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Archive for the ‘What the Dogs Taught Me’ Category

Thankful for: genetics and something magic.

Thankful for: genetics and something magic.

It’s easy to get maudlin this time of year – family far away (or too close), the frantic shopping scene, lousy weather, not enough field time … the list goes on and on.

But seriously, as the Dalai Lama (I think) said, “keep a diamond in your mind,” and you can see the beauty in almost everything. Read this, then find the diamonds in your own memory, then tell us all about them at my Facebook page.

Mine include …

A sympathetic spouse who understands that I am feeding a raw, primitive hunger when I hunt. It’s a need that isn’t met in a grocery meat department or at the skeet range. Ortega y Gassett put it best: One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.

Sympathetic dogs that honor me simply by allowing me to hunt with them, despite their superior abilities. Dogs that embody the entire Scout Oath (trustworthy, loyal, etc.) in their too-short lives.

Loyal friends who put up with my bad shooting and worse cooking in camp. Buddies who share the same values: dogs rule, dirt is a cleanser when worn on clothes and under fingernails, in hunting is truth.

An incredible career serving you, helping you become better hunters and dog owners through television, blogging, magazine articles and my new book (feel free to buy two copies).

Co-workers who make me look smarter and thinner on TV than I deserve. Even they can’t do much about my bad shooting.

The incredible resource we have available. Millions of acres of public land that we own and access, plus friendly private landowners who let us on their property. I am also thankful for the care you take when using our precious lands.

New friends, that I’ve introduced to our sport. The wonder and awe they express after following a dog or enjoying a chukar dinner remind me that there is often more joy in taking someone else than in going alone.

The magical moments we experience in the field. A magazine-cover point, the conundrum of how DNA can be so exquisitely manifested. The willingness of our dogs to break ice, brave thorns, pant through the heat to serve us. The deep, primal connection we get when we team with our dogs to seek prey – literal and emotional sustenance for us both.

The small miracles we witness that non-hunters don’t: pear trees in the desert, arrowheads and petroglyphs, crystal-clear water burbling from lava rock, bobcat kittens tumbling among boulders, a blanket of stars that shrink us to the specks we are in this vast universe, friends that don’t mind if we walk without talking for a whole day.

Who needs jewelry?

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A well-deserved drink.

The weather girl had it right for a change: winter was starting right on time. So did we. Here in South Dakota you can’t start hunting until 10 a.m., to me and my crew, a most civilized statute. Departing Ringneck Retreat, we were in the truck and rolling a few minutes before the appointed hour, down a bumpy farm road past a feedlot and into the boondocks.

A light snow coated round bales and thistle blooms, adding magic to the morning – Tinkerbelle’s sprinkling of pixie dust – to our adventure. Gray skies weren’t enough to darken our spirits – a breeze from the west beckoned canine noses and human feet.

Buddy and Manny got the nod today. After too many miles in their Owens boxes they trembled with anticipation. Park – guns out – cameras rolling – rattle open the door. At the timber patch that was our starting line, Manny rocketed over logs, shimmied under bushes, snaked around the ancient elms’ alligator-skin trunks. The thick grass underfoot yielded not a bird.

Once out of the timber, he was on point within seconds. Bird up! And quickly down. The young wirehair had hit his stride, galloping toward the crumpled rooster, he snuffled it into his grip. A short race back and he relinquished it gently to hand. Fifty yards later, another lock-up, cackling flush and bird crashing into the ditch. Right-left-middle he coursed until the enticing aroma of birds arrested his forward progress. One got away clean. Another was warned with a surprise early shot then grounded with the top barrel. The last rooster in the strip jinked hard right, soaring over our blocker. The shot string from his first barrel drew feathers, but the rooster reversed field and soared three hundred yards over cut soybeans before rolling as he hit the ground.

Manny was off like a drag racer at the green light, quickly outdistancing the young Labrador stationed at heel with another blocker. Scooped up and trundled 900 feet back to me and the camera, the ringneck was relinquished from the tender grasp of a bearded muzzle. Maybe it was the pixie dust, a smidgen of fairy tale. Whatever the cause, it was an enchanting day.

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Good boy!

Good boy!

Whirrrrrrr! A long, dry slog down canyon went from relaxed camaraderie to high alert as four valley quail flushed wild on both sides of us. Manny’s attention was seized, he arrived at the scene of the crime quickly, snuffling the lingering scent like a starving man picks crumbs to ensure there were no stragglers.

The remainder of the downhill stroll was like a night patrol in a Vietnam jungle, eyes and ears wide open for every peep and rustle in the pungent sage. Our Texas visitor thought birds had hooked left, so we sidehilled in that direction a hundred feet above the swampy creek bottom, sometimes on hands and knees. Then, barely perceptible, a rustle in the juniper preceded the bird’s fleeting escape, downhill and over the cattail swamp at the bottom of the ravine.

One shot, bird down. Right in the middle of a football-field-sized tangle of mud, creek, beaver dams, cattails and berry vines … the sharp, thorny kind. The graveyard of forever-lost quail, I thought. The shooter marked the bird and stayed put, eyes glued on the spot where the bird had fallen.

Hmmmm. This looks familiar. A classic NAVHDA duck search, sans duck. Manny and I slid to the bottom and I sent him into the mess with a “dead bird – fetch!” He was daunted by the head-high stalks that fought back, mud that sucked at his feet and berry canes that tore his hide. A few minutes and he emerged, dirty, wet, birdless. But he stood calmly facing the web of vegetation, waiting for direction. I sent him again.

It was then I remembered training advice from an Idaho trip. I scrambled to the canyon wall before finding throwing-sized rocks, whose plunks and plonks tempted Manny farther and farther into the mire. We all listened, intent, to brush rattling, panting dog, mucky footfalls. Sometimes he was so deep in the vegetation all we saw was the faint quivering of cattail tops marking his route.

Then, nothing.

Stillness.

Rustle of stalks, splash of feet, but no panting … but I soon breathed easier. A long two minutes later Manny emerged with – I swear – the most humble look on his fuzzy face I’ve ever seen on a dog. Maybe because he was gently holding the quail in his mouth.

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Sometimes, it's just the companionship of a tired hunting partner that makes your trip.

Sometimes, it’s just the companionship of a tired hunting partner that makes your trip.

When I ask you in my surveys why you go hunting, you cite dog work, friends and being in beautiful places. You seldom mention the journey, the getting there, the Road Trip. Maybe it doesn’t belong in the Pantheon of those reasons, but for me (and I’ll bet you) there is value in the voyage.

My last trip is typical. I left early enough not to rush – smelling roses along the way was easier with a distant deadline. I detoured to scout a trout stream, caught up with the wildlife refuge manager, had coffee at the café whose town’s population swells to ten when I visit. Each pepped up my ho-hum drive, planted mileposts of variety along the endless ribbon of asphalt.

A dog in the front seat, the right license plate frame or window decal spark conversations with strangers in small towns and gigantic parking lots. If you keep an open mind you come away with insights into people and places. A new camping spot, landowner with ringnecks on his property, and if you’re lucky, a brother and college friend who intersect at one of your stops.

Kevin Bacon’s six degrees of separation are whittled to a couple in the Upland Nation. That guy in the next booth has a cousin who hunted with the guy you’re going to visit. The clerk behind the counter reads your magazine column, and his brother shot sporting clays with you last year. You only know and appreciate these family ties by stopping, breathing deep and opening your mouth and your mind.

So what makes your hunting trip more than a hunting trip?

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Our opening weekend destination.

Our opening weekend destination.

Pretending to be attentive to my company, I had a hard time keeping my eyes off the single, fluttering yellow leaf as it drifted to the ground. It was the first of millions, but at least to my eye it was a sign.

I wore a jacket for the first time this morning. Then Manny’s exhalations created clouds in the brisk morning air. And the ground exhaled too, showing moisture in the sandy soil for the first time since March. Buddy smiled as he raced through the sage – at least it looked like a smile to me. And both dogs ran with a verve fueled by the bracing air.

I’m ready. Are you?

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One of the highlights.

One of the highlights.

In medical school, the curriculum is often watch-do-teach. All three create a finely-honed, multi-dimensional learning experience for any skill from surgery to bird dog training. The strategy was driven home again yesterday at an informal gathering of three friends with two goals: find good training water and take each of their dogs’ abilities up a notch.

If I told you where we went, I’d have to kill you. The spot is near a popular trout lake, but off the beaten path just enough. It’s not perfect, but as you know, here in the high desert any water is good water.

We arrived in a cloud of dust with different agendas, wrangling a total of five dogs, buoyed by high hopes. It was an equal opportunity training day, we even had a Lab with us. We ran the gamut: intense duck search, basic water retrieves, a little nose work, some obedience for the Utility Test, and for me the highlight of the day, a young wire that swam willingly for the first time.

With dogs as common ground, our relaxed banter uncovered a wealth of mutual acquaintances, backgrounds, and interests. Fishing, “secret” spots we’ve all visited, towns we’d each lived in … none would have bubbled to the top during a hurried encounter but all became fodder for budding friendships over the course of a day working dogs.

This session was a success not solely because of canine accomplishments. It was a winner because of the humans’ willingness to give and take and desire to pitch in. Sure, we wanted to work our own dogs and capitalize on the volunteer “staff” of training partners. But by the end of the day each had advanced their own dog’s skill level as well as aiding in the education of others’ dogs.

Yes, every quid deserves a quo.

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And ready for your order. Go here to get more information and order your copy.

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