Written by: Durrell Smith
Depending where you live in the country, hunting season stretches from September to March. For me, hunting season represents the culmination of months of preparation by the hunter and handler, and there is no more honest testament to hard pre-season work than the beautiful season. Hunting season will always show you the truth by testing you and your dog.
I hit the ground hard starting in September and really shed some boot leather in the months that followed; the fact that my 2018-19 hunting season ended on a high note is a result of my working and partnering with a truly talented dog. Writing about it now is difficult, simply because the season had so many highs and lows. Per usual, the search for meaning in my writing leads me down the path of introspection. This season I’ve certainly been inspired by traversing the uplands with my Polished Ruger dog, and fellowshipping with like-minded hunters, conservationists, dog men, and field trailers. I have also taken great pleasure in simply learning the terrain of the Georgia Red Hills and the piney woods of Midway, Alabama.
Through it all, this season has confirmed my belief in the Laws of Attraction. When times got sticky and birds didn’t seem willing to fall to my 20-gauge, I continued to whisper to my young pup, “Don’t worry Ruger, we’re going to get you a bird…just wait.” Waiting is always the name of the game, and I believe it’s the hunter’s job to remain patient, focusing on the potential of a downed bird.
My belief in the “glass half full” mindset perhaps exacerbated the guilt and mixed emotion I felt in crippling and losing a wild quail this year. I had worked extremely hard to find two beautiful coveys and was overjoyed to do so, but losing that bird will stick with me. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the gem. There is always a lesson hidden in what first appears to be a problem.
You see, when I hunt, I am not only searching the beautiful landscape in front of me, but I am also searching the landscape inside me. I am always on a metaphorical hunt for the lesson. In the case of the lost and crippled quail, my lesson was to focus on the positive, feeling gratitude for actually finding coveys in a land where the prevailing narrative is that “there are no more wild quail.” Although my reward that day was not a bird in hand, I maintained a positive attitude. This mindset in fact left me feeling more inspired.
What came of my persistence that day was exactly what I asked for. As the winds of a Southeastern afternoon in the piney woods subsided, my heart gave into contentment. I became satisfied with the work that my pup and I had put toward accomplishing our goals. I could go on and on about the highlighted lessons of this previous shooting season, but what I have found most important was the clarity of my purpose with the gundog, and a love for the exploration of my native Southern landscape.
After the close of the season, I find myself more contemplative about the lessons of our bird-dog forefathers. Daily, I sink into the literary and scientific prose of Robert Wehle, Delmar Smith, and Neal Carter Jr., digesting generations of information about and love for fine shooting dogs. Learning from the greats brought forth in me an appreciation for exquisite dog work and a fascination with the upland scenery. I found myself walking the same hallowed grounds as Wehle in Midway, Alabama, working cover and sifting through the thick, dusty, red clay. The red umber hue covered the toes of my dog’s paws and the leather of my well-worn hunting boots. In many ways, it became clear that my love for the uplands was becoming much more layered than I originally imagined.
With my love for hunting in the Southeast came a passion for molding my young pup into a well-oiled machine, all while strengthening the bond that grows within a hands-on relationship. What my dog and I have is real. The miles I traveled behind Ruger speak to my belief in the dog’s talent and speak to my trust in him. Hunting behind him was a testament to the training and commitment that we put forth during the previous spring and summer seasons. I now realize that what I originally wanted was a partner, but what I gained is a co-captain. Many times this season, I found myself and my dog lost in the allure of the Southern landscape with no birds in hand. Although I was reticent about following my dog’s lead at times, by the season’s end my doubts subsided as Ruger’s intuition became my compass.
Understanding this dog has also meant developing something of a sixth sense for his awareness and motion through the woods. The piney hills of our landscape tested and reaffirmed the connection between me and two-year old Ruger, who has confirmed his seat at “The Iron Throne,” a favorite wood-duck hole that we found together this season. When I made mistakes, my dog supported my faults with the reassurance that only comes with a dog’s intelligence and awareness. Somehow, Ruger always seems to know where and when I fall short. Initially I stipulated that a “good season” required that I consistently and prudently hunt and shoot wild bobwhite quail and wood ducks in Georgia. What I can say with certainty is that we finished the season with a bird in hand, but also with a degree of polish and finesse that I can only attribute to the dog and his ability to bring me back to the moment. This season revealed itself to be one big lesson that I won’t forget. It all comes down to a good season passed.
You can listen to Durrell’s podcast, The Gun Dog Notebook, by clicking here. You’ll also find it wherever you get podcasts.