Tail Feather Tickles Memories

A white carpet blankets the meadow as the sun rides low in the southern sky, freezing poignant memories of my finest gun dog, Chubby – registered “Old Tavern Farm’s Rabble Rouser” – who suddenly took ill in his eighth year and died well before his time on the final day of pheasant season …

It’s Saturday evening. I’m running around in my pickup to put together a Sunday-football dinner – the Patriots hosting Kansas City at 4:25 p.m. in the long-anticipated rematch of last year’s AFC Championship game. I lean forward to reach for my sound system when I feel a subtle reminder of Chub-Chub tickling my face along the right crease of my nose. It’s the tip of a long, thin, pheasant tail feather, stuck into the passenger-side visor and reaching out past the rearview mirror. I stuck it there after my buddy removed it and two others from a big rooster we shot toward the end of the season in Hadley, hunting a large, swampy aquifer along the southeastern base of Mount Warner. Another reminder of my extraordinary English springer spaniel, who most likely was the victim of coyote poison misdiagnosed as Lyme disease.

No, I haven’t gotten over it yet. I still often think of Chub-Chub, who almost completed his ninth hunting season in a career that began as a 6-month-old tagalong with his mother. I can still see him looking back to locate me on hunts, standing broadside, strong, erect, alert posture, head turned, ears raised, signaling, “Come on, Man, I’ve got fresh scent.”

It’s never easy to lose a good dog, known for millennia as man’s best friend. But when it happens to a dynamo in his prime, before he’s showing any signs of age or wear and tear, it’s even tougher – akin to losing a teenager in a car accident. Here today, gone tomorrow. So much left in the tank. That was Chub-Chub. Never a trip to the vet for illness or injury. Never a bad day in the field. Many truly remarkable ones.

Which brings us to the retrieve of that heavy, long-tailed rooster whose three longest tail feathers are still stuck into my passenger-side visor. It was not Chubby’s last retrieve, and it may not even have been his best of the season. Yet it was indeed memorable, now unforgettable as things have played out, because it displayed so much of what made this gun dog truly special.

Veteran field-trialers who knew him marveled that he had it: speed, spring, power, enthusiasm, agility, stamina, nose, spirit, and a soft mouth to boot. A powerhouse in the field, he never left so much as a faint tooth bruise on a retrieve. I don’t think you can teach that. He was a natural – the best of many productive flush-and-retrieve dogs I’ve owned. Perhaps he stood out because he had been mine from the womb, was born and died at my home, which was his home, too. We were bonded from birth. I do believe that makes a difference.

Winding down, the six-week season had reached the time when stocked pheasants that survive have acclimated to their coverts, grow wise, and learn to outmaneuver hunters. They anticipate danger from the distant sound of bells, whistles, and voices, maybe even the slamming or a door, and acquire the uncanny ability to flush within view and earshot but just out of range. They also learn safe escape routes to dense, beaver-saturated alder swamps impenetrable to humans.

Even so, few stocked pheasants winter over like they did when I was a boy and spring broods showed up most years in our South Deerfield yard. Today, even those that escape four-legged predators, of which there are many, fall prey to birds of prey.

The difference between Chub-Chub and his wild cousins, the fox and coyote, was that he worked in unison with me and knew how to get out in front of a runner, turn it around, and force it back in my direction. No, it didn’t always work out that way, but he knew the game. His goal was always to give us a shot and him a retrieve.

That’s the way this Hadley flush-and-retrieve unfolded in the evening shadow of Mount Warner, just one of many for the “Best of Chubby” highlight reel. There were three of us in the field that day, and two dogs, the other Cinda, an 11-year-old bitch with field-trial points to her credit and a pedigree that overlapped Chubby’s in many places. Sometimes kennel and breeding mates, Cinda and Chub-Chub were from the same bolt of cloth.

It was our first visit to the old haunt, an expansive mix of agricultural and ragweed fields, alder and cattail swamp, and woodlots, bordered on the south by a neighborhood and on the east by a horse farm. We knew how to hunt it, where pheasants most often flushed and where to set up for shooting lanes.

We had been burned there many times when the dog or dogs beat us to a double-rutted farm road lined on the right by alders and raced to the culvert at the end, playing the wind for the entire 80-yard sprint. Often, the dog would detect scent and flush a bird or birds before we were within range. Then the chase was on.

To prevent this, we sent Killer to the end of the alder row before releasing the dogs from the truck. That way, we had it covered.

When Cooker and I reached the farm road, he walked it toward Killer with Cinda, and I took Chub-Chub through the alders to a dense field bordered on the east by woods and swamp Chubby knew well. The distance from the road and alder row, across the overgrown field to the wood line, is about 100 yards, and Chubby and I were hunting it out when I heard a cackle and two shots, then lively conversation. Cinda had chased the rooster down a ditch and flushed it some 35 yards out in front of my companions and quickly out of range.

Chub-Chub was busy quartering his field, and seemed to pay no attention to the shooting until he had thoroughly covered it. But then he circled back to me and worked the alder row. There he immediately picked up the scent Cinda had already flushed, followed it out, and disappeared into the dense cover on the other side of a small brook and culvert. I thought he was still close to me when I heard two shots, then a shout from Cooker that Chubby was headed my way with a rooster.

No, he hadn’t totally ignored those first shots, just put them temporarily on the back burner. He had followed out the trail to Cinda’s flush, lost scent, and quickly, unbeknownst to me, gone to my two hunting buddies to the area where the rooster had landed. Soon after reaching Killer and making his presence known, Chub-Chub went to work doing what he did best: finding pheasants. He started hunting, stopped suddenly with his nose high and turned his head toward Killer, ears perked in a familiar pose that called for action.

“Heads up, Cooker. He’s on it.”

I heard a shot, then Cooker’s shout that Chubby was headed my way with the bird.

I found a place to cross the ditch and small brook, entered the field my buddies were hunting and soon saw Chub-Chub coming my way, retrieving the limp bird. He came straight to me and delivered the bird to hand. I dropped it into my vest’s game bag, rejoined my buddies and we walked back to our vehicles.

Chub-Chub had struck again, put on quite a show. He arrived on the scene late, immediately winded scent, flushed the rooster, and retrieved it at least 150 yards to my hand. That dog always knew where I was, even when distracted.

When we got back to my truck and Chubby was secure in his porta-kennel, I pulled the heavy bird from my vest and remarked that it may have been the nicest rooster of the season, with the longest tail feathers.

“Save the tail feathers for me,” I said to Killer, who immediately pulled out the three longest ones.

“It’s easier to pull them when the bird’s still warm,” he said. “Do you want more than these?”

“No. That’s enough.”

So now, there they are, three long tailfeathers extending toward me from my truck’s passenger visor, a daily reminder of an extraordinary gun dog that died before his time.

“If I were you, I’d put a rubber band around those feathers and save them somewhere in memory of Chub-Chub,” said Killer when told of the poignant tickle.

Well, maybe someday. Not yet, though. For now, I think I’ll leave them right where they are.

I still cherish memories of Chub-Chub, difficult as they are.

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