It happened suddenly, coming up out of a yellow-leafed draw, my lab puppy, Ole — which until that point had lazily wandered in and out of the grass, kept pace behind my boots, and attempted to bite the other dogs in our opening weekend pheasant hunting group — took off. He switchbacked in a heart-pounding pursuit and followed the invisible lines up the small depression in the hillside, quartering back just enough so that I could hear the pump-pump-pump of his nose deciphering the Morse code of scent laid out in front of him by a running bird. Dazed a bit by the sudden change in pace, I stepped up my pursuit and followed him up to the shelterbelt, where he made a final lunge which sent a rooster through the trees and safely out into the clear blue western North Dakota skies. Amazed, I praised the puppy and as I gave him a celebratory scratch under his chin and on his head, I could see in his sharp brown eyes that the fire for pheasant hunting had been lit.
The following day, in the cold northwest winds, we headed into the cattails across the railroad fill from our old family farm. A wounded rooster from a previous group’s hunt provided scent for Ole and his litter mate, Berkley, as we entered the field, and they took chase as it sprinted off toward the slough just west of our starting point. The two little labs followed the winding trail up to the reeds, and Ole, being the larger of the pair, joined me in the thick stand of dry vegetation. As he rattled through the stems and bases, fluff from the brown-and-cream tops began to break loose and fill the air. Along with it, 20 yards deeper, two hens took flight followed by a rooster, chased by my errant shot and Ole’s continued plunge into the deep cover. His continuous plowing produced another flush, a young rooster just on the edge of my range, and I sent him back into the cover, some 50 yards away.
Calling for assistance to search for our downed quarry, Ole and I set to work in the area I had marked. I gave the dead bird command we had worked on with wings all summer and he began searching the area, but to no avail. Backing up after a few minutes, I allowed him to play the wind. Disheartened that he had not found the bird after several more minutes of searching, I began looking for his flash of white that had gone still deep within the reeds. Pressing the tone button on his field collar, I heard a faint beep about 10 yards away from the search area. Clicking it again, I zeroed in on my dog’s location — right on top of the downed bird! It was a successful start to the fall and his first season in the field.
Flash forward to the Minnesota Governor’s Pheasant Hunting Opener and a return to Marshall for the event I found myself in familiar fields, working Ole as a fill in for my friend’s injured pup. Winding through grassy hillsides of a pair of Wildlife Management Areas and along a small drain in the connected private land we were assigned for the event, my pup perked up as something caught his attention as we crested over the white grass. He began the winding pursuit aggressively snorting up what the bird was putting down. He tore along the small spine of a rise and dashed to his left in a strong arc, which sent a rooster up out of the light cover and before it quickly peeled off in front of one of the hunters. A light shot sent it careening into the slough edge nearby and with the help of another host’s dog on the far side of the line, the bird eventually came to hand. I could not have been prouder of the hard pursuit he put forth to fill the void.
While I wasn’t surprised at his early success after a summer of work on commands, scent-trailing wings, and a few opportunistic flushes of pheasants and partridge that found themselves awkwardly out of the nearby cover and on the lawns of our housing development, as I watched my young pup turn into a hunting dog, and old adage came back to me from 13 years ago when I was first working with my mostly-retired lab, Gunnar. While, as dog owners, many times we think we’re training them, particularly in the off-season, it’s their instinct and a new set of cues that end up training us when we find ourselves in the hunt once again…in our outdoors.