No Holding Back

Sometimes a story changes abruptly and forces a ”touch-up” like this one did late Tuesday afternoon.

It was supposed to be a tale about a lean and leggy four-month-old pup’s first pheasant hunt, the trials and tribulations of a mere baby trying to learn a new game while figuring out how to maneuver through dense, thorny cover. I felt comfortable I had it pegged Sunday after composing my first draft during dead time leading up to the big Patriots game in Dallas. Then I improved it with ”finishing touches” Monday morning before my Day 2 hunt. But like I said before, stuff happens and stories change, sometimes in such a way that necessitates deadline doctoring, much to the chagrin of the scribe. But let’s just say I got through this one.

So let’s begin at midmorning Saturday, a cool opening day with a rich blue sky lit by a bright autumn sun, sparse, white billowy clouds wafting in the easterly breeze cooling my face. The 60-acre wetland with my bloodlines flowing through it displayed muted reds and blotchy yellows, dirty greens and browns typical of a pre-frost Pioneer Valley marsh.

It wasn’t going to be a strenuous hunt, just a gentle walk-through mostly for the dogs’ benefit. I always prefer to sit out the hectic opener, avoiding the maddening crowds and wild frenzy to beat the other guy to your favorite alder row, brook’s edge or small cattail depression. I’d rather wait a couple days and clean up what’s left after the opening-day craziness subsides: dogs everywhere, owners hollering, whistling, screaming at the top of their lungs; a freakin’ madhouse I’d rather skip. But there I was after the daybreak rush airing out three energetic springer spaniels at about the same time I always run them. Two of the dogs knew it was not going to be their basic daily run as soon as they saw my khaki-brown Filson bibs and vest and the hard-plastic gun case carrying the sweet 16 side-by-side whose roar they’ve grown to adore. As for the third little beast, daughter Brown Bess, it was her first hunt, hopefully, the first of many.

Bess was no stranger to thick cover, running water, vines and thorns, having previously tiptoed into all of the above during daily walks. But this was going to be different and I knew it. She’d feel the increased enthusiasm of her mates, their heightened sense of purpose, and she’d soon share their commitment to finding and flushing game birds, launching airborne off her back legs after a furious chase and close flush. But that day she was just getting her feet wet, literally and figuratively, and I was interested in observing her introduction to the activity I bred her for.

I intended to put no pressure on Little Bessie, who I expected to be diffident the first time out, hanging tight at my feet, standing up occasionally, front paws placed softly on my midsection, a bit intimidated by the consuming cover she will eventually worship. But on her first day, she’d just be a tagalong — all eyes, ears and nose, especially the latter, scent being her most dominant sense. Just going along for the joyous ride; freewheeling, no pressure, that was our mission; exercise and education.

We weren’t in the field 10 minutes before our first crisis arose. A friend was already hunting there and we bumped into him along a tree-lined ditch. He was searching with two inexperienced female springers, relatives of my animals, for a wild flush and landing he had marked. He wanted my experienced 10-year-old male Ringo’s help to see if he could put it all together.

When Ringy and Lily heard us discussing the plan, they went to my friend, whom they know, and one of his young dogs got nervous, emitting unsettling, high-pitched yelps that stopped Bess in her tracks. Sensing danger she froze, reluctant to approach the threatening sound, and remained cautious for several minutes before gingerly approaching me and mother Lily. After timidly approaching, eventually touching noses with the two strange dogs and realizing they were friendly, she dropped her guard and the youthful, carefree bounce returned to her step. … Onward ho.

It will take many days in the field for the little one to gain her full confidence, to know when to burrow and when to bound; how to quarter and how to circle and cut off a runner. Slicing through sparse ragweed cover is easy, comes naturally in fact, and so does the bounding, but that’ll arrive with confidence built over time. Early-on a young bird dog will slither through the golden rod effortlessly and get hung up in the thick tangles. Bessie was no different. I’d seen her on our daily walks trying to follow her parents into jumbled masses, poking in her head and shoulders, giving up and backing out. And a young dog will continue to negotiate the densest cover like that until they trail a game bird aggressively into it, in the process learning to tunnel through and bound over the most impenetrable stuff. That’s when they become brush-busters, which I knew was way too much to ask on Day 1. I was happy just letting her find her courage as a tagalong, like watching a toddler who’s recently learned to walk trying to run through a scalped hilltown hayfield. Such foot-free children will lose their balance and fall many times before gaining the agility and balance to stay upright through the tilted contours. The key is to keep them smiling through their mistakes; at least that’s my theory, one some will differ with but has always worked for me.

In a little over an hour that first day Little Bessie got to hear the cackles of two flushing roosters, the whistling flush of a hen, and even got to witness a retrieve, a lot for a young dog to absorb. It’ll be repeated many times by the end of the short season, when she’ll know the game much better and will probably have at least flushed birds. If I leave her parents home for one-on-one with the little lady, we may even see some flushes and retrieves, but there’s really no pressure to force the issue. It’ll all fall into place sooner rather than later. Bess was bred to hunt and her instincts will lead her gracefully and joyfully to game birds — a sight to behold minus her youthful inhibitions.

That’s where the story was supposed to end until late Tuesday afternoon, by which time I wasn’t certain how much Little Bessie had learned in three short days afield. But what unfolded in my back yard demonstrated that indeed she had been paying attention, albeit in a cavalier manner.

She had observed a lot, including retrieves, wanting a piece of the action when her parents returned, limp bird dangling out both sides of their mouths. But she hadn’t yet independently hunted for any length of time, choosing instead to stay within sight of me, often right at my feet, and that hadn’t changed by Tuesday, at least not in the punishing coverts. The same could not be said for my back yard, though, which was an entirely different story. It was there at my cook-shed feeding station, that she recited her first lessons learned.

Having filled the three dogs’ dishes to the brim with Iams after a long, hot day afield, I was on my way to the kennel when, right at its doorway, Bessie froze on full alert then burst into a sprint over a stonewall and into my neighbor’s garden like a streak. It happened so fast that I wasn’t aware of what was occurring until I heard the flapping and cackling, then to my horror saw chickens, black, white and gray, fleeing noisily in all directions, some flying, other running, making a racket like a fox was in the hen house. Little Bessie was on a mission, one I was quickly able to stop with the help of my wife and neighbors. None of the birds were hurt, not even the rooster she picked up and marched around briefly with.

Yes, Little Bessie was paying attention from afar those first three days afield, and in no time she’ll be pounding unforgiving coverts with the same determination. By then let’s hope she’s learned that barnyard chickens are off-limits.

She will. Her parents ignore them.

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