It’s well established that I hunt and fish more than most people, and part of the reason for that is my very tolerant spouse. While bargaining with my wife (and I don’t like to call it begging, it just sounds…wrong…though that’s probably what it is) for a couple extra hours in the field on Saturday, I caught myself mid-presentation.
“Fool, why are you trying to secure from two to five in the afternoon, when you could have asked for four to sundown, the best hours of the day for pheasant hunting,” my debate module questioned in the back of my brain.
Frustrated with the slip, I tried to shift the time-table portion of my presentation midstream, but my wife – an even more talented and very experienced debater in her own right – wasn’t having it. A mid-afternoon hunt was what it would be. Cutting my losses and cursing my declining extemporaneous preparation skills, I loaded up the truck and headed to a small swath of grass south of town. While I beelined down the blacktop, drops of rain decked the windshield, and I winced as the downpour began in earnest while unloading the dog in the parking area. With twenty minutes gone for travel, we set out into what would be a very wet balance of our three-hour afternoon.
Winding through the eastern edge of the field grass and dried sweet clover stems, we followed the meandering trails taken by deer and coyotes in days past. My old lab lazily sniffed along the front portion of the walk as we trudged into the north wind which carried the light rain in at an angle. In no time, we were both soaked from the damp ground cover and the additional precipitation coming down.
Gunnar sniffed the wind in an attempt to locate some scent, as his days of rapidly quartering, running out and back, scanning the ground for some olfactory-based sign of birds in the area are well in his past. Instead, his ability to check the breeze gives him an energy-saving advantage in his old age, and when he does detect something, flashes of youth return and he engages in a gear rarely seen except when hot on the trail of a fleeing pheasant. But for the first thirty minutes it was a meandering march into the falling rain.
We walked out and back, covering the eastern half of the terrain before making the turn back up to the north along a small draw littered with pockets of cane and patches of green field grass. As we turned, Gunnar raised his nose into the wind and took off, winding into the stalks and stands of vegetation, sending sprays of water from the bushy blonde tops of the plants. Seeing that he had found his other gear, I popped my 20 gauge off my shoulder and into a more ready trail carry position just in time to see a rooster thunder out of a small brushy clump to my left. My first shot whizzed behind the bird, but the second was true and soon Gunnar was on the downed bird and proudly returned it to hand, as if to say: “I’ve still got this.”
He shook twice to send the soaking rain out from his coat and cleaned the side of his feather-filled mouth with his tongue before turning back into the wind and heading up the draw, giving me just a moment to admire the bird and tuck it into my vest. It wasn’t long until he was on point on an unusually dense stand of still-green grass. He dove in and a pair of hens jumped up from the far edge of the ten-foot circle. But something tried to evade him, and he turned, placing the wind at his back while inhaling all of the scent trail that wound up the hill and away from the draw and the small grassy patch.
In a frantic sprint from days past, with nose thundering and legs churning, he made his way up and over a small ridge littered with old rock piles before slanting down a hill, about fifty yards away from the draw and I doubled my pace to stay with him. A hen popped up and took flight, but he only paused a moment in his pursuit before spinning and winding back on the trail. Another buff bird took flight, and then another, and another before I made the call for color.
“There’s gotta be a rooster in this mess, stay on him,” I encouraged my dog as I readied my gun.
Sure enough, Gunnar doubled back and caught the wind and in the process nearly caught the young rooster in his gnashing teeth as it took flight between us, rapidly closing the yardage and shifting my shot before banking out and away from my position.
“Wait…wait…wait…okay, now,” I thought as I traced the path of the airborne bird and the shot finally presented itself.
Gunnar trailed the downed rooster and was quickly on it, bringing it back and dropping it at my feet. I unloaded my gun and hooked it over my shoulder as I praised the pup that sat before me, disguised by the twelve-year-old body he resided in at that particular moment. I checked the time on my phone – 3:27 p.m. – and let my wife that I’d be home soon. She was pleased. I attempted to bank the remaining hour or so of unused hunting time for another rainy day down the road, but she didn’t respond to the request.
With our limit of two in the bag, we had certainly made the most of the moments I had bargained for on the wet and winding afternoon, and that’s all anyone – hunter or dog – can ask for…in our outdoors.