Golden Afternoons

Even if we don’t find another bird this fall, it’s impossible to regard year nine as anything but a grand success

By Rob Breeding

My English setter Doll turned 9 this year. That can be an ominous number for a bird dog.

My first setter Jack began his abrupt decline at that age, though he had a raft of ailments that conspired to take him down early. Doll, thankfully, has always been healthy.

Still, each fall it takes her a little longer to get up to speed. That seemed especially so this September when she barely made it through a couple of hot and dry sharptail hunts.

On the prairie summer heat lingered into pheasant season and her struggles continued. It didn’t help that 2019 has been a dismal year for growing birds. That’s what a snowy winter followed by a wet spring will do. All that rain spoiled nesting season.

The birds left are older, smarter. They’ve been through a hunting season or two. Wild flushing pheasants have been the norm.

The unseasonable heat wore Doll out. Even when she was fresh, she sometimes had to porpoise over the grass to cover ground.

Just when I began to worry our hunting days were behind us, it cooled just enough and Doll regained that spring in her step. We headed out last week and worked windbreaks that defined two sides of a weedy Waterfowl Production Area. Doll wasn’t interested in much as we worked the trees, but that changed when we reached the end of the windbreak and the conifers gave way to road.

She suddenly turned into the wind, cat walking out in the weeds following the zig zag pattern that usually means running pheasant. She started sprinting sideways to the wind, on a runner and I suspected that even if she pinned down a point, I’d never get close enough for a shot before the wild flush.

Then Doll whirled straight into the wind and froze. I was right. A moment later the bird rose with a cackle, out of range. For once the wind was in our favor, however, and as the bird climbed, the stiff northwesterly blew it back to where I trailed the action.

I hit it clean. Doll was on it in a flash and the season’s first bird was in hand.

Doll proceeded to lay a perfect point on a covey quail, only to be let down when I rushed, missing both shots. That scene was repeated twice in the next hour. But I found redemption, dropping a rooster along another windbreak. Doll’s magic nose pinpointed the stone dead bird in heavy grass where I might never have found it.

As the afternoon waned, we headed to a field we knew held a decent covey of quail.

Doll went birdy right away, working the edge of the field toward a weedy patch. She went on point just as four birds flushed, but Doll held tight. When I was close I saw birds moving in the brush off her shoulder. She remained steady but I could see her eyes following the quail.

I stepped in to flush and dropped a bird. It took a bit, but Doll finally dug a hen out of the heavy cover.

The main drawback to shooting steel in these WPAs with thick grass is that the birds often hit the ground wounded. This allows them to burrow down into cover. Doll almost always finds them, but it makes for some anxious moments, especially when you know there’s a broken up covey nearby.

We worked the field for two more singles, then called it quits with time to spare before sundown. As I loaded up the truck I heard quail whistling in the field.

My pup’s an old girl now and I realize every season from here forward is a bonus. But even if we don’t find another bird this fall, after that golden afternoon, it’s impossible to regard year nine as anything but a grand success.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.