Saturday, October 14, 2017

When Patch brought his A-game it was grouse beware...
For several years Ginny and son, Patch, were our constant companions and only bird dogs. Kenneled by day they spent the evenings lounging about the couch and slept wherever they happened to be when the lights went out. In winter Patch’s spot was beside the red hot woodstove. After awhile we got over fearing he would catch fire and I moved the fire extinguisher out of sight behind the couch—though still within easy reach.

With wild roosters all but gone and having no interest in gunning the tame variety we turned our attentions solely to ruffed grouse and woodcock. With each passing season the Pennsylvania grouse population seemed to be spiraling slowly downward and, especially mature birds, became way more skittish and difficult for the average pointing dog to handle.  Crowd one even a little bit and it would slink off and flush wild. Patch proved to be a quick learner and by age 3 (4th season) was as good a ruffed grouse dog as any I’d hunted over.

Opening day of Patch's fourth season, long-time hunting buddy, Mike Ondik, and I put Patch down in the State Gamelands just outside State College. A typical October opener, cool in the morning, too warm before noon, but with the woods and hedgerows  a riot of colors who could fuss about a little discomfort.  With the promises of a good hatch and Patch now bringing his A-game (at least most days) our prospects seemed as close to a slam dunk as any wild upland bird hunt gets.

Since I worked on the property and Mike lived a few yards from its boundary we all knew it well.  And as with any familiar covert both hunters and dogs are well aware of the bird’s favorite hangouts. So when I sent Patch he bee-lined for a nearby sumac and grape tangled hedgerow. We trotted along behind and got there just as he slammed the first point of the day.

Mike went through the hedgerow while I circled to the Patch’s front. Two grouse thundered straight away down the near edge. A set up, I somehow missed both barrels. But then a third rocketed off, crossed the hedgerow and Mike dropped it. Patch made the delivery (always to me, no matter if I shoot or not...Atta boy), spun around and, bell clanging, took off.

Though too many leaves made for tough shooting (I know, excuses, excuses) still he gave us so many chances that by early afternoon we’d both limited on grouse and pocketed several  woodcock for good measure. Wish now I’d counted points but trust me was a bunch—as good a piece of dog work as I’d seen at the time.

Alas, as I've hinted previously Ol' Patch did not always bring his A-game. Truth be known he had more baffling tricks under his too often damnable hide I hardly know where to start.

But stay tuned and I promise to at least try to sort some of it out... 

Friday, October 6, 2017

Following her second heat cycle we bred Ginny back to “The Meat Dog” and she whelped and nurtured 10 healthy pups—one of which, a male, we kept. (As always Ginny ruled the roost and seldom allowed the whole bunch to nurse same time).

Patch was born in April so there wasn’t a lot of training time until the grouse and woodcock season opened in October.  He took to “yard training” in typical puppy fashion, one day pretty good,  the next not so honky dory.

The good news, by the time the season opened in mid October, as often as not, Patch was pretty  steady on planted pigeons and on his best days pointed more released quail than flushed. Far from a finished product, but not bad, considering  still not 6-months old.

Comes now Opening Day. I had access to a nearby private property where I was pretty sure we wouldn’t run into other hunters/dogs, where a youngster could do his thing, start to figure things out without competition or worse getting caught up in the chaos sometimes found on public lands.

The first hour or so he rammed around at warp speed (Mama would have been proud), busted and chased a bunch of tweety birds and a couple grouse with enthusiasm—though clueless to the ideas of working bird scent or even so much as faking to slow down at the flush. So I said “enough.” And turned intending to make a big circle back to the truck put and call it good. Within sight of the truck we left the woods and entered an overgrown field where the landowner had planted a nasty, multi-flora rose thicket. 

As Patch hit the edge, he wisely turned and ran its length, spun back and...POINT!

You can imagine the turn around came not only as a big surprise but one I did not want to blow.

About 50 yards away I didn’t waste anytime getting there and just then up jumped a woodcock. It went straight up, towered briefly and headed for the far side the multi-flora. Even before it started to fall Patch was off and vanished in the thorny jungle.  Not my first rodeo dealing with razor-sharp rose bushes I did the end around and...

He stood, wild-eyed and with just a tip of beak sticking out his maw.  “Fetch,” says I.
Gulp! and gone.

Turns out a monumental moment in a long and storied career. With great and lasting difficulty he finally up-chucked at least a large part of the mangled carcass. And...and he not only never ate another bird he became a real-hot shot—a fetchin’ machine—true story.

The bad news: Of the many bird dogs of several breeds I've run, Ol' Patch was by far the most baffling; like just when I thought saw it all well...

Stay Tuned There Is More, Much More 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Young ruffie, Chuck Robbins photo
Explosion’s Ruffneck (call name Ginny)

A snowy, frigid (like 20 below) Christmas morning Gale and I drove over the mountain on icy roads to choose a setter pup. While we knew the breeder, both personally and by reputation, we’d never seen his place before.  So were a bit surprised when  directed  to an obviously hastily constructed wire-enclosed pen and a slapped together wooden box with a tattered burlap bag covered opening.
But before we could reflect on its flimsy construction and how cold the precious pups must be, out bounded a handful of white and orange, 12-week old pups, each crashing the fence, rolling and jousting each other in a wild melee.  Oblivious to the cold each bore that look...take me, take me!  Except for one which was hell bent to steal the show, chase the others back into the box—though with pups going every which way was pretty much a lost cause.

“Which is ours?” said Gale.

“That little bitch beatin’ up on all the others. Man look how she rules the roost. Believe it or not she’s the only female and as you can see is for sure boss dog.

So while I settled up, Gale—with Ginny in her arms already sound asleep—headed for the truck. When I got there she was curled in her lap snoring way too loud for such a little thing—a trait she would take to her grave 17-years later.  She hunted long and hard for 16 seasons. Given she did everything at warp speed, how she maintained the fire and stamina for so long was beyond baffling.

Sired by Explosion, a big Ryman/Llewellyn setter cross—nicknamed “The Meat Dog” for his prowess at putting birds in front the gun—we registered her Explosion’s Ruffneck.  As turned out the name pretty much said it all and at times proved to be wildly understated.  She was indeed explosive, by far the fastest dog I’ve ever blown a whistle over.  A real ruff-neck, she was oblivious to idea of avoiding self-inflicted pain and at times appeared to harbor a bit of a death wish.

Like the early winter morning I heard her barking and growling ferociously and discovered her terrorizing a hole beneath a large fallen oak. The same hole a sow black bear had birthed four cubs two winters prior.  Though no bear sighted this time around from the way she was carrying on I can’t shake thinking Mama  Bear had indeed again took up housekeeping.  Another time we heard her barking and discovered she’d treed a visibly and audibly distraught hen turkey.  We got to the slightly leaning tree just in time to see her run out of limbs a few feet below the turkey.  Judging how she clung to the tree, obviously hadn’t quite thought the operation through to a satisfactory conclusion.

When became apparent no amount of coaxing was going to bring her down, naturally I set the gun down, shed vest and shinnied up there. And yes I had a helluva time holding her and not losing my grip as we came back down.

But even that episode paled to the day we found her impaled chest first on a dead chestnut limb. Bleeding profusely, I yanked her free, wrapped the hole tight with a couple shirts, grabbed her up and headed for the truck, at least a mile distant. Maybe half-way there I stopped to catch my breath, she wriggled free and took off hunting as if nothing had happened!

Gale, who was toting my hunting vest and shotgun, screamed, “Holy shit, Chuck, you gotta catch her before she bleeds out.”

Bellowing dire threats along with countless whistle blasts for once she obeyed and came slinking back. But the real wonder was the hole in her chest, though ugly, apparently didn’t penetrate the chest cavity and the bleeding had all but stopped.  I muttered another string of unprintables, snapped a lead on the bitch and dragged her to the truck. Later our vet confirmed the wound looked way worse than was, cleaned and dressed it,  said, “She’s sure lucky but otherwise good to go.”

She died with shredded ears, the result of too many encounters with razor-sharp multi-flora rose thorns.  Which she plowed through going full bore as if it were tall grass. While my buddies carried blood stop powder in 35mm film canisters I toted a full jar. Instead of white and orange she ended most hunts pretty much blood red, with orange and white accents. Jack the Ripper would have been proud.

The good news is when not hell bent on destroying herself Ginny developed into a reliable and easy to handle bird dog. She rarely busted birds, pointed staunchly, hunted down cripples as good as any and fetched, if not always to hand, at least tossed them down in plain sight.

When conditions were just right, cool, light breeze, damp enough underfoot to muffle our approach and improved scenting, Ginny did okay too. But given warm, dry, no air, like most dogs, she struggled to get it done.  A faux pas obviously bothered her way more than me. And it was pretty neat to watch how careful and plotting she worked after bumping even a single bird. Such that it was a rare day she didn’t give me at least a good chance or two—and should I blow them... Well if looks could kill...

The flip side Ginny when woodcock were the quarry, she seemed to kick it up a notch regardless the conditions.  I shot more woodcock over her points than all the rest of my dogs together. To be fair during her time afield the woodcock migration was still pretty strong.  And she was uncanny at finding ‘cocks in places we’d never dream of looking. In mature oak woods, harvested crop fields and once  atop of a rocky ridge—for sure no country for earthworms—in a blinding snowstorm she pointed not one but several.  Another time I found her on point in the old apple orchard out back of our hunting camp—at least two months after the season and the last migrants had winged their way south. And later same day at the very edge of a beaver pond all but frozen with winter fast approaching. And on and on...

Hunting prowess aside she was a easy to live with house dog and a great companion. That she endured all those injuries and still got it done for 16 seasons I think pretty much says it all.

All these many years later we still miss ya gal...

To Be Continued...