It has happened to me many times. I’d walk in behind a great pointer, shotgun at port arms, and look in front of and over the dog and 10 yards away. Too many people study the ground directly in front of the dog, and a pointer may be on a bird that is 10 yards ahead or to either side. Fine field work is what endears good dogs to their owner.
Remembering the gut-wrenching loss of a great dogThe pleasures of owning a dog died with my German shorthair, Fritz, who came with some truly great bloodlines and who died many years ago. There were many reasons why no other dogs have entered my life, and losing an old friend was the major one.
Fritz, like many shorthairs, was bullheaded and stubborn to a fault. He could get into more trouble than a fox in a hen-house, and he always thought he was hunting for himself. He didn’t realize that he was supposed to hunt in return for his daily meals and in respect to the man who brought him to this outdoor dance.
He was a terror, and his idea of hunting was to be a half-mile and three fallow fields ahead of me. I’d work him on a long leash, and he’d sit, heel and was steady to wing and shot as long as the rope snugged him in at about 25 yards. Take the lead off, and he attempted to set a new speed record for crossing three open fields and busting one pheasant after another along the way.
Teaching Fritz to "hunt close"Finally, in desperation after finally catching him after a long sprint, I loosened his collar a bit, stuck one of this dark front paws through the collar, and turned him loose. He made one step and fell over whining. I got him back up on three legs, and he tried to run off again. He was scolded and told to hunt close.
An hour later, feeling sorry for the dog, I pulled his foot out and off he went like he had a booster rocket under his tail. Another long-winded sprint, and my feelings of regret changed to one of quickly solving this problem. The next two days he hunted on three legs, and wasn’t happy about it but he hunted within 25 yards of me.
He worked the cover slow and cast from side to side, and we put up hens and roosters over his rather lop-sided point, and I’d praise him in person and to anyone who would listen, and after two days of punishment, we went out the third day.
We had a heart-to-heart about his past behavior, and his more recent way of staying close, and he seemed to pay attention. It was a gamble worth taking, and I slipped his foot from his collar. He looked at me, and I patted his head and said “Hunt close,” and he began hunting into the wind. He cast back and forth, and never exceeded the 25-yard maximum.
A soft “Whoa” was all I needed to steady him.
A steady-to-wing-&-shotHe locked onto point, and I whispered Whoa, lifted his tail, and he looked like a granite carving. I stepped in front, saying “Steady now,” and he was rock solid. The ringneck pheasant boosted into the air with a raucous cackle, his long-barred tail streaming out behind, and I swung with the bird and down he came.
Fritz, after his introduction to a lead rope and the foot through the collar, never gave me another problem. He hunted grouse, pheasant and woodcock, and his expertise was superb. He would hunt with the neighbor kids, my Dad and brother George during that era when hunter orange clothing wasn't required, and there were only two rules for them: hunt safely and don’t shoot at low-flying birds.
Living & hunting through Fritz's last year of lifeThe last year of his life was a painful ordeal. His hips were shot from arthritis, and he always begged me to take him. We’d hunt near home, and he would gimp through the fields. He wasn't steady afoot but it certainly didn’t affect his hearing or nose.
He’d zero in on cackling roosters at dawn, and we’d move on them when shooting time opened. With luck we’d take two quick roosters, and then it was a slow and painful walk home for a dog in great pain. I’d pat his head, tell him I loved him, and he’d wag his bobbed tail. He knew we'd had countless great hunts together, and he'd given his heart and his trust to me. His reward was my pleasure with him.
Our last hunt came a few days later. A magazine deadline was met, I grabbed my shotgun, got Fritz up and we headed out. He slowly worked two different birds, both were roosters, and my shooting was better than average. Fritz pointed, and I shot both birds, and then he sat down. I kneeled beside my old friend as he whined and shivered with pain, and I picked him up and carried the heavy dog home in my arms, sniffling back tears and knowing he’d run has last race through good pheasant cover.
Two days later, during the last week in October as cold winds blew down from the north, Fritz left me and went to that area where all good bird dogs go when they die. He was buried along a fence row that often produced a good number of flushes, and on occasion I still think I hear him snuffling the scent of a big ring-neck 10 feet in front of his nose.
Lasting memoriesIt isn’t, of course, but there is the memory of a rugged and staunch bird dog that never learned the meaning of the word quit. He could out-hunt me, and it’s the biggest reason I’ve never owned another bird-hunting dog. A new dog could never measure up to Fritz, and it would be unfair to expect him to.
So I live with these haunting memories but no photos of Fritz except he's the front dog on point in the top photo. Lots of white hair, some black and brown hair, and some liver ticking in a few places. He was the finest bird dog I’ve ever owned, and I’ll never see the likes of him again. There’s a place tucked back in the corner of our hearts and minds for lost friends and good bird dogs, and whenever my mind registers a hit on man or dog, I reach up, dust off a fond memory and trot it for world to see.
Dog owners are fond of saying that a bird hunter is truly blessed to have one unforgettable bird dog during their lifetime, and it must be true. Because mine was Fritz, and he's been gone for 35 years. Here is my salute to you, old friend. When we meet again up yonder, we'll go hunting with shotgun in hand one more time.