Even though we’re in deep winter now and it’s time for snowshoes and skis, firewood cutting and fly tying on these days of below zero temps; I can’t help but think about the past hunting season, toting my scattergun behind Gabi for some grouse gunning.
I followed her across the beaver dam, that little setter of mine, and heard her break left and disappear into the thick along the edge of the flooded alder swamp. Once I gained some high ground I stopped and listened, but all was quiet. I was going to have to ease back along the edge of that tangle and try to find her, for I figured she was on point. It took long minutes of ducking, tripping, and pushing through brush and balsam while gazing ahead for Gabi's white coat or a glimpse of her orange collar. Tough going, for sure, and I wondered if I was the first man to ever stumble ever lower toward the impassable alder swamp -- for there is no reason for man to ever want to. Unless to find a pointing bird dog.
And there she was! I looked hard to make sure it was Gabi and not some bit of downed birch bark or the reflection off some water that coursed through and pooled around the trunks and shoots of alders and willows. Yes, it was her all right, standing firm on the last bit of high ground before getting her feet wet. And thankfully looking towards me from fifty yards out. Sunlight filtered down through the trees and lit the forest floor in a beautiful scene. We had the grouse pinned between us and though the bird might have fled with a low flush behind screening cover, it chose altitude for escape. Another step sent the bird pumping for the treetops and arced to level out for distance but caught a charge of 7 1/2's from my 20 gauge. If only they were all like that.
Gabi rushed to the fallen grouse, picked it up and looked at me, carried it a couple of feet and dropped it. There she stood as if to say, "here's your bird, come and get it so we can get moving!" Finding birds is one thing -- retrieving? Not for her. Gabi swore off retrieving long ago. It's not that she doesn't try -- but it's those dry loose feathers in her mouth... At home she'll fetch all manner of plastic and canvas dummies, Dokken's Dead Fowl dummies, and even wing-wrapped retrieving bucks. Of course, I've tried frozen pigeons with a bit of success but when it comes to freshly killed birds, nope. Nor does she point dead -- she races to the downed bird, lifts it to show me, then spits it out and shakes the feathers from her mouth. Gabi once pounced on a wing-tipped woodcock and held the live bird to ground with her front paws so I could come and get it. The woodcock never touched her lips and she was pleased with herself.
One evening while Gabi was curled on my lap, I tried to explain the various methods of retriever training. She looked at me like I must be kidding. The subject was never brought up again.
A setter's primary job is finding birds and I can't fault her in that department. Since puppyhood she's been a bird-finder, and as she developed, I was impressed by her abilities. Though sometimes I wondered about how she handled them. Gabi had some quirky ways about working scent and there were times when I heard grouse taking wing that I believed some of my previous dogs would have nailed. You can only judge what you can see, and she was right often enough to make me proud. But there were times when I heard her bell stop and a grouse flush, or was it a grouse flush and her bell stop? I'd push in to find her standing, looking over her shoulder at me and wagging her tail. Yeah, there was a grouse here, a nice one, too! You should have seen it!
This past season was different, however. And it took me awhile to realize it. We were at the tailgate getting ready to hit the cover and it occurred to me I was opening another box of shells when I looked at her and said, "Gabi, you're a heck of a bird dog!" She'd been finding and handling birds all season and I'd been enjoying the fine shooting she provided. Running grouse, tight woodcock, singles, multiples -- it was great, and one of the best seasons I've had for some time. Perhaps it was a good year for grouse -- we seemed to find them everywhere. Or maybe Gabi just figured it all out.
Compared to some exceptional bird dogs I've shot over; I've doubted Gabi could match them and said so. I think it's time to eat those words.