Understudy

The mellow yellow glow from empty sunlit seed-heads glistening over a dense, light-green, chest-high timothy field makes it all the more beautiful to watch Chubby doing what Springer Spaniels are bred to do — locate and flush bird or beast with blissful enthusiasm from tangled cover. The furious sight and sound of thrashing brush highlighted by graceful bounds that lift the yearling male’s brown head and flashy white neck above it all, nose elevated, floppy ears pointing to the heavens, is a photo-op any shutterbug worth a lick would race to. Yes, monarchs are fluttering above the clover fields, sumacs are sporting their rusty red, and bird season is near, the anxiety building.

Signs of hunting season are everywhere. The chimney sweep’s come and gone, the woodshed’s stuffed, the furnace has been cleaned, and the yellows, oranges and purples are prominent in wetlands, thick along the borders. I even retrieved a few afghans out of storage to throw over my lap when waking early to read or perhaps scream expletives at reactionary talk-jocks Dennis and Callahan, or perhaps that wolf in sheep’s clothing, Morning Joe, he a leader of the holier-than-thou Clinton Inquisition panel that introduced me to our frightening Christian-right. I knew such creatures existed but far underestimated their clout before the Bill-and-Monica caper. Ever since, I have been wary of this hypocritical rabble, which doesn’t like men who think like me. I guess they’d call me secular progressive but, in fact, I’m way beyond that and quite proud of it. What I try to tell myself is that if other people were reading what I read, they would have similar worldviews. But I know that ain’t true. When you take an imbedded perspective into your reading, you can always make anything add up, even when it obviously doesn’t. Look at this diabolical Federalist Society of right-wing judges and lawyers; they support corporations and the greediest Wall Street thieves, vote Republican and laud the virtues of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, two revolutionaries who would have run the fascists protecting the our most sinister corporations and polluters out of town covered in steaming black tar and riding a rail … if they were lucky. But that’s neither here nor there, back to Chubby, soon to embark on his first meaningful bird season. Just Wednesday morning I was thinking how, soon, when in the days to come I approach the kennel wearing my tattered Filson bibs, the dogs’ feet will barely hit the ground before flying like shoulder-to-air missiles into my truck-bed porta-kennels.

First, let me be clear: I don’t think my young dog is any better than others. We all enjoy our dogs and grow to understand, even adore, their idiosyncrasies. But I only know my own animals, and that’s what I write about. Like I have often told a good friend of mine who travels far and wide and has enjoyed great success on the national field-trial circuit, “I’m sure there are many good gun dogs out there, but I challenge you to find a better hunter” than Ringy or Lily or others I have owned over the years. His goals and mine are different. Field-trialers play a control game and train their dogs to the standard. I let my dogs freewheel, then read and follow them to the wing-shot, more of a wide-open free-for-all, my kinda game. Some prefer total control and obedience to command. Not me. I love busting loose, always have, and so do my dogs, most of whom have displayed imperfections here or there, none affecting results. It’s a simple formula: they hunt, I follow.

As for Chubby, well, to be honest, last year, tagging along while mother Lily, a finished 8-year-old gun dog, I wasn’t totally certain the little puppy had it. He was at first a little nervous about gunshots and never did challenge mom for flushes or retrieves, instinctively deferring and choosing a different direction. He did push out some wild flushes I could not bring down and, yes, others that fell from the sky on fulfilling snap shots, the bird always retrieved by dominant Lily. Little Chub-Chub, 6 months old for the start of the season, just wasn’t developmentally ready to challenge Mom, and, truthfully, he never did. Not once. Then, even this spring, whenever I’d throw something to retrieve, he’d start after it, Lily would growl him off and he’d just pull up short and let her retrieve it, whether in water or brush. That changed around mid-May. I’d drop the tailgate to release the dogs and Chubby would burst out, sprinting down the edge of a standing brown cornfield and quartering his way back to me, head high, flushing every available mourning dove and squirrel into trees and sending every rabbit scurrying under gnarly brush piles. If there was a turkey around, he’d find that, too, and send it t’other side of the Green River, day after day. Then came the hovering, scolding bobolinks, always great fun, then swooping swallows, even more entertaining and exhausting, followed by killdeers that emit that shrill screeching sound young Springers chase from one end of a field to the other, no quit. Yes, Chub-Chub displayed the same determination as his mother and the late Ringo, a wall-to-wall huntin’ dog.

Lately, it’s been rabbits every day, turkey broods now and then. He descends into Sunken Meadow and seeks them out with a passion that’s fun to watch. His father, Buddy, had the most picturesque running style of any Springer I’ve owned. The dog danced kangaroo-like through thick cover, curling those front legs under his breastbone and bouncing from one end of a thick covert to the other, an aristocratic sight to behold. Problem was that a handler’s error on his first retrieve had confused him and he never recovered, was always skittish about picking up a bird. Afraid this bad habit I could not cure may rub off on Chubby, I offered Buddy on Craig’s List the second or third day of last year’s upland bird season and literally had a good home for him in 20 minutes — the power of online classified ads newspapers bemoan.

Although Chubby does show traces of Buddy’s bouncing hind-leg jitterbug when closing in on his quarry, he attacks a covert more like Lily, a snorting, frolicking brush hog whose energy builds before climaxing in a final lusty leap after the tail feathers of an indignant ringneck. I’m sure Chubby’s flushing technique will differ some but be no less exciting to watch with a light European side-by-side in my hands. When Chubby knows he’s closing in, he literally bounces straight up as though off a pogo-stick, a pretty, athletic sight. A month or so back, busting through thick, tangled brush where Chubby’s been pestering  rabbits for months, I was walking along my beaten path through waist-high cover when he started bouncing 10 or 12 feet to my left. I heard something fleeing through the brush toward me and, no kidding, a young rabbit ran right into my left leg just above the ankle. It tumbled, regained its feet, scooted around me and under the multi-flora rosebush border into the wetland. It’s the first time an animal fleeing a dog has ever collided with me like that, and it’s unlikely to soon occur again, if ever.

I expect similar daily scenarios to develop three weeks from now in familiar autumnal coverts dense with goldenrod, ragweed, cattails and alders. Chubby will attack the brush and leap over it just before the flush, when the cock-birds will cackle, the hens whistle into flight, Chubby hot on their tail. I’ll set my feet in the right direction, mount, point, swing and squeeze the trigger before enthusiastically ordering him to “fetch it up,” then “give.” On the other hand, Lily, showing her age but still plenty capable, will soon start her decline to the role of tagalong, which, frankly, seems impossible. The life of a dog is too short. No, I don’t see it happening this year, when I think for the most part I’ll probably hunt Lily and Chubby separately to make it easier on all us all.

Fact is it’s no accident that with Lily going downhill, Chubby is sprinting toward his best days, slimy mud flying willy-nilly. He’s been waiting in the wings.

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4 Responses to Understudy

  1. Gary

    Glad you took him and that she gave the papers to you, Tom (I gave them to her), and I think he’ll be cool with other dog in time. Buddy is not an alpha male, far from it. My guess? They’ll soon be playing and enjoying the same interior space. … The retrieving inconsistencies you note are familiar to me but, I think, correctable. Buddy really did always, first and foremost, want to please. … BTW, I too have seen him kick out deer, a curiosity to him, no more. … As for Buddy’s gene pool, it’s superior. I think he’s out of Cooker’s Rory, right? If so, a very desirable stud over the past decade. He’s 11 now and out to pasture, I believe, but he’s still running hard and enjoying free-and-easy hunts. I know. I hunted with him this fall and he showed no signs of old age. … I;m so happy for Buddy. All he ever needed was the right home/handler. I think he’s there.

  2. Tom Martins

    Hey Gary, I picked up Buddy on Sunday, he gets along pretty good with my 9 year old springer but at first not so good with the 3year old airedale, lots of howling, teeth and growling. By using crates and doorway gates they are getting along alot better,laying next to each other with gate between them, licking each others face and tails wagging. Looks promising. I’ve been rolling a tennis ball around the kitchen for him and he brings it to hand and releases on command. This morning he brought it to hand a couple time in the yard but not every time, but still promising. I’ve got a retrieving buck that he goes crazy over and will drop that a couple feet in front of me. Zandy has reconsidered giving me his registration papers seeing how well we’re doing so I could stud him to continue his fine genes. I really hadn’t thought of that when I got him, planning on neutering him just to possibly make life easier with 3 males. What do you think? Would there be people interested in him as a stud with his lineage and would it be a pain to find them? Zandy’s concern is that the breeding be responsible with other field stock and a ready market of hunters to buy the pups,knowing that a pup like this would probly not fit in with a typical family of non bird hunters.Any thoughts would be great. Yesterday morning we were pushing through a field down the street with a brook running along the lower edge, he got into some thick cover along the brook and bumped out 2 does, got him worked up but he didn’t give chase. Just alittle farther down stream he bumped a partridge, my first in a couple of years. Hopefully these guy will be able to mix together soon, walking two sets of dogs seperatly a couple tmes a day is pretty time consuming. Thanks Gary, looking forward to any comments you might have.
    Tom

  3. I guess we pretty-much covered the bases in our phone conversation. I really hope Buddy has found the right home. He is a sweet-natured dog with great nose, athletic style and flash. He sticks out in the field. I think his retrieving issues can be overcome.

  4. Tom Martins

    Hello Gary, I can’t believe I came across your blog. I have a copy of an AKC registration for Buddy, your previous springer. I’m considering taking ownership of him, I was searching his pedigree and came across Jon Cook’s name. Then searched him and came across your blog. I have a 9 year old springer, my third, but second from Gary Wilson. My first I bought from Joe Cook from Hatfield in 1980, maybe you know him. I’ve been reading your blog about Buddy and it seems your training and hunting styles are similar to mine. I’m finding less time to hunt as I get older because of work, only getting out 5 times this season but at 9 years old it still beat my poor Zipper up. The poor lady who has Buddy now is suffering from health issues and Buddy is not getting enough exercise and stimulation. I took him out today and brought him to a ball field near her house and he quartered like a champ and stayed tight. I think it was the first time he ran like that in a while, I could see him smile. How bad was the retrieving issue? Will he refuse to pick up a bird or will he find it at least and spot it? I’ll be seeing him again this weekend and if you could answer and give me any insights that would be great.

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