Pennsylvania’s rifle deer opener was last Monday. The forecast was for rain, so instead of taking my beloved .300 Savage (that’s a year older than I am) I packed up the Savage 110 with the ‘tupperware’ stock.
I got to my tree stand an hour before shooting light as I prefer to get there and let things settle down a bit. I had planned a back way into this spot so as to keep my presence there somewhat of a secret. My leftover turkey sandwich on homemade sourdough bread, slathered with mayo, was secure in my backpack. I had some of Hank Shaw’s recipe for venison chipotle jerky in there too, just in case I needed a snack before lunch. I settled in to sit patiently.
About 8:15, two young does trotted down the trail I was watching. They weren’t running, but moving with a purpose. I thought that perhaps someone up on the mountain had bumped them. About 30 seconds later another deer started down the same trail, nose to the ground. Must be a buck. He picked his head up, I saw he had antlers, but he, too, was moving along with a destination in mind. I couldn’t determine if he was a legal buck and that means he was likely a spike.
I was elated. By 8:30 on opening morning I had put my eyes on 3 deer, none of which knew I was watching them. On many, many, days in the woods this would have been worth the price of admission to me. Just to have the opportunity to watch these animals do their thing is beautiful. I felt lucky to have been there.
About 10 minutes later, I see another deer headed down the same path, its nose to the ground. It pauses long enough to raise its head and scan the bottom I am sitting above. I didn’t need the binoculars to determine this deer was legal.
A few seconds later, the tupperware stocked savage did its work and I had venison on the ground. I looked at my watch to mark the time for the ear tag before I climbed down. 8:40. It was starting to sprinkle rain.
The whole thing unfolded, it seemed to me, like a dream. I walked down to the buck, checked to make sure he was dead. I felt great at seeing those 3 deer earlier and thought about them for a moment, almost in disbelief that this guy came by. It was something like joy, but not joy, that I felt as I already started to recall the morning in my mind.
I have to add that I have mixed emotions at these moments. What a gorgeous animal. What a privilege to have the opportunity for venison in my freezer. But there is something, not remorse, that I feel at these moments that informs me of the seriousness of the event. Perhaps it is a fine kind of melancholy.
I sent my sister in Michigan a picture of the deer on the ground. She texted back, “That was quick. Have you been scouting that spot?” I told her that I had been bow hunting the property in the early season.
In reality, I suppose I was lucky. But there is so much that goes into being in the right place at the right time. I made an estimated guess based upon the contours of the land, where the feed was at this time, and how an old stone fence created a pinch point where it stopped and started. I had pictures of this same buck from last September and October on my trail camera from further up this same trail. So it wasn’t as if I just got there that morning and plopped down under a tree and waited.
I am lucky. I am fortunate to be able to participate in an activity that is beyond many people. I was fortunate to be there on that day at that time. Looking back, I do appreciate the gray squirrel that was scolding me in the early light of the day. I appreciated seeing those does trot down the trail with that little spike on their heels. The read headed woodpecker that insisted on searching for bugs just up the tree trunk from me was a blessing too. I appreciate all the great meals we’ll have and some new recipes I’ll try with the venison. It’s a lot to take in sometimes. But, for me, that is all part of it. To be able to hold the whole thing up for observation, examine and cherish many facets of that morning, is a delight.
I am about two weeks past our annual trip ‘home’ to Michigan to visit family. Read that as: hunt grouse and woodcock.
Here in Pennsylvania, my dog’s experience is primarily with released pheasants. We hunt PA’s pheasant program as well as guide on a local preserve. So when we hit that first covert back home I was a bit nervous. A wild grouse or woodcock is not a creature with many similarities to a released pheasant. The dogs, here at home, range pretty wide. I can count on them locking up on point until we get to them. So I was concerned that the first few days of our trip would consist of mostly busted birds.
To my surprise, my two veteran Brittanys (Nim, who is 9; and Shelby, who is 11). Pretty much switched gears immediately. They hunted much closer, were more cautious with scent. I was shocked. Usually it takes a couple of days and a bunch of bumped birds to make the change in their hunting mode.
My 18 month old puppy, Hank, behaved like I expected; he ranged further than I’d like and as he is doing here back in Pennsylvania, bumping some birds in the process.
But like his senior partners before him, after a day or two of bumped birds and ‘no-bird’ commands he began to figure it out.
It had made me think, again, of Ben O. William’s book Gun Dog. If you just casually read this book it might appear that Ben advocates for a process of getting a dog from an excellent bloodline and then taking it hunting. Such a reading would be incomplete. Like Williams, I am not in favor of a dog that hunts like a robot. His ‘let a dog be a dog’ advice fits in my sense of dog training. Basic obedience needs to be rote. But it is exposure to birds that makes all the difference.
What I typically have done (in my admittedly limited experience) is to work on several commands that one could categorize as obedience, Whoa being the most important. I was reminded by many wild birds and about 30 miles of walking during that week that the dogs also learn by being exposed to wild birds.
My training days this fall have been hunts. The puppy has been yard trained to tears, so he does know what I am asking with the commands. I have tried to get him on as many birds as possible as often as possible. On these training hunts I simply insist that I get a decent point before I actually shoot a bird. If the dog busts in and flushes it’s a “no bird” and I take no shot. If I get a point, if the bird is moving and the dog resets, that is good enough for me. If, in my approach, the bird flushes, that’s ok too. So long as I get enough steadiness to get myself moving in close to the bird, I’am good. In the weeks leading up to grouse camp this practice actually worked. For once.
The wild grouse were jittery and moving and the resident woodcock had left and the migrators were just dribbling in. In a week of flushes we did not have one solid point where a bird was flushed. Dogs pointed, to be sure, but more often than not they reset after a moment or two. Frequently, after a couple of these shifts, a grouse would no longer be able to stand our presence and flush 20 or 30 yards to one side or another. Still, watching the dogs work it out on their own without my hacking them is one of the reasons I so enjoy doing this.
On our last day I took the crew for a preserve hunt. Late in the morning, on one of the last birds to find, Hank locked on point. The veterans honored some twenty yards away. I told the guys hunting with me to ‘hold up’ (I almost tried to ‘whoa’ them) and I dug around for my phone and took a picture.
Yeah, I know what your’e thinking. It was a preserve bird. It was hunkered down. But in my mind at least this was a moment that depended upon a lot of yard training and a bunch of wild birds in the previous days. I have a picture in my digital files, but this one is etched into my mind and is much easier to pull up and savor.
The icing on the cake was that the hunters shot the flushed bird and Hank, not one of the veterans retrieved it.
Some days I will let these guys out of the box and they will be (as Ron Boehme says) act like ninnies. But I am confident that a gentle hand and more birds and more birds and more birds will work out those kinks.
The young dog covered the ground in swift bounds. The native grasses seemed to keep its secrets to itself. A sudden stop and pivot, staunch pre-pounce position, indicated the secrets have been uncovered…or more accurately, smelled. In a few moments the veterans pattern of quartering brought them within sight of the younger, inexperienced dog. With heads high, eyes fixed on the junior member of the team, they honored his point.
My companions simply wanted me to walk in, deliberately, as I have done on a dozen points by the veteran dogs today. I cannot. I stand, looking over this scene in awe of these partners. I pause, soaking in this image so that this moment will not be easily forgotten. As if it could.
I have helped train dogs. My own ‘hands on’ experience is limited to these three locked up before me and one Springer Spaniel who taught me about dogs forty years ago. My experience, compared to so many is insignificant. So it will not come as a surprise to you that I am surprised every time my training seems to work out. The credit for whatever success we share is obviously weighted toward the dog. They have somehow managed to overcome my mistakes. They have somehow shared a desire with me for cooperation in this pursuit, beyond my overzealous effort to make this happen.
There is a certain selfish motivation in this activity. I have come to understand that part of my desire to work with dogs in this way is that it is a blessed distraction. The politics of the day, the personal concerns of life and calendar and commitment, fade away during these hours that I focus on my dogs movement in the field. I cannot seem to focus on more than their movement, position, and posture as they search. It is a blessed few hours when these Brittanys crowd out whatever other concerns are tormenting me.
My joy in this moment could easily be attributed to more than a little self-satisfaction. I don’t think that is what it is. I know my limitations. My joy is the result of a sense of amazement that what I had hoped for and feebly tried to facilitate has, for this moment at least, come to fruition.
As if this moment was not enough to swell my heart, I walk in, flush the bird, one of my my human companions, my youngest son, makes a good shot and then the young dog makes the retrieve.
In my hopes of hopes is that there will be many more scenarios like this one in the future. But we don’t know this for sure. So a gentle caress of his head, a command, drop, and a brief smile from me is what we share before he pivots away and begins, again, to cover the ground.
Living the Dream
I was reading Ben O. Williams book “Best Day Ever.” The title captures a phrase Williams uses when he experiences one of the many joyful moments available in the outdoors. I’ve seen Jim Shockey use a similar phrase, “Living like kings,” to describe similar moments.
I don’t know what sort of phrase I’d like to adopt, but it would be good to adopt one. I sometimes heckle an outfitter friend of mine, usually in the midst of some chaos or catastrophe of minor proportions, saying, “Living the dream, eh?” It would be good to have my own phrase. After all, my outdoor experiences do not measure up to those of Ben O. Williams or Jim Shockey.
Or do they? I’ve been hunting and fishing for as long as I remember. New experiences in the field bring to my remembrance old days in the field. It is hard to say which one was better. My earliest memory was when my father took me to fish for bluegills on a nearby lake. I must have not been more than a toddler. We used real cane poles and cotton fishing line, crickets, and something called a catalpa worm, for bait. I vividly remember those bluegills we caught swimming in the bucket we had in the boat. In my memory they were huge. In proportion to the 28” walleye I once caught, or the 42” lake trout my brother in law Scott managed to get into the net.
Perhaps the best day ever, or living the dream, or whatever you call it, is not so much dependent on the quantity or quality of the outing but on many other variables that contribute to the whole.
I grew up in Michigan. Once, after we were done with a Friday night football game, some of my teammates and I loaded up our camping gear and our shotguns, piled into Fred’s impala and headed north. For some unknown reason we remembered to bring a case of beer but no water. It was early in the season, warm, with the trees full of leaves. This was a time before James had his english setter, or Steve had his Brittany, or I had my springer spaniel. We walked the cover and attempted to shoot what grouse we flushed. Did I mention that we didn’t bring much food? Late in that long weekend excursion someone managed to shoot a grouse. That night we cleaned that bird and roasted it over an open fire, using green willow switches as a rotisserie. I believe that was the best grouse I’ve ever eaten. That cheap beer tasted pretty good too. It was the seasoning that made it so good. It was seasoned with a generous dose of good friends on an adventure in the north woods of Michigan.
A couple of years ago I had entered my Brittany Nim in an AKC Hunt Test. I had decided to take the truck and my camping gear and stay overnight. In a moment of weakness my wife agreed to go with us. It was in the fall, and one of those unusual Pennsylvania fall nights when the temperature dipped below freezing. In the early dawn hours my wife rolled over in the sleeping bag and said, “I think my hair is frozen.” I climbed out of the tent to let the dogs do their business and have their breakfast long before the test began. I put my old percolator on the camp stove and pretty soon had hot coffee ready. Most mornings I do this at home, nearly the same routine. But this morning the temperature was 27 degrees and we had slept in a tent on the ground with the dogs curled up at the foot of the sleeping bags. As I took that cup of coffee into the tent, I noticed the steam rolling off of it. I remember her sleepy face breaking into a smile as she smelled it and sensed its warmth. Nim got disqualified in the test for some jackassery he couldn’t resist with the other dog in his brace. But when I think about that day I still can categorize it as ‘living the dream.’
Keeping the whistle in my pocket
Most of the hunting my dogs do involves clients on an upland preserve. The outfitter hosts up to eight hunts at a time, so it is essential that my dogs and i lead the clients through a pretty well defined area.
This is, of course, asking a dog to do something that isn’t natural. Bird dogs follow their nose. Wind direction matters. Sometimes, because of the limits of the topography, we have to hunt in the exact wrong direction. To cover all the ground instead of ranging wide we systemically follow contours.
Fortunately, my American Brittanys are quite biddable. A quick vibrate on the collar, a tone to locate, a brief whistle blast, brings them back into the cover that I want them to search. The guides at the preserve, like I, want to show the client every bird that was planted for them. That requires a fairly rigid ‘scorched earth’ movement over the terrain. Handling the dogs in this constricted way is necessary. And the clients are usually oblivious to my frustration.
That will change for a bit. In 36 hours the dogs and i will load up and head ‘home’ to Michigan for a week of grouse hunting. Just the four of us (me, Nim, Shelby, and Hank) and don Andrew are making this trip. I have a DeLorne map book of Michigan that has pencil marks, highlights, and comments that mark coverts I’ve hunted for years. I’ve told my boys, “if something happens to me, don’t sell the shotguns for what I’ve told your Mother I paid for them.” And, “be sure to get the Gazette before she throws it away.”
What we do in those coverts is to cover the ground like we always do. The direction we go however is not based upon some limitations whose boundaries are defined by other guides and hunters. We follow the dogs.
This, of course, often means that we are moving in a way that gives me a breeze in my face. My whistle stays in my pocket and the transmitter is rarely used unless somebody ranges further than is helpful for actually shooting a grouse.
For me it is much more relaxing and less stressful. I know where my muzzle is pointed and it is not in the vicinity of one of my dogs. I need not nag someone else about reloading or ‘is your safety on.’ Although a friend or one of my boys may join me, they have been schooled in how to hunt over dogs. If they cannot follow some basic safety rules, they don’t come with me. I once told some clients who I thought were being a bit frivolous with my safety talk, “If you shoot my dog I am going to hurt you. I promise.” Despite thick cover and the whisper of a tinkling bell I am comfortable and thinking little other than ‘wait, is Shelby on point?’
The dogs and I love to guide hunters on the preserve hunt. But it isn’t like this. We cannot be assured of getting a certain number of points. The only one to blame for missed birds is me.
Today we are in different cover, autumn olive, new growth aspen, marshy conifers. The dog turns into the breeze and is checking all the likely cover. And the whistle stays in my pocket.
Yesterday my youngest son Andrew and I attended the opener at Pheasant Valley Farm. My 9 year old female, Shelby, is on the IR after Mast Cell tumor removal surgery, so it’s jus the boys today.
We put out 10 Chukars and 4 pheasants. Nim, my 7 year old male was on the ground first. We ‘burned’ through the field pretty quick, finding 6 Chukars and 2 pheasants. There were two ‘no bird’ (safety) flushes. One miss.
One of the pheasants was a loooong retrieve. Andrew made a great shot out at the limits of his 20ga CZ o/u. The bird sailed a bit into nearby standing corn. Nim had a good mark and was in hot pursuit. He is a dependable retriever, so although he was a long way out and out of sight I told Andrew, “let’s let him try and work this out.” Shortly, he popped out of the corn with the pheasant secured.
We looped back to the truck and put Hank on the ground too. Going back over the field, Hank hunted independently, and well. We had another ‘no-bird’ safety situation but that’s good Training. Hank had no finds of his own, but hunted well. He even ‘whoaed-up’ nicely when Nim located a bird.
We returned to the truck having found all the birds save one. The owner, Mark, asked how it went with Hank. I said ‘good.’
I am convinced that at this point in a bird dog’s life, the point is simply bird exposure (Hank is 19 months old). Basic obedience was good, he whoa’ed, recalled, and did so with little need for reinforcement.
It was great to get out with Andrew, Nim, and Hank. I am looking forward to our October Grouse trip back home to Michigan and by then my girl Shelby should be back into the normal rotation.
The heat from the previous weeks was beginning to recede into relatively cooler temps. Light rain and a gentle breeze helped make scenting good. Birds flew well. Dog work was excellent. Yeah, our shooting was a bit rusty, but that will soon come to complement the dogs work quite nicely.
Here’s to summer fading into fall, finds, flushes and fetches. Lots of ’em.