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Ken M. Blomberg

“Just Being There”

    There’s a place I love to visit thirty minutes south of our place in the woods called the Buena Vista Marsh.   This prairie chicken grassland is a remnant piece of history that famed conservationist Aldo Leopold described as part of, “peat-filled basins which represent the deeper parts of an ancient glacial lake...originally formed when an arm of the glacier plugged the Wisconsin River…gradually drained, choked with vegetation…became a series of sphagnum bogs…filled up with peat…ditches ten feet deep were cut through the peat, lowering the water table many feet.”

    I visit the marsh throughout the year, but my favorite season to be there is fall.  This state-owned property is a major staging area for migrating sandhill cranes and home to prairie chickens, waterfowl, raptors, songbirds, furbearers, coyotes, whitetail deer, ruffed grouse and woodcock.  Twenty years ago I spent a great deal of time there, but intense habitat management for prairie chickens over the years has reduced hunting opportunities and the number of acres of wooded upland habitat.  Even so, I’m drawn to this prairie year-round and take advantage of the solitude and strength it offers.  Sometimes, I like just being there.

   There are places on the marsh that one can escape the sights and sounds of society’s trappings.  Lying in the soft grass, you can look over your back and side-to-side and see clouds throw shadows over three counties at the same time.  Or, when closing your eyes, you’re able to listen to a silence only open, barren spaces can provide.  It’s a great place to ponder and get away from the daily hustle and bustle we find ourselves caught up in these days.

    This past fall, the boys and I packed the truck and headed west to a much larger prairie, called North Dakota.  It was a whirlwind five-day hunting trip between classes and exams at the University for my sons - three days of vacation from work for me.  With a couple of quick rest stops, we made the North Dakota border in about eight hours.  We hit the sack shortly after checking into the 22-room motel, knowing full well how quickly daybreak would arrive.  Dawn in the duck blind is not for insomniacs.

    The Dakota prairie pothole countryside is made to order for hunters and their dogs.  Duck hunting is meant for the morning and evening hours, with plenty of time to scour the uplands for ring-necked pheasants during mid-day.  Like the Buena Vista Marsh back home, these vast prairies are good for the soul and for three men used to living in the woods, offer freedom that’s invigorating.  Over the years it’s become an annual fall event for us and we like being there.

    We found waterfowl everywhere we looked.  Flock after flock passed overhead and on occasion, several visited our strategically placed decoy spread.   Crock-pot duck stew was on the menu each night and leftovers were served with hot coffee on the prairie for lunch. During mid-day, we found enough pheasants to challenge our bird dogs and shooting skills.

    I’m happy to report that this father and his two sons had a great time visiting one of our neighboring states to the west.  Our relationships were strengthened by a common love for the outdoors and the need to visit the vast prairies each year.  The trip wasn’t just about hunting, but enjoying each other’s company and creating memories for years to come.   And it confirmed the importance of just being there.                                        

    Number one son put it best when he said, “I was reminded that my dad and little brother are, and will always be my best hunting partners.  There is no person I’d rather spend a morning with in a cattail marsh than my brother.  I was reminded that there is nothing more breathtaking than a prairie sunset and few things more rewarding than dragging yourself out of bed and earning a prairie sunrise.  And finally, I was reminded that even three days, spent on the prairie, with two people you’d rather spend time with more than anyone else, can be downright magical.”

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Eldorado: A Grouse Hunter’s Tale (With Acknowledgement & Apologies to Mr. E.A. Poe)

Gaily bedight,

A gallant knight,

In sunshine and in shadow,

Had journeyed long,

Singing a song,

In search of Eldorado.

When is not a Grouse Hunter’s heart light and cheery, but when the sun peaks down into some forgotten drainage, where yellowed aspen leaves drift to the ground chorused by the trickling of a nearby seep? Here, the various grasses and berries, combine with the bordering boughs of low slung conifers, to create a literal haven for the king of game birds. And here it is, the sun, like the flickering countdown of old reel type films, has shown upon a man, that has, for decades, traipsed and tarried, accompanied by a four footed companion with a keen nose, and a trusty, yet battle scarred double barreled shotgun. The covert a coveted secret, shared to no one save perhaps his sporting off-spring, has become a treasure. Here, moss covered rocks, shale and boulders, along with centuries old tree trunks, have converged on the slightest hint of damp earth, with a trickle of cold, crystal clear water. Reached by a hike, never long enough to bade away a fear of being found by others, yet never short enough for a quick jaunt, it has always required him to visit. Never marked to a map of parchment, merely found with a familiarity of a secret place, he has ventured there every fall. And it is this oasis and promise land, that has fueled his rambling desires through mountain and dale, to find such a remotely hidden land of milk and honey. And yet, his whole life, where there have been places that came close, all have fallen short. And so he seeks this unobtainable treasure, a man possessed, and accompanied by his two companions, the four footed and double barreled, an explorer of the country side, the seeker of wonder and amazement, the Grouse Hunter.

But he grew old,

This knight so bold,

And o’er his heart a shadow,

Fell as he found

No spot of ground,

That looked like Eldorado.

But time waits for no man, and none have ever escaped it. Our Grouse Hunter has buried many a four footed companions in his life, and o’er each one he has cried. Laid to rest in areas of deep memories and heavy wishes of God speed. There is always another to fill the void, though it fails to take the place, and each one accompanies him like proper squires, armed with his double barreled lance and with a driven obsession, they seek out the coveted covert. His legs grow weaker and the mountains grow taller, but he always reaches the top. Only to descend to the furthest side in hopes of lands dreamed and promised. With the sky as his roof and the pine needle straw his carpet, these mountains are as home as he’s ever known. While he may spend the night in a dwelling, even in his dreams he finds himself seeking. And then, one night, the inevitable happens and he finds himself, neither dreaming nor sleeping, where he knows that he too shall be laid to rest with deep memories and wishes of God speed.

And as his strength

Failed him at length,

He met a pilgrim shadow:

“Shadow” says he,

“Where can it be,

This land of Eldorado?”

And then he felt the restraint of deep sleep falling upon him, his arms leaden and his legs cemented. Through the haze of a distant light, he met a like minded sports fellow. Walking with a jaunty and haughty step, he appeared springing with youthfulness in an age old face and wearing a grin from ear to ear. His old woolen hat had not been made in years and the soles of his boots were worn thin as paper. The shooting coat he wore was bulging and unfaded from the sun and untattered from the rips and tears of brambles, nor was it discolored by countless rains and was yet still pressed and proper as one should be. His fowling piece, too, was double barreled but mule eared, but without scar, and our grouse hunter wondered how he ever could make it ready for the flush. And next to his leg was a black and white thing that appeared regal and tail wagging. “Friend”, said he, “Can you please help me? For my years have come upon me much too quickly. I have searched my life through for the coverts of dreams. My game bag has come home laden many a time, and I have shared more meals with my faithful companions than I can remember. Time and again we’ve sipped from the same canteen, and sat looking upon mountain sides of grandeur. They have laid at my feet, tired and panting while I’ve stroked their noble head. And while I’ve never regretted one single outing, it seems we’ve long busted the bramble and fought the dog hair timber. My trusty firearm has been bent upon the alter of boughs and thorny vines of sacrifice, to prevent my discomfort. And my short pals have returned raw footed and bloody with nary a complaint. All the while searching for the covert of prosperity, joy and perfection which you have clearly found.”

“Over the Mountains

Of the Moon,

Down the Valley of the Shadow,

Ride, boldly ride,”

The shade replied,

“If you seek for Eldorado.”

The fellow stopped his journey while his companion dutifully sat. Gazing at our Grouse Hunter his eyes lit with mercy and he smiled. “My dearest friend, such the place you dream exists, for I have seen it. At one time I too sought and it was only too late that I learned the truth. The closest place I ever found was the same spot upon which I stood and watched the downy feathers of a successful shot drift to the ground like falling snow. For in this life that is as close as you shall come. It is upon those days that you and your companion need no words and you find success as a team, the way it was intended, each needing the other to fulfill your goals.

But soon you shall find exactly what you seek. The mountains shall be teaming with coverts, just as you desire. And when you find one you will not stop, but continue seeking the next. This indeed is the treasure you seek. For it is not those coverts with which you found that are filled with promise, but the next one which you may find. And so it will be, you shall wear your shoes as thin as I have mine, and stroll through the mountains to never tire. Your fine double will weigh as if it were nothing and you shall hunt with your four footed critters whom you have not seen in years. And together there will be no mountain walked twice, no covert hunted more than once. Each day will converge with the next in bliss and you shall wear a smile. For this is the land of plenty to which you have obtained. It is there and only then that you shall find your coverts of prosperity, joy and perfection.”

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A story from my better half


          Almost every night my husband, Judd, and our eleven-year-old son, Jordan, strap little headlights to their foreheads and arm themselves with long pigeon nets. These were formerly fishing nets Judd adapted with a paint roller extension handle. They leave the house around 8:45 p.m. to quietly stalk around the local farmer’s sheds and spud cellars in search of roosting pigeons. We live in Jefferson County, Idaho, so there are many farms for them to choose from.

          Many times they come back with an empty cage, but on occasion they’ll catch anywhere from one to four birds. When successful, they put them in our old chicken coop, complete with pigeon grain, grit, and water. I’d planned on ordering more chicks this spring, but my plans were obviously changed.

          This all began nine months ago, after an unsuccessful weekend bird hunt. Tired and frustrated, Judd said, “I need a bird dog! You can’t hunt birds without one.”

          I naively thought he was merely venting, especially since we already had a Boxer and a Dachshund. We needed another dog like we needed higher gas prices.

          Well, within a few weeks Judd was the proud owner of an eight-week-old puppy he’d purchased in Blackfoot; a German short hair pointer named Buster, to be specific. Because it was winter and he was just a puppy, he had to be indoors—just like our nearly hairless, one-eyed Boxer and the tiny Dachshund. I told Judd we now needed to build a house for us. He thought I was being funny.

          Training him became the pinnacle of Judd and Jordan’s interest. They purchased how-to books and videos, whistles, leashes of different lengths, and took Buster for numerous runs on the dirt road next to the Dry Bed water way. After one of these runs Judd came home and said, “I can’t train him if I don’t have birds. I need to get some birds.” Hence, the beginning of the pigeon hunts.

          I recently complained about this nightly ritual of theirs, because I firmly believe young boys should be in bed long before 10:00 p.m. After voicing my opinion they smiled at each other knowingly, and then Judd invited me to join them. I rolled my eyes, but conceded.

          That night we quietly pulled into a farmer’s yard near his cattle feed lots. I asked, “Do you have permission to be here?”

          “Yeah, he’s glad we’re here,” Judd responded. “The pigeons are a nuisance because their droppings make a huge mess.”

          After parking the pickup, we stepped out into the cool night air. Judd and Jordan each turned their headlight on, adjusted the length or their net, and spoke in whispers. Judd turned to me and said, “Now be as quiet as you can.”

          Jordan nodded in agreement. Apparently, this was serious business. And so, we headed out with Judd walking soundlessly, Jordan tiptoeing, and I just trying to stay upright while walking on the dark, uneven ground, riddled with many deep tire ruts. I did not have a headlight.

We neared a large, silver shed full of tractors, old tires, broken snowmobiles, and various other things I couldn’t quite make out. In my efforts to see what was inside the building, I forgot to pay attention to the rutted ground. I tripped, shrieked, “Oh crap!” then steadied myself before falling in what, I’m sure, I’d just exclaimed. My son spun around to face me and said in a hoarse whisper, “Mom!”

          Judd smiled, held up his hand and said, “Its okay son, she couldn’t help it. You know how your mom is.”

          Jordan chuckled and went back to stalking. I scanned the ground for a stone to chuck at my comical husband, but to no avail. I’m sure there were many stones—I just couldn’t see them, and I wasn’t about to run my hand along the tainted ground to find one. If I had, I wouldn’t have aimed for his head or any place such as that; his back pant’s pocket would’ve suited me just fine.

          Standing still, I decided, was the safest choice. Looking around, I noticed several black and white cows watching us from their corral, with more ambling our way. At the back of the long corral two fairly large ones were kicking up their heels and I assumed they were having a good time. Three bay horses in a nearby stall stood blinking their eyes and swishing their tails. They too seemed curious about our antics.  The air was breezy and the animal smells subdued. I could hear a screech owl calling from some nearby place, cows munching on grain, and the subtle sound of the nearby Pine trees swaying in the wind. I closed my eyes to more fully enjoy the peace of the night when my son yelled, “Dad, get ‘em, get ‘em—they’re coming your way!”

          It gave me a jolt. Jordan jumped around wildly with his pigeon net high in the air, Judd ran toward him making bold swipes with his net, and the birds—flew over my head. Jordan lowered his net to the ground, seemingly dejected, then without a word ran toward the next cellar.

Judd called after him saying, “Come on son, let’s go. We’ll try again tomorrow.”

“That’s it?” I asked. “That’s our whole pigeon hunt?”

“Yep, we usually only get one chance at them a night. We could go to my friend’s cellar down the road, but you said you wanted to get Jordan to bed. We’ll try again tomorrow. Besides, we already have nine at home.”

“Nine? How many more do you need?” I asked.

“Oh, I dunno, a few more I guess.”

“What are you going to do with them?”

“Put them in a bird launcher. It teaches Buster to point.”

“Whatever,” I said with a sigh. “Did you say—bird launcher?”

“Yes. You put a pigeon in the launcher, Buster finds and points it, I push the remote control release button, and the bird is launched into the air to fly away.”

“I see.”

Jordan came running toward us, his enthusiasm in full throttle. “Can we go hunt some more?” he asked.

“Tomorrow, you have school in the morning,” Judd said.

“All right, but did you see how close I came to getting that big one? Mom, wasn’t that just the coolest? You would’ve had more fun if we’d caught some, right Dad?”

“You did come pretty close. Next time…”

They continued to talk and plan as we walked back to the pickup. I watched and listened to them, thoroughly entertained and enlightened. Their pigeon hunts weren’t for dog training—not entirely. They were plain and simply father-son time, which I think is great. I can’t imagine what new adventure my husband and son will come up with next, but that’s okay. As the old saying goes, “life is not a destination, it’s a journey.”

I haven’t gone on any more pigeon hunts, but I enjoy watching the captive birds. They make the nicest cooing sound and don variations of black, white, brown, gray, and iridescent feathers. Two of the released birds have returned on their own accord.

Apparently, they don’t mind being launched, in exchange for free and easy food.

                                                                                          -J.J. Melgaard-

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A Story from the South Platte

I have infatuated with the outdoors for as long as I can remember. I would ride my bike against my mother's wishes to a suburban spillway to fish years before I could drive myself to a better spot. I cherished my summer vacations in Minnesota with my uncles, being in the woods with big, pheasant chasing labs, ATVs, 20 gauge shotguns and .22 pistols, catching walleye at Lake of the Woods and northern pike in a close gravel pit.

During my freshman year of college, I completed my hunter's education, which proved disastrous for my formal education. I was hunting pheasant obsessively that first year, pheasant and blue grouse the next, and I started getting my feet wet hunting ducks the year after. My introduction to puddle ducks came in the form of simply hunting a SWA with non-toxic shot. I thought I might be able to jump shoot mallards off a slough, but apparantly one can't stumble through cattails and branches and expect ducks to be sitting... on the water.

I was told by a friend a few years prior that in order to really hunt ducks, you needed miles of private river and a big pit sunk into the riverbank. You need hundreds of expensive decoys, a big truck, a highly trained, well conformed lab or Chesapeake, camo head to toe, and a modern 10 gauge auto-loader shooting bismuth, because, frankly, steel shot doesn't work.

Now I still drive a little Toyota truck, with a little trailer filled with decoys and waders. My partner Bob and I hunt over a select mix of around 60 dabbling duck decoys, my freakshow lab has proved herself on many tough retrieves, and my steel shot hasn't let me down.

I have become addicted to duck hunting. It consumes me constantly. While I'm at work, I gaze out to watch a flock of geese land in a retention pond. I reached a new low before last season opened. I brought half a dozen decoys, hip waders, a single-reed call and my dog to a ducky little pond in a new housing development. I threw the dekes out by a nest box, and hunkered down in the cattails. I proceeded to get a dozen ducks down, and a lot more worked the little spread before heading to shelter as a tremendous rain storm moved in. I got back to my truck, pulled off my hip waders, and loaded the decoys and dog, and just as I was leaving the neighborhood, a sheriff's car drove and stopped by the pond. I don't think I was breaking any law, but I certainly looked strange and possibly suspicious. I snuck away, but I don't doubt that officer was looking for me.

I found a great spot to hunt, one that was consistant all season. I hunted alone, with the dog, quite a bit, but my buddy Bob did make it on a lot of hunts. His shooting was exceptional, as usual, in the early season, making doubles on buzzing teal, and beautiful long shots on mallards. My shooting was horrible during the first split, and I resorted to allowing ducks to finish in the spread and shooting them as they flushed off the water. I still could barely hit the teal. As the season progressed, Bob fell into a slump, but I started dropping ducks cleanly with one-shot hits. It's a good thing, because there was no way late season mallards would touch down near the decoys. The birds got increasingly shy, and instead of allowing them a couple laps over the blocks, we were shooting as soon as they reached fringe-yardage. Tougher shots, for sure, but we figured out after one pass, they were long gone.

We finally had it all together last year, hunting public land on the river. We got Bob's little brothers involved, and they had a blast. The dogwork was sketchy on the easy retrieves, but surprisingly good on the tough ones. Which is frustrating...

So now I find my thoughts still on the river, when the flows were low and the blocks weren't covered in ice. I'm thinking about those easy ducks we'll get into next October, and maybe I'll get my first band, or woodie, or pintail. I day dream about back-pedaling greenwing teal, and the odd goose coming down just low enough. I spend free time cleaning the shotguns, and sorting shells. I try to think of what gear I want for next season, and what gear I'll actually get. I think a pair of breathable hunting waders are at the top of the list.

I weigh the pros and cons of adding a new pup, but there are already four dogs in the house. I think about getting a new gun, but I know the one I have is perfectly fine and I learned I can hit with it, too.

I guess I'm super restless right now. Nothing but crowded tailwaters are open for fishing, there are no bird seasons. The snow is too deep and crusty to run the dog. I've thought about throwing away all the magazines and catalogs that remind me of hunting, but I know I can get the same fix online. All that can help me is another season with another migration.

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  • 2 months later...

Up the Creek


Ken M. Blomberg

    Number two son and I became hunters of turkeys last week.  We traveled downstream an hour and a half to where long ago, glaciers stopped and today, hills and valleys stand tall and wide.  It was there, at a friend’s horse farm, that we set up our base camp.  We’d enter the woods each morning before daybreak, pause for late morning breakfast and hunt until sunset.  We dressed in camouflage, walked for miles and conversed with turkeys for hours.  And at night, we slept the deep sleep only hunters understand.

    At the end of the first day, our host had lured a mature twenty-pound tom turkey to his hen decoy on the hilltop behind his house.  Jimmy hunts only two things - deer and turkey – and he does both extremely well.  In his spare time, he builds Mathews compound bows for hunters in Sparta.  He took us under his wing about fifteen years ago and shaped us into fairly respectable turkey hunters.

    To enter the woods and hunt these big birds is to journey into a world like no other.  Enthusiastic male turkeys shake the quiet spring mornings with their heart-stopping, treetop calls.  When they explode with a deep-throated gobbles, others of their kind follow suit.  Before long, the valley is on fire, as the infectious gobbling causes birds up and down the ridge line to join in the chorus.  At that moment, hunters know it’s time to imitate a lovelorn hen with a yelp or two.  We call out and they gobble back.  They gobble and we call back.  Leaning over their perch, high atop the tree line, they stretch their necks as far as they can reach and call out once more.  After this back and forth exchange, which can last for up to a half an hour or more, they make a move and fly down off their perch – hopefully in the direction of our call and the hen decoy we’ve strategically placed away from our blind.

    The wild turkey has been admired by many over the years, and at times, exalted by the famous.  Like Benjamin Franklin, who said, “I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country. He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly...the turkey is in comparison a much more respectable bird, and withal a true original native of America...He is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a bird of courage.”

    It’s true they’re noble birds, dressed in cloaks of bravery and audacious when it comes down to courting the opposite sex, but at times, they turn into downright fools – as evident when they become hell-bent on sharing the dinner table with a bowl of cranberries and stuffing.

    That was the case on the second day, when number two son and I shared the pre-dawn darkness and a ridge top with at least six gobblers.  One pair headed towards Karl, another duo came my direction, where I hid on a rocky point.  At a quarter past six, the dominant “king” tom of the ridge, overcome by lust and fooled by a slate call and foam

rubber hen decoy, met his match in my son.  A shot, heard round the valley, sent the king tumbling down a steep hillside and into the record book.  

    At the shot, the turkeys near my hideout, like me, remained frozen in place.  As I slowly reached for my call, the younger jake noticed movement and in the blink of an eye, they disappeared over a rise in the field and into the woods beyond.  So goes turkey hunting.  Just as well, as it was time for handshakes and pictures.  Working my way slowly along the ridge, I paused from time to time to soak in the grandeur of this turkey kingdom.  An unusual stillness hung over the valley.  Normally windswept, the hillside was now an amphitheater for other creatures, like several varieties of woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, robins and cardinals.   Down in the valley, a rooster ring-necked pheasant crowed out, announcing his possessions to the world.  

    Later, on the scale at the check station, Karl’s bird weighed in at 28 pounds, the heaviest registered to-date at our hunting camp.  The youngest of our crew suddenly became the center of attention, a well-deserved distinction.  On that day, at the Lone Star Café, where turkeys are registered and hunters gather, the eggs, sausage, potatoes and toast tasted better, the coffee aroma emerged richer and the talk around the table turned out to be more electrifying.  So goes turkey hunting.


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Rhode Island

“A Dream Hunt – There’s No Place like Home”


Ken M. Blomberg


Erik J. Blomberg

Photos by Erik J. Blomberg

The following is a story of a father and his sons on a recent Wisconsin turkey hunt written by the older son and his father.  The son’s account is in italics.

Hunting can be a complicated, solemn affair.  Or, it can be a simple, beautiful and relaxing experience – where everything seems to fall exactly into place.  Hunting in the fall involves a lot of planning, preparation and commitment.  But a spring hunt for turkey can be a thing of splendor – with flowers on the landscape and music in the air.  That was the case when round two of this year’s turkey hunt took place for us last week during the sixth, and final season.  


The recipe for our gourmet turkey hunt included the following ingredients; favorable weather, co-operative birds and more than generous neighboring landowners who granted access to their land.  In the end, magically, it all came together in time and space.  If our hunt could be compared to a song, it played out like a symphony.  

The adventure began when number one son cashed in a free, overbooked airplane ticket - flew into central Wisconsin from school out east and joined his younger brother and the “old man” to hunt turkeys.  

I haven’t gotten home too often since I moved away, maybe three times a year, and when I do manage to get back for a short visit, it always seems to be packed with snapshots of things familiar to me.  Watching tip-ups and slip bobbers on a frozen lake for a morning, casting dry flies to trout rising in a spring creek for an evening, a day trip to the Northwoods to chase the wily ruffed, beers and pool with friends for a night; all things that were once regular, important aspects of my life that now by necessity are relegated to once or twice a year.  Snapshots.

Well, about a month ago I planned a trip home that was going to be different.  A few years ago the WI DNR started selling surplus spring turkey tags over the counter, and it turned out that there were a whole pile of them left for our zone for the very last 5-day season.  Wisconsin called me up one day in mid-April, told me he and my brother had both bought tags, and was wondering if I wanted to come back too.  Now, of course I wanted to come back turkey hunted, but it took me a few days to figure out if my schedule would allow it, which it did, and so I booked my flight and bought my license and tags.  I almost immediately got excited about this trip, because this one had the potential to be different.  Wisconsin has 6 spring turkey seasons, they are all 5 days long, and your tag is only good for one of them.  This trip wasn’t going to be a snapshot of a turkey season, I got to hunt the whole darn thing, and I had already mentally prepared myself to do so, and forgo any and all other activities until all 3 of our tags were filled.

I left the Ocean State at 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday the 15th, and after a short layover in Detroit, landed in the Dairy State before 10.  I had planned this intentionally to give myself some time to scout during the day Tuesday, before the season opened on Wednesday.  Wisconsin had already lined up one spot for us on a friendly neighbors place, and he had revealed that he had a “whole herd” that went through his field each day.  I drove up to the aforementioned property around 2 in the afternoon, To say I was optimistic was an understatement, and as it turned out, my assessment was spot on.

The first day began well before dawn, as number one and I snuck into the woods behind the house.  Nestled in a ground blind, we listened as the creatures of the forest awoke, one at a time.  An hour elapsed without indication from our quarry - despite my son’s expert hen turkey calling, the screech of an owl and several raucous crows – all of which normally evoke responses from any nearby gobblers.  It was time to move. After an unproductive setup at daylight, we set up a blind near where I saw the birds the day before:


Within a half hour of relocating our operation to a neighboring “40”, several hens and a lone tom turkey were lured towards our blind with well-placed decoys and premeditated calling. When I saw him coming across the field, I set the camera down in favor of the gun . . . but when he spotted our jake decoy and started strutting, I just couldn’t help myself.


An accomplished wildlife photographer, number one was so busy snapping pictures of the displaying tom, he nearly forgot to pick up his gun. Wisconsin (dad) said I almost forgot to set the camera down and pick up the gun . . . but that’s not quite the way I remember it.  


But in the end, he traded “weapons” and our first bird was on its way to the freezer.  My first WI turkey in two years, and my first limb-hanger ever.


Dad and I did a little celebrating, driving around, and showing the bird off to some neighbors, and after we had it registered we remembered he still had a tag.  We headed back to the same blind that afternoon, called sporadically, and weathered a short, gusty storm.  After the storm passed, Dad settled in for an afternoon nap, during which time he neglected to monitor his window in the blind.  After a few minutes, and a few snores, his eyes slowly opened and he hissed "There’s a tom right there".  A quick beard check and a shot latter, and we stood over our second bird in 6 hours.  There’s no way it can get any better than this


After returning from town and the registration station, it was the “old man’s” turn.  With a hen feeding in a clover patch near the blind and a tom displaying across an adjacent plowed field, we were forced to sneak into the blind from a wooded area.  Before we had a chance to call in the tom, a rather strong storm cell descended and dropped some significant rain, while nearly blowing over the blind.  By the time the precipitation subsided, the 4:30 am wake-up call had caught up and unconsciously, I nodded off for a few minutes.  My eyes opened and there he was – twenty yards away – appearing quietly as a ghost.  He came in silently, looking for the hen my son had cleverly fabricated with slate and striker.  He left slung over my right shoulder.


The second day of our hunt brought number two son into the picture, as he completed his college finals and was ready to hunt.  The boys decided to try a place on River Road, where neighbor Paul had pointed the way.   Up before dawn once again, they set up under several roosting gobblers, placing decoys in the field and waiting for them to fly down.  Number one remarked that with very little encouragement, a single tom raced across the field, like “he was on a rope and we were pulling him in.”

My brother couldn’t hunt Wed. due to his last final, but we had plans to get out the following morning.  We knew there were still birds at the same property), but we felt guilty about taking too many ‘cause the landowner hunts too, so we decided to hit another neighbors place.  We were a little late, and the birds were gobbling on the roost when we pulled in, but the late spring foliage allowed us to setup within 100 yards of them.  We watched them fly down into the field, and it was like the tom was on a rope, and we were just pulling him in.  In less than 5 minutes, Karl was standing over the third and final bird of the trip.  We had to stand around for ½ hour just to get photo light.


This year’s late-season hunt was about more than harvesting turkeys.  For this scribe, it was counting warblers, walking with sandhill cranes, a post-hunt breakfast of scrambled eggs and turkey tenderloin, a marinated turkey shish kabob dinner at a weekend family get-together - and more than anything, spending quality time with both sons, now grown men that have all but left the home nest.    It was a perfect hunt, with all the right ingredients – one where everything fell exactly into the right place.

It really doesn’t get any better than this. Four setups, 3 birds, in just over 24 hours, and here I was with no tags left and 4 more days left to enjoy the land of milk and cheese.


It was beginning to look like there may be time for some snapshots after all . . . like say, spending some time chasing some migrant spring warblers.


Since my weekend had opened up I decided to meet some friends and pursue some fly fishing, and headed north to a familiar and very pretty freestone river: This river has had a habit of snubbing me in the past, but this time was different.  A caddis hatch and many eager brook trout saw to that. Standing in Wisconsin moving water always puts me at ease.


I had to be back for a family gathering on Saturday where I manned the grill.  Turkey kabobs anyone?


That night I got to relive another former spring tradition: banding spring woodcock with my Dad.  He had located a male just down the road, so we set up the mist net at dusk: It didn’t take long, and he hit the net as he flew in for the night: A band, and a few kisses on the head, and off he went


One evening, I achieved a goal I have had for quite a while.  There is a shallow pond down the road that always has feeding carp in it.  I have tried many times to land one on the fly rod, each time unsuccessfully.  Not this time: A soft hackle wooly bugger tied from a hen pheasant did the trick:


Overall, I didn’t set out to accomplish as much while I was home, but I’m sure glad I did. Part of me felt a little guilty that we did so well turkey hunting, and didn’t really have to work at it. But we’ve had plenty of tough seasons and hard-earned birds in the past.  I’m sure we’ll be talking about this one for years.


As always, I wouldn’t trade time in the woods with my Dad and brother for anything: And as always, the sights and sounds of my home state didn’t disappoint me:


Dorothy was right . . . there really is no place like home.  Even if I have to take it in snapshots


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  • 4 weeks later...

A LONGGG time ago, I dabbled at poetry. It didn't take long to figure out that it wasn't my forte...

No Effort Is Wasted

Like a sleek black missile, the dog rounds the corner in the trail

Quickly moving beyond the range of his Master’s voice

Not that it mattered

Today was the final test for the young man

The aspiring dog trainer was beat, though

This day had begun, as all the rest

The frosty woods awaited, as he let the dog out of the truck

As always, the optimism of a new day was fueled by the beauty of the woods

As always, he hoped all the yard training would pay off

Sitting on a stump, fishing for a cigarette

He contemplated defeat

The sound of the dog’s bell faded with the last puff

As did months of expectation

Another pastime tried, another failed

Kicking through the leaves, feeling sorry for himself

Wondering where that damned dog was

When heard the slightest tinkle of a bell

There amongst the bushes stood Jake

Like a statue, every muscle quivering

Tail high in the air, nose pointed straight ahead

Waiting for master to do his part

The shot was true

As the bird flushed

Months of tears of frustrations transformed into single drop

A tear of pride

Maybe they could do this after all

“Atta boy”

“Let’s find some more birds, Jake”

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  • 4 weeks later...

I long for the smell of Autumn, the earthy scent of drying leaves, the rustle of those that have yet to desend.  I miss the October wind, and with it the cold rain that promises downed leaves and rustic trails.  

The Steel grey sky that comprises a November day, as you and the dog bracket from the chill, hoping to catch just one more scent trail on his nose, and a chance for a flush before the flurries begin.

The sound the ruffed makes as it takes flight with a start, and the scent of a #6 as the shot echoes in the wood.  The startled look on your lab, and the disappointment in his eyes when you don't make the shot.  it is as if he's saying, "hey, I did my job, you missed yours".

I miss the stillness of the wood on a windless day, when your every step sounds as if it amplified, calling to the rabbits, "hey, here I am!!!"  When the sound of the lonely woodpecker sounds like a jackhammer.

Soon the season will be upon us, with all it's delight.  Canvas and Cordura blending together, dog hair and Blued steel working in unison.

What is it that makes an upland hunter treasure the season more than any other species of hunter?  Is it the season itself, or the scents I have described?  Is it the quietness of the noisey wood, the concentration of your dog, or just being there and being envoloped by the thrill of the hunt?

Pheasant or grouse, rabbit or hare, wood or prairie, flusher or pointer, it is the hunt that we all long for all year.  The days spent with friends, dogs and family, and the memories built on those days.

Just a few thoughts on this hot July day.



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  • 4 weeks later...

Tony is now 7 years old and as great as he was in this true story. He does retrieve. He has a very good record record. We did not lose a bird last season and only 1 the year before.

To the story.

                       MAKING OF A BIRDDOG

   The Pheasant flew from under the bush and out over the creek. I swung  BANG, KAPLOOSH, in the middle of the creek. I then seen it swimming for the far bank.

   Tony, my Brittany was a year old on September 1, 2000, this was the middle of October his first season. He and I were traveling down the highway and I seen a Farmer/Rancher friend of mine. He lets me hunt his land, had a bull out of its’ pasture. He was trying to get it back into the pasture. I stopped to give him a helping hand. After we got the bull put away and the fence fixed. We were standing by my SUV drinking coffee from my thermos.

   A State Game and Fish truck came by, it stopped about one-half mile down the road. It proceeded to release about 30 Pheasants. We watched and when they were done, I asked Floyd “Is that land Feel Free To Hunt land.” He said “Yes.” I replied, “I think I’ll take Tony over there and give the pup some OJT.” Floyd replied, “Take your gun and shoot a few.” My answer, “Why, won’t they be there tomorrow?” Floyd replied, “No, the coyotes will have a good supper tonight.”

   Tony and I topped the first hill and he went  on point. I walked in, seen the bird and kicked it airborne. Bang, Bang I missed both shots. I reloaded my 12 gauge O/U, went a little further and Tony hit another point. Bang Bang missed both barrels again. Then another point same result. Tony hit another point and this bird got up and flew behind me. I spun around and Bang down it came. Tony ran to it, put his paw over its’ head and laid down panting. I was giving him water after each bird, but he was still getting pretty hot.

   I walked back up the hill, picked up the bird and put it in my Game Bag. I said to Tony. “Lets get you down to the creek and cool you off.” We worked our way down to the creek without incident.

   There was a Cut Bank about 20 feet high over looking the creek and the wide weedy shoreline. I told Tony to go get some water. He got to the bottom took 3 steps and went on point. “OH MY Goodness Tony, how am I suppose to get down to you.” I gave him various commands, I was not suppose to. But he held firm on his point, like a good bird dog should.

   I unloaded my gun, held it high over my head, sat down, and let nature take me down the cut bank. Luckily I landed on my feet. Tony was still on point, 15 feet or so to my right. The weeds I discovered were Western Broom Grass about 5 feet tall. Some were standing and some were laying down. I walked over in front of Tony and  started kicking the grass.  Tony, firm on point, looked behind him. I kicked some more and Tony looked behind him again. Finally, I said, “Find the bird Tony.” I didn’t know what was about to happen he wasn’t trained for this. He turned and ran up onto the cut bank and went on point by a brown bush that was growing there. As I walked over to him I could see the pheasant nestled into the bottom. I said, “AH HA, he snuck out on ya huh.” With that the bird flew out over the creek. Bang and Kaploosh it dropped in the middle of the creek. It swam to the far shore and was climbing out. I screamed “Tony Fetch.” Tony grabbed it by a leg and pulled it back into the creek and let go. “Oh my gosh,” as I ran for the creek. I lost sight of Tony and the bird as I fought my way to the creek.

  When I got there, Tony was standing next to the bank on my side of the creek. I said, “Where is the bird.” Tony with his nose touched the weeds overhanging the creek. I knelt down and started parting the weeds back toward him. All of a sudden there was a  pheasant head with a blinking eye. I picked up the bird and put it in my Game Bag. That bird was a wild bird for it had no state leg band.

   Tony was cool and all I had to do is figure out how to get out of there. I found a Game Trail and followed it back toward where the SUV was parked. Soon I came to where the Game Trail lead up and out.

   When I got out Tony was on point. I went in and kicked out the bird. You guessed it, Bang Bang MISS. The bird flew a short way and sat down near to a windmill. I said. “Tony he should be easy to find and right on the way back to the SUV.”  We worked our way over to where it landed and Tony went on point almost immediately. I walked in and up it went and bang, down it came. Tony went to it and pinned it down. I went over picked it up and put it in the Game Bag. I then ejected my shells but did not reload.

   “Well Tony you have had 7 good points.” I said. “We have our limit, so lets go home.” Tony and I went back to the SUV and packed up to leave. As I was driving home, I was reflecting on the day we had. I learned a lot about my dog. He knew more about this pheasant game than I did and it was a new, to me, game. I did know he got his fire lit and he was one happy and tired puppy. I had the makings of a fine birddog all I had to do is learn what he was trying to tell me. Note: I traded that 12 gauge O/U after the season and got a 20 gauge SxS. I’m still shooting the 20 gauge.



You and your gundog are a team. The more you practice the better team you become. So Practice Daily.

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  • 3 weeks later...


By Kevin C. Shelly, copyright 2002

My dogs forgive the assshole in me, the anger in me, the arrogance in me, the brute in me. They forgive everything I do before I forgive myself.

Guy de la Valdene

A good gun dog is equal parts skill, science and luck. At least I got lucky.

Getting a good dog from the right stock is important. So is training well and often. But all things being equal, the most important factor in succeeding with a hunting dog is trust. Reciprocal trust. That's the moral of nearly every story about hunters and their dogs. It's also a difficult lesson for the novice trainer to embrace. Especially a novice trainer who is also a novice shooter and a neophyte hunter who has succeeded reasonably well before acquiring a dog. That described me perfectly when I finally learned to trust my dog, Murphy, when it came to birds.

Mea culpa: I'm a lousy trainer, despite good intentions.

Even tempered -- no. Consistent -- don't think so. Smarter than Murphy -- yes, but not often enough.

On the plus side, I am a good audience when there's a strong performance and I appreciate a good effort nearly as much as getting the desired outcome. I'm also forgiving -- relatively -- since I have so many faults of my own.

Then there are Murphy's less-than-ideal pupil traits. Congenitally rambunctious, even in her middle years. (Describes her middle-aged owner, too.) Impatient. (Me too.) Prefers to dash into things rather than listen or think. (Ditto.) Goofy. (Doesn't apply, though my daughter tells me I'm silly nearly everyday and in her context she's right.) Always hungry. (No comment.)

Of course, she also has strengths. Eager to please. (A trait we don't share.) Loves birds. (Yep.) Great nose. (Just so-so for me.) Guileless and grudgeless. (Hardly, I'm ashamed to admit.)

Murphy was something of a gift, something of a curse.

Bred by a former hunting buddy, she was an eager bit of puppy fluff when I first laid eyes on her six weeks after I married. Murphy became mine for the price of her puppy shots, not because of any perceived gun dog abilities, but because she was, at least to my eyes, the prettiest bitch in the litter. She also seemed friendly without being forward. Many relationships -- human and canine -- rest on less.

Born just two days before I married, Murphy was to remain kenneled at my buddy Joe's rural spread while I began wedded life in urban Atlantic City. I'd come out mornings or weekends and train her with his guidance and he would run her with her his experienced dogs: her mom, dad and a sister from a previous litter.

The plan lasted about two weeks.

Joe got a job at another newspaper. His wife stayed behind for a time, but caring for a puppy -- my puppy -- was out of the question. She had two daughters and Joe's two remaining springer spaniels to tend. Murphy's dam was quickly sold, but there was still her sire, Max, an aggressive hunter with a will of his own, and Belle, a sweet-tempered sister from an earlier litter.

My bride said no to the little dog.

Deep in puppy love, I heard Nora's "no" with one ear, but not my heart.

And so Murphy came home to our second-floor walk-up apartment in Atlantic City, above our landlord's medical practice, where dogs were unloved, unwanted and forbidden.

Not much of a start to marriage or a hunting dog partnership. I was wrong, but Murphy suffered the most for my mistake. Nora loves animals, but her feelings hardened toward the interloper. Embarrassed and impatient, adoring Murphy, but ashamed of her and myself at the same time, I spectacularly failed the dog and my wife.

Not a good start afield or at home. I set out to make it right. And made it worse.

I found a house for us -- and Murphy -- on Brigantine, the island north of Atlantic City. An affordable little ranch-style house, with a backyard and an attached porch where Murphy could spend her days, close to her would-be-trainer, but removed just enough.

With only one bridge providing access on and off the island known as Brigantine, Nora was unhappy about the location. The lease, however, did not prohibit pets and Nora went along. Through a sin of omission, Murphy and the cat known as Lizzie, a foundling Nora brought to our union, the pets went unmentioned. We signed the lease.

All was well -- for a few short weeks.

It was soon evident that the landlord had a propensity for turning up unexpectedly. Hiding a growing springer from him was out of the question. It would not have worked, anyway: It turned out his then-wife -- there was a previous wife and there's been a third since -- who was given to incredible histrionics and hyperbole, had parents living on the next block. Big Brother lived in the neighborhood.

They demanded a substantial additional deposit. Too high, and for better or worse, the law was on our side. We struck a compromise and more money -- the unhappy balm of testy 20th century relationships -- changed hands. Life settled into an uneasy calm.

When Joe got the other newspaper job, I lost my coach as well as my kennel, leaving Murphy and me to muddle through training. The dog and I spent mornings running the island's dunes, where she scented mourning doves, shorebirds, gulls, pigeons and the occasional duck using a temporary pool of rainwater. Cottontails, masters of the bayberry thickets, ran her ragged, never coming close to being captured. I also carried along a bright orange retrieving dummy, which she found no matter how far or where I heaved it. And, unless a real bird distracted her, she even brought it back, usually to hand, before rocketing off again. Although of no value for learning to scent, she loved nothing more than chasing the dummy through the surf, frothy waves pounding her as she went out and providing a slick ride in on the way back. Although she wanted to be off, Murphy stayed fairly close and let me maintain a modicum of control unless she could see distant birds. She stayed close because she knew eventually one of her delicate pink paw pads would pick up a ubiquitous sandspur, which she could worry out with much biting and effort, but I could pluck out in a few seconds. Mutual needs served is the glue of many relationships.

As fall approached, The Question loomed: Do you hunt a young dog, or just let them romp and chase birds?

I sure didn't know. The advice of experts seemed divided. But I wanted -- too much -- to put birds on the table, precisely the reason I'd gotten Murphy.

She handled planted pigeons I shot over her, finding and fetching them with aplomb. Just like hunting, or so it seemed. And so it was that Murphy and I came to go hunting when she was just six months old.

Hindsight is 20/20, but my unequivocal advice now, especially for hunters who care too much about birds and not enough about their dog, is a resounding "No!"

Decoying gullible, delectable wood ducks was our first foray afield as a hunting team. It could have been the last.

I -- not Murphy -- committed the day’s first faux pas before we left the house.

I left the front door to the house open as I hauled gear out to the Honda Accord, a ritual requiring several trips. About the third time out the door it dawned on me that the open door was also an open invitation to Lizzie, a strictly indoor cat with a fascination for -- and huge fear of -- the outdoors. A quick inventory of the small house turned up no cat. At least I knew Murphy's whereabouts, already loaded in her kennel in the back of the car.

Where was that enormous graphite-colored cat hiding in the darkness?

Remarkably, I spied her just outside the door, spread sprat cat on the ground, tail swishing nervously. Lizzie always thought she wanted to be outside; the minute she got out, though, she turned schizzy, clinging to the earth as through gravity was about to be suspended. I could see a morning of duck hunting becoming a morning of kitty stalking -- or wife consoling -- instead.

I headed slowly toward the surprisingly agile14-pound cat. She feinted left. I moved to box her in. She turned tail and ran back in the house. I shut the door. It was cold, but I was perspiring across my brow and through my scalp.

I ignored the warning -- a clear harbinger of disaster to come, had I cared to listen -- and rode onward. We headed to the headwaters of a river that bisects an abandoned cranberry bog where I'd killed two gorgeous drake woodies the year before. In the semi-darkness, I set out a handful of mallard and black duck decoys -- sociable woodies will take a look at just about anything that floats -- and we waited. At least I did.

Murphy does not rest easily when she thinks there are birds at hand. My attire and the gun resting on my lap told her there were supposed to be birds. None were apparent. All she saw were the plastic ones I'd plopped in the current. She would find the real thing, her little spaniel brain told her, even if I was content to sit along the riverbank, staring at ersatz ducks

She began pacing, unable to sit for more than a few moments. When she did sit, aided by my death grip on her collar, Murphy sounded as loud as the beaters in a driven pheasant hunt as her over-animated stub-tail made contact with weeds. About half an hour elapsed, enough to go from predawn gray to full light. Numb and bored, I released her collar.

That's when Murphy went swimming.

Though the river was no more than 10 feet across, it was also equally deep at the spot where we set up. Wading across was out of the question, for me. So when she decided to go paddling, circling the decoys, heading upstream, gliding downstream, there was nothing to do but to call her. The calls increased in volume and urgency and soon became bellowing. That confused her more. That was when I considered how I would explain what I would euphemistically refer to as "a hunting accident"  -- but only fleetingly.

Deciding to assess her options, Murphy headed ashore -- on the other bank. She scrambled up the escarpment and disappeared down the center of the breached berm, once used to hold back the waters that flooded the cranberry bog.

I was furious. And worried. A couple of hundred yards beyond the riverbank, the path intersected a county highway. Murphy, hyper aware of natural surroundings, was utterly oblivious to cars. I could probably wade over at some spot upstream or downstream, slog across the bog and reach the berm, but there was no telling where she'd be by then. I sat tight, kept calling and hoped for the best.

About three minutes later she reappeared, with an older hunter bringing up the rear. He'd heard my yelling and seen her running and decided to be neighborly and get Murphy back where she belonged. Besides, calling ducks to himself was out of the question with a madman bellowing across the river.

He edged down to the river and sent Murphy across. She started, then circled, resting in chest-deep water in front of the man. I called again. She came -- most of the way. Then she swam back. This kept up for a time, probably about two minutes, though it seemed longer.

Finally she got close enough. I was able to snag her collar and haul her out in one motion -- she hadn't hit full adult weight and probably went about 30 pounds.

The other hunter tactfully suggested that I try running her before taking her hunting next time. Seething, I thanked him through clenched teeth and headed home.

I didn't learn a thing.

Looking back, I know I was a bigger dunderhead as a trainer than T. H. White was when he attempted to man a hawk, a wonderfully told story in his little-read classic, "The Goshawk."

Then again, Murphy always returned to me. She may not have obeyed, but she wanted to trust me. That was more than I could say regarding my feelings toward her.

The coastal duck season began the following Saturday. Full of hope and not much sense, we began before dawn, walking a salt creek.

Young and unsure of the new environment presented by the marsh, Murphy stayed surprisingly close. Though she heeled -- marginally -- on a lead, unsnapping the buckle apparently was a secret signal to behave like a greyhound. That is not a problem in the uplands, where good cover and exciting scents keep Murphy in reasonable gun range. The flat, wide-open marsh, however, is an invitation to her antecedent hound blood.

But she was like glue that day. I didn't realize it then, but I believe now that she was anxious because of the last time out and wanted to return to my good graces.

She almost did before it all came apart once again.

A couple of black ducks got up on a middling creek and I knocked one down over the narrow creek with a snap shot. The duck was a swimmer. So was Murphy. In she went, in close pursuit of the bird. Too close. For more than 30 yards, Murphy was never more than a few feet behind the bird, her first cripple and her first duck. A second barrel was out of the question with the bird just in front of her.

She wanted the bird that was obvious, her genes urging her ahead better than I ever could. But her lack of experience kept her from getting the upper hand.

About 20 yards into the chase, I got panicky. In 10 more yards the middling creek dumped into a wide and deep creek that quickly ran into a main bay thorofare. There would be no retrieving the bird -- or the dog -- if they made it to the ditch-like creek and both were still paddling strongly.

Running in baggy rubber chest-highs while carrying a gun and gear feels about as natural as wearing a sauna suit while jogging with a tuba -- ungainly and slow. But I managed to pull ahead of the dog and the tiring duck just feet before the intersection. With Murphy's bobbing head out of the way, I killed the duck. Dead, it involuntarily paddled furiously, driving itself onto a shelf on the far side of the middling creek, no more than 12 tantalizing feet away.

Murphy went to investigate. Unfortunately, that's all she did. Several times. Finally, she came back, got out and shook. It was clear she was finished and was not going across again.

I had several choices. I could leave the bird. I could wait until an honest to goodness dog trainer miraculously arrived and we persuaded Murphy to give it another go. Or I could get wet and get the damn bird myself.

No use waiting for Murphy to decide she wanted to pick up the bird and bring it back: Dog-training was over.

Leaving it was out of the question. I've lost birds, but not without a major search and never one I could plainly see. The year before, I fetched 17 birds by myself. I'd only lost three birds that year -- all tenacious black ducks that eluded me, that dropped unseen and remained hidden despite my best efforts. This wasn't going to be another lost bird. Besides, leaving it wouldn't set much of a precedent for the dog.

Fetching the bird myself was all that was left.

I tested the waters, edging across the middling creek. With the tide still coming, it was already too high.

That left two options:

I could backtrack for hundreds of yards until I found a place shallow enough to cross, and then leg back up the creek, hoping the rising tide had not dislodged the bird. Or, I could get wet.

Wet it would be.

And brief.

Getting the gear off took longer than it did to half wade, half swim across the 50-degree water in underwear and socks, grab the bird, and return. The bird interested Murphy, but I wasn't talking to her by then.

On the long chilly walk back to the car I warmed up, but not toward the dog. Murphy was canine non grattta by then.

I wouldn't call it wisdom, but I was savvy enough to pass on taking Murphy out on opening day for pheasant, a day that draws all the once-a-year shooters in dangerous droves.

In New Jersey, most pheasants taken by hunters are stocked by the state the day before they are slaught -- err, hunted. They get planted twice during the week, as well as Saturday, when all the would-be nimrods turn out. Assuming we'd find less pressure during the week, I set out one morning shortly after the opener. We started out well, with Murphy casting and quartering, but soon the shooting began to sound more and more like cannonade. Murphy went from working out front to cowering behind in a matter of minutes. I knew it was time to get her out of the field, back to the car and out of there.

We cut through a hedge of Russian olive and just about stepped on a pheasant. I was carrying an Ithaca SKB 20 gauge, and although the first barrel is choked improved, the bird was still too near to allow the pattern to open up. One wing shattered, the bird headed toward a patch of woods. I killed it with the next barrel. Excited now, Murphy picked up the bird, though I couldn't say she truly fetched it, given I was standing next to her. Still, it was an improvement. Not wanting to press our luck, we returned to the car. As long as I dandled the bird in front of her, Murphy seemed not to mind the incessant roar of shotguns.

This might work out after all, I thought.

I was not able to test that wishful judgment until the following year.

At just seven months old, Murphy went into heat for the first time in her young life. It nearly killed her, though that wasn't apparent for another month.

In the meantime, I was effectively without a gun dog. It was out of the question to consider hunting her, given the number of dogs we encountered afield. Just imagine if the outlandishly out of place Doberman we'd once seen, festooned with a string of Bossy-sized cow bells -- probably to slow down its galloping stride rather than serving as a locator signal -- had its way with Murphy while we were scaring up pheasants.

For consolation, I went hunting solo a few times. Though I cannot recall overall how I did while dogless, I do remember solidly dropping a cock pheasant in a woody area fronting a road, but not being able to find it. Another hunter, a fellow named Frank who hunted a petite English setter bitch, white with fine black ticking, accompanied me to a landmark tree. He ordered his setter to hunt dead. She had my bird in less than a minute.

I missed Murphy afield even more.

Murphy never returned to the field that season, though. But not because of her puppyish performances.

Nora noticed first. Call it female empathy. She called me over to Murphy one night and pointed to a still-engorged teat, evident because the rest of her nipples had shrunk to normal at the end of the cycle. Probably a blocked milk duct, I said nonchalantly.

Nora said I should see the vet.

I did. He said it was likely a blocked duct. He took a biopsy to be sure.

Dr. Newkirk called a day later. Murphy had cancer. He said he had never seen cancer in young dog during its first heat. But that was in Murphy's favor -- she was young and strong and the cancer was still new and contained. Surgery was scheduled. It would cost 12 times what I'd paid Joe for her, a fortune to a just-married young man.

Off came all her nipples on the left side, as well as lymph glands in her hind leg. Spayed too, solving the problem of a recurrence and unwanted pups all at once. It was the flood of hormones that brought her into heat that kicked off the cancer, explained the vet.

She came through the surgery, but looked pathetic. Her belly was stapled back together. She was drugged and dazed. A cone-shaped vinyl Elizabethan collar encircled her neck. Nora, who probably saved Murphy's life with her attentiveness, and I sat with the dog on the floor of the porch, her normally nonstop metronome tail slowed.

Murphy recovered slowly, never quite getting the hang of the protective collar, bumping into walls and catching it on her food dish and water pan. And although she was knitting back together, running her in rough terrain was too big a risk. The season ended with a hurting pup's whimper, not a shotgun's bang.

I cannot recall her first time afield or even the first bird she found and fetched in her second season, but I vividly remember the bird she found that made me trust her.

Murphy spent the summer -- about two months -- with a professional Labrador retriever field-trialer. He never outright said so, but his demeanor shouted, "Shoulda got a Lab." Still, he worked on the basics and did force-fetch training with her. But two months later Murphy was still tentative about finding and retrieving -- small quail she mouthed too hard and larger ducks and pheasants seemed to throw her. Pigeons, which she saw often in training, were a comfortable mouthful, but I was not going afield in search of rock doves.

Most of the second year, I dimly recall now, was a time of fits and starts, a strong performance followed by madcap folly. Recollections of that season are overshadowed in memory by our disastrous first season and eclipsed by Murphy's standout third year, when other hunters stopped to inquire about her breeding and training.

We were not quite to that level when Murphy and I made peace in her second season and I learned to trust her instincts and give her time.

It was late in the second-half of the split coastal duck season, though precisely when I cannot say. I'm certain it was late December, maybe even early January.

I recall being bundled up, but that's not the day's remembered hallmark. No, the telltale sign was ice, tremendously thick ice heaved up in odd places by the ebb and flow of the tide in and out of the salt creeks we hunted. It takes extended severe cold to turn salt creeks into meadows filled with icebergs, but that's precisely how it looked that day.

Murphy and I came up a long, straight, narrow creek bordering the edge of the marsh without seeing a thing. The tide was low, too low, for the small creek to appeal to black ducks or mallards. It petered out, leaving me with a choice: Aim for another smallish creek or go straight for a deep wide bend in a larger creek. Given the lack of success so far in small waters, I chose the bend.

I could see the tide was way down as we approached. Steep mud banks pitched rapidly toward a slack black puddle rimmed with remnant ice. In the center, several huge blocks of dirty ice drifted aimlessly.

We edged along. As Murphy hit the bend, a black duck vaulted up out of the water, going away fast.

I was shooting a Smith & Wesson autoloader that year, not a favorite of my gunsmith's, but a lethal tool that fit my jump-shooting hunting style and me perfectly. Refinished with a hand-rubbed oil finish when a chip at the heel got repaired, it was a utilitarian thing turned beautiful that moved just right in my hands. It is the only gun I've ever sold that I'd buy back.

The shotgun did just what it was supposed to and the bird came down hard, beyond the ice-filled pool. From where I shot, it appeared as though the bird had hit in the center of a small feeder creek. That was a worry: Black ducks can hide in a teaspoon growing algae when they need to disappear.

Murphy and I went across together, easing through the frigid sludge. She hit scent a few feet in and eagerly smashed through the cordgrass, intent on finding the bird.

Fifteen feet in, Murphy stopped. She had to: An oblong slab of ice two feet thick and three feet wide wedged into the tiny crevice formed by the small creek's diminishing bed.

She stuck her snout under the slab, but the space was too narrow for her to advance. Then she circled it, sticking her nose under the far side. I put my shoulder to it. Nothing. Not an inch. It wasn't moving.

So what, though? The duck could not possibly fit underneath.

I began to move the search onward, but Murphy began barking furiously at the huge chunk of ice.

I tried moving it again. No go. I could not reach far underneath. What to do? A shotgun makes a lousy lever in the muck. What to do?

I stood about two feet away and pulled the trigger. The ice was old and rotted enough so that the steel duck shot didn't just ricochet off, but the slab seemed untouched.

Working the action, I emptied the chamber and the magazine. Then I got serious. I filled the gun with three-inch steel BB shells that I carried in case of geese and fired again. It blew out a divot, but the immovable block stood firm. At the third shot, the block cracked into three large pieces, still heavy, but small enough to manhandle.

The iridescent purple speculum of the bird's wings caught the pale sunlight of winter as I heaved the second piece aside. It was as if I'd found a delicately colored butterfly buried beneath a glacier.

The dog picked up the muddy bird and brought it to me.

Murphy was a bitch no more.

"I'd rather have a springer," I said, "and pay the tax."

Charles Fergus

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Breakfast Boy

Our very own Rick Hall posted this in the waterfowling section recently.  It was a great post and I wanted to share it with everyone here.  I hope he won't mind (smile).  This is what Rick had to say about one of his dogs...

Bon Chien was just that: a good dog.  And he made a lot of very impressive retrieves, but not a lot of great or heroic retrieves.  And he suffered the misfortunes of following on the heels of a truly great retriever and belonging to a jerk who much too often caught himself saying, "He's not the old dog."  And "Had he been the old dog..."  

While more level heads who'd known both were prone to counter, "The only thing wrong with Chien is that you had Bud first," it took me much, much too long to accept and love Chien for the wonderful being he was.

The product of a Chesapeake dream breeding that saw folks still calling to inquire about semen availability ten years later, Chien was a born retriever, who'd run to the woodpile to steal a log to carry while he aired.  (One favorite he had to carry by a staub was weighed at 21lbs.)  And he'd handle as far as he could see and hear me or follow a cripple's trail anywhere it led.  But the birds weren't his passion.  

He loved retrieving and lived for me, not the birds.  Chien enjoyed upland work, but lost interest when birds were far and few between.  And it was the same on really tough retrieves when he failed to hit scent fairly quickly, too soon he'd be looking to me for direction I was too seldom in position to offer.

Chien was not a strong swimmer.  At 96 lean pounds, he had enough leg to push off bottom most places he worked and tried to maintain that advantage in deeper water where it was a detriment.  But when I think of Chien's retrieving, what comes first to mind was how he handled diving ducks in deeper marsh waters.  When they dove nearby, he'd come up out of the water to spot their route and arc back down, like one might imagine a killer whale, to spear them.  

Probably not at all what you had in mind, Jameson, but here's the story I want to tell about Chien, the one that stepped forward when I read your request:

One pre-hunt morning, I was standing by my truck in our busy camp's parking lot, waiting on my hunters and BSing with folks, while Chien sat patiently at heel, when a yellow Lab came streaking across the lot and jumped on Chien.  Chien had never been in a fight, but before I could wink, blink or whatever, he had the big Lab pinned to the gravel, just holding the angry, snarling and squirming animal.

Like a complete dumb-a--, I blurted out, "Leave it."  And Chien immediately released the Lab, which was, of course, all over him again in a flash.  But Chien again shook his attacker off and held him down trashing on the ground.

By now I'd become more collected and shouted for a fellow "Oh, my God"ing across the way to come get his dog, and was told, "I'm not putting my hands in there."  (Turned out he was a surgeon, and I couldn't blame him, though it was his dog doing all the snarling and snapping.  Chien was calm as the proverbial cucumber.)  So I grabbed a handful of Lab, right behind its ears, bade Chien to "leave it" again and "sit".  And the big Chesapeake did, while I drug his tormentor to its truck and chunked it in its box.

Had Chien "been the old dog," it would have been him dragging that poor beast across the lot - and the adjoining field, and depositing what remained of it in the marsh beyond.  But Chien wasn't the old dog.  

Chien was Chien and had no malice in him.  God rest his gentle soul.

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  • 2 weeks later...

The 911 anniversary got me thinking of this one that I wrote a little later that year.

A Poem For Gypsy


Alan Briere

The year's winding down,

and the bird season's closing.

My Brittany lies at my feet, gently dozing.

Her cheek skin puffs out,

and her whiskers all twitch.

Her paws beat the floor,

as she again, hunts some ditch.

I imagine her dreams

are of pheasant and grouse?

But at this tender age,

they could still just be mouse.

The year has passed quickly,

and impressive it's been.

Her instincts, and breeding,

showed time and again.

The green meadow of springtime,

where her training took place.

Has transformed, once again;

to a brown and white space.

The weather's been gentle;

October a joy.

November was genial,

to my bird finding toy.

Her antics are many;

her requirements great.

Now she sleeps through the night;

I hope not too late.

Friends have been kind;

their advisements were shrewd.

Not one was stingy;

or intentionally rude.

The year has been tough;

the country was shaken.

We all took a look

at the paths we have taken.

We sometimes lose touch

with our family and friends.

But the devotion, and love,

of our dogs, never ends!

(Copyright 2001 Alan Briere)

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  • 4 weeks later...

Up the Creek


Ken M. Blomberg

"Opening Weekend"

    The hunt for ruffed grouse began last Saturday at dawn.  It will end on the final day of January when the sun drops below the horizon.  In between those events, my bird dogs and I will pay close attention to the whereabouts of these woodland drummers.

    When I was a younger man, the first day of grouse hunting arrived a little bit later in the season – at a time in October when uplands were ablaze in fall colors, the air was crisp and the hunting season was in high gear.  These days, the law allows for an earlier, greener, mid-September commencement.

    The urge that pulls hunters and their bird dogs into the forest to pursue grouse runs deep.  The dog’s superior sense of smell leads them both into a universe of aspen, alder, red dogwood and golden tamarack.  Close your eyes and recall the beauty of fall’s spectrum – which is right around the corner by the way – then imagine looking at that from the inside out.  Welcome to the world of grouse hunters and their bird dogs.

    Nowadays, the season starts early and ends late, giving hunters added opportunities without harming the resource.  Ruffed grouse are more prone to a natural death, being cyclical in nature.  Years of study and adjusted seasons – including a complete closure in Wisconsin during the mid-1930s – lead researchers to conclude that hunting had no accumulative effect on grouse numbers.

    Grouse are a boom or bust creature like arctic hares, both populations ultimately tied to ten-year rotational highs and lows.  Give or take a year or two, grouse numbers tend to crash in years ending in five, while hare populations crash in years ending in zero.  Hence, one theory of the rise and fall of “grousedom” lies in a predator/prey relationship.  Great flights of hawks and owls from the arctic North - where food supplies are low – make good use of a more abundant southern grouse buffet.

    A sampling of nearby coverts over the weekend produced multiple flushes and a single shot.  The first day found No. 2 son and me following his dog Rocky down the Little Eau Pleine River valley.  Four grouse and a lone woodcock made appearances, but remained very much alive.  Upland birds hold most of the cards during the early season when thick, green foliage prevails.  Needless to say, grouse over rice was not on the menu this week.

    The creek bottom behind our place is home to a brood of at least eight birds this year.  The dogs and I have given them an occasional work out, but we pose little threat.  You see, during times of plenty, we may take a bird or two – but, as the rule goes - only when the dog handles and points the birds just right.  

    Just knowing a few of our grouse survive to see another season, assures the sound of a drummer or two in the woods next spring.

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  • 7 months later...
Alan Briere

How do They Know

There comes a time when owning multiple dogs takes its toll. After the illnesses and medications, injuries, annual vet visits, preventative measures and potions to repel ticks, fleas, various worms and God know's what else. After the upset sleep due to restless dogs on or in the bed; the endless need to exercise them and deal with the perceived non-stop demands they put on us, a guy starts to feel fatigued.

Oh, the dogs are always there for us. Right there with a butt to be scratched or an ear to be rubbed, but they also hold back waiting for some extra signal that only they seem to recognize.

They wait and they wait. Then when life crashes down around you and you start to believe that your sole purpose in life seems to be serving as a source of heat for the dogs that share your bed on a cold night; one of them senses those feelings in you!

At that point they seem to extend themselves beyond mere adoration to an entirely new level. Millie did that today. We had all taken our regular walk, but I've had a lot going on lately and was feeling pretty blue and Millie kept following me around. She jumped up onto the bed and gave me the most beautiful play bow and then slowly lowered herself into a lying position. I sat down on the bench at the foot of the bed and the little Brittany just covered my face and hands with soft and gentle kisses. This is my force-of-nature dog that does everything hard and at high speed. This display of deliberate sensitivity was truly touching and heartwarming, and much needed by this grumpy middle-aged guy.

Just how do they know?


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