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.