Are we just bird hunters or are we lovers of things small game?
It was a Friday afternoon and a teacher workday. I was fortunate enough to leave early. Most of the time I sit in my office or at my classroom desk and daydream about the moment I can check out at 3:30 p.m. and start packing for the weekend. But this time, I felt like I made out like a bandit. No students, no lesson plans, and more time than I knew what to do with on a Friday afternoon the last day before my students came back from the winter break.
On the drive home, there was one important thing that had to happen as I never count my chickens before they hatch. If I was going to hunt, I had to call my wife and get the green light, and fortunately — much like on the day of October 4 — she said, “Yes!”
From that point, I quickly ran through my Rolodex options for the day. All of them consisted of doing something with my dog, Ruger, whether it be dog training or going out on a hunt. I’d like to think that many of us hunters and wingshooters would choose the latter, because that’s exactly what I did. Why not hunt? It’s nearing the end of the season and in my head, I figured that whatever dog training needed to be done could wait until the spring, or at the earliest, another weekend down the road.
Walking in the door may have revealed the air of excitement that was boiling over because Ruger caught wind of it and immediately ran toward the closet that my wife has designated for me and all of my hunting accoutrements. The dog may have guessed that something was up, but grabbing my 20-gauge Silver Pigeon 686 gave away the show.
In a hurry, I grabbed my favorite wax-cotton game vest, stuffed the chaps in the back pocket of the vest, slung the kennel into the bed of the pickup, locked it down, loaded the dog up and off we went. I don’t think I even grabbed an extra box of shells, so whatever leftovers remained from my last hunt would have to suffice. I headed east on I-20 for an hour, beating the terror of afternoon Atlanta traffic and arriving in good time to my destination. This was a new Wildlife Management Area that I had been itching to check out for some time. It would be the shortest hunt of this season and my goal was to take a dove or two … or three or four.
With three hours passing and the sun setting, Ruger and I would find ourselves with no birds in hand. My wife called shortly before the closing of shooting light to remind me that my time was coming to a close and I would reassure her that I would be out before the end of the last shooting light.
But still, something kept telling me to push that last area …
With the bellowing of the bullfrogs and the flush of what many of us call “Tweetie birds,” nature was beginning to signal that our welcome may be coming to an end. A few more steps into the cover and I heard a ruckus above me in the trees, immediate and full of panic. It was a lone squirrel that found itself exposed, but instead of remaining quiet, it barked and chipped. Boy, if I ever saw a Eastern gray squirrel scream, it was that day, and out of the many squirrels I’ve hunted throughout my life, none had lost their sensibility like this one.
I proceeded to raise my barrels and BOOM! One shot of No. 6 steel brought him down and the sound of gunfire alerted my young pup. With a devilish grin, I, along with the dog, marked the fall and sent him in for game recovery. Bringing back our furry foe, I left that small ditch and congratulated Ruger for the retrieve and for sticking out the hunt with me. Our day was done, let’s go home. After the experience of shooting a squirrel the year before and loosing the wounded rascal in cover that was much too thick for me to enter, I swore I would never take game without the assistance of a dog again.
I am not totally sure if squirrel hunting with a Labrador is in fashion to the general public, though I do know that Labradors are used for both feather and fur across the pond. What I also know for sure is that whether it’s fashionable or not, I thoroughly enjoy having such a versatile pup who is quite frankly enthusiastic for whatever retrieve nature allows.
“What I’m writing about is hunting with what I define as a versatile dog.”
I could say the same about a hunt in Alabama this season where Ruger’s game finding expertise would flush and retrieve a cottontail rabbit that most would not have seen, and many more would have given up on the recovery. It was an unsuspecting, instinctual, and questionable shot that happened within milliseconds of me seeing a small, furry, brown patch surrounded by nasty thorns, briars, and Lord knows what else. Ruger handled the retrieve with champion dexterity.
But this is no panegyric about my hunting squirrels and rabbits, it’s much more than that. What I’m writing about is hunting with what I define as a versatile dog. Defining a dog that performs both before and after the shot. So often we focus on taking winged game that we may disregard fur. This is no issue, just a matter of preference. Often, I choose to take both though sometimes fur seems to be a bit more in abundance. I love dove hunting and have a passion for wild quail hunting, but much like my granddaddy and his stepfather, squirrel and rabbit hunting remain in high esteem.
Hunts change and nature is fickle. No one really ever knows what opportunities will surface. No hunt is ever guaranteed, and success for me this season has been sporadic at best. With a few game birds in the bag, a squirrel and a rabbit, I think we can call it a wonderful season for this weekend warrior.
As the season comes to a conclusion and many of us scrape together time for one more hunt, think about what you are out there for. In the end, hunting with my Labrador has enhanced my love of hunting feather and fur. And I do hope that many hunters out there are actively thinking and redefining their own definitions of a versatile shooting dog.
Durrell Smith is a 28 year old Georgia native, visual artist, wing shooter, and dog handler. While creating compelling ink and watercolor illustrations based on his field experiences and hunting dogs, he also runs a podcast called The Gun Dog Notebook, which can be found on iTunes and Soundcloud. Aside from hunting upland game and waterfowl, he participates in Hunt Tests with his Labrador Retriever. As a first generation hunter, Durrell seeks to learn and contribute to the community by connecting with visionaries and veterans within the bird dog community who are willing to share stories and knowledge about the various breeds, creating a bridge to welcome new and novice dog handlers to the gun dog community.