In November, my friend Walt called asking for advice on getting a bird dog.
“I’m in the market for a hunting dog and I’m wondering,” he asked: “Has getting older changed your preference for big-running dogs?”
I’ve pondered that query on every subsequent hunt in Palouse wheat fields, scabrock country and Snake River breaks.
Since the phone call, I’ve lost touch with my English setter in the field during 10 hunts – for 5 to 40 minutes at a time.
Usually, I recall Walt’s question as I climb to higher ground looking for my dog, Scout.
Twenty years ago, Walt also had a long-range setter – as opposed to normal setters that range within a single universe. Her name was Hazel and, like Scout, she was lean and ran like the wind.
Turning Hazel loose signaled the hunt was on, not just for birds, but likely for the dog.
On the frequent occasions when she disappeared over a ridge, or maybe the horizon, the thrill of the hunt amped up. We knew that when we found Hazel, she’d probably be standing staunch on point downwind of a quail, pheasant, grouse or partridge.
Hazel nearly succumbed to hypothermia on one wet, cold-weather hunt as she froze, so to speak, on quail in the scablands. After about 30 minutes of searching, we found her hidden in frosty tall grass. We moved in to flush and shoot a couple of birds, but Hazel couldn’t run for the retrieve. She could barely walk.
We had to hustle her back to the rig, fire up the heater and revive her in a steamy cab of wet dog fur and hot coffee. We marveled about the instincts of a pointing dog.
After Hazel, Walt has had close-working Weimaraners. They find birds, retrieve faithfully and his wife loves them. What more does he want?
“They don’t cover as much ground as Hazel,” he said. “It’s not quite as exciting, you know what I mean? But now that I’m in my 60s, I’m looking at not covering as much ground, either.”
Walt has a chance to buy a trained and very birdy setter. He’s more than a little nostalgic and tempted, but he is also tortured by reasonableness.
One thing I’ve learned from decades of hunting with numerous types of dogs is that a good specimen of any breed is a treat to follow through the field.
Cheney-area dog trainer Dan Hoke raises German shorthairs of different temperaments, from close-working dogs to field trial champions best followed from the saddle of a horse.
I’ve never had a more riveting or productive chukar hunt than a day in canyon country with one of Hoke’s national champs. The dog was nicknamed Ben – short for “Where you Ben?”
On the other hand, I had an enjoyable hunt in the Palouse last week with Dick Thiel, a fit retired engineer who thinks out his moves with the precision of a pro calculating bridge design.
Thiel hunts with a wirehaired pointing Griffon that hunts methodically and thoroughly.
The Griff found birds in thick cover on a day of strong, gusty winds while I sometimes left Scout in the rig. Scout literally runs circles around the Griff, but he does not match up to certain cover types and conditions.
A GPS collar might expand my comfort factor with Scout, but at $700 I find a way to put off that purchase.
The mustachioed Griffon is a more versatile dog than Scout. She’ll work in all habitat types. She earned her dog chow that day by busting tall, thick grass to find a downed rooster hiding under a stream bank where many good dogs, including Scout, may not have persevered to look.
Just as I’m choosey about where I put Scout on the ground, I’m also careful not to release him with hunting partners who don’t have the big-running dog chemistry.
Few hunters have stomach for a dog that launches like a rocket down a brush edge to gather scent.
They’ll blame the dog on those occasions when a rooster bursts out a quarter mile away. It’s easy for some hunters to forget the times a rooster blew out in the distance with their dog by their feet.
Perhaps they’ve never seen a pointer run far ahead to cut off a wily running pheasant and pin it with steadiness until the hunters catch up.
I’ve had that thrill a dozen times this season with Scout, although I admit he may have run past birds in the process.
On Sunday along the Snake River, I crawled under a barbed-wire fence where a rancher had given me permission to hunt. I gave Scout his head to range from ridge to ridge while I slowly climbed, sweated and battled with gravity in pursuit of chukars.
Scout covered three times the area a close-working dog would have hunted.
At three hours, he pulled a classic move – the one that converts a lot of hunters to close-ranging dogs.
I’d already gained 2,000 feet in elevation to the canyon rim and was working down a ridge when Scout disappeared.
I milled around from one side of the ridge to the other, looking into the bowels of steep, basalt-rimmed basins.
After about 5 minutes, I saw the sight that’s broken the spirit of more men than the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.
A little black speck on the skyline above was Scout, solid on point. He was a steep, 5-minute uphill climb away.
A lone chukar held 30 yards below a nose that never fails to boggle my mind.
Just as I came uphill into range, the chukar flushed, streaking downhill to the left, giving me only a second to respond. The shot fired simultaneously with the shouldering of the shotgun and the bird disappearing over a ledge.
Scout sprinted down the scree and through a crack in the basalt rim for the retrieve. My day was made.
A hard-pointing, big-running dog will be in my life as long as I have the legs to do him justice. After that, he will always be in my heart.