What are your family traditions at the holidays? I have to admit most of the traditions that have stood the test of time in my family center around food, the eating of food, the preparation of food…let’s see, did I miss anything? Oh yes, the gag table decorations while we eat the food. Being the only serious hunter in my family the holidays (also prime time for hunting of all sorts) usually involved me trekking off alone or wishing I was trekking off alone in pursuit of whatever game struck my fancy while mindful of the need to attend normal obligatory family obligations that one must attend. That all changed several years ago.
After moving to Virginia and away from extended family as a young married couple, my wife and I took several years off from the holiday family trips. My parents regularly visited us, but at one point I had not been back to the homestead in New York for 6 or 7 years and had not seen my brother in almost as long. When the bird dog entered the picture I knew I wanted to get my brother father hunting with me. My father was not a hard sell. He had hunted as a teenager, and always had a fondness for at least the romance of bird hunting. My brother on the other hand is not a hunter. He had gone several times as a kid, but never shot a living creature and while not altogether opposed to the idea, just doesn’t love the idea of hunting himself or more accurately the cleaning of said animals. He has the weakest stomach imaginable and the sight of blood makes him queasy. Two Thanksgivings ago I talked both Dad and Caleb into hunting with me on the Friday after Thanksgiving with great success. As documented in another post, we had a great (albeit freezing cold) day with plenty of good dog work and poor shooting at a PHENOMENAL preserve near my father’s home. By the end we all said that was something we would definitely do again.
This year arrangements were made and we struck off on the 600 mile drive to NY on the Monday before Thanksgiving. Once we were a mere 2 hours from our destination I was reminded of why I love the South….lake effect snow began. After another several hours of white knuckle driving conditions and drifting blowing snow we were there. Family pleasantries and eating began but it was clear that the cold and 2+ feet of fresh snow could be a problem for hunting.
I put the thought out of my mind that the hunt might not happen and commenced to eat some more food. The dog was well out of his mind at this point, seemingly remembering the place and all of the hunting we did the last time he was here. Cows in the pasture provided a bit of a diversion occasionally but the birds never left his mind I’m sure. Thanksgiving passed with all the family joys in full force: Dad’s smoked meat, Mom’s pies, Grandpa’s old jokes and stories, family jam sessions (slightly out of time and off key renditions of old hymns and country songs). As Thursday came to a close the temperature warmed enough to melt a good bit of the snow but there were still plenty of drifts. The preserve was to the north of my parent’s house (where the heaviest of the snow would have fallen) so it was by no means a given. Charlie (preserve owner) sounded hesitant when I spoke with him…”You don’t have any older folks with mobility problems do you?” When I assured him that we were in peak physical state with all the physical prowess of Greek gods he gave us a 1:00 PM start time and said he’d meet us there. It was on.
As we got to the hunting ground it was clear there was still a lot of snow, but the heavy cover and mix of different cover boded well for us. Charlie told us we were the first hunters in there since the snow, but also that during the morning they had done a European style tower shoot for a group of corporate execs. “A couple of them shot pretty well, but they missed A LOT of birds. If you don’t find more than the six birds you bought something’s wrong with your dog. You’ll probably find a cripple or two out there too…you’re welcome to them. I’m sick of cleaning birds. Have fun!” And with that we were off.
The first point was not 20 yards into the hunt. Gus froze and with no flush I tried to relocate him. Nothing doing. “Gotta be close.” I said. Right about that time behind us a rabbit came out of the brush pile. This was evidently what he had been pointing but when it didn’t fly he lost interest. The rabbit got a pass too as none of us had a valid NYS hunting license being a preserve hunt. We worked a brushy hillside bordering a grassy bottom and a cut cornfield. Great cover with shooting lanes cut in. The second point came after a little searching. Another solid point and a likely spot to set my other two shooters up to get a good look. My father (the most consistent shooter of the three of us) covered the escape route for a full wingspeed shot at the bottom while Caleb took my left and the most likely path after a flush. I moved in. After 5 minutes with no flush and no relocations, I saw the bird…lying on his back feet up. Must have been a leftover from the tower shoot. Although the resident hawks were not too happy about our find, another free bird in the pot didn’t break our hearts. As we started again Gus took a little jaunt a little too far ahead just as I called him back he went on point and just after a rowdy rooster who had been running happily (not unlike the roadrunner with Wylie Coyote) decided not to stick around for the gunners to show up and took off with a cackle. None of us had a good shot and he escaped to parts unknown with the dog following. As his habit is, unless there has been a shot fired Gus will break off pretty quick if he can’t get into cover and reestablish a point on and escaped bird.
This brought us to a brushy hedgerow on the edge of the cut corn. Caleb and I took the brush side and my father stayed wide in the corn. We had a quick point and a bird that sat tight. I moved in to flush and my father made a great open field shot bring the bird down. Gus made a great retrieve. This being only the 3rd time I’ve killed pheasants over him I was curious to see if his retrieves would improve. The last couple of times, he’s struggled to get the big birds in his mouth. This time he readjusted his grip several times before taking off and then brought the bird directly to me. Good dog Gus…I love to see him maturing .
We found several more cripples that would not get up… all with good points and good retrieves when it became evident that they weren’t fliers. Gus did well with those roosters! They can get a little feisty with the spurs as he learned! I wish I had been quicker with the camera. It was kind of comical. As the day went on the dog work got better. There were TONS of birds around but nicely spread through different cover.
The final bird of the day was a beauty. We had kicked a rooster out ahead of us and finally established a point at the very end of the thick cover. I told everybody to be ready as the bird probably would flush wild as we came closer. I was not wrong. By the time we had a good look he was the approximate height and speed of a crushing 747. Caleb and I fired but it was little more than a hail Mary. We covered several hundred yards with one more cripple found in between before the dog found that rooster. He exploded again out of his cover only to be missed by all three of us. The dog, having heard the shots was not letting the bird get away. He took off and could not be called back. The last time I saw him he was sprinting and vaulting himself through 3′ deep drifts with fury. We headed in his direction. After a good 10 minutes without seeing the dog and struggling ourselves to close the 100 yards to his last known location I figured he was on point. When my dad yelled “He’s over here” I assumed we’d close in and find a classic setter point. What I saw instead was him sitting camly, fighting, flapping rooster clamped in his mouth. My father called him to bring the bird. Slightly disgusted with our shooting and our slow progress in getting to him, Gus walked directly between my father’s legs past him, past my brother, past me and sat down dropping the bird and pinning it under his paw. “Just so you know, we’re calling this one MINE!” was the very clear message. Nobody argued. We ended the day with 12 birds in the bag, 3 leftover cripples and one dead from the tower shoot and the rest killed over good points. Great day and a holiday tradition I could carry on!