other By: Pheasants Forever: Illustrations by Ed Anderson. Short stories by Scott Rall, Julie Schrenkler, Matt Kuharski and Tom Carpenter. | October, 21
BIRD DOGS FILL OUR HEARTS, WHETHER IT’S OVER THE COURSE OF A COMPANION’S DAYS OR WITHIN THE MAGIC OF A MOMENT IN TIME.
Illustrations by Ed Anderson
BY SCOTT RALL
Everybody remembers their first hunting dog. I was 35 years old when I got mine. I was the first puppy customer for a new kennel near my town. My dog’s name was Scout, and she was a female yellow Lab. When Scout was about a year-and-a-half old, I was dog-sitting her mother Windy for the weekend. It was fall. I took the dogs out on a pheasant walk at the golden hour to a three-acre grass patch.
I was a complete rookie pheasant hunter, an amateur dog handler and a terrible shot. As I took a step into the grass, both dogs instantly went on point. Labradors 30 years ago were not natural pointers, and neither of them had ever pointed before. They were facing opposite directions with rumps but two feet apart. I stood there shocked, not really knowing what to do. I composed myself, looked around for any shooting safety issues, and told the girls to “get um!”
Both dogs took one big lunge, and each flushed a bird in opposite directions. I knew how this was going to end … just like 90 percent of all my outings: with an empty gun, an empty game bag and a disappointed hunter. When the birds busted loose six feet from my gun barrel, it registered much to my surprise that both were roosters. I was the king of hen flushes. I executed one shot, saw the bird heading to earth, spun 180 degrees, and let off another round with the surprisingly same result.
Each dog marked their downed bird, made the retrieve and returned to heel with one dog on the left and the other on the right. Mother and daughter, both with roosters, and the hunt was over in 30 seconds. A double double. In the intense crop lands of southwestern Minnesota, seeing a rooster at the time was a pretty rare sight. Three-acre grass patches were also very few and far between. The odds of seeing two roosters, mom and daughter on point, two flushes, two shots, two solid kills and two birds brought to hand certainly was a one-in-a-million opportunity.
I stood there stationary for what seemed like an hour. Smelling the gunpowder from my shotgun. Admiring all the colors on the roosters. Thanking God for the wonderful creatures called pheasants and for bird dogs and for the ability to enjoy that which would ultimately turn into my lifelong passion. Both of those dogs have long since gone to doggie heaven. I currently own 4 A-team black Labs that hunt with me most days of the season. I have harvested many birds since and enjoyed many great hunts. But on that day, as a rookie hunter, breaking the ice with Scout and Windy will forever be a once-in-a-lifetime memory for me.
Scott Rall soon joined Nobles County Pheasants Forever, and to date has led the chapter in acquiring 3,204 acres and turning them into forever-public upland habitat for wildlife and pheasant hunting.
BY JULIA SCHRENKLER
Follow the dog, they said. Well, I did. And I followed my German Shorthair Pointer puppy Wren right into hunting. As an adult-onset hunter building her outdoors community, what I didn’t realize is that one reward of having a sweet bird dog is that she might not only be “mine.” Wren has worked fields and forests, introducing new hunters to the joy of watching her at her happiest. I love to hear my friends share stories of hunting behind her, of her energy and her points. I love my front-row spot when someone connects with a first bird over my dog.
Let me tell you about “Grousemas.” Grousemas is the official name of the sacred and bona fide yet unofficial holiday that is Grouse Opener. Grousemas seems to surpass itself each year. Last fall for our group it was a juggle of masks and socially distanced photos, but most enjoyably it was the year my hunting buddy Mercedes got her first wild bird, a woodcock. While I had the pleasure of Wren pointing and retrieving Mercedes’ first ever rooster at a game farm for warm-ups, she was determined that this was the year for a wild bird.
On opening day afternoon we found a promising trail. It looked more like ruffed grouse habitat, but as we spread out and worked a swath, Wren went on point in older growth. The dog made eye contact with me as I approached for the flush. Wren was locked, but I swear she tipped her head twice to nudge my eyes to the bird. There it was, a nice woodcock, resting perfectly camouflaged in ground cover. It wasn’t gambling on a flush, and Wren wouldn’t break point. I took the opportunity to call out to our friend Emy on my left, and Mercedes on my right. Everyone was ready. I took two steps forward.
ZIIIIIIIIIIIP! The woodcock spun as it flushed, buzzing up and out to my right. Despite knowing what was coming, I shouldered and shot late as the bird arced toward Mercedes, who was holding the trail and in the perfect spot. I whispered a quick hunter’s plea. “Hit the open hit the open, it’s yours it’s yours.” And heard her shoot followed by a happy shout that I can still feel.
Wren bolted for the retrieve. Mercedes, who doesn’t have a dog, had carefully marked the fall. We surrounded her as she held the bird, all smiles and telling the story even as we were living it.
There’s satisfaction in seeing someone achieve a goal, grace in watching an upland bird hunter with their first wild bird, and wonder in experiencing through their eyes and emotions that magical mix of curiosity, pleasure and reverence. What an honor it was to share it and to witness it, knowing my dog Wren was an integral part of the moment.
I love hunting, I love my dog, and I love that I can pass the thrill of a first bird to another hunter. By sharing the hunt, we all can make it possible for others to have their own once-in-a-lifetime moment. Next up for Wren and Mercedes? We’re going for a big and wild old rooster pheasant.
Julia Schrenkler came to bird dogs and hunting as an adult, but thrills to the magic of both with the heart of a kid.
BY MATT KUCHARSKI
My dad used to say, “If I can’t be good, let me be lucky.” Lucy, my once-in-a-lifetime black Lab and first-ever legitimate hunting dog, was both. Her predecessor was a yellow Lab rescue. We loved her despite her flaws, and that experience affirmed what I wanted next: small black Lab, female, lightly started, past the “puppy stupids,” friendly, sound bloodlines. It was April, I wanted her by July, and the budget was limited. Good luck, right?
After three futile months, I find a hobby breeder with a little 11-month female partly trained but on live birds. In his yard I toss a dummy. She runs to it, looks at me, picks it up, retrieves it to hand, leans in for a scratch behind the ears. Dummies and scratches behind the ear were Lucy’s jam. Lucky day number one.
With no clue, I place some game farm pheasants in a field. I grab my gun and let Lucy loose. She runs past spot one. Then spot two. Then spot three. Not a bird, not a scent. We sit down at the edge of the field, me dejected and her wondering why we’re here. A rooster struts out of the grass 10 feet in front of us. I rise. The bird rises. I shoot. It falls. Lucy runs to it, looks at me, picks it up, retrieves it to hand. From then on, pheasants were Lucy’s jam. Lucky day number two.
Fall now. We hit the grouse woods for her very first wild bird hunt. She wanders around in front of me. I’m not sure what I should be doing to encourage her. A grouse flushes and lands in the pine tree above us. Did I shoot it out of the tree? Darn right I did. And it fell to the ground right in front of Lucy. She runs to it, looks at me, picks it up, retrieves it to hand. From then on, grouse were Lucy’s jam. Lucky day number three.
Off to the duck blind. Lucy, thinking we’re looking for upland birds, wanders around like a toddler. I get her to sit tight a minute right as a flock of woodies whistles over our heads. My buddy folds one that drops in the water 15 feet in front of Lucy. She swims to the duck, looks at me, picks it up, retrieves it to hand. From that point on, ducks were Lucy’s jam. Lucky day number four.
Fast forward a few years. I’ve got myself a legit hunting dog and am going to Kansas for my first-ever combo pheasant and quail hunt. Two hours and we haven’t put up a bird. I see a couple hunters on the horizon. Their dog goes on point, a covey rises and they lightly tag a bobwhite that sails our way and lands in a plum bush — right in front of Lucy — where it bounces around like a little feathered tennis ball. She runs to it, looks at me, snatches that quail on a high bounce, and retrieves it to hand. From that point on, quail were Lucy’s jam. Lucky day number five.
Lucy went over the rainbow bridge last spring. I’m ushering in two new dogs that I hope will be half as good — or half as lucky — as Lucy. But I think it was me who was the lucky one.
When he’s not busy with his bird dogs, going on outdoor adventures or leading the public relations and communications firm Padilla, Matt Kucharski serves as chairman of the board of directors for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever.
THE PORTHOLE BIRD
BY TOM CARPENTER
Those who know me as a pheasant hunter know that I like to honor certain birds with their own name. It’s a way of commemorating the day, cementing the memory, and celebrating the dogwork of a special bird brought to bag. Some names tell the story, or at least begin to, by themselves: The Hypothermia Bird, or The Lightning Bird, for example. Other names, not so much. Let me tell you about The Porthole Bird.
Western Minnesota has received a not-so-rare mid-October blizzard that really piled up the snow, squashed the grass and filled the cattails. Lark and I brave conditions that make the hunt seem more like a Christmastime pride-buster than the October pleasure-stroll that pheasant hunters, of both canine and human persuasions, dream of.
The going is tough. Snowdrifts need busting through. A crunchy crust warns birds of our approach. The toppled cattails, capped with marshmallow-mounds of snow, are practically impenetrable. By late afternoon we’ve about had it: relegated to walking cattail edges and hoping for something lucky to happen. I have to stop once to think, no kidding: Is it December?
And then, paydirt. Perhaps not a mountain of it, but a molehill of hope: A set of pheasant tracks exits the cattails and meanders into mostly matted prairie grass, heading toward corn stubble beyond. Lark soon locks up. Considering the paucity of cover, I am a bit skeptical but learned long ago to trust the dog. And yet, shotgun at-the-ready, I am nevertheless taken by some surprise when a magnificent rooster flushes from practically underfoot as I kick sorry tufts of grass.
I saw that bird’s angry eye at point blank range, and it glared: Catch me if you can. No bones about it: It takes me three shots to catch up to the rooster. Even then the bird angles down sidelong into the worst place imaginable: the cattail hellhole. I start bulling my way out. The dog can’t make it, and barks from the slough’s edge, so I return to carry her out. When we finally reach The Spot, I put the little dog down. She gingerly walks along, atop the cattail roof, and goes on point.
“Get it,” I cry. But she can’t get in. So I dig a hole through the snow, spread the cattails, and slide my 29-pound bird dog headfirst through the resulting porthole and into the netherworld below. How best to describe what happens next? Excited snuffling. A merry ruckus. A spirited chase I follow by the shimmying of cattails. A small kerfuffle. Some doggy yips. The squeal of a bird caught.
After struggling my way over, I start digging down, this time creating more of a full window than a small porthole as I lean in, reach down, feel around and extract a small bird dog latched onto a very alive rooster that is soon dispatched and getting a ride in my gamebag as I carry the dog across the quagmire waves of cattails back to shore.
While I can’t say The Porthole Bird was a once-in-a-lifetime affair, for who knows when the dog and I may need to do it again, it was certainly a first. And it earned that bird a name.
Tom Carpenter, assisted by Lark, is editor at Pheasants Forever.