Though a bird hunter relishes his quarry, the heart pines not for the feathered animal, but for his dogs. Man and beast bond through their association in the field. And with each dog a hunter owns, an indelible impression is etched upon his soul.
This story starts with our first bird dog, Cletus. A gorgeous golden retriever, my wife Carolyn and I worked daily with Cletus from puppy-hood to ensure success in the field. Our work paid dividends, as he grew to become an energetic hunter with a sense of flair in his work. From the waving stands of switchgrass to the boggy cattail sloughs, Cletus could find, flush and retrieve pheasants with the best of them.
And the other nine months per year when it wasn’t bird season, he was an integral member of the family. Cletus was everyone’s friend and would always present newcomers with a gift. Albeit, it may have been a half-rotten bone he dug up, but nonetheless he was generous to all.
In the prime of his life, at four years of age, our beloved bird dog and best friend was struck down the same night Carolyn joined the church. Cletus was the pillar of health and there was no explanation for his death upon post-mortem examination. Carolyn and I sobbed through church the next morning, Easter Sunday.
Little did we know, another tragedy had struck earlier in the year that was destined to intertwine with ours. A good man from a neighboring town died in a car accident, leaving behind a year-old red Lab puppy. The man was a phenomenal dog trainer and the pup had started his first season when the wreck occurred. With no wife or kids, the dog was passed to his sister. She cared deeply for her brother’s buddy, but not being a hunter she felt the dog was missing a critical part of his existence.
So the next week as I told the story of Cletus to my coworkers, one of them told me about his uncle who had passed and the dog that he left behind. At his urging, we reached out to his uncle’s sister about this dog and arranged a time to meet.
A few days later Carolyn and I arrived at the farm to see this red Lab. A bouncy, but somewhat timid dog emerged. We spent a good hour there, speaking with the man’s sister and gaining the trust of the dog whose name was Sysco. She told us she wanted Sysco to go to a family that would hunt, and that’s my wife and I in spades. She generously gave us the dog and home we went.
While always well behaved, it wasn’t an easy start. Since Sysco’s training abruptly ceased with his owner’s passing, there were skills that were there and some that weren’t. He knew commands differently than we had given Cletus, so we had to relearn those, though Sysco was smarter than us and just learned our version of each command easier than we could unlearn the old way.
The biggest issue was getting Sysco to range out for birds. He seemed to exhibit separation anxiety and wanted to stay at heel. It was quite the opposite of the normal challenge we expect with a dog running too far ahead. We spent a great deal of time building his enthusiasm for the hunt to show him it was okay; we would not disappear if he ran ahead.
It was two weeks into pheasant season when it all came together. Sysco and I were working a quarter of public grasslands with a sorghum field right across the road. I saw a rooster land 50 yards ahead on a bluestem-covered ridge and pointed Sysco in his direction. Sysco ran in front of me, playful and unaware, when the scent caught his nose.
Like the feel of bicycle pedals against our feet reawakens the lessons of our early years and the muscle memories we developed, with the smell of pheasant a lightbulb flicked on in Sysco’s brain. His nose hit the trail and stayed glued to the ground until the flush. I interrupted the explosion of color and cackles with my Franchi.
As the rooster fell, Sysco dashed forward and latched onto him, then ran back towards me. I took the bird, petting him and sobbing as I told him he was such a good boy. There we were, the family that lost a dog and the dog that lost his family, bound together in a new union on the fields of South Dakota. Sysco has since grown into an unbelievable hunter, retrieving scores of pheasants, but I will always cherish that first one we took together on that October day.
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