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Hi-Line Hunt Upland Birds Edition

In a continuation of my first-time hunt experiences along the Hi-Line, this year I chose to challenge myself significantly with upland birds. This was not, however, my first choice. A fundamental misunderstanding on my part on how landowner preference works with antelope tags (and deadlines for applying) meant that I could not pursue a pronghorn this year.

So, with my first choice off the table, I approached my mentor Andrew McKean about upland birds. Birds were a good option this year since my parents decided to purchase a new shotgun for my use, one that would hopefully prevent me from another bruise tattoo. This was to be an all-birds season as I'd also planned to continue my duck and goose hunting education with Ken Jansa.

But, the snafu with the antelope tags was to be a precursor for how my hunting this season – very little - went according to plan.

In early October, I joined Ken to learn how to "frost the blinds," which to my immense disappointment, involved neither frosting or cake. Rather, he dug out the A-frame blinds and we spent roughly an hour attaching grass and hay to the exterior in order to blend the blind with the environment. This turned out to be the extent of my duck and goose hunting.

In early November, I managed to secure a Saturday afternoon with Andrew for upland bird hunting. We were joined by his friend, Eric for the excursion. I slammed my gear into a bag and headed to Andrew's for a quick lesson in bird identification and some target shooting with my new shotgun. I managed to bring down one pigeon in my time learning my weapon.

When Eric arrived, we headed out to the property where Andrew has permission to hunt. We circled the property, spotting quite a few birds. But it being a Saturday afternoon, the birds apparently knew how to keep their distance from any threat.

I managed to get off a few shots, but remained empty-handed. Eric, an experienced bird hunter, came away with only one grouse, soothing my slightly bruised ego. Though I was shut out in my first upland birds attempt, it still proved to be the best birthday "shots" I've had.

Andrew and I agreed I needed more time in the field and agreed to meet up again when we both had time. He called that Friday, catching me as I was in Billings waiting on a mammogram. Optimistically, I told him I would be home that evening and would be happy to join him the next day in the field. On my way home from Billings, I had to text Andrew that I had jumped the gun on committing to hunting. Aftercare for two biopsies prevented me from carrying anything heavier than 5 pounds, so my mentor told me to stay home and recover. We left open finding another time, when he might not be off on assignment.

Monday, Nov. 13, I received my biopsy results and realized my hunting season was going to drastically change. Malignant invasive ductal carcinoma. The results were a surprise, though not a shock as the CHK-2 gene is a family trait. The diagnosis meant another trip to Billings on Nov. 20 to have a chemotherapy port placed.

That Wednesday, I made a call to Andrew, desperate to squeeze in another trip to the field. He was out of state on a hunt, but would be back in time for us to take another excursion that Saturday.

Allowing time for Andrew to catch the Cats-Griz game, we hit the field mid-afternoon. The birds, again, knew to keep their distance. His dog, Nelson, did send one beautiful rooster flying into the perfect shot for me. But, me being me, I verified the safety on my shotgun works as intended.

After getting shut out on birds, we decided to use the remaining light to try for a white tail so that I might have a stock of venison in my freezer this winter. Andrew brought the truck round so we could re-gear for the change in plans. Nelson took a seat in the bed of the truck, a seat she would not stay in for long.

Andrew and I headed to a spot near the creek and he nearly immediately spotted a buck and a doe. As I prepared to crawl to a better vantage point, I caught a glimpse of Nelson. She was hanging back, but overly anxious to not miss out on any more action. The addition of an enthusiastic dog somewhat changed plans As Andrew stayed back to keep her in line, I crawled over the two track and set up behind some grass. The two joined me shortly.

Using the rangefinder, Andrew said the deer might be slightly out of range and that 200 yards would be ideal. But, he said if I felt comfortable taking the shot from there, I should, given the day was quickly coming to an end.

A great deal of shuffling and adjusting occurred on my end. Two years had passed since I'd fired a rifle, but I remained confident in my ability and my mentor's guidance. After a few views through the scope, I decided to take the shot rather than risk losing my last chance at a harvest this year. I warned Andrew so he could also put in ear protection.

I turned back to the scope and the buck – who had at that time decided it was best to face me directly, offering only his chest. This prompted a few mutterings I'm unable to print. But with patience and his need to eat, he changed positions again. I fired. He dropped immediately. Through the scope I saw that he had not managed even a step.

I turned back to Andrew who somehow managed to be smiling with his jaw in his lap. "Gwen. Gwen! That was a heckuva shot! Wow! Now, make sure you have a round chambered in case he gets up."

I looked back out to where my buck lay, "I'm pretty sure he's not moving again."

An aside – as soon as I fired, a pheasant flew directly overhead as if to taunt my lack of success in upland bird hunting, which made both Andrew and I laugh.

As we walked over, Andrew asked if I knew how far the shot was. No, I did not. Cheekily he replied, "Well, I'm not going to tell you!" After some needling, he admitted the rangefinder put it at 325 yards. He cautioned it may have been closer to 300 but I'm going with 325. That is a bit more impressive.

When we got to the buck itself, neither of us could locate an entry or an exit wound, leaving me to wonder, despite the blood at the nose and mouth, whether I had managed to take him down with a heart attack. The field dressing revealed that the bullet did indeed enter the animal – I found evidence on the inside of the rib cage – but still could not find entry or exit points though both lungs had been struck. The upside being that there was little to no meat damage.

As I started the dressing with Andrew's guidance, I made an off-hand remark that I had to be incredibly careful not to nick or cut myself since I had surgery in two days. Now, Andrew's rule has always been that he will field dress an apprentice's first harvest, but after that you have to do it yourself. After my comment, he jumped in to take over the process, leaving me to ask, "Is this where I get to play the I-have-cancer-card?" Indeed, this was the perfect time to put that card on the table.

Turns out, I was able to play that card a few times this year. Looking ahead at my schedule, I knew I wouldn't have time to process my animal. So Andrew took care of submitting my CWD sample to FWP and dropped off the buck at Hi-Line Meats for processing, which Hi-Line Sportsmen graciously picked up the tab for under a new program this year to offset costs for new hunters with limited funds.

And so closed out my 2023 season – an unexpected and abrupt end but a successful return to the field in terms of white tails. I do intend to give upland birds another go next season, as well as duck and goose with Ken, and deer. Antelope might be on the table provided I can remember FWP deadlines – a challenge for me in the best of times.


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