The truck was in sight. I had a few birds in the bag, and my legs were like rubber. Age was kind to me, but he was no gentleman. There was no, “Would you mind if I cut down on your endurance year after year?” or “Please remember to write everything down, or I’ll have you standing in the kitchen wondering what you went there for- just a reminder.” No, he was no gentleman. It was the same every year, as I noticed tired legs, stopping to “catch my breath” while walking up hills I would jog up in past years, and forgetting obvious facts and names. Even more telling, I noticed the young bucks I would hunt with were only making it up the hill about the same speed as me. It struck me later they were waiting for me, watching out for the old man. Even Shelby, (a friend’s wife, and darned good hunting partner) would stop and gaze out over the land for a bit, ostensibly to check out the habitat, as I caught up. (Dang twenty-somethings should learn to be a little more circumspect.)
As I approach 70, I can see the faintest glimmer of the end in sight. Some days, it’s a mere lightening of the sky and I push the thought from my mind. Other days, it’s a lightning bolt in front of my face.
I was close to the truck now, and Pearl, my little Brit female, ran ahead to find the water bucket I always set on the ground before I leave. I watched her stick her head down and drink greedily, and I was reminded of past dogs, gone many years, who’d done the same thing. Suddenly, Ace, my male Brittany, was right there. Lying down in front of the bucket gulping huge chugs of water, too tired to even stand, his big, powerful body was sucking in the fluid. He owned these Montana hills, year after year. He was dead 5 years now, barely making it 10 years before the cancer took him. But, at that moment, I could see him and hear him. It was pleasant, but not- at the same time. I forced myself back to the present. I put a hand to Pearlie’s head, and told her what a good girl she was, and that her dad (Ace) would be very proud of her. Ghosts. Ace, and other dogs long-gone, in that spot and in other places in Montana, or Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oklahoma, or Kansas. Old dogs, good dogs, brag dogs. They own, forever, patches of land all over the country.
The New Mexico sand hills region and oil patch is not the prettiest place I hunt every year. It’s smelly, hot, cold, windy, pokey, dry, slicker than snot, and will tear up a truck and tires. It is, most years, loaded with sand burrs, requiring a hunter boot the dogs every cast, and every plant or animal out there sticks, pokes, or bites. But, it is one of my favorites, and it is loaded with Scaled (Blue) Quail. Hunting it this year, I happened upon an area I remembered from 15 years ago. On my first-ever trip to New Mexico, Bo, my setter male, ran off. I combed the country talking to oil field workers, game wardens, even a live talk-show on the radio looking for him. Nothing, so far, but with all that hanging over my head and on my mind, I still put a dog on the ground. Peaches was a big, white setter female. With a great nose, and a wonderful personality, she was a pleasure. She hit the sand and grit with a long stride and determination. We hunted a large circular course around several big pump jacks. She pointed covey after covey that day. I swear she was doing her best to take my mind off my lost dog. My shooting was spectacular (for a rare change), and it took no time to bag a limit that day long ago. This day, I off-loaded Shack, a big, male Brittany, a litter mate to Pearl. I turned him loose and, as he made his way over a dune, I remembered Peaches slamming to a point on the top of that very dune, pinning a covey of Blues in the scrub just on the other side. I smiled as I huffed to the top looking for Shack. I was, sort of, hoping he’d be locked up on the 7th generation of those Blues Peaches found years ago. It wasn’t to be, but the thought kept Peaches with us that day, as Shack and I looped around the area. Her ghost was whipping that tail back and forth, slowing and, finally, locking up- her long, feathered tail straight up at 12 o’clock. Shack never saw her, but she was with us all day, off and on. This spot in NM is where she was special. She’s waiting there for me every year. Even if I don’t show up in person, I can be there instantly with just a thought. Peaches. I smile when I remember driving down to Bronwood, in South Georgia, to get her out of a tremendous litter. What a nose she had!
Most of my days, now, hunting in North Dakota and Eastern Montana are spent behind my Brittanys. But, in the early years, my male setter, Bo, was my go-to dog. This year, I put Blue, a 2 year old Brittany, on the ground in a large Block Management area in Eastern Montana. As I looked up the gently sloping alfalfa field, it was easy to visualize old Bo cutting the field into manageable chunks and scanning the areas with his nose. He was not a beautiful setter. He had a tail with a bend over his back, but it never got high enough on point anyway. When he hit scent, he froze. Instantly! He would be twisted, front or rear low, head turned- an instant marble statue. It’s not hard to feel the excitement, seeing him twisted like a pretzel, and knowing he doesn’t make mistakes. This day, Blue hunted his heart out, running big and fast, with the energy only a 2 year old can muster. He never saw his older brother working right alongside him, coaching, suggesting, and leading him to the back of the field and a covey of Sage Grouse that stayed close to their lek just off the plowed area. The day, many years prior, when Bo first pointed them, he was 150 yards away, a white dot in the green. When I got to him, 5 huge birds lumbered into the air. I let them go, not sure what they were. They were the first Sage Grouse I’d ever seen. Later, I found out just how heavy they can be in the bird bag. Good, old Bo. My only “cover dog” and National Champion. I drive past that field almost every year, Bo long since gone, while glancing at the hills hoping to glimpse a flash of white roaming the hills around that special spot.
|Me loving on Bo. Montana|
I don’t know if I’ll be able to return to several areas of the Wisconsin Grouse woods. Not because I physically can’t, but because the memories are still too real. Ruby, my first and best Setter, was an amazing dog. Almost all white, with a little orange around her eyes, she was so classically beautiful on point, it took my breath away. I bought her because I wanted a dog with a little more range than the Brittany male I started bird hunting with. At 7 weeks old, driving back from Wade’s farm in Tennessee with her curled up in my lap, how could I know I was holding the best bird dog I might ever have? She was perfect every day. When I decided to try hunting Wisconsin Ruffed Grouse, Ruby was there- ready to go. I would open the crate door and ask her, “Ready for another day, girl?” Of course, she was always ready. Years later, I took Shack and Cap, both accomplished male Brits, to the grouse woods. I stayed in the usual motel, drove the usual roads, and let out at an intersection of roads and trails deep in the National Forest. Both boys worked well. I had no complaints about them- just that they weren’t Ruby. Her memory came on strong as I was walking the hunter trails. Her beeper (pre-GPS days) would go off, and I learned you’d better not hesitate getting to your dog in the thick woods, as the Ruffs would walk away, right from under a pointed dog, and then flush when they felt comfortable. I got my first double on Ruffed Grouse over her, and I re-lived it when I saw Cap moving through that same area. He’s no slouch as a bird dog, but, if he could have seen her moving through the woods with him, like I did, he would have known he was watching perfection. That little patch of clear cut is totally grown up now, but it will forever hold the memory of my all-white, perfect girl locked up on 6 Ruffs under a dead-fall, just off the gravel road, deep in the Wisconsin North Woods.
At least 18 states hold bits of dogs long gone but seared into my memory. I load up the dogs and ponder which of them will leave their ghost behind to haunt me in this particular part of the country. Perhaps none of them, but I know in my heart that won’t be the case. These dogs are as accomplished as my earlier dogs ever were, and they’ll have their good days, stellar days, and leave their mark in the wheat fields, alder swamps, Arizona Mountains, alfalfa fields, or field trial grounds- just like the past dogs. I realize that one day, as age creeps in, all I will have is the memories. The body will give out and I will be forced to hang up the lead. I reach to my right, as I drive off, to stroke the head of whichever dog earned front seat privileges that day, and I hope, one last time, to see a flash of white through the trees around the bend in the gravel road.
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