A few years back, I lost my first bird dog, a French Brittany named Cash. He was accidentally shot by another hunter while on an extended upland hunting road trip. This story is not about that dreadful, gut-wrenching memory but the series of events that subsequently unfolded. After making proper arrangements for my beloved friend, I holed up at a hotel in Butte, Montana. I was lost. For months, I had planned for every perceivable obstacle that may be encountered on a month-long hunting trip. This loss was simply unfathomable and well beyond the realm of possibilities. Still, somehow, here I was, 1500 miles away from home unsure of my next move.
I spent the first day in Butte sitting in silence, shuttering at what I had witnessed. The scene of my companion’s lifeless body rolling down the mountainside and coming to rest at the base of a pine tree, playing on repeat in my mind, iterations interrupted only by the slow burn of single-malt scotch and the inevitable sedated snooze that would follow.
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Waking on the second day, I reached out to a short list of people who offered guidance from various perspectives. Whether the advice was strictly logical or emotionally charged, everyone suggested heading back into the field. One friend stated, “a walk on the prairie will help you clear your head” while another said, “Cash would hate being locked up in that hotel room when he could be out chasing birds.” They were correct. In the past two years, nothing had brought greater joy or sense of fulfillment than trips afield spent pursuing game birds. Convinced that frittering away my days isolated in the bleak hotel room would only cause my mental state to further deteriorate, I set out in search of public land and wild birds.
Within 10 minutes of leaving the truck, I was into birds. Kicking up a flock of sage grouse, I took aim and swiftly dropped a pair, my limit for the day. Next, I switched my focus to Huns. Walking up covey after covey, the bird numbers were incredible. Every “there ought to be birds in there” hunch I had resulted in another flush. It was a stellar day by any upland hunter’s standards. But something was off. My heart hadn’t skipped a beat at the sound of whirring wings emerging from the grassy covers. The tingling sensation that typically envelopes a wingshooter’s body upon connecting with their target was absent. Instead, I felt numb. While the quarry, its life, and its beauty, were of equal value, the experience and its meaning were diminished to nothing more than the physical action of taking game.
Without the camaraderie of a bird dog, the entire scene, once a masterful work of art, was defunct. Lacking the resolute point, the anticipation of the flush, and the retrieve, the hunt was merely a watered-down replicate of the ones I had come to know. The intense side-eye stare from the dog as you approach a point, the gleeful whimper as the birds take flight, the proud trot back during the retrieve, the feather-filled muzzle smiling up at you, and the tired body laying at your feet back at camp were all integral parts to the pursuit and lifestyle I had grown to love.
I sat on the tailgate next to the pile of birds harvested that day, 2 sage grouse, 3 Huns, and 1 chukar. Gazing through the dull purple and orange hues of a western sunset, I clenched a leather collar, the last physical connection to my dear friend. In that solemn moment, I understood the significance of the day’s hunt. It represented a turning point in my hunting career, solidifying what I had expected for some time. The method now outweighed the importance of the outcome. Having a well-refined pointing dog had become more important than harvesting birds. A maturation that takes many young men years, occurred overnight. Teaching me many during our short time together, it seems Cash had one last lesson to impart. One I won’t soon forget.