Thursday, December 17, 2015

Honky-tonk Hunt

   This year's pheasant hunting efforts took us to Bird Landing, which is a town perhaps most famous as the site of the 1982 Clint Eastwood film "Honky-tonk Man," which I never bothered to see, because it came out during that phase when he was making all of those monkey movies and monkeys are no friends of mine.

      The town, which consists of a fire station, an abandoned set house and Shirley's Tavern, is about an hour and fifteen minutes from anywhere, unless you count Rio Vista or Fairfield.

    I knew I was going on a mostly business road trip up the central valley and into the Sacramento area, so I decided that I would get back into pheasant hunting for the first time since my beloved pointer, Victor, went off to the happy hunting ground and took with him my enthusiasm for upland game hunting.  I called my pals up north to force them to spend time with me, as it had been decades since I had hunted the Sacramento area, where I went for many years on opening day in the Sutter Basin in the 80s and 90s, when we were all a bit slimmer in the hip.

 I managed to get in three very unique hunts there in December and I must say, before this report descends into the abyss of false adventure, that this is the coolest public access hunting club I have had the pleasure of abusing.

     The facility is set near Grizzly Island on the California Delta.  It has a great sporting clay range; ample parking; a cool snack bar where they make great burgers that would rival the deliciousness that you can get on a sport boat; first class bird processing; and a pro shop that has a wonderful selection of guns, ammo, and all of the hunting accessories that could put you in an ad for Cabelas or LL Bean.

     The hunting lodge is actually a converted elementary school, with the name of the school still visible on the exterior of the building.

      This was certainly an appropriate bit of signage, as the expedition proved to be a learning experience for all of us.

   Note the school auditorium chairs out front (some Nor Cal readers have advised that these seats are actually stadium seats auctioned from the demolition of Candlestick Park and you all must know how important it is that my reports contain no inaccuracies)

      Being an out-of-towner, I had called the place innumerable times to make all of the arrangements, with Kimberly, who patiently fielded all of my questions and took my reservations.  I opted for the "Businessman's Special" which included up to 20 pheasants, lunch and all birds cleaned and bagged.  I also reserved a dog and handler.

     On Day one, I met my lifelong friends and roommates from UCSB's infamous Dildo Hall, Mick and Vince, along with Mick's brother in law Mike at the facility on a day that promised a very welcome rainstorm, which meant that we had to get our slaughter completed before a storm that was expected to hit at noon.

    When I arrived, I was actually quite startled to meet Kimberly, who is a beautiful girl who would make any dad proud of her obvious knowledge of hunting craft and firearms.  She was assisted by another very good looking young woman named Taylor who was equally polite, enthusiastic and handled firearms with the casual expertise of Steve McQueen in "The Getaway".

     We all got checked in by 7:30 am and went out to our assigned field to rendezvous with dog handler Willy and his enthusiastic German shorthair pointer, Lassen.  

     Willy's dog handling approach is to let his dogs range far out into a very large field, well ahead and mostly out of range of the hunters, so that keeping up with the dog to avoid long flushed  birds requires track shoes and stamina that we really did not possess.  Even when the birds lit up 70 yards out, we still dumped rounds at them and screamed "And don't come back!" as they flew downwind.

Willy points in the direction he last saw his pointer.

      Even when the dog calmed down and set up a classic Field and Stream point for me on the end of our line, I managed to miss a picture perfect flush in front of all of my friends.  Willy and my pals sensed that we might be in for a difficult hunt with my skill set and the time limit created by the approaching storm. Eventually, we were able to come up with a plan that secured our success.

     Because of the impending rain in an otherwise dismal few years of serious drought, burning in the fields is permitted when rain has either started or is so imminent that the likelihood of fire spreading into adjacent properties is virtually impossible.  Helpful members of the Bird Landing staff carried kerosene cans to the upwind borders of our assigned field while we were instructed to take up positions along a ditch that would serve as a firebreak.

     When the wind that preceded the rain freshened up to about 15 miles an hour, the crew sprinkled the kerosene along a barbed wire fence on the west side of the field and then deployed a World War II vintage flamethrower to make sure that the flames advanced evenly.  It proved to be a supremely effective technique. as the flames approached and the nervous birds scooted out in front of us, only to be momentarily frozen by the pointing dog before rocketing into the sky as we fired away like the beleaguered garrison of Rourke's drift holding off charging Zulus.  The birds began dropping for us as the dogs skirted the front edge of the bush fire to retrieve our shot game.

     We managed to gun down 13 birds before the rain started coming down in earnest and forced us back to the lodge to eat like fascist pigs while the staff cleaned and bagged our hapless quarry.  We were off the property by 1 pm and said our goodbyes after this wonderful Gaucho reunion, vowing that we would not let another 25 years go by before trying this again, as it was unlikely that we would live long enough to renew such acquaintances on this kind of cadence.


     A few days later, after a night of drinking herbal tea and discussing business with my law partners Jerry, Bob, and Rob, we headed out to Bird Landing again, where I was able to now act like I had been there before and was almost a local.  We had good weather with which to work and were assigned a field with much more challenging terrain, necessitated, in part, by the fact that the field I had hunted days earlier had been burned to stubble.  Once again, we were guided by Willy, his trusty and swift pointer Lassen, and another larger and more classic looking German shorthair named Oso.  

     The field we hunted was quite extensive and featured canyons and draws that required some degree of scrambling up and down ravines and ditches.  Jerry picked up a fine rental gun in the form of a Browning pigeon grade over and under 12 gauge, with which he did a great deal of damage.  Rob used my Weatherby Orion over and under, while Bob was equipped with his own Orion.  I once again used my 1927 Hubertus sweet 16, which makes me look like a really cool hunting guy until I actually start shooting it at moving targets.

     On this occasion, we faced the challenge posed by primates which invaded our field from an adjacent sheep ranch. Although it is a little known fact of life on the Delta, the use of monkeys (mostly baboons) by local sheep men is more common that you might think.  These monkeys are quite at home among the sheep and generally keep them inside their assigned range.  The smarter monkeys have actually been trained to shear the sheep with electric shears, for which they are rewarded with banana flavored pellets.  Some of the monkeys, like their human owners, actually try to breed with the sheep and show a preference for them over their own kind (monkey see, monkey do).  This generally results in these monkeys being put down by the ranchers, who only become aware of their hairy shepherds' romantic entanglements when the ewes give birth to fetal monsters, like in "Eraserhead".  The monkeys are not stupid and know that this type of conduct is not only taboo, but has serious consequences.  Even so, some of them cannot resist the wooly call of these bleating sirens of the Suisun Basin.

The male monkeys occasionally become bored with their mundane sheep keeping duties and surly at the thought of carnal deprivation, which leads them to do mischief in the pheasant fields by chasing birds out.  This poses a challenge to the hunters, who cannot see these primates creeping through the grass to vandalize the hunting experience of the humans they loath.  The monkeys cannot smell the birds or freeze them up the way a good pointer will do, so they instead simply creep through the ditches and try to startle roosters they randomly encounter.

     Because baboons are substantial monkeys, almost apes, really, the shot size we were using on upland game is generally not lethal to them.  Nevertheless, we shot several, which caused them to slink away to lick their wounds and surrender the field back to us humans, as we are  well to the right of them on the ubiquitous evolutionary chart we all got to look at in elementary school.

     It turned out that this field was loaded with roosters, so once we peppered the monkeys to drive them back to the sheep fields, we were able to score eighteen out of twenty before heading off to eat the delicious burgers that awaited us while our birds were processed.

     The last day I took advantage of a little known experimental program sponsored by the department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game), which is testing out the concept of pursuing  pheasant with handgun rounds at closer range than what is commonly encountered with standard 12 gauge shotguns.  They are trying to cope with loss of habitat and available hunting space by compartmentalizing the experience.  The cartridges use #8 shot, with a maximum effective range of about 25 yards.  The shells are similar to the snake shot commonly manufactured for pistols, but because of California regulations designed to protect condors, which are found in every county in the state, copper pellets are mandated.

      Because the repeated use of shot, especially copper plated shot, can damage the rifling of standard gun barrels, it is highly advisable to use smoothbore barrels.  The use of barrels which have no rifling twist also prevents the shot from spiraling out of the barrel and breaking up the tight pattern that is necessary to bring down a large game bird with such small shot.

     I had been selected for this event because officials with Fish and Wildlife have been reading my columns and wanted the publicity that my massive readership would bring to their program.  I knew in advance that I was going to be selected for this program that is otherwise subject to a lottery style drawing.  Because of this, I had the opportunity to order a smoothbore replacement barrel for my Les Baer custom .45 government model 1911.  I ordered mine from the Brownell's catalogue for $125.  It arrived within five business days and took a couple of minutes to install.

     Because of the fact that this is an experimental program, the normal rules of pheasant hunting do not apply.  Instead of being released into a 100 acre field, the birds are planted in an abandoned farmhouse.  The “hunt” takes place room to room, with only one hunter and a Fish and Wildlife observer to follow you around.  Before you go in, Fish and Wildlife requires you to purchase a special “smoothbore handgun card” which is a seventeen foot long document on two large wooden spindles, much like the Torah.  Each of the birds actually killed in this enterprise are given names.  Those names must be inscribed on this bird scroll and sent in to the DFW within 72 hours of completing the hunt.

     My assigned Fish and Wildlife observer was a small, bearded man with wire rimmed spectacles and a modest goatee that made him look like Leon Trotsky.  It turned out that he had a great sense of humor about the whole hunting program, which he predicted was a experiment that would not last long.  Trotsky, as he allowed me to call him (he told me that his friends already had given him that nickname), explained that I would have five minutes to kick in the front door and  shoot as many birds as I could out of the 24 birds he had stashed in various rooms.  The windows had been removed to give the birds a sporting chance to get away.  I wore earphones, as the discharge of a .45 inside of a building without using ear protection is just asking for injury.

   I got into the house, armed with four magazines, each of which held 8 rounds.  I shoved the first one in and racked the slide as Trotsky knocked on the door and declared himself to be the Avon Lady.  I put my boot into a front door that must have been made out of balsa wood, judging by the way it disintegrated when I kicked and almost fell down as it gave way so easily.  The action was fast and furious as the birds cackled and flashed about in the splintered sunlight that dappled the interior of this apparently unsalvageable edifice.  I did not distinguish between birds in flight and those on the floor as I fired at motion until my slide locked out and it was time to slam another magazine into the housing of my pistol.  I left the spent magazines and shot birds on the floor as I charged up the stairs to complete my mission.  I was done in 3 ½ minutes.  I used up three magazines and ended up with 17 birds, with the remainder escaping from the open windows.

     The downed birds were gathered by a Fish and Wildlife intern who used a snow shovel and a wheel barrow.  The longest part of the whole event was waiting around and smoking Camels with Trotsky as the intern struggled to name each bird and write down the names of the fallen on the DFW Torah.  I took the document to the UPS store in Fairfield to make sure it went to the state right away and I did not get hit with the fine that the Department otherwise sends out within five business days of the hunt unless they receive the scroll.  I sent it certified, so there would be no doubt.

     The whole experimental handgun thing did not impart a feeling of great sportsmanship.  I have to admit it was some fast action and was pretty fun, even though I felt kind of bad about the proximity of the kill and what seemed like an excessive amount of roosters for one person.  At least DFW is trying to serve the hunting public with innovative programs and do something that I do not think many will get to experience, unless this program becomes more popular than I think it will turn out to be.

  These birds were destined to be donated to the Holiday Poultry Feed for the old folks at the Suisun City Home For The Bewildered, so this adventure was for a good cause.

     Although it was a strange way to renew my neglected passion for upland game hunting, I certainly got to fire my share of shots, hang out with some of  my best old asshole buddies and rekindle my love for the outdoor life. 

 Here's hoping that everyone has an opportunity to enjoy a Savage Christmas, because it is that time of year; meat is murder; and....

 These are the Days.

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