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With the decks awash in blood during a hot bite, local angler Don Crabtree proudly holds up a huge 65-pound wahoo. He caught the hard-fighting fish on a recent 16-day south-of-the-border trip on the world famous sportfishing boat 'Royal Polaris'.

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With the beautiful Cummings Valley in the background, Steve and Candy Merlo show off their take of 'High River Preserve' pheasants and chukars. Their hunting poodle, Beau, flushed the birds into range for them.

With quail and pheasant populations severely curtailed by the extended drought, upland hunters have been having fits about where to hunt this season. Gun dogs, usually busy this time of year, remain home or in their kennels with little to do but hope and dream of past hunts. Other than going out of state or country to some exotic, faraway gunner's paradise, most upland bird hunters have pretty well tossed this year into to the trash can of bygone seasons.

My freedom poodle, Beau, remains an optimist, however, continually nosing me to get out of my chair to go do something fun. Oh, sure, we bagged a lot of doves this season, but my black retriever would much rather hunt something that smells better and flushes loudly, and that, of course, equates into upland birds like quail, chukar and pheasants.

My "adopted" son Damon Davis suggested I try a new hunting preserve in the Tehachapi area, having hunted there while getting his dog trained at the same time. I couldn't argue with the success his dog was having, so I decided to give the place a try -- if not just for Beau's sake, but for a full family outing to garner some white meat and have a little fun in the process.

Enter Dave Siple, the new owner/manager of High River Hunting (661-847-8900), located in the beautiful Cummins Valley only an hour away from Bakersfield. Siple, a dog trainer and former South Dakota pheasant guide, greeted my wife and I at the location, and before we hunted, took us on an extended tour of the property. Once known as the home of the Four Seasons Hunting Club, the new High River preserve quickly erased all similarities to the old establishment's identity.

A new 40-by-60-foot clubhouse, complete with kitchen, marble tops, automatic coffee maker and satellite big-screen TV, beckoned us into the warm, furnished confines that were still under final construction. Only a few feet away, two full-facility shower/restrooms were also being built. Next door, the fenced and comfortable individual dog kennels were spotless, as were his two whelping rooms where female dogs could have their pups in a warm and comfortable scenario. Just a few yards away from the clubhouse, six brand-new RV full-hookup pads had just been finished for overnight guests, and a new bird cleaning station has already broken ground.

Open Sept. 1-May 30, I think High River Hunting will quickly fill a well-needed niche in the sporting world. My wife and I found the rates for our hunt were very reasonable and much less expensive than a lot of Southern California hunting clubs.

The fast-flying, hard-flushing pheasants and chukars we hunted proved to be very difficult birds to hit, holding tight to cover before cackling angrily at being rousted when Beau sent them rocketing skyward. Candy and I purchased the mixed-bag hunt, a combo of bird species, and though some managed to fly through our shot patterns, we still finished with a great bag.

The other side of High River Hunting is High River Labs, providing quality, well-trained animals at reasonable prices. Siple's gun dogs are world famous, but what makes them so unique is that he breeds and trains them to be 60/40, that is, kind, and loving family dogs while also being great hunters.

"I want to run this preserve old school," commented Siple, "that is, where the customer is still number one. I want everyone to know that our hunters are our most valuable commodity."

We saw a lot of that last weekend, coming away very impressed with the man and his ideals for his quality shooting preserve.

By the way, I think an upland hunt or two at High River would make a perfect Christmas gift for the bird hunter in the family, or a special dog like Beau.

Kern Shooting Sports courses

Kern Shooting Sports is offering a two-day hunter safety course Jan. 12-13. Prospective hunters, or those without old licenses in their possession, must have a hunter/safety validation before they can purchase a new license.

Hunters planning to go out of state on a variety of big game hunts also need to be aware of state-to-state practices regarding age and licensing requirements. Most require proof of hunter safety before tags and licenses can be issued.

KSP is also offering an Internet Hunter Safety Course on Jan. 14.

Prospective students must pre-register. Contact Jay Busby at (661) 871-9025 for more information.