Bird hunter, dogs eager for new season

It’s an exciting time of year again for many pointing dog owners, both new and old.

A special niche company of the upland division from Pennsylvania’s “orange army” took to the woods, fields and fencerows Saturday for the state’s opening day of grouse and woodcock. Five dogs and I myself were among their ranks – four English setters and one out-of-place English pointer.

Many time-and-toil generous dog men had been out the Saturday before, handling their dogs for the state Game Commission’s Youth Pheasant hunt.

A friend’s and my bird season began in the great north woods of New England the first of this month, tuning dogs up on grouse and woodcock. It was a sweet week of no work, no cell service and no regrets that ended up providing no better way to knock the rust off my wing shooting and bird handling for the dogs.

The first day opens the floodgates and, having had a year to build up, I just keep my head above the waterline and enjoy getting overtaken.

Opening day for dogs and their handlers could be likened to the first preseason game in the NFL – it counts, but doesn’t, and you’re expecting some mistakes.

As such, the only expectation I have is to enjoy each twist and turn of the day; whether the season begins with bobbled birds by the dog for which the gun isn’t raised, missed birds the dog(s) handled correctly, or one or two birds are brought down over mannerly dog work. Whatever the results, the day’s events always bring a refreshed meaning of “dog tired.”

Whether grouse and woodcock (or pheasant, which opens on the 26th), everyone’s day seems to take on the same scene with different particulars. For me, when the old truck comes to a stop and the door opens, the dogs in their boxes are all standing, impatiently shifting their weight, and are quick to snort out the fresh air they’d just taken in to immediately get any new details that may be carried by the next.

Before their doors even open, the sound of their tails thudding against the box walls is heard, with each dog having its own rhythm.

Their door latches are released, but no effort need be made to open the doors. A push with their heads and a flick of their snouts swings the doors open, then a paw steps out and is intentionally placed so the door cannot easily be closed again.

Now at eye level, no matter which character, we lean against each other as the dogs are eager to get started but still need bells. Their noses, still snorting, peek from under my arm or over my shoulder at what awaits beyond.

I’m quite sure I never get them belled and collared fast enough for their liking.

It’s during this process I act slightly annoyed when they seem over-exuberant to get started, but I’m beginning to think that this annoyance may be because I can’t get them collared fast enough for my own liking either. I know I’m not alone in that regard.

As we enter the thick of it, autumn goes as quickly as it came and always has passed much too quickly for my liking. I soon miss the smell of dying sweet fern, gun oil, dew-dampened dog and spent shotshell powder.

I’ll miss the feel of a century-old double in hand, well worn in the same spot by the hands of its myriad of previous owners, oiled tin cloth and even the briars doing their work on the backs of my hands.

The sound of a cool breeze through oak leaves, the cadence of brass and tin dog bells, particularly the moments of relative silence before a thunder of wings and then a shot that seems so faint in that moment once again only is found in memory.

On occasion, following the shots that find their mark, there’s a feeling of joy and sadness in bringing down something so greatly admired.

Teaberries, the ache and makings of an arthritic left ankle, new battle scars on flesh, blued steel, linseed oiled walnut and tattered dog ears all complete my enigmatic world of grouse hunting. Every outing concludes the same way – with a short phone call to a good woman ever inquiring of how I did and when I’ll be home.

For many – myself among them – much of that puzzle still is present throughout the year. The pursuit of grouse and woodcock largely is an unending cycle, the exception being from the time birds begin to nest – grouse, woodcock and pheasant all which nest at ground level – on through to 10 or 12 weeks after the hatch when the birds are old enough to escape an unmannerly puppy untouched.

It’s in those weeks yard training with released training birds (that return back to coops they’re housed in) and a little R & R are on the schedule.

Many of the dogs that hit the field aren’t your typical run-of-the-mill couch potatoes that hunt 10 or so days out the year; they’re the equivalent of the professional sports world’s most athletic ranks and, like those two-legged athletes, these four-legged ones can be just as susceptible to injury. Those three months allow any lingering soft tissue injuries that sometimes can go unnoticed by their owners’ careful eyes to clear up.

If these dogs could communicate to us a pain scale, it would go much like this: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

But now being fall, the yearly cycle’s high-water mark is nearing the crest in the pointing dog calendar. All the work, time and toil is about to begin paying out the interest earned upon the investments, and the hunter only can hope the bird numbers are good and will yield a high level of quality dog work.

Yet much of the season becomes a blur, a fitting simile to a flushing ruffed grouse.

There’s usually only a handful of moments in a season that will be carried on in the mind of the bird hunter over the years.

Much in the same way they walk away with a memory of a pointed grouse in flight that they’d flushed, they can recall every detail in a fraction of that moment frozen in time (usually just before or at shot) that to anyone outside the group would just see a brown blur.

But with any dog you’ve trained yourself, there always seems to be that moment. Flushing and killing a pointed grouse you put to wing, a rite of passage for a young dog that seems more gratifying to the trainer than for the dog itself, a hinge pin that everything else the dog will ever do tends to swing on.

The “trainer,” for lack of a better term (more appropriate would be developer), gets more out of this moment than the dog, as he finally gets to see the first fruit of his investment of time, effort and homework.

With that aside, the good dogs never are really satisfied, instead always looking for that next bird. It’s in that moment we all find out whether a bird, a wild bird in hand, is worth everything that was invested into finding it.

Those who have found the struggle worthwhile are hooked for life, with everything riding on that next flurry of wings, doing their best to keep it in healthy balance with everything else that’s required of them in life.

Heasley is a new correspondent for the Sun-Gazette. He is a longtime outdoorsman and central Pennsylvania resident.