course, buy a gun, and head to the woods there. I had the opportunity to hunt in both countries, simply because of my military status, something the average citizen can’t do. Although I appreciate the traditions associated with German hunting, I enjoy the bounty and opportunities here even more.

I’m thankful for my friendships established through hunting, fishing and shooting experiences. In fact, I’m not sure I’d enjoy the outdoors as much without those friends. Sure it’s great to go hunting or fishing by myself sometimes. But doing it with a friend always brings a new level of enjoyment to the experience. As serious as the pursuit of game is, our approach is not so serious. I’ve never met a hunter or angler who takes the sport so serious that they can’t laugh at the muffed shot or big fish that threw a hook. At least none of my friends are like that. If I ever run across one of those folks it will probably be our last encounter. Hunting and fishing is too much fun to take seriously.

I give thanks every day for the wisdom of our founding fathers in writing the Second Amendment. Again we are fortunate in this freedom compared to the rest of the world. We shot skeet at a Korean range when I was there. Gun owners there must keep their guns locked up in the police station and check them out when they want to shoot. Unfortunately, there are those in this country who don’t understand the importance of this freedom and would like to take it away. We must remain ever vigilant.

I’m eternally thankful for hunting dogs, and particularly English Setters. I seriously doubt I would ever hunt again if it wasn’t for the dogs. It’s not just about the ability to find game. Let’s say dogs bring a certain personality to the experience? Anyone who has had a setter give them a woeful look after their solid point was wasted by a missed shot knows of what I speak. And anyone who has followed a pack of beagles on the hot trail of a cottontail on a cool November morning will attest to the beautiful sound their voices make during the chase. Yep, dogs make it all worthwhile.

There are a lot of other things on my outdoor thankful for list: the slim lines of a side by side shotgun (which I usually can’t afford), friends who share their venison, dove fields and lots of shells, beeper collars for thick mountain cover, and Express 7 ½ loads.  Since it is Thanksgiving let me not forget the wild turkeys that like to converse with me; just out of shotgun range. And how can I forget being thankful for the trout that is occasionally foolish enough to rise to my sloppy presentation. The list could go on.

There is one last thing we should all be thankful for and that is all the freedom we enjoy. As we sit down with family and friends to dine on turkey with all the fixings, a soldier or Marine somewhere in Afghanistan is eating an MRE. I’ve spent the holidays away from family. It’s a lonely time. Let us never forget that the freedoms and blessing we enjoy are thanks to those willing to sacrifice so that we may. Happy Thanksgiving.

Ruffed Grouse – The Figures Don’t Lie

Went on my first grouse hunt last week in my home state of North Carolina. Or as we call it: Walking through the woods behind a dog with a gun on your shoulder. Yep, on a short hunt of just under two hours I flushed zero grouse. After experiencing a flush rate of over two birds an hour in New Hampshire earlier in the month it got me thinking about what the status of grouse is in our home state. So I contacted the upland biologist for the WRC and asked for charts from the Avid Grouse Hunter survey in which I participate. Besides the fact that chasing grouse is my chosen pursuit, we need to know why grouse are important.

Ruffed grouse are what wildlife biologist call an indicator species. What is that? Many wildlife species can adapt to changes in the ecosystem. A couple of local examples are bear and turkey. If food and protective habitat are not available in one location they simply move to another. Populations of both species continue to flourish in the mountains. Not so with grouse. Their habitat needs for breeding, protection and food are very specific. Thus if their habitat decreases so will the population. In our region the the variable that can most likely affect them other than habitat is weather during the hatching season. Therefore ruffed grouse populations are an indicator of the health of an ecosystem. Another reason they are an indicator species is because meeting their habitat needs also has a positive impact on other wildlife needing similar habitat.

The WRC has been conducting an Avid Grouse Hunter Survey since 1984. Participating hunters record data for each trip to the forests including date, location by county and private/public land, hours hunted, and birds flushed and harvested. At the end of each season the records are mailed to the WRC. The purpose of this study is to establish long term trends for the health of the grouse population. I’m no scientist, but I did have to take a statistics class in college (that was no fun). Individual data are important, but trend is more so. The trend doesn’t bode well for grouse in North Carolina. Let’s start out by looking at some of these data related to individual hunter success.

Chart from NC WRC

It’s best to start with a simple number, average number of grouse flushed per hunting trip. That’s what it’s all about anyway, right? As the first chart shows, in its inaugural year study participants averaged just under 4.5 grouse flushed per trip to the field. That number peaked between 1988 – 1990 to around 6.2 grouse per trip. Either one of those figures is great compared to today. In the last reported survey year that number had dropped to about 1.8 flushes per trip. But it’s not just the numbers that are important. Scientists like to look at trends. If you look at the line chart since the peak in 1990 the trend is downward. You can infer that with all other factors being equal hunters are seeing fewer grouse.

Chart from NC WRC

Now let’s look at some data to correlate to hunter success, percentage of hunts with no grouse flushed. In the first year of the study only about 10% of trips resulted in no grouse flushes per trip. That number has climbed dramatically over the past thirty years to about 48% of the trips resulting in no grouse flushed. It doesn’t show in either of these charts, but the average length of a hunting trip has not changed much, from 4.2 hours in 1984 to 3.7 hours in 2017.  So while hunters are spending about as much time in the field, their grouse contact success rate has significantly decreased. Basically, on every other four hour trip to the woods for grouse, you will have no bird contacts.

Now let’s look at a comparison of private and public land success rates, and further how that relates to timber harvests on public land.

Chart from NC WRC

First, let’s break down the flush rate by land type. The first chart here from the WRC graphically portrays that difference. Neither of them is positive. Private land is the top line and public the bottom. Despite a significant upward spike in 2011, both are trending downward since data collection started in 1989. In the most resent season, 2017, the rate hit its lowest point with about .25 (1/4) grouse flushed per hour on public land. Private land was slightly better but still below the trend at about .75 birds flushed per hour. Compare that to the better than two per hour we experienced in New Hampshire, and the better than one bird per hour when the data were first collected. This is not good news for either hunters or as an indicator of forest health.

Now let’s further look at the public land issue. And when you talk about public land in Western NC it’s pretty much the Pisgah/Nantahala National Forests. State managed Game Lands in the mountains account for only about 10% of the total public lands here. Mac McConnell lays it out in a May 2016 article comparing data from both the USFS and WRC.

Chart by Mac McConnell

As this chart shows, in 1992 the USFS was creating nearly five thousand acres of wildlife habitat through forest management, primarily timber harvests. At that time the average grouse flush rate recorded by the WRC survey was about 1.5 birds per hour. Moving to 2016, the USFS was only creating about 500 acres of habitat and the flush rate dropped to under .5 per hour. Again, the trend is important here versus individual points. Tying these two separate data together shows a direct correlation between timber harvests on public land and grouse populations. There is no denying the science.

So why is the grouse important? As the data show, as an indicator species it points to an overall unhealthy forest; at least for most wildlife. Another non-game species in decline that needs young forest growth is the Golden-Winged Warbler. Young forest growth also provides low browse for other animal like deer.

So OK, the forest is unhealthy for wildlife. Why is this important to hunting? Hunter numbers are declining. Two key factors in hunter recruitment and retention are access and opportunity. I’d say we’ve got the access part pretty well covered with over 1 million acres of public land in the mountains. But if game populations are low you don’t have opportunity. Imagine trying to introduce a new hunter to the sport of grouse hunting. They get all fired up, practice shooting, enjoy watching dogs work. But then they get to the field and every other trip to the woods there are no bird contacts. Just how long will they stick with the sport? Grouse hunting is tough and requires commitment. They won’t stay with it long.

So whether you are a hunter who wants to see more game on our National Forests or someone who enjoys nature and likes seeing a lot of wildlife when you visit public land, this science supports the need for more active management in the upcoming Pisgah/Nantahala long range plan. Let’s remember, we are visitors to our public lands; wildlife live there. And right now living there is tough.

Access Without Opportunity

Pittman-Robertson excise taxes have been declining the past few years along with hunting license sales.

If you’ve been following the Recruit, Retain, Reactivate (R3) movement it’s all about increasing the dwindling number of hunters in the country. Why is this effort getting so much attention and press? With hunter numbers down so are license revenues and excise tax (Pittman-Robertson) funding for state game agencies. This is not a made up crisis. I’ve been following the news for several years. Pretty much all the states have an R3 program trying to stem the tide. But I don’t want to get down in the weeds about trends, age stratification, etc.

I do support efforts to increase hunter recruitment and participation. There is one thing that bothers me about the discussion surrounding the effort. There are magazine articles and national meetings/conferences of federal and state game management folks along with major conservation organizations. When discussing solutions one of the topics of discussion is usually “access”. What this means is that the R3 program must consider access to land if R3 is going to be successful. There is truth in that. Access to private land, without paying for it, is scarce as hen’s teeth. Particularly true for the beginning hunter. But I rarely read or hear anything in these discussions about the other leg of the equation: opportunity.

Do you remember ever going out as a young hunter and never killing anything? Yeah, I know the politically correct term is harvest. But it is killing. What about not even seeing any of the game you pursue? You probably got frustrated, maybe even thinking about giving up the sport. Well, opportunity to me is about having game available to encourage new hunters to stay with it. So when it comes to R3, access without opportunity is meaningless.

Public land available in the United States.

Nationally we have over 800 million acres of public land; 614 million owned by the federal and 199 million by state government (see graphic). Most of that land is accessible to hunting. My guess is that most hunters have some access to public land within a reasonable driving distance, say one hour. The land may exist(access) but the game animals may not (opportunity). Right now on public land, at least in my region, opportunity is slim to none. It is especially true on National Forests. Here are a couple of examples for two popular species: whitetail deer and turkey.

  • There are nearly 1 million acres within the Pisgah/Nantahala Nation Forests of western North Carolina. It is part of the state Game Lands system, therefore accessible to all hunters with the proper licenses. During the 2017-2018 deer season a total of 1050 deer were reported killed on that land. Quick math says that’s about 1 deer per one thousand acres. With those odds, as a new hunter would you go there?
  • Your odds are even worse on bagging a turkey on those two National Forests. During the most recent 2018 Spring turkey season only 414 bearded turkeys were reported as brought to the bag. That’s one turkey per 2400 acres. So the new hunter gets the juices flowing, buys a shotgun, goes to a turkey hunting seminar, and hits the National Forests. Is he or she going to stick with it? Not in my mind.

Meanwhile, private land hunting for deer is the same region has shown better than 30% increase in harvest. You don’t even want to get me talking about grouse hunting data. Let me just say that it’s possible to put in a full day hunt on these forests and never flush a bird, much less put one in the game bag. Why is it this way? During public meetings to plan the future of these two forests we learned that less than 1% of the forest is early-successional young forest growth needed for wildlife habitat. Ten percent is the standard.

Let’s say I meet a young man at my local sporting clays course who shows an interest in grouse hunting. He’s done some research and likes the idea of walking behind a dog through the woods. A couple of videos of grouse erupting from cover piqued his interest. We plan to get together the following season. Over the next several months we work on his shotgun skills and he helps me with pre-season dog training and we discuss what bird hunting is like. His excitement builds.

He attends hunter safety training, buys a license, invests in some brush pants and boots in anticipation of the upcoming season. We hit the woods opening weekend. No birds. The following weekend after four hours of hard hunting we’ve had one flush with no shot. How many times will he repeat this before something clicks within his head and he figures it’s just not worth it. Will he buy a license next year? Not likely.

So you can pound the access drum all you want. But if national conservation groups leading the R3 effort are not concurrently pushing federal public land managers to make wildlife habitat a priority, you have access without opportunity. The millions of dollars spent on the national R3 effort will be for naught. You may get new hunters in the field or reactivate other hunters for one season, but after a couple of trips on public land with no success they’ll sell their guns and tear up their license. And the effort is about building lifelong hunters, right?

Access and opportunity must be seen as a package deal; the two legs the effort stand on. Walking on public land without wildlife is called hiking, not hunting.

The Last Bite – Letzter Bissen


Do you have traditions that are part of your game harvest? I’m not talking about playing poker in camp or who sleeps in which bed. No, I’m talking about at the site of the kill. A recent trip to Germany to visit family reminded me of the long established traditions there. No, I didn’t get to go hunting during this trip. Time with family was more important and it’s really not the prime time for hunting there anyway. But it was good to remember my experiences from 25 years past.

Now I’m not one into fist pumps or chest bumps between friends as a way of celebrating the harvest. Guess that’s one reason I don’t watch hunting shows on TV. Seems like that, followed by a “money shot” pose with the game, is the norm. Yeah, I know you’re excited because all your effort has paid off. Not saying it’s wrong. It’s just not me. It’s focused on the hunter, not the hunted. But is it really a way of honoring the life you just took? Guess I like the old German traditions.


You earn your German hunting license, Jagdschein, you don’t get it. It’s not a matter of walking into your local sports retailer with a Hunter education card and buying a license. You have to go through a hunter education process that not only includes safety but also game identification, and discussion of all aspects of the hunt. It also includes weapons proficiency training in both rifle and shotgun. There is also traditional hunter dress. No camo clothing in Deutschland! Hunters dress in forest green clothing. There are a lot of traditions associated with hunting in Germany, one of which includes a rather elaborate ceremony when the Jagdshein is presented.

Hunters receive their license in a formal ceremony that is part of the tradition.

On many hunts where there is a large group of hunters, like a small game hunt for pheasant and rabbit, at the end of the hunt the game is laid out in a certain order of importance, hunters gather in a semi-circle behind the animals, and hunting horns are sounded to signify a successful hunt. How’s that for tradition?

Hunting horns are sounded at the end of a successful hunt.

During my time hunting in Germany I experienced several of these but my most cherished in called The Last Bite, Letzter Bissen. Each time a hunter harvests a large game animal there is a simple ceremony at the site of the harvest. The hunter breaks off a small evergreen branch and puts it in the mouth of the animal to symbolize the last bite. The guide, or Jagermeister, breaks off a small branch from the same tree, wipes it in the animal’s blood, and sticks it in the hat band of the successful hunter. He then shakes his hand and says “Weidmansheil” (hunter congratulations) and the hunter responds “Weidmansdank” (hunter thanks). It is the hunters honoring the life of the animal just taken.

Gamsbock I shot while stationed in Germany. The Last Bite is in its mouth.


Part of me kinda wishes we would inherit some of these traditions here in the United States. Yeah, I know. Hunter recruitment is down and making someone go through a lengthy hunter training program will make it even worse. But isn’t there more to becoming a hunter than just attending a six hour hunter safety course? I teach the course. Believe me, we’re not building future hunters who understand the game they pursue and their habitat needs. We’re simply checking a block to meet a regulatory requirement. Don’t we owe it to the future of our sport to build knowledgeable hunters?

Our system of traditions in the past was built on the family unit. Grandfathers, fathers, and uncles took a young person under their wing at the appropriate age. They were not only taught gun safety, but also the lost art of woodsmanship (to show you how lost spell check doesn’t recognize the word). Traditions included sitting around a campfire after the hunt talking about the details of the day’s harvest which leads to stories of past hunts. Or sitting on the tailgate of a truck after a successful upland hunt stroking the feathers of the bird and reliving the excitement of the point and flush of that and past hunts.

Nope, now hunting in America is an event. We ride to the field in ATVs, use GPS to find our location, play video games on our phones waiting, shoot the game and go home. We have forgotten that a wild animal has given its life so that we may live. Maybe re-establishing those traditions is just the shot in the arm hunting needs to recruit new hunters. It is our connection with the natural way. Weidmansdank.

Tuning Up for Next Season

Skeet & Trap can get you tuned up for next season!

Whether you just finished your first upland season or fortieth, you probably thought while cleaning your shotgun after it was over, “Man, I really need to get is some practice in the off season.” We’ve all had that thought. I do every year. Let’s look at some options to hone those wing shooting skills for next season, starting out with skeet and trap. Most hunters are fortunate to have one or both within reasonable driving range. Up front I’ll tell you this isn’t my preferred shotgun sport (more on that in the next post).

As a shotgun instructor I’ll have students say, “I’ve shot skeet before.  My dad, brother and I took a hand thrower out by grandpa’s barn and shot skeet.” Well, no. You shot clay targets. Skeet and trap both have a set format on a defined course. So can skeet and trap shooting get you ready for next season? Both games were started to prepare hunters for the field so the answer is “Yes” with a “But”. Let’s quickly look at what skeet and trap are.

Skeet range layout

Skeet started in 1920 in Andover, Massachusetts and a name familiar to grouse hunters was a founder. Yep, William Harnden Foster and a couple of friends wanted a shotgun sport that would simulate various shots at game birds. Their original design has evolved into today’s skeet course. It now has a high house on the left and low house on the right with a trap machine in each house. The course has eight shooting stations arranged in a semi-circle (see diagram). You start at station one under the high house shooting both singles and doubles at 1,2,6, and 7 and singles at 3,4,5 and 8 for a total of 24 rounds (somebody check my math). The 25th round is your optional round on any station after a miss. The course is designed to throw targets on a constant trajectory and constant speed. With movement from station to station this provides the greatest number of target angles you might experience in the grouse woods.

Trap courses are different in that there is only one trap machine in a bunker style house. The trap rotates on both vertical and horizontal axes throwing targets within a 90 degree horizontal arch away from the shooters. There are five shooting stations in a curved arc behind the trap house starting at 16 yards and radiating out to 27 yards (see diagram). A round of trap is 5 targets from each of the 5 stations for 25. Again, you have known target speed and a defined arch for the target to fly. Trap more simulates flushing birds but doesn’t provide the variety of angles of skeet.

Trap range design

So how can shooting either of these in the off-season improve my game? Here’s where the “but” comes in. They will help improve your shooting BUT you must approach them with a plan of action. Don’t just go out and shoot. The old adage “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got” comes to mind. Know what you want to accomplish. Because of their constants, both games are great for working on your fundamentals: body position, gun mount, and movement. A miss in the field is usually because we had a flaw in one of those. Both skeet and trap can help. Did you have problems with crossing birds? Go to a skeet range and work on stations 3 through 5. Stations 6 and 7 best replicate rising game. With trap, focus on your body position and keeping your cheek on the stock. You get the idea. Every time you go to the range you should have a plan on certain skills you want to work on. Now let me throw in two additional thoughts.

First, a shameless plug. A lesson with an instructor is worth the money. I’m not talking about one of your hunting buddies standing there saying, “You’re shooting behind it”. That doesn’t help. The question is, “Why am I shooting behind?” An instructor will help answer that “why” and get you on the path to improvement. After instruction, keep shooting to build on those improvements. It is money well spent.

Time with an instructor will help identify any shooting problems

Secondly, you’ll see pretty much all skeet and trap shooters shooting with a pre-mounted gun; standard for American skeet and trap. With your focus on fundamentals that’s OK. At some point in your practice you need to shoot with what is called “low gun”; moving the stock down below the shoulder before calling for the target. Why?

You don’t walk through the woods or fields with a pre-mounted gun, do you? Wouldn’t it be great if grouse flushed on command after our gun mount? Remember the goal is to improve our wing shooting. After you’ve worked out any kinks in your fundamentals and are breaking targets consistently (notice I didn’t say all of them) try shooting low gun. By the way, International Skeet requires a low gun with the butt even with the waist. You may get some strange looks but stay focused on your purpose. We are preparing to shoot wild game!

So does shooting skeet and trap in the off-season prepare you for upland hunting? I’m a lifelong bird hunter and admittedly terrible with a shotgun in my early years. Later in life while in the Army in Korea our Rod and Gun Club shot at a Korean skeet range. I guess seeing my shooting and feeling sorry for me, a former Korean Olympic skeet shooter took me under his wing. He helped me focus on the fundamentals of shotgun shooting in repetitive rounds of International Skeet. The result? When I returned to the United States I took my first limit of dove with two boxes of shells.

Yes it works if done with purpose. Next time we’ll up the challenge and talk about how sporting clays takes it to the next level.

Why I Hunt

It’s been so much a part of my life I’ve never stopped to ask the question: Why do I hunt? But then spending time in self-reflection is not my cup of tea. I don’t remember the first bird I shot. But I do remember when I knew I was a bird hunter. As a burr headed boy of about 12 I was walking with Uncle Jim along a field edge in Alabama hunting rabbits behind a couple of beagles. The sudden eruption of a covey of quail not only startled my nerves, but drew something up from deep within that said, “This is who you are.” I’ve now been a bird hunter for fifty plus years.

Want to know how serious that makes me? Growing up in Alabama, a state with a three month deer season with one deer a day, I never went deer hunting. Never killed one, never had the desire. But give me a cut corn field in September for dove, or a soybean or cornfield edge for quail and I was in heaven. Unfortunately my early quail hunting opportunities were limited until I got out on my own and the Army sent me to some pretty good places for quail hunting: Forts Campbell, Benning, and Bragg, come to mind. And of course bird hunting means bird dogs and they’ve been there with me through the decades. It’s true: I wouldn’t do it without the dogs.

And then I was introduced to the King of Gamebirds, the lordly ruffed grouse. After leaving the Army we moved to the mountains of western North Carolina. I went to a local sporting goods store and asked where to go quail hunting. The guy behind the counter said, “None around here. If you’re a bird hunter you’ll have to hunt grouse.” And so it began. I don’t remember the where and when of my first grouse flush. But do remember the look on my setter Belle’s face when it broke cover. That look of wonderment as if to say, “Hey, these birds don’t play fair. What’s this about not holding for my point?”

So here I find myself, with grey in my beard and in the winter of my years my thoughts turn to why I hunt birds. What is so captivating about that brown blur to draw me back to the forests and fields every year? For me it is the un-measureable. It’s something to not put a number on. Yeah, we count flushes of grouse or quail in the bag. But those are long forgotten when the memories hold our mind:The setter corkscrewing into a point; my hunting buddy dropping the hammer on an empty chamber on a straightaway grouse; field lunches on a truck tailgail with friends. You just can’t measure those.

Bird hunting releases me from a life full of metrics to simply experience the my connection with nature. Like many others, my everyday life is full of numbers:  sales goals, profit/loss statements, survey results, and counting the number of Twitter and Facebook followers. Yes, I know some folks keep a gunning log recording flushes, birds in the bag, where they hunted and the weather. More power to them.  I’m sure for them that’s part of the hunting experience.

I don’t, simply because it is an experience I don’t want to put a number on. How do you measure the look your 12 year old son gives you when he shoots his first quail? Tell me how to put a number on the anticipation when the sound of a dog bell goes silent in a Wisconsin aspen thicket? Where is the spreadsheet column to record the smiling eyes of my setter when he passes in front of me on an Appalachian mountain ridge on a crisp Autumn morning? Somebody please tell me how to transfer to numbers the laughter that follows your hunting buddy muffing a straightaway on a grouse down a logging road . . . with both barrels. At the end of the day, whether there are birds to clean or not, and the flush counter on my whistle lanyard is reset, the memories will always be there. That is why I hunt.

I guess David Petersen in his book A Hunter’s Heart says it about as well as any: ” To learn the lessons, about nature and myself, that only hunting can teach. Fore the glimpse in offers into a wildness we can hardly imagine. Because it provides the closest thing I’ve known to a spiritual experience. I hunt because it enriches my life and because I can’t help myself . . .because I have a hunter’s heart.”

Lost Connection with Nature

An old high school friend I connected with on Facebook recently posted a video about how the re-introduction of gray wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1994 completely changed the ecosystem. Down to the point they attributed the course change of a stream to the wolves. The first thing I noticed in the video was they referred to elk as deer. And that’s where our civil discussion started. I noted the producers didn’t know much about wildlife if they didn’t know the difference. She allowed as how despite that editorial glitch the concept was the same.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Well, no it’s not. I then pointed out that six years prior to the wolf re-introduction Yellowstone had a massive wildfire, largest in its history, that profoundly affected the ecosystem; more so than the wolf population. The landscapes recovery from the wildfire simply coincided with the wolf introduction. To attribute ALL changes in the ecosystem to one apex predator was a bit of a stretch. After our online discussion ended it got me thinking: This is what we face as sportsmen and conservationists. An uninformed populous that doesn’t understand nature and falls for “feel good” publicity.

I don’t like to make generalizations, but generally speaking the American population has lost touch with nature. And just so you don’t think I’m just pointing fingers at environmentalists and animal rights folks, there are hunters who don’t get it either. Prior to the above internet exchange I was talking to a fellow clays shooter about grouse hunting. He allowed as how his friend in Vermont didn’t hunt grouse anymore because the grouse in his favorite cover were gone. I expressed that it wasn’t the grouse were just gone but the habitat had matured to an age that it was no longer suitable to grouse. They just moved.

Nature’s landscape is beautifully dynamic and impacted by many events. No one knew that more than Native Americans prior to colonization. We’ve been taught to believe those early North American dwellers had a light footprint on their environment. That is not true. In Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus early scientific explorers found evidence that tribes routinely managed forests and fields for their own sustenance. They conducted what we call prescribed burns to help young seeds regenerate to attract wildlife and keep fields open. They also cut non-beneficial trees to allow mast bearing trees like oaks, hickory, and chestnut to grow for their own use as well to attract wildlife. I highly recommend its reading to understand early North America. You’ll be surprised.

Hunters are often blamed for the near extinction of elk in the eastern United States. And surely there were excesses with no game laws and a hungry population to feed in our westward movement. But another factor is that our colonization changed the landscape. Elk need grassy fields to graze. We turned those fields Native Americans had managed for wildlife into forests for a growing timber industry. Combine excessive hunting with a changing ecology and you see what we get.

Photo U.S. Park Service

Elk were not introduced into forested areas of the Smoky Mountains but an area with open fields, Cataloochee Valley. And as the herd has expanded they’ve sought similar habitat outside the Park boundaries. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission is now working with the U.S. Forest Service on land adjacent to the Park and also has acquired local land to improve habitat in a new Game Land.

Native Americans didn’t use science to manage the landscape, but simply knowledge and human reasoning passed down over generations connected to the land. The Roman philosopher Cicero called it Natural Law. Science is to a degree an extension of Natural Law. Yes, there are folks who still have that connection with the land; farmers and hunters among them. Like Native Americans, they depend on it for sustenance and as a livelihood. Unfortunately within the general populous that is the exception, not the rule. In its most recent survey the USFWS found only about 12% of the American populous hunt.For the proper conservation of our resources we need to try and understand the complex relationship of all the factors affecting an ecosystem. Study. Read. Ask questions. Walk the land. Don’t just take for granted what an advocacy group says. Remember, they are advocating for a purpose. Sometimes facts and science that don’t support their purpose are willfully ignored.

That’s what real hunters, anglers and conservationists do. Not only do we pursue game, we understand the landscape and how different factors impact it whether it is fire, timber harvests, or introduction of a wildlife species. We are connected to the land. We do that not just for the game but to heighten the experience and connect us with nature. That’s what our forbearers did. Why can’t we?

The Future of Hunting

Oh woe is us. Doom and Gloom. By all indications the future of hunting in the United States is in question. According to an article in Outdoor Life we are in trouble. And don’t seem to be handling it well. In 1982 there were about 17 million licensed hunters in the U.S. In the most recent survey from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) in 2016 that number was down to 11.5 million. That is a problem unto itself. It’s further complicated by the fact us Baby boomers comprise about one-third of that number. Thanks to the aging process (less physical strength, lack of mobility, etc.) we stop hunting at some point. So what to do?

That is a question faced by most state agencies and according to the Outdoor Life article they are doing it wrong. Just about all states, and a lot of non-government conservation groups, have an R3 program: Recruitment, Retention, and Reactivation. We have one here in North Carolina. Recent evidence is the addition of an Apprentice hunting permit, and specific days and weeks set aside for youth deer, turkey, and waterfowl hunting. So why aren’t these programs being successful? I have my own theories which I’ll get to. But the article says we shouldn’t be targeting youth because it has a low return on investment. Most of the kids in the programs are in families that are already active hunters. You see, as they grow older they will simply be filling the shoes of an older family member who is aging out.

The key to the R3 program is young adult hunters. Now there is bright news on that front. According to a survey conducted by Southwick Associates, the number of women participating in hunting increased 10 percent in just four years. If you watch outdoor TV shows or thumb through your favorite hunting magazine you’ll see a larger number of women writers, columnists, and brand sponsors. That is good news.

But how do you attract young adult men? Let’s call them hipsters or millenials. They don’t fit the typical hunter mold. Yes, they may want to hunt but not for the same reasons that typical hunter does. The hipster deer hunter is doing it for organic meat, not the rack. They want to connect with a natural environment because we are increasingly urban and they may live in a large city. They may forsake the usual hunting traditions to pursue that path.

So how do we change our R3 model to both develop youth as long term hunters and recruit young adults? There is no simple answer but let me offer a couple of my thoughts. First, for both of those groups start out by connecting them with nature. Too often a first experience (particularly kids) is an ATV ride to a deer stand; sitting in the stand with dad or uncle; playing video games; shooting at a deer when dad says, “There’s one. Shoot it.” Sound familiar?

My old school solution to introduce someone to hunting is taking them out for small game. You’re moving around. You don’t have to be super quiet (with exceptions). It is natural that when you walk you observe your surroundings. When they see something that interests them it’s a chance to talk about wildlife movement and feeding habits, and what their habitat needs are. Can’t beat squirrel, rabbit, or bird hunting for that. Driving an eight year old to a tree stand, sitting with Dad while playing video games, and shooting a deer on command is not hunting.

Part of the R3 equation is access and opportunity. Access is about having places to hunt. Opportunity means having game in those places. This is another place we are failing. North Carolina is blessed with over 2 million acres of public access Game Lands. But is there game to pursue on those lands? At least in our region the answer is no; unless you are a squirrel hunter. Let me belabor the point: Our nearly one million acres of National Forests are nearly devoid of game animals. Just over 1,000 deer harvested last season. Grouse flush rates are at an historic low. It is difficult to recruit and retain hunters when there is no game to pursue. Then it becomes just a hike in the woods. To recruit new hunters there must be game to pursue on public land. That’s part of the equation.