Rethinking the Relationship

We had completed a fairly thorough loop for one guy and one big running dog to do through the field, and were on our way back to the truck. Downwind. The dog absolutely hates hunting downwind, and will do everything he can to veer from it, since for him, hunting downwind is dumb, and because for him, the hunting doesn’t end when you’ve made the decision to head back to the truck and are returning via ground that you already covered on the way out. No, it doesn’t end for him until we’re at the tailgate. He’s taught me the value of this lesson many times before, but my hard-headed human brain tends to forget.

So when he veers off at a 90 degree angle to the wind, and the direction to the truck, I don’t think much of it, but then I forget how quickly he can cover ground when he wants to. I let him range because I tell myself  that we’ve already covered this, and the day is done and truth be told, I’m fantasizing about dinner. I probably should have noted that he wasn’t just meandering, but heading in a pretty specific direction.

There is a common adage in the bird dog world that, “you must teach the dog to hunt for you.” I used to firmly believe this was the case, with no room for interpretation. After all, the only other option is an out-of-control dog, right? In some cases, that’s certainly true. But I’d like to think I’m growing and learning as a bird hunter (and hopefully always will be), and have come to realize that too much stubborn control over everything your dog does can betray a lack of trust in your dogs’ inherent, amazing abilities, not to mention impacting what ends up in the game bag.

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The reality of the relationship – if it’s a good one – is a far more nuanced, “give and take” than that; an interdependent push-and-pull across the landscape. At least in the situations I most often find myself hunting in. This isn’t a quaint, 2-acre patch of errant apple orchard, but a wide open, hilly field 20 times that in size, and it wouldn’t even be considered “big” country by our western standards. I need a dog that has no shortage of initiative, not one that is going to be plodding along dutifully right in front of me. And in these scenarios, the reality is that we have learned to hunt for each other. Just as he is obliged to find birds for me in a vast and sometimes daunting landscape, I’m obliged to trust that he knows what he’s doing; that his desire to find birds is unwavering (the occasional rabbit or deer scent aside…) and at least as great as mine. Trusting this arrangement means that in general, he needs to go where I want him to, but it also means that it’s a good idea for me to pay attention when he clearly wants to head in a certain direction. Knowing a good bird dog well means trusting that he probably has his reasons.

I watch a couple skittish sharpies bust wild a hundred and some yards away, as he is quartering toward them, nose held high, before he has a chance to lock them down and point them. His sudden, 90 deg. detour now becomes clear – he somehow knew they were over there, even from that distance. I mark where they go down on the hillside, not far away. It could be tempting to raise my blood pressure regarding my “out of control dog” upon seeing this, but the truth is that he’s doing exactly what he should be doing, and the mistakes are honestly mine. Instead, I call him in, and as a team, we double back and move in together and get them. Birds we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, if it had been left up to me. Another lesson has been reinforced. Luckily, my dog is a forgiving and patient teacher.

Postscript: The following day, the little bastard ran all over hell and back, ignoring commands, whistles and every setting on the e-collar. I accidentally left the laptop open the previous night, and I’m now convinced he must have read this post.

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The Best Kind of Tired

Opening day for sharpies. You escape work early. Pull the necessary gear out of the closet. Instantly the dog knows. He sits by the door, stoically, not the least bit worried about whether he’s going on this adventure or not. He’s maturing.

A half-mile long plume of dust kicks up behind you. Ryan Bingham sings of bread and water, of dessicated places. In the actively worked fields, the last cut is happening. You pull over for large equipment on a road with no shoulder, leaning into the ditch.

Warm enough to hunt in jeans, shirt sleeves rolled up. You have the place to yourself; something that still isn’t hard to find around here. You wonder if/when this will change. Will you grow old watching one cherished spot after another disappear, as those before you have?

The dog is learning to slow down at times, beginning to learn finesse. This is new. The first bird gets up not ten minutes from the rig. It’s so close you have to wait to pull the trigger, lest you sluice it. It folds and falls. Clearly a first day of the season bird, you think. In a few weeks it won’t be so easy. The second bird offers a long passing shot, just far enough out that you ponder for a second whether to take it or not. Swing through and lead it and hope a skeet choke will get it there. It plummets into the grass as feathers blow back toward you in the breeze.

And that’s it. You’ve limited, short but still sweet. You stop at the river and clean the birds. Sharpie stink on the hands for the first time of the season, and as it hits your nostrils, a flood of memories from previous years come back, reminding you that more than just fun, something about this is essential to feeding your soul.

You turn down a dirt road you’ve never been down before, just because you’re in no hurry to get home. Crumbling old homesteads intersperse with sporadic spec homes, their yards having gone wild, weathered realty signs leaning at odd angles. But there are still small pockets of errant field, hedgerows, aspen stands that might hold a few birds – just the kind of pockets best hit in a clandestine manner, alone, with one dog. Gun and run, like fishing the illicit golf ponds of your youth.

You finally hit pavement again and the pointer curls up in the back, content that he’s done what he needed to. Before long you can hear his deep breathing over the Random Canyon Growlers pining about being in the doghouse again. Soon, you’ll follow suit, the kind of tired you welcome and savor. October is always at least a month too short. This year, you aren’t going to waste a minute of it.

Sharp-dressed Bird

I really like sharptails. If we ever run out of bobwhites in Texico, I’ll probably move north and hunt them fulltime.

Looking, first, at some of the sharpie’s kinfolk, I’d classify the ruffed grouse as the haughty blue-blood of the clan. He frequents the upper east and he’s often chased by folks who smoke pipes and belong to gunclubs. The spruce grouse is the inbred mountain-man of the family. He’s dumber than a stump, and that’s usually where he’s standing and staring blankly when a shotgun points his way.

Between these two intellectual extremes, we have the sharptail. He’s the sodbusting prairie-dweller that wakes up each morning with a different M.O. When it’s hot and windy he’ll flush underfoot and give you a decent chance. On cold days he’ll jump from the grass when the truck door slams and fly out of sight. I like his furry little feets and the way he cackles when he flushes. It’s a nasal, mocking, staccato, yodel that reminds me of the grade school punk that always needed an ass-whooping, but never got one.

Most endearing, though, is the sharpie’s little stomping and spinning jiggy-jag that he does when the ladies of spring are around. Thanks to Dawson Dunning for shooting this incredibly cool footage. – TB

The End of Days

You could count the number of days remaining in the Idaho sharpie season on one hand. It had been a tough year, with a bird or two here and there, but the coveys were few and far between. Still, with the help of an up-and-coming first-season pup we managed to put one in the bag now and then.

Yet with the days waning in a season that always feels too short, time spent in the field was becoming less and less productive. We’d go to formerly fruitful areas, cover them thoroughly, and find nothing. I began to question if I knew what I was doing – truth be told, a state of mind as familiar to me as my favorite old Browning boots.

In such vast country, you try to cling to informed opinions about where the birds may be, and sometimes that works, but too often they simply burst skyward from places that hold no distinguishing characteristics. We’d been walking for hours, working our way through the subtle highs and lows of the landscape, hoping to stumble across the one indistinct anomaly that, for reasons I may never fully understand, just happens to hold birds on this particular day, at this particular hour. Nothing.

It was becoming downright frigid, and I was beyond spent. We headed back to the car, with Hank valiantly still trying to find birds right up till I opened the door. We got inside and sat there for what I think were a few moments but could have been much more, listening to the wind range southbound, shaking the truck, watching the light fade. I started the truck and drove slowly out on the gravel road. Looking up from starting the radio I watched the sharpie fly across the road, right in front of us, and disappear over the horizon.

Ultimately, the birds are not particularly fond of being shot, and they owe you nothing. You better be able to laugh or this pursuit will drive you crazy.

Of Trust and Hope

If you’re of the sentiment, as John Buchan was, that fishing is “a perpetual series of occasions for hope,” I’d highly recommend trying to finding birds out here:

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You will walk farther than you think, and look back to see that you’ve put precious little landscape between you and where you started. You’ll find yourself putting up the same bird repeatedly as you make your way across the field, always flushing just out of range, or, not coincidentally, taking wing just as you’re distracted by a bull moose the size of a small mastodon on the far ridge. You’ll invariably find yourself making your way back to the truck against the wind, no matter which direction it was blowing when you started; the dense grass grabbing at your boots and slowing your progress. I can only compare it to wading upstream against a stiff current. For miles.

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You’ll lose your dog and curse him with a level of creativity you never knew you possessed, only to crest a rise and find him locked down on a covey, doing exactly what he should be with exemplary style, and you’ll turn the stream of invective deservedly on yourself. After picking up one downed bird and stuffing it in your vest as the others continue over the horizon, you’ll offer part of your meatloaf sandwich and it dawns on you that he will never, ever hold any of your shortcomings against you; that he will continue tolerating hunting with you until you undoubtedly tire before he does.

This may indeed be another one of those pursuits that is an endless series of occasions for hope. But then again, it was that wry wit Ben Franklin that said, “He that lives on hope will die fasting.” So no matter how boundless your optimism may be, don’t bother venturing into this country, in pursuit of sharptails, without one of these:

And by all means, trust him.

– Smithhammer