September 23, 2010
When two pointers complement each other, it makes for a memorable outing.
"Brad," I called, "Pearl's on point again."
The author moves in on a pointing Pearl.
Brad Boisen's leggy French pointer bitch had locked up tight on another wild South Dakota pheasant, just as snow began to fall. (Actually, snow never "falls" in South Dakota; it shoots through your button slots and down the back of your collar on a hard slant.) Pearl's head was erect, her nose pointed directly into the December wind and her eyes did not blink as tiny white flakes landed and disappeared on her warm forehead. She looked like an Edmund Osthaus painting--that is, if Osthaus had been French.
Brad and his wife Julie own and operate Grand Ciel Lodge near Plankinton, and occasionally raise litters of one of America's rarest pointing breeds, the Braque Francais.
Over the years, my relationship with the Boisens, which began professionally, has become an abiding friendship. Their annual rush of satisfied clients had dissipated, so I had come to glean leftovers at the season's end with Brad and his son Drew.
As Pearl stood her ground, her bracemate, a male Braque named "Savvy," ran the outside edge of cover where the grass ended at a harvested field. We approached Pearl with guns ready while Savvy continued hunting elsewhere.
"Savvy hasn't smelled it yet," said Brad. Savvy looks like a canine version of an NFL linebacker: 55 pounds of hard muscle. Pearl weighs just a feather over 40 and looks like a ballerina. Savvy has proven himself many times to be a very fine pheasant dog, but we had noticed throughout the day that Pearl consistently scented her birds earlier and pointed them more distantly than her buff companion.
"Do you think her nose is really that much better than his?" Brad asked.
"No," I said. "I don't think it's her nose; I think it's the way she's built and the way she moves."
Brad's brow furrowed as he mulled these words over in his mind. While he mulled I flushed the bird. When it took off as a brown blur, I yelled, "Hen!"
"What do you mean?" asked Brad.
But he had bumped a few, too, and the ones he pointed were quite close.
Savvy shows his pointing stuff among the snow-covered brome grass.
"I mean it was a female pheasant."
"No, I mean about the way Pearl is built and the way she moves."
"I mean she hasn't opened her mouth all day. She is lithe and leggy, and has a brisk but moderate gait, so she rarely needs to pant to dissipate her body heat. She breathes entirely through her nose, all the time. That means all of her air comes across her olfactory receptors, where 100 percent of it becomes information that her brain can use."
We watched her glide effortlessly down a steep embankment grown thick with brome, into a narrow, winding crevice in the prairie filled with cattails, willows and bleached horizontal cottonwoods that didn't survive the last big storm. Down in the swale her dark brown head remained visible above the straw-colored vegetation. She was loping back into the brome again with her nose at ten o'clock when she suddenly snapped sideways, frozen like the hard prairie loam. This bird also proved to be a hen.
"Savvy," I continued, "has a chest like a rain barrel and runs pretty hard. He covers more ground than Pearl, but he pants a lot to regulate his temperature. That means a smaller fraction of his air produces meaningful data, since much of it bypasses his nose and goes straight down his throat. Unless the scent is literally strong enough to taste, he might miss it."
In fairness to the bigger dog, he had pointed several birds that afternoon without the aid of his female companion, including most of the roosters we had seen. He seemed more adept at unraveling the foot trails of roosters, which usually are more apt to run than hens.
"That's it?" asked Brad. "You really think their bodily conformation is the difference?" "Well, one more thing," I said. "She keeps her head up."
Savvy and the author's efforts yield a plump rooster.
We crossed an open stubble field into a winding swale dominated by reed canary grass with sparse clumps of cattails and windblown remnants of rolling kochia. The snow was coming down heavily now, filling in the gaps between blades of grass and forming little fortresses where birds could disappear to wait for a more hospitable day. Somehow, through that opaque blanket of crystals, Pearl detected the edge of a scent cone and followed it toward its apex.
She stopped when the aromatic intensity told her that she had gone far enough to know everything she needed to know. Savvy crossed behind her with his head down, and then suddenly snapped his head up and closed his mouth. When he saw Pearl frozen there, he froze beside her.
"And we left the camera in the truck," said Brad. We had been taking pictures of the dogs all afternoon, but we lacked a good photo of a double point. It was, of course, no use taking a picture, anyway. Some moments belong only to the spirits that inhabit them, and cannot be adequately translated in two dimensions.
There are times when you know the birds won't wait and you must hurry to the dogs if you want a shot. And then there are moments when you know, deep down, that every wild thing is rigid in time. The clock has stopped, the earth seems to have paused in its rotation, and you move with curious reverence through a still and endless world dispossessed of all urgency. Only years and miles will make you able to recognize when such a moment has come.
Sometimes it's good to be in such moments alone; often it's better to be there with a friend. Knowing we had entered the sanctuary of such a moment, we paused to let the rare sight of two dogs pointing a wild pheasant become deeply etched into a far-back place in the mind where it wou
ld linger at least until we die, and maybe longer. These glimpses of a world-beyond-time come only to those who hunt with dogs that point.
"That's what we hunt for, isn't it?" I asked. Brad said nothing. Perhaps he didn't hear me over the wind, or perhaps he knew the question was purely rhetorical, begging no reply.
Suddenly a bird exploded from the canary grass, the earth started moving again and time went on--faster than before. This bird was a rooster, and as it climbed away I felled it with the front trigger of an Ithaca Field Grade that was made a long time ago. Its muzzles always follow the lines and curves that my body traces through space and time, and often enough the shapes intersect with the paths of birds.
Some proud New Yorker built this gun with loving care back in the days when America could and did make its own stuff. The old Ithaca is scarred and faded, but it doesn't have a single unnecessary ounce, being made entirely of useful mass. It is a gun that breathes through its nose and never makes me pant.
Savvy retrieved the bird proudly, doing his part. Brad praised him lavishly as the plump rooster fell from his mouth into Brad's open hand. The big muscular dog wagged his body. Pearl has the cool aloof disposition of a reclusive artist; Savvy has the soul of a clown who makes his living making children laugh, and loves the job.
"So you think Pearl's the better dog," said Brad.
"No, I just think she's more adept at finding and pointing live birds. That's what she's built for. But you'll notice that Savvy does most of the retrieving, and he finds runners extremely well. With his low head, he's a better foot-tracker. Both of these dogs are wonderful--together."
Editor's Note: For more information about Grand Ciel Lodge or the Braque Francais, visit the Boisens online at www.grandciellodge.com, or call 605-942-7337.