To Love a Bad Bird Dog
The first time I shot an honest-to-gosh limit of roosters over a dog – no party hunting, no “I’m pretty sure I dropped this one” – just man and beast, couldn’t have been any less textbook if I tried.
Back home at the family farm for Thanksgiving Day 2006, my dad let me take the family dog, “Nicky,” a (then 7-year-old) German shorthaired pointer, out for an afternoon hunt. “Let” and “take” merely serve as operative words here, because the human realm had virtually no control over Nicky.
Nicky didn’t sit on command. He rarely came when called. When the deer hunting guns had been put away, he’d dig up the buried deer carcasses and drag them across the lawn. One October day, after a grueling duck hunt, I’d carefully removed the breast meat from a bluebill and moved on to the next bird, glancing back to the corner of the table just in time to see Nicky gleefully devouring half my day’s take.
I once asked my dad what he truly thought of Nicky. Sure, he wished more time had been spent working with Nicky when he was a pup, but with three kids and work, it just didn’t pan out (and let the record show I offered no help in the training department). “But,” my dad then said more happily, “he gets me eight or 10 roosters a year, so he’s earned his keep.”
The dog could hunt, which brings us back to that Thanksgiving. I loaded Nicky into the backseat of my Mercury Grand Marquis (I wouldn’t recommend as a hunting vehicle) and headed around the section to walk a piece of river bottom. No sooner was the door open and Nicky was off to the races. I whistled a few times – bringing the lanyard was more to look the part – and watched as he took a commanding lead, and then vanished.
Nicky had a habit of showing up – usually – so I continued on with the hunt-turned-nature walk. After nearly a half mile, and even by Nicky’s “adventuresome” standards, I grew concerned about his whereabouts. I backtracked, called, whistled, and listened as it was dead calm so I should have heard something…but nothing. Consumed by the “I lost the dog” feeling – I hadn’t seen him in nearly an hour – I continued on…
Around the next bend is when I noticed the rounded edge of a head and moon-sized eyes peering just above grass level back at me. Point! How long had he been frozen-like on that bird? I’ll never know…and knowing would ruin the fun…
I made the shot. Nicky miraculously stayed close, and a couple hundred yards later we did it again (naturally, Nicky hard-mouthed both retrieves). Then he pointed two more just for show. We snapped a few photos back at the farmyard, none of which Nicky could look at the camera for, his way of saying I’d prefer you remember the horizon runs and crazy eyes and not some staged pose.
It may sound funny, but to a young pheasant hunter, what Nicky did that holiday seemed unbelievable. A little older, and finally a dog owner myself, I’ve since learned about what qualifies to others as fine dog work. In spite of that experience, Nicky, who wasn’t a field champion, never earned a ribbon and brought on his share of hoarse voices, is, at 13, now officially retiring from the “Pointing Dog” profession a great one in my eyes. Because until I’m convinced otherwise, I’ll maintain that at the end of the hunt, it’s as much about what you feel beneath your vest as what’s in it.
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