Watch them grow
The temperature was 9 degrees with a slight wind blowing when I pulled up to a wildlife management area just west of Sauk Centre with an hour and a half of daylight left on December 20.
Ole, my 2-year-old yellow lab, hadn’t made a sound on the drive from Alexandria, but he knows what it means when the sound of the engine turns off. Let the whimpering begin.
He wastes no time bursting into action, his nose to the ground the second his paws hit the gravel. After two weeks of lying around, he was ready to chase pheasants again.
We tromped our way through the knee-high snow to get to the cattails that surrounded a little slough. It was clear this would be a birdless hunt after a half-hour of seeing no sign of any pheasants in the snow.
Ole didn’t care. He knew what we were looking for and he was determined to find them. He went over and under the tangled up cattails until the final shooting light slipped away. It was a dramatic change from the dog that walked by my side in that kind of cover as an 11-month old puppy the year before.
For bird hunters, is there anything better than watching the transformation from their first to second season? They’re hardly a finished product at this point, but this is the year potential becomes production.
Year one is filled with ups and downs. Ole and I were hunting a field that was in CRP in late October last year when he caught wind of a bird and was gone. The rooster took flight just on the edge of gun range and my first shot clipped a wing.
The rooster hit the ground running with Ole not far behind. All I could do was stand and watch as he tried to redeem himself. Ole disappeared over a hill in hot pursuit. Five minutes later, he was back and proud as can be with a rooster in his mouth. Those are the adventures of hunting behind a young dog. One minute they frustrate you, the next minute they wow you.
Then something clicks in year two. Those moments of brilliance become much more consistent. The instances of getting too far ahead diminish every time out. They’re not just out there to run around anymore. They are there to hunt – their noses constantly to the ground, quartering back and forth and working the wind to pick up scent. They get it.
The hunt I saw Ole really start to “get it” came the morning after Thanksgiving. My buddy, Jacob Busiahn, and I met at a field approach to hunt a strip of CRP that runs alongside a dredge ditch on land his family owns in Southwestern Minnesota. Jacob hadn’t been pheasant hunting in almost two years, but he was about to make up for lost time.
We bundled up on a cold and windy morning and made our way across the plowed field toward the grass. Ole heeled by my side, testing the limits of how far he could stray as we got closer to the cover. The word “hunt” sent him bounding into the grass.
It wasn’t 10 seconds before he was on birds. Jacob followed close behind as Ole frantically worked his way toward the ditch. The first rooster flushed and Jacob made quick work of him at the same time another took flight to his left.
Another shot, another bird. Ole was on his way to make the first retrieve when a third rooster flushed from the ditch. Jacob took aim again and feathers flew, but the rooster kept flying before landing a couple hundred yards in front of us.
With two in the vest, we set out to find the third. Ole quartered back and forth between us and it wasn’t long before he locked up on point. He dived under the grass and came up with the rooster – not bad for five minutes into a hunt.
We still weren’t done. The early rush only heightened the anticipation for all of us. Ole was right back to work, busting through the grass in front of us. Back and forth, stop, smell. He’s not far now.
The familiar sound of wings fluttering fills the air. Content to let me have a shot, Jacob simply watches as I pull up and fold our final rooster. It runs when it hits the ground, but this one doesn’t get far, not with Ole right on its tail.
The final tally of the hunt: five birds in the air, four roosters in the bag and one proud pup. He gets it. And there’s nothing better than watching that transformation unfold.