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We didn’t plan on taking a bird dog along on our pheasant-hunting trip. But we got one just the same. This is how it happened.
Pheasant hunting was a popular sport when I was a young man. My father was an avid pheasant hunter. We had a tradition – Dad and I hunted together on the first day of the season. One fall, with the hunting season fast approaching, I was explaining this tradition to a colleague at work when he said:
“Hey, that sounds really interesting. Do you think your Dad would mind if I came along?”
Eaton Howitt was good at self-invitations.
“Have you ever used a shotgun?” I asked.
“Good heavens, no!” Eaton replied. “I’ve never even held a gun.”
Now, hunting can be a dangerous sport. Most hunters are cautious about who they take along. Eaton was a city guy, through and through. Convincing Dad to let me invite him would be a challenge.
To us young employees, Eaton was an enigma. He was older than us and had come to work for our small employer in the west from a big eastern company. The career flow usually went in the other direction. Within weeks of his arrival, Eaton surprised us by being promoted to one of the company’s more prestigious positions. We found out later he was attempting to make a fresh start after some personal challenges.
Eaton quickly became enamored with the western lifestyle he’d found in his adopted home city. He made friends with prominent ranchers and the families of pioneers, recognizing them as sources of anecdotes for the western-style mystery novels he told us he was determined to write one day. So, an abundance of first hand knowledge about life in the country would be essential.
Evidently, he decided that a pheasant-hunting trip fit his criteria. I knew it would be a challenge to convince Dad to let him come along. Eaton wasn’t making things any easier.
He pestered me for weeks about the hunting trip, asking if I’d talked to Dad. I kept assuring him that I would regardless of my apprehension. The problem was, despite Eaton’s presumed city virtues, his country acumen was noticeable by its absence. He had never hunted before, nor even held a shotgun, and knew nothing about dressing for a hunting trip or for anything else to do with the outdoors.
Opening day was on a Tuesday. I’d booked that day off work as vacation time.
On the Friday before my folks had invited me for supper. They lived in a small town a few miles away.
“I’ve a friend in the office who’d like to go hunting with us,” I told Dad over supper that evening. “What do you think?”
“Has he hunted before?” came Dad’s predictable reply.
“Well, no,” I said. “But I’ve explained to him how it works and what he must do in order to stay safe.”
“Surely he doesn’t want to carry a gun?” Dad said.
“Oh no!” I said. “He doesn’t even have a hunting license. I’ll keep him out of the way. He just wants to see up close what goes on during a pheasant hunt. Do you think that would be all right?”
“Well, all right,” Dad said. “But I don’t like it. Just remember, you’re responsible for him.”
On Monday evening, I arrived back at my parents’ home in time for supper. I had Eaton in tow. Yeah, the timing was strategic – we were both bachelors. Mom’s home cooked meals were culinary treasures to be relished.
Making friends was second nature to Eaton. His unruly mop of dark brown hair and bushy moustache, atop his six-foot 250-pound frame, served to magnify the self-assurance he made no effort to conceal. And his booming voice commanded attention wherever he went.
During supper, Eaton worked his charm. In no time the conversation around the dining room table sounded more like a gathering for old home week than the polite offering of a meal to a stranger.
On Tuesday morning we were up before dawn. Dad had arranged to hunt with a farmer friend who’d posted his land with “No Trespassing” signs all around. The signs kept other hunters away but did not prohibit hunting, as “No Hunting” signs would have done.
Crops that were grown on the farm required irrigation. That meant the all-important irrigation ditches. Pheasants loved to hide in those ditches. Being fall, crops had been harvested for the year. Water was no longer required to grow crops. The six-foot-deep ditches were dry. Weeds that blew into the bottoms of the ditches provided excellent hiding places for pheasants.
Eaton appeared to be almost as eager as he was apprehensive.
Hunters normally take turns walking along the bottom of the ditches to flush out pheasants from hiding places. Those walks are unpleasant and unpopular. It means stumbling through waist-deep tumbleweeds with their razor sharp needles. As protection, experienced hunters wore old jeans or coveralls over regular blue jeans. Worst of all, hunters down at the bottom of the ditches seldom got a shot at a pheasant.
A few other hunters in our area had trained bird dogs they could send down into the ditches. We didn’t.
“Where do you want me to be?” Eaton asked as we gathered beside a long irrigation ditch that reached across a big harvested field, the soil prepared for winter.
“Walk along the bottom of the ditch,” Dad instructed an unsuspecting Eaton. “From there you’ll have a good view of what goes on, and it’ll be a lot safer for you. The rest of us will be walking along the top. We’ll be on both sides of the ditch. When the pheasants fly up, we’ll start shooting. So make absolutely sure that you don’t get ahead of us.”
Eaton seemed to like the idea of the good view, and he took to heart in particular Dad’s advice about him keeping level with us.
When the hunt ended for the day, Eaton’s city-type pant legs were torn in a multitude of places by thorns, he had blisters on his feet from the city oxford shoes he’d been wearing, and above all for him he had a story to tell everyone back at the office. But in typical Eaton style, he went one better even than that.
He had arranged to write a weekly column for the local newspaper that normally was about events in the city. When his next column appeared, it told a harrowing tale with tongue firmly in cheek of how he’d been pressed into service against his will as the world’s very first two-legged bird dog.
“The Bird Dog” is Copyright 2015 by James Osborne. All Rights Reserved
Note: My father’s enthusiasm for hunting the colorful ring necked pheasant was based on a relationship with them not everyone may understand. Dad held a deep respect for the birds and the personal challenge that hunting them posed. He hunted nothing else. Dad respected how clever these wily birds were at hiding, and how incredibly fast they flew when flushed. Dad was an excellent shot but when he missed I’m convinced he was proud of them for getting away from him.
Image Credits: Drawing of pheasant courtesy of vectorolie at FreeDigitalPhotos.net. All other photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net