The 2014-15 hunting season has come to an end for the most part, and this past Sunday was likely my last in the field for a while. It was spent at our Whistling Wings Duck Club under clear and sunny skies, but with enough of a breeze to make the decoys swim a bit more than usual. There are not a lot of birds left in the area, but the pintail put on a nice show as a group of nine repeatedly visited my decoy spread both before and after legal shooting time, 30 minutes before sunrise.
It is the nature of waterfowling that such mornings are mesmerizing if not even a little spiritual for the hunter. With each pass over head, the pintail drew closer to get a better look at the decoys, despite my mediocrity with a duck call. When they made what I figured would be their last pass, I picked out a nice drake as they were headed away from my blind and fired.
Jack, our black and white and not yet two year old addition courtesy of Springer Rescue of America (SRA) had grown more anxious for action with each pass of the pintail, and when this one splashed down in the pond 40 yards away, covered the distance in the blink of an eye. Jack gathered the duck in his mouth and proudly pranced back to the blind with his prize. Before adding it to the duck strap that hung between us, Jack got some extra praise for his work. With each trip to the duck club, the pup has gotten better at the hunting game while his master has not.
As evidence, I soon missed an easy shot at a greenwing teal attempting to make friends with my decoys, and twice missed even easier shots at passing pintail. Such a performance is in keeping with my knack for sometimes making the tough shots and more often than not missing the easy ones.
An hour after shooting time, there was not a bird in the sky, so Jack and I took one last walk along the dikes that separate our four ponds, knowing we would not have the pleasure of doing so with gun in hand for the next nine months. I let Jack free to explore the thick Bermuda grass edge as well as the stands of cattails and he minded well, staying close and returning when asked.
As we rounded the south end of one of the ponds, Jack disappeared from sight in a tangle of deep vegetation well away from the pond. This can be a bad thing. Rattlesnakes can be active in that area year round as two dogs bitten there in recent years can attest. For the first time that day, Jack did not return when I whistled, and I was angry at his insolence. Seconds later, I could hear considerable commotion in the brush and as I whistled again, Jack emerged to my surprise with a pintail in his mouth.
The bird was very much alive and when he released it to my hand, I lost grip and it flew away, but the same previous injury that allowed Jack to catch it prevented it from rapidly gaining altitude as would be expected by a pintail. With Jack in hot pursuit, the bird was 40 yards away before there was enough safe difference between it and its pursuer for me to shoot. Jack was on it as it crashed down and returned to me with a look in his eye that I imagined to mean, “When I give it to you this time, hang onto it!” And I did.
In the 60 yards of dike left before we reached our blind, Jack left the path on the dike to dive into a bush and again into cattails, each time bringing me a healthy coot that did not realize hiding from sight did not mean its scent was hidden from Jack’s fine nose. When we got back to the blind, I added his pintail to the one I added earlier to the duck strap.
With the help of my hunting partners who bagged and hauled them, I began the task of gathering up my decoys, wrapping the anchor lines and securing the lead straps on their keels – a sure sign that not only the day, but that our season was over.
In the course of our fall trip to Montana and North Dakota for some upland bird hunting, I stopped in West Yellowstone for a return visit to Eagles, the town’s oldest, most diverse and iconic store. A place that caters to tourists with postcards and Indian trinkets made in China, locals with quality outdoor wear and anglers with a tackle shop.
It was in the latter section, behind a display of fly reels that I found a fellow to talk to. In time, our discussion turned to my trip, the dogs in the truck and the hunting that was ahead of us. Before leaving he asked to see our springers, Gus and Jack. As we visited them in my truck, he became mesmerized with them before turning to me.
He explained that like me, he was an avid fly fisherman and bird hunter and missed the hunting dog he had outlived. Seeing them he said, made him realize how much he needed another and convinced him to get a springer pup as soon as he reasonably could. I gave him the names of two breeders whose dogs he might consider, including one I’d recommended to a hunting partner who was very happy with “Tag,” the pup he picked up and trained. Better yet, he could see that dog in action if he could plan a time to visit us at our duck club.
We worked things out for him to stay with us last week. Thursday and Friday were spent introducing him to San Diego County. Saturday was devoted to Imperial County, a fine dinner at a Mexican restaurant and the night in a bunk at our rustic hunting club. Sunday morning was spent in my partner’s blind where he had the opportunity to watch Tag do his job. Within a few months he will have a pup of his own, possibly a brother or half-brother to Tag. Late Sunday morning, it was time for our new friend to end his visit, hit the road and head for home.
At some point in the coming year, I hope to pass through Yellowstone again, where he will return the favor of showing me around his neighborhood, fly rods in hand.
Saturday morning found our family at Santa Ysabel Mission, the small catholic church where the funeral mass for our rancher friend friend was held. As his daughter said, her dad might have been surprised by the crowd that showed up for his funeral. Every pew was filled, leaving standing room only within the church.
Speakers and chairs were set up for those who could not find a place to sit or stand inside. The priest did a great job of lifting spirits with humor and a tenor voice that allowed him to sing through much of the ceremony.
It was my honor to offer the final eulogy after a mostly sleepless night thinking about it and hoping that I could do justice for my departed friend and his family – a family that has generously treated me as if I was one of their own. Like nearly everyone else, I recounted how he was so insistent that things on the ranch and sometimes beyond, be done the right way, the only way – his way.
When I was done speaking, the priest announced that our friend had made one final request, that the funeral end with his favorite song. Many in attendance laughed with joy through tears of grief, but none could really be surprised as the speakers intoned the voice of Frank Sinatra singing, “My Way.”
Monday, son Ryan and I drove to a small hilltop cemetery in Ramona, where his family and friends, including an honest to goodness gathering of cowboys and Indians assembled for his burial and a final tribute that was bittersweet as we said “goodbye” one last time to a genuine cowboy who got the last laugh by reminding us, “I did it my way.”