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.