The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
In 1963, songwriters Edward Pola and George Wyle composed a song for the Andy Williams Christmas show titled “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Initially viewed by its creators as more or less a “throwaway,” it has become a November/December standard.
However, as much as I love Christmas – and meaning no disrespect to the talents of Messrs. Pola and Wyle – I would disagree. Because to me, fall earns the distinction of the most wonderful time of the year for several reasons: Brilliant color. Moderate temperatures in the mid-50s to low 70s (at least where I live). No – or, depending on when we get frost, very few – insects.
And, most important to my dogs and me, it’s time to start hunting.
Nature’s extravagant display of color on the hardwoods is more than a bit subdued this year in the Upper Midwest, thanks to a summer-long spell when no matter how thick and dark the clouds were on the western horizon, they didn’t produce any rain. It appears as though many leaves, instead of turning yellow or crimson are going straight to brown and bailing off the trees. Still, enough leaves have turned color so we can enjoy and appreciate some of nature’s last gift before the stark winter reality of deciduous tree skeletons, black against the white snow, much like an Ansel Adams photo, is upon us.
The bronze oaks, yellow aspen, purple chokecherries and red maples provide the backdrop for Bo, my Ch/SH Chesapeake Bay Retriever, and me as we potter along through the leafy carpet to the duck blind. Well, to be perfectly honest, I potter. Bo runs, bounces and bounds, stopping every once in a while for a quick, satisfying roll in the leaf bed, exhibiting all the glorious joie de vivre of a hunting dog who knows he’s going hunting.
In winter, only the green conifers remain to remind us that King Boreas will eventually have to surrender, once again, to Vulcanus Rex and spring’s rebirth. (Krista Smude, photo)
The wind, which just a week or so ago was soft and gentle, now has the kind of edge that reminds all creatures that the season of plenty – such as it was, as virtually every harvested cornfield still has the four rows remaining for inspection by the crop insurance adjusters – is about to end. For waterfowl and many species of songbirds, the chill on the wind means it is time to prepare for a trip to a more temperate climate for the winter.
For many of us who have a Sporting breed, it also means it’s time to put aside all the training, pull on the boots and get the camo stuff out of the closet, pick up the shotgun and a box or two of shells, grab the whistles and do our part to help the dogs do what they were meant to do.
There are, I know, some misguided folks who hunt birds without a dog. They contend they aren’t missing any of the essence of bird hunting. To them I say, “Bushwa!” or something in a similar but more profane vein. I can’t believe any of them have ever walked behind a good hunting dog doing its job, watching the wild tail gyrations as it closes in on a bird, or seeing it lean on point into a wall of bird scent. I can’t believe they have felt the joy of seeing a dog find a crippled bird far from where it fell, or a retriever taking directions on blind faith that its hunting partner knows where a bird might be when the dog did not see it fall. Anyone who experiences these things, and doesn’t fall in love with hunting with a dog as a result, doesn’t deserve to have one.
A snoot full of bird scent is enough to animate any Sporting dog.
People who hunt with dogs and the dogs they hunt with rarely need to relight their fire for the chase. Come autumn, this fire provides a reason to get out of bed. Even a confirmed night owl like me can be persuaded to get up and watch the sun come up over a prairie wheat field. Or see a spread of decoys in the first gray light of dawn with the mists still rising from the lake. Or listen to the cackle of a pheasant rooster greeting the sunrise or the whistle of a bobwhite happy it didn’t become a meal for a great horned owl or marauding coyote during the night.
Even the raspy rolled “r” call of sandhill cranes – legal game birds in the western Canadian provinces and universally loathed by our wheat farmer hosts for the damage they do to durum wheat crops – is almost melodious and pleasant during false dawn on a prairie wheat field. I say this as someone who so thoroughly despises early mornings that at other times of the year, I would only get out of bed at dawn if ordered to at gunpoint. And even then I would probably respond similarly to the old Jack Benny routine, in which confronted by a mugger and told, “Look Bud, I said your money or your life,” Benny, as part of his miserly comedic schtick, replied, after a long pause, “I’m thinking it over.”
Bo, like most of his Chesapeake predecessors, is a “feel good” dog. When I tell folks that and explain that he’s earned that title because he makes me feel good, he’s a caring dog and he knows everything I say, most of them who are not dog people give me the sort of look that says, “I wonder if there’s a tactful way to suggest psychiatric help could help this condition.” Family members, not nearly as tactful, usually say something like, “Ah, you’re just plain loony/bonkers/nutso/wacko/crazy!” (Take your pick.)
What’s more, my dogs sleep with me, whether we’re on the road or at home. I suppose there are some hard-hearted hunters who gag at the mere thought of sharing a bed with their dogs, but that’s no concern of mine. There’s something particularly comforting about having a warm, furry body next to you to help loosen tight muscles after several hours of walking through switchgrass, or sitting cramped and cold in a duck blind or boat.
In a lot of ways, I feel sorry for folks who have Sporting breeds but don’t hunt with them. They miss so much of the essence of their dogs. And that’s not all they miss. They miss walking down a hill before dawn and seeing the water on the pond shimmering in the last of the night’s moonlight. They miss seeing the decoys squatting in that water in the predawn stillness, motionless and waiting for a little wind to spring up at sunrise to give them some life. They miss seeing the sun touch those decoys with its first rays and the aspens glowing in that same golden dawn. They miss the warmth of a retriever snuggled next to their legs in the predawn chill and the soft whining of the dog when he hears the wings of waterfowl on the move long before human ears have any inkling. They won’t get to see a dog up on his toes, searching the horizon for the birds only he hears or watch his head whip sharply upward to follow the flight of a flock of ducks or geese over the decoys, waiting for the report of the shotgun and the splash of a bird dropping into the water or the thump as it hits the ground.
If handler Stan Flowers could dress up in camouflage adorned with some old, dried bird blood and carry a shotgun through the ring gate, his Chesapeake charge would have animation to spare.
Non-hunters with Sporting dogs often try to tell me how animated their dogs are in the show ring. I have to bite my tongue to not say, “You want animation? You’ve never seen animation until you see a Sporting dog with a snoot full of bird scent.” I show my dogs and also hunt with them. I will flat out tell you that I can only wish we would get half the animation from my dogs in the show ring as I see when I merely pick up the shotgun. Hunting puts a lilt in a Sporting dog’s gait and frequently a swagger in its step. If Stan Flowers, who has handled my Chesapeakes in the show ring, could dress up in camouflage adorned with some old, dried bird blood and carry a shotgun through the ring gate, the judges would see so much animation from the dogs that we’d be tired of all the winning in the group and Best in Show rings.
Hunting with your dog is a time to appreciate uncomplicated things. Take, for example, meatloaf, a generally ordinary and frequently pedestrian dish. For most of the year, I can take meatloaf or leave it. But when I’m hunting, simple meatloaf sandwiches, shared with my dog, become a special treat for both of us. It’s hard to describe the pure pleasure that comes from sitting on a mossy rock, breaking off pieces of a meatloaf sandwich to share with the dog while you enjoy the gentle beauty of autumn with its subtle combination of colors, smells and sounds.
If the snow doesn’t get too deep, we keep hunting into December and January, switching to pheasants and chukar partridge once the water freezes – usually by mid-November in our part of the country – and the ducks are gone. The grain stubble, corn stalks and frozen switchgrass crackle underfoot as we plod after the dog, waiting for the telltale acceleration of his tail that says, “Hey, guys, get ready. There’s a bird in here.”
His prancing gait as he returns with a bird after a difficult retrieve, or his sheer joy when you tell him he’s the best ever to wear a collar, provides treasured memories for those days when the snow is too deep, the wind too strong and the cold too bitter for anything but sitting in front of a fire, preferably with a fine adult beverage at your elbow.
People who don’t hunt with their Sporting dogs will never know that the true wonder of these dogs is not in the subjective judgment of how well they perform. Rather, it’s that they do their jobs at all, because all of their natural instincts tell them to chase the bird, grab it and eat it on the spot.
Hunting puts a lilt in a Sporting dog’s gait and frequently a swagger in its step.
Hunting with your dogs teaches you things about them and yourself that you likely would never have otherwise discovered. Each dog provides memorable experiences, sometimes beautiful and frequently humorous, that can help sustain a person through the inevitable dark times that life throws at us. A hunt without a dog is like the proverbial day without sunshine. Dog work is so integral to the hunt, at least in my view, that going on a dogless hunt would be akin to being served a hunk of bean curd instead of a perfectly seasoned, broiled-to-medium-rare beef tenderloin.
I’ve shared countless days in the field with my dogs, all of them special but some so extraordinary that they linger in memory like an old love affair, a bittersweet reminder of yesterday – bitter because they’ve ended, but sweet because of what they were and what they meant.
If you hunt with your Sporting dog, you’ll quickly find that, unlike your human colleagues, the dogs almost always give you everything that they can as best they can give it. That’s just one of the reasons why, for me, fall is always the most wonderful time of the year.