I was standing in the worst looking duck habitat I had ever seen and I didn’t even have decent waders.
That was fine. I was chukar hunting. I didn’t need waders. Or ducks.
It was January, the end of upland season was looming, and I had been wrecked by a cold for the last 10 days. But the sick was mostly behind me and I was back afield being rejuvenated by the blue skies and sunshine, nevermind the steady north wind and temperatures in the teens.
I parked the truck, donned the vest, collared the dog, loaded the gun and set out across the hillside. We knew a draw that often held chukar — a covey that knew me. Over the season they had run from me, laughed at me and schooled me. We were going to find those birds and seek wisdom at their red-toed feet once again.
When we did find them I had plenty of warning. Stout hadn’t been sick, just sick of waiting on me to get better, and she was in fine form, holding point and waiting for reinforcements. Only trouble was, on account of my delicate condition (sniffle) I didn’t want to lose any elevation from the ridgeline I was walking.
Stout looked back, rolled her eyes and seemed to say, “Really? Dude goes chukar hunting and is afraid of a change in elevation?” Then she broke point and readjusted on the running birds. Now I know what it’s like to live with a teenager.
When I got down to Stout she was pointing at a dirt hillside with some
and I managed to knock one down with two shots from Betsy, my old 20 gauge over and under. Stout retrieved and I stowed the bird along with two empty hulls.
And yeah, you read that right, I named my shotgun.
We set off in search of the biggest splinter of the broken group, about five birds. And when we found them this time I was smart enough to follow the dog. Down the hill, into the draw, up the other side, east, north, west, north, east, back down and now I was certain there were birds there. She was birdy. I was set on maintaining my altitudinally superior vantage point. Birds fly up, right? She was across the draw and up the other side, headed parallel to the drainage and my path, hell bent for scent.
We continued like this for a good two minutes, an eternity for a birdy dog, then she suddenly cut right, pointed and four birds blew up in her face. She held. Then spun. Then pointed and before you could say, “get off your altitudinally superior vantage point,” that bird was off and gone as well. I had a great vantage to watch, superior even, but was too far away to shoot.
I blew it for us by not beating feet down to her. “Listen to your dog,” is lesson one, on day one,of gundog 101. I resolved to do just that from then on.
An hour later, we had covered a lot of empty ground and were starting to flag. A few false starts and hopeful leads had led us to nothing but new terrain. The birds were somewhere else, so I called it and headed for the truck.
At some point on the way back I noticed that Stout was looking “pert”. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, think of “pert” as midway between “enthused” and “birdy”, but still shy of“charging”. She kept on like this (pert) and we marched closer and closer to the thermos of hot chocolate in the truck, covering ground at a good clip. I was really looking forward to filling a cup with sugary, chocolatey goodness when she took another abrupt turn and it was on. More than pert. Birdy. I had to go. Now.
She was down in a draw with multiple folds where the earth came together in ridges of sage and thin grass and I couldn’t see anything but her shoulder. The angle wrong. A fold obscuring what I knew were birds or the last second memory of them holding in the sage. Me still running, a low word to steady her as I tried to only half fall down the last of the ridge and a bobbing glimpse of a chukar’s head. I stepped into the clear where I knew they’d see me, set my left foot, shouldered my gun and leaned forward. A bird down with the shot, marked down in my mind when another got up. I turned to it 30 degrees right, shot, marked. Gun empty. Two down for the dog, bird two closest.
With bird two to hand, I sent her after bird one but she went too far. I called her back thinking she must not have seen it, so I sent her out again. Still no bird and my dog wanted to chase singles over the hill, suddenly surprisingly unruly. I brought her to heel. “Fine, we’ll get it together,” I thought, but when I got there, there was no bird where I marked it and the dog was done with this game, off over the ridge alone. I walked a grid and double checked I was in the right spot.
I was about to call her back with the collar (whose GPS told me she was 200 yards away) when she crested the hill, bird one in her mouth. Bird one that I had called her back from, twice.
LISTEN TO YOUR DOG!
I was exhausted, we were pretty close to the truck and I could nearly smell the hot chocolate through the double walled thermos. I had three birds in the vest and it had only cost me four shells, a very good day. The dog had been excellent, easily outpacing me while humoring my missteps and bad direction.
To the truck we go, I thought. Shortest way possible, don’t even look at the dog…
…who was hot on scent at the top of the ridge, just fifty yards in front of me. Then she dropped down and was gone.
I was beat, but the truck was that way, so I followed. It turns out I didn’t have far to go until I was standing in a bowl, watching a stock-still yet somehow impatient point. Like she was rolling her eyes with her posture.
As I approached, a small group of birds got up, low, like they knew I wouldn’t shoot the dog, and then rose just enough for me to take the hindmost. It dropped just in time for me to spin a half circle and drop the last bird of the day, a crazy suicide run of a bird that had flown at me, then past me, instead of away.
Both retrieves were textbook simple and with five birds in the vest I was legally finished for the day. Final tally: five birds, six shots, two doubles, childhood shotgun, dog I trained. Pretty cool.
On the short happy hike back to the truck I swapped between relishing my achievement and mentally reviewing each misstep, each spot where I had gone wrong.
You know the lesson: Listen to your dog.