Monthly Archives: November 2016

Dad’s old whistle

In a world where new hunting gear advertisements flow through our media streams on a minute by minute basis, and we fall into the trap of buying every new gadget for the hunt, I find myself wanting nothing more than Dad’s old whistle.  The plastic yellow whistle, of brand I don’t recall was nothing special in and of itself.  It was from a time before ecollars, garmins and diamond plate dog boxes.  It wasn’t attached to a stylish and durable lanyard made of woven leather strips, nor was it accompanied by a compass or a flush counter.  It was strung up with a stained white sneaker shoelace.  Unfashionably tied in a knot at the ends.  It was functional and not pretty.  It did match his old bird hunting coat though, with its drab shades of brown, rips, tears, blood stains and denim patches that covered nearly every pocket.  He hated wearing orange.  Dad doesn’t hunt with that whistle anymore and for all I know it was lost long ago.  He wears a nicer, orange vest now, with less rips and tears.  It has been replaced with a pair of newer Roy Gonia’s that hang on a fancy woven lanyard. Probably one of the cheap Christmas gifts I had given him.

When I think about that whistle, I remember the dogs it commanded.  Magic, Cassie, Dusty, Cooper, and Remmy.  Tilly and Wylie weren’t whelped yet. If I ever found that old whistle, I doubt I would ever use it.  I don’t even know why I want it.  I would just hang it on the wall next to an old rooster mount in the living room.  I might make a shadow box with a rooster hanging from a fence post, a box of Winchesters with the words Duck & Pheasant printed on the front, and a few purple shells.  I always thought I would covet that old 16 gauge wingmaster the most, but nearly every hunt I can remember as a boy started with that whistle coming out of the closet.

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The Announcement

The clubhouse buzzed with excitement as Joe passed through the open door.  He met the eyes of friends and foe with a blank gaze.  His emotions were running high but he didn’t want to give the crowd any more fuel for the fire.  He took a seat next to a long-time friend, training partner and fellow field trialer, David Howe.  David full well knew what a win today meant for Joe and his four year old pointer Jack.  If Jack, officially known as Rebels Captain Jack , was to be named champion or runner up champion, he would be qualified for the National Championship.  Often referred to as the super bowl for bird dogs, the National Championship trial at the Ames Plantation in Grand Junction, Tennessee was and still is, one of the most prestigious all age trials in the country.  Only dogs that have competed and won multiple times at the highest level are eligible for entry.  Qualifying is a feat to be proud of in and of itself.

David put a hand on Joe’s shoulder and whispered low and quiet, “Ol’ Jackie put on a show today.  The way I see it, they’ve got him as champion and that little setter bitch that Tommy ran as runner up.”

“I don’t know,” replied Joe, “we’ll find out soon enough.”

David knew well, what Joe was worried about.  One of the two judges for this stake was a setter man himself and was none too fond of Joe Williams.  The two dog men had a colorful history that spanned the better part of two decades.  From their first meeting in the fall of ’02 they had never seen eye to eye.  In fact the dislike seemed to grow more every season that passed.  It ran so deep the Joe had considered staying home and saving his entry fees when he learned Mark Enlow was listed as a judge.  Being an amateur in a pro’s world was hard enough.  One didn’t need to play against a stacked deck.   The entire room seemed to sense Joe’s tension as they gave him silent nods and watched him as they visited amongst themselves and tapped into the beer in the clubhouse refrigerator.  For they knew too, the situation between the two dogmen. On this day, one a judge, the other a handler.  It’s a tricky thing, judging, in this great sport of chasing bird dogs; the men that run against you the week before just might be the judge this week.  Now of course, all judgements are supposed to be fair and without bias of men or canine contestants.  However infallible a man may be, this is hard to do.  But after multiple days in the saddle and watching forty or more dogs place their bid, the cream, as they say, rises to the top.  On the all age circuit trials, the dog that runs the biggest and most far flung race, while staying completely focused on finding and pointing birds with style and polished manners is ultimately the winner.

Joe had been in a similar situation 4 years prior, with Lucy.  He was fixated on that memory.   Lucy was a stunning specimen of a bird dog.  A clean white pointer with and evenly marked orange mask, rippling muscles and a burning fire to find birds for her boss.  That uncharacteristically cool morning on the South Dakota prairie, Joe’s hopes collided with a disappointing fate.  Lucy had been drawn to run in the last brace of the All-American Chicken Championship and the weather was making a turn for the better.  All week, the temperatures peaked out in the mid-nineties, and winds blew hard.  Too hard, to give any good dog a reasonable chance to scent a bird.  It was the first morning that actually felt cool enough to need a jacket and the winds had laid down to a gentle breeze.  “For once,” Joe thought, “things were falling into place.”  At the judges, “Turn em’ loose.”   The scouts turned Lucy and her bracemate loose and they were off to the races.  Covering ground faster and wider than any other dog had all week long, Lucy had all who watch sitting tall in the saddle.  At the forty five minute mark she stood tall and motionless indicating that there were birds in front of her.  It was her third find and she looked even better than she had on the first two.  Joe couldn’t help but to admire her as he dismounted his horse and walked in front of his charge to flush her birds.  Her intensity rising as he approached.  Her eyes peered forward as if she could see through the grass to the bird hunkered down fifteen yards straight ahead.  Her tail stood poker straight at twelve o’clock and her hide stretched across taunt muscle and pulsed with pent up energy.  Joe had walked a big arc out in front of her and the sharp-tailed grouse, simply called a chicken by the fraternity of field trailers, flushed from the grass and sailed away as he fired the shot from his blank pistol.  He calmly walked back to Lucy, who hadn’t even flinched throughout the ordeal and grabber her collar and led her away.  The scout, another trailer who is asked to help assist the handler, brought Joe’s horse over and helped water Lucy.  Joe knew he was in the money with this last find.  No other dog that had run previously had more than one find during their hour on the ground, and Lucy’s race was bigger, more powerful, and fancier than theirs as well.  He checked his watch and after working this bird and watering her, he just needed to show the judges a strong finish.  Judges like to see a strong finish that showcases a dog’s endurance and drive.  Joe was knelt down by Lucy and soaked her belly with water from the repurposed laundry soap bottle that hung from his scout’s saddle.  As quietly and as calmly as he could, he whispered to his scout,

“all we need is a solid finish, we don’t need any more bird work today… and whatever you do, don’t lose her.”

Joe gave control of Lucy’s collar to his scout and climbed back up on his Tennessee Walking Horse and nodded and nonchalantly said, “Alllrigghht”.  He had stalled, and used up as much time as he could without it being obvious.

With this the scout let go of Lucy’s collar and she blasted off showing no signs of fatigue.  She bolted straight ahead in a dead sprint for one hundred and fifty yards before she settled into a just slightly slower and more animated hunting pace.  Joe assumed the front positon of pack as sole handler, as Lucy’s bracemate had been picked up for a breach of manners at the ten minute mark.  Following behind him were the two judges, then his scout and the gallery of riders.  Most of whom were other participants who wanted to see all the dogs run, along with a few folks that just liked to ride and enjoyed the fellowship the trialing community brings to the prairie every summer.  Lucy had made a nice cast to the left coursing across the hillside, and sifting through any scent she could find.  Joe knew that they didn’t need to score on another bird, but Lucy did not.  She had a one track mind.  She was relentless in her pursuit.  After showing well on a series of hills to the left, she veered back to the dead front at about seven hundred yards and crossed over the horizon and out of sight.  Joe was not worried at all.  He checked his watch and there were 8 minutes left.  That would be just enough time to get over the rise and point her out to the judges, before they called time.  Then he could ride hard to the front, get her reined in and put a rope on her.  He couldn’t help but to think that he had this thing won hard.  Or rather, she had it won hard.

As he topped over the ridge, he peered deep into the grassy swales but couldn’t spy her anywhere.  Joe stayed calm and without panic in his voice, hollered back down the hill to the judges trudging towards him, “toppin’ that ridge right there.”  Joe knew the judges couldn’t see anything from their vantage point and he also knew that there could only be seconds left.  In his mind, confidently calling out the dog charging over the next rise was a hell of a lot better than sitting up there looking as if he couldn’t find her.  The call of “pick em’ up” came literally just seconds after he made the false claim.  Joe tapped his heals against his horses ribs and picked up speed as fast as he could.  He was followed only by his scout to assist in getting the ol’ gal picked up.  The judges stopped at the crest of the ridge and watched intently for the dog and kept an eye on the clock.  Trials have guidelines that state a dog must not be out of judgement for more than one third of the allotted time they are running.  In this case Lucy, although running a monster of a race, had not been out of view for any considerable continued amount of time, and thus should have nearly all of the twenty minutes if it took Joe that long to gather her up.

Joe was an experienced handler and he knew his dog well.  He didn’t have a doubt in his mind that she wouldn’t be found to the front.  He urged his horse on up the hill that lay in front of them.  The hill was steep and rose nearly higher than all that surrounded.  He knew Lucy hadn’t likely ran up and over the top of this hill but rather stayed down in the draw just to the west.  However, the top of this ridge would give him the best vantage point to spot her and that was the first order of business.  He reached the top of the rise and squalled on his dog, ordering her to come back to him, as if he had seen her just down the draw on the other side.  This field trialing business is every bit as much showmanship as is it the test of dog flesh, and Joe knew this all too well.  He kept his horse moving forward over the ridge, making it look as if he was riding directly after her.  He never let up on the squalling and his horse never thought about slowing down either.  The horses that play this game, at least the good ones, know exactly what is going on and they seem to thoroughly enjoy running dogs down.  When Joe had descended the opposite side of the ridge far enough to surely be out of the judges sight, he slowed his horse down to a fast walk and his head swung from side to side as if it were on a swivel.  He still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Lucy.  His scout caught up soon after and Joe sent him to search the draw to the right, and he took the search to the draw to their left.  Picking up speed again he raced across the pasture with a lump growing in his throat with every minute that passed.

He rounded a small knoll to his immediate right and saw his scout cantering towards him with a white and orange pointer in a roading harness.  She pulled in the harness as if she was ready to go again.  Joe spun his horse around and they started back to the judges to show that they had her.  Joe checked his watch not once but twice and felt confident when it read just 12 minutes past the hour mark.  Both men had big smiles on their faces and the brims from their sweat stained cowboy hats couldn’t contain their excitement.  There was no doubts in their minds or on their faces that Lucy had just turned in the winning performance.  Not only a winning performance but one that everyone would remember for many years to come.

Both Joe and his scout, with Lucy still pulling them along, moved hurriedly up the hill to the judges.  Slowing down to a flat walk, Joe eased up to both men, still mounted, who had their note pads out, to retrieve his Garmin GPS unit, and the scout steered clear and headed toward the dog wagon.  Joe tried mightily hard to control his excitement but it was evident to even the gallery who were gathered some 30 yards away.  When he reached the judge holding his Garmin, he thanked them both for “lookin’ at his dog.”  He took his hand held tracking unit from the mounted judge nearest him.  The second judge, looked him square in the eye and said, “Can’t use your dog.  Ran out a’ time, bout’ two minutes before you popped back over that hill.”  And Mark Enlow turned his horse and started riding back to camp.

 

To be continued…

It Has Commenced

As the opening weekend grew closer my mind wandered further and further.  I found myself daydreaming about the great hunts from the past and hopes for even better hunts still to come.  I spend almost every night reading at least one Havilah Babcock story.   Even though the days were still unseasonably warm, the evenings were getting cooler and the fall air was starting to creep in.  I wanted to get the dogs out more often. Although, work and other engagements kept getting in the way.  Despite this we did manage a few preseason outings to find our legs and reacquaint ourselves with the hedgerows, waterways and the fields that were littered with ragweed.

A week before season officially opened I started dragging out the gear I would eventually load into the pickup.  All the collars were charged.  The remnant feathers, sand, a few spent hulls and a couple of water bottles from last season were dumped out of the vest.  I started piling up my hunting pants, chaps and the 15-year-old orange hoodie in a pile in the corner of the dining room.  I have a need to know where all this stuff is.  I can’t put it away in the closet or dresser, for fear of it being moved by an unknown being.  The loose shells in the garage, the two vests, and the shell bag were all sorted and repackaged.  I don’t think I have ever shot a full box of shells before getting into another box.  How can I have this many loose shells randomly stashed everywhere?  I finally decide anything bigger than a 7 1/2 would be stuffed into one box and labeled “pheasant” to save space.  I reload the shell/gear bag after emptying everything it contained on the kitchen table, much to my wife’s disapproval.  The season of random feathers in the house is now upon us.

I was on the road most of the week, returning home on Thursday evening in time to see the 3rd grade Veterans Day program.  The kids and teachers did a great job and it was a vivid reminder that everything we are allowed to freely do in this country is a gift from those who have served.  And to all the veterans, I thank you.  That night we loaded up the pickup and drove for 5 hours.  I had a full day of business appointments on Friday and then it was another few hours to the stomping grounds.  We made it with just enough time to get the dog chores done and relax a little bit.  I knew I wouldn’t sleep.  I never do the night before.

The alarm finally sounded although it wasn’t needed.  The slamming motel and pickup doors already had me awake.  I slipped into my clothes and dawned a jacket, let the dogs out to stretch and relieve themselves.  Stopping only to get a cup of coffee, I headed out-of-town in the predawn.  It was a beautiful and crystal clear morning.  The bank sign read 32 degrees.  The faint breeze was barely enough to move the condensation in my breath.

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As I collared Hide, my 6 yr old pointer, and Belle, my 3 1/2 yr old setter, I noticed I had the place all to myself.  This made it all the better.  I like hunting with others and enjoy the camaraderie in the field but there is rarely a more special hunt than one with a man alone with his dogs.  I took a photo of the sun rising above the horizon and took my time enjoying the scenery while I started my walk.  Fifteen minutes had not passed when I heard wings beating my heart into the ground.  I jerked around to the front and see Hide standing with the wind drifting away from his nose.  He stumbled into a covey on the wrong side but he had excellent manners and stood rigid while they flushed in three waves.  I watched the birds filter down in the cover below the bench I was on, and then go straight to Hide to flush just in case.  All tenants had vacated and I stroked his side before releasing him.  I gathered up both dogs  and we headed after the singles.  I bumped one and missed as it flew straight away.  Seconds later Hide stuck one and as I moved in, two quail rocketed up putting a tree between us and giving me no shot.

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We moved through the area and bumped a few more birds, with no shots.  It became apparent that the lack of a nice breeze wasn’t necessarily helping us. One about hit me in the face when it vaulted from the ground.  I spun around and whiffed with both barrels.  Belle cut across right in front of me and froze.  I grabbed my camera and snapped a picture that would never make a magazine cover.  They can’t always point em’ high on both ends. I flushed that bird right in front of her face and she cussed me when I failed to hold up my end of the deal.  I chuckled at myself for the ridiculous display of shotgunning.  …It’s..Back….

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I had enough and made the decision to move on, look for another bevy and calm myself down.  We searched for a while before we hit paydirt again.  This time it was Belle that had a stop to flush.  As frustrating as it was, I didn’t get upset with this situation.  She did the same thing Hide did.  Popped over a little rise and into a feeding covey with the wind at her back.  She stood as 5 or 6 birds busted from the sage.  I walked in front to flush and couldn’t produce a bird so I went back and released her.  She dropped back down the hill and I stayed up top, walked another 30 yards and stumbled into the rest of the birds.  The status quo didn’t change.  I gathered both dogs and gave them a good drink.  This time they worked the singles with a little less charge and they put on a show.  I didn’t do my part with either the 20 gauge or the camera.  On top of missing more times than I want to admit, these birds outwitted us.  I had to pass on multiple shots as these little rockets skirted the ground low and put the dogs in between me and them along with using the brush as a shield.  I can’t shoot, the dogs probably hate me, it’s getting hot and we’re out of water.  They win.

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I decided to leave the camera in the truck during then next walk.  I seriously needed to make some changes in my shooting or this was going to be the worst opener ever.  It was getting warmer and I had moved several miles to a new area where I had found some scaled quail in the past.  I turned Nelly loose, (4 yr old pointer) and Luke (1 yr old pointer) the newbie.  We covered a lot of ground and Nell got birdy a few times and finally pointed.  By the time I got to her I couldn’t produce any birds for the gun.  We wasted a lot of time trying to find them again and never did get it done.  On the way back to the truck I bumped a covey of bobs and I watched them down.  Nelly found the birds in short order.  Luke came and backed her with a little encouragement on my part.  I walked in to flush where I just knew the birds were and I was wrong.  They flushed behind me and to the right.  I wheeled around and …yeah….

I was licking my wounds and thought I had better let the dogs rest.  By this time the laughing was replaced with something else. I decided to go scout out a place for tomorrow.  As luck would have it I flushed a single scalie as I was driving out.  I hurriedly geared up, put Hide and Nelly down, and marched in the direction the single went.  I worked the hillside hoping to find the others but that didn’t pay off, but we kept chugging along. About 200 yards over the hill, I found Hide standing stiff as a board.  I moved in and flushed a lone bird.  It fell.  Let me repeat that.  It fell.  As in dead.  The monkey is off my back.  Two more birds burst from near the tall cactus.  I air-balled on the back bird.  At the second shot about 40 more erupted.  It was by far the biggest covey rise I have ever witnessed.  We spent the next 45 minutes chasing the shooting blues away.  The dogs did an outstanding job working the singles, pairs and small groups.  It was plenty warm but the wind had picked up enough to help us out.  I finally connected on several shots and both dogs made retrieves.  The dogs were spent and I was tired but smiling again.  I headed back to the truck humbled and grateful.

The next day was more of the same.  My shooting did improve though and I had knocked down close to a limit before noon.  Nelly was the dog of the day with more finds than any mediocre shooter would need.  Luke proved that he might have a little bird dog in him with his very first solo find and retrieve.  I really wish I had the camera with me for his first pointed covey but I had all but given up on trying to shoot and take photos.  I had to wrap up early and head back to the real world.   In the end it was still a great way to spend time in God’s creation.  The lesson from this hunt: Be thankful for the opportunity and enjoy the pursuit.

When I dumped all the empty hulls out of my vest and put them next to the birds, I laughed at my horrible average and almost took a picture.  Almost… because it wasn’t that funny.

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Luke, waiting for marching orders.

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The tell-tale sign.

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A few for later this week.

Keep the passion Stay addicted