Sunday, April 6, 2008

Pheasant hunting with a pack of black labs

I don't know what it is about my friend Dana, but whenever I go hunting with her, something special always seems to happen.

It didn't seem like Wednesday's hunt would be extraordinary. We were meeting for a dog-training hunt. Dana would buy pen-raised pheasants and release them into a field, we'd let them wander around a bit and then we'd let her black labs work. She'd handle the dogs; I'd be the gunner.

I'll say right off that hunting pen-raised birds is not my favorite thing - it feels like you're just killing chickens with a shotgun instead of an ax. But it's the only kind of pheasant hunting I usually get to do here, because California doesn't have a great deal of good pheasant habitat anymore. And like all the hunting I do, it involves the outdoors, exercise and, if you play your cards right, food for your freezer.

So you take whatever opportunities you can get - and with pheasant season over, dog training hunts are your only opportunities.

Besides, this would be my first chance to use my new upland vest I'd just bought from SHE Safari. I love test driving clothes!

Dana and I met under a big oak tree near a river and she released two of the four dogs she brought: Tule and Kidd. As we set out, she warned me: The oats in the field were high - higher than she expected - so getting the birds to flush would be difficult.

The dogs quickly found a spot that reeked of pheasant, but search as they might, they couldn't find him. Perhaps he had moved, or perhaps he had hunkered down so effectively that he couldn't be found. We moved on, and not 50 yards later, her dogs flushed a bird.

A red plastic ribbon trailed from his foot - the sign that he was one of the birds Dana had just released, not a wild pheasant that was out of season. I was clear to shoot.

He zoomed toward some trees.


Missed. Had I completely forgotten how to mount my gun? Apparently so. He was nearly in the trees now.


He dropped. Dana sent Tule and Kidd to pick up the fruits of their good sniffing.

"Good thing you got him on that second shot," she said. "He'd've been gone."

"I know!"

Pheasant hunting is so different from duck hunting. Ducks don't surprise you - you see them coming in, you wait for the moment and then you stand, mount your gun and shoot. With pheasants, even though I can see the dogs are onto something, I still jump when that colorful rooster explodes into the air. This is where my inexperience really shows: I mount my gun poorly and try to make the best of my bad positioning.

Dana took the pheasant from her dog and handed him to me. I stuffed him into the game-bag pocket of my new vest, splattering blood on my hands, vest and pants in the process. First blood - my vest had been initiated.

We continued plowing through the oat fields for some time, beelining from one field to the next, then milling around wherever the dogs smelled something yummy. This tangle to the right here? That's an actual map of our hunt - 3 miles, all told. (And yes, I know I'm a geek for carrying a GPS running watch on a hunt.)

The dogs did find two more birds. But as we feared, they didn't flush from the tall green oats; the dogs simply grabbed them and handed them to Dana. One for Dana, one for me - good practice for the dogs, no practice for the gunner, but dinner nonetheless.

We headed back to our cars for a break. For Round 2, we would hunt with a full pack: Her husband was on the way with his dog, Diesel, and Dana would let loose her other two dogs, Marzee and Teddy.

And here's where the hunt got special: This was Teddy's first hunt.

Teddy is a pup - he was a little tiny thing when Dana and I first started emailing each other in December - one of Marzee's last litter. He'd never sniffed out a pheasant, never heard a gunshot, never had a bird in his mouth.

When we set out into the field again, it was almost surreal watching the dogs work. In most places, the oats were over their shoulders, so they didn't so much run across the field as leap across it.

When they ran as a pack, it was like watching giant strands of black silk thread weaving themselves in and out of a green tapestry, a picture of grace and energy that will forever be imprinted on my memory.

As often as not, though, Teddy wasn't part of that picture because he was staying close to Dana - too close, clinging to her heels like a nervous child.

"Get off me, Teddy!" she'd holler at him, gently.

As we approached a field we hadn't hunted yet, I looked at my watch and saw it was almost time to go. I had a dinner to go to back in Sacramento, and I needed to head out by 2 p.m.

"Fifteen more minutes," I said.

Moments later, the dogs started to get pretty excited.

"Get ready," Dana said, and a bird exploded from the grass. This time, Teddy was one of the dogs leaping into the air after it.

I shot and missed, shot again and missed, shot again and found that I'd not loaded a third shell into my gun. Dana and I watched as the bird sailed to another field, took note of where he dropped in and marched that way with the dogs.

"That was Teddy's first shot!" she said. She was proud of him - he hadn't even flinched.

I, of course, was ashamed of myself for missing the first bird Teddy flushed.

"I think you clipped him on the second shot, though," said Dana - ever gracious. "I saw feathers flying."

We walked on a dirt road between the river and the field until we came to the spot where the rooster had landed, and Dana sent the dogs into the field. They found him within seconds, and I lifted my gun again.

Bang! Bang!

Oh geez, Holly, get it right.

Bang! The bird dropped. The dogs raced toward him and seized him.

Dana ordered them to drop the bird - and then she saw it was Teddy who had him. Her tenor changed immediately, becoming more tender. No longer barking orders, she praised her pup for a job well done. He gave the bird to Dana, she gave him to me and I stuffed him into my vest.

"It's 1:56," I said, looking at my watch. "Perfect!"

And this time I hadn't let Teddy down.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Blessed said...

way to go Teddy! I feel the same way about hunting farm-raised birds... I love hunting with dogs - upland or waterfowl, it just adds another dimension to the hunt.

Phillip said...

Good stuff! Sounds like ya'll had fun.

But hey... when did your site get embedded music? Ack. No me gusta.

NorCal Cazadora said...

That's part of the hunting pants slideshow, which at the time you commented is the bottom post on this page. I like the fact that Kyte gives you the ability to have music legally with your slideshow, but it does have a really long half-life as a blog post - I'm not sure I want it hanging around that long either (e.g., if you click on the "Gear for the huntress" index, that post will come up and the music will run, no matter which post you're looking for.) Thanks for the feedback!

Anonymous said...

What a great story. I love Labs, and I bet it was a treat to watch them work.

NorCal Cazadora said...

It was - it was one of those moments that life became art.

Ken said...

Holly, you didn't know I was a great trainer of water retrievers. When in school at UC Riverside I lived on a ranch in West Riverside. There were several large ponds on the property and lot of ducks of one kind or another. One evening I took a 16 guage shotgun and a water spaniel of some sort and went to try for a couple of ducks. Long story short, I got two Ruddys and the were floating on the water but one wasn't dead and these ducks will dive and die on the bottom. I got excited and told the dog to go. The dog got excited and bounced up and down. The duck was swimming in circles. Finally, in desperation I jumped and swam to the duck. Now the dog is with me. Not being a strong swimmer then, I needed both my hands to swim with. So I put the foot of one duck in my mouth and handed the other to the dog. He took it and we both swam to shore. The dog was an excelent retriever after that. Who else would have done that to train a dog?
Auntie Joanne

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

I knew I loved your family for a reason...

NorCal Cazadora said...

OK, I just now saw this comment. Sorry, gang, Network Solutions had a MAJOR email crash this week and my alerts aren't coming through.

Now, Joanne, I may just do that with a dog some day, just to prove my bloodlines. I'd make sure the duck's feet were pretty clean first, though.

So good to hear from you!