feature By: T.C. Flanigan | August, 19
In truth, the words shucks, darn or phooey would have been wholly insufficient for the calamity that we had just experienced. And although the preacher always encouraged his congregation members to witness, this was one event for which he wished there had been none. That genuinely unique woodcock hunt is three decades old now, so it should be safe to tell the story that was enough to make a preacher swear.
Following a tour of duty in Vietnam, 1st Sgt. John returned home to chart a new pathway for his life. Although he’d earned a Ph.D. and become an ordained minister, Dr. John shunned the big cities, choosing instead to take the gospel to the hill country folks of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The Reverend Doctor John is a good ol’ southern country boy with an Abe Lincoln appearance, a handshake that will make your eyes water and an equally powerful personality.
Doc loved bird dogs and could handle a shotgun as efficiently as he shouted the gospel and called down the wrath of God on the heads of sinners. He could literally scare the “hell” out of sinners with booming oratory that felt so personally focused that I’d confessed to a few fishing exaggerations.
Arriving a bit late for one of his evening revival services and already feeling tardiness guilt, I was stunned when he stopped leading the congregation in singing the opening hymn and strode back the aisle to confront me. I cringed with dread of chastisement for my late arrival, but when Doc laid his big hand on my shoulder, leaned down and whispered in my ear, “Hang around after the service, we’ve got to talk,” I was absolutely fear stricken.
Quaking in my seat, I wondered what sins I’d committed that commanded such personal attention and how the heck could he know about them. For nearly an hour, Doc railed about the wages of sin with the combined fervor of a father, friend and drill sergeant while my dread deepened. Gracious to a fault, Doc never rushed the post-service handshaking, but this evening he was strangely anxious. Nodding toward the door and for me to join him, he fairly trotted to his old pickup truck as I hustled along behind. “Let’s go somewhere private and talk,” he insisted with strange urgency.
“I’ll follow you,” he called out as his truck door slammed.
A mile from the church and with a big lump in my throat, I pulled off the gravel roadway and exited my truck to learn what so concerned Dr. John. “I really need your help!” he exclaimed.
“My help? With what?” I asked, startled by his intensity yet relieved from my apprehensions.
“Since I’ve seen you last, I bought a German shorthair – big male with a nose. Oh, what a nose! He can smell a pheasant four fields away and get there in two seconds flat. He is absolutely the fastest thing I’ve ever seen on four feet.”
“Great, I’d love to see him work sometime,” I responded.
“Great – heck!” the reverend yelled. “He won’t point! All he does is chase ’em! I’ve hunted him hard and haven’t been within a 30.06 shot of a bird yet! I want a dog like old Jake here,” he said, kneeling to caress my old Weimaraner’s head and stroke his long, silky ears. Ole Jake had a special affection for the preacher, and he’d nearly knocked me down while leaping out of my truck to get to him. Doc and I had hunted pheasants together on several occasions with great success, and Ole Jake loved a good wing shot.
“What can I do to get Duke to point?” the preacher pleaded. “I know if I could only kill one bird that he pointed, he’d get the idea. He’s really smart, and man does he have a nose – did I tell you about his nose? I need your help. Please, help me get him to point like Jake!”
“Let’s put him on some woodcock,” I responded.
“Some what?” the reverend asked with a cocked head and a quizzical look.
“Woodcock,” I responded, adding a brief description of these wonderful little game birds that typically hold well for pointing dogs. “Let’s do it soon, though,” I prodded. “The fall migration is at its peak right now.”
We agreed to meet on Monday morning to introduce his Duke to woodcock and awaken his pointing instinct. Fairly confident of success, I stopped just short of guaranteeing that the big going dog would repent from his bird chasing ways.
On Monday we parked our trucks at the honey hole, a pretty, narrow little valley at the eastern foot of the Alleghenies. Bisected by a small trout stream and thickly furred with hawthorn and alders, the honey hole is a veritable woodcock paradise, one of those very special places that you share with very few people.
The preacher wrestled the big shorthair into a bell collar, and 60 pounds of spotted dynamite rocketed into the cover. “You’re right about him being fast,” I commented to the preacher. “Didn’t get much of a look at him though.”
“Oh, he’ll be back when he’s tired and hungry,” Doc commented.
Seconds later, a woodcock zipped by us so fast and straight that it appeared to have seen Satan himself. Before Reverend John could stuff three of my skeet loads into his autoloader, two more birds zipped by with a four-legged spotted devil hot on their tails. It was the first time that I saw woodcock flying while looking back over its shoulder.
The volume of the evangelist’s WHOA! reverberated in my head but fell on deaf dog ears as Duke vanished like vapor. The Reverend’s wild-running canine seemed to delight in thoroughly scattering one of the most abundant flights of woodcock that I’ve ever witnessed. Terrorized birds whistled by us in every direction, but we held our fire, waiting and praying for just one good point. Doctor John declared the dog to be demon-possessed.
On occasion, we would hear the dog’s collar bell in the distance and observe more terrorized woodcock escaping the cover like scattered quail. During one of the many lulls, while the dog was beyond the range of human hearing, I showed the minister some woodcock “splashings,” the telltale white blotches of bird droppings that indicate the presence of woodcock. A bit later, his use of a more common term upon finding similar defecations was a bit surprising. “Hey, I’m a country preacher,” he responded to my wide-eyed glance.
Four hours passed while the preacher screamed a continual tirade of invectives that echoed through the narrow valley. A vast array of judgment and damnation terms were hurled at the scent-crazed, demon-possessed canine. The tireless dog paid no attention to the Reverend’s insults or commands, but then his name kept changing from Duke to Beelzebub, Lucifer, Demon and other titles only a seminarian could know.
With the October morning spent and the utter futility of our quest obvious, we surrendered to failure. The birds, Doc’s vocal cords and my ears needed some rest, and we decided to abandon the effort. Duke, though, was still running strong. “He certainly has great stamina,” I offered as a compliment.
“He’s a –– .” Doc choked his response and bit his tongue.
We were quite a distance from our trucks, and the shortest return route to them and a cold drink led through a mature, park-like stand of oak, maple and ash bordering the dense woodcock thicket. At the edge of the hardwoods stood an ancient white oak, an old property corner marker. As we passed beneath it, out of nowhere, Duke trotted up beside the preacher. Suddenly that dog locked into the most statuesque, staunchly perfect point that any dog owner could wish for.
“Oh my God!” the preacher exclaimed at the sight. “Stand back. This is my bird. This is what I’ve been waiting for!” Raising his gun to the port-arms position, Reverend John advanced ever so cautiously to the point in a setting so highly unlikely to hold a woodcock that I suspected the wild and crazy dog was locked up on a box turtle.
No so! As the preacher stepped in front of the classically posed shorthair, a thoroughly exhausted woodcock rose wearily and twittered oh-so-slowly straightaway, with not so much as a twig obscuring its progress or our view of it.
The preacher’s 12-gauge autoloader boomed once – boomed twice – boomed again, but the little woodcock fluttered slowly on. Just as the last boom echoed back, the preacher slowly lowered his gun and in disbelief screeched out an oddly high-pitched, “Sonnnnnnn – of – aaaaaaaaa – Biiitttchhh!”
“Bitch – Bitch – Bitch,” echoed through the hollow and ushered in an eerie silence and stillness that enveloped us and etched the scene on our minds in ultraslow motion and disgusting reality.
As though frozen in time and space, the suddenly and surprisingly perfectly staunch-to-wing-and-shot shorthair slowly rotated his head left and upward to glare at his master with an unmistakable air of canine disdain.
Doc broke the profound silent stillness with, “What?” in response to the look of incredulity clearly written on my face. “There are times when only certain words suit,” the preacher explained. “He is a dog, isn’t he? His mother’s a dog, isn’t she? Huh? Well?”
“You’ve got a point there, Doc,” was all that I could say as we headed to the truck with a thoroughly calm Duke, heeling like a gentleman.
The preacher’s prayers had been answered, partially. I couldn’t help reflecting that God must have a sense of humor.