Hunter, my 10-year-old springer spaniel, has a great nose and prey drive, but he is an indifferent retriever. One exception to this disappointment is when Hunter spots a winged bird on the run, then it’s “Katie, bar the door!”
Two years ago Hunter and I were hunting a state forest near my camp in Carlton County, Minnesota, southwest of Duluth. I was walking a trail through a section of older aspen with good undergrowth cover when Hunter flushed a ruffed grouse to my right, low and straight away.
I made a snap, instinct shot (Is there any other kind when grouse hunting?) and the bird dropped . . . as opposed to I dropped the bird. I could tell it was winged.
“We have a runner,” as Tommy Lee Jones once quipped.
Hunter is a thoroughbred when it comes to the chase, which is one reason I got him. He can really turn on the afterburners when needed, and it was needed this time. Grouse can really move out, like all upland birds, but ruffies do it through thick cover that will slow a 20-year-old.
Right after my shot Hunter tacked right, and I followed. I came out on another trail, but Hunter was in the weeds in hot pursuit. The bird had the advantage in thick cover, but when it hit a patch of two-foot ferns, my leggy gundog started closing the distance. Grouse are a real prize for any wingshooter—they’re rated the hardest upland bird to bag—and great table fare, too, so I wanted this bird.
As the chase came my way, not ten yards out, I noticed the ferns moving in haste as the grouse streaked through, Hunter hot on its tail. It was like that scene in Jurassic Park when the velociraptors are coming at you, unseen through the brush. Riveting!
When Hunter closed the distance, the bird started cutting right, then left, back and forth—anything to lose his now very-pumped-up pursuer.
Incredibly, Hunter had yet another gear in reserve, cutting and darting at speeds so fast the action was nearly a blur. Hunter matched the bird’s every move. Now and then as he got oh so close, Hunter stretched his muzzle out, reaching for a grab.
Bird and dog were now locked in a close-quarter drill at blazing speed, with not so much as a trip or hesitation on either’s part. The grouse’s agility was all the more impressive considering it had a bum wing. A tip of the hat to the prey.
“Git him, Hunter, git him!” I egged him on.
Hunter often yips when he’s close to game, but not this time. He was using every ounce of his energy and concentration to match wits with this race car ruffie. It was tit for tat.
“Go, Hunter, go.”
Finally, Hunter got the better of our quarry, gathered it up and brought it straight to hand—a task he doesn’t always perform without hesitation and encouragement. I figured he wanted to wrap this one up in style.
“Good boy, Hunter. Good job,” I enthused, adding in some heartfelt strokes to his head.
There’s no better show for a hunter to witness than an up-close chase of life and death between predator and prey. It was one of Hunter’s finest moments. Thanks, old buddy.