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Pay attention to him, and score more often.

I was recently reminded of how working with our dogs, thinking like they think, can produce better shooting from us. In South Dakota, a less-experienced companion was so nervous (or was he dazzled at my dog’s performance?) the ringneck had almost five minutes to fly wild or scoot out from under the point. This guy snuck, skulked, minced and tiptoed over 100 yards – it seemed to take eons for him to flush the dang bird!

The rest of us were going batty, urging him to step on it. I was hoarse from yelling across the stubble. My dog stood on trembling legs, eyes bugging out as he searched for someone, anyone, to push that bird into the air. Luckily the pheasant held and the outcome was fatal for him.

Sure, that situation was the exception. But the lesson was clear: ignoring your dog’s critical role might negatively affect your shot. Consider these tips next time you’re lucky enough to find your dog locked up on a bird:

  1. To ensure a safe, sure shot, ensure a solid point, and a bird that holds still rather than a scampering off unscathed, be punctual. Once your dog stands the bird, walk in with alacrity. The longer you dawdle or admire his stunning good looks, or take photos, the greater the chance a bird will flush wild, run off or the dog will do the flushing for you.
  1. Then, assert yourself. Over many years in many fields one thing is clear: both birds and dogs hold better when the gunner moves with confidence. Once your dog shows you the bird, stride right in and everyone will likely do what’s expected of them. This is the time to show you are in charge. Be confident.
  1. Choose your approach route with care to maximize your chance at a solid, killing shot. Swing wide around the dog and you’ll cut off one of the bird’s escape routes. Two gunners performing a pincer movement means even fewer bolt-holes for a cunning rooster more inclined to sprint than fly. If you can move to the front and circle back so the bird is between you and the dog there’s a good chance it will fly, not run.
  1. Flanking your dog also minimizes his chance of breaking point … one less thing to worry about when you should be preparing for a flush and a shot. “Allelomimetic behavior” is a highfalutin’ word for that flock of birds that jinks in unison, or pair of wolves trotting in parallel. Sauntering close alongside a pointing dog is an invitation to follow you into the flush – that’s how we teach “heel,” after all.

Okay, so you hunt a spaniel or retriever in the uplands. You could still apply many of the same principals:

  1. Focus on the dog, not the puffy clouds or a deconstruct of last night’s game. Stick as close as possible to your hound, and look for the “tells” that indicate he’s getting birdy. Be as ready as you can be for a shot.
  2. Use your “hup” command (you DID train for that, right?). It might instill confidence in the dog … you’re in charge, a situation he’s accustomed to, and comfortable in.
  3. When you sense your dog’s birdiness, start maneuvering for a safe shot. Use your peripheral vision to suss out birds’ likely escape routes. Set up as best you can for a shot in that direction. As with pointers, two hunters working in sync can stage-manage a bird’s flight to some degree. Now’s the time to talk to each other.

Shorthair, Lab, Small Munsterlander, Boykin, whatever breed you’re running these days, keeping your eye on the dog and not on your smart phone should put you in a better place, literally and figuratively … when it comes to shooting.

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Find great tethers in the hardware store's key department.

Find great tethers in the hardware store’s key department.

If you’re hunting along that ridge … you know, where the dead cow has been reduced to a bone pile … alongside the only gravel state highway, in that big boulder field and just south of that town, population 9 … well, watch for my e-collar transmitter. I left it there after taking a couple photos of me and my buddy on a chukar hunt.

That transmitter was the proverbial final straw and my camel’s back broke on that desolate desert slope. Like a compass, a whistle, and (almost) the camera I used for those pictures, so much of my gear is small and unnaturally mobile when it shouldn’t be. Maybe yours is too. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to lose any more of it.

Now I tie everything to me or my hunting vest. Loops, belts, D-rings, zipper pulls, there are plenty of anchor points. And these days, lanyards, cord and retractors of all sorts are available … often free for the asking if you’re willing to sport someone’s logo.

You’d be surprised how often in the heat of the hunt you literally drop everything. Okay, maybe you don’t, but I do. Every third or fourth training session, I’ll be walking along and something will bump against my leg. Sometimes, it’s a loyal dog, checking in. More often it’s a collar transmitter hanging from its lifeline … which is way better than buried in some clump of brush, lost to the ages.

At a recent training day I spent almost an hour searching the tall grass for a bird launcher control. On a grouse hunt, a GPS grew legs and escaped until a friend stepped on it. Once, one of my dogs actually sniffed up a pair of shooting glasses that had tumbled from my vest pocket.

Now, the glasses are leashed around my neck every time I lace up my boots. My training pistol has a line that goes through a belt loop. Whistles dangle around my neck, and water bottles are held fast by  a carabiner.

Yes, at times I can look like the receiving end of one of those old-time telephone switchboards, cords sprouting all over me. But most are easily managed, slack tucked into pockets until that tool is utilized. A couple hunts and you’ll work out the logistics too.

Maybe your mother told you what mine told me: you’d lose your head if it wasn’t screwed on. Tether it, and she’ll be happier and so will you.  And you won’t spend the better part of a morning on your hands and knees when you should be roaming the hills or prairie behind your dog.

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To Buddy on his 11th birthday

Three Devils Yankee's Buddy ... age 11.

Three Devils Yankee’s Buddy … age 11.

Thank you for eleven years of wonderment and adventure. Without you, I wouldn’t have gone so many of the places we’ve hunted. You were the original star of our TV show, and are still going strong on the small screen and in the field.

Age has slowed your body but not your spirit. You are a true hunter and that spirit has become mine. Seventy-seven human years … wow. I hope to be as optimistic, energetic and wide-eyed at your age!

We’ve seen dozens of states, joined hundreds of dogs and people in the field, but none have touched  my soul like you have. Tolerant of children, strangers, your grand nephew and your running mate Corgi, you are a fine representative of your breed.

You politely endure the poking of vet techs, prodding of doctors, and the aches and pains of “senior dogness.” Your beard is thinner, your gait more deliberate. You’re happy with an hour in the field and a soft bed after.

A late morning, a couch-potato evening, plenty of sunbathing in between … you deserve the life usually reserved for vacationers.

You’ve earned it.

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To Manny on his fifth birthday

Manny as tim conwayThose crossed front legs say it all. You are unflappable, Manny. At ten weeks old on the vet’s table, you laid down, crossed your forelegs and surveyed your new domain. In the crate this morning it’s how I found you.

You knew I’d soon open the door with a creak and turn you loose on the limitless prairie. You were polite enough to let me open your great uncle’s box first and let him stretch his soon-to-be eleven-year-old legs. You are good in that way. For a while.

So you’ve learned a variant of patience in five years.You’ve taught me that as well.

You’ve roamed the woods, prairies, scablands and cultivated fields of a dozen states. Covered more miles each season than most dogs do in a life. And you’re always ready for more.  You’ve learned that my lacing tall boots and the smell of Hoppe’s #9 means birds, and that a long drive always means hunting at the end – at least in your book.

You’ve brought me woodcock and ruffies from Wisconsin, ringnecks in six different states. You are magic on valley quail, and thankfully, an eager hill climber for elusive chukars. Bobwhites, sharptails, Huns … you have gently delivered them all to my waiting hand.

You’ve panted through tules, trembled on icy bluffs, and given your all in more habitats than I can count, but by morning you are up and at ’em, ready for another day on anything that flies.  In the meanwhile, you’ll roll over and snore. Loudly.

Our first five years together were a rural-road’s-worth of ups and downs, some deep dips and towering peaks. But we made it, and you’ve become a fine bird dog in spite of your owner’s mis-steps.

Where you got your positive attitude and hopeful lust for doggy life, I’ll never know. I’m just grateful you have it, because it rubs off on me. To some, it looks more like bafflement (that beard helps), but I know deep inside it’s wonder … at the entire world, but especially at anything with feathers.

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DSCF0278Oh, the memories this hat brings to mind. It has kept sun, rain, sleet and snow off my head. Misplaced pellets and many a sharp branch were thwarted. It’s been a fine workmate in the field, performing its job well for over a decade.

Ten years in the sun has erased any evidence of its vaguely military original color, it is now a mottled, wrinkled, generic “dirt.”

It is rumpled, blown off and landing in everything from mud and trout streams, horse apples and plowed earth. Crushed in pickup beds, stranded on airplanes, it soldiered on, patient in the knowledge I would rescue and refurbish it (to the extent I could!). Being kind, it has “character.”

It has seen four different dogs partnered with me in the field, each of whom has drunk from it, grateful for the water. Each left his own mark on that hat, a puppy-bite here, muddy footprint there, a drop of blood. There are memories of good times and special places, made more special for the dogs that shared them.

Sweat might be the most pervasive stain. After ten years of fishing and hunting, there is more of my DNA in its band than all the samples I’ve given laboratories.

Long floats on tumbling trout streams, arduous climbs, marches through corn and milo, solitary walks with old dogs are restored to crystal clarity when I hold this hat.`It has laid alongside me on barstools and barn floors in small towns throughout the west.

The crease was from a tumble in the lava rock chasing chukars. That dent was from a saddle horn it rested on after a soaking. The scrape on the brim came from an alder branch that would have blinded me had it not been for this hat. The original shape is lost to time and weather, adventures and foibles. The wavy brim an accounting of the ups and down of a life spent wading streams and wandering fields behind dogs. There’s pheasant blood, evidence of a close shot and closer fall. Alfalfa, corn, aspen and sage have all imprinted their scent over the years.

The purple stain inside is from blackberries, hot, tart and soft, plucked from thorny vines shading a California trout stream. Some even made it into pies but most were eaten on the spot.

Scientists are now able to pull faint sounds from the past from many materials, ghostly voices of that thing’s past. If they tore a sample from the brim and pressed “play” they’d hear panting dogs, crackling alder leaves, the brush of mountain mahogany and crunch of boot on lava rock. There’d be the boom of 12 gauge and pop of .410, wielded by old-timers and 12-year-olds, exuberant shouts and contemplative whispers about important things. But mainly, they’d hear panting. For like its owner, this hat has shared plenty of “face time” with canine hunting partners. Most are better company than humans who by virtue of carrying a shotgun call themselves “hunters.”

Every dog of mine has rested his muzzle on the crown of this hat, deep sighs and muffled yelps of pleasure washing over it as each dreams remembrance of that day’s hunt. If I inhale deeply enough I can smell Bill, Yankee, Buddy, and now, Manny. Only another dog lover could appreciate the melange of canine scents it holds.

In summer, the band is fleece, holding the flies that just didn’t work that day. They seldom find their way back into a box again, instead reminding me of their potential – maybe – on another stream on another day.

On September 1, the fleece is swapped for bright orange, for we can now roam coverts and fields for something that flies rather than fins in bright waters. Feathers from 17 bird species in 22 states have graced the band. I am grateful for every whispered sneak, the long cold stalks, the trembling points, all the flushes and rushes by our prey, thankful for each life given.

This hat has marked the last known location of dozens of shot birds, in hopes our dogs could work from there toward scent and stilled wings nearby. Sometimes, that’s what happens. Others, something else. Last season, a pointer peed on it.

It wouldn’t survive a cleaning, even if someone would take on the challenge. Not gonna happen: the sights, sounds, smells, the memories might wash away … and who would risk that?

Instead, it occupies a place of honor now, watching, listening, presiding over sleeping dogs whose night-time whimpers and trembling legs bely dreams of past hunts they shared with me, good friends, and that hat.

 

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Take a kid “hunting”

Moral support for father and uncle, from two great kids

Moral support for father and uncle, from two great kids

They arrived ready to hunt … deer-antler slingshots made by their uncle at the ready. They were cousins, and their fathers were hunting with me at a local preserve, our annual “vamos a caza” day. My friends Nato and Franki grew up hunting in rural Mexico, first with their own slingshots, then firearms, and today with my shotguns while I handled dogs.

Do children belong on a hunting trip? Short answer: maybe. Long answer, below.

Geraldo, age 10, and Venezia, age nine, had the look that most kids have when they pile out of the car in the Disneyland parking lot. Their excitement was tempered by good manners, with handshakes all around and an eagerness to meet my dogs Manny and Buddy. Theirbarely-contained energy was contagious, and a long drive did nothing to diminish it. Questions and jokes shortened the journey.

Though they would be spectators today, these kids had a healthy respect for firearms thanks to their fathers’ careful instruction. A few rehearsals on who-stands-where-when, and Manny’s lead was unclipped. Fathers in front, kids with me, it wasn’t long before Manny’s tail twitched then stopped, and my earlier explanation of pointing suddenly became relevant.

Bird up! A quick shot by each brother and the pheasant was long gone. Laughs, hand claps and more questions: “Why is the gun so loud? Where did the bird go? How does Manny know what kind of bird it is?” Each was answered patiently as we moved, our group amoeba-like, toward Manny, frozen in the milo.

The brothers walked up the bird, waited a half-second longer this time, and the bird dropped. Glory was shared by both shooters, while a new level of curiosity about bird and shot was kindled as the retrieve was completed. Close-up looks, fingertip touches, even a delicate sniff to see what a dog knew that they didn’t – it was a classroom in the field.

The brothers walked ahead, sharing time in a way they hadn’t since our last trip. The cousins found empty shells of all the colors of the rainbow, doing their best to clean up and be good guests. Stories about those who made the red-yellow-green-purple hulls turned the walk into an adventure. The red ones made by a company also makes rockets … the green ones came from a company that made guns for Buffalo Bill … some were even true.

All their intent looking yielded other treasures. Thundereggs, a translucent quartz, what might have been an arrowhead. Each was oohed and aahed over, then carefully stored in a pocket.

There was never a whine or gripe, no complaints about being too hot or hungry … these were children you would gladly claim as your own.

Maybe you’ve taken kids hunting. Maybe you’ve had a different experience than this. Maybe I just got lucky.

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Uneventful ... or was it?

Uneventful … or was it?

Well, how was your closing day? And don’t tell me how many dead birds ended up in your vest.

How did you feel … about that final day in the field, entire season, your hunting partners and dog? What went through your mind as you turned, opened your gun, and headed for the truck as shadows grew long and your thirst grew strong?

What did you learn?

My season was notable for many new friends. An open mind (and calendar) were the keys. Being “at large” means you’re available for opportunities. Serendipity. Kismet. Add a dog, a little blaze orange, and the odds are good someone will strike up a conversation. Where it leads is up to you.

People are generally pretty good in bird-hunting country. Anyone who likes dogs can’t be all bad, and if they like hunting dogs, they’re a lead-pipe cinch.

I think it was Kevin Bacon who first opined that we are all just six degrees separated from each other. Play who-do-you-know with a guy in a Pheasants Forever cap and it could be three degrees. A dog box is a platonic Match.com.

Oh yeah, back to closing day: fog as thick as a Sherlock Holmes mystery on the moors, I could barely make out the parking lot at the spot I wanted to explore. I counted the ghosts of five trucks in the soggy mist, contemplated losing my dog in the pea soup, then drove downhill to a favorite desert river. At least the breaks were below the fog line.

I parked at the mouth of a canyon that had shared valley quail with me when Manny was a pup. The level ground had no gifts for us this day, head-high sage silent but for the tinkling of the stream and clink of collar tags. There was nowhere to go but up – chukar country. We’d hunt until our water ran out.

Two thousand one hundred feet later, level ground again at the top of a promontory with a million-dollar view. A motivated wirehair coursed the bunchgrass and lava rock, glad to be traveling horizontally instead of vertically. His owner too.

A pause here, hesitation there. Head up, tail vibrating. Then, on again. A nose-down track through blackened sage trunks led to a point on a cottontail, but no feathers. On a plateau of broken lava, one night roost, long abandoned. Elevated hopes for a moment, then more searching.

The river, so far below, was always in view, like a recurring musical theme running through your mind. Memories of big trout and bigger steelhead filled the quietest times, not a bad thing. Sandwiched between rollicking whitewater and a ceiling of cloud, we were walking ground few had trod in recent times. No barbed wire, no rusted cans or cow patties.

And no birds.

We called it a day and began the arduous descent. Tiny waterfalls framed by emerald moss lightened our journey, we scaling rock faces and sliding down scree slopes to the accompaniment of gurgling streamlet. The mountain mahogany slapped and scratched, boulders rolled underfoot, moist ground slid underfoot and reminded us how far we were from civilization.

We made it back to the truck a minute just in time to get home for a shower and a movie. The drive allowed for reflection on the day – gratitude for safe returns (dog and human), a last visit to a favorite spot, and a season of fellowship. Maybe it was the best way to end a season.

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