A Bird Dog

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Elk season is almost over. And, after a few weekends of fruitless mountain-wandering in search of the mighty wapiti, it’s hard to think about anything else. Tan smoke; they can make you crazy.

But I write to tell you about a bird dog.

Since September 1, I’ve spent countless hours following my dog, Aldo, around Montana with a shotgun looking for upland birds and ducks.

In September, we spent our time in the mountains searching for ruffed and blue grouse. We pursued these regal birds in the Gallatin, Bridger, Tobacco Root, and Madison Mountains.

Aldo is three-and-a-half years old. He is allegedly a pure black lab, but my wife, Sarah, and I know he also has some pointer blood coursing through his veins. He weighs just over 60 pounds and has the heart of a lion. He is tough. He is driven. He is beautiful.

In the mountains, Aldo flushed a lot of birds, and I managed to shoot a handful of them. We ate each grouse; some with our friends, one with my parents. The flesh of a blue grouse is delicious. Sautéed in butter, served with fresh mushrooms, washed down with a cold, hoppy ale, to eat a grouse is to consume September in Montana.

Aldo was born in South Dakota. I picked him up shortly after midnight on a Friday night in the parking lot of a Super 8 Motel on the border of Wyoming and South Dakota in June 2009. (That sounds shady, and, looking back at it, I guess it was. But I have a knack for blindly bumbling my way into such situations, and thus it was a fitting welcome for young Aldo.) He was seven-weeks-old and just slightly larger than my hand. That night, his first away from his litter-mates, I'm sure he was nervous. I let him sleep in the motel bed with me, and I promised him that Sarah and I would give him a great life.

Last month, October, waterfowl season opened. Aldo and I traveled to northeast Montana with my longtime hunting and fishing partner, William Jeffrey Vollmer. It was our third consecutive trip to a corner of the world – where Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan meet – that few people even know exist. Some refer to it as fly-over country, but to Aldo, Vollms, and me, it’s heaven.

In the winter, Aldo and I cross-country-ski together. In the summer, we hike and trail-run. But in the fall, we hunt birds and ducks, and Aldo is happy. Very, very happy.

In northeast Montana, in the big open of Montana’s prairie country, Aldo is at his finest. We shoot puddle ducks – widgeon, teal, gadwall, shovelers – in the morning. And then we wander endless grasslands for sharptail grouse and pheasants in the afternoon. Vollms and I look forward to this week all year. We get to hunt, laugh, talk, and avoid computers and conference calls. But as much as that week means to us, we both know it’s really Aldo’s week.

With the warm sun rising over our shoulders, we shoot a gadwall and watch it drop into the pond. Aldo sits tensely, his ears perked up, his eyes locked on the dead duck in the water. I release him for his retrieve. He bursts into the water, lunging through the shallows, and then swimming, ferociously, to the duck. He grabs the gadwall with his mouth, turns around, and hurries back to us. I take the duck from Aldo and place it in the grass. Aldo sits. We reload our shotguns and resume watching the sky.

We walk through knee-high grass, and Aldo sprints in front of us. He runs forward, back, left, and right. He picks up a bird’s scent. His tail begins to wag furiously. His scabbed nose moves closer to the ground. His pace quickens. Vollms and I begin to jog to keep up. With Aldo tracking down the bird, we wait for the flush. Time, life, thoughts evaporate. We hunt. A sharptail grouse surges out of the grass in front of Aldo’s nose, Vollms shoots it, Aldo retrieves it. We continue walking.

Some folks wonder why men and women still hunt. Why do people like me kill birds and animals? Why don’t we just buy chicken and steak at the grocery store? Or turn to tofu (potentially from a clear-cut rainforest in Brazil)? Well, forget the ethical, environmental, locavore, culinary, limited-carbon-footprint reasons for hunting, and just spend a day afield with a bird dog.

Watch him work, watch him flush, watch him retrieve. Look at the way he explodes out of his crate in the truck and jumps several feet in the air at the sight of a shotgun. See his smile, feel his energy, experience pure joy. Get a taste of that, and you’ll understand hunting.

Aldo is three-and-a-half. He is young. I try not to think about the fact that he, a dog, has a much shorter temporal scale than I do. But I am a realist, and a worrier, and I am acutely aware that we have – at the most – a good decade left together. A melancholy thought? Sure, but it’s November, an austere month, and I guess when you love a dog as much as I love Aldo, you embrace reality, and you – to quote Mr. Thoreau – suck the marrow out of life while you can.

It’s late fall in Montana. The cold and snow have arrived. Ducks are moving south, and a young bird dog wants to hunt.

To you, Aldo, my dog, my friend: Thank You.


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