I sat next to a stranger at a sportsmen’s club luncheon last week. I asked my tablemate if he was a hunter. He readily admitted he was, but then qualified it.
“I’m not a deer hunter,” he said. “I prefer squirrel hunting or maybe quail hunting. I grew up in Arkansas and prefer sports where I can move around and hunt with my dog, instead of just sitting in a blind waiting for a feeder to go off.”
I understood. Squirrel hunting was my first gun-sport adventure. I had several fox terriers as a kid – great squirrel dogs. I enjoy sitting in a blind on a frosty morning and watching the darkness dissolve into dimness, and ultimately take on a little color as the first rays of the sunrise begin forming in the east. But, walking in the woods or hills with a dog brings out the best in hunting and the almost spiritual nature of man-dog bonding.
Many dog breeds are natural hunters. One son acquired a black Lab pup and brought it to meet me. Wild little critter! But adorable. Danny also showed me his new .22 rifle. I set a can on a fence post to test the gun. A lucky shot knocked it off. The puppy, who had never heard gunfire, dashed out, picked up the can, returned to my son, dropping it at his feet. To Labrador retrievers, fetching a downed bird is a natural instinct; it usually doesn’t have to be taught.
Other breeds with “retriever” as a last name are similar-- like Goldens, Chesapeake Bays, and others. Boykin spaniels are eager retrievers, too.
Actually, even poodles can be retrievers, if properly trained. They were used as retrievers in Europe before they came to America and entered a fallen life as purse dogs. When I lived in South Texas, a friend occasionally brought his poodle to retrieve doves for us. He caught a lot of ridicule but enjoyed the surprised comments when the first bird fell and was quickly returned to him.
Quail and pheasant hunters swear by their dogs. Watching a pointer work is almost art. Trailing and tracking dogs are unique species. Little Roy Hindes ranches south of Jourdanton and has raised highly successful deer-trailing dogs. No matter the breed or the quarry, hunting with a dog adds an indescribable element to hunting. The late Gene Hill said it best in his writing.
“Nobody can fully understand the meaning of love unless he’s owned a dog. … I can’t think of anything that brings me closer to tears than when my old dog - completely exhausted from a full and hard day in the field – limps away from her nice spot in front of the fire and comes over to where I’m sitting and puts her head in my lap, a paw on my knee and closes her eyes and goes back to sleep. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve that kind of friend.”
I – tearfully, today – agree.
John Jefferson is a lifelong outdoorsman, former regulations coordinator at Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept., past executive director of the Texas Chapter of The Wildlife Society, and author of two books on Texas hunting.