Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Zone

For the first time this year it's putting down some serious snow outside. The kind of snow that says it's better to stay off the roads. So, I decided to hang out in the warm house and reminisce over my chukar hunt two days ago. Nothing was special about this hunt but my poor shooting brought home the importance of a good hunting dog when it comes to chukar hunting.

Quite often I hear upland hunters say, "it's all about the dog". I have even said that a time or two myself. I, like most other chukar hunters, would never hunt chukars if I didn't have a dog. They are what makes the whole trip exciting and what's more, successful. But, in my opinion, it's not all about the dog but about the teamwork between me and my dog.

There isn't anything more beautiful than a pointing dog locked up on a bird. There's not a bit of movement, tail high (if they have a tail) and you could put a level on their back they are so straight. Thousands of pictures have been taken of dog's that show their ability to lock up on birds or scent of birds. I have hundreds of photos of my dog's on point. But as beautiful as the scene is, it doesn't tell the whole story. The story of how the hunter and the dog got to this moment and what was accomplished by this fantastic ability to hold point.

I hope that nobody takes offense to what I am about to say, but I think there is a lot of difference between a trial dog and a non trial dog's ability. I must admit, I have never been to a dog trial and my knowledge about them is just what I have heard or seen on T.V. It seems to me that those dog's are well trained to accomplish their jobs in a particular way and with a particular style or they are disqualified or not given the style points by the judge. These dogs will still produce birds but I feel they don't have the freedom of a plain old trained hunting dog.

Now, that I have stirred someones blood, let me explain. As the title eludes to, I feel that my dogs and I are often in the zone. You often hear of sports figures being in the zone with either their equipment or with other team mates. Everything is clicking and every movement is in sync. Producing a favorable outcome is almost effortless. It should be no different between a hunter and his dog. They are working for a common goal, and that is to produce birds.

The production of birds doesn't mean just a great point, but what happens during and after the point also. Tucker taught me to give him the freedom to be a bird dog and he would in turn help me get birds. He was the dominant predator and I my job was to close the deal. Now, Riley has taken the position of my prize pointing predator and he continues to amaze me of the canine ability.

Riley is not a huge ranging dog but ranges with a high nose that covers a lot more country than meets the eye. With the latitude I have given him he covers the country in a productive manner and seems to know likely places to find chukars. Just like with Tucker, I know to just follow his lead and we will eventually be into birds. It may be an hour or more before the find, but I know it's going to happen. When it does happen, that is when the teamwork comes into play. Riley and I have been on so many birds that we are most times in the zone with each other. He knows I am coming and how I will probably approach. I know he's not going to break unless there is a good reason. Most of the time the reason is because the birds are no longer there. At that point Riley will relocate on his own without a word from me. There are no deduction points for relocating so get back to do what he does far better than me, relocate them. Sometimes they have already taken flight and many times they have moved away from the original point. Either way, Riley has the freedom to do what he does best.

On our trip two days ago Riley and I were in the zone. The only thing that was in some other zone was my shooting. There is usually something good to say about the bad. This time, because of my poor shooting we had a longer stay on the hill which produced more birds and great dog work. I quit counting productive points at 22. I'll try and describe a few of the encounters so that you might be able to see what I mean by being in the zone and why I love hunting with my dog's so much.

Riley is on point approximately 150 yards away and is patiently waiting for my approach. Since he is below me I position myself to his right so not to shoot over him if the birds flush premature. Riley know that is where I'm coming in from and turns his head slightly to confirm where I am. As I move in front of him and about 20 yards to the right I see the quivering tail suddenly freeze and the intensity magnifies. Obviously he just heard or saw something that made him think they were about to flush.  I put my thumb on the safety and sure enough the birds explode on the next step. At this point Riley is looking for a bird to fall. Once again there is no deduction for him breaking so he can continue doing his thing. Since no bird fell and I didn't say dead bird he was off to find the next covey.

On another of his points I had moved about thirty yards out in front of Riley. He hadn't tried to relocate as I slowly progressed in front of him. I always try and move in about twenty yards to one side or the other of Riley as I approach the birds. It's usually to the right but Riley knows where I'm coming in at. Looking back at Riley, he is as tense as the moment I started to pass him. After hundreds of encounters with Riley, I know that means only one thing. The birds are right there. So, I turn and slowly walk towards him. Sure enough, about five yards in front of him a single busts from the cheat. Time in the field with each other has helped us to know what each other are thinking. I could have move another hundred yards down the hill and he would not move.

A prime example of thinking alike is honoring. This is not trained, but Riley honors me, just as Tucker did when he was alive. By honoring, I mean he'll actually stop and not move if he sees me walking slowly with my gun in the ready position. No different than a creeping dog. H e knows to stop and avoid him flushing the birds. The only way you get that is lots of hours in the field together. Riley even does it when we are in the field together without a gun. They sense the moment and are in the same zone that you are.

Another point Riley had that day produced a result I wasn't quite ready for but was pleased with the result. As I approached his point he suddenly busted down the hill about fifty yards and spun to his left and locked in. I figured he was going to bust some birds, which does sometimes happen. The wind was now at his back. I walked towards him and soon flushed about twenty chukars. Obviously he could see them moving away and circled them, trapping them between him and me. It  makes you wonder how many times that is what your dog was trying to do when you thought he was just rushing birds. A trial dog would not be allowed to do that because it would enforce bad habits but Riley and I were just in the same zone.

Sometimes Riley just looks me in the eyes and seems to tell me "I know where they are so just follow me." The next thing I know he is heading off to the next ridge where he immediately locks up. I don't know if he saw the birds go there or if he heard them. The one thing I know is that he knew they were there and he set out to show me. So, I headed over that way and about ten minutes later I was flushing a nice covey of chukar. I knew not to slow him down or try and turn him. He was on a mission and if it didn't work out he'd return to me and start on another quest.

Another part of being in the zone is the retrieve. When I do hit the bird, which was happening less that day than missing, I give Riley a lot of room for a retrieve. If it's a single or just a couple of birds he usually sees the bird go down and not a word has to be said. But often times a large covey takes flight in different directions and Riley doesn't see the bird go down. When that happens I can say dead bird and Riley will usually look to me for guidance in direction of the bird. Once he hits the scent it's usually a done deal. But at times I might have to move down the hill in the location of the fallen bird and help Riley in the direction. For a retrieving dog that would probably mean deduction points, but for me and Riley it is team work. I will also side hill to make the ascent easier for Riley on his retrieves. Carrying a bird straight up the hill is a lot of work and I do whatever I can to make it easier for him. Also, Riley would probably get deduction points for not bringing the bird straight to me. For some reason he likes to parade in front of me with the bird for a minute or so to show off his prize. All I have to do is tell him to bring it to me and he will bring it to within a step or closer to me and drop it. Once in a while he'll wait for me to take it from his mouth but not usually. Once again. no points added or deducted, but a bird in the bag.

My main thought here is that we spend so much time together that we usually know what each other is going to do, thus being in the zone. Most of our birds are shot in the manner described earlier, but I am not a purist that says if the bird is not pointed by my dog and flushed by me I won't shoot. There are times when a bird flushes wild through no fault of Riley or mine. If Riley rushes the birds to flight I will not shoot because he is supposed to be a pointing dog, not a flusher. That is the only major rule I have and for that reason Riley and I can enjoy the hunt and quite often be in the zone. To us, Chukar hunting isn't all about the dog but about the team and a finished job together.


jc said...

I loved this blog. Neka and I are working toward this. On our last hunt on Monday. She did a lot of teaching, and I finally got back to learning. One thing I seemed to notice is she seems to have an opinion on how I come in. I am thinking now that her frequent looking back and forth must mean I am pushing the birds because the birds were jumping too far out for a shot. I started circling (trying to hide from the birds a bit) around and walking in in an effort to pinch the birds between us and I might be crazy, but it seemed like she didn't look at me nearly as frequently. Either way it definitely produced birds I could shoot at. FYI got to walk in on our longest point yet (571). I thought for sure I wouldn't get there.

larry szurgot said...

Wow! That's fantastic. Being lucky enough to see you and Neka work together I know the two of you have already got to see that zone. Your patience in letting her be a hunting dog instead of a machine shows. 571 yards is proof that she has the tools. Congratulations John.

Hal said...

I recently discovered your blog and enjoy it a lot. You write about the universal truths of hunting over dogs much like professional writers like John Gierach. I also am a GSP guy and much of my experience mirrors yours. I'll look forward to checking in with your blog from time to time. - Hal

larry szurgot said...

Thanks hal. It's amazing how just reading or listening to anothers story reminds us of our own experiences with our canine partners. sometimes they make you laugh and sometimes maybe shed a tear. But they are all special memories.