Moments come and go in our hunting lives. The moments over a bird dog, though, stick with us indefinitely.
We couldn’t quite find where the doodles wanted to be. The tight aspen stand that had been holding the birds was desolate except for one grouse that we missed, of course. My German shorthaired pointer, Summit, worked the cover as enthusiastically and efficiently as a one-year-old dog could.
Summit averages about 14 miles per hour in the grouse woods, and for his first year hunting, that caused some problems. He consistently overran his nose — meaning that he was moving too fast, and when he caught a scent and locked up, he was already too close to the bird.
That morning, though, I was set to fix that with some woodcock work. Woodcock can be a bane or blessing for a young dog; it depends on how you look at it. The bird holds so tight that it can lead to crowding, yet that tight hold helps builds confidence in a young dog and reaffirms a solid point.
After an hour or so of nothing in the aspen stand that had produced woodcock throughout the week, we moved toward the cut’s edge — mature conifer mixed with some mature hardwood and ferns sloped down into a forest pond.
Within two minutes of moving to the “open” cover, Summit locked up. My friend David, a new hunter who never had upland hunted, moved to Summit’s left and the veteran of our group, Joe Schwenke, moved to the right.
Summit remained statue-still with his nostrils slightly flaring to take in as much scent as he could. His tail ran parallel to the ground and stood stiff. The intensity of the point left no doubt that there was a bird nearby.
Slowly, we moved in. The woodcock was about 20 feet in front of Summit when it rocketed upward from the leaves making a ‘peep,’ ‘peep’ noise as it flew away. David missed his first shot, and I was able to connect on my first shot.
Immediately, Summit was on the bird, proudly running back to my side with the bird in tow. He came to the heel position and presented a beautiful retrieve to hand. Something had clicked.
We continued on with no other points or birds to show for the day. But, Summit had his first woodcock point and retrieve under his belt.
Two days later, Summit and I entered the same cover from the western edge. Immediately, pounding wing beats let us know that at least two grouse would no longer be available for our rendezvous. We continued on.
About 60 yards into the cover, Summit started to track a running bird. He slowed down, showed caution and displayed a small glimpse of the shorthair I hope he will become. A black flash in front of me to my left let me know he was heading back toward the two-track we had come in on.
What is this dog doing, I thought to myself? About 30 seconds later, my GPS unit beeped to let me know that Summit was on point. I made my way back out to the two-track to find Summit standing on the edge of it locked up.
Where was the bird? Had it crossed the two-track and truly stopped? Did Summit lose scent if the bird had crossed? These questions ran through my mind in the blink of an eye.
I snapped a quick photo of Summit, and almost simultaneously, thundering wings of a grouse broke the silence and cleared the aspen tops. Dropping my phone, I was able to shoulder, and I use that term loosely, my shotgun and get a shot off at the bird’s tail feathers.
Grouse will humble any bird hunter — I don’t care if you are a 25-for-25 trap shooter every day of the week. They are cagey, fly fast and reside in the toughest covers to hunt. This is why upland hunters refer to them as the King. But, on that day, I managed to connect.
The bird tumbled through the air as it landed about 40 yards into the aspen from where we had formerly come. Summit stood steady to fall marking the bird — something we had worked on in training, but not something I had been reinforcing on wild birds.
My best guess is that he was as surprised as I was, and that helped to keep him steady. But his intensity did not wane.
I said, “Summit” and tapped him on the head.
With one leap, he cleared the two-track from where his original point was and disappeared into the aspen stand. Rustling and breaking branches shortly stopped as he found the ruffed fellow. His soft mouth delivered the bird to my hand.
There are certain moments in each hunting dog’s life that we never forget — that first point, the first bay on a rabbit, the first time a hound trees a bear and that first retrieve on a duck, among others.
For me, the harvest of that woodcock and subsequent grouse will forever be etched in my mind. The way the woods sounded as it woke up, the smell of an autumn forest wafted through the crisp air and the feel of the wet dew on the ferns as I knelt beside Summit are what I’ll never forget.
I could take you to both of those spots right now. And standing in those locations, you probably wouldn’t smell what I smell or see what I see.
For me, those spots will always belong to my dog and those birds.
They serve as a reminder of what our journey together will come to be.