Gone Snaky Gone

You can only wait so long for fall

By Rob Breeding

Early fall can be a tricky time for upland bird hunters. The season starts Oct. 1 near my home in Wyoming, and even earlier in Montana for many species. Still, I’ve yet to spend a day on the nearby chukar grounds with my bird dog Doll.

It’s a timing thing. Early in the season there may be plenty of birds, but there’s also plenty of heat. Way too much. The local paper just reported a new record for consecutive days without a frost — 157 — and the forecast suggests it might be another week before the overnight low drops below freezing.

Heat means lots of things, all bad for bird hunting. It wears out dogs and makes it hard for them to pick up scent. And it keeps another critter active on the chukar grounds, a critter I’d just as soon avoid: rattlesnakes.

Back in my Arizona days we used to wait as much as a month after the early October opener before we’d put our dogs out in that snake-riddled country to chase quail. Even then we’d start the season up high in the pinyon-juniper, which was pretty marginal for quail but even more so for snakes.

We’d keep an eye on the weather reports in the upper Sonoran Desert north of Phoenix. Once the overnights dipped toward freezing we’d move downhill into the better quail country.

There’s no real high elevation option in the northern Rockies, unless you’re interested in forest grouse. If there were many ruffed grouse in this part of the country I might be tempted, but blues and spruce aren’t my favorite birds to hunt, or eat. I just wait out the heat, which is taking forever this fall.

Papa Bill was just in town, visiting on his way back to Arizona after his annual migration to fish October browns on the Big Hole and chase Hi-Line birds. Usually it’s the onset of winter that pushes him south. This year he was just tired of the heat.

He did have a couple of pheasants in the cooler, as well as some forest grouse I did my best to ignore. But it has been a tough fall to be out chasing birds in eastern Montana, at least so far. Bill and his Vizsla, Levi, had to restrict their hunts to the morning hours as it can be a little dangerous to run highly driven bird dogs after lunch. Every year we hear of folks who push their dogs too hard too soon in the fall, ending in the dogs dying of heat stroke. That’s especially so for folks running Labs. Labs are great hunting companions, but heavy-bodied flushers are not designed to run all day in the heat.

Keep your lab in the duck blind at least until fall-like temperatures settle in.

Bill and Levi didn’t run into any snakes in Montana, but there are plenty in that part of the world. Google “GoPro falls into pit of rattlesnakes,” if you want to be thoroughly creeped out. A rancher near Grass Range filmed the viper pit not far from his ranch.

Since most of my time on the chukar grounds comes after the weather has changed I don’t see many rattlesnakes when I’m hunting. I did hear one last year in the midst of an abnormally warm spell that lasted nearly a week in October. All of October has been that kind of “warm spell” this year.

There was frost on the lawns as I walked to work this morning, and trees all around town turned this week and started dropping leaves. The days are getting too short for them to hang on, even if it’s still warm. And so it will be with the snakes as well. Doll and I are gearing up for a morning hunt, maybe this weekend. You can only wait so long for fall.