I moved to the southeast Washington State in 2011 shortly after finishing graduate school. It was the first time I had lived in pheasant country. That fall, I harvested my first two roosters thanks to an old yellow lab who was flushing for hunters that happened to pull into the same parking spot at the same time. The feeling of holding that first big, beautiful rooster, admiring his plumage and impressive tail will never betray memory, save for dementia in my older years.
My wife, Ali, was living in California at the time and trying to make her way to Washington. At the notion of hunting pheasant, she insisted on a bird dog pup and began poring over websites and magazine articles, researching different breeds and their characteristics. She is a bit of a sucker for good looks, mild temperament, style, and grace (and somehow wound up with me), and these traits led her to setters. She finally landed on a Llewellin setter, about which I knew nothing. I was not really interested in a bird dog at the time, but her persistence and disregard for my input (a timeless tradition) resulted in an orange belton pup we call Lynnhill’s Finnigan, Finn for short.
True to Stockholm’s Syndrome, we fell in love with this beautiful, tiny, spawn of Satan. She was the worst behaved puppy I have ever had the misfortune of raising. Bold in her infant months, anxious and terrified the rest of her first year. She refused to be house-broken or crate-train, and shredded everything including mattresses, wall trim, and any other furniture well into her thirteenth month. She screamed for dear life every time we left the house, literally the entire time we were gone, according to neighbors. She was flat not trainable. I didn’t even consider training her to hunt until she was about eighteen months old. The one thing she did well was walk on a leash, so I took her to a park outside of town most evenings and weekends where quail and pheasant were common to keep her excited about being afield.
Upon finally deciding to introduce basic commands, Finn was easily bored, like most pups, but contrary to my immediate assessment, she was sharp, and picked up the commands quite well. All hope was lost, however, when Ali arrived home from work one evening with a pair of white pigeons. I built a small enclosure in the barn on the farm we were renting, bought a pair of kick traps, and began hiding the birds in the grass and brush around the farm.
Walking Finn on a check-cord, we always began our approach downwind of the bird. Finn would cover the area impressively well, but would never honor the scent. She could smell the bird. That much was clear. Her head would snap into the scent cone, but she continued to sail aimlessly as if being forced toward the bird against her will. In vain, we tried nearly everything we could to get Finn to stop or search for the bird upon catching the scent.
Nevertheless, I hunted Finn at age two with great frustration, but I always tried to keep it fun for her. Around Finn’s second birthday, my wife broke down and bought a second Llewellin, Yuba, with the hopes that she would have a bit more hunting prowess. Yuba was quite a different pup. As a short, stocky tricolor, what Yuba lacked in grace and stature she more than compensated for in prey drive and intelligence. Within a couple months she was crate-trained and quite obedient. Most satisfying was her attention to the songbirds in the yard.
We worked Yuba alongside Finn on the caged pigeons and hikes through bird habitat where she display immense interest and skill. Simultaneously, Finn began to settle down and mature a bit between her second and third season. It was clear that things were coming together, and I think Finn’s maturing helped Yuba learn so much quicker than Finn had as a pup.
When the pheasant season rolled around in 2016, Yuba was just over one year old and I was eager to hunt her. We began that season expecting nothing from either dog; however, we found ourselves smothered in birds opening day. Finn actually appeared to be hunting, but we didn’t count our roosters too early; not before we found her locked up solid and the first bird of the morning hit my vest. Miraculously, a second rooster fell to my Fox sixteen-gauge not ten minutes later. By the time the second rooster hit the ground, Yuba’s prey drive shone fiercely. The light bulb illuminated for Finn that day, and by the third day of the season she was methodically covering ground, honoring the scent cone, slowing down and using her nose, and pointing like a champion.
By the fifth day of the season, Yuba and Finn engaged in friendly competition of who could point the most birds and hold point the longest. Working both girls by myself most days, it was no news to lose track of them, find one on point, and spot the other locked up as I went in for the flush. With repeated exposure they instinctively began backing each other. I nearly fainted upon my first witness of this phenomenon.
During the 2017 season, the girls hit the ground running with virtually no prior off-season yard work. Both pups worked famously and I won’t soon forget Yuba’s exuberant eyes as she stood hard and proud, pinning fast the largest wild rooster I have ever seen. He flushed nearly under Yuba’s face as I closed in. My startle at his size and beauty caused me to whiff both barrels on his steep ascent. We stood in awe, looking after the handsome rooster sailing across the grasslands. We could have limited out for the first time that morning, but ole dad was a disappointment with the scatter gun.
As a first time bird dog owner and a mediocre trainer at best, my pups and I have learned a lot from each other; the greatest lesson being patience and persistence. Looking back over the early seasons, I wouldn’t trade the frustrating hunts for anything as they make the reliability of the girls so much sweeter these days. Zeta (my youngest) is not progressing as Finn and Yuba did, but time is on our side. If have learned anything, it’s that a fine dog can be developed when the time is right, and the upcoming season will be her second. A lot can change in the blink of an eye, and I anticipate North Dakota will be the game changer. At some point in the not too distant future, I will reflect proudly on my trials with Zeta. And as dog dad, I cherish the early days.