Friday, March 13, 2015

A Changing Of The Seasons

    My dog was working a large island of uncultivated cover out in the middle of a plowed field that consisted of some large trees, sage brush, vines and every other sort of nasty entangled brush one can
Our Old Hunting Grounds
imagine. Out of sight I could only hear his struggle through the thick brush. Suddenly the sound of motion fell to silence. I waited with anticipation knowing he had to be standing point close by. Suddenly the brush erupted and a large cackling rooster pheasant exploded toward me. The old bird shot over my right shoulder like a rocket. I spun one hundred and eighty degrees shouldering my gun, and sliding  my thumb safety forward in a sort of controlled panic. I drew on the bird and let the first barrel go before it had caught up to the bird. ugh! Don’t blow it I thought as I caught my calm, followed the bird, and confidently let the second barrel go. The old rooster crashed to the ground with a thud. He quickly gathered himself, and started into his best roadrunner impersonation sprinting across the plowed field toward the nearest cover. Without thought I gave chase with my gun now broke in one hand, I yelled “Dead Bird ! Dead Bird! Come on Rocks!” Expecting my old faithful Brittany to pass me at any time and run that rooster down like he had always done. As the words left my mouth I realized what a senseless thing I was doing. My old reliable and ever present pal had passed on the year before. I guess I just yelled out of habit, or maybe the rush of adrenalin had pushed me beyond my senses for a moment, but this really troubled me as I ran. My old dog's successor a young setter I called Jimmy joined me in my pursuit Just as the rooster ducked into some thin CRP grass to be gone forever. I slowed to a stop and stood gasping for air at the edge of the field. Jim had not been around long enough to understand what was going on, and had a confused look on his face trying to figure out what all the commotion was about. I gave Jim the dead bird command, and he searched but that old bird was in the next county by then. I sat down in that thin grass on the hill with Jim by my side, and tried to fight back the tears, but somehow one got out of my eye and rolled down my face. With blurred vision I looked out over the valley that I had hunted all 13 seasons of my old friend Bo’s life with him by my side. Every fence row, tree line, brush pile, slough, and ravine held memories only he and I shared. It was the place where 12 years earlier I had given him the nickname “Rocks” because as a young dog he convinced me that rocks were the only matter between his ears. Over the years it became a term of endearment that I only used when we were hunting. This was my first season without him. It was difficult, but I realized he would always be there with me in some way. As one hundred memories popped up like a slide show in my head I gathered myself, set Jim to hunting, and walked on with a stone face daydreaming about my old friend.
Because I often hunt alone, I find myself with only a dog, my thoughts, and observations of the alternate reality that the field is to me. I often get so lost in what I am doing every stress of reality floats away on the breeze and I am left with the blissful sounds of nature interrupted only by the jingle of the tags on the dogs collar, and the sound of my footsteps. This day would not be stress relief so much as a brutal slap of reality. I decided to walk over to where Bo and I had last hunted together, and I would spend the rest of the day lost in thoughts of the past.

I remember that last hunt well because though he had become quite senile, for that one afternoon he seemed sharp of mind again. Like all of us as an old dog he was a product of his past. He had been hit by a truck when he was eight years old. He dislocated his front shoulder and was in really bad shape. He barely survived, but he never again would be able to run with gait. He could get after it for a short distance, but that was about it. On top of that he got testicular cancer, and had been neutered because of it. I could never keep the weight off of him after that. All things considered you would think he wouldn’t be up to much, but he was a smart old dog. He had learned to hunt in a completely different way than when he was a young athletic dog. I am not so sure that he wasn’t a better pheasant dog in his old age. He had become a trailing dog of sorts, and he was almost automatic. I would put him in the grass and just try to keep up as he sort of trotted with semi-stiff legs. He would eventually cross a fresh scent put his nose down and follow slow and patient. If he lost it he would methodically go back to the last place he smelled it and search until he found it again. If he got out in front of me a little bit too far he would wait for me without command. When I caught up he would resume. It might take a half hour or longer for him to trail a bird out, but boy was he fun to watch. He was so methodical about everything he did. He was truly a master of his craft. I must admit I struggled with faith in following him sometimes. We all know pheasants don’t run in straight geometric patterns and they can run a long way in the thin CRP of norther Utah and southern Idaho. He would get on a bird, turn and go uphill, then make a sharp right turn, then a left turn, and slowly trail over hither and yon into the next county sometimes. Occasionally I would get tired of following him around and think he was leading me on some sort of wild goose chase and stop. On that last hunt I had done just that. I was fatigued both mentally and physically having hunted all morning with a very young Jim dog without producing a bird. I put Jim up, and put Bo on the ground for the last three hours of daylight on my last day to hunt for the season. He was old and I knew this could be the last chance we had to hunt together. Ever reliable, before long he found scent and trailed a bird for a half hour or so when I lost faith and stopped to rest. I knew better, and was thinking just that as he got way out in front of me and the rooster flushed out in front of him. He trotted back with that all knowing smile he always had painted all over his face in this situation. I always thought it was his way of saying, I told you so. I am grateful that he always let my inferior hunting skills slide, and would just hunt on trying to make up for my mistake. I was kicking myself pretty hard, but at the same time enjoying the work and companionship of my old friend. That afternoon he trailed out and pointed two more roosters to fill my two bird limit. He then found and pointed two more on the way back to the truck in a place I had hunted all morning with Jim. From the morning you could have easily concluded there wasn’t a rooster left in the world.

Popping in and out of daydream to reality, Jim and I approached the field where Bo’s last stroke of brilliance had taken place, and began to pick out a path to use the wind to our advantage. The wind had picked up and I could feel the sting of winter approaching as my thoughts began to wander again.

I thought about a younger version of Bo that had taught me so many lessons about how to hunt wild birds, and how frustrated he left me sometimes when the foolishness of my youth would misunderstand his intentions. I wasn’t the sharpest young man and it took me more than once to learn on many occasions in real life as well as in my hunting world. Bo’s skills started advancing beyond my understanding early on, but I don’t remember at exactly what point he picked up certain things because it took me longer to figure it out than it did him. I recalled when it dawned on me that he had developed a brilliant way of hunting dead. He was about four years old and we had been hunting these same fields. He had found and pointed a rooster. We were blessed with three inches of fresh snow so the birds were holding good. This rooster was a victim of my first barrel, but I had not hit him square. Bo hustled to the spot the bird fell and began to sniff around. I found the tracks and began to follow them. He figured the trail out shortly after I did. He followed a short way and then jumped off the trail and ran out to the left. I was mad! I could see where the bird had gone. I yelled and said some colorful things at the top of my voice but he ignored me. He circled around front quickly and started quartering back. I could see him head off, jump into the air with a “broke winged” rooster and tackle it. He retrieved the bird to hand, and I ate humble pie to the smiling face of that brilliant dog. He had done that sort of thing before but I had always chalked it up to coincidence. After that I let him do his thing and he would come up with the bird more times than not. I saw him use his method many times on Huns, grouse, pheasants, and chukars. I pointed it out to my dad and a couple guys that I hunted with they were as amazed by his method as I was. I have yet to have or see another dog hunt dead in that way, but I bet there is another out there.
My mind turning back to the present it was easy to see that Jim and I weren’t having much luck finding birds as I relived old memories, but it really didn’t matter to me. I was feeling so many conflicting emotions, and was really quite occupied in my thoughts.

Bo had died the day before Thanksgiving the year before. I had a busy thanksgiving weekend, and then life just sort of got in the way. I had to set my feelings aside, and I had never really had a chance to take time to morn the loss of my old friend. I knew this reminiscing was good for my soul. A part of me had died with him and I was just beginning to understand the empty feeling. I didn’t feel that many people would be able to understand the hole his death left in my life so like most guys I kept it to myself for the most part.

The cold wind was now slapping me in the face bringing me back to the present once again. It was pushing the sting of icy snow with it now. We were about an hour from the truck so Jim and I changed our coarse and headed back in that direction. The snow was blowing down the back of my neck and I started to feel the soothing sensation of misery that only hard core duck hunters can truly understand, and I started to think about heart.

To me heart is that something inside that drives a body forward to magnificence when in the face of adversity. I think of the quarterback that drives his team down the field in the last minute to win the game. The linemen finding a way to get him protection in spite of exhaustion, and pain. The receiver holding on to the ball to score the winning touchdown in spite of exhaustion and being drilled in the spine by a defensive back. I think of the bird dog sticking to the hunt in spite of sore pads and exhaustion. Heart, a trait I admire most in people and dogs alike. If heart could be measured in pounds Bo’s would add up to at least twice the sum of the rest of his parts. Having lived with me in the house and having the kind of mind he did he learned to understand a fair amount of English but the word quit he never grasped. I started thinking again about when he was hit by that truck. Of course this happened with hunting season headed into full swing. The pheasant opener was just three weeks away. I didn’t know if he would live let alone be able to hunt again. With some help from my mother we did our best to take good care of him. He was off of his feet for a week, but he soon began to hobble around a little. About two weeks into his recovery we got depressed. It was probably
mostly me, but I felt that he was too. I figured we would both benefit from a long ride. So I grabbed a shotgun, lifted him to his spot on to the passenger seat of my pickup, and started the truck north to one of my favorite Hungarian partridge haunts. I figured we would just drive the two-track roads out
Bo with those huns and swollen shoulder in 1999
there for a while and come home. I didn’t figure to see anything. The goal was just to get out of the house. As I enjoyed the relaxing ride down one of the two tracks with my window half down I looked at Bo. He was trying to get up to look out but I told him no and he relaxed back into the seat. Still I think he was happy to be there, or maybe he was happy to see me happy. All at once a covey of Huns startled from the truck going by and flushed. They flew a short distance and settled down into the sage brush. I quickly parked the truck, grabbed my gun, and told Bo to stay. I jumped out and headed to where I saw them land wondering if I would even find them without the dog. Lets just say I got lucky and they flushed. My first barrel scratched down two and my second barrel found a third. I hurried to where the two had fallen and bent over to pick up the first dead bird. As I stood up there was old Bo on three legs with the second bird in his mouth. That dog had jumped out my half opened window and would have had to have landed on two good legs, one sore leg, and a leg he couldn’t even use to come out and do his job. I felt so bad for having left the window partially open. I took a picture of those Huns with him and his swollen swollen front shoulder.

I sure miss him I thought as I noticed Jim and I had walked enough now that I could see the truck. Jim was wet and starting to shiver as we worked the last couple of hills between us and the truck.
I flashed back to that last season one more time. 
     Bo was old, arthritic, over weight, and was only good for short hunts. I had to be careful to use him sparingly as he would hunt until he dropped dead if I would let him. Even after short hunts he would be hobbled up for a couple of days. I would let him rest up. When he could walk again I would hunt him a little. He did ride around in the truck on all hunts that year, and I think he enjoyed that. I thought back to a day I spent with my dad that season. We were hunting pheasants in a southern Idaho marsh that had some real nice salt grass and other upland cover mixed in as well. The night before had been cold and their was a little less than a quarter of an inch of ice on all the skinny water.
After a Duck Hunt in 1993
Dad and I had gotten separated and one of his dogs had put a rooster up and dad had shot it over such water. In his day Bo was quite a duck dog as well a master of the Uplands, and though not very Brittany like he was known for breaking ice to retrieve ducks. We had gotten used to this over the years and I think maybe dad had taken it for granted. When I got to my dad he was standing at the edge feeling bad about shooting that rooster in such a predicament. The rooster had hit and broke the ice where it fell dead 20 yards from the shore in about a foot of water. I had been hunting Jim as I had hunted Bo a little the day before and he was resting in the truck. Jim made a half heart-ed attempt to go get the bird but gave up after a few steps. Dads dogs had also refused. We were both thinking it but my dad was the first to say it. “Do you think Bo would go get that bird?” I told him “he would have two or three years ago, but he is old now. I’m just not sure.” Neither of us wanted to waste that bird nor were we ready to get wet just yet. So I walked back to the truck and helped the old dog out of the truck. Bo walked at heal with me back to where dad was waiting. Right away Bo spotted the bird out in the ice. I don’t remember saying a word to him. He looked at the bird, than at me and started slowly and methodically breaking ice with that old arthritic over weight body. It had to have been painful. My heart was full of pride, admiration, and shame all at the same time. As he got to the bird I said “Fetch him here”. You are a good boy Rocks! He brought the bird back, put it in my hand, shook off and gave his famous sigh. He looked up at me as if to say “lets go”. I just about broke into tears. I didn’t even look up at dad for fear I would. Dad and I walked back to the truck in silence both of us knowing we had seen something Special from an old dog that had become a legend in my group of friends.

Having been worn down by the wind, and snow Jim and I were now approaching the truck. It was now covered in several inches of snow. I toweled Jim off and put him in Bo’s spot on the front seat. Feeling both physically and emotionally exhausted we started home, and I thought about Jim. He was a good young dog, but I felt sort of sorry for him. He had some big shoes to fill that he would never be able to walk in.

Bo at age 13 in 2004