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Hunting Memories – Rich Carpenter
If you are new to HRC and just got your first retriever to hunt with, think about starting a file of memories that will last a long time. If you hunt, you understand about great memories of past hunts, but being accompanied by a good hunting dog adds another special dimension to the memories. You may also generate a few embarrassing memories that, at the moment, you’d prefer to forget, but later can look back at and laugh. And, if you get involved in a local HRC club and running HRC hunt tests, you’ll very likely accumulate another collection of special memories. I can imagine a lot of long-time members nodding their heads and calling up a memory or three.
I’d rather take a beating with a garden hose than to have to clean house for company, no matter how much I may like whoever is coming. Today was no exception. But cleaning out things and looking for something I never found, I managed to run into items that just opened the hunting memory floodgate, including finding an empty shotgun shell with a note in it saying it dropped the very first duck for my old dog that passed this past spring. Coincidentally, the date was the same as today, but 16 years ago. That little memory flashback was as clear as if it were yesterday.
Digging a little deeper in the box, more memories came tumbling out. A baggie held an empty 12 gauge #3 steel duck load that accounted for that dog’s first goose, as an eight-month-old pup. Duck hunting had been poor and I took the opportunity to run a double with bumpers before leaving for a mid-morning meeting in town. Not wanting to be unarmed if attacked by ducks, I had my shotgun with me. The hoped-for duck attack turned out to be an attack by geese barely clearing the trees, dropping one behind me as a diversion as the young dog came in with the first bumper. Not quite the Seasoned training scenario I had in mind.
By the time he’d figured out how to grab and hoist an eleven-pound honk and deliver to hand, I’d forgotten about the memory bumper. He hadn’t. Right then I figured he had a lot of promise as a retriever. Oddly, that first goose was shot for him probably not much more than fifty yards from where his last goose was shot for him (a triple of big honks) from a pit I built so he could hunt with me for another year or two.
When he was thirteen, I took the dozer and opened up a hole to build a big pit with a stairway down from both ends and a platform so he could sit with his chin resting on the pit roof through his special shooting hole and hopefully hunt a couple more years. He had his own foam pads on the floor for him to lounge on in front of the stove when he wasn’t scanning for geese. When he was fourteen and a half, one February morning of an awful goose season he was lounging by the stove, and I was reaching for my coffee cup when I suddenly heard noisy geese right on top of us. I stood in time to see there were three, dropping into the decoys. I dropped all three, one after another, starting at the rear, with three head shots. They plopped, evenly spaced, right in the dekes, making for short retrieves for the old guy. Not my usual performance. This had to have been choreographed upstairs.
Roux was instantly awake, aware of work at hand and at the stairwell door, ready to swing into action. But it turned out that day was just like the first goose of his career when he was a pup: hoisting one of these big boys was a challenge. This time he took one try, realized his arthritic old neck just could no longer lift a big honk, loosened his grip and looked at his son, Din, like he was saying, “Boy, take care of the heavy lifting, I’m too busy celebrating my last goose and it turned out to be a triple!” Din was happy to retrieve all three while Roux ran from goose to goose grinning and trying to give me a fist bump like I’d gone straight at skeet. And me? Well, I was happier than a pig in poop. It was a special memory day in a variety of ways for all of us! Those few minutes more than repaid all the effort and expense of building a pit that can handle geezer dogs. Not bad for geezer hunters, either.
More memories in that box! Here’s a baggie with three empties. They turned out to be from a double on big Canada geese on a very cold, snowy pass shoot on New Year’s Day in 2002 in South Dakota. Geese had been thick over the fence line the day before, but lying in the deep snow drift, I couldn’t move fast enough in my thick, stiff plastic whites to ever catch up with my swing on a number of perfect opportunities on low geese. We were back the next day in cloth whites borrowed from my host, Bill, but the geese seemed to be heading somewhere else from where they staged on the green wheat to the west.
In the entire afternoon of Roux and I laying in the snow bank in the wind, while Bill and his old bud Lyle and Lyle’s son Scott were sitting in the comfort of their vehicles visiting and sipping coffee, there were only two geese that flew across the entire one and a half-mile fence line. And they flew over the only hunter, and his retriever, in that whole fence line. Talk about pair of geese having a bad karma day, but it turned out to be a great start of the New Year for us.
Further rummaging turned up an empty from the first goose shot after being called in with a short reed call my son made for me. Next were hulls from the first mallards shot for Roux with the 28 gauge and Bismuth shot. And then an empty that was a tiny “grasshopper cannon” hull, accounting for the first goose taken for Din with a Hevi-Shot .410 reload. Graveyard dead! Don’t get any better than that. And recoil a sissy can love.
I claimed I was still cleaning, but in truth I was seriously hunting memories. After I’d replayed the various memory clips triggered by the several baggies of empty shotgun shells with notes rolled up and stuck in them, I checked another box. I thought I’d gathered up all of Roux’s ribbons to consolidate them, other than the title and point club ribbons I had hung separately, but I hadn’t found a few, including his HR title.
I looked in a box marked “Gator’s Ribbons” and thought I’d see what was in it. I opened the box, surprised, as I didn’t think Gator had that many ribbons. Looking closer, more than half of them were Roux’s early career ribbons, including the missing HR title ribbon, and also his first Started, first Seasoned, first Finished and first UH ribbons, triggering more memories. Also in there I found a Seasoned ribbon from our club’s spring hunt in 1998, with a note on the back that it was where I met Joe, another HRC member, who I have trained and hunted a lot with ever since. Thinking about it, it wasn’t long after I got involved with HRC and running HRC tests that everyone I was hunting with, in and out of state, was someone I knew from HRC. I doubt I’m alone in that.
Yup, cleaning slowed way up as I strolled down memory lane in my mind, probing a number of side roads along the way.
The cold, windy snowbank geese got me thinking about my first December South Dakota pheasant hunting experience. Miserably cold. Lots of snow hit the night I got there and we never saw it above zero for the next ten days. We headed north to chase some pheasants at some farmer friends of Bill’s. Great folks to be around, and they were kind to let us hunt some fine cover on their farms that more than once had hosted the SD Governor’s Pheasant Hunt. We were seeing lots of wild-flushing birds but not doing a lot of damage. We’d stopped by the home place heading to another location and were having coffee and visiting with the farmer and his wife. They are asking how we are doing and the wife said, “Why, you should hunt right here around the buildings. You’ve got to shoot some of those roosters. There are too many and they’ll keep hens from surviving the winter.”
Bill suggests that the farmer probably doesn’t really want us hunting the farmstead, with feeding cattle around, etc. But the farmer says, “It will be fine. Shooting won’t bother the cattle. Bill, you just leave your dog in the vehicle, send Rich up between the granary and barn with his dog and you come up past the corral with the cattle. You’ll get some shooting.”
Uh, yup! Bill hadn’t gotten too far along before the place exploded with what eventually must have been 500 pheasants. In very short order, Roux had made three retrieves and we were done. Welcome to South Dakota, young dog! That sub-zero day seemed pretty warm as we took pictures. Sort of like a few days later as we couldn’t keep the geese out of the six super mag shells half buried in snow around our pit in minus six-degree weather further south where the geese were.
Then, a memory pops into focus from a trip not quite so cold. On the first trip I ever made up there, which was for spring snow goose, we met a farmer and his wife at an intersection. As we’d see them occasionally, we’d invited them to dinner at the resort restaurant. They invited us to hunt where the snows were feeding on one of their places and we had a great hunt. More wonderful folks that we got to know and would usually share meals with and visit several times each trip up. We all enjoyed a beer now and then and somehow the tradition started that before each trip, I’d make the round of local liquor stores, asking what they might have in the way of “skanky beer with rude labels”. Some merchants took umbrage and assured me they “did not carry skanky beer!” But most, when I explained my mission, would try to come up with something that was unusual enough there was a good chance it would be considered awful by some, or at least meet the rude label requirement.
We ended up with some wonderfully rude and awful beers to drop off at their house, hopefully when they weren’t there so we didn’t have to share, but somehow it seems eventually revenge gets in the equation. Sure enough, one dove hunting trip I get to Bill’s place and he says it’s good to see me and the people I’ve met are all looking forward to seeing me and we need to stop by to have a beer. As the trip progresses, we end up at all their places, and wouldn’t you know every one of them had a beer for me: not what they were serving everyone else, but one of my skanky brews with a rude label from previous trips. Paybacks are tough, but it was funny. Again, great people.
That December trip Bill had to be gone working on a radio station transmitter and tells me this same farmer had said he’d “babysit” me for the day. I thought more paybacks, but turned out he tossed Roux and me in his early 1970’s, retired Chevy Suburban fire department rig complete with the old siren on the fender and we roared off to hunt roosters, siren wailing! He took me hunting in several honey holes on their various places that Bill said they never let anyone hunt - ever. He must have felt bad about that beer revenge. Or maybe figured I was a poor shot and it would drive Bill nuts that I got to hunt those places! Bill probably was overdue a payback.
Many of you have probably had a belly laugh reading the humor of Patrick McManus in one of his books or magazine articles. Anyway, my South Dakota hunting host is a big McManus fan and has all his books. One day during dove season we are driving along and go by a slough with a corn field around it. He said he’d always seen so many pheasants and ducks around he wondered who owned it. One day he passed while a combine was harvesting corn, so he stopped and asked if there was any chance he could hunt ducks and pheasants there. “Heck, yes. Hunt ‘em anytime you want to, just don’t shoot toward the combine or trucks.”
One day Bill is out hunting pheasants there and a guy comes roaring up in a pickup, mad as a wet hen, to run him off. Turns out the guy who gave him permission wasn’t the landowner, but a custom combine driver. Bill explained and apologized and left. On another trip to the area he’s driving into town and sees a farmhouse right at the edge of town and the wind had caught the trash can fire and spread it to the grass. Bill roars into the yard horn blaring and heads around the house with a shovel. “What the heck are you doing?” the farmer hollers as he comes out. Bill tells him to grab the hose, as his house is about to catch fire, so they put the fire out and sort of look at each other and the guy recognizes Bill and Bill recognizes him. They have a good laugh, he thanks Bill and tells him he still can’t hunt pheasants at the slough as they save them for relatives, but he can hunt ducks any time he wants. Like a bunch of other landowners he got to be friends with, Bill would stop by to visit if he had time, and usually would make time.
We stopped during dove season just to say hi. Bill and the farmer are busy talking and I get to visiting with an older guy who was there to help load cattle. Turns out it was his father and he wanted to know what we were doing and asking about dove hunting and eating doves, where I was from, and the dogs, etc. Before long said he lived north of town a ways and that we were welcome to come hunt doves anytime as well as ducks and geese and snow geese. I’d asked where he lived. That’s when we got to the famous McManus “hunkering” on the ground in the farm yard, with him drawing the map in the dirt with his finger. “Yep, turn off right there at the curve where the sign says ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING. It’s okay for you guys and you don’t even need to come by the house. Here’s how to get to the lake, etc.”, then added, “But you CAN’T hunt pheasants.” Aw, Shucks.
So Bill says goodbye. We hop in his Yukon and he says, “I saw you and the other old geezer doing a McManus hunker over there by the barn. What was that all about?”
I asked him how much it was worth to him to know. He asked if I wanted to walk home. I spilled the beans to him that accidentally getting into a hunker with a stranger I had just landed him a bundle of new hunting grounds and a big lake with hunting permission. Pretty funny. Maybe McManus was onto something with his hunkering theory!
All good things must end, it seems, and so, too, the creation of more South Dakota memories. My SD host’s health was not improving and he felt he needed to give up his hunting place. That year in December we were enjoying our last shared hunt that had been three-times-a-year great adventures for eleven years. We got plenty of birds that last hunt, but we spent more time hunting memories of past good times and good people than we did hunting pheasants and geese. Special highlights of the trip were stopping to see the kind landowners who had been generous with sharing their beautiful hunting lands with Bill for years. Some we hunted frequently and some were far enough away we seldom got there. We were fortunate to find most at home.
One of those stops was at the farmhouse of a long-retired Frenchman and his wife. Celestine had let us hunt his place many times and it was fine hunting. He had just turned 89 and his wife was close behind, but they both were still very alert and getting along well. It took his wife a minute to decide she remembered Bill, but suddenly it was clear she did. With a big beaming smile on her face, out came the pictures of the grandkids and they reminisced of past times and Bill stopping by to drop off goose pepper sticks, cheese or some other goodies as he traveled through their area. We didn’t want to overstay and tire them and said we needed to hit the road. “Hit the road? To the big lake cattails? To the old railroad bed? To the little sloughs? Surely you are going to hunt while you are here. Lots of roosters this year.”
He was clearly disappointed to hear we weren’t going to hunt, but a smile came back as Bill explained his situation and said, “We just stopped by to visit. Today we are just hunting memories.” Hunting, as always, is far more than the heft of the game bag at the end of the day. I have some very special memories of hunt tests and training as well, but somehow when it comes to HRC, hunting memories always jump to the forefront. I guess it’s because HRC is “Conceived by hunters for hunters.”
If you new HRC folks have only a small percentage of the good times and good memories with your hunting dogs, hunt tests and hunting that I’ve enjoyed, you are in for a good time. If you spend much time training or at hunt tests, whether it is on a tailgate, in the gallery or at the social, you’ll get to hear and share a lot of special memories.
Gosh I wish Din’s toe was healed and we were duck hunting today. Twenty degrees below zero and snow make for a magical time on the spring creek. It must be loaded with big, fat, orange-legged greenheads, storm widgeons and green winged teal drakes with the green racing stripes along their heads. Water instantly freezing to dog hair icicles, before the retriever can shake after a retrieve! Memories. We are both ready to make some more.
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2014 issue of HUNTING RETRIEVER.