It’s my observation that many of those who enjoy the company of a good bird dog are natural born storytellers. I don’t know why this is so, but I challenge any campfire gathering of deer hunters to hold my attention like dog folks’ tales of retrieves in pounding surf, springers tracking pheasants through falling snow and grouse shot over the points of long-dead setters.
However, some of my favorite bird dog stories are of a neglected genre—Epic Fails. In other words, those days when the dog didn’t listen, everything went wrong and it took a long time for your anger to transition to laughter. We’ve all had them, though some of us have selective memories of the events.
Certainly I’ve had them, despite the privilege of owning a couple dogs with more talent than I possibly deserve. My late springer, Freedom, won the American Kennel Club’s 2008 National High Point Championship. More than once we shot pheasants on the last day of the season when others swore not a bird existed in the state. And yet, as evidenced by a couple of the selected stories below, he was far from immune to failure.
Of the dogs mentioned, the names of those not owned by me have been changed. Dog men tend to be sensitive about their animals, and I’m too old to go for a roll in the dirt.
Should’ve Stayed at Work The life of a freelance outdoor writer is not one of glamour. The hours are terrible. Pay is inconsistent. But, you can live where you want, work when you want and, best of all, hunt when you want.
And so one afternoon I made a spur of the moment decision to go dove hunting. Not much had been flying, but a day afield always trumps work. Or so they say.
My springer, Freedom, and I set forth into the state land, the cool breeze putting us both in a good mood—Fall had arrived. Beyond a brushy hedgerow lay a stand of corn about 40 yards in breadth. It's a decent spot to pick off doves as they rocket in.
Unfortunately as I round the bend I discover that the corn was harvested the day prior and replaced by a layer of manure—Freedom's favorite, especially on days such as this when he's freshly bathed. He completely disregards my exasperated shouts and charges off into the manure, perhaps intending to put some distance between us for his next act: rolling around in the manure with a great deal of enthusiasm.
After Freedom and I have a "discussion" about his behavior, I hunker into some cover. There is still plenty of corn scattered in the field and, despite my smelly mutt, I hope for a few shots. Freedom is beside himself. He's upset about his talking to and tries to nestle against my leg. This doesn't achieve the result he's looking for.
By now he's covered in flies—I mean covered—and he makes several attempts to catch them as they buzz about his head. I ask whether he's ever met a more disgusting dog, but he doesn't answer.
My refusal to pet him only increases his guilt, leading him to seek solace beneath my chair. In doing so, he causes the swarm of flies to hover all around me. They buzz my ears. They land annoyingly on my arms and my shotgun.
After an hour of enduring this stinky, dove-free, fly-infested torture, I can't take it anymore. I leash my filthy dog and head for the truck. After my shotgun is unloaded, a few doves fly over, no doubt taunting us. As we reach the vehicle, I realize I picked a bad day to allow Freedom to ride uncrated on the front seat. A week later, my truck still smelled like a cow pasture.
So, sure, a bad day of hunting is usually better than a good day at work. But not always.
What a Lovely Point I’ve long had a soft spot for Brittanies. Perhaps because, like my beloved springers, they don’t just get the job done, they do so with animation. And so I was very excited to hunt behind Penny, the latest in a friend’s long line of fantastic Brits. Like the rest, she was a pleasure to be around in the house, but ferocious on birds and an accomplished retriever.
On this particular day we were hunting a field of switch grass during the first week of the South Dakota pheasant season. The grass was still tall and green, impeding our ability to see Penny and no doubt her ability to smell birds. Yet within two hours we were well on our way to a limit when Penny locked up on point. Gosh, it was beautiful. I was half tempted to simply open my shotgun and watch Jimmy flush the bird when Penny did something odd: She took a step backward.
“Skunk!” Jimmy shrieked as both he and dog spun around to run.
Penny took a direct shot to the face, turning her beautiful white blaze an amber color. She slowly walked to me, her eyes wincing from nature’s mace. Then before I knew her intentions, she wiped her face on my pantleg in desperate search of relief. The smell was indescribable.
After I was through vomiting, we resumed the hunt. A bird dog’s nose is a magical thing. Despite the direct hit, Penny pointed the rest of our limit. It may have been the first time ever that the pheasants could smell the dog coming.
A Well-Fed Chessie Sam was a big barrel-chested Chesapeake who lived up to the breed’s reputation: He could be counted on to retrieve anything, as long as he saw it fall, regardless of the Susquehanna’s bitter conditions. Yet, on this particular Thanksgiving morn, we got an early indication it may not be his day.
Neoprene dog vests were a recent invention, and the many sizes now available to achieve perfect fit had not hit the market. So, as Sam lifted his leg along the dock to relieve himself prior to the hunt, I noticed that his vest was about six inches too long—it was the first time I ever watched a retriever peeing his pants. But, a quick dip in the river cleaned him up, and we were ready for the boat ride.
Unfortunately Sam did little to redeem himself. He was normally a great marker, but he just couldn’t get it together on this day. Nor would he accept hand signals, which were never really in his wheelhouse.
However, the day didn’t reach its zenith until my father pulled out a sandwich. My mother always packed them carefully on potato rolls with real turkey and a thick slice of American. On a frigid hunt, they were something to look forward to. And evidently Sam had taken notice, because as my father roared I turned to find his entire fist engulfed in Sam’s mouth. Sam’s teeth gently dragged across Dad’s fingers as the sandwich was sucked from his grasp. I gave Dad half of my lunch, and soon we were picking up decoys.
Cooped Up Dogs Do Bad Things Back when Freedom was eight months old, I planned a turkey hunt with Adam Heggenstaller, now editor in chief of NRA’s Shooting Illustrated magazine. It would take about two hours to reach the public land, so I took Freedom along rather than test his rudimentary housebreaking. To the dog’s disgust, he had to sit in the truck while we hunted.
I’m sure Freedom imagined all the great fun Adam and I were having, but in reality it poured rain and we didn’t hear a bird gobble all morning. So, a few hours in, we returned to to the truck, soaking wet, freezing cold and ready to go home. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever owned a high-energy gundog pup, but crating one for a few hours tends to exacerbate any tendencies toward misbehavior. I opened the door and a bolt of liver-and-white lightning hit the ground.
Fifty yards from the vehicle, Freedom unearthed the carcass of a field-dressed doe that had been left to the elements since approximately October. Call me a liar, but this is what happened: He grabbed it by the neck and ran up the mountain. After a great deal of time and much profanity, I had him leashed. Adam roared in laughter and cheered from the truck. But oddly he wasn’t laughing as we crowded into my little truck, with me in the driver’s seat, Adam shotgun, and a dog covered in the smell of death with a big smile on his face riding between us.
One Epic Retrieve Back when I was an NRA employee, two coworkers and I snuck out of the holiday party just in time to reach the Potomac River for the last hours of shooting light. About an hour into the hunt a ball of bluebills swung downwind and—as bluebills are apt to do—they barreled straight into the decoys. We came up swinging but shot poorly, dropping only two ducks.
One bird dropped stone dead, but the other managed to glide down several hundred yards away. My buddy wisely gave his Lab—a chocolate in her rookie season—a line toward that bird first. The strong drake dove on Dixie a few times, but she hung with it as we cheered from the blind. Truly it was a remarkable piece of work for a young dog, not just to reach the distant bird but to hang with it as it dove.
That is, until a bald eagle showed up and began competing with her for the duck. On its third dive bomb, the eagle seized our duck in its talons and flew off with it like so many trout. This may be considered a fail in that Dixie didn’t complete the retrieve, but I’ve rarely been so impressed.
The takeaway from these stories is that all involve what I consider great dogs. No dog, not even the best we’ll ever own, is immune to days we only remember for their profound frustrations. Yet, isn’t it wonderful that even when our dogs infuriate us, by day’s end we’re once again buddies? When has conflict between humans ever found such swift resolution?