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Bird Hunting Made Simple with Outdoor Technology

As I lay in bed flipping through the latest edition of a well-respected gun dog magazine, an article titled "What Happened to Simple" grabbed my attention. The author is a long-time columnist for the magazine who shares healthy perspectives and insights on various bird-hunting topics. In this article, he lamented technology as the ruination of upland hunting.

The author said, "We have become so dependent on gadgetry, you might say we've lost our discovery, to independence, to self-reliance."

The author qualified his perspective, explaining that the use of a global positioning system (GPS) over a compass, for example, has replaced our basic outdoor skills with reliance on the "gadget," thus eliminating valuable skills and removing us from a more meaningful connection to Mother Nature. In other words, we are disconnecting from the natural world by relying on technology, which threatens our emotional connection and sense of responsibility to care for the things we love – fish, wildlife, and the environment.

There is a line to be drawn somewhere, possibly at holographic hunting blinds and electromagnetic invisibility shields in lieu of camouflage; however, using GPS technology instead of a compass or electronic maps rather than paper is seemingly a safe distance from the precipice of losing connectedness to our natural world. A counter perspective is that we have reached the golden age of outdoor technology.

Most upland hunters that I know are nearly twice my age. They embrace iconic traditions like classic side-by-side shotguns and a tinkling bell on the collar strapped to an English setter as it quarters through thick, ruffed grouse cover. I, too, am tradition-oriented, but shunning navigational and dog-tracking aids seems counterintuitive.

While I learned to use a compass as a kid, it was never an item found in my hunting pack. I relied on a steel trap memory, uncanny sense of direction, US Geological Survey 1:24,000 quadrangle maps (quads), and a DeLorme Gazetteer to identify public land, wild trout streams, and hunting areas based on topography. I missed my mark a time or two but was never lost. Trespassing, maybe.

Fast-forward to 2009, I began supplementing paper with a Garmin handheld GPS. My graduate thesis analyzed the effects of climate change on wild brook trout streams in Appalachia. Placing thermal sensors in remote mountain streams meant I needed to know precisely where approximately 500 sensors were located from Maryland to North Carolina. The gazetteer and quads were still important navigation tools. Still, a mark on the map and site description would not lead my successors to within mere feet of a sensor the size of a small pinecone that I had intentionally hidden beneath the rocks in a wilderness stream.

The same logic can be applied to hunting locations and pointing dogs. With my first two setters running big on the Palouse, I learned to hunt upland birds with only a whistle and tentative trust to connect us. Luckily, those girls were naturals who loved to hunt with me as a team. They ranged hundreds of yards out and circled back often or at least kept an eye on me as they worked the covers. All was well when the dog was within sight, but thick Palouse bunchgrass can swallow a dog instantly.

The GPS collar system was a game-changer because it alerts me when a dog locks on point. Rather than searching aimlessly when the dog fails to check in, the GPS gives me the dog's location, direction, and distance away. This advantage allows for a leisurely and more productive hunt. I can also see if the dog is headed for danger, like a road or cliff face, and turn them back by sending a "beep" to the collar.

The handheld unit for the GPS collar system provides topography, route tracking, and waypoint storage. I can mark the truck and birds where we find them, retrace steps if we get into a pickle, and revisit the good bird covers, should my memory fail me. Complementary technology is the OnX Maps smartphone application, which shows aerial imagery, road and trail systems, and land ownership information, and provides additional waypoint and tracking tools. It, too, is a game-changer for map scouting, hunt planning, and avoiding unintentional trespassing.

Finding and storing hunting access and covers has never been easier, and I prefer these technologies over the paper tools of the past. That's not to say the paper quads and gazetteer should be burned with last year's cardboard. I cannot fathom a day when the seatback pocket in my truck is not sagging with dog-eared gazetteers for the surrounding five states. When all else fails, like batteries that somehow "didn't charge," the gazetteer navigates to the old "x marks the spot" accesses that may or may not be open to the public or provide the habitat it once did.

While electronic mapping and GPS technology are simple, accurate, and available, this modern gadgetry cannot replace the need to understand a game animal's preferred habitat, the skills required to read aerial imagery and topography to locate covers, the use of compass direction for navigation, or build the bond between hunter and dog. However, knowing where I stand on public land or public access or where my dog stands on point are two inarguable advantages of technology that provide a positive experience for the hunter and adjacent landowners. Maybe modern gadgetry is "keeping it simple," after all.


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