Dec. 12 outdoors Great retrieves photo.jpg

A rooster pheasant sans tail feathers is always a good indicator that some outstanding dog work has occurred, despite us doubting humans.

Hunting is about much more than just killing. It’s about the million little details encountered each time one ventures into the outdoors. It’s about sunrises and sunsets in remote places. It’s about sweeping vistas few ever see. It’s about a song bird landing on a nearby branch, or a squirrel peeking into your deer blind.

Ultimately, though, hunting is about killing. That’s an undeniable reality that can’t really be sugarcoated. The justification, ultimately, for hunting is that the hunter eats what they bag. Feeding oneself and family is a noble goal. It’s something we all have to do, whether it’s by purchasing groceries at a store, buying a burger at a fast food drive-thru, or going to the woods and fields to procure wild game.

To eat that wild game, however, one must first recover it after it’s been shot. That’s where the dog/human relationship comes in. A well-trained hunting dog with a good nose is essential to finding downed game.

Over the years, some my greatest enjoyment derived from hunting has come through watching my dogs work. Granted, it can be nerve wracking at times, but once a dog has completed a great retrieve, all that anxiety is worth it.

Pheasant hunting was challenging last season, as there weren’t a lot of birds. Consequentially, January arrived and I still hadn’t bagged a pheasant. While hunting an uncut milo field, a pair of hens got up with a lone rooster between them. I picked out the flushing rooster and fired. To my delight, he fell. Phantom ran towards him immediately.

I was elated. This would be my first rooster of the season. I’d previously missed several and hit a couple that escaped, which is even worse than missing. This bird looked to be a slam dunk, though.

Imagine my despair, then, when Phantom came up empty handed. Worse yet, she started running in the opposite direction!

I called her back over, pointed her in the direction of where I’d last seen the rooster fall, and firmly commanded “fetch.” She found nothing. I was beyond disappointed.

“This will be the third pheasant we’ve lost,” I chastised her, and then coldly declared, “You’re the worst pheasant dog I’ve ever had.”

Phantom calmly took my verbal abuse as she caught her breath. Then she was off again and resumed her backtracking. This time I let her go.

Somewhere inside my pea-brain a switch had finally flipped on that reminded me of that most fundamental and important of working canine adages, “Always trust your dog.”

I followed her out of the milo and into an adjacent cut cornfield. The dog was nowhere to be seen, but there amongst the corn rows were pheasant tracks - with blood on them.

I followed the bloody pheasant tracks across the corn field. When I reached the far side, I started calling frantically for Phantom. Almost immediately she appeared out of the grass, running full steam towards me, a rooster firmly clamped within her jaws.

He was still alive, but all his tail feathers were missing.

I proudly accepted him from my beautiful bird dog and dispatched him, all the while praising her — and apologizing. Without her wonderful nose, my season would have gone pheasantless.

The holy trinity drama of hunter, dog, and quarry is something I’ll never tire of. Our dogs may drive us nuts at times, but their drive and devotion creates cherished memories that will last a lifetime and beyond.

Jarrod Spilger writes an outdoor column for The Independent.

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