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. 

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.

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. 

Evidence of interlopers

On the tailgate of a pickup covered in the grime of four states, I pull out my boots and lace them while Tom buys green chile cheeseburgers at Blake’s Lottaburger.

It was a long drive through the night. A February snow hammered us for 300 miles from Utah until we drove out of it near Albuquerque at daybreak. The mid-day desert air is warmer than I have felt in a month, but when I pull on the boots they are still full of cold, Northern Rockies air.

There are a handful of chukar feathers stuck in the laces, a remnant of a last day Idaho hunt. I pick them off and watch them flutter across the parking lot and catch in the grass at the edge. I wonder if some other rig packed with bird dogs and desperate for a green chili fix. Will they raise an eyebrow? Will they get a chuckle? Or will they think, “go home you miserable spot stealing bastards!”

I hope it’s the latter.

Getting off on the right foot

“I should shoot you.” 

I said it as flat and cold as I could. 

The view was nice up here, and while I may have been pleased to be at the top, I wasn’t feeling it yet. About five minutes prior, I had been skirting a hill in chukar country. I’d showed up to camp about an hour before, having driven through part of the night in a snowstorm and laid up short of camp to avoid rousting everyone at 2 a.m. I had driven into camp at sunrise, a little delirious and feeling like Gandalf arriving at dawn on the third day. In truth, I showed up a couple of days after camp had started with my covid 15 packed into my shirt.  

That first morning, my three companions headed in other directions and I lit out into the wilds low on sleep, overweight and needing to get my chukar legs under me. I took the low road, moving west, skirting the big hill. I’d let loose Maggie – the big running young setter – based on some logic that seemed sound at the time, but fails me now that I try and recall the rationale. I started moving, cold still, knowing I’d would warm eventually. Maggie swung wide into the flat off to our west as I trudged north. I was optimistic that she might find a covey of huns in the lowlands, and I felt soft at the wish. Maggie had other ideas. She swung north, then made a great sweeping arc all the way to my right, climbing the hill I had avoided, disappearing over the skyline, still climbing at a dead run.

I turned northeast, following her on the path of least resistance, climbing, but at a gentle pace. And then she stopped. The Garmin said she was pointing, 425 yards. Straight uphill. 

Days later, my chukar legs under me and the first day’s trepidation gone, I would think back to this moment. Heart hammering, a messy jog hampered by 8 months of covid fat hanging on me a like an anchor, but climbing like a mad man. Sweating, panting, slipping on the snow and ice-covered scree. Occasionally calling out a feeble, whispered “good girl, whoa”, mostly for myself. Narrowing the gap, 300 yards, 200, navigate around a basalt rim, 100 yards, almost to the top, “where is she?” Then 50 yards, at the summit. And she’s moving. She comes right to me, happy as only a bird dog afield can be. 

I look around desperately to see if I can find the birds flying and maybe mark them down. Instead, I see Tom. Laughing. Giggling like a child who has just played the greatest joke of all time, holding the little setter by the collar, patiently petting her as I scrambled and raced uphill. 

“I should shoot you.” 

I said it as flat and cold as I could. 

But came out more like, “I…” followed by gasping and retching, “I… should,” more gasping, wheezing, and sweating. “I… should… shoot… you.” 

I was pissed and not yet in the mood to laugh about it. But even if I had been pulled there involuntarily, I was at the top of this little hill, now in chukar country for real. To the east, a mountain range loomed another 2,500 feet up and ahead of us was a dry creek and another hill. Down, then up again. Vertical gained, vertical lost. And if you want to kill chukar, you have to be casual about it. Birds climb up and fly down. Get used to it. When you find them, you chase them. 

Tom managed to slow the giggling to a smirk.

Sorry buddy. I had to do it,” he said. “You want to hunt together?” 

We dropped down into the creek bed and started upward again.

The first day in chukar camp is always tough. Particularly after a year like this one. But you have to start climbing eventually, and truthfully, it’s not exactly the Himalayas. It’s more of a mind game than anything. You just have to steel yourself and go right at it. As the trip wound down, I regained my sense of humor and told the rest of the crew the story. On reflection after days of non-stop climbing, maybe I even owe Tom for getting me off on the right foot on that first morning.

Yep, I definitely owe him. I’ll have to do something nice to repay him next season. 

Save Giffy Butte

You can post all the hashtags you want, but please knock it off with the geotagging and mapping bird hunting spots. Social media hotspotting is not cool man. Name a state. Name a region. Name a large city with a good BBQ restaurant. But don’t name spots. I know it’s not just hunters. It happens in fishing and mountain biking, sometimes splashing back on hunting. I’ve lost many a blue grouse hunting spot to user-created mountain bike trails, many of them spurred on by social media stoke. And I’ve given up a lot of spots over the years.

Once you see a place making the rounds on social, you can bank on it getting more traffic. And the thing about free spots, places that a person didn’t have to earn with boot leather and gas and miles and time, is that they don’t hold any value for the recipients. The guy who found a spot on a social post is likely going to post it for his followers. He’ll tag it proudly, even stack a three-day pile of birds on the tailgate to make it seem extra juicy. And then he’ll drive away to hunt another spot that someone else posted. And that little out of the way patch of public ground that you hit once or twice a year and was always good for a covey? Now there is a well worn parking spot, complete with some Keystone cans and an empty box of golden pheasant loads. There might even be a couple of dead bird carcasses lying in the ditch if you can get there early enough in the season. 

Constituting somewhat less than half of what remains of the MOF writing crew comes with a certain notoriety – certainly not fame. And in a world that long left behind blogs for more “social” media long ago, it is notoriety that is limited in scope. We accept that. We are not effective hash taggers. We are not even on Facebook. Our Insta account is an after thought. We are writers. And MOF has always been a repository for writing that doesn’t fit elsewhere.We have always said what we think and feel. And we have taken our lumps for it, much of it deserved.  But we haven’t run from it. When we write something and the angry hordes loose fire from their keyboards, we let them comment. Maybe we are just too damn old. Maybe our experience as writers in print steeled us for the peanut gallery. 

For whatever reason, I am often surprised the softness of the social media mavens. Earlier today, I noticed a person I follow on Instagram had posted a tailgate-trophy photo and tagged it with a very specific, very small western town, off the beaten path. Now I don’t know the guy, but judging by his photos he seems like a good dude. He has bird dogs and kids, likes hunting and hole-in-the-wall bars. If I was a more likable person, maybe we could even be friends. I didn’t want to be rude and comment on the photo, so I dropped a private message. “Hey man. Great photo! Maybe next time, consider skipping the location tag. Some of us like to hunt there too!”I figured I’d get a response, maybe even an indignant one. Instead I got blocked. I didn’t see that coming, but maybe I should have. We live in a world where people don’t have to talk to people they disagree with. They don’t have to hear opinions they don’t like. Don’t like CNN? Try Fox. Don’t like Fox? Try Newsmax. Disagree with a perspective? Block it. 

So here in a place that can only be ignored but not blocked, I beseech you. Please knock off the geotagging. Even if you don’t care if a spot gets blown up, someone else does. 

GUEST POST: Semi-Retired

By Blaine Peetso: http://www.theborealist.com


Wanted: Easy Work

Old age pensioner willing to work for cash/food under the table as long as the job is easy and hours are short.  No big wide open country or ultra dense bush.  Will need plenty of water breaks. Will not play games with the merchandise (keep away, tug-of-war, etc) like the young apprentices on the jobsite. Vision is going, hearing is gone but the sniffer works fine and I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve. Not as good as I once was, but as good once as I ever was. Contact me at my office on the couch for further information.
Full disclaimer: I may shit and/or piss in the truck depending on the length of the commute.

A bargain

In the early-morning silence of a Sunday morning, the slow drip of the coffee seemed loud. My fuzzy, pre-coffee brain tried to make sense of the computer screen.  $240? For a license? In my home state? That doesn’t seem right. It seems pricey. In fact, it seems ridiculous. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived anywhere else. I’m a house-owning, tax-paying resident, by god.

I page through the menus, check my profile, check my login, then realize the truck is idling, the dogs are loaded and the coffee is done. And I’m late.

I type in the help number, close the computer and hit dial as I walk out the door. To my surprise and relief, a kind lady named Sharon picks up the phone and I’m buoyed with confidence. After a few minutes and a lot of typing, she tentatively tells me there is some kind of error in the system and that she can’t help me. I’ll have to go to headquarters, which won’t be open for another couple of days. Or, I can buy a non-resident license. $240. I ponder this figure for a moment. The coffee is working and I now clearly understand that this is much more than the cost of a regular license. I also understand that it’s some kind of glitch, probably related to my recently renewed driver’s license. My buddy pulls into the parking lot. I thank Sharon and tell her I’ll go to the office in a couple of days.

“Hey buddy, ready to chase some birds?”

“I can’t hunt today because I can’t get a license, but let’s go run the dogs.”

“You sure?”

“Yep, all good, let’s roll.”

On the drive out, I convince myself that it will be fun, useful even. I have my camera and my dogs. It’ll be a good chance to focus on the basics. Like off-season training, only during the season.

And then later, she’s pointing. The tip of her tail white against the black sage, which in turn is black against the white snow. My buddy walks in, shotgun held at the ready. In the second before the covey goes up, I damn sure would have paid $240 to be walking in with him.

It would have been a bargain.

 

 

 

 

 

Permanence

GUEST POST
By Chad Love
Editor at Quail Forever, Itinerant blogger (MOF, Mallard of Discontent)

You try to be Buddhist about these things, tell yourself that everything we think of as solid and implacable and unyieldingly forever will someday be gone, that all the bullshit artifices of man will eventually wither into nothingness, and that nothing, absolutely nothing is permanent; not life, not love, not nations or gods or religions, not the earth or stars, and sure as hell not a dog.

Fourteen years. You tell yourself that’s a pretty damn good run for a chessie. You look at the picture, and wonder why you like it so much. She’s not doing anything, just standing in the freezing water like she always did. She retrieved a helluva lot of ducks from that pond over the years, but that day we didn’t shoot a damn thing, just goofed off and splashed around.

You look at the picture and tell yourself that nothing is permanent. Not the dog, not you, not even that pond. It’s as gone as the dog. The dam failed during a flood a few years after that photo was taken, washed down the creek to the river and to the bigger river and eventually the sea, and a few generations of memories washed down with it.

Now that pond is just a silt-filled, willow-choked marshy bowl where some half-remembered things once happened.

I buried her on a bluff overlooking the spot where that pond once was, the third and final chessie of this impermanent lifetime of mine to be lowered into that hard, ancestral clay, cried over, and then relegated to compartments of memory that inexorably start dimming, just as the hard, bitter flash of loss and pain so keenly felt while digging the hole eventually dulls and retreats in the face of life going on.

Like every dog, she absorbed so many of my weaknesses, my shortcomings, my deficiencies, and processed that into love. That’s what dogs do. They’re alchemist: They take our failings, and turn them into goofy, panting, unconditional love.

Nothing is permanent. Nothing lasts. Nothing endures. But some things come pretty damn close.

 

%d bloggers like this: