By Nick Simonson
Thirteen years ago, while walking the north side of the railroad fill at my grandmother’s farm on Christmas eve day, my old lab Gunnar gave me the best holiday gift. Hard off our downhill sprint into the ten-foot wide cattail ditch that paralleled the blacktop highway, he crashed into the reeds, sending fluff into the air. Coming out the other side and into the next stretch, he stood stone still at the edge of the cover.
Slow on the uptake, I didn’t realize it at first, but there it was, his first point. As I approached him with some encouragement, he broke his cocked-legged stance and pounced into the cattails, sending a hen pheasant into the air. On down the line, he’d show off his newly-discovered instinct, and the following day – Christmas – he’d point a rooster on the opposite side of the fill in light cover, which my dad collected with one shot. The moment remains one of my top memories in the outdoors, but is not without its challengers, as season after season, the scene would repeat, most often in light cover or just on the edge of the heavy stuff, where a lean and lanky Gunnar, now 13 and retired, would show us the way to our next shot.
This season, his heir, Ole, already towering over the old man at seven months, and at least ten pounds heavier, has found his stride, particularly in the deeper cover, flushing birds and retrieving them in the thickest sloughs, and doggedly pursuing them through scrub and up hills before sending them aloft after a wild, spinning chase. In his short career, due in part to his size and hard-charging nature, he has earned the nickname “Dump Truck” among our usual group of hunters for his seeming lack of brakes and at times uncontrollable inertia.
Though advertised as a pointing lab when I purchased him, I had seen no signs of the instinct in Ole this season and my concern grew coming into this final month of the pheasant season that maybe he wasn’t as advertised and would be a life-long flusher. In comparison, the breeder at Gunnar’s kennel flopped a ruffed grouse wing attached to a cane pole in front of him upon my arrival, and the pup was on point at just eight weeks of age and the cash flipped out of my wallet faster than a bluegill out of a three-year-old’s hand. Broad-headed and broad-shouldered (really, broad-everythinged), Ole did not look the part of the lean, sneaky pointing lab I had spent my formative hunting years with, but as I would find out on recent back-to-back hunts, he very much was.
We entered a small drain in the waning afternoon light, and with the flush of a nearby hen and a distant rooster, Ole was hard on the trail of the few straggling late-season birds in the grass-and-cattail mix. A few more buff birds took flight as we neared the end of the half-mile walk, and we wound our way around a dry stockpond area, now surrounded by reeds, buckbrush and grasses. Coming out the windward side, Ole gave chase in his youthful, bounding, unrelenting style to the invisible line before him and came upon a small clump of cattails. There he held as I watched the pause from the ridge of the creekbed.
Held hostage in the middle of his pursuit for a few seconds, he eyed the grass. There was no wag in his tail, no shifting in his feet, no forward progress of any kind. The unstoppable force had met its match in an object that refused to move.
“Get it!” I whisper-yelled to my dog as I approached, and his fury returned. He dove in and the cattails erupted with a low flying rooster. Stunned, I shouldered my over-under and the first barrel downed the bird. The events transpired so quickly, I had to replay them multiple times in my head to be certain that he indeed pointed. Praising the dog heavily I filed the point in the “pretty sure” category as we wrapped up the day.
Heading out again for a following-day hunt, we worked a span of grass where I had seen a pair of birds coast in on the drive to the field approach. Walking in the black-and-gold of a recently-cut cornfield, we preserved much of the stretch for an into-the-wind finish and as we made the turn, Ole caught scent in the westerly breezes. Two hens quickly took flight from the folded golden grasses in the drain, and he hastily made his way up into the gray brome which surrounded the main portion of habitat that wound through the ag field. I stepped up my pursuit of his chase, as he easily plowed a wake through the shin-high cover, quickly expanding our usual 15-to-20 yard gap in the field.
He skidded to a stop atop a small rise. He held solid like a block of blonde granite, and in front of him, I could see the reason why. In the small gusts of wind, the brome ahead of Ole would bend and part and the red patch of a rooster pheasant laying low to the ground would peak through the sparse cover. I steadied my pointing lab – I was certain of that fact in that moment – with the same reassuring commands I had given his predecessor and watched him hold against the bird. I took two steps to my left, clicked off the safety and gave him the “GO!” command. The rooster shot up and met the wind, curling from right-to-left, and again my first barrel was true.
Ole found his wheels and sped to the crash site, retrieving the bird to my hand. There was no doubt about it as I smiled, praised him and bagged the rooster he squared off with just seconds before. Peeling away from my behind-the-ear scratches he grabbed the wind and sprinted back into the last 100 yards of grass as our real estate began to run out. Two partridge spun us in different directions in front of the truck, with Ole taking chase after the right one and I downed the one that flushed left, a fitting bonus to a confirmatory hunt that showcased not only his known flushing ability, but also his developing pointing skills.
The two walks will rank in the top of recent outdoor memories and the latter will certainly serve as confirmation of what my dog is, and as one of this season’s greatest gifts, providing with it the hope of many more points and startled flushing roosters to come…in our outdoors.
(Featured Photo: Got the Point. The author’s lab pup, Ole, with a rooster taken on a rock-solid point and a bonus Hun picked up at the end of an exciting walk. Simonson Photo)