Memories of Bird Dogs and Old Friends
I vividly remember the very first bird dog I hunted over. His name was Ben and he was an energetic and very birdy American Brittany spaniel. Ben was owned by my good friend and hunting partner, Jim Sellers. Jim introduced me to hunting roughly 15 years ago, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Jim and I spent many an early morning watching the sun come up over the marsh, or trudging through some thick New England wood looking for woodcock and partridge. I can’t tell you how many birds we missed during those early years, but it was all made worthwhile by watching Ben work his magic. A well-trained bird dog is truly something to behold.
It’s been a few years since old Ben passed on, but I can still remember one of his best days afield. Jim and I decided to hunt a stretch of Cape Ann woods that bordered an old hay field. This parcel of land is known for holding a number of woodcock in the spring, especially when mating and pairing begins in March/April. The birds are still around in the early fall, just before the harsh winter rolls in and freezes everything solid. From October to mid-November, the woodcock are thick in this patch of woods. Ben was let out of the truck to stretch his legs while Jim and I donned our hunter orange and got our guns ready. Jim lit up a Marlboro, took a drag, and said “Let’s go! Ben, find’em!” And, we were off.
It didn’t take long for Ben to find his first bird – probably no more than 10 yards from where we parked the truck. Jim was leading the way, following closely on the heels of Ben who was working around a tangled mess of bull briar. For some reason, which I still can’t explain to this day, woodcock gravitate toward the nastiest and thickest patches of bull briar. I often wonder how they manage to get in there, and how they manage to burst from the leaf litter and reach the treetops in what seems like a microsecond. Ben was maneuvering through the undergrowth, nose to the ground working hard to pick up the scent of a bird when it happened. The telltale jingle-jingle of the bell around Ben’s neck fell silent as he slammed hard into a point. Somewhere in the thicket in front of us was a woodcock. Jim softly commanded, “Whoa, Ben” and then turned to me and whispered, “Ben’s on point.” I looked ahead and marveled at the sight of Ben locked solid on that bird, which was hidden somewhere in front of us. Every fiber of Ben’s body screamed “BIRD!” His back made a straight line, his ears perked at attention, and all four feet were glued to the ground. Ben’s eyes focused like laser beams on the ground three or four feet in front of his nose. Beyond a doubt, surely there was a bird somewhere in the carpet of oak and maple leaves that covered the ground.
Jim took one or two steps forward while Ben held point on the bird. Ben didn’t budge, and he wouldn’t until the bird broke cover. Another step or two and that was about all the timberdoodle could take. In a flurry of wings and erupting leaves the woodcock sprung skyward in an effort to escape. Jim brought the 12 gauge shotgun to his shoulder, fired two quick shots, and in a matter of seconds the bird had a punched a hole in the canopy and was gone. Some words muttered under his breath, Jim turned to me and remarked with a wry smile, “Ah well, sometimes that happens.” While the experience of the first flush of the morning was certainly exhilarating, the best part was watching Ben find and point that woodcock. Every part of his DNA was engineered for finding, pointing, and retrieving game birds. Ben was a purpose-built dog, and I think he loved the thrill of the flush just as much as Jim and I did. In fact, I know Old Ben loved it more.
I’ve had the opportunity to hunt over and meet a number of bird dogs over the years, including German Shorthairs, English Setters, a few Small Munsterlanders, and some English Cockers. In the winter of 2009, I acquired a dog of my own. My quest for a bird dog began soon after I watched Ben point that woodcock all those years ago in the Dogtown woods. I knew for certain that I wanted a spaniel; a dog like Ben. To me, spaniels seemed to be everything one could want in a bird dog – natural ability, drive, stamina, intelligence, and good nature.
About 14 years ago, I met a local friend on one of the many sporting dog forums that can be found on the Internet. I mentioned to her that I was looking for a dog and was giving serious consideration to buying an American Brittany. She told me that she had a Brittany and would be more than happy to introduce me to Ranger. I met up with Jane at a hunt club and game preserve in Royalston, MA. Ranger was a three-year-old Brittany – but, not just any Brittany. Ranger was a French Brittany; a breed of dog that I had only heard about but never actually seen in action. At roughly 18-20 inches at the shoulder and no more than 35 pounds, Ranger was a pistol. Jane took me out for a training walk with Ranger, and I was able to watch him point, hold steady to flush and shot, and then retrieve a half-dozen chukar partridge. After spending three or four hours with Jane, my mind was made up and my heart was set on getting my own French Brittany.
As is often the case with life, work commitments, new children, and money constraints prevented my wife and I from getting a dog right away. Until we were ready, I spent my time reading everything I could about gun dog training, selecting the right puppy, finding the right breeder, and making pup a member of the family. I became a member of NAVHDA and spent time talking with members about dog training. I even joined a local chapter. About four years ago, we took the plunge and sent a down payment for a pup to Bill and Kathy Dillon of Plum Creek Kennels, the same breeder of Ranger. In December 2009, our family made the trip to Logan Airport to pick up our new family member. That was the beginning of a new adventure filled with apprehension, laughter, joy, a bit of terror, and a sense of excitement for what the future would hold for our new bird dog in the making.
I hope to fill some pages of this blog with anecdotes from the last 3+ years, recounting stories and adventures with our dear friend and my current hunting companion, Elly-Kira de Plum Creek (Kira). Like Ranger, Kira is a pistol in the woods who loves to hunt and point birds, and would probably chase woodcock from sunrise to sunset if she could.
I hope you’ll check in from time to time as I tell the rest of the story…..