To Flush A Pheasant

The dogs were “birdy” right off the truck. They don’t get as much time in the field as they should, so when they barnstormed the coulee, rather than try to slow them down, I just did my damnedest to keep up.

There was a skiff of snow in the draw and a mess of tracks running long towards the bottom. Right at the first promising cover, my first-year yellow lab went hells bells and started thrashing a thicket. In case there was a shot right off the bat I closed the action of my over-under.

These were wild birds, and having hunted this country many times before, the two pudelpointers knew better than to make a big show over a little old scent. So they methodically set about tracking the trail upon which the birds likely made their escape.

It was late season, and I thought for certain I was in for a long walk before I’d see anything on the wing, so I blew the whistle one-time sharp and the lab sat down. I needed to catch a breath and I wanted to take a minute just to watch those beautiful pointers go about their work.

They say it takes a person 10,000 hours to master a craft, but I don’t believe that’s true for a bird dog. Sure, they need some good and steady training to hone their natural instincts, but in the same way a dog ages faster than a person, I believe they can develop their talents more quickly as well. At least this was the thought passing through my mind with my lab pup anxiously twitching at my heel.

Suddenly one of the pointers veered on a beeline fifty yards upslope and locked up. His partner came up from behind and froze at his back, tail going like a windmill in a derecho. The dogs had no doubt there was a bird in the cover, and they calmly waited for me to do my part and get in range. I said “hunt’ em up!” and freed my lab to romp while I marched straight to the edge of the junipers.

On the way, like a meditative chant, I thought take a deep breath, shoulder the stock tight, find the bead, let the bird get out, swing the barrel, and follow through. The scenario further developed in my favor when the lab reversed course and charged off to the same thicket that captured his imagination at first. I was happy to have him out of the way so I didn’t have to handle the sudden chaos of a flusher busting a point.

About ten feet away from the pudelpointers, statuesque as they were, I turned off my safety. Peering in, the morning light revealed the tips of a gorgeous pheasant tail peeking from the dark. I tried to steel my nerves and took one more step, thinking this might be when the bird explodes into view. Nothing happened. I took one more, and now I’m in the bush, and I kept thinking, take a breath, shoulder the stock, find the bead…

I forgot about my dog and the next sound was that of a flying yellow lab crashing at my feet. I stumbled and felt the rush of the wing beats as the cackling call of the rooster echoed in my ears. Back on my toes, my eyes were filled with the majesty of a ruby and gold blur blasting away like white lighting across a bluebird sky. I mounted my gun and two hurried shots later, the pheasant crossed over the horizon without a feather askew. The pointers gave me a quick and mildly disappointed look and resumed the hunt.

The yellow lab, of course, was still on a dead sprint for a pheasant long lost. I called him back, and while I waited, I tucked my spent shells in my vest and loaded two more. I felt bad for a minute because I didn’t hold up my end of the deal, but dogs hold no grudges, and I owed it to them to get my head back in the game.

As I ambled to the top of the ridge I was reminded that bird dogs, unlike most people, are not attached to outcomes. Their natural joy stems from doing what they do, good or bad, and as such, it just doesn’t make sense to burn up time kicking yourself when one could simply move on to the next opportunity in life. I love bird dogs for that, and I am grateful for their example as they constantly move forward and continue the chase.

On the edge of the grain field, my lab was barreling back towards me through some sparsely covered ground that wouldn’t hold a cactus much less a game bird. But he stopped on a dime and under his nose, like a phoenix from the ashes, a rooster rose. It cruised towards me as if I did not exist and grew larger and larger with each spilt second. As I watched the pheasant fall from flight, the smell of powder filled the air, and I couldn’t even remember the crack of the gun. It was an instinctive shot, clean, and deadly. In near total synchronicity, my lab picked it up a moment after it hit the ground, and with a proud graceful trot and a soft mouth, retrieved the bird to hand.  

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