Thursday, May 19, 2016

How do you relate to your dogs?

What my dog means to me.

bird dogs and bird hunting
Ruby, Cap, Ace and me
I never considered I would be stumped by a question about how I felt about my bird dogs!  I pondered a bit, then considered some, and slid easily into some contemplation, but I couldn’t get a handle on “what my dog means to me”!

Finally, I approached the answer in a logical way.  Would I die for my dogs, like I would for my wife? Would I offer myself up in my dog’s stead, to keep him alive?  No, I wouldn’t do that.  However, would I put myself at risk for my dog?  Absolutely, I would!  If my dog was going through the ice, would I jump in to save him? Without one iota of doubt would I break ice all the way and swim if I had to.  Would I get between him and an angry bull?  Of course, I would. I’ve done it.

   Once, I was hunting Woodcock in local swamp.  We must have startled the sleeping deer hunter, high up in a tree.  He woke up and started yelling at the top of his lungs, cussing like a sailor, until, finally, he said, “I ought to shoot your dog right now!”  My calm demeanor changed in a flash, and I suggested he reconsider that action as ill-advised.  I’m still shocked at my instant, and unsettling, response to a threat to my dog!  So, it looks like my wife and kids come out a little ahead of my bird dogs in the “die to protect” category, which, I’m sure, is comforting to the home folks.  

bird dogs and bird hunting
Bo and me winning the 2001 Quail Unlimited National Championship Trial

I look back over the many years and realize what my dogs have given me.  Through personal problems and financial setbacks, professional trials and tribulations, my bird dogs gave me unconditional love and gratitude.  They kept me on the straight course, just by virtue of the fact that I needed to care for them and they needed me.  I took a friend to my kennels, one time, and we played with the dogs for a bit.  We sat down near the kennels and talked and laughed.  Finally, she said, “Why are your dogs all staring at you?  They haven’t moved or taken their eyes off you since we got here!”  The answer was a simple one.  I am the pack leader, the doler-out of food and favor. They crave my affection and attention.  They love me.  You can’t help but return that unconditional love.  The Greek of the Bible has three separate meanings for the word “love”:  Eros- erotic love, philia- brotherly love, and agape- the total unconditional love of God for us.  My dogs show me agape love. That is, and can only be, a settling, stabilizing influence.

Bird dogs and bird hunting
Cap and me Chukar hunting Idaho

My main dog, for many years, was Ace.  A big, male Brittany, Ace was fast, strong, intelligent and a brag dog.  And, he loved me.  I was the center of his universe.  He would bounce around the truck, with his tracking collar on, looking at me and woofing me gently telling me “Let’s go, Boss!”  As soon as I took a few steps in one direction, he’d be off, looking for whatever game bird we happened to be hunting.  Having him in front of me meant frosty mornings, blues skies, cold runny noses and walking down rows of cut corn busting Roosters.  Or, hot, dry days in September, walking coulees and cut wheat looking for Sharptails and Huns in Montana, dodging cactus and drop-offs. Or, cool mornings and warm afternoons chasing Mister Ruff along trails, in Wisconsin, with trees so bright it was almost blinding.  Or, humping grassy hills within view of Mexico, shooting covey after covey of the beautiful Mearns, or climbing over fields of Idaho lava rock cussing Chukar, or dodging pump jacks and oil wells in New Mexico tracking monster coveys of Blues and Gambels. Or, maybe, merely a field trial, not far from the house.  Ace meant everything in the moment to me.  

bird dogs and bird hunting
Ruby and me Mearns Quail hunting New Mexico

My friend said I taught him about the “Zen of bird hunting”.  He said I taught him to focus on the immediate, the dog, the location, the track, the plan- but mainly the dog.  If my life is a bullseye, when I'm hunting, the 10 Ring is me and my dog.  Everything else is less.  Ace and me.  Agape love.

bird dogs and bird hunting
Ace with two Roosters

Friday, May 6, 2016

My little one, Pearl, field trialing. Git 'er done!

In every pack or every group of bird dogs a fairly strict social hierarchy exists.  At the top of my pack is the ruler of the kingdom and the doler out of the favors- that would be me.  Next, the top dog, is Cap (he thinks of himself as the "wonder dog") followed by Ruby, then Shack.  Low on the totem pole is Pearl.  She's the youngest female and is the smallest, as well.   At two and one half years, she still gets more of a thrill out of seeing a covey fly then locking them down and waiting for me.  This is not an insurmountable problem, and I fully expect this year to be her year to put it all together, but when the unavoidable comparisons are made with the rest of the pack....well, she is my happy little girl. 

bird dogs and bird hunting
Pearl pushing hard.

I trial all my dogs.  It teaches them so many good things and it makes me teach them the basics.  A dogs that will point, retireve and back, hunt objectives and remain obedient in the field will be able to transition to the hunt very easily, I've found.  My trial format of choice is NSTRA (National Shoot to Retrieve Field Trial Association).  I took my little girl to a NSTRA trial the other day, just to test the waters.  I think she did very well, although the score card may not have reflected that opinion.  She had lots of heart and worked hard to the very end.  
bird dogs and bird hunting
Where to now, boss?

bird dogs and bird hunting
Hey, I found one....right here!

bird dogs and bird hunting
Get him up, boss!  I'm ready.

bird dogs and bird hunting
Nice shot and retrieve!
So, she may not be my hottest ball-of-fire.  But she's still my girl and she's still in the line-up.  I can feel it in my bones that this will be her "break out" season.  My little Pearl. 

(All photos by Jeff Hurndon)

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

North Dakota Ace

bird dogs and bird hunting
Ace and Two

The old boy is gone now. When he was young, you couldn't wipe the grin off my face.  He was fast and sure, didn't bump birds, and retrieved to hand.  He was a bull in the field, no matter the cover or terrain.  He was confident and very sure of himself.  I would bite my tongue to keep from bragging about him.  Every so often, I'd slip up and would reply, "Oh yeah.  Not to worry." when asked if he was going to be able to make a particularly difficult retrieve in Idaho, or if he would get out and hunt the prairie in Montana for Huns and Sharps. Meaning: Has this Brittany got any leg on him- will he even move out past 100 yards?  Inwardly, I would smile, chuckle, and think “Watch this, my friend.”

 Many years ago, I was hunting, alone, in North Dakota.  I was hunting familiar areas I'd hunted for years.  I knew every roll of land, coulee, stream, and tree and badger hole.  After a few days hitting the favorites, visiting friends and bagging roosters, I sat down over dinner and grabbed the PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) Map and looked for something different. I noticed an area designated a Waterfowl Production Area. A big lake surrounded by grass and tree lines, itself surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of cut wheat.  It was perfect.  

This was late in the season, however, and I knew, since this was a public area, the hunting pressure would have been intense on this perfect piece of land.  But, the senior dog and I left the young pups in the truck. I loaded the 20 ga. with Prairie Storm 3" 5's, and eased down from the parking area toward some tree lines in the distance.  The weather was perfect with a northerly breeze, blue skies and a nippy chill.  The dog waited until I took a few steps to indicate the direction, then he took off into the light brown grass.  We eased down a slight hill into some rows of millet and corn, planted as a habitat enhancement, and headed for the tree lines that bordered the area.  On the other side of the tree lines, and the area boundary, was cut wheat, about a half mile away.  

We crossed three other tree lines and the grass fields between them.  I gave him plenty of time to run the edges and through the center. After a half hour, we’d seen no birds and were having a pleasant walk on a fall day.  He was the perfect predator on a perfect day.  He wasn't even breathing hard- just using that nose, working objectives, and searching out likely habitat for the pheasant.  I never said a thing, or whistled. I didn’t give him any commands.  I chose my course, and he stayed in front.  Occasionally, I could see him glance up at me- checking my position.  He worked from 50 to 450 yds away- most of it out of sight.  I used an early model GPS tracker and occasionally was lost in thought on my stroll through the country.  We hit the last tree line and I got on the upwind side and let him work the downwind side with that nose of his.  I was walking just inside the trees, with all the ground we’d just scoured to the right of me. He was on the other side of the of the 15 yard wide line of Cottonwoods, and checking the interior of the line with his nose.  The wind was crossing through the trees right to him.  On his other side, cut wheat stretched to the horizon.  Not only was that wheat food for the birds, but it was also safety.  Basically, we had any birds in the area trapped between him and me.  I knew we had either been hunting an area that was cleaned out, or we were pushing birds ahead of us. Those pheasant would much rather run than fly.  At this point in the season, the birds had seen their share of bird hunters- some with dogs, some without.  The stupid ones were long dead.  I had my best dog on the ground, and he was on his game.  The trash trees and grass were thick in the tree line, and it was a perfect place for roosters.  It wasn't long before the Garmin paged me back to the real world- POINT!  I couldn't see him in the thick trees, but he was 150 yards ahead, and slightly right.  We were getting to the end of the row and, knowing him, he had one pinned between him and me.  I walked up with the gun ready as the big, old rooster blew out right in front of me heading for the big wheat field.  The dog was ten feet behind and in full stride when the rooster hit the wheat. He scooped it up and put it in my hand. We sat for a time and admired the big, colorful rooster before we started back to the truck.  He had long, white-tipped spurs- at least a two year old, maybe a three year old.  He was smart and a worthy opponent that day. 

It was time to turn around, so we headed back up the hill, through tree lines.  The temperature was dropping and the wind started biting a little bit.  Point!  He was in the middle of a grassy area between the hedgerows, and straight ahead 50 feet away.  I chuckled when I saw the old dog turned like a pretzel and locked down on a big clump of grass.  His eyes were glassy and his jaws worked- "eating scent" I liked to call it.  Something was different, though.  I was just about to take a closer look, when the grass shook and a squawking, cussing, flash of mad rooster blew up and out.  He dropped easily to the gun, and Ace brought him to hand.  I grabbed my water bottle for him, and he was drinking when I saw what was different.  He had 10+ porcupine quills sticking out of the right side of his face.  He, no doubt, had a close encounter in one of the tree lines- probably brushed up against a big porcupine while concentrating on bird scent.  Throughout the years, Ace had more porcupine encounters than any of my other dogs.  They were never serious enough to visit the vet, and I think many were the result of him literally bumping into the porky in the tall grass.  We sat down and I pulled them out with my Leatherman tool.  He was stoic through it all. Just as I knew he would be.  It took a few minutes, getting them out of his face and lips.  We drank some water, and looked uphill at the truck, setting on the horizon.  It was the end of a long day that started before light.  The wind was stiff now, and I could feel the temperature plummeting.  The sun was setting on the horizon, red and swollen.  With the brown grass, the blue sky, my bird dog, and two big, old roosters in the back- I realized that God can really paint a moment, so I took some time to thank Him.  Ace bagged two roosters with fine work, got quilled in the face, and gave me hours of enjoyment.  For him, it was just another day at the office. For me, it was a beautiful memory.