Opening Weekend TRIFECTA: Combine prime habitat with a stellar nesting season and you get an opening weekend never to be forgotten.
When I popped into a tiny opening, my dog, Echo, was gone. Pausing, the movement of tall grass caught my eye. As suddenly as it began, the shuttering grass stood still. Inching in for the flush on what I assumed was Echo pushing a bird, she was nowhere to be seen.
Seconds later Echo reappeared, this time a few steps to my left. As I moved, she was swallowed up by more tall grass. No doubt the lush river bottom we hunted was overflowing with the scent of valley quail, but I'd never seen her break with such anxiety.
By now the rich green grass, still laden with early morning dew, was well over my head, and I had no choice but to push another 20 yards to the end. When I saw the opposite bank of the river we skirted, I knew something was going to happen. Anticipating Echo would be there, poised on point over quail, I was shaken when the sea of green erupted around me.
"Rooster!" I thought to myself. Taking a bead on the first bird as it flew straight away, I dropped it in the river. At the shot more roosters flushed, and soon another ringneck was floating downstream. When it was over I'd counted 18 roosters and one hen flushing from the patch of green grass, all good reason for Echo's behavior in this, her first such encounter.
My 2 1/2-year-old pudelpointer wasted no time retrieving the ringnecks from the river. Though our pheasant limit was filled, our morning hunt was just beginning.
* QUACK ATTACK Twenty-four hours earlier was the season opener for waterfowl and upland birds where we hunted along eastern Oregon's Malheur River. Joining Echo and me on the adventure was longtime friend Steve Waller. Steve had his 10-year-old dog, Keeper, also a pudelpointer, whom I'd hunted over many times.
Our hunt began early in the morning along the small, meandering river. Normally the Malheur was deep and fast-flowing, but not this season. Due to drought-like conditions, the river actually resembled a creek that could be forded in knee boots in many places. Unsure what to expect, Steve and I stuck to our plan.
Ducks were our target early in the morning. The idea was to work the river, jump shooting as we went. We soon discovered there was enough water to keep the fowl around, something that concerned us while scouting a day prior.
Slithering through tall willows, the first spot we jumped held three mallards. I cleanly missed two easy shots, but Steve connected on a greenhead.
The next little slough was tough to approach due to lack of cover, so Steve and Keeper came in from downstream, Echo and I from above. A flock of ducks took off down river, and Steve dropped a double, which Keeper got right on.
"There's a little eddy up here. I'm not sure if there's even water in it, but it's a one person deal, so you and Echo go check it out," Steve offered as we approached the next spot. That's the kind of man Steve is. He's hunted this valley before and knew it well.
Tucked behind a rise in the riverbank, with Echo at heel, we quickly closed the distance. I could see no birds but a ripple in the water kept me hoping. When I popped over the embankment, ducks took wing. Backlit by a rising sun, the silver spray of water danced off more than a dozen birds, silhouetted in the clear sky.
The shots must have been simple as I managed a triple, and immediately Echo went to work. Here, the river was deep and moving fast. Echo marked the first bird, a widgeon, and soon delivered it to hand. The second bird, also a widgeon, was still kicking on the surface, so Echo had no trouble dialing in on that one. The third duck was quickly being carried downstream, and I guided Echo to it with hand signals. The 75-yard retrieve was impressive, as was the steep, rocky bank Echo negotiated to bring me the drake gadwall.
By 9:00 a.m. Steve and I had our limits of ducks, and the dogs were loving life. "It's going to get hot, fast, so let's hit the fields for roosters, then come back to the river in the afternoon for quail," Steve suggested.
* THE DRY GROUND The Malheur River pumped life into the valley we hunted, as it was farm country. This created the perfect habitat not only for the mix of birds we targeted, but also for big game and numerous other wild-life. While heading to the pheasant fields, we saw a herd of elk and several mule deer grazing. We watched raptors and coyotes mousing, and great blue herons worked along the many gravel bars at river's edge.
Reaching the pheasant grounds, Steve and I met up with three of his family members, men who had been hunting here for decades. I was honored to be a part of their inner circle.
We spread out, five abreast, letting the dogs work in front of us. Instantly Echo caught a fresh track. She followed it through a cut barley field, into some thick, dry brush. A flush ensued and we had our first rooster of the day.
Keeper followed Echo into the waist-high mess. The cover was dominated by weeds, thistle and a host of other seed-bearing flora I was hoping to avoid. Having a long-haired dog is less than ideal at such times, but nothing a long brushing session couldn't fix.
Nonetheless, the dogs worked hard. In 45 minutes we were one pheasant shy of our party's 10-bird limit. I'd only shot one rooster, so Steve suggested I take Echo and head to the corner of a field we hadn't yet worked.
This is what I love most, hunting with Echo, just her and I. When it's only the two of us, there are no distractions, no chaos and the level of communication reaches new heights. Sure, she had fun pointing and retrieving birds for other hunters, but you could tell she was a bit stressed at times, especially when stuck in thick cover with zero visibility and lots of orders being barked by people she'd never met. Now, she knew it was just us.
When Echo and I hunt together, few words are said. Most directions are conveyed by eye contact and hand signals. With Echo by my side, we covered 150 yards, then it was time to hunt. "Find the bird," was all I had to say, and Echo began her search. She soon caught wind of a pheasant in thick brush. Certain that's where the flush would come, I moved in.
Moments later Echo squirted from cover and into a green grass field. Barely a foot tall, the grass had laid over in many places. Echo tracked with stunning intensity. At one point it felt as if she was wasting her time, for had a bird been in the sparse field I surely would have seen it. Nevertheless, I continued moving, reminding myself to always trust the dog, for she's a better hunter than I'll ever be.
I had to step up the pace to catch Echo, who instantly locked on point. When I approached, I saw nothing but kept going. Unexpectedly, a long-tailed rooster erupted, cackling with each wingbeat. I was so elated I almost forgot to pull the trigger. I was so pleased with Echo's tracking, I wanted to drop the gun and give her praise. Her reward came in the form of retrieving the final pheasant of the day.
* BONUS ROUND Following lunch and a nap, we were back at it, chasing valley quail along the river bottom during the last couple hours of the day. It didn't take long before Steve and I had our limits of quail. It was a fitting end to a perfect day, where we each ended up with limits of three species. "That's what we call a trifecta," Steve smiled, stuffing the last quail into his vest as we headed back toward the cabin.
The following morning we were back in the river bottom, targeting valley quail.
The brush was dense and the willows tall, but the dogs worked willingly. Only one flush into the day, Keeper found a porcupine. It was too ugly for Steve and I to tend, so he drove Keeper to the vet, ending their hunt for the day.
Echo and I moved to a new spot laden with the tall green grass, where we picked up our two-pheasant limit over the river. Together we kept walking upstream, jumping ducks when we found them, corralling quail when we could.
Twice I got lucky and tripled on quail, and Echo was in heaven. Never had she been so eager to receive hand signals; then again, never had she seen such action. Some coveys were still in family units, numbering over 100 birds, creating what must have been olfactory overload for a bird dog.
When Echo followed a game trail into a willow thicket along the river, the sandy trail laden with quail tracks, I skirted the outer edge in anticipation of the shot. Echo soon emerged with an old mule deer shed, bringing a smile to my face.
Three miles later we took a break in the shade. Temperatures were in the 80s, and we only had two ducks left to fill our final limit. Hunting our way back to camp, Echo went on semi-point amid sparse cattails. When a Wilson's snipe shot across a gravel bar, I got lucky on the shot, and we had a new species to add to Echo's list of retrieves.
We managed our final two ducks, and on the ride home the following day Echo and Keeper barely moved in the back seat of the truck. Keeper recovered well from her porcupine encounter, and while it was unfortunate she missed the final day's hunt, the time Echo and I spent together was most cherished.
While the uniqueness of bagging multiple species was truly special, what's etched deepest in my mind is how intense Echo grew with so many birds, and how happy she was no matter where she found herself. It was a great start to the season, an opening weekend trifecta I'll never forget.
WORDS AND IMAGES BY SCOTT HAUGEN