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On The Trail: Gundog memories


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Gundogs are like valued friends, teammates and hunting buddies. You build rapport and trust, learn their strengths and weaknesses, compare and rate them against others. The joy they add to daily life is worth the care.

Before I owned a gundog, we used to hunt pheasants without one as teens. It was a coordinated maneuver with one or two other hunters. We’d enter a covert, preferably a narrow one with cropland on one side, maybe a pond or stream on the other, and alternate between walking and standing still to listen for the sound of fleeing pheasant footsteps through the brush. When we heard one, we’d work as a team in pursuit. Eventually, we’d close in on the running bird we’d detected back in the old cocks-only days and either flush him and shoot him on the wing or shoot him on the ground running ahead of us like a rabbit. It was a game, and we made it work for us but it cannot compare to hunting over a good flush-and-retrieve dog, which I personally prefer to a pointer. Of course, that’s just me. A personal preference. Walking up and flushing a pheasant in front of a dog locked on point is not my game. I prefer the chaos and many challenges of the flush-and-retrieve game.

My first gundog experience — the one that convinced me I had to own one — was over Smoky, Pasiecnik Farm’s pet black Lab that loved to flush pheasants on their stocked East Whately acreage along the Connecticut River. I’d stop in the barnyard, pick up the dog and hunt out back near the pond and around the edges of Hopewell Swamp with much success.

A year or two later, married but before my kids were born, I bought my first Lab, Sugarloaf Saro Jane, call name Sara, over whom I hunted for 12 enjoyable years. Back then, considerably more private valley coverts were stocked than today, greatly increasing the acreage and spreading out hunting pressure. Sara came out of a storied, Retriever Hall of Fame Lab named River Oaks Corky from the Midwest. What spirit. What stamina. What enthusiasm. She was a great gundog, family pet and loyal companion who lived for a dozen productive years. Sadly, it all ended abruptly on a midday Halifax, Vt., road while hunting woodcock and partridge with my softball buddy Cooker.

At the time, I had already taken on my first English springer spaniel, Pepper, a 5-year-old field-trial castoff that had won an event or two and placed in others but had been overhandled, thus was afraid to err. “Take him and give him a lot of TLC,” Cooker told me, “and you’re gonna have a great hunting dog.” He was right on the money. Pepper was a great dog once he knew I was good with free-wheeling hunts.

In the earliest days of Pepper, we were getting to know each other in the field when Sara got hit by that speeding station wagon stirring up a dust storm down a rural southern Vermont dirt road. I heard the car’s skid, the dog’s yelps and went to the road, where I found her alive but unable to get up. I picked her up off the road, placed her in the back of my Jeep Cherokee and brought her to the Vet. Diagnosed with a broken back, she had to be put down — a mournful day, my last as a Lab owner.

Since then, I have gone with springers, which are built for the coverts I love to hunt. Not edges and cornfield perimeters. Been there, done that. I prefer dense, thorny wetlands interspersed with alder and poplar stands, rose bush and bull briar, cattails and ragweed and goldenrod and Christmas berry. Springers are bred for dense cover, and I have had many good ones, the best of them my last three — Ringo, Lily and Chubby, all three of them troopers, not to mention extraordinary flush-and-retrieve swamp busters. Ringo lived to 12, took ill overnight and went quickly. Lily, 13, and Chub-Chub are still alive and well, the former by now a geriatric tag-along, still enthusiastic and more than capable of finding, flushing and retrieving gamebirds, but a far cry from what she once was.

Chubby got his first taste of hunting as mother Lily’s tagalong companion for a couple of years, then blew right past her as the dominant animal in the field. Chub-Chub is a cute name I gave him as a butterball puppy before deciding to keep him. Impressed by his willingness to please and obey simple commands at 4- to 6-weeks old, I just couldn’t part with him, knew he was a natural. But trust me: he’s not one bit chubby. Uh-uh. He’s a big, strong, lean, world-class athlete who’s capable of overpowering any covert on this slice of Pioneer Valley paradise. His nose is great, he’s biddable and he never hesitates or delays to deliver a dead bird to hand. He aims to please. In fact, lives for it.

This past spring, Cooker, a professional field-trialer who’s often in the company of the top springers on the planet, bred his field-trial bitch to Chubby. Lily had come out of Cooker’s breeding. He wanted me to have her for a brood bitch at his disposal. Problem was that although a great gundog, she was a poor reproducer. Bred three times to sires chosen by Cooker, her largest litter was three, not what he was looking for. Chubby is the product of her third litter, which also produced a long-legged, hunting dynamo named Sarah by the Heath hunter who bought her. When that dog died of infection at 3 coming out of heat, her owner cried like a baby, said it was the best gundog he’d ever owned, and is now after me to breed Chub-Chub to his new bitch. I’m sure Chubby would not object.

Despite the fact that Chub-Chub is the best gundog I’ve owned, I still miss Ringo, who I interchangeably called Ringy or Bingo or Bingy, all of which he responded to … when he felt like it. Son of national-champion Denalisunflos Ring, ol’ Bingy came to me with indomitable spirit and insatiable hunting instinct, delivered at 11 months old in a Westfield parking lot off the Mass Pike by New York field-trialer Gary Wilson. That dog was always hunting, be it in the yard, on a walk in the park, in the woods or field. He got into hedgehogs four times. That said, I was stunned when he understood that my neighbor’s chickens were taboo. Yes, it’s a fact. He miraculously did ignore those chickens ... 99 percent of the time. The exception was, once in a great while, when, on a random, whimsical indiscretion, he’d chase one down, preferably the rooster, in a noisy, neighborhood outburst, grabbing it firmly by the back and proudly retrieving it to me.

“Drop it,” I’d order as he approached, and, yes, he’d obey … sometimes even before I pushed the button to sound his Tri-Tronics shock-collar’s audible warning signal.

Actually, it was Bingy who introduced me too such collars, which basically provide a handler with a half-mile leash. “That dog needs a collar,” advised Cooker in a large Hadley covert no longer open to hunting. What he objected to was quintessential Bingy, a rambunctious hunting dog who refused to kennel up and go home after three solid hours of exhausting hunting. Not ready to call it a day like us, he angled into the cover bordering our parking place, stood on an elevation looking back at us with his ears perked up, and spun off into the overgrown field. He wanted us to follow. Cooker wanted to go home. I went into the field with a lead in my vest and feigned hunting long enough to fool him and get the lead over his head. A Tri-Tronics collar arrived in the mail a week later and I have used such collars ever since. It’s peace of mind to know you can always stop a dog chasing a wild flush toward a road and the kind of death my dear Sara endured.

I often mention Ol’ Bingy when hunting through barren tangles with my buddy Killer. It usually happens after we’ve scoured a covert for an hour or so without a flush — not because the dogs can’t find birds, but because the birds aren’t there. Then, bemoaning our misfortune and discussing where to hunt next, we hear the distant call of a ring-necked rooster buried deep in the alder swamp.

“Good thing Bingy isn’t here,” I say to Killer, who knows exactly what I mean, even though Bingy’s been dead for six years. The fact is, we both witnessed that animal find peasants making faraway calls many, many times when permitted. Hunting furiously for even the faintest scent of a pheasant to trail, Bingy would hear a cock crowing, face it and freeze, ears perked at full-alert, and look back at me begging for the friendly command to “Find it.” He knew the drill and was begging for the challenge. Sometimes I cooperated. Sometimes I didn’t. But when I had time to kill, I’d give him the command he eagerly anticipated and off he’d go in a straight line way out of earshot and range.

Never fail, it wouldn’t take long before we’d hear the familiar “cuck-cuck-cuck” of a flushing rooster that may or may not fly our way. Sometimes it would fly within range and come tumbling down, but that was rare. More often, it’d flush in the opposite direction or angle into the playing field where we could mark and try to reflush it. Either way, I’d whistle Ringy back or, when he didn’t respond, use the collar to bring him in.

You’d be surprised how many of those distant callers ended up in our game bags. No lie. Call it Bingy’s legacy. Like his national-champion sire, there was no quit in Ringo — a memorable gun dog who savored individual sovereignty. If you’re not clear what that means, Google it. It’s a free-spirited political philosophy that’s dear to Woodstock Nation.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.