September 23, 2010
It's All About Fundamentals
As I raised Josey — a German shorthaired pointer--I sometimes felt like I'd been put in charge of a top NBA prospect from some country where no one played basketball. He had all the physical attributes but had to be taught the fundamentals of the game--by someone who was just learning the game herself and had never had a bird dog. Josey was a thing of athletic beauty as he swept through fields head high, in a ground-swallowing, mud-clod throwing gallop. He was steady on point, if I could find him. Friends who knew better, bird-dog people all, said, "You've got to get that dog under control."
Josey settled into a point that visibly increased in intensity.
Truth be told, I kind of liked him that way. My outlaw, Josey Wales, named after the movie character. Boy, was I stupid. We both had a lot of growing up to do, and it happened on a bird-hunting trip to South Dakota.
The way I love Josey is unreasonable, really. I bought a stunningly dilapidated farmhouse with him in mind — it has 28 acres — even though it had no heating system, major electrical problems and no kitchen. I bought a camper so I could take him everywhere. I even bought him a (future) girlfriend, Lozen, another German shorthaired pointer, named after another outlaw, an Apache female warrior who rode the warpath with Geronimo.
He sleeps with me. I tell people he sneaks into bed, but that's not true. I pat the mattress and invite him up. He's allowed on all the furniture. He has a toy hamper, a Christmas stocking with his name on it, and a warm fleece coat. I'll eat Ramen noodles so he can have Pro Plan.
I figured South Dakota would be the best trip in the world for a bird dog. And my brother had married a South Dakota girl, which afforded me access to a sprawling private farm.
After the long trip from Pennsylvania, driving through the night, I found myself standing at the edge of an unbelievably expansive cut cornfield. First, I took pictures of the trembling Josey, getting low behind him so I could relive the moment in the years to come — my wonderful dog, gazing out over the field, poised to begin our trip of a lifetime.
Finally, with neither of us able to stand it any longer, I gave him a tap on the head to send him, and he jetted out there. And the nightmare began.
The first lesson — a wild pheasant is immeasurably different from a pen-raised pheasant. Josey was fairly capable back in Pennsylvania, where quail, chukars and pheasant had been dizzied and planted in likely places for him to find. On our first pheasant contact in South Dakota, he hit one end of a straggly shelterbelt and a rooster launched out of the other end, majestic and cackling, at least 100 yards away from me.
That was a preview of coming attractions, because it only got worse after that. Day after day, I watched hens and roosters flush well out of shooting range. It was hot. It's an understatement to say the birds were cagey. It seemed more evolved than pure instinct -- I began to believe they could hear me close the camper door in the predawn, and accordingly prepared for my arrival to the fields.
Josey didn't miss a stop-to-flush, and he didn't chase, I could at least say that for him. And I didn't yell at him. Those same bird-dog people, the ones who said to get him under control, had told me to expect mistakes. He'll learn that what he's doing isn't working, that he isn't getting any birds in his mouth, they said. Sooner or later, if he has the ability to reason, he'll figure it out, they said.
The author with Josey after a successful hunt test
Or not, I thought.
I resolved to have fun. I ran Lozen, then eight months old, and she learned a most valuable lesson — chasing is futile. For five days we repeated the pattern, birds flushed wild ahead of Josey's gallop in the mornings, and birds flushed wild in front of Lozen in the afternoons.
I faced the last morning with a mix of regret and relief. Soon Josey slapped into a likely cover and bumped a bird, an achingly beautiful mature rooster that glistened like thrown paint up out of the dusty brush. And then one after another, like a cruel wave, more pheasants flushed along the long furrow of cover, further and further away, a dozen or more.
Josey stood like a statue, and when it was finally over our eyes met. In those eyes I saw confusion and something else — disappointment.
I decided to drive to a field of standing corn, also owned by my brother's father-in-law, even though it had been the scene for an earlier nightmare — dog cracking unseen through shoulder-high corn, birds flushing everywhere, Josey lost for long minutes€¦I put him in the truck and resolutely drove there. In those couple miles I was forming a plan.
I let Josey out and leashed him and made him heel to one of the field edges, where the deeply-furrowed terrain caused it to be left unplanted and wild in thick grasses. I checked the wind and approached the cover slowly and quietly, hitting it the best way I felt it could be hit.
I unleashed Josey and released him, and he went on point within 30 yards. Nothing flew away. With my thumb on the safety and the gun up, I crept ahead. I was going to drop this bird. I swung on a blur dead ahead, which turned out to be an orange tabby cat leaping into a tree.
I fought the urge to sit on the ground and put my head in my hands. There were other spots like this. Josey was still standing. I walked to his side, leashed him again and heeled him along the field edge to a corner, and another riot of weeds. We had to swing into the standing corn to hit the cover downwind. I released him and again he was soon on point.
I walked up out around Josey, to his right. There were two of them. One flushed, wide open shot, straight out from me -- hen! And then I saw a rooster, floundering under heavy brush and branches, fighting to rise. It squirted out, running nearly right by Josey on his left, and flushed low out into the cornfield. Josey was exactly in the way for my only possible shot.
He stood, plainly shaking, and looked at me. "Good dog," I said. This was not going the way I'd hoped. I went to his side, told him, "Leave it." Then I told him, "Heel" and started stealthily moving to the next cover. Som
etime on the way there I realized that I hadn't leashed my dog. Still, he was walking easily at my side, head up and ears forward. Was I imagining it, or was he making an effort to sneak?
The next cover was a big one, but half sparse on one side with long weeds laying over it, like a bad comb-over. I stopped and Josey stopped--he was looking up at me. The wind was good for us and I tapped him on the head. Released, he high-trotted lightly through the thin grass around the thick stuff, and wove gently around corn stalks, head up. He slipped into a section of the long weeds, moving carefully, and eventually settled into a point that visibly increased in intensity.
I angled a few steps in his direction, getting ready to shoot, and two roosters flushed. I can see it now, the flight left to right, the shot just ahead, the bird's wings folding and the loud thump as it landed in the field. In the glorious elation of the moment, I cracked open the shotgun and held it over my head, dancing around and cheering wildly, yelling happily.
I don't know how long I did that. I guess not too long before I thought to look for Josey. He was still standing, leaning as far forward as a dog can without falling over. He wanted to go get that bird in the worst way. "Fetch it!" I yelled. "Fetch it!" And he launched toward the fall.
I really didn't see much of his retrieve. My eyes were watering, pretty badly. You know the wind is bad in South Dakota; it can make your eyes burn. I know I got down on my knees, and he put the bird in my hands, and we kind of rolled around on the ground for a little while.
It was like the old saying, Give a man a fish, or teach a man to fish. I had been giving my dog birds all his life, buying the birds and placing them in fields and woods for him to find. Both of us thought he was pretty good at that, admittedly wild but passable, and we'd had some great days in the field.
Who goes to South Dakota and gets one pheasant? We did. But I also got a more responsive dog, not a wild bird dog, but a dog for wild birds. My dog trusted that I knew the right thing to do. And he got a better owner, who learned you could insist on respect, with respect, without losing a friend.
It was late in the day. I cradled the pheasant in my arms, rather than stuffing it into my game bag. "Heel," I told my bird dog, and we left the field, our shadows long before us.