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When The Autumn Weather Turns The Leaves To Flame

When The Autumn Weather Turns The Leaves To Flame's time to go hunting with an old friend

The pride exhibited by old dogs when they've made a special retrieve is one of the real pleasures of hunting with a dog.

When Kurt Weill wrote the haunting melody for "September Song" and Maxwell Anderson penned the equally poignant lyrics, neither had hunters in mind. However, Anderson's lyrics strike a responsive chord when one day it dawns on you that both you and the dog are getting on in years. The knowledge that the dog is approaching double digits and the Social Security Administration is depositing a monthly check in your bank account make it clear that "one hasn't got time for the waiting game."

There's something that's satisfying about hunting with an old dog, particularly when you are also more or less an old dog yourself. There's none of the upstart puppy enthusiasm that tires you out just watching. Nor does an old dog exasperate you to the point of yelling "For Godsakes, dog, settle down!"

Bob, my aging Chesapeake, knows there is no work for him while we put out decoys and set up blinds so he sits beside my hunting gear and waits. There is no flibbertigibbet racing about knocking over decoys and making a general nuisance of himself. Instead, he's a calm, steady presence whose posture says, "When you're ready I'm ready."

When the two of us do crawl into the haybale blind, he settles himself in a comfortable position to serve as my personal DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line. Except in this case, the "enemy bombers" yodel, have brown spots on their white fronts and fly in massive if sloppy formations that an old Navy pilot friend of mine once scornfully described as "same day, same sky" flying.

Specklebelly geese are becoming more difficult to hunt. Most hunters are now seeing decoy-shy birds that don't respond well to the call.

Bob's radar skills are something to behold, honed by years of goose hunting. He spots geese long before I do, and as long as I don't forget to put in my contact lenses in the morning -- something that is not beyond the realm of possibility considering my level of competence at 0400 hrs -- I still have 20/20 vision. But his goose detection is much better than mine even without the benefit of corrective lenses.

One of the nice things about old dogs is that they've seen you miss easy shots, probably on several occasions, and it no longer upsets them as it did when they were young.

Instead of giving you that "Howinhell could you have possibly missed that shot?" look that's de rigueur when the dog is three or four and curls up on the floor of the blind with a "let me know if you ever hit one" look, an old dog understands that your hand/eye coordination isn't what it once was.

Instead of throwing a hissy fit over your shotgunning ineptitude, old dogs give you a patient look. Sometimes, if you're really upset with yourself as I was this year when I flat out blew a shot at a specklebelly hanging 10 feet up and 20 yards out from my blind with gear down, an old dog will put his head on your knee and instead of reproach in his eyes, there's only compassion. If there's anything I can't stand, it's pity from the dog!

However, if you miss too many easy shots in a row, you will get a "for crying out loud, get some focus!" look as even an old dog's forbearance is not unlimited.

Old dogs know when to get excited about a retrieve and when to maintain their cool when the retrieve is merely routine. Visible at left is one of the straw piles that provided the cover that made the hunt successful.

Old dogs are patient when you try new tricks. And we tried a lot of them this year. The techniques we've been using to lure white-fronted geese to within shotgun range have not worked well the past few years, quite possibly because the goose flock is getting older and the size of it, at least in the area where we hunt, is expanding, which means there are more eyes capable of spotting any movement or anything even slightly amiss.

We have also started encountering some of the same problems hunting specks that have been plaguing hunters of white geese for several years. The birds are becoming increasingly decoy-shy, they don't respond particularly well to calls, and motion in the spread is increasingly important while at the same time the birds will flare if you try to flag them. Spinning wing decoys carry no attraction whatsoever for specks and you are dead in the water if there's any shine on your decoys.

So, after a conversation with some long-time skilled goose hunters in Louisiana -- on the theory that whatever works at the south end of the flyway ought to be twice as effective at the north end -- a whole bunch of new techniques were on display this year. Some of them were effective, some were not and for some, the jury is still out.

First the things from Louisiana that worked. Every decoy we put out this year was flocked so there was absolutely no shine, even in full sun. So when the birds did flare, we knew it wasn't because there was a beacon flashing "danger, keep away" from the sun glinting off the backs of the decoys.

Serious concealment of the hunters is always effective. Our best shooting occurred when the birds were feeding on pea stubble close to a drainage ditch that could be used for cover. However, in the prairies of western Saskatchewan, having that much cover is a luxury not often available.

On another successful hunt, the farmer had dumped piles of straw and chaff in his fields in the area where the birds were feeding. We were able to successfully conceal the blinds behind or beside the piles of straw and chaff. The large round straw bales that some farmers use to rid their fields of the excess straw are also superb cover.

But if the birds are feeding on a flat stubble field you probably need to look for a different flock located in a field that does afford some cover. The word "probably" is used deliberately because if you are willing to make the Herculean effort necessary to dig pits in the soil type located in the area where we hunt, you can be successful hunting flat, short-stubble wheat fields.

Calling the birds works sometimes bu

t only when there are four or less birds to be called.

The most callable birds are singles, doubles and triples. The larger flocks make so much noise themselves that trying to call them is a waste of time and breath. If they respond to the call, they need to be called right up to the time you drop the call to shoot as white-fronts need constant encouragement or they give up and go somewhere else.

Specks, more than most goose species, tend to pinpoint sound. The more motion there is in the decoy spread, as long as it's more or less "natural" motion, the better the birds respond to calling. Even such natural "unnatural" motion as the dog running around in the decoy spread seems to attract these geese, somewhat like the tolling action of the Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever entices ducks to leave their rafts in the middle of the lake and swim over to see what's bouncing up and down on the shore.

Every decoy was flocked so there was no shine even in full sun and thus no beacon flashing, "Danger, keep away!"

What didn't work? Using a really small spread of as few as two or three decoys, as this is frequently what is seen in the rice fields in Louisiana -- only two or three birds in the field. Conversely, the Louisiana hunters will sometimes put out as many as 300 decoys because it is so different from what naturally occurs in that area that it overwhelms the birds. To overwhelm the birds in Saskatchewan, however, you would need at least 10,000 decoys.

The jury is still out on putting a snow goose spread 75 yards away from the blind. We tried putting a snow goose spread about 75 yards away to attract the flock's attention. It didn't seem to make much difference whether the snow decoy group was present or not.

The only constant seems to be the importance of concealing the hunters from prying goose eyes. But even that is not something that is always true. On one day I shot a goose while walking out to get the truck with the dog loping along about 30 yards in front. On that same day, I shot another goose standing outside my blind and this shot confirmed why it is such a pleasure to hunt with an old dog.

The goose was not hit very hard, just enough to bring it down. About the time Bob closed in on it, the goose regained enough strength and enough of its senses to begin to get airborne once again. Bob went up with the goose and at the apex of his leap, just barely snagged enough of a leg to pull the goose back to earth.

The momentum of his running jump caused him to lose his grip as both dog and goose crashed back to earth. The goose took off, running for its life. Bob whipped around and hit the afterburners. The impact when he arrived at the goose carried so much force the bird bounced and Bob snatched it in midair.

No model ever pranced down the fashion runway with as much pride and pleasure as did the old dog with his goose, every fiber of his being communicating what a clever dog he was. But his return prance was also executed with considerable dignity. No wild transports of joy once the task was finished, but just a few simple tail-wags, the canine equivalent of a polite bow, acknowledging the applause and cheers.

That's one of the true joys of hunting with an old dog. They really do know when they've done a very good job. So, as "The days dwindle down to a precious few...these few precious days I'll spend with you."

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