Hunting Forward, Looking Back

Whew! With last week’s summer-like 80-degree weather behind us, let the pheasant season begin.

Not that I’ve been pounding the coverts this week compared to days of old. No, not even close. But I did finally get out, did meet Frontier Regional School baseball coach Chris “Skinny” Williams for our first afternoon engagement, did give my dear, 12-year-old gundog Lily a test run that didn’t go well, and will indeed soon start kicking the hunting season into high gear with cooling temps brought by winter harbinger winds from the north.

First, Skinny, just a kid at 25, eager and willing to learn a new game. He watched Lily try to negotiate difficult, dense cover she used to cut through and bound over with ease and assessed her condition as “hurting,” which was right on the money. And he had never seen her  heyday, so had nothing with which to compare that day’s performance. This vestibular disease that seems to have progressed and leaves her balance off-kilter displays symptoms similar to human vertigo. In an open, shin-high hayfield of clover, timothy and rye, it would take a discerning eye to detect her occasional wobble because her tail still wags with a happy rhythm to match her joyful, light-footed gait. But put her in the dense, thorny tangles Skinny watched her struggle through Monday afternoon, and it’s clear something ain’t right. That, I’ll just have to live with, letting the cards fall where they may.

Minus the many personal sentimental reasons related to hunting over Lily in her prime as a covert-busting dynamo, my problems are at the max minimal with 5-year-old Chubby in his prime and in many ways, a superior bird dog to his mother; he’s bigger, faster, longer-legged and a tad more biddable, an animal that aims to please for the simple payback of love and affection. Yes, he has all of Lily’s finest attributes, and then some. So it’s not like I’m in a bad place in the gundog department.

That said, it’s tough to witness Lily’s demise, and even more difficult to leave her behind when Chub-Chub and I ramble off for hunts that she so loves and was bred for. I have no choice. Displaying her typical indomitable will during Monday’s hour-long hunt, she battled obvious balance issues and it took a lot out of her, tiring her more than I can ever remember and lingering overnight and well into the next morning. She didn’t even want to leave her aromatic, cedar-shavings-filled, box-stall barrel at 8 a.m. I may give her another go here and there in cover I think she can handle, but for all intents and purposes, it’s clear to me that Lily’s days as a gundog are finished. Happens to the best of them.

When I know the four-legged lady I affectionately call Lily-butt is suffering, or not eating, or incapable of normal geriatric-dog activity, I’ll do the right and honorable thing I wish I could have done when my sons were struggling with hospital infections during their final, tortuous days, waiting for their last death-bed breaths, connected to this and that outrageously expensive hospital contraption, none of which could save them. Talk about helpless, I’ve seen helpless and hopeless in vivid, living, poignant color that no man should be forced to endure. And they call it dying with dignity, which I can’t say I understood. Some may call that I witnessed dignity. Not me. Spare me, please.

Anyway, on a happier note, can you imagine a more humorous, potentially raucous hunting arrangement than the one that’s fallen into my lap this fall? Here I am an old man, 63, limping but still plugging, showing the ropes to a kid nicknamed Skinny — nicknamed because he was a plump young boy — hunting over a springer spaniel named Chubby because he displayed that body type for his first six months on this planet. Today, there is nothing Chubby about Skinny or my Chub-Chub, who may not be in absolute, tip-top hunting shape just yet, but soon will be an athletic, acrobatic, 50-pound bundle of sprinting, slicing, bounding, hopping, flushing and retrieving fury — an absolute joy to watch, and such a showy indicator.

My primary challenge this fall will be teaching Skinny Williams the nuances of bird hunting, kinda like he instills in his ballplayers the fine points of hitting and baserunning and pitching to hitters’ weaknesses to set them up for failure; of thinking middle when mired in  a batting slump fueled by overconfidence and over aggressiveness, or when confronted with a do-or-die at-bat that demands discipline, patience and total focus.

I myself was about Skinny’s age when I started to really hone my bird-hunting and dog-handling skills. I started pheasant hunting by walking two- and three-abreast through tick cover, stopping often to listen for birds fleeing from us through crunchy cover. Sometimes they’d fly as we closed in and get shot. Other times we’d hunt them down and shoot them on the ground, an absolute no-no when hunting behind a gundog. Along the way, after several annoying misses, you learn how to lead that straightaway shot that inexperienced hunters so often miss low, or how to let a bird flying right at you pass overhead before shooting. Like hitting a baseball, that particular shot takes discipline and experience. You simply see it flushing directly at you, spin around 180 degrees, mount, and wait for the bird to reappear going away. That’s when you touch off a shot, watch the bird drop and the dog retrieve it from a tagled mess. Oftentimes the retrieve is blind, on the other side of a tall, stream-side alder row, and interesting to watch the dog’s incredible instincts take over.

Skinny got a little taste Monday, just a nibble. It won’t long before he’s sitting down at the banquet table making a pig of himself. Promise. Let the good times roll.

Eventually, he’ll likely get married, settle down, buy his own gundog and go off on his own, teaching his kids and their friends the tricks of an enjoyable game that remains alive long after team sports. Me, I’ve been there, done that many times, and now I’m doing it again and looking forward to it. Great Spirit willing, this won’t be my last rodeo. Remember, I have two grandsons, 10 and 7, who may want to learn to wing-shoot and handle gundogs.

Then again, perhaps the boys will take the path of my own late sons, one of them their dad, both of whom as boys loved to tag along and watch the dogs’ flush-and-retrieve routine. In the end, neither of my boys had the stomach for killing. I had no problem with that, was totally accepting and understanding.

It may be difficult to comprehend but, to me, the worst part of hunting is the taking of life. The best part is healthy, challenging outdoor activity, figuring out the game, playing it well and sharing with others what you’ve learned and perfected.

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