By John Moren
This is not a sad story about a good dog’s passing but rather a tribute while we can still scratch his head and thank him. Hunter is a 12 year old, male, yellow lab owned by Brett Waibel of Bad River Bucks & Birds in Draper, South Dakota. Hunter has been loved and admired by the lodge staff, guides, and the dozens of hunting clients privileged to hunt pheasants with him over the years. For an upland hunting dog to live and hunt in the pheasant capital of the world and to be hunted daily with a hard charging, no nonsense, handler like Brett, there is the opportunity to excel. And excel he has. Hunter was born with that fire that the best of his breed exhibit and taught himself those bird hunting tricks no handler can teach.
Hunter is semi-retired now and when not sleeping on the furniture upstairs in the lodge lounge area he might be found on one of the many dog beds downstairs in the dining room. On warm days he might be sprawled on the concrete patio outdoors where the sun can soothe his aging bones and I like to think he is reflecting on great days afield. The younger dogs racing about in anticipation of their day’s hunt still show him a measure of respect much like an aging warrior. But retirement is a bitter sweet pill and Hunter would rather be working if only his body could keep up with his heart.
Brett and the other guides still get him out in the field occasionally for shorter hunting sessions, and given a few minutes to limber up he will still give an honest effort in the field. The bird sense is still there and he can hunt for a few hours like he did all day for months in his prime.
In bird dog parlance Hunter is “a lot of dog”! He would not have been the ideal choice for the gentleman hunter wanting a close handling, shoe polishing gun dog for preserve pheasants. But in the cattail swamps, canary grass sloughs, and kochia grass hells where pressured roosters go for cover there was no better dog. When softer dogs would work the cover edges, taking the easy route, Hunter would seek out the worst cover and beat it to a frenzy, stirring many a sulking rooster to flight. A pointing dog would be at a real disadvantage for that work.
Brett and his guides are of necessity young and lean, able to hunt for miles each day in rough cover. For those clients able to keep up and shoot well it is pheasant Heaven and dogs like Hunter make the difference between success and a hard walk.
When I first met Hunter he was probably seven and still going strong. The cattail pollen looked like a snow storm when Hunter attacked it. I was sure he could not maintain that pace in the rough stuff but he could and did. Whenever we returned to the truck at the end of a push and a water break Hunter would be panting so hard I worried he was a medical emergency. We would pour water bottles on him making a puddle in the truck bed for him to cool. We would try to make him rest a push and hunt another dog. No way! As soon as he heard the shotgun actions closing he would jump out of the truck and lead the hunt again over and over.
I have had considerable experience hunting and field trailing pointers and setters so I truly enjoy dogs with get up and go. We used to say you could work with a strong dog, one with lots of fire, but you could never give an average dog more enthusiasm. Hunter had that fire. I laugh when I see other hunters urging “Ginger” or “Bridget” to “hunt dead”, or “in here”, hunt them up sweetheart”, “use your nose”. Hunter never needed encouragement, he was born with it. I wish I could have seen him as a puppy, I’ll bet the talent was obvious.
At Bad River Bucks & Birds, hunters usually have limits of pheasants by lunch time or just after, allowing late afternoon pass shooting at sharptails or prairie chickens. Three years ago on the way out to the chicken hunt, Hunter was in the truck with me and the guide’s young female lab who Hunter discovered was coming in season. You can imagine the melee that insued as the female resisted Hunter’s advances. At the earliest possible hunting site the guide strongly suggested that Hunter and I get out. Neither the dog or I really enjoy just sitting around waiting for action. Hunter would wander off in the weeds doing something and come by every few minutes to check on me. The first bunch of Sharptails flew over the next Hunter up the line about 100 yards distant but the shooting veered one straggler my way. I missed clean on the first shot but doubled the lead and fired just as the bird flew right into the sun. At the shot the wounded sharpie slanted out into a stubble field about 80 yards from me and too far for a finishing shot. Whatever Hunter had been up to he snapped into action at the sound of gun shots and sight of a wounded bird. Just before Hunter reached the cripple the bird fluttered up 3-4 feet above the stubble and was able to stay just ahead of old Hunter 300 yards or so over to a CRP field where it crash landed. Without hesitation Hunter hit the CRP right after him. In the time it took me to cover the same yardage, Hunter had bounced out of the tall grass three times and then charged right back in with no encouragement needed from me. On his fourth exit he had the bird. That was just typical of Hunter, he was birdy, still is.
I never saw Hunter waste his time chasing a healthy bird nor fail to follow a wounded one. Good retrievers must see about what we see when a flying bird alters his escape flight. Once, several years ago, three of us had surrounded a cattail choked pond while Hunter did his thing in the jungle. A rooster cackled out and I missed the first two easy shots but settled down and hit him with the third. You’ve, no doubt, seen it before—the bird labored but kept going toward an open stubble field. Bad choice! Hunter exploded out of the cattails on a bee line after the pheasant. The bird was losing altitude slanting down toward the stubble and Hunter was accelerating. It was like an old cartoon where the subjects disappear on the horizon. The bird hit the ground and Hunter hit the bird like an open field tackle. The two rolled in a cloud of dust and Hunter returned with our prize. But that was just another day at the office for Hunter. He was one heck of a dog!
Brett lives about three miles from the lodge as the crow flies or the lab runs, and Brett used to take Hunter home with him at night. When Brett would let Hunter out in the morning to do his business, the dog would take off cross country to the Lodge. Brett said he liked the Lodge better or maybe he just didn’t want to miss the next hunt.
For those of us who love dogs and guns we get to see our share of good ones of many breeds. Hunter is such a dog, he was aptly named!
Hunter curled up next to me on the couch in the Lodge lounge last week. I never know when I leave each year if I will ever see him again. I scratched his head and told him for the thousandth time what a great dog he is. He can’t hear any more and wouldn’t understand me if he could. But I do!