Foolin’ With Puppies

I was visiting with an old Army buddy, and fellow bird hunter, several years ago and got to spend about an hour in the presence of a litter of seven week-old English setter puppies. They are at that rambunctious age of developing their own personalities and exploring the world. Let out of the kennel, they bounded around tussling with each other and exploring the area near the tree line.

Little Oscar, with black and tan patches around his eyes, sat and tilted his head with that “pick me up” look. I complied not so much for him, but so I could feel the roughness of his tongue on my cheek and smell that sweet puppy breath. I’ve always wondered why all puppy breath smells the same despite the choice of puppy food.

Then there was Tina, named after her mother, who playfully swung Al’s glove around her tiny body. Big John had to be coaxed from the warmth of the doghouse because of the morning chill. He’s going to be big like his father and will probably grow to be Al’s field trial prodigy. Wee Bit, the runt of the litter, was showing that despite his size he was to be reckoned with by sneaking up on his siblings and jumping on them.

Not having been around puppies for a while, my last dog came to me at the age of four months, I have forgotten what a rejuvenating experience they are. I like foolin’ with pups. They make me feel younger than my years. I suspect if someone took the time to study it, they would find that bird dog owners who train their dogs from puppy hood tend to live longer. Age is just as much a function of the mind as the body.

Some folks like to get their bird dogs started or broke. They are missing out on something. All of my bird dogs have come to me as pups or young. I’m no great shakes at training and my dogs’ performance will attest to that. Watching a puppy chasing butterflies in the back yard evokes visions of him working a favorite local grouse cover or coursing through an altar thicket in her first annual trip to Wisconsin. To some the grouse wing on a string is a cute trick, but seeing that new pup do it allows me to envision that first solid point along the edge of a laurel thicket on a crisp Autumn morning.

In his book Mans Search for Meaning, psychologist Viktor Frankel explains how many people who survived Hitler’s concentration camps were able to do so because they had a purpose in life; a reason for living. That’s what puppies do for the bird hunter. They give us the reason to look to the future, to keep hunting. Looking to the future keeps us young.

Kennel space and finances didn’t allow me to bring one home. I’m sure if I’d asked Al would have let me take Oscar and pay later. We connected from the outset. On the four-hour ride home we would have talked about the future, explaining what kind of hunting we would do and where we would go. He would hear about those that preceded him and why they were so special, although not perfect. We would also come to an agreement that although I had high expectations of his performance, I would also excuse the occasional transgression. As long as he understood I’m not the best wing shot in the land, and his forgiveness on that matter would be expected in return.

When we got home he would meet his kennel mate and hunting buddy and I’m sure she would fill him in on how to train me. As I led him through the back yard and started the initial training, there would be youthfulness in my step. Training would be done with a smiling face and laughter at the clumsiness and short attention span that is part of being a puppy.

Just like some people get the new car itch every August, I’m getting the new puppy itch come December. Despite my lifelong affair with Setters, a Boykin Spaniel may better suit my hunting style as I slow down a bit. There’s a pup out there somewhere that will put a smile on my face and add a few years as only foolin’ with puppies will do.

The Christmas Gun

How many kids will get their first gun this year as a Christmas present? That’s why we relate to little Ralphie and his Daisy Red Rider in A Christmas Story. I was Ralphie as I approached Christmas of my 10th year. All I wanted for Christmas was a gun. We had already been the BB gun route. I wanted a REAL gun. And Santa came through for me with a  J.C. Higgins .410 single barrel shotgun. I guess it was a coincidence that my Dad worked at Sears & Roebuck at the time.

The first thing Dad said was, “You are not going to shoot the gun until you memorize and can recite back the 10 rules of gun safety in the box.” A task accomplished within a couple of hours. So we went out to the woods on the edge of town that afternoon with the box of Sears .410 3” #6 shot and I shot a few empty cans. While other kids were riding bikes I was shooting a real gun! Poor other kids. I also got a pair of hunting boots and pants to get me ready for my first safari. And it wouldn’t be long in coming.

It just so happened that my great-uncle Jim was home on leave from the Air Force. He was a hunter. So on December 26th he and I departed for another great-uncle’s farm about 20 miles away. We were going to spend the night and go rabbit and squirrel hunting the next day. Uncle Jim was a big man with a booming voice that woke me up on the 27th with, “Hey boy. Wake up and look out the window.” To my amazement there was close to a foot of freshly fallen snow on the ground! Unusual for north Alabama (and also dating myself since there was no weather radar to warn us).

Aunt Ruth fixed us a hearty breakfast and off we went, Uncle Jim in the lead and me trying to keep up with my 10 year old short legs. There was nothing else to do but hunt! Road were covered in snow and power was out. Uncle Jim carried his Winchester Model 42 (which I now have) and me with my J.C. Higgins walking the fence lines and oak bottoms.

For two days we would go out in the morning to hunt, come in for lunch and dry our clothes by the gas heater, then repeat in the afternoon. I don’t remember what or how much I killed. I seem to remember bagging a couple of squirrels along with Uncle Jim popping several squirrel and rabbits. I also remember Aunt Ruth cooking squirrel dumplings and fried rabbit those evenings. I shot at blackbirds, blue jays, and anything that moved; never hitting any of them. But I was out hunting!

After a couple of days the roads cleared and we returned home. Thus began my immersion into the hunting life. People smarter than me say there are certain events in your life that imprint your personality. I know I’ve had others throughout life that influenced my behavior. Those two snowing days with Uncle Jim in Ohatchee. Alabama stirred something in my DNA that said, “You are a hunter. Embrace it.” And I’ve never looked back.

Uncle Jim was my hunting mentor in my early years. We hunted squirrel, rabbit, dove and quail together. There was a succession of other guns after the little .410. A single barrel twelve I reconditioned. A Ted Williams 20 gauge pump followed by a Stevens 20 gauge side x side. There have been numerous guns over the last 50 odd years. The tools have changed but the hunter hasn’t. That little J.C. Higgins shotgun is long gone but what it did for me starts something stirring in late August and continues through the winter. The urge, more the need, to hunt.

Let me close with a quote from Gene Hill. “As long as there is such a thing as a wild goose, I leave them the meaning of freedom. As long as there is such a thing as a cock pheasant, I leave them the meaning of beauty. As long as there is such a thing as a hunting dog, I leave them the meaning of loyalty. As long as there is such a thing as a man’s own gun and a place to walk free with it, I leave them the feeling of responsibility. This is part of what I believe I have given them when I have given them their first gun.”


Meditation Room


Here's one we've gotten a lot of feedback on from our Asheville Tribune outdoor column.

I was sitting in the doctor’s office one day thumbing through an out of date magazine about homes and home improvement. Besides the obvious thought to find a doctor that subscribed to outdoor magazines, my eyes caught an article about a trend in homes, meditation rooms. It is described as a place of “spiritual sanctuary” to get away from the stresses in life. The room is arranged using feng shui (Chinese for expensive furniture) to provide flow and energy in the room. The room described even had an altar with spiritual symbols as a focal point.

This got me thinking: What would my meditation room be like? The altar would be an open fireplace with a long mantel to place spiritual symbols on. Not one of those gas log jobs. I’m talking about build your own fire with kindling, matches and oak logs. It must be part of my prehistoric DNA. There’s something about a crackling fire that relaxes to spirit.

I know what spiritual symbols would sit on the mantel. There’s the first quail my son shot when he was 12.  I had it mounted with the empty 20-gauge shell he used to kill it. It symbolizes a new generation of hunter and memories over the years. Next to that would be a picture we took that same day of my dad, my son, and me giving thumbs up before we left the house. Also on the mantel would be an old Zebco 33 reel Dad used. That’s the only kind he used over all the many years we fished together. It symbolizes my introduction to the outdoors and memories of small farm ponds and slab crappie at Weiss Lake. Of course there’s got to be a couple of old leather dog collars lying on the mantle with reminders of days in the field with all the bird dogs. I love what dogs add to the sport and can’t imagine hunting without them.

There’s always a framed picture hanging over the mantle. There is one called “Watchful Monarch” of a ruffed grouse standing on an aspen log that might work. But I think the one that best fits the meditation room is hanging over my office desk right now, “Setters at Sunset”. The name pretty much says it all.

That takes care of my altar. Now how should I feng shui the room to give it flow and energy?  In one corner would lean the Winchester Model 42 .410 that Uncle Jim gave me. There’s no telling how much game that little gun killed in its lifetime. Uncle Jim hunted everything with that gun with the exception of dove when he stepped up to a 20-gauge. It was in pretty bad shape when he gave it too me and I had it reconditioned.I shoot it occassionally just for the memories. It would be nice to kill a grouse or woodcock with it.

Of course there will be some fishing gear around.  A couple of Dad’s old rods with Zebco 33’s are still in my possession. Alas his old metal tackle box is long gone but would be a nice addition. Uncle Bob’s old fly rod will stand in one corner. It’s an old Wright & McGill graphite 4-weight rod and I have no idea what he used it for. Uncle Bob would buy stuff he thought he needed and never use it. He liked to fish but mostly on lakes for white bass and crappie.

There is a hall tree by the door to hang hats on: blaze orange, camouflage, and others which rarely worn. One hook would hold my hunting vest. It’s got to be there to heft it every now and then during the off-season and sort through the pockets. Mingled in with the 20 gauge shells and dog whistle are pieces of leaves and tree branch from last season. There’s probably a grouse or quail feather still in the game pouch.  Just to remember times past and anticipate days ahead.

That will pretty much get me started in my Meditation Room. On second thought, maybe a meditation room isn't needed. I’ve already got one.  As I shrug into the hunting vest, slip the gun out of the case, and as the dog whines and tail beats against the side of the box this winter I will realize I’ve got the greatest “Spiritual Sanctuary” of all. It’s nature’s feng shui called the outdoors.

Wildlife and Wildfire

As I write this, we’ve had nearly 50 thousand acres burn in the ongoing wildfires across Western North Carolina. The recent rains and more in the forecast will do much to either put them out or get them 100% contained. Thanks to the valiant efforts of fire crews there has been no loss of life or buildings consumed in the fires in North Carolina. The question comes up: What happens to the wildlife? Here’s my impression, not based on any reports but more on personal experience and research. Most wildlife are able to flee a fire well in advance, especially if it is slow moving like we have in the mountains. Their sense of danger is much more acute than for human, and don’t wait around for the flames to touch them. Birds fly out of danger, deer and other ground dwelling mammals run out of the affected area. Some species, primarily creepy crawlers like snakes, will not survive. That is nature. Animals are generally fire adaptive.

Of greater interest should be what about wildlife after the fire. Here the news is nothing but good. Typically fires in our region, whether wild or planned, only burn with low intensity. These simply burn the leaf litter and dead trees on the ground. All photos I’ve seen of these wildfires indicate these fires are burning with higher intensity and getting above ground into tree canopies. So how are these two types of fires different for wildlife?

A low intensity burn does provide short term growth of forest understory providing both food and cover for wildlife. However, the existing tree canopy continues to shade out the area and within a couple of years that ground cover is gone. Conversely, these wildfires are burning large patches of rhododendron and burning trees. Also, fire fighters are removing trees and cutting fire lines to slow the spread. This will remove some of the tree canopy which lets more light onto the ground and provide more widespread regeneration of young trees and vegetation. This is a similar effect to a timber harvest through forest thinning or clear cut.

So the long term affect on wildlife is positive. The best example of this is the Yellowstone fire of 1988. A massive wildfire swept through the National Park and devastated most of the natural habitat. Despite the prognostications from environmentalist the regenerating forests became a magnet for wildlife including the majestic elk. It will probably take 5 – 10 years for the forest to regenerate but I predict those burn areas will be teeming with wildlife in a few years. Deer, turkey, grouse and other wildlife like the thick ground cover of a regenerating forest. It is proven science.

I will add one caveat. Those conditions for wildlife will improve greatly if the USFS and NC WRC act rapidly after the fires to go in and do additional habitat work. The USFS needs to get permission to bypass regulatory requirements and remove trees that still have timber value but will not survive. The NC WRC needs to be planning NOW to plant native warm season grasses along fire breaks and other areas conducive for wildlife openings. These actions will increase the potential for improving wildlife habitat. It these actions are taken, I hope to one day report on 20 – 25 grouse flushes per day in about 10 years.