Peak Bird Dog

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal.

By Greg McReynolds

It’s big country and birds are thin, so I let her run. No other dogs, no other hunters, just the setter and me.

It’s been an odd season. I haven’t hunted alone much. I’ve asked much of her to put friends on birds and counted on her to make a good showing in front of people I respect. I committed her to a charity hunt and called on her to rise to the occasion of hunting with some exceptional dogs. And she did.

For the first time in a while, it’s just us. I’m not handling her at all. Just walking across big country in the sage and the grass and watching her run until she drops over a bump in the horizon and disappears. If I had a friend in tow or someone else’s dog on my left, I would have turned her or stopped her to wait for me. Today, I let her run.

I hear the beeper when I crest the top of the hill, but it takes me a bit to get my bearings and then jog toward a creek-bottom thicket on the edge of a CRP field. 

I see the setter tail cocked at angle, bent where she has contorted herself into a point amongst the brush. There is no way to walk in and flush and still be able to take a shot, so I try to release her, but she’s held fast. I resort to tossing a stick. It doesn’t work, so I move and then wait. The setter is solid, but I can see her trembling.

After a long minute, the birds burst upward, looking for clear air. Just above the trees, I take a snap shot and hit one solidly. It flies downhill for 50 yards, towers and then plummets into a patch of cover. We search hard, but don’t pick it up. It’s stick-in-the-eye thick in here, and now that I’m in it, I realize my mark was poor. It would be easier to find if it was alive. After 10 minutes of bushwhacking and yelling and keeping the dog in the cover, she finally locates a hard-earned bird, lying dead on a bed of red and yellow leaves.

I slip the bird in my vest and call her back when she starts out again. I pour her water and sit down in the leaves with my back against a tree. She comes and sits next to me, still anxious to hunt, but willing to humor me for a minute. This is my best dog — 6 years in — as steady as I can get her, but still with the fire of a young dog.

She’s the middle of the pack I’ve always wanted. One old dog, one in her prime and one coming up. Three different dogs, three different eras.

A dog’s life is a parabola. An arc, heading skyward from a crying, whining ball of fuzz peeing the floor and barking in the kennel before plummeting downward toward an ending peeing the floor and barking at the ceiling.

There is a moment of weightlessness at the apex. It’s pulling the tow release on a sailplane and feeling the bottom drop out before you nose over into glide speed. It’s topping a hill at 17 years old, redlining fourth gear in an ’82 mustang.

The apex is a dog, running steady at a pace that eats up the country, cutting it into tiny blocks, breathing the air and floating past vast swaths of “no birds” until she locates them and holds them tight and steady so that you never fear whether she will wait for you.

There are the upward milestones, house trained, name recognition, recall, frustration, steady, first point, first bird, first retrieve, frustration, first road trip, first scare, pride, perfection, imperfection, frustration.

This setter took a gradual course to apex with some notable dips in altitude along the way. There was a beautiful October day when as a young dog, she blew through a field at light speed, flushing three different species of birds without ever tapping the brakes.

And there was one particular cold, wet day late in the season a few years back. My number one dog at the time had hunted the first field, but my hunting partner — my 14-year-old nephew — hadn’t yet had a good shot. I let her out with a little trepidation only to have her run with perfection.

She ran big and pinned down a pair of roosters and held them fast. He walked in a wing tipped a wild, mature bird which my little setter tracked down and brought back. I stood and watched a young man and a young dog and couldn’t tell which of them was happiest about that bird. I wasn’t even carrying a gun and it is one of my fondest memories afield.

There are the downward milestones as well, hardheadedness, blind, deaf, not-give-a-damn, last bird, last retrieve, last hunt. There comes a day where every point or retrieve is a gift. And the day when you have to pat her head to wake her in the morning so she will get up and go out. And then we lament how short the life of a good bird dog is and how the true burden of having dogs is outliving them.

It all matters. It’s all love and memories and life-altering companionship. But sometimes you see the apex — a moment where a dog reaches peak altitude. Her legs are strong and her stride is as efficient as it will ever be. She is no longer an out of control starship headed for another galaxy. She is a ballistic missile, headed for an ending that I know is coming far too soon.

That’s the trouble with peak bird dog: it’s fleeting. Two seasons, more if you’re lucky, before the gradual decline begins. A good dog will make up for it — hunt smarter, pace themselves — try to milk the golden years. And we will help them. Give them shorter runs and better conditioning, let them have the choicest spots.

But it’s still too damn short. So I stand and dust off the leaves. I fold and store the bowl in the pocket of my vest. When I pick up the gun and reach for shells, she is off like a bolt. I watch her stretch out. She checks back once, then begins to make long, wide sweeps, each one taking her farther out front. With the good weight of a wild bird in my vest, I strike west following the dog and savoring the apex. 

Forever

Got ’em.

I could do this every day. Walk the roads. The tall grass. Carry the gun broken over miles of empty fields just for the heart-race that is the “snick” of the gun readied. Thumb on the safety, gawd-almighty-get-ready. Do it forever, every day of the season from infant October to bitter good bye January, the ditch parrots flushed and cackling and sometimes escaping. The gun swinging, the bird falling, the glorious dog upon it as if this is all there is in this world and for her, perhaps it is and for you that’s the case as well, if you stop and look deep enough to admit it. Engulfed. Forever, a new place, a new door knocked, a new acquaintance, an old place, a cover where you know the ambush front and back and sideways. Forever and repeat.

But what of the miles of empty road, the flat tires, the permissions refused, the hot days with water running low miles from the pickup? The down years when it’s just miles and a few carry-over birds sailing out of sight? What of the misses, the wiffs, the outright slumps? What of letting her down after all that hard work she did thrashing the deep cover that towers over her little head, you fool? A flat-footed, no-excuses miss. The blisters, the rain, the wet stench of tired foot? The field of nothing but hens, or worse, roosters running goodbye-gone-and-a-day and flushing at beyond what is even prudent rifle range? The cover cow-burnt to the dirt? What of Russian olive thorn and prickly pear dagger? What of tired leg and chaffed groin and a shower needed, badly. What of someone else beating you to it, halfway across the field before you turn up the county road? Forever? Really? I call bullshit.

Try me. Just try me.

For Those Who Know

It’s stubborn dogs and disappointed spouses, pigeon shit and pissed off neighbours. It’s early morning training sessions and an ever-growing to-do list. It’s puppy blues and terrible twos, pocket kibble and “it gets better” promises. It’s failure and frustration, two steps forward and four steps back. It’s ecollars and kennels, bells and beepers, leashes, launchers and leads. It’s living on good credit and bad coffee, staring out the windshield with half-lidded eyes. It’s out of date maps and middle of nowhere flats, busted ball joints, bent rims and blown fan belts. It’s scraped skid plates and gas price laments, dusty dead ends and permission denied. It’s heatstroke under an all-conquering sun or frostbitten fingers and sideways sleet sting. It’s thistles and thorns and slivers, sand and grit, mud and blood and sweat and tears. It’s rattlesnakes and forgotten snares, badger holes, barbed wire and “Are they bluffing?” bears. It’s tailgate trauma centres, porcupine quills and vet bills. It’s the ghost of gone dogs and all the heartbreak you can handle.

All for a few fleeting moments here at the confluence of nose and scent, where lead just might meet wing and time holds in brief suspension before the blur beckons and begins again.

And if you can’t find the beauty in that . . .

Well, you wouldn’t be here would you?

Mentors

BY BRANDON RAPP

It’s not always easy asking for help. Sometimes you don’t know you need it, while others you’re too stubborn to admit that you do. As a hunter, it can be at times, nearly impossible to force to question out of your mouth. 

Still, as an enthusiastic bird hunter that came to the pursuit shortly after their 30th birthday, early successive years of complete failure left me exasperated and ready to reach out to any benevolent voice of experience. 

A breakroom invitation from a few fellows at work got me into bird hunting. These were classic Pennsylvania “all-arounders” who graciously added me to their mid-October strolls in hopes of getting a few pheasants before it was time to sight in rifles and prep for frosty post-Thanksgiving deer stands. 

No dogs, tattered gear, and more pump guns than pomp were stored in truck beds and blanketed back seats. It was perfect. 

Those early experiences would breathe air into coals that grew flames of enthusiasm for the sport in a place where the best days of birds and habitat were long gone by the time my father had his 30th birthday. Despite making the financial and lifestyle commitments of new gear, more time in the field, and my first bird dog, I still hadn’t put my first bird in the bag. 

I finally did what so many of us find impossible to do, and asked for help. I was able to locate two local gentlemen easily 30 years my senior and secured an invitation to hunt with them. Confusion clouded most of that first early morning meeting in a state game land parking lot. These are far from the days when my generation seeks out mentors. It seems like you’re either blessed with them at birth, or you exist without them. 

We started our stroll that morning with usual and customary pleasantries set to the sound of wind brushing dry autumn leaves and bells on the collars of eager young dogs. 

“Where do you work? Where are you from? How do you like your truck? Any kids?”

Asking more questions than I answered, we made our way through tall grass and gnarled hedgerows. I watched my dog learn from their dogs as I did the same emulating their movements as hunters and absorbing it all. 

At the end of one such hedgerow, the dogs went on point and rooster cackles gave way to an explosive flush. Mounting, aiming, and firing I dropped one of the pheasants on a going away shot and my setter was quick on the fallen bird. A skill he knew he had, but not me. 

There’s no quantitative measure for the value of a good mentor. No dollar amount, no volume, no number of any kind will ever express our appreciation for their guidance. We keep the ability to go to them when we’re lost tucked away like a treasure. 

When I was shopping for my first double gun, I went to them. When I was buying my first house, I went to them. When an unexpected illness took our first dog at a young age, our bird dog’s older sister, I went to them. 

I still don’t know everything, so I keep a closed mouth and open ears when around those that are telling me something I’m thirsting to learn. How to take better care of my dogs or my guns. How to put better shots on birds. How to be more patient and a better man as a whole.  

Sitting in my truck after that first hunt, I marinated in appreciation at the fortune of now having these mentors in my life. Of how a little effort on my part by asking the question was rewarded with an invaluable resource in the form of two pleasant souls. This was one of those few times I knew something was changing, and I was moving into a new chapter I was excited to read. I sat there thinking about all of those wonderful heavy thoughts when I remembered I had a bird to clean, so I put the gear lever on my truck to “D” and let off the brake. 

Contributor to magazines, newspapers, and various blogs Brandon perennially seeks the marrow out of life by searching for his next experience. Whether it be less than sure about his location on a mountain top in Vermont, to pleading for a single bluegill on a local park stream, he appreciates the beauty of being out there. He’s been in way over his head with bird dogs for a few years now and sees no real reason to pivot from that trajectory.

Best Days

On our best days we are dog whisperers, shotgun wizards, cartographers of broken country. We move with poise and purpose, up steep chukar slopes, through thick grouse woods, out and over the windswept plains. On our best days we worship at the church of the wild bird and we leave our offerings out on the sagebrush sea, there in the chokecherry thicket, and just near the muskeg’s edge. We dance to the western wind and the ringing of the dog’s bell. On our best days we are tailgate raconteurs and field lunch gourmands, holding a secret knowledge of backroads. We drink from the well of wild and open place and we surrender to the present, wholly at ease with this world and our place in it. On our best days we come back home wind-burnt and worn, tired and thirsty. But we return home, generous at the tavern, gentle with our children, gracious with our partners.

On most days however, we are just funny folks in silly clothes, chasing impractical dogs. Staring down the tyranny of efficiency, forever searching for both birds and empty space.

Hoping for just enough breeze, so the dogs can lead us back, somewhere closer towards grace.

Celebrating National Dog Day with the Mouthful of Feathers book

National Dog Day is here and for those of us who live to see our hunting canine companions perform their magic, that means that hunting season is not far behind. In honor of our doggy family members, we at Mouthful of Feathers are announcing something truly special: the upcoming publication in Spring 2023 of Mouthful of Feathers, Upland in America.

In the spirit of the Mouthful of Feathers blog that has been the standard for upland bird hunting writing for more than a decade, the book gathers together the most gifted and honest writers in the genre all in one place, all with unique tales from the uplands (and a swamp or two).

These are fresh voices that articulate the experience as we know it – wild, elusive birds in massive country, imperfect dogs (and people), dirtbag camps, busted up field guns, trucks stuck in the mud, days spent putting miles on the boots with nothing to show for it, and yes, even a little blood now and then. We believe it is possible to both honor the tradition of our sport and still write in the unsanitized present. This is “why,” re-told in written language that honors the craft of the telling.

Boiled all the way down, Mouthful of Feathers, Upland in America will set the standard for tales of the uplands for years to come. Look for stories from these authors: Reid Bryant, Greg McReynolds, Thomas Reed, Chad Love, Ryan Busse, Dave Zoby, Shauna Stephenson, Eric Thompson, Christine Peterson, Mike Neiduski, Edgar Castillo, Chris Dombrowski, T. Edward Nickens, Jillian Lukiwski, Els Van Woert and Marissa Jensen.

Happy National Dog Day.

Resolution

I needed this. 

That’s what he said to me as we sat on our tailgates and watched the orange on the clouds fade to gray and the hedgerow along the cut beans start to disappear into black. Cigar smoke swirled between swigs of PBR and dogs snored in kennels behind us.

I needed to feel small for a bit, he followed. 

He’s a firefighter and a medic, and as the kids say, he’s seen some shit. I know that feeling too, having worked in a similar field where the ax wounds of others’ trauma are passed on to those who show up to help them.

We sat in silence for a while after that.

I buried two dogs this year, and with them I buried a job and a life. I wasn’t prepared for that.

As much as I don’t want this season, I need it.

My father always talks about firsts and reminds me to cherish them. Firsts only happen once, you know. And, you only get so many. But, what if my first season without the dog that started it all is a first I don’t want, whether I need it or not? What then?

Here’s the deal, though. The old dog broke all four canines chewing her way through kennels when she couldn’t hunt. One time, I forgot to latch her crate under my topper on a walk-about with the pup and came back to find the side window screen blown out and the top chewed off the 5 gallon jug of water. She greeted me at the window with a wide panting smile and a tongue across my cheek. She was always ready for another go.

How is it that the clarity of the past so easily muddies the waters of the future?

Yet, here we are at another beginning.

September hovers days away and with it comes Opening Day and the young dog on the truck just coming into her own. I’ll add a couple more who deserve a shot at learning the game, too. A couple who need a chance, an opportunity to show off what they can do, and I’ll add in the love and the care and the space to see what happens as they put the pieces together.

That’s what I need this season – I can’t wait to watch them figure it out. 

After all, isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?

Scars

There is a stone wall at the bottom of the Blackmer place that runs north to south along the forest edge. In New England fashion, it is straight and true despite its age, three stones wide and another three high, a dry-laid bulwark of our native schist. The slab-handed dairyman on the place claims that the width spells it out to be the boundary of a long-forgotten garden, as the pasture walls of his forbears were built in the width of a single stone. But the garden is gone now of course, and the flint corn and squash and drying beans that once grew there have, like the farm itself, been deemed New England heirlooms. As for the wall, I dare say in the last hundred years it has contained nothing at all except a grown-over section of bittersweet tangle… and, of course, a steadfast supply of grouse and woodcock for the unlikely likes of me.

I ran my first dog along that wall in training and in earnest for the first five years I lived here, through all the seasons except summer. In fall, I carried a gun back and forth across it, teetering over the loose stones with the gun broken. The dog, who is now just ashes and memories, made his first by-god grouse point just beside it, and followed the wing-tipped bird well over the hill in the retrieve. And it was there one October day that I tripped and fell and busted my knee and put a ragged, three-inch scar into the stock wood of a treasured bird gun. I’ve never had the heart nor the money to get the gash repaired, just as I’ve yet to relegate the dog’s ashes to the loam in that place beside the wall. I suppose the jagged scar, which has darkened with years and gun oil and sweat from my hands, has grown to make the gun, and indeed the autumns themselves, somewhat more my own.

I think of scars often in that way, as things of beauty, vestiges of memory. The dog that now shares my bed tore a flap of his flank away on a barbed-wire fence when he was no but two. He never made a peep, and he kept arcing through the alder just ahead of me, and only on a woodcock point did I notice the blood on his side. I took the stitches out myself but missed one somehow, which I still feel as a rise in that half-moon of nubby flesh beneath his fur. I remember too the way the vet smiled up at me over the stainless table, a man who knew about dogs and guns and horses. “Don’t worry,” he said to me, pulling the black gut tight. “On the sporting breeds, the show judges don’t draw points against dogs marked up in the field.  In fact, I think it adds to the appeal.” True or not, I liked him all the more for saying it, though it was the least of my concerns that day or now.

Scars tell a story. Scars prove our mettle. Scars are what make old men old, and old guns heirlooms, and old dogs sore when they whimper, sound asleep, by the fire. In the annals of my New England, there is a photo of Burton Spiller, the poet laureate of the New England grouse woods, holding a cockbird by the toe before Tap Tapply, its native son.  It’s a black-and-white photo, well weathered, barely more than an etching of a time when partridge filled the forgotten corners, and the forest was re-gaining ground, and a pointing dog still had a chance on those ruffed-necked biddies of the autumn woods. Spiller is holding the bird out to Tapply, and I can only imagine and can’t quite see the little rents and tears and scuff marks that line the backs of his hands. A lifetime in the grouse woods, torn by thornapple spears and blackberry and the odd bit of fence wire. Those hands carried a gun through a land scabbing over, and healing, going dry and full to bursting with birds, while stone walls lost their purpose and became nothing more than scars themselves along the New England landscape.  And here I am now a part of it too, walking the walls where Spiller tread, where my first dog pointed a first grouse, and I tipped it barely into the remains of our forefathers garden, and he fetched it back. “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” says that good book, but I say what of the scars that linger, reminding us each of the of autumn days? It’s the scars that tell the story, and fill our hearts when, as old men, they are all that we need to remind us.

I’m here to tell you

In the beginning, no one tells you about the end.

Everyone focuses on the withdrawal from the bank account and the puppy breath and the belly rubs. Maybe they tell you about crate training or share their contrived tips to get the new addition through the night without incident, but they don’t talk about the end. 

I’ve long looked at myself as a rookie in this space. Always looking, always learning, trying to glean what I can from each new experience and get better – hunting, training, handling, and loving.

As the years went on I knew the end was coming, I even played it out in my brain a few times like one of those difficult conversations you have with yourself before ever uttering a word out loud to the other person. Those never go as planned, do they? 

This didn’t either.

Don’t get me wrong, I know about death. Trust me. Lose a family member to the violence of another as a teen and you get real close with it. But, unlike most things, the loss of those you care about doesn’t get easier with practice. (If you don’t care about your dogs you probably shouldn’t be here.)

I knew it was looming out there, a storm cloud on the edge of the horizon. That kind you brush off and will elsewhere by calling the dog around and striking out to new country pretending you won’t get wet. But, gamble long enough and those clouds end up on top of you – rain was coming. There was the inevitable slow down and the gray muzzle and the stiff legs on hoar frost covered mornings.

In the time since the beginning, those I met from the onset of this four-legged following had their own ends. Ends I felt, in a different way, sure, but ends nonetheless. No more scratches behind the ears, no more ‘whoa’ and the excitement that comes after, no more times on the tailgate getting collared and no more ‘god damnit, I said here!’ when they forgot to turn it on. 

Hobbes and Bonnie went first. I hate to say that I don’t remember which had the honor of first place in the race to the end, but I do remember the sting of the texts coming through for each of them. I remember the downturned eyes and staring at the phone screen with no words to type. They don’t tell you what to say in these moments.

We had a good run after that. Half of us with dogs in their prime, and the others with up-and-comers. We got a break.

And then the break was over. One week we had to drag Tine out of a cut over full of so many woodcock he forgot his name, the next had his weathered red reflective collar buckled for the last time and placed on the dashboard. That dash still had trips on the books, waypoints across bird country to hit, as we all do when it’s only October and you have a workhorse in the kennel, a kennel now empty. Best laid plans.

Before I dropped that tailgate in April and came face to face with the end I had plans of my own. Plans of a rookie turned intermediate who is beyond the puppy years and knows the clock will wind down soon. Plans to keep the list of first places and first birds going before her brightness dimmed too much. They don’t tell you that you can’t pick when the lights go out. One more thing not going as planned.

I wish they would have pulled me aside and told me about the end, if nothing else to dull the knife of loss just a touch over a lifetime before it plunged its way home. But they don’t.

Now it’s my turn to be ‘they’.

You know what I say? 

In the end, it’s so fucking worth it.

Mouthful of Feathers lives!

The e-book is out of print. 

No one reads blogs any longer. 

No one (even us) blogs anymore. 

Instagram wants you to watch video influencers. 

Facebook wants you to shop. 

So we are doing the most punk thing we can come up with.

We are doubling down on the blog. 

We are recruiting new contributors. 

We are printing a book. 

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