feature By: Gregory Fritz | January, 20
By the afternoon of our first day of pheasant hunting in South Dakota, we’d seen scores of wild pheasants erupt from the shelter belts, but most had been flushed out of range by our frenzied, wild running pointing dogs. Overwhelmed by pheasant scent and running birds, Jack, my year-old wirehaired pointing griffon and Jon’s diminutive French Brittany, Lilly, tore through the cover like demons who’d never had five minutes of training. Once the birds were flying, it was all over; a 20 mph wind assisted their escape to the massive sanctuary slough that dominated the middle of the farm. We were embarrassed and nearly skunked. Adding insult to injury, the group-owned hunting van that Jon and I had driven to South Dakota from Iowa had died in the field that morning.
College roommates long ago, Jon and I had made it an annual tradition to pursue pheasants with friends near his boyhood home in southwest Iowa. But pheasants there were on the decline, and the allure of South Dakota was strong. So when Tim, a fellow physician, suggested I combine some teaching at his medical school in Sioux Falls with some late season pheasant hunting, we jumped at the opportunity. Matt, the fourth hunter in the party, was a friend of Tim’s who’d arranged for us to hunt on his family’s farm, 800 spectacularly beautiful acres, high and wild and managed for pheasants, outside of Winner, South Dakota. It was also through Matt’s connections that our sad-looking van had left the field on a flatbed tow truck heading for the Ford dealership in town.
With very few birds in the bag when we paused for a breather, Jon broached the question that was on all of our minds.
“Why not go into the slough?”
“Usually the water and mud keep us out, but it’s dry enough this year,” Matt replied. That slight bit of encouragement was all it took.
We spread out and plunged into the chest-high cattails. Every movement released a cottony puff of down from the cattail stalks, restricting breathing and vision. Struggling through the reeds deeper into the slough, I saw the white tip of Jack’s tail pointing rigidly toward the sky. As I moved toward the dog frozen on point, a bright cock pheasant cackled in irritation as it struggled to get airborne through the cattails. My first shot folded the bird cleanly. Simultaneously, I made a mental mark of where it fell and called to Jack, “Fetch it up!” When I got to the place I’d marked, the pheasant wasn’t there. Neither was Jack.
While searching for the dead pheasant, I called for Jack, but to no avail. Purely by luck, I found the bird myself, some distance from where I’d marked it down, the sea of cattails offering no beacons to aid in the search for a pheasant — or a dog. I stuffed the bird into my vest and listened, hoping to hear Jack’s bell. But I couldn’t hear anything over the wind and the rattling cattails, and I realized I had no idea where Jack was.
I tried to locate the other hunters. They appeared to be scattered in the vastness of the slough, at times visible, at times obscured by the cattails or the blowing fluff. It was ridiculous to go farther into the slough, so I turned to head back to the field, now barely visible on the low horizon. Pheasants were rising all over, flying a little ways and settling into the cattails again, but now I ignored them.
Eventually all four of us exited the vast slough at different points along the “shore,” covered in cattail fluff and awestruck by the concentration of pheasants. Lilly came dragging out of the slough shortly after we did, looking exhausted but satisfied after her orgy of pheasant finding. No one had seen any sign of Jack. As it was getting on in the afternoon and we still had to get the van and drive 2 ½ hours to Sioux Falls, all four of us began a concerted search for him. Knowing that all bird dogs associate the blast of a shotgun with a bird down, I shot into the air periodically. After almost an hour of fruitless searching, we made a group decision to deal with the van and return to the farm on the way to Sioux Falls.
“You ought leave behind something with your smell on it, Greg. I read somewhere that a lost dog will stay near a familiar scent,” Tim suggested just before we left. Whether because of the wind biting my bare skin or cold fear mounting, I shivered as I took off my lucky New England Patriots T-shirt. Leaving it at the edge of the slough was an act of desperation.
At the Ford dealership, the van was sitting outside the service entrance. The mechanic wasted no time in relating the bad news: a leak in the transmission cooling line had allowed antifreeze from the radiator to leak into the transmission. Fixing it would cost more than the old van was worth and would take several days. That was out of the question given our various obligations. After Jon and I conferred for about 30 seconds, the only possible solution was obvious.
“Do you have any used vans on the lot?” I asked.
“I think we have a couple, but only minivans,” was the reply.
With less than an hour until sunset and Jack still in the slough, the shopping was brief, and my credit card was quickly authorized. It seemed that the whole dealership was taken by our plight. They expedited the paperwork and helped move our mountain of gear to the minivan. Jon and I set some sort of record for vehicle purchase and were soon on the road, following Matt and Tim back to the farm.
I was hoping so hard that Jack would be pacing around my shirt awaiting our return that I actually expected it, but the dog was nowhere to be seen. We repeated the calling-and-shooting drill as we made our way around the huge expanse of cattails as best we could in the lengthening shadows. No sign of Jack. I was silent as the other three discussed the futility of further searching at night and the need to get on the road to Sioux Falls. I couldn’t argue with their logic, but the thought of leaving Jack in the slough, at least for the night and maybe forever, made me feel sick.
A vivid sunset glared through the minivan’s rear window as we turned east onto Route 44. I worried about all the bad things that could happen to a lost dog in that country: traps, cougars, dehydration, speeding vehicles on the highway. Jack was so innocent and trusting, but now he’d been abandoned. I realized I still hadn’t called my wife with the bad news. She was as attached to the big, goofy-looking dog as I was and would be equally heartbroken. Fortunately, as my self-recrimination deepened, Jon was more constructive. As we drove, he called the veterinarian in Winner, the police, the pheasant cleaning business and the radio station to issue a dramatic lost dog appeal.
That evening passed in a blur for me. My call home was as sad as I’d expected. Alone in my hotel room, I went through the motions of preparing for my talk the next day and slept but fitfully, imagining Jack cold and hungry in the cattails.
I spent Friday at the medical school. The most surprising and encouraging news regarding Jack involved several Texans who had flown up to Winner in their private helicopter to hunt pheasants in the Mecca. When they learned about the lost dog, they abandoned their own hunting and were conducting a low-level air search for Jack. Despite no sightings through the day, this level of involvement had to pay off, I reasoned. The local radio station was running a periodic description of Jack and promised to text me as soon as anyone called in. I checked my phone every few minutes, but the afternoon turned into evening with no messages.
Saturday morning, we assembled for the last day of the hosted South Dakota hunting, this time on some public land an hour or so west of Sioux Falls. Tim and Jon tried to be encouraging, but I could tell they didn’t really have much hope left. Unlike the high-rolling country near Winner, this expanse of public land consisted of monotonous, flat cornfields and pastureland. There wasn’t a hint of a breeze or any sign of pheasants. I slogged along miserably, missing my dog.
The sight of Tim running toward me waving his cellphone interrupted my brooding. He was beside himself with excitement as he shouted the news.
“They found Jack! Matt’s father has him in his truck out on the farm.”
We piled into the vehicles and headed straight for Winner and the farm, 100 miles to the west. When we got to the gate an hour and a half later, it was locked, but two pickups sat on a distant rise.
“Jack,” I sobbed, pointing to the kennel where Jack lay with his head on his paws. I tried to regain my breath and my composure, but the tears wouldn’t stop.
A big, genial man approached me, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “We came out to hunt, and as soon as we stopped, he came running. He drank about a gallon of water, jumped onto the bed of the pickup and went into the empty kennel. He won’t get out.”
As I climbed into the truck, Jack’s tail thumped fast and loud against the metal, and he gave me a slobbery kiss when I buried my face in his fur.
Epilogue: The big, genial man turned out to be Phil, Matt’s father and owner of the farm, with whom Jon, Tim and I have regularly hunted in the ensuing years. Jack matured into a reliable and enthusiastic bird dog that, since then, always wears a loud beeper collar.