Friday night, Tommy, David and our two pointing puppies Dersu and Tashtego hardnosed the highway with me for our first pheasant hunting trip together. The boys had licensed up after completing their hunter's safety course at On Target in Mission Viejo. The dogs had recently completed their first live bird training day with the Inland Empire and San Diego chapters of NAVHDA (North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association) at the Honey Springs facility in eastern San Diego county. The local properties like Raahagues hunt club and Four Winds where I used to go with their older brother Isaac and our old pointer Victor to chase the redbirds are gone now. The dedicated operators who used to scratch it out so we could still experience upland game action have been driven out of business by the ratchet-like forces in our state that doom such enterprises to shuttering their operations and never coming back.
The latest onslaught of California laws regulating hunting, guns and ammo plagued our preparation for this longer journey as well. We are now required to use steel shot, but unless you have the new Real California ID, you cannot purchase it in California.
Fortunately, I had a few boxes left over from a couple of seasons ago, but I am not currently eligible to purchase ammunition in the State of California, where I have hunted for the past 45 years. We got it done, but this asinine obstacle to outdoor recreation is an example of why some folks think that California, a state I adore above all others, is stupid. I have now applied to my home state of Ohio to get a certified copy of my birth certificate, so that I can commence the process of proving that I am a US citizen to the indoor wizards of bureaucracy who are imposing this stumbling block to outdoor activity.
We headed down to El Centro to spend the night at the dog friendly and cattle-pungent grounds of the Quality Inn, so that we could arrive at Mendel Woodland's pheasant hunting property in Imperial at 7 am after getting a great six am breakfast at Denny's, an eatery which has always been synonymous with family road trips for me.
When I booked our day earlier in the week, I explained to the owner, Mendel Woodland, that we had six month old pointers and two 14 year old boys who had never hunted live birds, but who were reasonably handy at hitting moving targets with shotguns from our standard family indoctrination into essential American marksmanship. Mendel was helpful and encouraging. He advised me to get a handler and an experienced dog to show our pups the way of the Jedi knights of the dog world, so that is what we did.
We arrived at the site on the lucky view side of Mexicali Mountain in Mexico, after a 20 minute ride from El Centro, the last three miles of which was an agricultural dirt road that took us past the network of canals that provide sustenance to this thirsty farmland. Fighter jets from the adjacent Naval Air Facility provided us with some pretty cool distractions as they maneuvered about in the clear skies above. We brought our binoculars to take in the free air show.
The boys got the dogs out and we cruised the grounds as we awaited our escorts in the long shadows cast by temples of stacked hay.
Mendel's ambassador Joanna arrived to greet us and explain what we would be doing. She introduced us to Victor, our guide for the day, and his five year-old German Shorthair pointer Duchess. This dog was very mellow and experienced. She had just given birth to a litter four weeks earlier, but was ready for business. Our dogs immediately bonded with her and followed her around, just as we had hoped.
We took to the field after getting some safety reminders and a game plan from Victor, who spoke only Spanish. This might have been more of an obstacle for me, but Tommy and Davey are both fluent in Spanish, so their translation of our conversations and Victor's suggestions made the day that much richer.
We took our German Chocolate Tashtego out first, as he is the most bird obsessed of our two pups. We kept him on a long lead at first, as he followed Duchess into some pretty thick cover. The taller grass made the birds invisible, but kept them from being able to sprint away. Duchess began scenting into the light wind and going on point.
We flushed our first pheasant and Davey, who was using his sister Lizzy's 20 gauge side-by-side, knocked it down with his first shot. Duchess brought it back to hand before wheeling and going on point again.
Another rooster flushed in front of Davey and he fired his second shot for his second bird. Tash paid attention and began to stalk the birds that Duchess was locating, eventually taking over the retrieval duties like a user who just got handed the keys to the pharmacy.
Victor encouraged us to drop the long lead we had on Tashtego to prevent him from running off birds, as Victor correctly perceived that Tash was a quick learner and understood what was going on. Victor began holding his dog back as we moved on birds and let Tash come in for the flush and retrieve. The birds began flying Tommy's way and he started dropping them with a quick little Remington 20 gauge auto-loader.
We got five in pretty short order and went back to change puppies. Dersu came out and followed Duchess around, scenting the air and backing up his dog teacher, while Tash wailed back at the truck for his turn to come around again. Dersu was less aggressive at wanting to usurp Duchess' role as primary dog and he was content to ride side car and bound like a deer through the field to celebrate the idea of being a hunting dog.
We were stoked that both of our dogs did not range far out into the field and came back to us whenever we called them in.
Dersu was pretty psyched while he was in the field, but he started to lose focus as the sun beat down and we rotated Tash back into the lineup. Our little harpooneer came off the bench like a player looking at free agency as he relentlessly bounded through the tall grass to gather red-eyed prey for his gunners.
He began hogging all of the retrieves and was electrified by the experience.
The sun got higher and we took more hydration breaks. Tash was on fire when he was up, but Dersu started to head back toward shade where Tash was tied up when it was his turn to join Duchess in the field. I think I heard Tash say to Dersu "What is wrong with you?" when Dersu left the field to join Tash near the truck. Tash was more than happy to give up his shade to get back into action.
I shot back-up for the boys, who were almost always on target, so that I just worked in a few shots on birds that looked like they might get away. Three of them did, but we ended up with thirteen roosters and I think Tommy and Davey dropped ten of them, with the death from below being pretty evenly distributed.
We had some fast pursuits across fields and canals. Tommy managed to get his shoe sucked off by the mud in the bank of a canal he did not make his longest jump of the day to clear, but that was near the end of the hunt.
Above,Tommy walking a levee road with Victor and a nice rooster Tommy dumped after extracting himself from the mud and retrieving his shoe. Shortly after this photo was taken, Tommy handed his gun to Victor so that he could carry our exhausted Tash back to the diminishing shade near the truck, where a well-rested Dersu posed with us, as his rubbery buddy was now completely unwilling to voluntarily leave the shade to pose with our bounty.
Davey, like his Crockett namesake, did not waste a lot of ammo missing birds, so we took this shot while Tommy made another effort to drag Tash back into the sun for a group shot.
At the end of the morning, when we had done our damage, Joanna drove out to us in her badass truck to bring us sodas and delicious burritos that we scarfed down back at the buildings at the the club HQ. Woodland's has a cool bird cleaning facility and Victor showed my boys the best way to skin out and clean a pheasant. The fact that it was Victor who was actually doing the wet work was probably a substantial factor in convincing my boys that his was a superior method.
After Victor took our pictures and we got our birds packed away in the ice chest, we wheeled toward the Pacific and took Interstate 8 through the mountains and back to the coast. We were home by 5 pm, which probably seemed like a short ride to the dogs and boys who all slept like Rip Van Winkle on the 3 1/2 hour ride home in our ancient Ford War Wagon. I would have to say it was well worth the time and effort we put in to make this happen.
We invited our friends and family over for a Sunday feast that featured a number of my different pheasant recipes, none of which rendered these birds inedible.
I sure appreciate the day that Mendel's club and Victor's perfectly administered lesson plan was able to provide. This was an extremely positive first experience for both the dogs and humans of our pack.
As soon as I can get the documents from Youngstown, Ohio to prove my citizenship, I intend to buy more ammunition and get back out to Woodland's again. These dogs are going to get more skillful and willing to get into our photos without the application of force. The season is young, as is this new crop of hunting creatures whose training is just getting under way. Crisper mornings for winter upland game weather are on the way, so we can dust off our jackets and dream of field time to come, knowing that
These are the Days.