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This one, easy. Frozen, not so much.

This one, easy. Frozen, not so much.

Ice cream headache. Did you ever think your dog might have one?

If you train with frozen birds, he might. He’ll never admit it, but the outward manifestation might be lousy retrieves. Thanks pro trainer Larry Lee, for pointing out the obvious – to everyone, apparently, but me. I was lamenting the goofy way Manny would approach a frozen pigeon, then daintily pick it up by a wing and drag it back, sort of.

It was Larry who asked what I would do in a similar situation.  I pondered that. Now, so will you: open the freezer, pull out an ice cube and hold it between your teeth for oh, say the length of a 200-yard retrieve.

It’s no wonder Manny was less than enthusiastic. So was I. Carrying a pigeon by one wing isn’t easy.

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More of this please ...

More of this please …

The traditional version comes at the wrong time of year. We are putting things away and reminiscing about past months when we are encouraged to reveal our hopes for the coming 12 months. Thanksgiving, Christmas, then poof! There they are, at the bitter end of our favorite time of year.

Instead, my resolution is to make resolutions for our “new year,” Opening Day. Record my dreams and dreads wrapped in blaze orange and dog hair in the weeks leading up to the fresh season. They started on closing day and marinated until the opener was an actual, real date on the new calendar circled in red. Then, aspirations for shooting, desires for favorite coverts and of course, miracles for our dogs are voiced over beers (or in our heads).

Mine? Trivial, some might say. Steadiness from Manny on covey flushes. Stamina from 10-year-old Buddy. New places and friends in the field. Some green among the thousands of acres of ash and soot here in the West. And hope, for a safe season, strong legs, happy dogs.

What are yours?

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Monolith … and echo chamber

Whistle blasts, yells, nothing was getting Buddy back to me. It looked like he was actually running away – each command got the opposite reaction from what I wanted.

One more toodle on the whistle and the echo hit me in the face, the problem now quite obvious. Sound waves left my mouth, traveled the hot dry canyon and bounced off the massive basalt walls. That’s what Buddy heard. No wonder he streaked away – he was eagerly trying to please me but headed for the nearer source of the command – the rock, not me.

Wow, that sure changed the way I look at (er, hear) dog commands. Further experimentation showed that knolls, thick forest, even water will all affect what your dog hears, and where he thinks that sound is coming from. It’s a wonder they ever come back to us!

These days I’ll sometimes turn and call or whistle in the opposite direction from my dog so the original sound – and any echoes – are both coming from the vector I want him to take. Other times, lower volume precludes an echo. By default, my dogs have learned that a beep from their collar means the same as “here,” so that works also.

Now that I know this, my dogs seem to be much more obedient.

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So, what’s the best approach for you, the bird, and Buddy?

Here’s a lesson I’m learning almost weekly this time of year. Maybe you, too. You trudge up the hill to find your dog on point. He’s steady. Birds cooperative. Until you take over, that is.

Once he’s pinned a bird, I try to help Buddy do a great job handling it. I approach from at least an oblique angle, not striding right past. He’s less likely to break point. If I can, I get birds to hold instead of run by squeezing them between Buddy and me.

Want another reason to approach your dog from the front? He’s not right under the muzzle blast and it’s deafening effect. That way, he’ll have one less excuse for not hearing my commands. Even when I miss. Which is often.

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In this country, rush hour is a herd of whiteface cattle who refuse to stay in their own lane. There are more cows than people here, so we usually yield right of way to them. Besides, what’s the rush?

enchanted canyon on the horizon

Through the windshield: enchanted canyon is at the end of this asphalt rainbow

It’s easy for me to say, when I actually choose to end my hunt early because it was so good.

I don’t mean a vest overflowing with birds, not even close. But enough, in the right places. Dog work to match. Both left a satisfying heft in the bag and the mind.

A creek bed thicket offered one covey of valley quail, a bird dropping into a small forest of alders and willows only Buddy could negotiate, dropping it gently in my palm. A single against the steeply dropping bank, again, only found thanks to the marvelous canine nose I’m privileged to feed twice daily.

No, this trip ended early because the senses were sated, all of them, in very special ways.

I pointed the rig north beyond familiar canyons and draws, looking for new coveys. My eye turned west, drawn to a brilliant yellow vein of aspens snaking downstream, tracing a small creek’s route out of a towering rock cleft straight from Lord of the Rings. The road ended at the lava gateway to this mountain range, and we hunted every inch of the watercourse.

Not a single wingbeat interrupted our visit to this enchanted place, and after the fact, I’m grateful. Yellow, gold, red and amber leaves formed an unbroken ceiling above and covered the desert floor. The stream bottom was similarly paved, deserving of a magazine cover (and me without my camera!). It was as a Narnia-like world, where fantasy meets reality, and you’re not quite sure which is which.

But my camp was still miles away. A small desert lake, void of anglers this time of year, was my destination. I reveled at the chance to cherry-pick my spot, and headed for the far side. The tallest fault block mountain on the continent dwarfed our little camp. A fan of bare sand forms my personal beach, and soon a fire is crackling and the Scotch is poured.

Buddy roams, unfettered by neighbors or responsibility. He doesn’t quite know what to do, unleashed and free, so stays close to me and the warming fire. Together, we watch a flock of Canada Geese graze in undulating lines toward the lakeshore, stalked by a coyote. He hides, they move, he creeps, they adjust the distance. Eventually, the geese prevail, reaching the water, well fed and safe for the time being.

From both ends of the lake, mule deer materialize in ones and twos. Soon, two dozen are drinking. At the far south end the dominant buck emerges, four points on each side, regal in his aloneness. Stars soon carpet the sky, a few shooting, all sparkling.

In the morning coffee’s sharp jolt kindles a brief memory, leading to the only logical conclusion: how could you top that?

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Up here, a saved step or two is worth thinking about.

On this morning’s training walk with Manny, I was reminded of the importance of how we choose our steps … and why. Hope you find something useful here:

“Walk This Way” is more than an iconic rock tune (the original version by Aerosmith, whose lead singer Steven Tyler, by the way, has been a bird hunter in the past.) Ambulating with some care husbands your precious energy and maybe save a trip to the emergency room. Where I hunt, in the darkest spot in the lower 48, both of those are good enough reasons to think before I step.

It starts with minimizing the strain on your thigh and calf muscles by stepping over, not on top of, obstacles such as logs and rocks. Each upward stride is like climbing stairs, taxing some of the largest muscles in your body and lifting virtually your entire body’s weight each time you summit a downed tree.

If you must negotiate a boulder field or rocky slope, you’re safer stepping to the low spots. You have less chance of twisting an ankle or breaking a femur because you’re carefully, deliberately putting your feet where they’d go the hard way in a mishap. And by not “topping” rocks, whether they’re securely anchored or loose as bowling balls is immaterial to your delicate bones and joints.

On steep uphills, say in chukar country, conserve energy with the slight rest your muscles get as you lock your knee at the apex of each step. Your legs’ skeletal structure supports your body weight for a microsecond, giving oxygen-rich blood a chance to flow back into relaxed muscle tissue. And for some reason I tend to stomp on each uphill step, adding injury to the insult of taunting chukars mere yards uphill from me. If you do too, step lightly instead.

A long day weaving among the trees and shrubs will seem shorter if you weave less. Even if it seems a bit out of the way, walking in longer straight shots with fewer twists and turns, alleviates stress on hip and knee joints and the muscles that activate them. Over the course of a 10-mile hunt, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the absence of pain.

Finally, the U.S. Army has convinced me that shortening your stride just a few inches is wise.  Among recruits, it protects against hip and pelvic injuries. For we hunting civilians, too. Here’s a bonus: on crusted snow, you may find yourself “postholing” less.

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Intense. Loyal. You're the man.

Intense. Loyal. You’re the man.

Well, you are ten years old, at least chronologically.

Your muzzle is grayer, your gait slower. At times, there’s a hitch in your getalong. Luckily, you can’t say the same about me because you can’t talk.

Based on your behavior, I’d consider you a mere puppy – levitating, bouncing, hopping, barely containing your squeals of delight. You are effervescent, hoping it’s time for birds, a hell-bent streak through the desert, or maybe just coffee on the couch.

But there’s also anxiety in your world. You worry about my leaving, or who’s going to hunt first. There is concern in your eyes when the door opens and you’re not invited to race outside, or when you’re outside, not allowed in. Thank goodness for Penny the Corgi, your apprentice. She calms you with an ear lick, doleful eyes aimed your way. Or she pulls on your lip, mouths your elbow, yips in invitation to – what? Puppy mojo washes over you, magically stealing back the years that have taken their toll.

I hope that my touch, my soothing words, calm you too.

At night, we exchange moans lying on the couch together, fluently communicating in the secret language of the tired, old and sore. We share stone bruises and scratches, painkillers and sometimes, dinner. But in the morning, you are ready for action so I will be too.

Your grand nephew Manny now looks to you with kind eyes, finally secure in his own skin and ready to be a member of the pack. You might even hunt together this fall.

You sleep deeply, chasing rabbits with muted howls. I stir in the night, wishing I was following. In the morning we’ll foray into the desert, intent on following our dreams.

What do you want for your birthday, Buddy? If you wished for a whole bag of food, rawhide bones, or a fluffier bed I’d rush out today, credit card in hand. Luckily, we agree that the perfect birthday gift is a long drive, lunch in a small town café, camp where the only light is from stars, and waking to a glorious day in the field full of finds and flushes.

I promise a season-full this fall. Happy birthday.

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