Just Follow the Dog

A hint of the long shadows of evening began to cast across the rolling wheat stubble and amber bunchgrass. A solid cloud of gray dust billowed from behind my old green Ford rolling down Weller Canyon, homebound from work. The bluebird afternoons of late October leave little to be desired on the southeastern Washington Palouse.

About a half mile from home, a large, brilliantly plumed, wild rooster pheasant with a tail stretching to Mexico levitated from the grass buffer above the gravel, and sailing effortlessly into the deep draw of the adjacent field. The pheasant season was freshly open, and my Llewellin setter pup, Finnigan, waited impatiently at home.

A wild little bitch, her energy and personality were equally spun up to ear-rattling irritation, like a pressure cooker about to blow its regulating weight. We had worked since spring on basic obedience and finding and pointing caged pigeons with little success, but my gut said “What the hell, give her a shot!”.

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Applying hard brake, the truck slid to a stop in the driveway of my humble, mustard-colored, 1972 model double-wide with mouse-dropping insulation. I knew Finn’s energy would be unmanageable for a hunt straight out of the gate, so I hurriedly gathered my vest and a few shells, retrieved my old 16-gauge double from the safe, and released the pup for the half-mile trek back to the rooster sighting.

At the foot of the draw, we hunted up the roadside where pheasant roost and feed. Her interest piqued a time or two as she inhaled the deep odors from pheasant beds, but not a bird was found. In my mind, we were acting out the script precisely.

Circling back into the draw, Finn worked more intently. We cut the expanse of wheat stubble with alacrity, approaching downwind a small patch of dense grasses just large enough to harbor a bird or two. Brief moments passed as Finn halfheartedly trotted through the grasses; her thoroughness lacking from a short attention span and inexperience.

Calling her back, I directed her to the inside edge along the toe of a twenty-foot sheer slope. Breezing through with little interest, I was certain Finn had run past the bird. I somehow knew where it was sitting. Fixed on a small hummock of reed canary grass, I called Finn back once again to repeat her last twenty feet of cover. But this time, her head swiveled as she trotted by the hummock, stuttering to a slow halt with clear inquisition.

Closing the distance, I stomped through the hummock, and was nearly tripped backward as the largest rooster I had ever seen before or since on the Palouse blew his cover on a near straightaway retreat. From the corner of my left eye, Finn’s head swiveled after the rooster, while my right eye glanced flush down the rib, the bead finding the stark white ring of the rooster’s neck. With a squeeze of the trigger, our fate was sealed. An upland hunter and his first pointing dog were etched permanently into the folds of time, oblivious to the obsession, passion, learning, and journey that was to shape our future.

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That rooster was my first taken over a pointing dog, and my own pup to ice the cake. I knew little about training a bird dog, just enough about pheasant habits and habitat to be dangerous but not good, and carried an heirloom shotgun, albeit a classic side-by-side. Six seasons hence, I know a hell of a lot more about upland birds and their habitat, I still carry my old heirloom double, and I run two damn fine Llewellins with a third up-and-comer in the wings. My greatest fall passion entails a shotgun in hand chasing the tail feathers of a brace of dainty setters across the prairie. I may pass for a legitimate bird hunter, yet I still regard myself as an everyday outdoorsman lucky enough to have reliable canine talent.

And herein lies the simple foundation that every newcomer to the luxury of upland hunting behind a bird dog should glean. Just follow the dog.

Can it possibly be that simple?

In the age of social media, we attempt to put our best foot forward, so to speak, with our highest quality photography, catchy captions, and stunning gear and guns on display, tapping the envy of every wannabe out there. In reality, however, none of that matters and should in no fashion intimidate someone from diving head-first into this classic and life-altering pastime.

My deliberation on the essence of a bird hunter came as I listened to Project Upland’s podcast #47 interviewing Ryan Busse of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association (Link at the bottom). Ryan is an avid upland bird hunter with an intriguing story that will leave you with a warm and fuzzy feeling about folks in the political trenches, fighting to protect our nation’s public lands. But his message to recruiting upland hunters was simple and hit home. Just follow the dog.

A shotgun, bird dog (if you so desire), and habitat comprise the essentials of the upland hunting puzzle, and for many of us, the dog is the center of our upland universe. Few upland hunters are experts at any one of these facets when they enter the game, and most may never claim expertise. Even the most well studied and practiced bird hunter and dog will continue to learn far more over a lifetime afield than in the yard or preserve. The bird and dog can always surprise you, and no training exercise can supplant the experience of the hunt.

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Ryan was lucky enough to have pheasant out the back door of his childhood home, spending countless hours with an old shotgun following a dog. His message speaks to the experience of many of us where time in the field lends itself to understanding habitat, bird and dog behavior, and wing-shooting.

And what exactly is Ryan’s message? In a nutshell, follow the dog until it finds a bird. When the bird gets up, if its legal to hunt, shoot at it. Over time, the dog will find more birds, you will shoot and connect (at least some of us…) more often, and one day you will suddenly realize you are an upland hunter. No fancy shotgun, no professionally finished dog, or other exorbitant paraphernalia required. Just pick up the gun, follow the dog, and enjoy and appreciate every single minute of it.

After a few quick seasons, you won’t recall how many birds hit your vest, or how many misses were volleyed behind the escapees. But the unforgettable facets include the way your favorite shotgun felt in your hand, how smooth and naturally it shouldered, and the pride you felt at the glorious sight of your companion flawlessly orchestrating a flush, point, or retrieve.

So, what are you waiting for? Just follow the dog!

Listen to Project Upland’s Podcast #47 interview with Ryan Busse

God Loves a Pointing Dog

Obnoxiously loud, the alarm clock shattered a peaceful sleep. I awoke to another day off, but Ali had commitments at the office. Working through the morning routine, I slipped into a tee-shirt, stumbled into the kitchen, and ground some fresh beans for the pot. The cats squawked for breakfast as the pups stretched and shook in preparation for their morning duty. All seemed to be quite typical.

It had been seven days since Yuba developed a severe allergic reaction to who knows what. After four vet visits, the cause remains undiagnosed, but our suspicion lies with a leptospirosis vaccine administered on December 5th. Nevertheless, Yuba’s bout with a hypoglycemic seizure on the 10th, followed by severe hives, vomiting, and diarrhea for the past week has left the little Llew tuckered and vulnerable.

With the coffee brewing, I shuffled to the front door in the dim lighting of the Christmas tree. And much to my surprise, there were three perky setters waiting eagerly for the door to swing ajar.

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Yuba had barely begun to eat on her own the day prior, partially due to the quantities and variety of medications I had forced upon her for the past week. But upon reentering the house, she trotted to her crate, sat upright, and gave me the beckoning glare of a pup in dire need of breakfast.

I obliged with a small helping of kibble mixed with a little tasty canned food and an antibiotic pill tossed in. She indiscriminately ate it, pill and all. We were both quite satisfied with this, as well as the fact that there were no messes to clean from overnight. Yuba quickly staked her claim of the love seat and drifted off into a crack-of-dawn, winter’s morn dog nap which only a hunting dog can do justice.

Upon bringing Ali her morning coffee in bed and feeding the rest of the herd, I took up residence on the couch to proof-read an article I was about to submit to Pheasants Forever Magazine. Ali headed off to work as the girls and I hung out on the couch. But a miracle happened just before 7:30am when a boastful, cackling rooster pheasant soared straight over the house.

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Yuba erupted from slumber and dashed across the room, perching swiftly atop the far couch arm, where she kept watch over the wheat field and a pair of roosters feeding in the damp morning fog. Now this was looking more like recovery!

About an hour later, I headed out the door with the girls to fill bird feeders and visit the mail box. But before I could get my Muck Boots on, Yuba and Zeta were both on point in the driveway as our flock of California quail scampered through the blackberries and down the road on their morning commute to breakfast.

Thinking the chores could wait, I crated Zeta, then slipped out with my Ithaca Model 37 and a couple 6-shot. Yuba remained on point.

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Lingering by the driveway until all the quail had passed, I swung the paddock gate open and released Yuba to peruse the overgrown swale that spans the length of our property. Thick with white alder, woods rose, blackberry, and a couple old Russian olives, the deep swale flows with surface spring water all year and provides food and shelter for the quail, pheasant, a few whitettails and mule deer.

I hadn’t made it 30 feet into the paddock when Yuba turned into the swale and locked up. Nervous little birds chirped and scurried in the tangle leaving me little shooting room, so I dialed the polychoke to a notch between Improved Cylinder and Modified. I was being picky as well, waiting for a single male.  And, as luck would have it, a single male flushed and fell to the old 37, coming to rest at the bottom of the swale beneath a nasty mess of tree limbs and blackberry tendrils.

One hundred quail must have flushed upon the report the shotgun leaving Yuba and I to stare in silence at the final movements of the beautiful little bird gifted us this fine, wet morning. Encouraging Yuba to “Get that bird!” , she merely traversed the swale and pursued the larger flock. “Lord, send me a retriever!”, I pleaded as I slid down the muddy embankment into the fallen, slimy, algae-stained tree limbs, all the while snagged and shredded by the piercing clutches of blackberry

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Completing the retrieve, I called Yuba back to bask in her victory, and it occurred to me that God must love a pointing dog too. Coming out of a week of hell into the promise of Christmas, Yuba was gifted a short, successful, Christmas Eve hunt on the homestead when I thought she may only have one more shot in mid-January.

I grabbed an old whitetail shed I found on a hunt two days prior and staged a couple photos on my old fence row before heading back inside with my not yet fully recovered pup. Satisfied with her outing, Yuba climbed back up onto the love seat, curled into a setter ball, and drifted off into a post-hunt snooze, that again, only a hunting dog can do justice.

Merry Christmas, indeed!

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