OUTDOORS IN THE OZARKS

I have a young Brittany Spaniel who is anxious to get out and hunt birds this winter. Hope I can keep up with him. Looking through some old photos I found some from a long ago hunting trip in southern Iowa with my reliable old English Setter, Freckles, and a young setter named Hickok. Back then, too, my young dog showed promise, but to that point, not much more.

We topped a slight rise that day, where the dogs had worked ahead of us, and spotted them both below. The pup was frozen on point, his attention focused on a brush pile in a grassy draw. The older dog backed him, and my hunting partner and I moved in to see if there really were bobwhites ready to erupt from the cover. Only the yearling setter seemed sure that this wasn’t just another rabbit. I had never seen him so solid, so unwavering. His head and tail was high, his full attention given to that mesmerizing scent of upland birds.

In the blink of an eye, they filled the air before us, brown bombshells on whirring wings, 20 or more, all going in different directions at once. Some fell as five shotgun blasts followed in quick succession, and feathers floated on the fall breeze. Before the last shot-shell hull hit the ground, the two setters were at work, retrieving downed birds, and I was willing to let my hunting partner brag on his double, even though I had dropped only one. After all, that was my pup hurrying back with a bobwhite in his mouth and I wouldn’t have traded him for a double-barreled Parker.

Bird hunters become bird hunters because of good dogs; the anticipation of seeing an erratic puppy become a steady veteran. Sometimes it doesn’t happen. Many times we have a tendency to expect in the fall what we have hoped for all summer. Young dogs come along slowly, and it takes patience if a handler is to bring a pup to a point where he is point, holding and retrieving birds. But it isn’t a limit of quail that brings a bird-hunter to the field, it’s the anticipation of a covey rise before him, the product of training and attention given long before leaves begin to turn. It is the dog that makes quail hunting the great-past time that it is. The little Brittany in my kennel has me full of hope.

Freckles made her first point on her first hunt just before Thanksgiving. Thirty minutes into the afternoon she locked up tight at the edge of a cedar grove where snowbirds flitted about, and I laughed because Freckles, only six months old, was fooled by them. But Freckles knew more than I did, and a covey of quail filled the air before us.

I dropped pair, and retrieved the first one because my setter charged into the cedar thicket. I called her, and she didn’t return right away, but when she did, she had the second quail in her mouth. It had apparently hit the ground running with a broken wing. I praised her with enthusiasm then, sitting on the ground, hugging her as if she were the first bird dog to ever accomplish

Freckles got better and better. We had the chance to hunt birds in Iowa and Kansas as well as Missouri, and we had great days afield. But an outdoor writer makes a poor hunting companion for a good dog, because there’s so much else to be done in the fall, like waterfowl hunting and bow hunting and the gun season for deer. There were too many days when I was fishing instead of following my bird dogs across a golden meadow in search of bobwhites. Freckles should have been there more often, instead of waiting at home in the kennel.

Still, she retrieved lots of quail and pheasant over the years. And then there was the last one. On the last hunt of the season she hunted slow and methodical, showing her years as Hickok made strong passes through the cover. Nevertheless, it was Freckles who pointed and held the last covey, and retrieved a bird dropped in the sumac thicket beyond the fencerow. It was to be her last retrieve. Freckles passed away peacefully on Mother’s Day that year, lying on the porch where she could hear the bobwhites whistling from nearby fields and thickets alive with spring growth.

And now she is buried with Hickok, not far from the kennel where the young Brittany waits impatiently upon two young. He will have his chance soon. But in my mind I will see Freckles roaming before me, remembering that gait that was distinctively hers, and the way she would check to be sure I was keeping up. I will see her on point, head straight and tail high, and I’ll try to be patient with the Brittany.

If you are an avid quail enthusiast, you need to read the new book we published for wildlife biologist Mike Widner entitled, “Gentleman Bob.” We have a few signed and numbered copies left for $10 postpaid. Just call my office at 417-777-5227, or send a check or money order to Gentleman Bob, Lightnin’ Ridge Publishing, Box 22, Bolivar, Mo. 65613

This past week we commemorated the death of Martin Luther King. I remember when he was killed; I was about 18 and it was of no significance to me, I was engrossed back then in catching trout out of Taneycomo Lake and making good enough grades to stay in college. I gave Martin Luther King little thought until I began to get older and study his life and what he said and what he worked for.

Today, I hold him in the highest regard. He was a great man and what he tried to do in this world was for all mankind. But Jesus tried to do some things similar in many ways and he, too, was killed because of it. Now, Martin Luther King was not close to being Jesus, but he stood for a better way, for both blacks and whites alike. Today black young people are no more respectful of that great man than old racist whites are.

But his words, his life and sacrifice were for them, and their children, and his words should be carried throughout the major cities of this country where racial strife exists on both sides, white AND black. Right now I think there are more blacks hating whites than vice versa. I realize at this point in my life that what Martin Luther King, what Abraham Lincoln, and yes, even Jesus wanted to see in mankind is hopelessly lost on the masses. In places like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles, they just don’t get it, and they never will.

It isn’t going to get better, not ever.

As I go deeper into the woods and waters as far as I can get from those great herds of people who more and more progress to a point they are lost forever in their own technological mire, I know that the hope for mankind’s future consists in what men like Martin Luther King tried to tell us. But we’ll go back to that only when some worldly catastrophe brings humanity to it’s knees, and when our technology fails us.

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