Monday, April 16, 2012

A Dog Named Blitz - Chapter Seven, "Third Year: Part 5"

For background on this serial, please click here. You can also start at the previous section
By the time pheasant opener had rolled around, Blitz was at her peak in terms of performance.  We hit some game farms in the offseason, but despite it being nearly nine months since her encounter with a truly wild bird, she showed no rust whatsoever.  And I was struck by the non-verbal communication that we had developed as a team.  It is really hard to describe, but as we worked cover, she seemed to know exactly where I wanted her to go.  If she got distracted on something, a simple "Get in there," combined with a motion of my hand toward the cover I wanted her to investigate was all that was needed to correct her course.  Should she be hot on a scent in front of me and moving out of gun range, and a call of "Too far!" resulted in her circling back to me to restart her search.  As a team we were clicking on all cylinders, and it was so wonderful to be part of that unit. 

Our land had a good hatch of pheasants that year, and we were able to harvest a good many roosters for a farm located in central-Minnesota.  Despite the good year on my own land, I had often wondered if all of the stories I had heard about the birds across the border in South Dakota were true, and I longed to go there to see for myself.  And, of course, to share it with Blitz.  So when I happened to win a three day hunt for one at a grand hunting lodge outside of Pierre, South Dakota during a Pheasants Forever banquet that October, I felt incredibly lucky. 

The lodge that donated the hunt was hopeful that the winner wouldn't want to hunt alone and would be brining along a paying partner to join in the event.  And while I did ask a couple of buddies, I kind of hoped they'd decline as I really wanted to relish this trip as something for just Blitz and I to share.  So when the regrets eventually came in, I was very happy to book a trip for a solo hunter and his dog for the last week of October. 

The date of the trip came up quickly, and as I packed that Thursday afternoon for the 6 hour drive, my wife worried about me leaving alone.  I reassured her that the lodge would be full of other guests, and besides, with Blitz with me I was never alone.  I kissed my bride goodbye, promised to maintain cell-phone contact, and pointed my vehicle west. 

By the time I hit the border the sun had started to set into a beautiful, clear-blue sky, that had me hiding behind my sunglasses and visor.  Later, after completing dinner at a truck stop, I found the sky had turned to a pitch-black moonless sea of stars.  The flat terrain and lack of light pollution conspired to paint starlit beauty from one horizon to the other.  It remains one of the most beautify scenes I have viewed in nature. 

Blitz and I continued our trek west with Aimee Mann's Lost in Space playing in the CD player and serving as the perfect soundtrack for our nighttime driving along a completely deserted highway.  It was just me, my dog, Aimee, and the stars. 

We eventually pulled into our destination,  where I first watered and fed Blitz, prepared her for bed in her crate in the truck, then checked myself into the lodge.  The accommodations were as described on the lodge's website, and I retired to very well appointed private room to try and get some sleep for the big day awaiting Blitz and me. 

Sleep was tough, and I was up well ahead of the alarm.  I used the extra time to shower and get cleaned up, and by the time I had made myself as beautiful as I possibly could, I had indeed stalled enough that it was time for breakfast.  I headed to the main lodge area where I met their staff, as well as two guests with whom I'd be hunting that weekend.  Both were rich bankers from Texas, and like me, this was their first time in South Dakota.  We all tried to not eat too much of the incredible feast being served family-style on the table, talked through some strategy with our guides, and made ourselves ready to head out. 

Stepping outside, I was finally able to appreciate the landscape that was hidden in the blackness of my drive the previous night.  The land was straight out of Dances with Wolves.  A perfect match.  It looked exactly how South Dakota was supposed to look. 

We headed out to our first area, and got ready to hunt.  Blitz was extremely excited, but I was able to get her electronic collar on her without too much difficulty and let her run over to meet the two other Labs the guides would be using on the hunt.  As usual, the dogs got along great, and I knew we wouldn't have any issues. 

We developed a game plan that had the two Texans in between the two guides, and had Blitz and me off to the side.  While it was never verbalized, I knew this was on purpose.  The guides had no idea how Blitz would perform, and if she worked poorly, it would likely impact the tip they were expecting from the Texans.  They likely had such episodes before, and I didn't begrudge their decision.  I would have likely done the same thing, and Blitz and I were happy on our own anyway, so that was just fine. 

We started out on our first field, and nearly immediately I can tell that Blitz is on a running bird.  She was cutting back and forth like Barry Sanders, however the moves were not hers.  They were driven by the scent laid down by the currently invisible bird that was a couple of yards ahead of her, trying his best to lose the dog on his trail.  We pushed forward like this for nearly fifty yards, when Blitz's body language showed me that she'd lost the scent.  The bird had given her the shake, and was likely settled into a place of cover and hoping that we'd just walk on by him.  Blitz continued working, and I headed a different direction to see if I could possibly roust him on my own. 

After about a minute of kicking around Blitz and I headed toward each other to regroup and start a new move forward when she locked up in a point about thirty yards directly in front of me.  "Point!" I yelled to the Texans and their guides.  "Point?" a couple of them replied.  "Yeah, my dog's on point.  Get ready!  OK, Blitz, get him!"  Blitz jumped forward, and a rooster pheasant burst from the cover and headed on a flight line straight toward the Texans.  My shot was not a safe one, so I kept my gun down and waited for one of the two other guests to dispatch the first bird of the day, which they did so adeptly.  Blitz, hot on the bird's flight line, was immediately on the fallen bird and quickly brought it back to me for her first South Dakota retrieve. 

We progressed along, with Blitz's performance repeating again and again, while the dogs of the guides often had a hard time maintaining control, and were flushing birds ahead of the team.  Luckily, we flushed lots of hens and saw few roosters, which allowed us to hunt hard without filling out our limit immediately.  The way it was shaping up, we'd be able to hunt nearly most of the first day, which is exactly how I wanted it. 

While we were hunting birds that had previously been hunted and that were quick to flush wild, when they did flush, they did so not as singles or doubles, but as massive flocks.  Flocks.  The land, this South Dakota, was exactly as billed.  Those birds that did not flush and sat tight were what we were after, and Blitz was a the height of her game.  She easily outflushed the two other dogs we were with by a combined three to one margin. 

As we'd reach the three quarter mark of a given field, the guides would ask one of the Texans to move out and around us, outside of the cover, to the end of the field to "post" it.  This was designed to hold any birds from flushing that we happened to be pushing in front of us until we were able to get in gun range.  The Texans were the ones tapped for this task as the dogs were needed to push the birds, so that gave me a pass from flushing.  Which, as it turned out, worked just fine for me, as the action was far better on the "dog" side of things as opposed to the "post" side of things. 

After a couple of fields, I started to feel guilty about not posting, so when the guide suggested one of the Texans head out, I volunteered that Blitz and I would do it.  That raised disagreement from the guides who knew that Blitz was way better in the field that outside of it, but I insisted. 

I was surprised that one of the Texans originally pegged for the job said that he'd be joining us as well.  As we got on the trail and headed to our appointed duty at the end of the field, the guest said "I am not that wild about posting, but I do know that when I'm with your dog I see a hell of lot more birds.  I'm sticking by you two!" 

We ultimately headed in for lunch where the sentiment was shared by both Texas guests.  "Buddy, your dog is way better than the guide dogs.  Do you mind if we finagle a way to hunt by you?"  I told them it'd be a pleasure, and we finished off lunch and got ready to go. 

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