“The Season” is a new online column from F&S editor-at-large T. Edward Nickens. You can also follow Nickens’ adventures on Instagram @enickens. And you can read about his adventures in his newest book, The Last Wild Road, an anthology of his best F&S stories. Order it here or wherever books are sold.
It’s a curious business, being the dogless wingman to a serious bird dog owner. I love to bird hunt, and I love particularly to chase woodcock, with which I share an affinity for wet woods and tangled bottoms. But I’ve begun to understand that I have a very different relationship with this pursuit than my pals with bird dogs. I don’t share their incredible investments of time, love, and money into their dogs—so right off the bat, I’m a bit handicapped when I hit the woodcock woods with a buddy and his pups.
My challenge is this, though: I’ve never cared to play tagalong, no matter the pursuit. Not that I have to run the show—really, I promise—but I enjoy the hunt, and I get turned on by pitting my skills and smarts against whatever wild animal I chase. I need to bring something to the game other than firepower, or I quickly lose interest. It’s why I’d rather chase bluefish or Spanish mackerel than marlin or wahoo. In bluewater, I’m out of my depth. All I can really do is crank the reel handle. I’m labor, not management. And I like management. I’m not wired to be a spectator.
So I’ve had to find my place in the cosmos of bird hunting. I’m thrilled to be in the rotation, even if I bring little to the party but a willing spirit. Until the dog points. That’s when it all gets real for me.
This time it’s Mike Riddick’s German short-haired pointer, Ella, locked on a bird, and as I close the distance. My mind races to play my part. I make micro-adjustments to my approach. I want to stop with as clear a field of fire as possible, no small feat in these tangled woods. I want that big holly tree to be far to my left, so a flushed bird can’t get lost in its dark bulk. I move through the woods, breaking briars with my gloved left hand, my bare right hand pushing the gun in front. When I’m 20 feet away, I turn my left shoulder to the dog and start a deliberately angled approach: Left foot forward, right sliding into position, shotgun up, feeling the forest bottom to stay away from and downed branches and briars. At any split-second the bird can flush, so every split-second could be the moment at hand. It’s all been about the dog until now. And I do everything in my power to close the deal.
I’m not the only one with a laser focus. When I get a clear look at Ella, I nearly burst out laughing. She is as solid as sculpted marble, unmoving, a staunch textbook point. But the woodcock on the ground has moved to the side after her point. She has her near-side eyeball over-rotated so far, tracking the bird without moving her head, that the eyeball nearly bulges out of its socket. In an instant I recall opening day of deer season last year when a stout 8-pointer cut behind my tree at 20 feet, and I cut my eyes so far to the left that I gave myself a half-day headache and feared I’d sprained an eyeball muscle, if such a thing exists. But I wasn’t moving my head. I wasn’t taking that chance.
“Nice work, Ella,” I whisper. I know what it feels like to want it so bad that you will your body to do things it doesn’t want to do. Ella cuts me a quick glance with her other eyeball. Jeez, you gonna flush this bird or what? I’m dying in here.
And then the woodcock has had enough. It bursts from the leaves like a dervish, a clatter of wings nearly under my feet and I don’t remember the shotgun rising or the safety slipping off or the muzzle bead tracking the bird through the river cane but it all happens. The moment is at hand, and I want it pretty badly, too, and when the gun hits my shoulder it’s just like I like it: All on me now.