GOE 2009

Gathering of Eagles


With the meet three weeks away I started my preconditioning to get both Jackhammer and Mini-Me in shape. There are lots of theories on how to condition raptors but, in my opinion, nothing gets eagles in shape better then chasing something down. They simply fly harder and get more excited and amped up when they can chase something. And there is an added benefit when you set up hunting scenarios where the lure suddenly appears out of nowhere and goes away at high speed. Not only are you conditioning your eagle physically, but mentally as well. By using this method your eagle is now looking for something brown and furry that is running away at speed, and that can only be a good thing. I mow a track out in one of our hay fields that is roughly 100 yards long and I fly each eagle 3-4 times after the lure being pulled behind our gator at speeds of approximately 24 mph. After each flight I make in, transfer JH or MM off the lure, hood them, reset the lure, and repeat the process. By doing the conditioning in this manner I am also setting them up for multiple catches. As the days grew closer to the meet both eagles were very ready, flying hard and fast at the lure, showing all the signs that they were ready to hunt.

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We arrived in Garden City on a Tuesday, five days before the official first day of the GOE. I wanted to give the boys some time to recover from the trip and make sure that I knew where the jacks were. As meet chairman I needed to know where to tell people they could find game and, as it turned out, it’s a good thing I was in town early. The jack population had taken quite a drop off from June when Cordi and I were out for the Nat-Geo shoot. No one could say why, only that there were fewer jacks around.

With the jacks down in numbers in the main area that was to be the GOE hunting ground, I contacted some ranchers that I know some 30 miles south of Garden City in an area called Sublette. We went down and looked around and, from the start, we could see that this area was holding more jacks than Garden City and was showing lots of promise. However, we would not be able to hunt the ranches until next Monday as pheasant hunting season was opening up that weekend and the ranchers asked us to stay off their land until next week. But I did know of some CRP land that is open to everyone and we headed there to try our luck. We had filmed in this particular field in June and it had produced many slips so I was optimistic.

I flew JH first. We hunted a good portion of this sizeable field with JH only getting long slips that he tried hard on but did not connect. With the rain the night before, everything was wet and JH was starting to get drenched. I knew he had only a few flights left. We turned back in the general direction of the truck and JH suddenly stood up on his toes and was very interested in something 30 yards out. He left the fist, flying low at first, and then started to climb and kept gaining height until he set his wings, let his speed carry him for a second or two, and then did a wingover and stooped straight down, slamming into something. I walked up to find JH on a rooster pheasant — a first for JH, and me as well, with an eagle.

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MM’s work outs with the gator had gotten better and better; by that I mean his intensity had been building. In the last two years he had flown high at the lure and seemed to be feeling his way as he went, with some gliding in the flight, which slowed him down. This year I noticed from the start that MM was pumping hard the entire way and had dropped down to ground level which is a very effective way to catch jacks. I recall saying to Cordi on more than one occasion that if MM flies like this out in Garden City he is going to catch a lot of jacks!

There is a field down in Sublette we call the Mini-Me field because at one point while filming our latest DVD, Eagle Road Trip, MM had a jack run right through his legs which is on the DVD. MM’s field is as flat as a table top and almost perfect in terms of cover and it holds many jacks. MM is, on any given day, amped up. It is just his nature and it takes some time for him to calm down. For example, he bates at every little thing, thinking it could be a jack. So, at first he is all over the place but he will calm down and start to hunt. Cordi and I and a new falconer we met, Ed Hepp, started to work the field. MM will fly at any jack, regardless of how far off it is, which, for a young eagle, is not productive. In all likelihood they will not catch the jack and will only get frustrated, so it is my job to hold MM back and work for closer slips. One way to do this is by walking very slowly, as the jacks will hold tighter. We walked for maybe 10 minutes, keeping the 10 mph wind at our side, so that any slip would, for the most part, be crosswind. MM was sitting with his back to the wind as I walked crosswind when a jack popped up about 20 feet in front of us. MM exploded off the fist. his first live target since June. MM closed quickly and slammed into the hind end of the speeding jack rabbit. He gained control of his prize and, as the dust settled, looked oh so pleased with himself. MM transfers off kills as good as any falconer could want, in fact, almost too well. He will drag the jack to me and jump up to the fist, so when he catches something I cannot make a move in his direction as he may leave his kill and fly to me.  Once I was sure MM had things under control I offered the glove and he jumped off the jack rabbit, swallowed his reward, and I hooded him up. Now came the major test because, even though I had been working him on multiple flights behind the gator, I was not sure how he would react after killing a live jack. Would he do like he did in June and send the Nat-Geo film crew running as he flew at them? Therefore, I was very pleased to see MM calm down, roust, and start hunting again. So off we went looking for another slip. Not long after we started to hunt, a jack appeared right in front of us, running crosswind. MM came off the fist with attitude, pumping hard and coming in low right on the jack, grabbed it in the butt and walked his way up to the head. Wow, number two in the bag and MM’s first double ever!!

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On Thursday morning, while driving out to the hunting fields, MM suddenly died.  We can only surmise that MM suffered some kind of stroke, as his passing was very quick.
With all of Min-Me’s past physical problems and the challenges he has had to face it could have been any number of things. Cordi and I are deeply saddened by this and are still coming to grips with the loss of one of our team members. We do, however, find comfort in the fact that we were able to give Mini-Me a few years of being an eagle“ flying, hunting, and catching game. He will be sorely missed

_MG_0516Joe's eagle about to landJoe Atkinson eagle in flight 2Joe Atkinson eagle in flight 2

Jackhammer was on his game, as good as I’ve seen him, flying at a very high level and maintaining it throughout the entire meet. I won’t recount the day by day flights as there were simply too many to remember so I will just give some highlights.

One of my goals was for Jackhammer to show what he can do to our friends from overseas because the last time they hunted with JH he did not do well. He was slightly overweight (my fault) and was put off by people in the hunting field, which I told myself I would correct at all costs, and I have done. People in the field hunting with JH have not been an issue for a couple of years now; so much so that he is a veteran of two Nat-Geo programs and will hunt in front of anyone.

It’s a funny thing about JH some fields just don’t hold his attention, and these fields, more times than not, don’t produce very many jacks or none at all. However, I can tell the second I step into a good field as JH is very focused and that is when things get fun..
With many folks in tow, Cordi and I drove out into the main ranch outside Garden City looking for a field to fly. I had noticed an area on the outermost edge of the ranch that had caught my eye the few times I drove past it. The field is a cut wheat field with a pivot in the middle and patches of tumbleweed that have grown after the wheat was cut. This area of cover was, for the most part, out in the middle of the field, far away from any other heavy cover and made for a dramatic landscape with the light tan of the wheat stubble and the very dark, almost black, of the tumbleweed stuff growing out in the middle of the field. To me it just looked like it should have a jack or two in it and this is the perfect JH field, wide open where the jacks can hit full speed.

We walked out into the field, positioning ourselves in a way that we could work the prime area in sections, keeping the strong wind either at our backs or in a crosswind direction. As I moved into the cover JH suddenly became very focused and I could sense that something was about to happen. I don’t know if he saw some slight movement of a jack or what, but he was going to explode on the fist, flinching at anything. I heard the slight rustle of the cut wheat and felt JH reacting before I ever saw the jack flash up from its hiding spot. Being out in the open, this jack was in a full burn, ears down and moving out on some predetermined escape route. JH exploded from my fist with big powerful wing strokes, turning over at a rate that seems impossible for a bird so big. I stood and watched as JH closed in on the jack that was now running for its life. I could see the very slight directional changes JH made as he built speed and tracked his jack rabbit. I say his because, over the years and thousands of flights, I can tell the second JH leaves the fist that a jack is going to be caught. As the flight built in speed and distance, the jack realized it was in serious trouble and, in a desperate attempt to shake JH, it turned upwind and reached for what speed it had left.  Already with considerable speed and momentum built up, the wind now was not a factor. JH closed on the jack like a runaway freight train and simply overpowered it.. Jack rabbit flushed at 15 yards away, jack caught at 30 yards out.

Mid week of the GOE:

With 17 cars following us I found a previously unflown field that looked like a Jackhammer type field, low cover with big areas of open space. Earlier in the morning I had stopped in and gained permission to fly this whole area and many fields looked good. But I chose this one and boy did it pay off.
The wind was at 25 mph with gusts up 30 mph so it was going to be a factor again. All I could do was keep it cross- or downwind from us and hunt, that’s it. JH was in prime condition so I knew he could handle many slips in all directions. My first indication on how this field was going to be was that jacks were already flushing as I was wiring up JH at the truck. I had everyone, some 20 plus people, walk off my right side and I stayed just slightly in front of the line. Sometimes, if the line gets even with me, JH and I cannot see the jacks flush and, in strong wind like we were in, that is a factor. I don’t think we had gone 20 feet and up popped a jack and JH had it, just that fast!  We continued to walk and another jack got up. JH just missed him due to an outstanding move by the jack rabbit using a tumbleweed and the wind to its full advantage. I’ll try and set the scene as best I can recall  off to my right were 20 people walking in a straight line and I was keeping maybe 10 yards in front of the line. Up in front of us all, on the left side, was the photo gallery consisting of Cordi, Rob Palmer and Mark Williams. So, what we had done was to create an alley for the jacks to run in, effectively funneling them in a crosswind or downwind direction. We were walking slowly because many jacks were flushing way ahead of us and, with the wind, those would have been very difficult flights and out of the cameras range.  I asked everyone to stop so I could work the cover just in front of them to look for the close, fast slip that JH loves. I took maybe 5 steps and a jack was up and running straight upwind. JH was on it just as fast, closing regardless of the strong wind. The jack went left, then right, with JH matching it move for move and he slammed into the jack. number two for the day. With tons of field left and no other birds ready to fly I traded JH off and we continued to hunt, working our way back to the trucks.  JH went on to catch two more jacks, making a total of four for the day. The last two flights were just the kind I like, speed on speed, with the jacks running in full burn-out mode and JH cranking all the way in fantastic!

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This short video will give you a good idea on how the wind was blowing while we where hunting!

Throughout the course of the meet we saw many great flights with the jack rabbits using all manner of escape tactics particularly using the jump high in the air over the eagle” move very effectively.

GOE meet game total;

Mini-Me  2 jack rabbits

Jackhammer 23 jack rabbits
1 cotton tail
1 rooster pheasant
More meet photos and video:



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if you’re going to fly an eagle expect to get your picture taken.

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Daryl Perkins, me and JH, and Scott Simpson after some wonderful hawking

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Getting JH ready to hunt


JH and me  photo by Rob Palmer