Thursday, January 5, 2017

A year with Gabby.

I stepped lively over the hill, having lost track of my dog's bell after she topped the rise a minute ahead of me. There she popped out of the cover maybe eighty yards in front. She saw me, turned and came running back towards me. Suddenly the young setter slammed on the brakes and piled herself into a point aiming at a thicket of dogwood shouldering the aspens. I may have seen a bit of movement on the ground, I'm not sure, but the grouse was in the air before I had a chance to think and it fell in a clump at my shot. Gabby was on it in an instant and mouthed it with ears perked in wonderment. At my urging she lifted the dead grouse and trotted to me.

It wasn't the first grouse she'd ever pointed, but it was the first during hunting season and I was more than a little happy to have killed it for her. We were hunting the PL Best cover that's basically a couple of old trails through an aspen forest. I call it “best” because when I found it it was “just-the-right-size” aspen and always full of both grouse and woodcock. Like many coverts around here there's a bordering beaver pond and alder bottom stream to the south and if you can make the hike the cover drops north into a seemingly endless spruce lowland that's part of the locally known 100 mile swamp. The best part was always hard to get to and if you didn't want to walk an extra mile through over-mature aspen and balsam forest you could steer your four-wheel drive truck through the muddy and rocky trail and climb the slippery steep hill to park at the intersecting old logging roads. A few years ago the old growth was logged which would have made some fine upcoming bird cover if it hadn't been planted with jack pine, and the logging also improved the road which helped others discover the place.

I don't subscribe to the notion that it's critical to kill the first bird your dog points. Gabby had pointed planted pigeons all summer and a few pre-season wild birds that I couldn't shoot so I don't believe killing that first in season bird means that much to the dog, though it made me feel good. I wish I could say she spent the rest of the fall handling grouse for the gun, but that's not the case.

It had been a long time since I brought a new pup home. Jack had somehow turned 11 years old and though he looked good and hunted hard, he couldn't go for long, couldn't seem to hear well, and was as stubborn as an old veteran is likely to be. I've been fortunate to have been offered well bred pups from several friends and Bert called and told me he had just the kind of pup I liked, a small tricolor female. Years ago I had a small white and black setter that turned out to be one of the best grouse dogs I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. Molly won field trials, was a fine guide dog, a joy around the house, found grouse and woodcock whenever she was in cover; pheasants, prairie grouse, and huns in Dakota and Montana, and retrieved everything put down before her. Bert has been guiding bird hunters for years and raising the kind of setters that work for him. While he's had success in the field trial venues, his main focus is breeding bird finders for foot hunters. Molly was out of his breeding. In this day of electronic training aids and locators, it's notable to remember that Molly never wore an e-collar, though she often wore one of those old soup-can accessory beepers. She was an easy dog. I'm hoping the same for Gabby.

Gabby was whelped in June and the first summer-born puppy I've ever had. She was sort of the icing on the cake of a very fine summer. I picked her up from Bert's on my way home from the Minneapolis airport after an amazing Alaskan fly fishing/float trip. With that trip in my mind and the happy anticipation of a new puppy, her registered moniker reflects the name of the river we floated. But we just call her Gabby, a name she earned being vocal from the start, running around with a ball in her mouth and giving a friendly growl or yip as a challenge to play, and barking a little more than seems necessary. She was only a few months old when grouse season came around and I can't say she did anything precocious, though she did show an ability to use her nose and get into birds. Nothing was killed over her but she always got a nose full of the grouse and woodcock shot over Jack.

Gabby lived that first winter in the kennel, and despite the sometimes brutally cold temperatures, she was fine in her insulated dog house. But it's easy to lose touch with an outside dog in the winter. You get them out daily and try for some training and companionship, but they usually spend long hours in the kennel. When springtime finally rolled around it was great to get out in the woods. Unfortunately, by the time the snow finally receded enough to really get into the coverts, nesting season was upon us and our early wild bird training was limited. Still, we were both eager and it wasn't long until I was planting pigeons for her.

I use pigeons in release traps and usually get a predictable reaction from the pups; they get a whiff of the bird and either point it or rush it. Or maybe point for a second and then rush in to catch what they smell. The release was tripped when they take a step toward the bird and after plenty of that they generally get the idea. It's not in effort to teach them to hunt, or even really to point. I want their own brain to tell them if they get too close, the bird leaves. Once they get that pigeon game down doesn't mean they'll handle wild birds – wild grouse are a lot different and pups that look good on planted birds come unglued on wild birds. Gabby did something I'd never seen before, when she scented the pigeon she turned and ran circles around the bird, never getting closer but just circling. Round and round – weird. So I popped the bird and she gave chase. Sometimes she'd see the pigeon land in a tree and she'd get under it and bite and pull at any brush beneath the tree in the effort, I suppose, to cut the tree down. Yeah, weird. At home she was as lovable as any dog I've had. Opening the kennel gate she'd race into the garage and hop on a dog crate for a morning hug. I couldn't resist and she was winning me over. When she locked up on a couple of late summer grouse broods, she pretty much had me. 

Hunting season finally came and many was the day following my young setter and watched her bump grouse and woodcock with impunity. But each bird was a lesson and sometime along the way she started pointing somewhat regularly, or at least when I found her on point it wasn't such a big surprise. One day near Paul's camp his llewellin, Scarlett, pointed off to the left while I followed Gabby a ways ahead. At Paul's shot Gabby cut back to see what was happening and Paul called point for her. Approaching head on Gabby was standing high and erect looking my way. Then I spotted the woodcock lying 15 feet in front of her. I should have used my camera to try for what would have been a beautiful photo of bird and dog, but I thought killing the bird for her was important so the bird was flushed and missed clean when it popped up over Gabby's head. I was upset at missing the easy shot, but not as much as missing the photo-op.

In this day of electronic bird dog equipment, I am happy that Gabby's range could probably be described as gun dog range. That's what I'm hoping she'll be, a gun dog. The kind to enjoy watching and following with little handling and shoot birds over. I once half wondered if killing birds with pointing dogs meant shooting the grouse you found while you were out looking for your dog. I can't say Gabby is always close, but I can usually keep track of her bell pretty well. She wore the e-collar most of the time – not so much for correction but to take advantage of the remote beeper on it. When a dog goes on point, young or old, I can't see much good in thrashing around the thick stuff hoping to spot the dog. I like hitting a button and having a locating beep sound off. By the end of the season, however, Gabby was hunted most with only the bell dangling on her collar and had little trouble finding her when the leaves were down and the ground cover open. That's the old fashioned way and the way I started hunting with pointing dogs in grouse cover. Paying attention and not relying on batteries.

From what I've seen, it's becoming unusual to see a pointer or setter without an antenna bobbing out of a GPS collar. I was hunting the old part of Sundown cover with Jack after watching and hearing Gabby mess up several chances on the better south end. Jack was slowing down and I was thinking of turning back when I heard something behind me and turned to see a white dog pop onto the trail and run back away from me. It looked like a bird dog to me and at first I thought perhaps Gabby had gotten out of the truck, but that didn't make sense – she would have came right to me. At any rate I called Jack and we started back on the trail. Then two setters came racing towards us and ducked into the cover silently. That's when I saw the handler. Or handlers. Two folks approached, a guy and gal each toting a shotgun. At their feet were a black lab, a Nova Scotia toller, and a baby Weimaraner. Young folks with friendly smiles, their two setters were soon back and getting acquainted with Jack, who wasn't interested in meeting anyone. I mentioned it seemed unusual to see two setters hunting the cover without bells on their collars. The fellow, less than half my age, thought it was strange to see Jack with his bell when all a hunter needed was GPS. You could watch the screen and see right were your dog was, after all. Well, all right. Personally, I've never had a dog I felt needed GPS to keep track of and I'm hoping the same with Gabby.

Even with days and seasons filled with birds and opportunities, I seem to recall select individual episodes and incidents to keep in my memory banks. Some are the best, some are humorous and some are examples of if it can go wrong, it will. There's a two acre meadow about a half hour in on the West Stopsign cover that has produced numerous grouse from the edges. Gabby had a pretty good lead on me when I lost her bell. I didn't know if it stopped or merely faded out of hearing in the cover, but around the corner I saw her on the far edge of the meadow, standing tall and tight in a picturesque pose much like so many of my other dogs had stood. The kind of prime October afternoon you don't want to believe will end. Bright yellow aspens glowing in the sunlight illuminating the motionless dog; a grouse jumping in a swirl of leaves and flashing between the trunks; gun barrels moving on their own and the bird tumbling down almost as if a dream. When it's over you start thinking you're pretty good at this, blocking out past evidence proving otherwise. If you're with a partner you'd pocket the grouse, pat the dog, and go look for more. But I was alone, and when you're alone with your dog on a day like that it's tough not to pause and admire the complex patterns of a grouse's feathers, give your dog some lovin', and be thankful for the day. You know the kind of day I'm talking about, and we know there are no guarantees of another.

A few days later, I visited the Puppy Course after a couple years absence. Gabby darted ahead hunting the right side of the faint trail leading in. Several grouse flushed from the edge of the now tall and thick spruces on the left, but no shots were offered. Then I became turned around in cover that used to be as familiar as my backyard. Frustrated at the birds, the dog, and myself, I heard a distant train blow it's horn and I had my bearings. With Gabby back on track we found the new cutting I was looking for. In minutes a limit of woodcock fell over lovely setter points and the day suddenly took a new turn. Gabby pointed a couple more woodcock on the way out and found a couple of those grouse in the dark spruce. I only heard the grouse flush, but Gabby's solid points made up for no shots offered.

Paul and I were shooting grouse and woodcock up at Broken Bow when we watched Gabby catch scent on the trail and crouch her body nearly to the ground while zig-zagging around on the trail trying to figure out the scent. The term “crouching tiger” came to mind. She looked like a cartoon character and we had to chuckle watching her scooting around so seriously until she finally paused when the grouse burst out in front of her. Neither of us raised our gun. It wouldn't have impressed a field trial judge, but was sure fun to watch.

When deer season came we went on our usual hiatus from grouse hunting, something the dogs have never been able to understand. The weather stayed warm, so warm successful deer hunters had to rush their kills to refrigeration. As the last weekend approached I was hopeful about getting the dogs back into the coverts. Then came the snow. Sixteen inches of heavy wet snow that knocked out our electricity for three days. I managed to get the driveway cleared the first day, but there was nowhere to go – the county snowplows would take another day to get through. A week later the snow had melted some and settled with a thin crust on top that soon had Gabbys feet cut and bleeding. Then came more snow and before I knew it she was chest deep in it. We tried, however, and found grouse huddled in balsams but they always escaped behind the wall of evergreens and I soon tired of snow falling down my neck at every step and covering my hat, shoulders, and gun. It was time to call it a season.

That's when Gabby became a house dog. Jack has been living indoors during the winter for several years and though I had no worry about Gabby outside in her kennel, I just want her to be at hand more. Maybe I'm getting soft with age but at my age does it matter? My old Molly was quite the lap dog and Gabby is rivaling her. When she's let out she still lives up to her name running around barking to announce to the world that she's out and you should know it. She does seem to enjoy her voice. It's a new year now and every day's a new day to get started so each morning Gabby dives onto my bed to thump her tail and lick my face awake well before sunup. She's the cheeriest alarm I've ever had, you just have to wake up happy with that kind of greeting. Jack meets us at the door and they wait while I pull on boots and coat for our predawn morning stroll. It was around twenty below zero this morning and we were soon glad to be back inside. The dogs get a cookie while I make coffee and sit down to ease into the day. Jack finds his bed for a little more shuteye and Gabby is soon in my face challenging me to a wrestling match.

I was in a coffee shop a while back talking to a lady friend about pets. I made the regrettable and obviously false statement that I don't have any pets, I have bird dogs.

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