Sunday, December 18, 2016

My oh my

The weather has reached the single digits for the high temperatures which triggered my urge to stay in the house. Even though there are some football games to watch, my mind still wanders off to the mountains and the well over 1000 chukar hunts I have had with my canine companions while Jake stairs out the window and looks at the possibilities.
I thought back to a conversation I had with another chukar hunter earlier this year. This fellow stopped by my camp and by the time he left I knew everything there was to know about hunting chukars. In short, getting birds really isn't that important, but what was important was how you got them. First off, you must have a dog with certain lines in his pedigree. I learned that these dogs with the great pedigrees will out perform anything else on the mountain. Secondly, they have to pass the NAVDHA tests. His dog had one more test to complete and than he was on his way to the "hall of fame."

I don't know much about these test or trials, but I'm sure that I have never had a dog that would excel in them. As I ponder over my hunts I can remember quite a few text book points from all my hunting dogs. You know, the ones with one front leg bent, a rigid straight back, high tail and pointed head. But I remember many more that weren't quite as classy. Those points that would not make the hall of fame or raise the bar on the pedigree. Dakota, the smallest shorthair that I've had, quite often squatted in his points and almost sat with his butt just inches off the ground at times. The important thing, as far as I am concerned, was that most of the time these points produced birds which was what we there for. Tucker, my first shorthair, was probably my boldest but would still back off a point and come back to get me if I didn't show up on time. He would usually back off slowly, not spooking the birds, come back and make eye contact with me and then go back and repoint the birds. It took me some time to believe he was really doing this, but after several confirmations with other hunters watching I became a believer. I think Jake has done Tucker's trick a couple of times but time will tell whether it was luck or not. Riley, being such a tall dog, was caught in a variety of weird position's on his points. With his longer tail he also had some beautiful stylish points, but the point I remember the most was a point when he had a chukar in the rocks right under his belly. I remember how goofy he looked as he stared at me. I didn't know where the bird was, but I knew by his staunchness that there was a bird close by.  Riley probably giggled as I missed the bird that surprised me with his location. Jake, like all the others, has some quirky points, but I'm still wondering how long he might hold a point until I get there. At almost four years old I'm sure I'm in for more surprises. I would say that only 25% of my dog's points would pass the test or trials that are required to become a hall of fame dog. 

As far as stop to flush. My dogs would get a grade of F if that were required. As the birds rise to my flush, so do the dogs. I do realize the safety issue of having a dog hold as you shoot, but I don't have anyone hunting with me but Conner. Conner is well aware of how unimportant a shot is whenever a dog is close by. The flush is very exciting both for the human and the canine components. How many of us feel our heart beat step up a pace or are startled by the flush? I think dogs have the same reaction and it doesn't make them a poor hunting dog to show an excited reaction. For me, if they take off running forever, it's a different type of reaction than the short 25 yard chase. Once they see no birds falling they're back to finding birds. I trained Riley to stop at the flush and it became quite a headache for me. There were times when he would bust a covey a couple of hundred yards up the hill from me and would lock up. All the begging and pleading wouldn't get him to break. I had to get to him and kick  at the brush before he resume hunting. It saved me a lot of miles once I got him to quit. I think the pup should get a better grade for hustling after the birds at the flush instead of staying froze on point. It creates shorter retrieves on the steep slopes and we all know how far a bird can get in just a couple of seconds falling down those chukar slopes.

Honoring is probably one of the places my dogs would excel in one of these tests or trials. They have all honored naturally. That is probably the biggest thing I miss about hunting with multiple dogs. It's amazing to watch how they learn to work together when taken out enough. That competitiveness soon becomes team oriented. Dakota developed his own style of helping me get birds while honoring. If he was the honoring dog, he would back off point as I approached and circle around behind me and try and come in on the birds from a different angle. I'm guessing that is a pack animals way of trapping the prey in between them. Quite often it worked and at other times it made shooting a little dangerous. I never tried to stop him from doing this because it was his personal style. I'm thinking he might have been down graded if he were in a trial. To this day, some of my fondest memories are when I had all three dogs, Tucker, Dakota and Riley on point and honoring. Even a few times I had the chance of seeing all three retrieving birds to me at the same time. That's like making the game winning catch in the super bowl and something that can't be scored in any contest.

Now, let's score the retrieve.  It always has amazed me how important the retrieve is to most upland hunters. I agree that it is very important that we get the downed bird, but does it actually have to be given to the hand? In some cases the dog must sit beside the handler and then deliver. I also see some contests where the dog must deliver the bird to no more than one step from the handler. Every one of my dogs would get a good score about 1/3 of the time. It depends on the terrain, type bird and how long we have been in the field. I've never had to force fetch a dog and maybe that's because of their willingness to get a dead bird and bring it to me. I don't scold them for parading around with the bird for a while or just dropping it close to me. Because I hunt a lot and stay out for hours at times, I won't put restrictions on to my dog's deliveries that makes it any less fun for him. At the end of a long day in the hot weather and on steep slopes I have to be pretty lazy to not make an effort to move towards my dog who has already made x amount of retrieves. By now his mouth is dry and he just once to get the bird out of his mouth and wet his lips. A perfect retrieve has no importance right now. Dakota use to chase wounded birds down the slopes with an exuberant yip. You could hear his barking bounce off the canyon walls and when it stopped you knew he was on his way back up the hill with bird in mouth. Tucker had a finicky mouth. He had no problem with chukars and would usually hold them until I took them from his mouth but wanted to spit huns out as soon as he got to me. I quit shooting quail around him. He couldn't help but to swallow them. He would be coming back to me with the bird going deeper and deeper down his throat and all the hollering couldn't stop it. He looked at me like I can't help it, there is something evil in my gut pulling it down. I just found it easier not to shoot the occasional quail around him. They'd probably banned Tucker from hunt contests even though he was one of the greatest chukar dogs I've ever seen. Jake, once in a while delivers to hand, but more often lays the bird on the trail I might be on. He also parades around me quite often with the bird. I've finally figured out that those birds he parades with are still alive. He's had to chase enough cripples down hill twice to know not to put them down. We have finally developed a system where he lays the bird down on the hill right above me where I make a quick grab and hopefully get the bird before another chase resumes. It works most of the time, but can you imagine the score the trial judges would be giving me.

I don't know how they judge on quartering and covering country, but I'm sure my boys actions would not score high. Thanks to the Astro, the guessing game as to where they are is usually taken care of. Although my dogs have all been great at checking in at regular intervals, I never know in which direction they are coming from. It always amazes me how a dog can be covering country 200 yards ahead of you and suddenly show up behind you. When you are chukar hunting you can't walk the field into the wind. Not only are the winds constantly changing on the slopes the terrain makes it impossible to always walk into the wind. Dogs figure out how they want to cover the country and find birds. Riley, my too tall shorthair, had his own way of covering the field. He saved miles on his legs by covering trails with his head up high and when he caught any scent would vacate the trail towards the smell. Although he traveled fewer miles per trip than any of my other shorthairs he found more birds than the rest. Jake puts on more miles than any of my dogs in the past, but he also checks in more than the rest did, a trait that trial runners say is a waste of valuable energy.

I've never heard much talk about any way of rating a dog for ability to find a crippled bird. If there were, I'm sure Jake would be high on that list. When dead bird comes out of my mouth, Jake becomes relentless at finding a bird on the ground. My Astro showed he once traveled down a ridge over 400 yards and came back with a crippled bird I had shot. Just three days ago, Jake was retrieving a bird to me when another cripple jumped from his path and flew over the rocks behind him. I though it looked crippled but didn't see enough to know for sure. Jake dropped the bird he had in his mouth and began the chase. I had to walk down the hill ten yards and pick up the dropped bird and wait for Jake's return. Sure enough, up he came with a crippled bird. I can't say how many times Jake has retrieved a bird to me while other birds were taking off and didn't drop the bird in his mouth but with this bird he knew. He probably would have been deducted points for this in a trial but I thought it was pretty darn cool.

How many of us have seen our dogs point a bird while he had another chukar in his mouth? I don't recall Riley or Jake ever doing this but I can recall several times Tucker and Dakota doing it. There should be bonus points for this. It is pretty impressive watching dogs do blind retrieves but I'll settle for walking towards the area of the downed bird and repeating dead bird until my dog finally finds it. It's not as glamorous, but it gets the job done.

I can't judge as to whether a field trial dog or just a plane old hunting dog is better at finding birds because I have never watched a fieled dog hunt. I do know that my dogs seem to find more birds than most other guys. They haven't been trained any better or come from a specific line. The only qualification I cared about when picking a pup is that the parents were hunters and that he is brown. (The color makes no difference except for my preference). What makes them better bird finders is time in the field. Every one of my shorthairs have had 60 plus hunting days on the chukar mountains per year plus another 40 during the off season. They know where and how to find chukars. They have never hunted pheasants so they probably aren't as good in the beat fields or stubble as most others.

Swimming is another thing required by some of the trial enthusiasts. Three out of four of my shorthairs loved swimming. They would troll out in my pond all day if allowed, but the minute the temperature drops they wanted nothing to do with the water. Jake is the only shorthair that I've owned that doesn't like the water, but he handles cold and wet weather better than the rest. Go figure. So my dogs fail again when it comes to the water aspect.

So I have to face the fact that my dogs will never make the hall of fame. They will only be recognized by me for their great feats. Only the few others that have ever hunted with me will ever realize their greatness along with me. But, that's good enough for me. I don't have to watch no film or read any book to relive their hunting success. All I have to do is close my eyes and think back to our hunts. I can dream of those hunts and the hunts to come and know they scored an A+ for me. My boys may not make the hall of fame the trialers are so proud of but they make great pictures in my hall for the fabulous thrills they have given me.

My wish for all of you dog owners, no matter what kind of breed or what their purpose may be, is that you take the time out on these cool days and appreciate the joy and excitement they bring us. Close your eyes and relive some of their funny and great moments. Think about what you would have lost without these animals in your life and when the time permits, take them out and do something that they like. Show them a Merry Christmas with a treat. They have no idea what that plaque on the wall is for.

Also, to the trialer I spoke of earlier, Merry Christmas. I hope your efforts are worth it and your dog makes that hall of fame. There is definitely a reason for the trials. They do keep the breeders more honest and also hare a valuable tool for picking hunting companions. Just do me a favor. The next time someone visits with you about hunting dogs and shows some sdmiration, repay the compliment and maybe hear their story. The shorthair that was sitting next to me was Jake and yes we did get some birds.

Merry Christmas to all of you chukar nuts out there.


Mr. McMichael said...

Wonderful post, Larry. I found myself saying "check" many times, as you might imagine. I especially enjoyed the part about honoring and backing because I'm experiencing my first two-dog hunting, and the joys are always topped by watching Peat back Angus (sometimes vice versa). I've got some good video of that. Anyway, thanks for giving me something good to read on a weekend we had to pass on because of the temperature. And thanks for the reminder to honor our dogs. Best wishes for the holidays!

Joey said...

I'm glad you decided to post something about this topic. And you did it gracefully without being snarky. It's too easy these days to hind behind the internet and say all kinds of nasty things.
I've actually had several similar interactions over the years. I run english pointers. I don't think that they're better than any other breed. I just prefer them. For some reason NAVHDA guys (GSP guys specifically) always feel the need to explain to me in excruciating detail why my dogs (whom they have NEVER seen hunt) wouldn't be able to pass the hunt tests. And I have to assume that this means I have lousy bird dogs.
Like you, Larry, I am fortunate to be able to put my dogs onto wild birds throughout the entire year. My dogs will never be champions but they know their business better than most simply because of the unlimited wild bird opportunities that I have here in Montana. They do everything that I want them to do: point, back, retrieve, hunt-dead, check in frequently, etc. Do my dogs truly "like" water? I don't think so, but they sure love to swim when it's warm out! Do they enjoy "tracking running pheasants" like a hound with its nose to the ground? I don't know because I personally don't like pheasant hunting.
Nobody can tell you what makes for a good dog. A good dog will get the job done in a way that you find personally satisfying.

larry szurgot said...

Thanks Joey, very well put.