We walked across the south side of the ridge, the road angling down the mountain between a series of switchbacks. This was the uppermost leg of the trail. We had just hunted the ridge top and were now returning the mile or so to the truck. Peck was working fairly close to me on my right. He had the habit of staying close and checking in with me frequently as young dogs often do. Kaia was working farther up the same slope to my right, making large loops uphill into the snowberry bushes and jack pines, sometimes wandering slightly beyond gun-range as she chased down an interesting scent. One of the bittersweet changes in our hunting this year has been watching Kaia evolve without Vee there hunting beside her.
I’ve heard and read other hunter’s claims that it takes 3 seasons to make a good grouse dog. Three years sounds about right to me. Great grouse dogs keep learning after that too. Sometimes when a good campfire is burning and an uncertain amount of adult beverages have been imbibed, you can hear about the dog that went straight from the whelping box to the grouse woods and laid straight into the game. I’ve heard about this amazing dog several times but alas, have never actually met him or hunted over him.
Watching Kaia and Peck work the hillside above me made readily apparent the very different stages of my dogs’ development. Peck is in the first stage. This is his first real season. He tagged along with us last year on a hunt and it was plain that he was not ready to hunt at 5 months, nor was he expected to be.
This year is different. He’s ready to hunt. He’s a solid retriever, he searches diligently for birds and he has great energy and excitement. Kaia is far more composed in her expenditure of energy. She seems to cover more ground without running herself ragged. She doesn’t show much excitement until she smells a bird, then it’s like a big switch turns on inside her. There’s no question that she is working a bird. Peck maintains a higher excitement level all the time and it’s not as easy to tell when he’s getting ready to flush a bird.
Kaia finds more birds than Peck. She seems to know where to look for the birds and how to find the bird when she first gets a whiff of that delightful grouse scent. Now in her 4th hunting season, Kaia has learned how to find the birds, how to conserve her energy by not chasing down rabbit and squirrel scent, and this year she has begun to finesse the manner in which she flushes the bird.
I noticed early in the season that an unusual number of birds were flushing toward me. When I first noticed this I chalked it up to dumb luck. After hunting with the dogs for 6 weeks I am ready to embrace the theory that Kaia is figuring out how to push birds towards me. This is why I’ve been so careful about limiting her hunting range. Of course I want her to work in range but I don’t spend a lot of time or energy forcing the issue. I’ve always believed that every brain cell that a bird dog uses to think about me is a brain cell that is not looking for birds. As much as I like a well-trained and well behaved dog, I give my dogs a lot of latitude in the field.
Back on the hillside, I see Kaia’s tail start to revolve as she charges uphill and disappears behind a clump of stunted mountain pines. About 3 seconds later I hear the bird flush nearly 50 yards above me on the rocky hillside. When I catch sight of the grouse he is rocketing almost directly downhill at me. He seems to catch sight of me at the same time and makes a sharp right turn placing him on a course directly down the trail away from me. At this point he is about 30 yards in front of me. Peck throws himself into a SIT at the sound of my shot. Kaia is still out of sight but is presumably sitting as well. I blow 2 sharp blasts on the whistle and both dogs come running toward me. Peck is first to arrive at my side where I tell him to sit as we wait for Kaia to come bounding down the hillside.
From the HEEL position I show Kaia the line to the bird with my left arm and send her for the retrieve. After a brief search, she picks up the bird and returns to the HEEL position, holding the bird gently until I take it from her.
Doesn’t that sound just about perfect? It was one of the hunts where everything just came together. These are the ones we remember. Little snapshots like this fasten themselves to the inside of my brain and help me forget all the little screw-ups that can happen over the course of a season.
Maybe I should tell you about some of the less successful, wacky, goofball things that happened before I forget them all? Perhaps it’s easier to enshrine the perfect hunts in my memory if I conveniently forget my many errors?