Yesterday, I did something I haven’t done in more than a decade. I went hunting without Doll.
I’ve known this day was coming since January when I realized my old dog no longer seemed to be a hunter. She was out with us, in the field, but it was almost as though she’d forgotten the purpose of our long walks outdoors.
Jade, my youngster, would go on point, and Doll, instead of backing, would simply keep ambling on in whatever direction she was heading. If that meant she was walking in front of Jade, busting a point, so be it. She sometimes didn’t notice the pheasants flushing around her.
Doll was having a nice walk, and nothing was going to spoil it for her.
There have been other signs my 12-year-old English setter was losing the drive that produced five or six seasons of near-flawless fieldwork. Jade, at 2, is precocious, but even if she advances beyond Doll’s skill in the field — and that appears to be her trajectory — I have a hard time imagining she’ll produce anything like Doll’s golden years.
I probably let the excuse of being busy at work keep me from chasing prairie grouse in early October. The heat was a problem. Fall has been relatively nonexistent on the Great Plains. It remained hot like summer, even as the calendar turned to November.
So I avoided the unavoidable.
Then yesterday it was just the two of us, and the youngster did fine, despite awful conditions — no rain for weeks so things were bone dry, and an unexpected stiff afternoon wind kicked up just as I escaped work early to squeeze in a three-hour hunt.
I say it was a stiff wind, and that was true even by Great Plains standards. With it that dry, especially down at Jade’s level, walking was like plowing through a parchment forest.
She still found birds, but getting a shot proved more difficult.
I didn’t see Jade get birdy on the first pheasant. I just noticed she was gone. Jade works fairly tight, so even in dense cover I usually have a visual. But she was away for more than a minute or so, which meant I needed to find her before the bird had had enough.
Besides blowing scent all over the place, another problem with wind on that dry cover is that everything makes noise. On quiet days I can often hear my dogs working some distance off, but not yesterday, when I could barely hear the crunch of dry grass under my boots.
I guessed direction but guessed wrong. Once I turned toward where Jade was working, I watched a plump rooster climb out of the cattails, get some wind behind it, and jet to the next county.
Three more birds pulled the same routine, tying Jade up like a pretzel as they looped through the cover trying to shake her. I was happy with my dog’s work. She became excited and intent each time she nosed her way into bird scent, but after some work she’d lose the trail. I read that precise moment each time. She slowed noticeably, and her movement turned random, distinct from the echo retracing bird movement that she displayed when scent was hot.
Then the birds, having evaded Jade’s nose, leaked out behind us, flushing in some random direction beyond shooting range.
I’m not sure Doll could have handled things any better in those conditions. That Jade could detect scent enough to get birdy at all, in that dry, brittling wind, made me happy.
Doll was excited to see us when we returned home. She still has some time left, and maybe a hunt or two once the weather cools. But her primary bird dog duties were officially transferred to Jade yesterday, on a hot, windy, birdless day in November.
She earned the break.
Rob Breeding’s website is www.mthookandbullet.com.
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