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    Annals of Trailing Dogs

    (Photo/courtesy of Anthony Ventrella)
    (Photo/courtesy of Anthony Ventrella)
    We upland bird hunters, passionate advocates of pursuing feathered game with pointing and flushing breeds, often forget our roots. Sixty-five years of owning Brittanys, springer spaniels, golden retrievers, English pointers – and especially English setters, my longtime breed of choice – sometimes threatens to displace the importance foxhounds and beagles had in my field education. The truth is, however, that I learned as much about the general care, handling and value of hunting dogs through my youthful exposure to trailing hounds as I did to owning my first pointing dog. And therein hangs a tale.

    Recently, I came across a forgotten box of faded photographs stashed in an attic nook. Many of them were amateurish shots of sporting exploits that dated back to my early teens in the 1950s, when my outdoor life began in earnest. Compared to other sections of the country, my home state, tiny Connecticut (60 miles wide by 90 miles long), has never been much of a hunting destination. You rarely hear anyone say they are counting the days until their Nutmeg State hunting trip begins! But in the southwestern corner of the state, fifty miles from the heart of New York City, one of the planet’s largest, most populous cities, there were enough wild opportunities in our rural areas of suburbia to launch a lifelong addiction to fishing and field sports.

    Under President Dwight Eisenhower, that Fifties Cold War era in America has often been characterized as somnolent, boring and conservative. At the ages of 13, 14 and 15, if I had thought about the geopolitical climate, I might have come to the same conclusion. Instead, I had other things on my mind, such as the opening day of trout season in April and small game season in October. I prayed for subfreezing stretches in December and January so local ponds would ice up and hockey season could begin. The rest of the time I thought about girls. Excitement was in the air and like most of my peers, I was hungry for defining experiences. Except for Cheryl W., an unrequited love who occasionally fished with me for snapper blues in the estuaries of Long Island Sound around Norwalk and Westport, I no longer recall names of any of the girls I pursued in my adolescent fervor.

    Certain sporting events, however, were indelible, proving, I guess, that we are defined by what we remember most intensely. The long-forgotten attic photographs reveal my first fly rod brook trout caught on a home-tied streamer in the Saugatuck River in Weston in 1956, while my first pheasant in 1957 and first ruffed grouse in 1958 came to hand farther north in New Preston, over a sweet tri-color Llewellin setter named Suzie, my first bird dog, a hand-me-down gift from an uncle. Another photo, from early 1959, taken in southern Vermont, shows a kid with his first snowshoe rabbit, about which I will say more shortly.

    Behind those snapshot moments, there was a fairly long learning curve. Herman Melville once said that “no man is his own sire.” In my case my uncles were the main movers and shakers. My father supported my angling and shooting endeavors, but besides dabbling in spin fishing for trout, he was more of an enthusiast than practitioner. My mother’s three brothers, however, the Ventrella boys – Pete, Tony and Bobby – took me under their collective wing and provided a ready store of advice, tutelage, encouragement and criticism, too, when the latter was necessary. I spent a couple of autumns of my apprenticeship trailing gunless behind my uncles as they hunted, and I learned their habits, tricks of the trade and attitudes toward upland sport that provided a lasting foundation. And because my uncles were dog men, when they weren’t afield with rod or gun every chance they got, the rest of the time, spring and summer, when conditions warranted, they were in the woods training their dogs. Uncle Pete raised foxhounds, Uncle Tony ran beagles, and Uncle Bobby had a setter. He also had four children (with three more soon to follow), which is why Suzie, that sweet aforementioned Llewellin, eventually passed into my care, and I became a fledgling dog man as well, wet behind the ears and with a long road yet to walk, though I was already being schooled by the best men for the job that I knew.

    For my uncles, bless their hearts, it was never about the latest razzle-dazzle developments in shot shells, hardware and sporting traps but about finding, raising and training reliable dogs with high prey drives, great noses and no-quit temperaments. Those were generic attributes that transcended any particular breed and applied to all canine hunt companions, as I later came to realize, whether they were trailers, flushers or pointers. Beyond everything else, I imbibed my uncles’ love of hunting dogs and soaked up some of their considerable know-how and passion. Hunting breeds were part of the fabric of family life. Then and now, the dogs were everything. Then and now, men and dogs taught me patience, slow-handed affection and ethical conduct.

    On spring evenings, Uncle Pete and his cronies loosed their pack at dark in the wildest reaches of northern Fairfield County and then sat around a blazing campfire listening to their music until the dogs ran out of hearing, the men’s tall tales and ribald boasts wound down, and we were left straining our ears in the silence, hoping to pick up any scrap of noise that signaled the hounds were pushing the fox back toward us. Unlike rabbits, fox tended to be straight liners, and they often lit completely out of the territory. More often than not, they ended up a couple of townships away or in the next county, so around dawn after a tiring night’s vigil, the owners filed out to their cars to start the necessary but lonely back road search-and-find operation to bring their wayward charges home.

    I don’t recall the names of those other men, but in the firelight, and in the smoke of cigars, cigarettes and pipes, hour after hour, between midnight and dawn, I listened to their talk and watched their faces and saw registered there nearly everything I needed to know about hunting dog ownership – the pride, the disappointment, the joy, the praise and, of course, the stories that bound all the elements together.

    It was a blow when Uncle Pete, only in his 40s, died on Christmas Day, 1957. I was 14 and thought there was something deeply flawed in the universe for that to have been allowed to happen. His kennel was dispersed, the dogs parceled out to deserving members of his hunting club. I never saw any of those men or dogs again, not even Lemon Willy, his favorite lead dog, and one I had fed, watered, brushed and curried on early spring mornings after a night’s run. Uncle Bobby, his hands full with burgeoning family duties, stopped hunting altogether, bought a boat big enough to hold his kids and turned to fishing for flounder and weakfish in Long Island Sound.

    It was left to Uncle Tony, my mother’s favorite older brother, to step up, which he did without hesitation. He had three children of his own but still made time to mentor me. Next to my father, no other male in my young life had a more profound influence. And though he was not formally schooled, he was a natural teacher, with unbridled enthusiasm, discerning intelligence and a sharp, savvy wit. He had owned setters in his younger days, so he understood the allure of pointing dogs working explosive ruffed grouse and fast-flushing quail, but it was beagles that came to define his obsession, particularly a brindled juggernaut named Peggy.

    The sun rose and set on Peggy. She was the first truly exceptional brag dog I ever encountered. Uncle Tony was justly proud of her scenting abilities and her deep-belled voice. Consistency was her game, and she rarely made a mistake or failed to straighten out even the trickiest of scent lines. We hunted her in the fall (she was adept at pheasants, too) and ran her in the spring and summer on cottontails all over our portion of southwestern Connecticut. All of that was preparation for the real challenge of hunting varying hare, aka snowshoe rabbits, five hours north in Vermont where our families had small camps in Danby Four Corners. Uncle Tony went often during the long season from October to February, and I tagged along, glad to be away from school and on a bona fide hunting road trip.

    The end of my apprenticeship came one post-blizzard day. We were hunting in a swampy swale near Shrewsbury, north of the Green Mountain National Forest. It was January. It had snowed hard a few days earlier, and walking the woods was like hunting in a snow globe. Everything was white, fleecy, surreal. Outlines were blurred, indistinct, and it seemed that even the shadows had shadows. Peggy started a hare out of a slash pile around 10 in the morning and kept the heat on for the next two-plus hours as the rabbit took her out of hearing, circled back around and slipped by us twice. A ghostly rabbit running soundlessly through a nearly monochromatic snow-draped landscape was not an easy target to pick out. By the third time Peggy turned and started her circuit back toward us, I figured out that the hare was at least fifteen minutes ahead of her voice, guessed where it might cross, saw its black-tipped ears as it snuck beneath the pines, made a lucky shot at the moving snowball and ended the race.

    Peggy came in on its track, and we praised her to the skies. It was a remarkable chase and has always symbolized the kind of stamina, intensity and bred-in-the-blood smarts a brag dog possesses. With Peggy, my sense of how a sporting life could be immeasurably enhanced by the right dog took root and has flourished during the past six decades. The lesson is not so much about the practicality of bringing game to the gun (lots of dogs can do that) but about the intangibles such as courage and instinct, heart and style that a great dog teaches us and that should never be taken for granted, no matter the breed.

    Wolfe Publishing Group