As part of our Old Bird Dogs series, one hunter recounts the joy created by a spectacular retrieve from his 11-year-old German Shorthair on a bluebird December day.
By Bob St.Pierre
That’s the perfect word to describe the emotion I felt at 4:03 on a Saturday afternoon in December. Allow me to set the stage.
The invitation came through my friend Matt Kucharski. “Tim said we can pheasant hunt his new 80 acres on Saturday after he finishes muzzleloader deer hunting that morning. And Bob,” Matt hesitated with a vibration of uncontrolled excitement, “no one has pheasant hunted the property yet this year.”
So it was with giddiness that four friends and six bird dogs pointed our trucks toward southwest Minnesota from the Twin Cities early on a Saturday morning.
It’s not often the actual hunt exceeds the expectations of a day in the field, but the universe continued to align on this balmy and sunshine-soaked December day. No more than 100 yards out of the truck, my pal Julia’s shorthair Wren locked up into a solid point. After leaping a creek, a dozen hens and roosters flushed in a whirl of chaos without a feather ruffled by my errant over then under.
No matter. My fellow Pheasants Forever co-worker, Emy, folded the day’s first longtail with a dandy straightaway shot over her flat-coated retriever Lux. Shortly after that, I redeemed my earlier miss with a crosser off my shorthair Esky’s point.
It was a glorious day to be alive. Four friends, a generous landowner, a collection of beloved bird dogs, sunny skies, calm winds, and an extremely comfortable and rare 50 degrees for Minnesota in December. By the end of two 80-acre loops around the property, seven roosters had found their way into our vests and perma-smiles were taxidermized on our faces.
But that was only the beginning of this joyful day.
“I know this wildlife management area the local Pheasants Forever chapter helped purchase four years ago,” I explained to my friends. “Public land with very nice grassy habitat on our way north. Let’s grab a late lunch, then hunt the golden hour there.”
I’d been hunting my 3-year old shorthair Esky. As folks with two dogs can attest, the transition of a veteran bird dog to the “B-squad” can be tough for both pup and hunter alike. My elder 11-year-old GSP, Trammell, had made that transfer to the JV team last year.
While Tram is still able to navigate the grouse woods for the better part of a day’s hunt, the thick grasses and cattails of Minnesota’s pheasant fields now wear her out in short order. Under these circumstances I opened up Tram’s kennel door with the golden hour saved specially for her.
“Hunt ‘em up Tram,” I encouraged as her graying muzzle sniffed the wind and cast into the big bluestem. It didn’t take long before the SportDOG GPS collar started vibrating to indicate that Tram was locked on point 44 yards straight ahead.
I approached to her left and a big ol’ rooster rose with a cackle of color and attitude. I swung to the right, squeezed, and watched the bird wobble into a crash-landing with a broken wing.
I knew I hadn’t hit the bird hard, and could tell it hit the ground sprinting. In Tram’s prime, I’d have puffed my chest out with confidence knowing my dog’s retrieving prowess would save my bacon after a poor shot. But now, at eleven years of age, I doubted her endurance to keep up in this race.
Matt saw the concern about crippling the bird on my face, and offered a potential solution: “We’re only a 100 yards from the truck. Should we go back and get all the dogs on this bird?”
I looked down at the GPS screen and Trammell answered Matt’s question for me.
“Let’s give Tram a few minutes. She might be on the trail of that bird. She’s moving east at 30 yards, 40 yards, 50 yards,” I reported. My friends had gathered with me.
Watching her icon on the GPS screen, I saw her running figure turn into a vibrating circle indicating she was on point at 80 yards. She started moving for a moment and again returned to a vibrating circle on my screen, another point.
“This is a good sign. She’s pointing and relocating, pointing and relocating,” I said, giving my best in-the-field Joe Buck play-by-play. “I think she’s hot on that bird’s trail. Now it’s just a matter if she’s got enough steam to catch it.”
Four times this occurred – point and relocate, point and relocate, point and relocate, point and relocate – before the icon that was by beloved dog slowly started reversing direction back toward us.
As she pushed through the thick grass over the hill in front of us, I saw what I knew was going to be there in her mouth. There was no run left in her, but her eyes were filled with the life of a dog in her prime. She swung to my left and dropped the gorgeous rooster in my waiting right hand.
At eleven years old, I don’t know how many more retrieves Tram will have like the one at 4:12 p.m. on a blue-skied December Saturday. I do know that I will remember that one for the rest of my days.
With tears in my eyes and love for my aging best friend in my heart, I felt pure unadulterated joy.
We live in unhappy times with our daily lives filled with sad examples of people behaving poorly towards each other all over the news. But amidst that chaos, there are moments when the sun is shining, friends are laughing, and an old bird dog grabs an even tighter grip on your heart than you’d thought possible.
Joy to you and your beloved bird dogs this pheasant season.
Bob St.Pierre is Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever’s Vice President of Marketing. Follow Bob on Twitter @BobStPierre and listen to Bob and Billy Hildebrand every Saturday morning on FAN Outdoors radio on KFAN FM100.3.